By Robert Burke Warren
originally published in Chronogram
It’s looking at me with two hollow eyes and markings that suggest a down-turned mouth. My attention goes to the window where I see two spools of thin black tape guts. That delicate and decaying strand of innards contains the contents of My Last Mix Tape, circa 2002.
Back in the day I christened my mix tapes with titles like “Disco Dis Way.” “K-tel Kollection,” and “Dumb 70s” but My Last Mix Tape is nameless. Like the final episodes of Seinfeld and The Sopranos, it has its moments, but it doesn’t close an era with a bang. It’s no late 80s mix.
The fidelity on those tapes is, in comparison to mix CDs, muddy and laden with hiss. And yes, analog tape degrades with each playing. But that’s why it’s cool. Because like a person, the mix tape ages and eventually it dies. Perhaps slowly in a damp cardboard box in a basement, or with tragic swiftness on a dashboard in the August sun. But its fragility is part of what makes it precious; its uncontrollable decreasing sound quality is a lesson in the acceptance of loss.
My wife, Holly, wooed me with my first mix tape. Around Valentine’s Day 1987, I was in a van with the Fleshtones, Manhattan-bound after a weekend of gigs. A few days before, Holly had given me a cassette with no table of contents list – titled “Lovey Dovey V Tape” – and I was eager to hear it.
I put it on and out pumped The Long Ryders’ version of NRBQ’s “Want You Bad.” Presto, the shadowy and malodorous interior of the Econoline was uplifted while I connected to my faraway crush.
To everyone’s surprise, Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” culled from a 45 in an old balsawood crate, followed. It caught us off-guard, to say the least. When Prince sang, “I wanna turn you on, turn you out, all night long, make you shout!” the band looked at me with wolfish grins.
“Lovey Dovey V Tape” was an eclectic masterwork that made its own rules. As it played, we were treated to Sylvia’s “Pillow Talk”, The Replacements’ “Valentine,” Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” and more. I proposed not long thereafter.
I also threw myself into making mix tapes and using them to connect to the world.
My relationship with my brother Britt, a bachelor living many states away, was deepened by mix tapes. The first one I tailored for him – “Britt’s Rock Collection” – came from scratchy LPs of bands from our childhood: Queen, Bad Company, Cheap Trick, AC/DC. Visiting him in the late 90s, I saw a box overflowing with worn-out cassettes festooned with my handwriting. He seemed chagrined that I saw his stash, but I couldn’t have been happier about it.
To my surprise, my brother said he knew what was happening in my life by what I put on the tapes, which were like letters bringing us closer.
Eventually he turned into a family man driving a minivan with no cassette deck. But he still needed the audio missives, so in 2002 he bought me a CD duplicator and I converted to digital, eventually foregoing much – but not all – of the analog world.
I’m happy to say “Lovey Dovey V Tape” and many other compilations have survived. Holly and I talk about hooking our tape deck back up to listen to them, but we haven’t gotten around to it. In truth, it’s overwhelming to think about crossing that line, committing to the richness of that treasure trove. But the tapes are there, if stored somewhat thoughtlessly. My Last Mix Tape is a reminder that it’s nice to imagine getting back into listening to the music degrade before our very ears. And it’s good to know that those vanishing paths to and from cherished times and folks are still lovingly encased in flawed technology, to be trod again someday. But not today.