The Tale of the Tape

Lessons from the cassette collection

To paraphrase Sun Tzu, every collection begins with a single purchase.

Looking back at the results of 20-odd years of collecting music reveals a gaping hole between 1983 and 1990. These were the seven years that I was a wool-dyed devotee of … the cassette.

Yep. Tapes. The mini reel-to-reel replacement for the 8-track. I was a serious tape bigot.

I realize that this is where I lose all credibility as a music nerd. Yet, before I hand the editors of The High Hat my secret decoder ring and tin Big Star sheriff’s badge, I just have to say that, for me, vinyl sucked. Let’s face it — records get scratched easily, they need a lot of care (much more than tapes, it seemed), and a bunch of them together weigh more than scrap iron in bulk.

Looking back, I admit that I was short-sighted. Intellectually, I knew that tapes would not last nearly as long as a record, but I found myself wanting to have my music with me, everywhere, all the time. A desire for ubiquity, convenience and sheer laziness combined to mold me into the consumer that I would to become. It occurred to me that, hey, maybe I should just buy records and tape them; however, it is damn near impossible to use a mono tape recorder to get a decent copy of a record through a condenser mic, much less eliminate ambient noise. I tried my best to police the living room while my vinyl copy of Kiss Double Platinum was recording, but a house with four kids in it is hardly RCA Studio B. After several attempts, and repeated efforts to get everyone to be quiet, I gave up. Someone eventually showed me how to use the line-level-out on the family stereo, but the dubs sounded like absolute crap. Ever recorded a stereo LP using a Realistic mono cassette player? Imagine a layer of hiss on top of a layer of hiss, the input mic wrapped in cotton, and sound only coming out of one channel.

Musical bliss would continue to evade me until Sony came out with the invention that would turn my attention to tapes for the next few years, seeing me all the way from middle school through college and into early adulthood: the Walkman.

From 1984 until 1989, much of my idle time was spent hooked up to a pair of headphones. I even made room for Walkman time while on the job, or walking to and from school. My backpack always included at least half a dozen tapes and several fresh batteries. For longer trips, I had a cassette briefcase. Eventually, I would use my Walkman, a Y-cable and a pair of my step-dad’s ill-favored speakers to make my first stereo. Powered speakers made specifically for portable Sony entertainment units would not be far behind.

My accumulation of tapes began in earnest as my level of disposable income rose. Income from paper routes and summer lifeguard jobs went either to Columbia House or to Wal-Mart (or, when I could, weekend trips to Camelot Records). All told, I came into about 400 factory-made tapes, and at least 100 dubs, over a decade.

My cassettes used to hold a place of honor in the abode. I had racks for them, and they were impeccably alphabetized. Now, years later, they inhabit a moldering shipping box marked “2BR” in the garage loft. Well, they were demoted from the second bedroom closet to the attic during the last move, anyway. That is an astonishing southbound trend for something that I used to care for and collect with such vigor. Compact discs have supplanted this part of my collection, but with about 400 or so of these little bits of chromium dioxide security blanket, they hold a place in my personal history that I feel guilty for ignoring. And I do not believe I am alone here. I have heard a few musically oriented associates talk about plumbing the depths of their tape collections.

The roots of my obsessive-collective behavior started somewhere in the early 1980s. The exact date remains sketchy, and the actual first purchases (for the record, Men At Work’s Business As Usual and Adam and the Ants’ Kings of the Wild Frontier) have been lost in the vortex, but it would have been sometime in May of 1983 when this author walked into the Coffeyville, Kansas Wal-Mart to pick this tape out of the stacks (wedged in amongst the Rush, Journey, and Michael Jackson):

Note the “proof of purchase” label. Thankfully, the POP label has gone out of vogue, but it was reasonably good insurance for the days preceding the widespread automation of processing returns. Not that any of my purchases ever made it back to their point of origin, mind you.

Strike that: there is one. The Godfathers, Birth School Work Death.

Now, back to basics:

Seriously, though, this was by the first live band I ever knew personally. I got to hang with them in their practice pad! I thought it was too cool. As far as I know, this was the only New Wave band to emerge from Danville, Illinois. Later, ex-Basics Matt Sigmon and Julie Anderson would move east, get signed, and go on to form a band called Rain People, but they may have sold fewer copies of their only major label release than they did of this demo tape.

Small town tastes can only take you so far, though. I found this out after my high school sweetie gave me a copy of this:

In rural Kansas, songs like “Holiday in Cambodia” and “Kill the Poor” revealed unseen points of view, and not necessarily all merry sunshine. Possession of this tape was cause for a little alarm in my red-state hometown, but not nearly as much as the Jesus and Mary Chain t-shirt I took to wearing during my senior year.

My opinion of the recording has not changed much, either. This is the speed, intelligence, and fury of California hardcore at its apex. Even Black Flag never supplanted the DK’s in my estimation (even during my SST-is-God-Label phase).

I went on to accumulate the rest of the Dead Kennedys’ output, and some other stuff from Alternative Tentacles, all based on this recording. Some of their comps still hold up (particularly the Terminal City Ricochet soundtrack and the Oops! Wrong Stereotype compendium), but the only other bands worth killing after a period of years passed were nomeansno and the Butthole Surfers.

This is the last tape I bought based on buzz I had heard on MTV: Lifes Too Good by the Sugarcubes. (It was somehow available at a Wal-Mart in southeast Kansas.) Why it should suffer a fate unlike the Godfathers is inexplicable. I thought perhaps I was simply not hearing it correctly, but with repeated listens, it would improve.

As it turns out, I discovered that some sources of critical information are full of shit.

But some of them do know shit from shinola.

My SST phase began in earnest following a blown chance to see the Hüskers during their Warehouse tour. I bought a copy of Candy Apple Grey from Columbia House, and a stranger in the student union spotted it and said, “Nuh uh. Go buy Zen Arcade.”

Not long after that came Bad Brains, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, Descendents, Black Flag, and just about anything else bearing the SST label.

This tape was mind-bendingly great. Going to school in Lawrence, Kansas, was a real boon for me. I got introduced to a lot of seminal music, and some semi-seminal stuff as well. “Seminal” is how the Embos were first characterized to me. Thought Wichita is better known for unleashing commercial aircraft and fast food restaurants on the American cultural scene, it also yielded the Embarrassment (and my wife). I did not arrive in Lawrence in time to catch them, nor was I ever exposed in person to the Mortal Micronotz. Despite that, their legends still loom large. This band is about almost to make me want to invent a time machine, though. (You can only get this particular release on tape, although I doubt it is easily gotten these days, even via mail order.)

This was before I figured out that I was not so much a record collector as an avid consumer of music. You know those sorts of people that look for Japanese imports, alternative cuts of albums with deleted tracks, and other sorts of geek chic? Well, this was my initial foray into that realm, which also turned out to be my last. The Butthole Surfers had released an “authorized bootleg” on their Latino Boogerveil imprint, and as you can see, this is cassette 1941 of … I don’t know how many. Maybe 5,000. I had discovered the Butties by way of a mix tape, and I was immediately intrigued. The price tag was pretty high, but I convinced myself that the eventual resale value of the tape would make it worth buying. The only time that these tapes were played was in order to dub them to high-bias. So, after thirty U.S. dollars in 1990, and a few bucks for blanks, my plan ended up with these tapes stuck in a box in the attic, along with all the other tapes I had bought and listened to one time (see also: Nice Strong Arm, Thin White Rope, Tragic Mulatto).

This damn thing was also available on compact disc, but at the time, I had yet to make the jump. Portable players were not then highly available, and they were also a considerable expense. The first CD player that I bought was in 1991, and it was a JVC that set me back $199 before taxes. (This was prior to anti-skip technology, too. Heavy-duty is not an adjective I would apply to that device. It did, however, have an available remote control, which made it perfect for use as a home stereo component.)

I was not eager to rid myself of a number of tapes, even when they were defective. The above is an instance of emergency transplant surgery, necessitated by a slipped pad in its factory cousin. You know that horrible screeching sound that a tape sometimes makes? Someone told me that a misplaced pad can cause that. This tape had done that in spades, but I was not about to get rid of it. Back when I had bought this copy of This is the Voice, I was of the considered opinion that Agent Orange was what the kids today call “the schnizzle.” The rescue operation involved wasting a dubbed copy of some damn thing. I imagine it was something given to me by someone who knew enough about me to know I liked music, but not enough to know what I really liked. (Absent is a copy of a tape by School of Fish that had a dub of the Primus’ Frizzle Fry release dubbed over it. Its absence is mostly likely due to the fact that Primus wore really thin, really fast — but not so fast as School of Fish.)

Sometimes a tape was worth a custom art job if I’d lost or destroyed the inset artwork. Thus this Andy Wilson take on the cover of The Police’s Synchronicity (highlighter pen, Sharpie, and metallic ink on hand-cut 20# bond). This release is also in my collection as an SACD, and I believe that my wife has it on vinyl. We are truly multimedia these days.

As I was sampling my collection to find instances of the care that I used to take with my tapes, I found this: an instance of profound neglect. At least I could match the tape to the inset. Of all the tapes that I culled as part of this little experiment, this is the first that I popped into the tape deck in order to give it a long overdue listen. At the time I bought this, power pop bands were a dime a dozen in the Midwest. This one is a shimmering cut above and worth pulling out of the cut-out bin, should you run across it. Me, I have yet to find it, but I did bring home some Mental As Anything and Gang of Four back-catalog the other day for a respectable $2 per CD. It is not often that I have the patience to root through an entire four racks of deep discount overstock, but when I have it, the gems issue forth. I love the look of astonishment at the Media Play when I bring 30 shrink-wrapped discs to the checkout, and fork over less than $70.

That is my smell of napalm in the morning.

Another bit of carelessness here: the Broken Hinge Syndrome. This used to distress me to no end. Cracked and broken cases needed to be replaced, especially since I had invested the coin in buying them instead of copying them. Usually, it was my dubs that suffered from a lack of enclosure. This is where I started getting lazy. Yet, for sentimental reasons, I doubt that this case will ever be replaced. This tape (the Feelies, The Good Earth) incurred this sort of wear during a particularly difficult life transition in my early 20s.

This was a cassette I had literally stolen from a woman I used to date. Now I have no idea where it is.

That’s called karma.

Whoops. That was supposed to be the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me. It got interchanged with Hoodoo Gurus’ Magna Cum Louder in the all-too-familiar intracity car cassette deck swapperoo.

In the days before peer-to-peer file sharing, and long before Hillary Rosen became a household euphemism for “über-bitch,” we had the forces of corporate America pushing the blank tape tax. This was one of the DK’s better pranks.

This is the last tape I recall getting, and I do not recall ever listening to it. It was a promo from the first Nashville River Stages. Somewhere between Steve Earle & the Dukes and Foo Fighters, this made it into my goodie bag. How it evaded the trash, I am not certain.

This is where the story ends, more or less. In 1991, I took my first Visa, ran out to the electronics store, and got me one of them new-fangled compact disc players and two CDs. One was Minor Threat’s Complete Discography. This was the other: The Minutemen’s Post-Mersh Vol. III. When fIREHOSE came into my life, it was on a cassette copy of if’n, which I wore through like gangbusters. I read some reviews in a Trouser Press guide, and it mentioned the Minutemen, so I wandered over to Streetside Records to see what they had. I held up copies of Double Nickels on the Dime, Post-Mersh Vol. III, and Three Way Tie (for Last). This one won because it had the most tracks. (I acquired the rest of them soon enough, though.)

It is now over 14 years since I bought my first CD, and this is how my living room closet looks:

Sorta. It is not a fledgling collection, by any means. It goes a trifle more than twice as wide and a foot taller than that, actually.

Most people look at this and react in such a way as to say, “Wow, what a frivolous display of consumerism.” But I see the trip that I took to the record store to check something out based on a strong recommendation. I see the songs that kept me company while I was struggling through college. I see my collection having risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the broken relationship that had split it in half (I got to keep all the Minutemen; she took most of the Beatles). I see how my collection about doubled once I brought my record-acquiring wife into the fold. I remember picking out discs to put on indefinite loan to a friend when her entire collection was robbed from her apartment. I see records that I never gave a chance, and I see others with which I could never part. I see the gifts that people were brave enough to have given me, and that really turned me on to something new.

While I haven’t gone the High Fidelity route and sorted my albums autobiographically, I can really see what Nick Hornby is driving at — that the experience of music is the experience of a lifetime lived.