19 January 2007

Mix Tapes for the Emotionally Warped

I just read the best book -- “Love is a Mix Tape” by Rob Sheffield. LPD gave it to me last weekend and I read it in a day. My children were dirty and hungry for many hours. Sheffield, a journalist for Rolling Stone, wrote the book about his wife, a fellow music junkie who died suddenly in 1997. He relives their short time together via their mix tapes, showing how you can tie any great memory to a song. While it's a poignant, often hilarious memoir, it is also an ode to the lost art of the mix tape and the people who make them.

Sheffield writes how making mix tapes "allows emotionally-warped people to communicate by bombarding each other with pitiful cultural artifacts that in a saner world would be forgotten before they happened." Totally. I am a life-long member of this emotionally-warped society, where members are compelled to document their lives by compiling mixes of songs and assigning them strange names -- usually random nods to what's going on in their lives at the time. We emotionally-warped souls still make mixes (now "playlists") but it's not such a big deal anymore -- it takes like 10 minutes on the laptop. It's non-labor-intensive. There is zero romance in an iTunes playlist. Before, making a mix tape was a true labor of love. It could take hours to get it right. If a song was out of order, you'd have to start all over again. There was a certain ceremony to it.

Junkies like LPD and I try to keep that ceremony alive. We make a point of getting together to make the mix CD for the annual Nantucket trip. We both understand the nuances of proper song placement (i.e., Def Leppard must come before -- not after -- Justin Timberlake.) and are constantly rearranging songs until it's worthy of kitchen dancing. Takes about 10 minutes.

When I lived in Brighton, I learned that normal people don't do this sort of thing. One of my roommates, who did not share the mix tape gene, watched with complete bewilderment one afternoon as I became unhinged because I couldn’t find a Coolio cassingle. I needed to have “Sumpin’ New” as the third song on the tape or it’d be all wrong. I now realize how insane that must have seemed to her.

I once refused to go on a second date with someone because he put three Bare Naked Ladies songs on a mix tape. I found that gratuitous. (I’d also just met Jimmy. Buh.)

Screw the eyes. Songs on a mix tape are the true windows to someone's soul. They are a testament to what's going on inside. At one time, the state of my music -- albums, tapes, CDs -- was directly related to my state of mind: Scattered all over the floor, out of their cases, and in complete disarray. Those days, I would make up to three different tapes a day…and just walk it off.

I still make my anxiety mixes and walk with my Pod, but my neuroses are no longer in plain sight. They’re tucked away, filed neatly into music folders and arranged alphabetically. Best of all, there is a user-friendly sorting feature so I can find a shitty b-side or an obscure Aimee Mann song that I can’t remember the name of (Sugarcoated)with just a few clicks.

So while I love my Pod – saves time, preserves sanity – it’s just not all that romantic. You'll have to take my emotionally-warped word for it: Anytime you make a mix, date it, and assign it a name, it becomes a part of your personal history -- and it’s more vivid than a journal. It’s your soundtrack.

Here is a wee sampling of mine from the past 20 years:

Now I know how Joan of Arc Felt (Jul 1986): Named after a lyric from the Smiths’ song "Big Mouth Strikes Again." I’d just bought the Queen is Dead and made the tape for a trip to Nantasket Beach with my only friend with a drivers license. Standout tune: “Live to Tell” by Madonna.

Don’t Kill the Tunes (Sept 1987): Named after an incident on City Hall Plaza. Some friends and I were listening to a tiny pink boombox after one of those free WBCN concerts. When we decided to go home, some filthy burnout sitting nearby (that we hadn’t even seen) screamed out, “Aw, man. Don’t kill the tunes.” You definitely had to be there. It was hilarious - I almost weed my Guess jeans. Standout tune: “All Going Out Together” by Big Dipper.

Fresh for '89, Sucka (Feb 1989):
This is quite possibly the stupidest name for a mix tape in the history of mix tapes. I don't know what I was thinking. I was probably drunk and listening to Neneh Cherry (huh, sucka). Standout tune: “Future 40s” by Syd Straw

Poetry in Motion/Polka-dot Lotion (Oct 1989): Named after a misheard Beastie Boys’ lyric. I made this one for an "Around the World" party in Scanlon Hall. Standout tune: “Pure” by The Lightning Seeds

Wonga (Apr 1990): Named after the favorite childhood word of a hypnotized WSC student at the Frank Santos X-Rated Hypnotist Show that came to campus. I made it for Spring Weekend. Standout tune: “My Finest Hour” by The Sundays.

Spoons and Tunafish (Nov 1992): A mix that Brownguy made when we lived on Shephard Way. Named after Barb Brown’s household tip of how to remove the smell of tunafish from your hands: Wash your hands with with spoons! Standout tune: Brownguy’s unexpected voiceover -- “How ‘bout something with a change of pace” -- that leads into “Jive Talkin’” by the Bee Gees.

We Will Aways Go Dancing (Nov 1995): A mix that LPD made for my burrthday. Named after a favorite line in the movie “Singles” and a mantra that all of us burrds live by. Standout tune: “Someone I Once Knew” by Paul Westerberg. Also known as: “Hey Steve, Someone who was Boo.”

Fuck you, Bertha (Jul 1996): The tape as a talisman. Named to ward off Hurricane Bertha who was barreling up the coast, threatening to wash out our Vineyard vacation. It worked. Standout tune: “Natural One” by Folk Implosion.

Missa Smissa (Jan 1998): James and I made this tape for his friend in San Diego whom he oddly refers to as “Missa Smissa.” The guy’s last name is Smith, so I guess it's more creative than Smitty. We liked the tape so much we copied (dubbed?) it and listened to it all the way up to Sunday River. It’s still one of my favorite mixes and one of the last mix "tapes" we ever made. Standout tune: “Radiation Vibe” by Fountains of Wayne.

From here on, it's all burned CDs and iPod playlists.


EPB said...

KJ - What a great blog! You captured a lost art that now live in shoe boxes under beds or in the back of closets and one that current generations will never know. Thanks for a great read.

p.s. - Feb 9 bday coming up. We should try to do another dinner and dancing thang....

KJ said...

Thanks, EPB! I say we hit dBar again. I'll stay in town this time and I'll make you a birthday mix :)

Anonymous said...

When all words fail she speaks/her mix tape's a masterpiece/I wanna be Kate! Kate! Kate!

jal said...

EPB was right, well said. I so well remember those hours using multiple tape recorders to make crazy song remixes for my mix tapes and adding spoken words when necessary. Thanks for keeping the memory alive.

KJ said...

JAL-I still have all of your fabulous mix CDs from our Coleridge Street days. The best. I hope you'll be joining us for EPB's birthday at dBar again. We'll cab it home this time.

Anonymous-Who dat? Ben Folds Five...a song that's been on many a mix over the years.

Chris Horan said...

Great entry, Kate! What a fine tribute to this lost art. I'm sending this to my friend Chad, with whom I have made such mix tape masterpieces as "The Mayors of Uglyville" and "Keep 'Er Movin'." Well said!

wmd said...

Fantastic blog KJ. Fantastic.

sb said...

Nice. KJ - Queen of the mixed tape back at Shepards Way (and beyond). Usually this was followed by a 9-mile walk down Brighton/Comm Ave with the new concoction. Do you actually still have Spoons and Tunafish? For those who mock me for that technique, don't mock another second until you actually try it. You HAVE to use cold water though.

lpd said...


Everyone who reads this blog must do y'self a favor and get this book. You'll be rushed back to the 90's to a personal soundtrack of great tunes (and not-so-great pop nugget guilty pleasures). I hadn't realized how much that decade shaped our generation, musically. Read this book my friends. Mike has witnessed my tears and "Oh my god" moments when I read a tape's cover sheet from a chapter and it has a forgotten gem like KLF's "Justified and Ancient" on it. KLF! Are you kidding me? OK, I'm blabbing, but I just can't say enough about this amazing book.

KJ said...

SB- I definitely have S&T tape. It's a classic. All of my tapes are in storage in our EB basement so let's hope it wasn't destroyed by the foundation crasher.

KJ said...

Right on a million times, LPD. Here is the link to Rob Sheffield's book. A fantastic read for music junkies and people who love (hate) them.

KJ said...

Chris Horan! Haven't seen you since Santa Speedo '05. Hope to see you at EPB's b-day or at a Toro dinner soon. xo

KJ said...

SB-I definitely still have the Spoons & tunafish mix. It's in my basement at the EB house...I'm bringing them all home where they belong.

Anonymous said...

Great blog, K.J.! I am on a mission to find my favorite mix tape from the 1990's named Turkey Legs & Hooligans. Side a-Turkey Legs. Side b-Hooligans