Yes, that’s an obligatory reference to Benjamin’s essay on unpacking his library. But it’s a different story, you see.
At some point when I was moving around during my undergrad years, I dumped my entire collection of cassette tapes into a giant box. the kind you put your kitchen dishes into. ALL of them. Immediately prior to that dumping, I can’t say that the tapes were very well organized. There were many unlabelled tapes, and many tapes lived happy lives in the box while separated from their covers. Now, for several years that the collection was in this absurd condition, I continued to use it. For instance, I would listen to tapes in the car as I drove around town or went on road trips.
However, it was the compact disc that dealt the biggest blow to the collection. I stopped acquiring tapes, and curiously, not long after that I stopped recording stuff to tape myself. And so the collection sat, in its giant box. I actually can’t remember where it lived in our tiny Urbana duplex but I think it moved at some point from an “out in the room” phase to an “in the closet” phase. there it lived. When we moved to Pittsburgh, I promised Carrie I’d go through the collection. In the meantime, it sat in a storage room in our basement.
Five years later, as we were moving to Montreal, I again promised Carrie that I would go through the tape box. If we bring it along, I said, I’ll dispatch it in August before school starts. In the meantime, it sat in the living room. It had to. There isn’t a lot of backspace in our apartment. In preparation, we picked up a few shoebox-sized boxes in pretty colors to house the tapes that would survive the purge.
And so the box of tapes sat in the living room until this weekend.
It all started because I wanted to dig out an old tape of one of my former bands. There’s a story behind that, but for another post. In the process, I started going through the tapes. Once I found the tape, I broke off the project and spent the afternoon digitizing the song I was looking for. But having begun the project, it seemed fitting to follow through. Together with Carrie on Sunday morning, I went through a mountain of old tapes. We wrote down the ones we intend to replace on CD(1) and the rest we tossed unceremonially. Since many of these tapes are between 15 and 20 years old, it’s not like they sound good.
Still, there was a lot to keep. For starters, a small segment of my collection was well preserved inside special tape boxes I’d inherited from my brother. They have the 1970s faux-wood on them and everything. These tapes fall into two categories: 1) recordings of bands I’ve been in; 2) bootlegs of bands I liked in the late 1980s. Mostly Pink Floyd and King Crimson. A little Husker Du, though. We kept that stuff, along with anything else that was deemed not replaceable and of some interest. A small collection of tapes of you’ve-never-heard-of-them bands that my you’ve-never-heard-of-them bands played with over the years. Mix tapes from friends. Albums of defunct local bands that I liked. Two tapes that actually contain software programs for the Timex Sinclair Computer. And a pink copy of Led Zeppelin IV, which I think came out during its first run and belonged to my brother. Those three things will wind up in the Museum of Quirky Communication Technologies. I also found a 1990 Paul Wellstone for Senate pin. How cool is that?
There was the pile of unlabelled tapes. And cryptically labelled tapes. Those had to be listened to. Most of them were crap, but there were some gems. Someone had recorded a right wing speech, complete with audience heckling. Sounds good. Keep it. Lots of demo versions of songs from my undergrad days, including alternate arrangments. Kind of cool. Keep em. Carrie’s spoken field notes from her undergrad thesis on striptease. Keep it.
The most freaky tape, though, was a recording of a high school day I made, probably in early 1989 but it could be early 1988. There is no relevant written information. I know it’s winter because I trudge through a snowbank.
It starts with me struggling to get my car started in the morning and goes from there. I could only stand about 10 minutes of it (I skipped around) but I sound like, well, a geeky high school kid. Lots of banter with other kids who are in other rock bands in the school, lots of ironic wit about other people. I seem to have a lot of friends, but I can’t quite place about half the voices. I know it’s Jon York when he says that his father was the first thing he saw in the morning, but I can’t quite tell who’s narrating the story of the student council meeting where Anthony Meyer made a plea for our friend’s Really Weird Band to be included in the winter games battle of the bands.(2) Yeah, ours was a big world full of important things. Like Youth in Government. At one point, I stop by the principal’s office to make sure he gets the list of people who will miss school for it, which of course includes me. The deal is that the voice on the tape is clearly me. But of course it’s also not. That’s how recording has always worked, and yesterday was no different in the grand design. At least I had the decency to edit. there’s a lot of cutting from scene to scene. I think it’s only passing times and so forth, but there may be a class in there.
Needless to say, the tape inspires a feeling of abject horror in me, but I cannot stand to throw it away. I also can’t stand to listen to more of it. Somehow pictures from that time are less disturbing to me.
So it is now stored away with the rest of the collection. There’s always the possibility of using it as source material for granular synthesis or something.
What is most striking to me about this mass of tapes, though, is the continued conviviality to the compact cassette form. Cassettes were easy. They never sounded great, rewinding was boring, and they deteriorated easily, but they were incredibly easy to use. I liked recording, as did my bandmates in high school and college, and so it was a big casual part of our lives. Record practices, record shows. Take the hand held recorder to school for a day and record what it’s like to be a student at my high school, or at least what it’s like to be me in that subject position. Borrow some friends’ instruments and play with the 4-track. Record a speech, record a theatrical scenario my friends and I dream up, record field notes, record meetings, record classes. Record anything I wanted, whenever I felt like it, with little effort.
Somehow, even though it’s all much better sounding and much more powerful, in the process of acquiring, learning and using all this digital recording equipment I now have has turned recording into A Big Deal. It is a A Big Deal to record something at home, to have a home studio, and to make stuff that sounds good. It’s true that I could get some kind of portable digital recorder — which I may do (or I can just borrow a voice recorder from a colleague) — but I was absolutely shocked at how I thought about recording now vs. how I thought about it then. It’s a bigger part of my life, I guess, in that it’s a skill I have. And yet, I do a whole lot less of it than when I was a kid messing around with a tape recorder.
1. And just like that, I’m a record industry statistic. As they run out of baby boomers to replace their vinyl collections on CD (which artificially propped up CD sales in the 1990s), here’s me about to do that for a segment of my tape collection. Of course, most of the really important stuff I had on vinyl, which I still have.
2. A cynic would point out that academic gossip pretty much sounds that same: “we fought for this really good project to get in the collection, but they just wanted crap.” Or “what idiot is programming the conference this year? it seems like they’re edging out critical work.” You know how it goes. . . .