1. My memory of the 1980s regarding mix tapes and taping in general are mixed. Yes I just wrote that.
2. I had a cool rig in 1985 that taped from the radio, and I taped some radio shows, the way you'd listen to Pandora now. Santa Cruz, KUSP, Friday night with Lance "Give Thanks To Lance" Linares. My first tape: a Lee Scratch Perry set complete with rare 45s and the utterly transcendent "Labrish." These are, you understand, tapes; you turn on the radio and hit the button, and then think in 45 minute blocks. I taped a great "British Invasion" set and a Motown set that turned me on to "Give it up Part 1," the Marvin Gaye song that I later played to fill the dance floor. Then in 1986 I moved to San Francisco and made my signature mix "North Star," refined over a few tries. This involved raiding my roommate Lynn's record collection, and doing the gently-lift-needle-and-drop while hitting-tape-button-a-second-later. I called the mix North Star because it had a Darryl Hall song "North Star" on it that I absolutely loved. The opening was pretty cool: North Star, then Peter Gabriel's Here Comes the Flood (I was doing anti-nuclear work at the time, and the song's apocalypse felt way too likely) and then Howard Jones singing "No One Is To Blame." The mix also had some Annie Lennox and some Heads. But that opening was always my favorite because of the way the first two songs connected with each other, and then this total pop song says "Oh and by the way love is its own apocalypse and maybe it shouldn't be." The mix also had "Excellent Birds" (Lori Anderson and Peter Gabriel). And it had War (The Temptations, not Edwin Starr), and some Frankie Goes To Hollywood and a quote from Che.
3. For me mixing that tape was like writing crossed with collage (or more properly, audio collage). Like collage, the edges count. North Star is utterly transcendent, with Hall's voice floating, suspended over the hushed instrumental like an incantation:
The star is unimaginably far away; touch brings us from that distance to its opposite, an intimacy as sublime as the distance of stars. Putting this next to Here Comes the Flood is like taking a passionate, plaintive image of distance and touch, cutting it out as a shape, and then pasting a nuclear and/or environmental apocalypse image next to it. Neither is unaffected; both are heard differently, which is the beauty IMHO of those mixes.
3. So I spent all this time winding and rewinding and plunking down turntable arms and lifting them and hitting stop and record and play and rewind, and when I think back I try to count the hours and it seems like...I don't know, maybe 6 hours a tape minimum? To get one precious tape that I could then copy, and give to friends (Paula, Sigrid, Paxus, that guy from Zagreb). And it was time that felt almost sacred, as if this thing that I was producing was somehow a representation of my Self, or less grandiosely, my musical self and tastes and sense of sequence and progression. North Star gets at my hyper-romantic side, and my political/apocalyptic side, and my poppy and fun side, and my iconoclastic side. Collage self, in a way.
4. And I played the tape a bunch on my Walkman (yes, those headphones, that clunky rig, but man it was righteous to listen to music and ride a bike all over San Francisco). And I took the tape to Europe and gave it away (in Zagreb, in Greece) and later wondered if anyone had copied it and spread it around or used part of it to build on.
5. Now I spend a good deal of time making mixes and burning them onto CD's, and giving them to people. I often gather a bunch of songs together in a big uber-list, then feel for beginnings and progressions, and try out things and eliminate things and replace things. I like the collage feel, and the idea of working quickly and not overthinking a mix, and letting all my rules be more or less tacit. I also like the metaphor of a mix as a kind of letter or poem to an audience. And here is where the High Fidelity link comes in.
6. It is written in Wikipedia: "The high point of traditional mixtape culture was arguably the publication of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity in 1995." I really can't argue with this; I remember reading the novel in the late 90s and LOVING the whole obsessive way the protagonist, Rob Fleming, sets about making a mix tape, often in the context of reaching out to a potential love interest. (Well, pretty exclusively in that context!). In its way the mix tape is a love letter, but a love letter of indirection, the way some Elizabethan courtier might write a sonnet that indirectly gets all of its romantic points across AND deploys clever rhetorical moves and a heightened sense of aesthetic shape in order to more completely underline said romantic points. (When said Elizabethan court poet dies, and the coterie of people who could "read" the double messages were also dead, then we are left simply with the sonnet itself; when Paula and Sigrid and I are dead, no one will know the personal connection of Here Comes the Flood to an 80's sense of nuclear dread. But in each case you have this thing: a mix tape, a sonnet.)
Here is the great paragraph where Rob lays it out:
To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with "Got to Get You Off My Mind", but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs and...oh, there are loads of rules.
Well, yeah. And of course every rule is made to be flouted at some point, and Rob has a way of overthinking everything in his life INCLUDING his mixes (which are never listed in the novel, of course; naming the songs would unduly expose him (and Hornby) to the scorn of...readers like Rob. His reluctance to commit to the woman in his life, Laura, is like his reluctance to commit to a system for arranging his LPs, and his constant anxiety about which songs ought to go in which place in the mix.
7. In the old days, the process of erasing and redoing was (even when a labor of love) a wildly onerous process. Now? I make a mix quickly, shift things around with ease, make versions of versions of mixes so that there are several generations of some (May Bee, Picnic, Reggae Street, SkiSun). And yet...at the end of the day I like burning a mix to a CD, making it an object, even though I know that CDs will most likely go the way of all flesh, digital and analog. I like that Cat has a different version than Claire and that Ribi and Kelsey both have version 2 of a mix I have three other versions of. So, both infinitely editable AND each CD is a kind of commitment to this and not any other sequence. Postmodern and modern; a digital Elizabethan love letter to the world, to one's friends, and a kind of making instead of simply consuming and listening.