The Mix Tape – An Appreciation

“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules. Anyway, I’ve started to make a tape in my head. Full of stuff that she likes. Full of stuff that makes her happy. For the first time I can sort of see how that is done.” 

– Rob Gordon (as written by Nick Hornsby and played by John Cusack), “High Fidelity.”

Last evening, I moved a bed out of mine and Nicole’s “Room of Requirement” and replaced it with a glider. For those of you reading this that have been living under a rock for the last ten years or have simply never seen nor read a Harry Potter story, the “Room of Requirement” is just that: A secret room in Hogwarts that morphs in to whatever the person that discovers it requires. A magic dojo; a place which hides a Horocrux. Pick your poison, friends. Every house has something similar. Some more organized households have a drawer or a closet. Nicole and I? We have a whole room. We originally set it up six years ago (when we bought our house) as an office/guest room. Over time, it grew in to a repository for everything from old files to my deadbeat father’s coin collection/memorabilia collection. Our office is still there albeit buried beneath rolls of wrapping paper and behind totes filled with holiday decor (due mainly to Nicole’s passing, two year or so fancy with the Cult of Home Interiors) but the room itself resembles something out of an episode of “Storage Wars.” Save for an old Sirius/XM dock, a couple of recievers and a collection of first edition, Stephen King hardbacks (unbroken all the way back to “Bag of Bones” I am proud to say) there is little of value in it but “YUUUP,” It’s there. 

I digress… again. Last night, I moved a bed out of that room and replaced it with a glider. You see, our once-“Room of Requirement” is soon to be the plus one, alias Natalie Theresa Marsh’s nursery. Much remains to be done–carpeting, painting, maybe a new ceiling fan and, of course, furniture–but we’ve finally begun the long and laborious process of cleaning it out. In one of the corners of the room behind the bed I discovered my own version of “The Wow Factor”: The stereo that I bought for Nicole way, way back when we first began dating for her birthday, complete with a three CD changer, an AM/FM radio and… brace yourselves, guys… a dual cassette, continuous play tape deck. But that’s not all. Beneath said stereo in two ancient milk crates that I have carried with me since my days as a wayward pre-teen living in a room in my mother’s house in Jenkintown, PA were tapes. Actual tapes, guys. Everything from the first tape I ever purchased–Journey, “Look In To The Future”–to the last one I purchased before I finally gave in and upgraded to CDs–Prodigy, “The Fat Of The Land.

I was shocked. I quite literally gasped at my discovery. Did it still work? I had to know. So I found the power cord, made sure that my cats hadn’t chewed through it (they hadn’t), unwound it from it’s twist tie and plugged it in. Eureka! The face lit up and a single word appeared upon it in angry, orange letters: “TAPE.” I knew it was a sign. I immediately began shuffling through my tape collection and was in awe at the diversity displayed by it–Everything from Paganini to Bon Jovi, “Fields Of Gold” to “River[s] Of Dreams”–a diversity reflected to this day in my eclectic, 36 year old taste in music. I found a cast recording for “Pippin”–the musical I proudly played King Charlemagne in during my 19th summer of life on this side of the proverbial wormhole of existence. I found an old recording of “Dark Side Of The Moon” on one side and “The Delicate Sound Of Thunder” on the other that my uncle once dubbed for me… off of vinyl. I could go on and on–From Prince and the New Power Generation to the Moody Blues–but to do so would defeat the purpose of why I am writing this little piece of Mental Flatulence currently. Simultaneously with Nicole’s and Cara’s arrival and a spirited, “What’cha ‘doin?” from my wonderful wife, I moved a stack of tapes and discovered not one, not two but at least a half a dozen, if not more Mix Tapes. Yes, you heard me right: Mix Tapes that had been made for me by friends, ex-girlfriends and “others” over the course of my young life. I removed one and gasped as I saw who it was from. I removed another and tried like hell to remember who had made it for me. I removed still another and remembered my creepy, once-Head Cashier at the now defunct CVS in Plymouth Meeting, PA who behind his greasy, black hair and a serious case of halitosis had once of the most impressive and nightmarish musical minds I had then and have ever encountered. Memories flooded back–some good, and some bad–and the only thing that I could think to do to avert the tidal onrush of emotion?

I picked one of the tapes up, smiled, removed it from its case, inserted it–Side A–and hit “PLAY.” I didn’t even glance at the “liner notes.” I wanted to be surprised. After a second or two of what sounded like someone passing gas in slow motion, Van Morrison’s all-to-familiar lyrics hearkened to my ears:

“Hey where did we go? Days when the rains came. Down in the hollow. Playing a new game. Laughing and a running, hey, hey. Skipping and ‘a jumping. In the misty morning fog, with you. Aw, my heart started pumping with you… my Brown Eyed Girl. YOU MY… Brown Eyed Girl.”

Cue musical interlude.

As “Brown Eyed Girl” segued in to “In The Jungle” and “In The Jungle” segued in to “What A Wonderful World” and “What A Wonderful World” segued in to “Witch In The Ditch” (remember that one?) a few things happened simultaneously: I remembered who had made said Mix Tape for me, my two and a half year old daughter started dancing to music she had likely and… in this day and age of Gagas and Minajes… might never hear again, and my wife and I started singing along. While these things were happening something else occurred to me. Far be it from me to over-dramatically link my little discovery in my “Room of Requirement” to something as monumental as, say, finding the Lost Ark, but I realized that I had uncovered and was enjoying a long, forgotten art form: An idea that was touched upon by Nick Hornsby in his phenomenal book “High Fidelity” and was later successfully transposed (with the help of a then-unknown actor/comedian named Jack Black and a well-established but typecast actor named John Cusack) to celluloid. The Mix Tape. Not just a collection of songs thrown together to listen to in your car but something more. Something deeper. To once again quote Rob Gordon/John Cusack, “The making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do’s and don’ts. First of all you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.”

The Mix Tape is a lost art form, friends. When one was created properly and with the right amount of care it was as magnificent as a painting, as pithy as a poem or a song or as epic as a novel. It was a way of telling someone how you felt about them “back in the day” without using emoticons or multiple “u’s” at the end of “I HEART YOUUUUU.” Back before any of us could afford jewelry or a fancy dinner we could always afford a package of three 120 minute, blank cassette tapes at the local CVS. And who didn’t have tapes or, later, CDs to “dub” (now we call it “burn” but we used to call it “dub”)? “Back in the day” I considered myself quite the maestro at “using someone else’s poetry to express [how I felt].” So much so that I promised Nicole, shortly after we had begun dating in 2001, that I would make her a Mix Tape. I was quite confident in my ability to craft something lasting for the woman I had so quickly fallen in love with. Sadly, circumstances interfered and it took me an additional year or two to put one together for her. But then, one late night in 2003 (per my hand written liner notes), I fulfilled my vow to her. I put together what would be the last Mix Tape of many that I had made over the course of my life on this side of the proverbial wormhole of existence. I split it up in to two parts: Side A was entitled, quite simply, “Fast Tracks” and the song listing?

“Without Me” – Eminem
“Cowboy” – Kid Rock
“Question” – Familiar 48/Bonehead (take your pick; same band/identity crisis)
“Grey Street” – Dave Matthews Band
“Love Rollercoaster” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
“Nookie” – Limp Bizkit
“Lucky” – Downcircleback
“Everyday” – Dave Matthews Band
“Preaching The End Of The World” – Chris Cornell
“Brand New Day” – Sting
“F*cking In The Bushes” – Oasis

No subtext, guys. No, none whatsoever. Side B was called “Love Songs” and the track listing?

“Sunshower” – Chris Cornell
“To Be With You” – Mr. Big
“If You’re Gone” – Matchbox 20
“Where Are You Going?” – Dave Matthews Band
“Porcelain” – Moby (yes, once upon a time I listened to Moby. My techno-identity crisis was brought on by a friend. No names but if you’re reading this, you know who you are)
“I Don’t Know How To Love Him” – “Jesus Christ Superstar”
“Lullybye” – Billy Joel
“I’m Open/Around The Bend” – Pearl Jam
“Somewhere In Between” and “Everything” – Lifehouse
“May It Be” – Enya

Again, no subtext. I swear. While the songs chosen may seem tame and… relatively Top 40 in their nature in truth? You’ve never met my Top 40 wife. Seriously, though (and sorry about that, sweetie), I had never put more thought in to a single Mix Tape that I had made for anyone. Why? Because I knew, even then, that I was making it for the woman I hoped I was going to spend the rest of my life with. Marry. Buy a house with. Have children with. Create a “Room of Requirement” with. Turns out I was right in my assessment on all fronts though admittedly? Had things gone awry I would have felt much like Lloyd Dobler–a different John Cusack interpretation–did when in “Say Anything” he told the woman of his dreams to “burn” the letter he had written her, for “it hurts him to know that its ‘out there.'” There are a few tapes that I made for people over the course of my life that I know remain “out there.” Does it hurt me to know that they are? Not really. Because each of those people–be they friends or ex-girlfriends or “others”–had an indisputable impact on my life at the point that I made said tape for them. Each in turn helped me to grow beyond the child I was then and in to the man I am now and for that? I am eternally grateful. Maybe one day–if I ever achieve my seemingly ceaseless dream of becoming a published author–said tapes will be worth something though I’m quite sure given what little, legal knowledge I retain that copyright infringement is a valid worry. Ah f*ck it. I’ll cross that particular bridge when and if I come to it.

Perhaps there are others out there either reading this or not that feel the same way about the tapes they made for mebeing ‘out there.’ If any of those people are reading this I have one thing to say to you: Don’t. Ever.I’m not a big fan of looking over my shoulder at this juncture in my life though occasionally, an odd situation like this onepresents itself and reminds me of the road that I traveled and the people that I encountered to get to the point I’m at today. I’m even less a fan of “looking back in anger.” What do I have to be angry about? I’m pleased with how my life worked out and I hope that you, you and you are too. If anything, I will always hold said compilations near and dear to my heart because they represent something more than a DVD or even a book. They represent a little piece of your heart and soul. There is, in my opinion, nothing more selfless and thoughtful than that. So thank you. All of you.

Cue musical interlude. And of course, I digressed… again. 

As Cara danced and Nicole and I sung along andtook turns dancing with Cara I proceeded to look at the other Mix Tapes that I had uncovered. I determined upon closer observation and thought that there are, in fact, five distinctly different kinds of Mix Tapes, many of which were represented to some extent in my collection. We’ll call this my own, “High Fidelity-esque”Top Five List. “The Top Five Distinct Types Of Mix Tapes As Partially Represented By My Own, Personal Collection.” In no particular order they are:

1. The Friendly Mix Tape: This one is about as simple as they come. The songs are selected not by significance but by what flows and what naturally goes together, i.e. Jimmy Buffett with James Taylor, The Police with solo Sting, etc.. I have multiple versions of this Mix Tape in my collection. One of them I have already mentioned–The one with “Brown Eyed Girl,” “In The Jungle,” “What A Wonderful World” and “Witch In A Ditch” on it. Many of the others were made for me by a good, still-friend of mine after my unfortunate run in with a white picket fence and a pond one icy night in December of 1993 in Huntingdon Valley, PA. My entire tape collection was ruined by the two feet of water that seeped in to my mother’s Pontiac Sunbird and he took it upon himself to replenish it as best he could from his own collection. I still have all of those Mix Tapes today, their liner notes written in precise long-hand by a now, mid-30 something, still-perfectionist who I have been and remain proud to call one of my oldest and best friends. No names, but if he’s reading this he knows who he is. And if he doesn’t? Wus. 

2. The I Want You But I Don’t Know How To Tell You Mix Tape: This particular tape is, perhaps, the most complicated of the lot because it is difficult to determine if the Mix Tape that was made for you is, in fact, what I’ll call a “Number Two.” Number Twos are halfway between “Number Ones” and “Number Threes.” I potentially have two such Mix Tapes in my collection. I say “potentially” because classifying either as a Number Two is not an exact science since only one resulted in a very short-lived, albeit intense relationship for the same reason that I just mentioned. Ask yourself: Is there a subtext to the song selection or not? In many cases the only person that truly knows for sure is the compiler him or herself and all you, as the recipient can do is speculate and be grateful. But if you have a thing for the person that made you what potentially could be a Number Two? Well, friends, said speculation and gratitude can quickly become the cause of a lesser form of insanity that can drive you to drink, do drugs or, in many cases, do something drastic only to discover that the only reason said person put “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel on there was because he or she likes the song. Not because he or she is telling you not to give up on your chances with him or her because he or she currently has a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Not that I ever made that mistake…

Cue musical interlude. “I don’t care what you play just play it loud!

3. The I Love You And You Reciprocate My Love Mix Tape: Case in point is the above mentioned Mix Tape that I made for my then-girlfriend Nicole Gentile: The song selection has a clear subtext. The only real guesswork for the recipient comes from determining the intensity of the Love echoed by the tape. How deep? How physical? Here’s a tip for any dinosaurs out there who are considering putting one of these together: The inclusion of a song called “F*cking In The Bushes” means that the giver really, really wants you. Really. And there’s a reason why “Cowboy” by Kid Rock is the second, most popular song for strippers to dance to directly behind “Pour Some Sugar On Me” by Def Leppard. Don’t believe me? Google it. “Cowboy, baby.”

4. The I Want You Back Mix Tape: Admittedly, I don’t have a single one of these. I never madeone either. Generally speaking if you dumped me or if I broke up with you it was pretty mutual. That may sound cold but trust me: My personality tends to grate on people after a while. Even now, I marvel at how long Nicole has stayed with me despite my oft-times quirkiness (see: This blog post). Looking back over the course of my life on this side of the proverbial wormhole of existence in this, my own subjective universe I can only think of one, particular incidence where “wanting someone back,” at least from my perspective was even a consideration post-break up. As it turned out that desire was little more than a pipe dream, fashioned by me from my own psyche to compensate for the knowledge that I was not in lovebut was, rather, in love with the idea of being in love. Because I was a romantic and I wanted to be in love so badly.

And believe it or not, I didn’t even need a shrink to teach me that. I just ‘kinda… figured it out. 

Little did I know what True Love felt like. Not melodramatic, “Princess Bride-esque” “‘Twue ‘Wuv” but Love with a big, bold capital “L.” My wife taught me that first. Now my two and a half year old, “Dancing Queen” daughter is teaching it to me. And in a few months? My plus one alias Natalie Theresa will, I pray,  teach it to me even further. How do I know this for sure? Simple: I just do. 

5. The I Despise You On This Or On ANY Side Of The Proverbial Wormhole Of Existence Mix Tape: “YUUUP.” These particular Mix Tapes? They’re generally very similar in content regardless of who or what is making them. They usually start off with something from “Jagged Little Pill” Era Alanis Morisette. It doesn’t have to be “You ‘Oughta Know.” It could be something veiled in anger like “You Live You Learn” but if said selection doesn’t start off Side A I gauren-damn-tee you it is strategically placed on there somewhere. Other musical selections that might be included on said tape? “Head Like A Hole” by NIN. “I Won’t Become The Thing I Hate” by Stabbing Westward. And the always pep, pep, peppy “I Hate Everything About You” by Three Days Grace (about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the nads). I can’t say that I ever made one of these Mix Tapes nor did anyone ever make one for me. I count myself lucky on both fronts but if you have made a tape like this for someone in your wayward, youthful, lovelorn days? Fret not: One particular friend of mine got a combination Number Two/Number Five Mix Tape once. We listened to it multiple times in his now-defunct, black Camaro as we ferried ourselves too and from State College, PA back in our own, shared, wayward and lovelorn youth, alias the mid-nineties. If anything, it was an always reliable topic of conversation. “No message, Vato?” No message, Vato. None whatsoever. Cue Stabbing Westward, “Shame.”And cackle in a combination of humor and fear for your respective lives.

And there you have it, friends. THE MIX TAPE: An Appreciation. Perhaps not as poignant as “Contrary” but it sure was fun to write. We live now in a post-modern age of MP3s and streaming music. Even the CD has begun a steady, fiscal decline similar to the decline experienced by the cassette in the early parts of the last decade. The future of music is digital and what I am referring to via this composition as an art form may be little more than just one, pseudo-madman’s rambling about the mentality he grew up with: A mentality reflected in a book and a movie like “High Fidelity” but nowhere else. No one will ever confuse a Mix Tape with a work of art by Vincent Van Gogh, a poem by T. S. Eliot, a song by Kurt Cobain or a novel by Toni Morrison. But for me, it exhibits many of the characteristics of each: It’s colorful and textured like a masterwork of art, it’s multi-layered and symbolic like an epic poem, it’s a virtuoso synthesis of music and words like a musical composition and it tells a story like a book. It is, in fact, a synthesis of all art forms and science, i.e. the ability to duplicate–oft times illegally–previously recorded content. You don’t have to run to the clearance table at Walmart or Target and buy a cheap, three pack of 120 minutes cassettes. You may not even have access to a tape recorder or a stereo. But remember the idea of the Mix Tape. Pass it on to your children. Tell them about “dubbing” and teach them how to “burn” music for someone they care about. Maybe one day–when everything is holographic and stored on an extensive Cloud–one of them will find their old, iPod docking station and their equally old iPod behind an old bed in their own “Room of Requirement.” They’ll plug in the docking station and charge up the iPod on it. They’ll realize both work and they’ll power up the latter, select a playlist that they created and shared with a friend, ex or “other” once upon a time and hit “PLAY.” And as the lyrics penned by Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj echo out from the speakers and across the room that they’re prepping for the arrival of their own, respective plus one they’ll watch with their own wife or husband as their first born child dances awkwardly across the floor to music they’ve never heard before and likely never will again… the music that they grew up with. They’ll look at each other with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes and they’ll think to themselves…

You guessed it: “What a wonderful world.”

F.

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