Few things make you feel older than telling your own life story through a dead medium.
I can't say I miss cassette tapes. The incessant whirring that became a part of your music; the occasional unraveling disaster, fixable only with a pencil and paperclip; the fact that the decidedly rude habit of walking down the street with a silver, plastic boombox on your shoulder, blasting Cameo's "Word Up," was temporarily acceptable. No one's complaining that tapes are dead.
But at their peak, from the mid-'70s through the mid-'90s, cassettes were it. They were smaller than records, sounded better than 8-Tracks and, for the first time, you could copy music and give it away to other people. It was, perhaps, the beginning of that oh-so aughts trend of music piracy. According to an article in USA Today, tapes topped out with 442 million units shipped in 1990, compared with 15,000 it 2010.
This means that for a brief and garbled moment, cassettes played the soundtrack for your teenage house-parties, your locker-room horseplay and your backseat nightmoves.
I suspect that if you reflect on some of the cassettes that you wore lovingly until they eventually wrapped around the gears in your tape deck or melted to your dashboard, you can attach them to some pretty powerful (and possibly humiliating) memories.
Cassettes were the medium that carried me from the age of bed wetting to the age of wet dreams, from the accidental ignorance of childhood to the willful ignorance of my teenage years, from nursery school naptime to high school graduation. The tapes that mattered most to me weren't just landmark recordings. In fact, some of them weren't even good recordings. But they were autobiographical landmarks, artifacts from the years just before I became a 21st century digital boy:
Genesis: Invisible Touch (1986)
I can think of no truer or more embarrassing starting point than Invisible Touch. I was six years old when my dad bought the cassette. It's the first thing I can really remember knowing all the words to. The vocals had this Brit-bot quality that made me think of the Transformers or Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. And I was intrigued by the lyrics. Phil Collins "was comin down, comin down like a monkey." For some reason, I could really relate. Throw in a video with scary-ass Muppet knockoffs and I was hooked. Ten years later, when I was stocking inventory for the Dollar Express and suffering eight-hour shifts of Adult Contemporary radio, Phil Collins was the bane of my working life.
Beatles: Mixtape Beatles, Vol. 1 (1989)
The first media I ever pirated. I was nine years old and I had just gotten one of those Fisher Price microphone recorders for my birthday. I sat next to my dad's record player and tried my hardest not to sneeze as I selected various Beatles tunes from his vinyl collection. "Drive My Car," "Yellow Submarine" and a version of "Blackbird" interrupted by a horrendous scraping noise in the second minute. The story goes that my aunt borrowed and damaged my dad's White Album, leading to the only physical altercation they ever got into as kids. That's the version of "Blackbird" that I knew growing up. And my version of "We Can Work It Out" had a phone ringing in the background too. This tape wasn't the sound of the Beatles. It was the sound of the Beatles being listened to.
Vanilla Ice: To the Extreme (1990)
Knowing about the Beatles when you're nine does not preclude you from doing something terrifically stupid when you're 10. I got a gift certificate to Tower Records for my birthday and I knew not what to spend it on. I knew how to shop for baseball cards. I knew how to shop for comic books. But music was something mysterious to me. Courtesy of my classmates and probably some Arsenio Hall jokes, this was an album of which I was aware. Technically, this is the first recording of any kind that I ever picked out all by myself. I'd like to be embarrassed but honestly, even now, if you play "Ice Ice Baby" at a party, literally everybody in the room stops, collaborates and listens.
Metallica/Metallica (a.k.a. The Black Album) (1991): Being a 12-year-old boy is incredibly confusing. You're just starting to notice girls but there's really nothing you can do about it. God invented heavy metal for that exact stretch of pubescent misery. My bunkmate at camp lent me this tape. It was a powerful release for my unnamable frustration and an outlet for my pituitary rage even if I did develop polyps emulating James Hetfield's snarl on "Enter Sandman." After that record, the boys from Metallica cut their hair and began making very boring music. But The Black Album still takes me back to a time when my right hand was my greatest romantic conquest.
Duran Duran/"Ordinary World" (single) (1993):
I placed first in a limbo competition at a friend's Bar Mitzvah, which I admit is not that impressive when you're four-and-a-half feet tall. But I won and I got to choose between a slap-bracelet or Duran Duran's newly released single, "Ordinary World." I became immediately obsessed... with the single that is, not the slap-bracelet. There was this elegant, funereal quality to the song that made me feel like it should be played at the end of the world or a tragedy of equal enormity. At 13, you just start to wrap your brain around the idea of loss. This song reinforced it for me, both in terms of its themes and the fact that my older sister confiscated the tape from me after the 15th consecutive play. Indeed, this was not only the first song I was ever obsessed with. It was also the first song I ever killed.
Nirvana/Nevermind and Pearl Jam/Ten (1991):
It was autumn '93 and I had just started eighth grade. Two important things happened in the first month of school. The first was that I snapped my collarbone in half during the second week of my inglorious wrestling career. The second was that my buddy Pete copied these tapes for me. Admittedly, I was a few years late to the game. But in fairness, when these albums came out in 1991, I was probably requesting Color Me Badd at the skating rink. Of course, my 13-year-old mindhole was completely blown. I swiped my sister's walkman and began missing the bus on purpose so I could walk home from school with my arm in a sling and my head in Seattle. The buzzy brown soundscape scored my recovery, the chill of the season and my angsty, adolescent state of mind. I listened to both tapes so often that my face spontaneously sprouted a goatee on the eve of my 14th birthday.
WDRE mixtape (1994):
Nirvana and Pearl Jam turned music from a passing interest into my leading emotional preoccupation. My attention moved from baseball cards and Umbros to mixtapes and flannels. Some kids got into pogs but I never touched the stuff. Now, it was all about getting my hands on all the music I could. The early '90s was a unique time. For a few years there, you could really trust the radio. And since I had no money, I had no choice in the matter. Fortunately, I had 103.9 WDRE, a boundary-crushing modern-rock powerhouse based in Jenkintown, PA. I would tune to 103.9, press record and hear everything for the very first time: Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Pavement, Beck, Blur, Green Day, Weezer, etc. etc. etc. Naturally, my mixtape was an unholy mess of blips and blops, DJ interruption and commercial snippets, perfectly in tune with the cut-and-paste collage of 'alternative' music that DRE brilliantly scrapped together from 1992 to 1997. Pearl Jam's "Alive" was the first and last song that the station ever played. Like the Billboard Charts themselves around this time, the station left rock music for an R&B/Hip-Hop format. My DRE mixtapes are fossils like reel-to-reels of free-form FM radio from the late 60s.
Counting Crows: August and Everything After (1993)
By my senior year of high school, I was waist deep in Compact Discs, which you may also remember. Still, thanks to the deck in my old periwinkle Buick Century, my tapes stayed in heavy circulation, particularly this one. The Counting Crows offered the perfect balance of whining and self-regard to soundtrack a high school breakup. And as high school breakups go, this was a good one. The girl I lost my virginity to dumped me a week before prom. It was inevitable. We were from two different worlds. She was old money. I was no money. When she cut me out, this was the tape that I had left in the deck. There it remained, auto-flipping in perpetuity as I took sullen, directionless drives around the burbs feeling sorry for myself. And then, after a week, which was roughly the amount of time I needed to fully recuperate from devastating teenage heartbreak, "Mr. Jones" began to feel a little more celebratory, and so did I.
...Then one night, as I slowly turned a street corner, my wheel fell off. Seriously. The car just lurched to a sudden and violent halt. I got out to look. The axle was all rusted and gnarled, the wheel fully perpendicular to the car. The car was deemed unsafe to drive. There was nothing we could do to save the tape deck. Since then, my tapes are in assorted shoeboxes that I have idly promised to one day remove from parents' house.
Still, I think of my tapes fondly, if not for their general inconvenience or mediocre sound quality, for the fact that they, like my teenage years, were a long time ago.
What cassettes changed your life?