Sunday, March 13, 2016

on the road again

I used to make these things called "mixtapes." You know what they are. In the early days of transportable music, when the cassette was king, I would meticulously select ninety minutes of music as the soundtrack my travels. Whether it was my brief commute to work or a lengthy drive to the shore, the music was just as important as a packed lunch or even a change of clothes.

Making a mixtape was no simple task. It was more that just a bunch of songs crammed into two sides of a cassette. It was pacing. It was choosing the overall tone or theme of the tape. Which song would kick the whole thing off? Would I include more than one song by the same artist? Would I be listening to it alone? These were important decisions, along with determining the flow of the entire compilation. Proper timing was essential, as well. I had one tape that cut off The Clash's Magnificent Seven just after Joe Strummer delivered the line "Vacuum cleaner sucks up budgie." Unfortunately, every time I hear that song, I expect the same thing to happen and am surprised when the song continues. Then, of course, there was the actual recording process. Coordination of hitting the "record" button while trying to cue up the desired track on an album was a delicate ballet, both physical and aural.

I would make special mixtapes for long trips, like regular family journeys to Florida. Knowing my wife would be in the car changed the contents of mixtapes. With her unusual combined adoration for The Grateful Dead and 60s bubblegum pop, I would always take care to include a few extended hippie jams and at least one appearance of either Hitchin' a Ride or Oh Babe, What Would You Say. I was careful to avoid fast-forward bait like Led Zeppelin or David Bowie (except for Under Pressure, the Thin White Duke's collaboration with Queen. Curiously, Mrs. P disliked and rejected the majority of Queen's own catalog. Go figure?).

As technology progressed, the once-mighty cassette was soon unseated by the compact disc. Although the term "mixtape" stuck, there was no longer any actual tape involved and making them became a whole lot easier. Songs could be collected from any number of sources — your own CD library or a host of websites offering music files to downloaded — legal or otherwise. In the days of Limewire and Napster, music was available everywhere — quickly, conveniently and, best of all, it was free. I had thousands and thousands of songs in the digital mp3 format. I would make CD mixtapes nearly everyday, arranging and rearranging songs in a process that was as easy as dragging and dropping file names into a window on my computer. The CD program even told me how much time remained on my proposed collection, thus eliminating a repeat of the Magnificent Seven incident. I still come across these CDs in my car, usually stuffed under my seat. Every once in while, I'll pop one in to my dashboard CD player. It's like a time capsule of songs that were experiencing popularity for a fleeting period, now quaint and nearly forgotten. It's interesting to trace the progression of my musical tastes. Run-DMC, who made many appearances on early mixtapes, were entirely absent from later volumes abundant with Lyle Lovett and Brian Setzer. Squeeze and Elvis Costello gave way to Wilco and Beck.

My son, a music aficionado from the time he was a pre-teen, eventually took over duties of programming the family's in-car listening experience. His CD mixtapes were the precursor to his chosen profession. He is now a DJ on a Philadelphia radio station. It's cool to know that he honed his skills while hunched over the laptop in his bedroom.

Another victim of advancing technology, the CD has found itself falling out of favor, replaced by the purely electronic medium of the iPod. The "mixtape" was no longer confined to a ninety minute run time. Oh, and the "mixtape" had found itself with a new name — the "playlist." On a recent trip to Florida with my wife, my son and his girlfriend, our music was supplied by merely plugging my son's iPod into an adapter that, in turn, plugged into our 2003 Toyota's cassette deck. Although our car is a lagging a bit in the technology department, the irony is still apparent.

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