Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My Life in Mix Tapes

I have only one cassette-playing device left. It is a boom box that my mom won in a raffle in the early 90s, and right now it is playing a fantastic compilation entitled Sunshine & Happiness: Spring Break '91. I had to rewind it first and was surprised at how warmly familiar the whirr of Rewind and the ka-thunk of Stop sounded. I'm shocked by the semi-decent sound quality and can only credit the CD collection and stereo system of a roommate, as I wouldn't own a CD or player for more than two years after Spring Break '91.

I once owned well over one hundred cassettes, many of them pirated from friends. When I finally decided to trash them, I couldn't bear to part with the mix tapes, which got their own special box and shelf space in my closet. I had to bring in my kids' bathroom step stool to reach them down today.

The mix tapes were saved from the landfill and will remain on my shelf long after the boom box goes kaput because the mix tapes are memories. If I'm dying to hear The Best of OMD, I probably can download it from iTunes or snag a CD somewhere. The mix tapes, however, are personal; designed by me or someone important to me, played over and over again and intertwined with intense memories of feeling and friendship.

From browsing the contents of this box and my memory, I see that sophomore year of college was a big year for the mix tape. My friend Kerry had a great stereo system (with speakers we blew out several times, each time to "Pour Some Sugar on Me") and, perhaps more importantly, the entire Time/Life Sounds of the 70s series on CD. Hot Tower Babes refers to the 5th floor clock tower in House G, where six of us resided in three rooms. A very cool place to live. A 501 Compilation is made entirely from Kerry's fantastic CD collection, which was housed in the triple in Room 501. Michelle's Mellow Mix is the brainchild of the occupant of the 5th Floor single, and Time to Get Mellow was my answer to her compilation. I made Sunshine & Happiness for our spring break drive from Duke to Amelia Island, where we were so determined to sunbathe that we dug and lay in sand pits on the beach to protect us from the cold wind. By the time I made To Be Named Later..., I'd obviously exhausted my creativity.

The best mix tapes were those made by a friend or significant other. How do kids today date without the mix tape? Do they make iTunes playlists instead? If so, do they burn them to CD?  I hope so, because otherwise they have no opportunity for hand labeling their work. Looking in this box gives me the warm fuzzies because I recognize the handiwork of some special people in my life.

My collection contains one mix tape made by my best friend from growing up and is merely titled Cynthia's Tape, subtitled on the spine Here's to the Former Graduates of '89 and '90 (an homage to the high school morning announcements when our principal would refer to alumni as "former graduates," a nonsensical redundancy if we'd ever heard one). If I recall correctly, that mix tape has her voice interspersed with the songs, both those we truly loved as well as those we mercilessly mocked others for liking.

Of course, no mix tape collection would be complete without those made by old flames. My collection contains two from one boy who really mattered and one from a blip of a boy (but an important blip in my personal timeline). The blip is important in part because he arose during the one-year hiatus my now-husband and I took, but more so because he solidified my love of country music. The tape is a good one, so I save it for the music more than the memories.

The two tapes made by the boy who mattered are Margarita Montage Vol. II:  The Best of J. Buffett (I have no idea what happened to volume I) and E.C. Hello Old Friend Mix. The boy was, and to the best of my knowledge still is, a huge Buffet and Clapton fan, and what I love of those artists I learned from him. The first is merely a self-made "best of" compilation, but the latter is what you think of when you think of former boyfriends and mix tapes. He mailed that one to me in college, many months after a bad break-up and no further communication. To this day, I can't hear "Promises" without thinking of him and getting a pang. "We made a vow we'd always be friends; how could we know that promises end?"  Ouch. Painful at the time and painful in recollection. It worked though; we got back together for a while after that tape and I'm pleased to say we are still friends, Eric Clapton be damned.

Perhaps I'll give my kids a dose of history and share an old mix tape with them when they get home from school (but spare them the stories that go with it). I'm not certain they know how a cassette operates, and sadly, no one will ever make a mix tape for them. I feel sorry that kids today are missing out on the experience  Who is going to pull up an iTunes play list made by a former boyfriend twenty-plus years later? No one. However, I can hold in my hand the plastic-encased time, effort and emotional angst of 1991. Can you?


  1. Half way through college my roommate came out to Colorado for a visit and to go backpacking. The night we were in the wilderness, someone broke into every car at the trailhead. They didn't get anything of monetary value from me, but they stole my entire box of cassette tapes, including all of the mix tapes from various friends and boyfriends from high school, summer camps, etc. I'm still not over the heartbreak of losing those.

  2. That is dreadful and mean. I too would be heartbroken.