Moving Music

The nostalgia of cassette tapes and why I just can't quit 'em

Feb 4, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Recently, I left my hometown of Cincinnati for Northern Kentucky. I’ll spare you the slight melancholic feelings I’ve felt leaving the city in which I was born and spent 95 percent of my life. Suffice to say, I’ll miss voting in Ohio. And I won’t miss Cincycentric things like Simon Leis, the CCV and Time Warner Cable.

The move itself was far more traumatic. Besides the ridiculously steep mountain that is my driveway, I had to make the usual moving-day decisions of what to get rid of. I never considered myself a “pack rat” until moving day.

The vast majority of my crap is music-related. Posters, music equipment, stereo equipment and so on. And then there is the actual music itself. I have resisted the Big Conversion (sorry, digital TV info spreaders) — turning all my music into digital files and parting ways with the physical packaging. I have an oldfogey notion that no matter how much backing up I do, there still exists the chance that I will lose all of the files (Y2K10?), which equates to 30 years of music accumulation. As my colleague Brian Baker says, “The CDs, records and tapes are the back-ups.”

But I still wanted to pare down. I am at least considering storing all of my CD cases and putting all of the discs into books. Due to losing a lot of my vinyl over the past couple of decades — to divorce, need for quick cash and spilled beer — I only have about a crate and a half of “records.” They look a little like antiques arranged on a shelf in my new house, right next to the record player. It’s kind of like what having a Victrola in your living room was 30 years ago — mostly a decoration. Though I do dust it off from time to time to revel in the crackle and warmth.

My biggest dilemma when it came to what not to bring was with my cassette tapes. I realized it was a format dead in retail; in a few years, I’m sure electronics manufacturers won’t make “cassette players” (if they even still do). I have a tape player in my car and on a couple of boomboxes. I rarely use them.

But there was something about those two big dusty boxes of cassettes that wouldn’t let me quit ’em.

Rummaging through the two egg crates full of tapes, I realized that they were like old photos for me. Not every cassette triggered a flashback — I swear I have no idea how the Poison and Bel Biv Devoe tapes got in there — but the majority of them took me back to the times when I acquired them.

I’ve never really had a mixtape girlfriend, but I have several tapes given to me by friends. There’s the Doors collection my junior-high buddy made me (with his carefully crafted Doors logo on the spine). There’s the mix my foreign-exchange “brother” gave me, with everything from AC/DC to French band Telephone on it. Just seeing those, I’m taken back to being a 13-year-old, blaring my Walkman on the school bus and being a lonely kid totally absorbed in all things music.

I have some old promo tapes from when I started writing (that was the main way record labels would send out advances of albums to be reviewed). I have an old Fishbone promo from an album I barely remember, as well as the advance of Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, which is actually labeled with the title Nothing Lasts.

Those tapes take me back to my early years of music writing, grabbing everything I could from the old weekly newspaper where I worked. It makes me think of that office — where we actually were allowed to smoke cigarettes at our desks — and all my funny, amazing coworkers. And it makes me remember those first awkward phone interviews I did with Rock Stars, Rock Stars-to-be and short-lived-Rock Stars-long-forgotten.

I have some great old local tapes as well, by bands like Borgia Popes, Sinker, Beel Jak (which featured Jeremy of The Sundresses, though he seems a bit embarrassed about it now) and a Dayton band called The Killjoys, which I later discovered featured drummer Jim McPherson, who went on to play with The Breeders and Guided By Voices.

Some of the tapes would actually probably get me on Antiques Roadshow. I’ve got Joan Jett’s I Love Rock and Roll album from the early ’80s, which I swiped from my dad’s collection, as well as a Deep Purple greatest hits album (also swiped — sorry, Dad!) that has that red-lined generic spine that all the tapes in Columbia House’s “25 Cassettes for a Penny!” deal always had. I think my credit report is still screwed up from taking the 25 tapes and never buying anything else.

I even have the first tape I ever remember purchasing — The English Beat’s I Just Can’t Stop It. Seeing that thing reminds me of Swallen’s (an old warehouse store near my house) and the time I passed my headphones around the school bus to see if, according to my theory, no one could listen to it without tapping their foot. It also reminds me of an old pal who used to come over and spend the night at my house. We’d put that on (as well as some old Police tapes) and pretend my parents’ couch was a stage while we lip-synched along with the music.

I don’t have any photos from these times in my life. I only have my memories. And my tapes. Despite my wife’s protestation (she’s moved so much, she sheds belongings like most people get rid of old socks), I’m keeping ’em.

One day, when my daughter puts me in an old folks home, I won’t have a photo album to pull out and reminisce. But I’ll definitely be telling her to bring the old “tape box.” And then, oh, the stories I’ll tell.