As told by my embarrassing cassette closet
Today I hooked up a 1980’s Sony Walkman cassette tape player to my speakers. The Walkman warbles along at variable speeds when my thumb clicks the sticky “play” button. And while I certainly wouldn’t argue for the quality of cassette listening, it’s reconnecting me to something nearly thirty-five years old: my tape collection.
These tapes have travelled with me through the years, pushed into tiny, dusty, cassette-sized cubbies in a closet that hasn’t been opened for a long time. Someday I’ll create Spotify playlists out of them, and finally demagnetize these plastic wheeled spools.
But not today. There’s too much of me in this tape rack. And like me, there are some things in here I’m not exactly proud of. Even now I want to curate the collection before I tell you about them, swapping tapes out and around so I can stage a playlist that makes me look like a musical visionary, as if music were like the stock market. Then I might be able to say, “I bought Michael Jackson early” or more realistically, “I lost so much in the Christian rock portfolio”.
Was I a market manager who could “see” the potential market valuation of a band? Nope. I was just a kid who loved music and listened to whatever I could get my hands on, trying bands on like jean jackets in a mall dressing room.
Like most people in those dressing rooms, I thought of myself as a complete original. But dusting off each plastic case scribbled with Bic ballpoint pen song lists, it’s clear I wasn’t ever that far out of the mainstream, like the Derry Girls on the first day of school:
Erin: “I wanted to be an individual but my ma wouldn’t let me.”
Claire: “Well I am not being an individual on me own!”
In high school, my friend James taught me to shop for records in downtown Portland. We took the city light rail train downtown, he in a long hanging 3-button blue cardigan, me in a sloppy thrift store trench coat, and – clove cigarettes in hand – practiced identifying as New Wavers. The album, “Music for the Masses” had been ironically named, but in the end Depeche Mode found white suburban me as one of their masses. It didn’t hurt that James’ sling-head-haircut friend Wes claimed to have met the lead singer (no chance this ever happened). Flipping through the stacks at the Django Record Store looking for offbeat and rare releases, we were essentially shopping for identities, and the way James saw it, we should stay as far away from the Madonna and Wham! sections as possible, because that would make us just like everyone else.
Except, in some ways I was like everyone else. I liked pop music, and so did the girls I was trying to go out with. I listened to Z100 radio’s “Top 10 at Ten” each night, featuring Paula Abdul, Prince, Huey Lewis, or New Kids on the Block, as several homemade tapes in my collection attest. With a finger on the recording button of my dual-tape boombox (the dials still scratched from falling off my shoulder as I skateboarded to my friend Rudy’s house), I’d wait for the DJ to announce a song and press down faster than an A-Ha keyboard solo.
I had to identify songs by their opening strain, but when I was wrong, I’d just rewind the tape a little and try again as the countdown continued. My goal was always to cut the radio DJ’s voice out, but over the years, the playback of the DJ’s voice has become part of the memory for me: I could tell you the weather report on the day Howard Jones’ “No One Is To Blame” made the top 10, or the radio contest running when OMD’s “If You Leave” hit #4.
The treasure on these tapes aren’t the Huey Lewis or Genesis songs that are ubiquitous in 80’s mixes; no, it’s the one-off stuff like Opus’ “Life is Life” and Falco’s “Vienna Calling” that I might never think of again if not for this hand-written Maxell 90 tape cover.
Before those high school years in Portland, I had an entirely different music life in Florida, of which these tapes are now my only evidence. In sixth grade, my friend G.B. introduced me to Michael Jackson when his Thriller album came out in 1982. I bought the tape much later from a thrift store, but G.B. had the original and we listened to it while jumping into and out of his pool, avoiding and/or making fun of his older sister, and raiding his refrigerator.
Then, when news of breakdancing trickled out of New York (G.B. was Jamaican with family in NY), we were all in. Kurtis Blow, The Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and more were on our list, and still on my tapes. My memory is still seared with those torso-less legs dancing in the air above Herbie Hancock’s performance of “Rockit” on the 1984 Grammy Awards (rarely have I been so thankful for YouTube as now, seeing this again).
With most “secular” music banned at my house, I somehow sneaked in the “How To Breakdance” album, its jacket cover unfolding into a step-by-step poster on how to dance the centipede, backspins, and pop locking. We laid out huge cardboard squares on the garage floor and tried them all. Sadly, all that remains of my breakdancing career is the memory of doing the centipede in a college dorm room and a sore back, along with this TDK tape recording of Twilight 22’s “Electric Kingdom”.
I lived in Portland five years, but ended up travelling each summer, discovering music along the way, bringing it back in a 4”x 3” memory pod called a cassette. I went to live with my relatives one summer outside of Toronto, Canada, working as a schlepper for his construction business and hanging out around their above ground summer pool. I felt so grown-up when they told me I was old enough to drop the “uncle/aunt,” and simply call them David and Gail. I came home from that summer with some hard-earned money, and tapes with the songs of Gordon Lightfoot and Toronto-based Glass Tiger.
Three other summers I travelled from Portland back to Central Florida, to work on staff at a Christian summer camp I’d grown up attending. As summer staffers, we were only allowed to listen to Christian music in the dorms.
That is, until Amy Grant ruined everything.
To back up for a minute: some of my earliest musical memories are of Amy Grant and her Nashville counterpart, Michael W. Smith. Our womb music is our parents’ music, and as a family we wore their records down, to the point where our brains treated the reliable album scratches as part of the song. Add in some B.J. Thomas (“The Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”), The Carpenters’ brown album, and The Boone Sisters, and you’ve got quite a little progressive Christian musical family there. Visiting us from Canada, my grandfather verified how far off the edge we’d gone, when he heard the drum beat of a Keith Green song and scolded, “That’s devil music, Danny.”
But back to Amy Grant, and the ever-tightening rules of the summer camp: she had audaciously made an album that wasn’t explicitly Christian, and the lead single was being played on the mainstream radio. It turns out that “Baby, Baby” was about her newborn child, but the camp rule makers had a deep suspicion it was really about romantic love and outlawed it.
We could no longer listen to any recorded music in our dorm rooms; instead, a bread loaf sized Tupperware container in the staff lounge held a dozen approved tapes we could play on a small boombox there. The Tupperware also contained other Myrrh Records artists like Bryan Duncan, David Meece, Wayne Watson, Russ Taff, and a handful of other names that sound made up. The only tape I could really grab onto there was Petra – after all “Petra Means Rock” – living as I was on the memories of their concert at Disney’s “Night of Joy”.
The real musical action was on staff night out, thumping the bass in my staff friend Boz’s old yellow VW Karmann Ghia, listening to cutting edge rap from South Florida. (Staff night out: walk the aisles of Woolworths, drive to Wendy’s to grab the free crackers and water, listen to banned music in the car, go back to camp). I still have a tape labelled “Florida Mixes ‘87” with Luke Skywalker’s Bass Wave Compilations, MC Shy D, Special Ed, and a host of others. Yes, the 2LiveCrew is on there (it didn’t make the approved staff Tupperware playlist) and while I don’t recommend their lyrics, I can at least say its themes were age-appropriate to a 16-year-old teenage boy stranded for eight weeks lifeguarding bathing-suited girls at a no-hugs-allowed Christian camp.
At summer’s end, I brought these tapes – and a burgeoning interest in pushing the boundaries – home to Oregon. Based on Boz’s hand-written list of tapes to buy, my black spongy over-the-head earphones soon filled with the sounds of Whodini, Fat Boys, Gucci Crew, Steel Pulse and Shinehead. The sound stuck, and moved me into Boogie Down Productions, De La Soul (“Me Myself and I”), Kool Moe Dee (“I Go to Work”), and the more critical Public Enemy and NWA. I don’t remember many Portland friends listening to these with me – with the exception of Seattle-based Sir-Mix-A-Lot, but they thought they were funny and especially liked the crude parts.
What they did listen to with me was the Beastie Boys. The Beasties crossed both my worlds, mixing rap and electric guitar like RunDMC and Aerosmith. Their Licensed to Ill album (copied onto a tape) was on my headphones everyday as I walked around Parkrose High School, and yet despite their lyrics (e.g. the song “Girls”) I somehow managed to retain a deep respect for women. They’ve remained one of my favorite bands, largely because they continued to develop as musicians from their clueless days – which they’ve since apologized for.
Otherwise, though, my Portland friends were largely into rock. My friend Rick, driving us to Taco Bell lunches in his bright red Hyundai, would perform the Scorpions Worldwide Live better than Klaus Meine himself. Klaus/Rick could be heard in between songs screaming in German/English, “Do you know why we love to play San Diego? Because you people, you really know how to par-tay!” The Scorpions, Aerosmith, Quiot Riot and Bon Jovi spawned all kinds of hair metal spin offs that we lapped up: Cinderella, Warrant, Winger, Skid Row, White Snake and more – all captured like memories of a carefree high school party on these little rectangles of magnetic tape. I was breaking free of my Tupperware-sized playlists, expanding into the world and becoming my own person.
Then, when my friend Chris rewound a few years by showing me how to play Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” on guitar, I was hooked. I bought all their albums, ripped them onto tapes, and was ready to roll. In the winter, I would cue up their song “We’re Ready” at the top of Mt. Hood, skis on and poles tucked, Walkman headphones over my beanie, and launch into the best runs of my life.
My older sister Lorraine’s tapes also show up, with bands like Heart, Tesla, and especially Robert Plant. She wore out his “Now and Zen” tape in her White Dodge Colt, zipping around rainy Portland burning out transmission clutches and sporting a personalized license plate “LITN UP” inspired by his song.
That same car helped some of my musical dreams come true when we both snuck out to a Def Leppard concert downtown. The show was great, and we almost kept the secret from my parents until that damn Dodge Colt was broken into, and the police report later mailed to the house made my mom ask, “Why were you downtown last Saturday night?”
And what white suburban 80’s tape collection is complete without music from that small Irish bar band called U2? The soaring and simple guitar leads, and Bono’s untamed voice on their fifth album, “The Joshua Tree,” drew me in. (How jealous I was to later meet my friend Tom, who saw them play at Madison Square Gardens in 1985). It wasn’t every 80’s band that name dropped both MLK and Jesus, and as a Christian youth group kid, I might have finally found the crossover album the church would approve of.
Here again was a band that mixed my identities, a musical metaphor I could follow to integrate the various parts of myself.
After high school I moved to Southern California for a small college, and was smashed together with people and influences from all over. My work-study program had me cleaning beakers in the chemistry lab late at night, and with clear weather we could tune in the 200-mile away 91X radio station from San Diego; this was the closest I would ever feel to setting foot in Django records with James again. Dorm-mates far cooler than me not only knew about, but went to concerts like The Alarm, The Cure, The Smiths, and Morrissey. My little cassette collection was out of its league down here.
But 90’s dorm rooms had more than that: Tom Petty, MC Hammer, Sound Garden, Young MC, Smashing Pumpkins, and a radical new band called Nirvana. My roommate Deron and I also took to making fun of random Christian rock modelled on the yellow-and-black Stryper, bands with names like Barren Cross, X-Sinner, and Kings-X.
I can’t remember the exact day when mockery turned into fandom, but before I knew it, I was one of the few students listening to the college radio station KFYR. One late night I heard the voice of a cute-sounding young DJ reading (ahem, botching) the news, and I called the request line to tease her. I soon asked her out and discovered someone so comfortable to be with, I felt I’d always known her. Several years and a dozen mix-tapes later, I asked her to marry me and I have some of the cheesiest bands to thank for it.
She now complains about the tapes in our closet.
This tape collection has been stashed away for many years, and today it is returning more than music to me. Though weathered and warbly, these tapes represent days I can barely remember without their beats tapping in my toes. I don’t have a great memory for many things, but music travels through my veins like heroin, reminding me of long-forgotten trips along the way.
Looking back, I had always imagined my music – like my identity – falling into a special category outside the mainstream, just as James had recommended back in the record store. And yet, every one of my tapes existed in someone else’s collection too. Just like every one of my music-sharing friends also had other friends.
But still, who else in this world can claim to know every single one of my friends the way I have? And who else followed the same musical progression as I did?
This tape collection is like a strand of musical DNA – each gene common to humanity, but no two complete strands the same. (If you are an identical music twin, please do let me know. We have some songs to chase down).
These recordings were like friends to me, giving me space to revel, grace to hide, and a place to belong. And I was never alone: every story I’ve told here involves music shared with another person, like James. We rifled through the record store bins together, thumped car speakers around town together (windows down, heat on), and found our identities together, listening to music we thought to be all our own.
Sitting today with my well-worn fingers on the play button of a beat-up Sony Walkman, I’m so thankful to refind the memories stashed away on these cassettes. In most areas of life, I’m so rarely willing to press rewind and then wait, the way a tape player teaches me to. But when the memories finally move through me like bass through the speakers of my high school car, I see how I’ve become my own mix-tape filled with a medley of musical identities and friends who rotated through that passenger seat.
Oh, and James, if you’re out there, find me on Spotify. I’ll be the one off the mainstream, listening to songs nobody has heard before.
♦ weekendswell ♦
To read a poem about another time music made me cry, try The Music of Fireflies.