It’s a story you’re burning to tell. A story of new love and devastating heartbreak, fresh beginnings and super-sad endings, feeling alone—and then knowing all your pals will celebrate your shared cauldron of delectable song stew you’ve labored over for hours—weeks, even—to get just the right flavor, order and mix-tape special sauce.
All it took was a single (but mighty) speaker and a tape recorder—possibly even handheld—and the all-important element of anticipation and endless patience. And of course, the tape. That mod pink/yellow/green Memorex was calling our name.
Like most electronic games in the ‘80s, if you screwed up, you’d have to start all over again.
Some of you think that streaming is all that for one reason and one reason only: It’s easy. Just slap a playlist together and give it a name. “Tyler’s Tuesday” or “Lisa’s Lying in Bed.”
Try the “Songs for the End of the World (When Morrissey’s Not Depressing Enough)” and the always esoteric option “NYC Buildings Are Very Tall (And Not All that Opposing)”—mood boards for frustrated, aspiring Jim Carroll wannabes. It’s likely the only place Tiffany and Ronnie James Dio could exist in perfect harmony—so long as they were at least 45 minutes apart.
The Who had Tommy, Pink Floyd had The Wall. You will have “School Dayze (If Dayze are but a construct mere mortals can prescribe to)” or “Bacon is the Fruit of Our Love…and Our Love is Sweet and Crispy.”
Concept comes first, but order is everything. The first song sets the tone. Will you steal famous firsts—“Welcome to the Jungle”, “More Than a Feeling”, “Runnin’ With the Devil”, “Immigrant Song”—or will you go rogue? Keep in mind, to pursue this authentically, you have no idea how long these songs are. You are guessing based on memory and you’ll be totally psyched when it all works out. Maybe there’s minutes to spare, maybe you’ll cut off a song right at its ripping guitar solo, but by golly, it’s all part of the story.
To do this right, you can’t have any special equipment or serious sound quality. Moreover, you don’t own these songs until they’re “borrowed.” So sometimes, you’d literally sit on shag carpeting for hours on end listening to your favorite rock station until that song came on—if it wasn’t announced, you’d better know the intro—and capture it just in freaking time to complete this epic tale. Everything is hanging in the balance here. You’d better hit “record” at just the right time, or else you’ll have to start all over, sister. Keep that finger on the record button. Don’t move that finger. Do not move that finger.
The result is your opus. If Orpheus can descend into the underworld to claim his one true love, you can listen to that Top 40 countdown for a few hours to capture one cherished tune.
And then, you start all over again.
How you decorate and identify your liner notes will be your calling card. Are you a cryptic minimalist or will you paint a one-off original? Perhaps a themed collage or words and images only you and the recipient will understand.
If you are giving, you may wish to drop in a mailbox or locker, because handing it over in person demolishes discovery and surprise. If you are receiving—oh, lucky you. You won’t care the DJ is talking over the intro to some of the songs. You won’t even hear the clunk-clunk of the recording starting and stopping. Every song—no matter how improbably—relates to the one before and the one after, a musical journey only the two of you will understand.
You will play this over and over and over and over. And over and over again.
Slick streamers think they “build” a playlist. But you know Rome wasn’t built in a day? Because it was epic. It was art. It was history. How can something that sounded so bad feel so damn good? Because the inconsistency, the genre-mixings, the cut-offs and the cut-ins, they all had something streaming will never have: heart and soul. It was work and the work was worth it. Those grinding cassette wheels carried it all: the stories of our lives.