Cassette Me Not

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I just had a birthday. I am a mid-ranged remember-when-Elvis-died kind of 40-something.

Yesterday, I “treated” myself by getting my brows done. As I sat, relaxing, a girl who mathematically could have been my daughter, wiped hot wax just above my eyelids, humming along to a song, apparently by ‘N Sync, that was playing on the radio. She laughed about how young the hairdresser was– “She’s never even heard of ‘N Sync!”– and it struck me that I was on the exact opposite end of that time-line. Like, if the time-line were a see-saw, the hairdresser would be on one end, the-girl-with-hot-wax would be balancing us in the middle, and I would be on the other side. I was the grandma in the equation, one who’d certainly heard of In Sync, but had no memories to associate with an ‘N Sync song.

I was able to hold onto the conversation by name-dropping “Justin Timberlake,” but I joked with my would-be daughter about the real JT being James Taylor. She gave it her best, pretending she knew who James Taylor was, and as she plucked some of my stray brow hairs, a next song played. She continued to hum along, which suggested to me that she might know who sang the song. I went for it: “Oh, Squeeze takes me back!” Funnily enough, the song was “Pulling Mussels” and she clammed right up. There wasn’t much to say after that. When she was finished, she held the mirror a respectable distance from my face so that I could see her work, then sent me and my reddened forehead on our way.

Music is it for me. My husband can reel off sports’ statistics–where he was when Jo-Schmoe hit the homer to win the whatever–but it is in music where I tend to find my conversational comfort zone. And yes, when I hear a song, it takes me places.

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Now if music could truly transport me, Jimmy Buffet and I would be in Florida.

But my soundtrack broadens, just as I start to imagine warmth, just as distinct memories emerge: I once drove with my college friend, Kim, the entire length of the Florida Keys listening to a singular (but truly excellent) album–Bonnie Raitt’s Sweet Forgiveness–over and over again. I can’t remember why. I’m assuming we drove the distance from William and Mary to, let’s say Miami, listening to whatever radio was available. It is possible that we forgot to bring along any more of our own music. It is possible radio was not transmitting as clearly back then–this was certainly pre-XM; heck, it was pre-compact disc.

Back then we called them “albums,” even though what I was often listening to were cassette tapes. Listeners paid attention to the album as craft: from cover-art, to liner-notes, to the order of the songs. I was born the year James Taylor released his first album, but I was eleven when he released Flag, which I studied like Latin verb conjugations. I loved the hits we all heard on the radio like “Handy Man” and “Smiling Face,” but it wasn’t until Flag that I listened attentively and wholly to an album-–analyzing song order and lyrics, appreciating the lesser known tunes, the ones that never made it to radio.

I eventually branched out, beyond JT. But as I listened to any album, rarely did I fast-forward the tape through the less-desirable songs.

I read albums like books.

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As far as I was concerned, the only appropriate time to tamper with the order of things was when you were making a mixed-tape.

If you are now 40-something, you understand. You were there.

You are there. Your room may not be painted yellow, like mine. It may not have a poster of Sean Cassidy on the wall (neither does mine but my friend Carla has a poster of Sean Cassidy on her wall and I am envious). Your room may not have a green shag rug, like mine, but you are there, sitting on that dog-hair infested rug, right beside me, listening to the radio, waiting, waiting, for the dj to put on the song you are dying to record–-both index fingers perched and ready to hit Play and Record at the same time.

Finally, you land your fingers down. The play-back gives a little squeak at the start (not your best work), but you have it: Ray Parker Jr’s “You Can’t Change That” (You can change your telephone number/You can change your address too/But you can’t stop me from loving you/No, you can’t change that). You land another: Toto’s “Rosanna” (All I wanna do when I wake up in the morning is see your eyes/ Rosanna, Rosanna). Darn, you miss it–The Commodores “Sail On.” Next time . . . you think to yourself, as you stand up and brush the dog hair from your hot-pink wide-waled cords . . . next time.

Mixing tapes off of the radio-–just one more thing our children have been unhanded thanks to the ease of modern technology.

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As I grew, I acquired more sophisticated equipment, which granted me more control of my art: actual records, a turntable. By high school, the dual cassette player allowed the tape-to-tape transfer, and some lucky devils had dual cassette and turntable for maximum transfer-ability. I became semi-pro, rolling out tapes for friends, family, the occasional boyfriend.

As what happens when you’re once a big fish, I did meet up with some serious but friendly competition in the bigger college pond. I was a Philly girl, raised on top-forty and classic rock. My crunchy, New England boarding-school-graduate friend introduced to me The Cure; and sounding from various fraternity basements came even more alternative: The Smiths, New Order, The Replacements. I really did learn something in college.

Still, I had my niche; I stuck primarily to my classicist roots. Borderline bragging here, but I should have been paid for what I master-mixed.

And my room decor: album covers of Rickie Lee Jones, Elvis Costello, JT, Jackson Browne. My statement was, “I am music.” My roommates’ reactions? Possible distaste. But, perhaps initially, my taste in music drew admiration and interest from some of the cute boys, at least the cute boys that mattered to me. And if the interest was reciprocal, a mixed-tape as gift from said cute boy was better than jewelry.

I still have my cassette tapes. All of them.

I’ve even checked Pinterest to find out what to do with old cassette tapes: I could make a cassette tape desk caddy; I could “upcycle” them into a lamp or shape them into a treble clef for wall art.

Or I could leave them in a giant bin and pay 87$ a month for storage.

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I did use some old mixed tapes as reference and put together a cd for my college friends in time for a reunion a few years back. I had it as playlist in my media library and just the other day, I listened to it as I went for a walk. I was in Annapolis, it was sub-40 degrees, but as I listened, there I was, transported to a warmer Williamsburg, Virginia, circa 1989.

“Free Fallin” put me in The College Delly, jammed in a booth with friends drinking 3-dollar pitchers. Neil Young’s “Comes a Time”: sunbathing at the bottom of a water-less pool. Eric Clapton’s “Promises,” and I found my friend Otis, quoting Hamlet (Not a whit. We defy augury) as we studied Shakespeare. I replayed a specific moment when I heard Marshall Crenshaw’s “There She Goes Again”–I was a freshman, walking from new campus to old, listening (on a walkman) to his album, feeling independent but also a little lonely, when several stunning rays of sun touched down right on the path ahead of me. From that late-teen perspective, I’d felt okay again, believing in something much bigger than my aloneness. The Pretenders “Hymn to Her”: straight line to Heidi, unadulterated misbehaving, dollar meals at Hardee’s.

The songs took me back, yes, but I was well-aware that I was listening from the perspective of a much older person. Whatever loneliness I was feeling back then as a college student, blessed to even be there, spending time alone on a beautiful college campus-—that feeling has been trumped many times over since. I have lost people. We all have.

Music will not bring them back.

I finished my walk with Chrissy Hynde’s hymn and smiled about the timeliness: “She will always carry on. Something is lost. Something is found.” Just like a passage in a favorite book that speaks to us differently as we age, that lyric: I understood its sentiment much more than I ever could have back then.

I cannot get there, to my past, but I can find the soundtracks, as quickly as the sun’s rays can open up something inside of me. I can hear the music while I’m making dinner, dance to it with my kids and my husband. I can loosen up a voice that is sometimes dry and tight with worry, and though it may sound rough, I can sing along and carry on.


2 Comments on “Cassette Me Not”

  1. Jen says:

    Katie–I loved this post. The last box of my most favorite, can’t-bear-to-get-rid-of mixed cassette tapes is sitting on top of my bedroom dresser, waiting to be either turned into digital media or thrown away. I haven’t tried the former and have no plans to do the latter, even if I one day have to pay storage fees. : )
    Jen

    • Katie says:

      Yes, the digital media route. I’ve thought about it. And then I’ve stopped thinking about it! Thanks for reading, Jen!


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