Life, One Song at a Time: The Art of the Mixtape

Songs sequenced autobiographically. Too “High Fidelity,” you say?

If you’ve read any of the stuff I’ve written for Crunchable, you already know I’m obsessed with pop music. Divining the art and insight that take place within the three minutes and 34 seconds of the average pop song occupies a major place in my life.

So it should probably come as no surprise that I’m an obsessive maker of mixtapes. And were you to venture down into the confines of my basement home office, you’d find an entire shelf devoted to them. My biographer — if I were vain enough to think I warrant a biography — would probably have a field day trolling through the mixtapes that I made, about four times a year for 16 years, starting around 1985 and ending around 2001.

That shelf, in fact, is my life — frozen in amber and chronicled through pop music, it’s the self that I was from about the age of 15 to around 31, when I got my first computer with a CD-burner and started making CD-mixes instead.

It goes without saying, of course, that all these mixes were made on cassette. That’s the way we all did it, hunched over our cassette decks, fingers poised to the point of repetitive stress over the Record and Pause buttons. The songs chosen with the utmost of care. Because not only were these tapes chronicles of our own lives, cataloging our obsessions of the moment, they were often the way we wooed girls.

All of the tapes were labors of love. To fill up two sides of a 90-minute cassette was a three-hour-long undertaking if you did it correctly. Because these just weren’t cassettes, they were artistic, musical creations. Or they were a gift to the young lady you spied at the other end of the office, the one for whom it took weeks to work up the nerve to ask on a date.

As I was writing this piece, I grabbed a few mixes off my office shelf at random, just to see what memories and emotions they stirred. A few impressions:

1. “You Go Boy, Fall 1997”

I was just out of grad school at Northwestern in the autumn of 1997 and living and working in Winston-Salem, N.C., on the suburban staff of the Winston-Salem Journal. My girlfriend at the time lived in a different state. And I was very much a Northerner living in a Southern town. The sense of culture shock and displacement were palpable.

Some favorites on this one: “One Long Pair of Eyes,” by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians; “Angel on My Bike,” by The Wallflowers; “If My Life Was an Open Book,” by Steve Wynn, and “Nuthin’ But a G-Thang,” by Dr. Dre.

This cassette is followed by one called “Press 1 to Play,” which was made about 14 months later, after I’d moved from North Carolina to suburban Philadelphia. By then, the south had worked its way into my pores and I missed it terribly. There are songs on that latter cassette by a slew of North Carolina bands, including Ben Folds Five, that still make me miss Tobacco Town.

2. “A Winter Love Letter”

Made sometime in January or February 2000. And it was only after I made it that I realized that it was putting a cap on one part of my life and getting ready to move on to another. I never gave it to the person for whom it was intended. At the time, the subtext of the songs fairly screamed “It’s over,” and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

There aren’t really any favorites on this one, as there are songs that just remind me of the sense of pervading sadness and the cold of winter I felt at the time. There’s “Love Circles,” by Squeeze and “You Won’t See Me,” by The Beatles, among others.

3. “Suburban Survival, You Want to Dance Through the Streets”

Made in 1995 and a gift from that girl I spied at the other end of the office. She was a DJ at WNUR-FM, the student radio station at Northwestern University. And, yes, it is no coincidence that I ended up in grad school there about a year later.

She was incredibly cool. And poised. And lovely in a dark Irish way, with an easy laugh. I credit her, in large part, for shaking me out of the torpor I was in at the time. We literally danced through the streets of Hartford on one suffocatingly hot August night in 1995.

We didn’t last. But then, something that burns that brightly and fiercely rarely does. The cassette was filled with songs that, at the time, I’d never heard before, but are now surely as much a part of my emotional topography as any tune I ever discovered on my own.

Some favorites: “Sit Down,” by James; “See a Little Light,” by Bob Mould; “Don’t Go,” by The Hothouse Flowers”; “Stating the Obvious Again,” X-tal (best-ever lyric: “The inquisition has just been canceled for lack of interest.”) and “Ordinary Angels,” by Frente.

This cassette is followed by one called “It’s Cause for Celebration” which the girl gave me about 18 months later as I moved into a new apartment. The title seems ironic — not long afterward, we broke up. And it was years before I could listen to either one.

Next time: “Goodbye Connecticut,” “I Remember New York,” and more.

Article © 2012 by John L. Micek