Three Hours With the Anniversary Mix Tape of Twenty Years

tl;dr - I made a mix for an old friend.
  1. I met her in 1994, waiting for Driver’s Ed to start.
    It would be 2 years until I got my license and three before I asked her out, but in between, we became pretty good friends.
  2. At the end of that school year, in 1995, I asked her to sign my copy of the annual lit magazine, as she had writing published inside.
    She handed it back, a book full of empty well wishes and K/I/Ts, and when I flipped to her page to see what she wrote, I saw that she had simply signed her name at the bottom of her poem. The nerve, like I was asking for her autograph or something.
  3. Nevertheless, I was impressed enough with her knowledge of both James Horner and Art Garfunkel that she became the recipient of the first mix tape I made for someone other than myself.
  4. At home in North Carolina, reflecting on what has been now twenty years of friendship, I thought about that first mix tape.
  5. My collection was in its infancy back in the mid-‘90s, so a look at the tape I made for her back then would reveal that far too many selections came from the same album, something that later became forbidden once I acquired more music and began creating “rules” for my mixes.
    I think there were four or five tracks from the Glengarry Glen Ross soundtrack.
  6. Knowing I was going to be back in my hometown for Thanksgiving, I had planned to give her a 20th Anniversary sequel to that original mix; both a retrospective of our shared experiences and just a good collection of music in general.
  7. Apart from my usual never-ending set of rules, I added two that would be unique to this mix: that it would be made on the same brand of cassette as the original, and I would be restricted to use only music I owned on vinyl, so that years and years of digital hoarding couldn’t come into play.
    This way, it would be somewhat similar to the limited selection I pulled from almost twenty years ago.
  8. I worked out the mix on paper, just as I did back then, calculating the track times diagonally on the back of each page in a way that to some might look like a brilliant mathematical equation, but to others would look, because the writing got gradually smaller to fit more on the page, more appropriately like time going down a drain.
    Taking into account that all blank tapes have at least 2 extra minutes tacked onto the end of each side, my 110-minute tape gave me 114 to use.
  9. Still, the initial 142 tracks I selected would have to be pared down—first to 70, then settling on the final 33. An agonizing process, to be sure, but still there was much history in those 33 songs.
  10. There were songs from albums bought from stores long since departed.
    Both Arboria and City Lights in State College were well-represented on this mix.
  11. Some were from albums she bought for me.
    Despite her not really being into Radiohead’s “difficult” period, or really any other Radiohead period for that matter.
  12. Albums I acquired specifically for this mix when I needed a “bridge” between two disparate songs.
    A scratchy Fleetwood Mac B-side earned its way onto the tape thanks to it being the only way to obtain the original vocal mix of one of their greatest songs.
  13. The tracklist now locked, I started to line up the records, so I could pull them in sequence.
  14. But as I sat on the floor in my makeshift studio/kitchen in North Carolina, Side A’s records leaning against the left speaker and Side B’s on the right, I realized that something was missing.
  15. I could make a pretty good mix tape from anywhere, but with the importance I’d placed on this one in particular, I knew I’d have to create a third rule, a big one.
  16. There was no way I could make this tape anywhere but back home in Altoona, PA.
  17. My original recording setup was a hodgepodge of my dad’s yard sale finds, so nothing matched at all.
    Of the five components, none of them were the same brand, everything but the CD player dating from 1973-1986 (despite its relative youth, the Sony CD player proved to be just as faulty as the rest, scarfing down many a compact disc).
  18. Separately, they were junk that my dad might have wanted to use for parts later. Together, and I don’t mean to overstate this, they were my second family.
    While my friends were at parties in high school, I was testing out RCA cables and going through a bit of an equalizer phase.
  19. When I thought about making a return trip to Altoona for this milestone mix, I had wanted to use as much of that original gear as possible. But, as I said, when I was using it in the mid-to-late ‘90s, it was already one step from the landfill, and the intervening years had not been kind to these key elements of my musical youth.
    I had returned each piece to my dad when I left for California in 2006, my attempt at becoming more matrimonially desirable, and in my excitement to settle down, apparently neglected to mention that I would one day be back to reclaim them all for the Shaunsonian.
  20. The quadraphonic Panasonic receiver was junked by my dad almost immediately, it being the oldest and most weathered of the bunch, what with its rusty volume knobs that crackled as you turned them up or down, and displays that were partially burnt-out.
    Years later, as my wife’s interest in me waned and her acceptance of my hobbies grew, I tracked down an exact replica of this receiver on eBay. My initial nostalgic excitement wore off pretty quickly, unfortunately. Not so much due to a divorce that started shortly after plugging it all in, but because this model was too clean and flawless.
  21. Hauling my more portable turntable, along with a crate of records and the old equalizer (something I got back before losing interest in the replica receiver), I picked up my dad’s old tape deck and quickly set up shop in my old room.
    A lot had changed in here since moving out years ago, my would-be den of sexual iniquity converting into a pillow-filled room for first a granddaughter, then a grandson. All the traces of my teenage life that had been washed away and painted over were slowly being rebuilt, just after midnight on the day after Thanksgiving.
  22. To hold all the gear, I employed a flat-top chest in place of my old desk, which had been on its literal last legs since even before it died its awful death at my first apartment.
    Weighted down as it was over the years by a mini TV, five other audio/video components, and drawers packed with CDs and unsent love notes.
  23. I unpacked the crate, setting up the same A & B sides to my left and right for easy picking. After a quick check of the levels, the tape began to roll on my first actual mix tape since 1998, just before the advent of the CD burner.
  24. When making a good mix, it’s my belief that you should never mirror the running order of the album you’ve pulled a track from.
    For example, you can’t make your Side 1, Track 1 the first track from that album. You already know it works as a Track 1; that’s why the band put it there. The whole point of a mix is to showcase songs by other people that you hope the recipient will love, but it’s the order and the flow that’s unique to you. If Track 7 could be a sneaky Side 1, Track 1, you go for it.
  25. I was a bit rusty at first, but about a third of the way through Side A, I was pausing milliseconds before catching the beginning of the next song, and remembering that I had to wait until a song had recorded cleanly before marking it down on the track list.
  26. Another thing I hadn’t thought about when deciding to make this mix on a tape, forgetting the road trip nature of its eventual creation, was the time involved.
    Back then, if you wanted to make someone a mix tape, you had to sit there for the duration of the tape, just in case something went wrong (and it often did). Now you can just hit a few buttons and a mix is done in seconds.
  27. Though I couldn’t imagine cutting any more songs, I did regret the exactitude of my nostalgia.
    When I took my headphones off and stood from the floor at various intervals during the recording, I don’t know if the creaking sound was from my knees or the spinning of the old tape deck.
  28. I had worked and re-worked the tracks for weeks and months beforehand, always in fragmented form, so listening to the mix play back live before me, despite my oldness, was a welcome journey through the past.
  29. There was music both old and new, featuring deeply felt in-jokes.
    My original mix from twenty years ago used a recording of an obscure bit of “Carmina Burana,” but not the Harve Presnell version she preferred, something she continues to bring up to this day and a flaw I rectified at great cost for this mix via eBay.
  30. Songs that sound right on any mix tape.
    The Motels’ “Only The Lonely,” from a mint condition record I got for one dollar at a hair salon, of all places.
  31. Songs that soundtracked the genesis of our relationship...
    She introduced me to Cat Stevens and I introduced her to Oscar Peterson.
  32. ...and songs I hadn’t given her during our periods of post-dating malaise and marriage-enforced estrangement.
    Discoveries like Elbow, Liam Finn, and others.
  33. Finishing up the last track, a hidden one, just after 3:00 in the morning, any ideas I may have had about turning back the clock weren’t entirely realistic.
  34. At that time of night, I felt every bit of those twenty years older since we first met.
  35. I was cognizant of the fact that my son was sleeping soundly in the next room.
  36. I knew that if I turned around, I wouldn’t see a floor full of music magazines and posters on the wall for movies like Brainstorm and Matinee.
    My floor as a teenager was almost exclusively littered with issues of Film Score Monthly and CMJ.
  37. If I so desired, I could view long-lensed paparazzi shots of Elizabeth Hurley in an instant and without a seventeen-minute dial-up wait that still would have been completely worth it.
    Elizabeth Hurley is likely the reason why I still believe in the power of the full-on triangle.
  38. But, just as that original mix was deeply flawed, a product of my limited collection, this mix was a grand reflection of all I have learned in those twenty years.
  39. Of the 142 tracks I started with originally, the 33 that took the journey home with me weren’t necessarily the best.
  40. In fact, I even left in a Tangerine Dream track that had a bit of a skip in it, which could be seen as a comment on the failings of our advancing age, but mostly it was to make sure she actually listened that far into Side B.
  41. And I hope she does.
  42. It’s a good mix.
  43. Happy 20 years, old friend.