Straight Guy's Mix Tapes: Goodbye to You

Gay Guy,

Sad times here at Casa del SG. I've been cleaning out the basement bit by bit over the last few weeks and have been trying to purge some of the stuff that's accumulated down there over the years. Most of it won't be missed. But, I'm having a hard time saying goodbye to my collection of cassette tapes.

I'm part of that narrow slice of Gen X: the cassette generation. Post LP but pre CD. Oh, how we were duped. Deprived of LP cover art and of the pristine sound quality of CDs, what did we get? Well, we were the first to enjoy the simple thrill of popping the music right into the dashboard (or walkman) and listening on the way home. And rewinding to just the right spot -- oops, wait -- there it is! -- and listening again. That's something, I guess. Otherwise it's just a lot of hiss and lame Dolby NR options that never really worked anyway. But I loved music and craved convenience, so did I really have any choice?

I still have hundreds of them, loosely organized in plastic bins. Some store-bought classics, many guilty pleasures, and a few selections best classified as "what the hell was I thinking?" (Looking at you, Shalamar.) Throw in a few cassingles from the one-hit wonders, just to round things out.

There's also a bin dedicated to mix-tapes, the hard currency of friendship in the 1980s. These might be the hardest to part with. Can't classify it as an art (a la High Fidelity), but making a tape for someone was a kind of craft. It took a whole afternoon or evening of selecting songs and carefully ordering the playlist, recording in real time, monitoring the levels, and stressing over the pauses between each selection. So, maybe we got a little conceited in the process. Our sensibilities were never as sophisticated as we thought at the time -- no minds were ever technically "blown" by my audio expertise, anyway. But we did it because we cared. I doubt many kids today would take the time to express themselves that way. Why would they, with blogs, facebook, and text-messaging at their disposal? They don't lack the tools to let everyone know what they think and how they feel. We had to be slightly more subtle, and let Lou Reed, Chrissie Hynde, James Taylor, and Stevie Wonder do the talking.

OK. Trying not to dwell, here. I don't have a tape deck anymore, and for the most part love my iPod lifestyle. Some of the artists have migrated with me, others have been left behind (where have you gone, Hoodoo Gurus?). The vast majority of those tapes have gone unused for over 10 years now. I'd like to find a good home for them, because it's hard to throw away Abbey Road, no matter what the format. But I also have a hard time believing that my local library would want a copy of the album where Eddie Murphy sings with sincerity.

Do I wish that timing had been better and all of my collection was on CD? Sure. The really sad part is that as the format loses value, all the tapes become equally worthless. On cassette, the Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, and early Prince are dragged down to the level of Scritti Polliti, Billy Vera, and The Force MDs. Now that's a shame.

Even though I probably spent thousands of dollars building this now-worthless collection, it's the free mix-tapes that are hardest to let go. Any advice?

--Straight Guy

P.S. Check out this interesting NYT graphic on music format popularity, indicating cassette sales peaking in the late 80s, just when my appetite for music was also at its peak. As a tribute to those cassettes now headed for the dumpster, I'll finish with this nostalgically appropriate tribute... "such a pity to say goodbye to you..."


Kathryn said...

Oh, the dilemma. It's a killer. I've got an entire box filled with Disney movies on VHS...("Hurry up! Before we put them back in the VAULT and they're never seen for another hundred years!!!") Now what? Donate 'em to the library? I remember thinking they'd be WORTH something someday. I don't know, SG. I just found my very first cellphone...remember the BOOK it came in? Also found our first Nintendo hand-held. Here's what we shud do: Save one mix tape. And one of anything else that's antiquated & not worth a damn to anyone but US and make a time-capsule. We'll show our great-grandkids what they were and try to compare 'em to the modern equivalent. Label the box "THEN"
That's what I'm gonna do.

BosGuy said...

Most excellent and well put. I'm not a sentimental person and it was hard for me to part with many of my tapes too. Loved the band references by the way.

Gay Guy said...


Are you going to 'fess up to that Hanson tape? Or do I have to out you?

Come to think of it, Hanson might have arrived on the scene in time for CD. Yes?

I never had many tapes. I have super-fond memories of a Talking Heads tape and a Eurythmics tape.

I tossed most of my tapes to make room for more CDs, which now are almost as much of a dinosaur.

The best thing about mix tapes -- if a friend made them for you -- is that they introduced you to singers I never would have heard. That's how I found Paula Cole and Aimee Mann, as examples.

Straight in Upstate said...

Okay, people, let's clear up the historical record for the benefit of the 20-somethings who find this post. LPs, cassettes, and CDs all coexisted. Cassettes were available in the early 1970s (by my memory, and maybe earlier), and the CD was introduced in the early 1980s. Cassette tape decks gave record companies fits because - horrors! - people were copying albums or making mix tapes from LPs and they weren't getting royalties. The CD was either A) always going to be too expensive and would never catch on or B) be the instant death of vinyl. Yeah, someone went 0-for-2. Vinyl has always stuck around and is starting a resurgence: a number of musicians prefer the sound, and Library of Congress won't accept digital media for its permanent collection.

i was continuing to make mix tapes for our car until 2 years ago when I finally bought a portable CD player for the car. As for vinyl, the local college radio station is selling off its 1970s and 80s collection next month - what doesn't sell, goes in the dumpster. (Some little matter of the building inspector telling them their floor will collapse if they don't get rid of the thousands of LPs they don't play anyway.) I will be there with bells on - a friend has a turntable that will convert to CD and MP3 - I think it's 10 LPs for $2. Send me your shopping list; all requests will remain confidential - no one will ever know that you bought a copy of William Shatner "singing" Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

Straight Guy said...

K, BosGuy, no worries. There are a few that I just can't part with.

GG, without admitting or denying anything, no Hanson guilt here. Besides, Taylor Hanson is back on the road with a new power-pop group, Tinted Windows, which also includes former members of Fountains of Wayne and Cheap Trick. I'm not making this up and they're pretty good.

Upstate, never meant to imply the death of the LP. Just the seemingly unlucky (for me) timing of the commercial popularity of the cassette. Each format had it's own decade of dominance: 70s LP, 80s cassette, 90's CD, and currently the MP3. I just felt that we got the worst of those options in the 80's and are now left with nothing. I'd rather have LPs than boxes of tapes, for sure. Regardless of quality or longevity, LPs will always be the most rewarding format to touch and feel.d Sadly, I'll inform you that Shatner's "Lucy" is available for download, while the Beatles' is not. Though I guess the M Jackson estate gets the royalties either way.

cally said...

Mix tapes are an art form! Hook a small tape player into your computer (or buy a build-in tape deck module for your PC) and rip them to mp3. Seriously, save them!

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