Where I Am Now

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Clever observers, or those few who continued to follow this blog that I started way back in a previous life, may have noticed that it’s been nearly a year since I posted anything. The place for random screeds that I started back in 2002, back when blogs were where the internet was at, certainly served its purpose for many years. And I can’t say that sometime in the future I won’t be back to a place where I’m up for sharing boring minutiae of my daily life – of course, that’s the purpose Facebook serves for most of us these days – so I won’t be closing this out.

But I am up to something new, and it’s just as minutiae-filled: I’m going through my record collection, album by album (perhaps in something like alphabetical order, perhaps not), and talking about my memories of the albums themselves, the music, the places I bought them — everything that served as a huge and enjoyable distraction in my early years. So, it’s called Vinyl Distractions. The full articles are there. There’s an obligatory associated Instagram account, of course. There’s even a Twitter feed.

Sometimes it will stick to the music in question, but I can’t promise that it won’t ramble off into memories of old department stores, chemistry sets, and running up the walls of police stations. That’s what happened when I talked about ABBA’s Greatest Hits.

So, meet me over there.

Or, if you’re one of my historically minded friends, keep on following me at Hoxsie!, which, although somewhat slowed down, has not stopped and will continue until the end of time, as far as I can tell.

Repeat Performance, At Last

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Repeat Performance poster.jpgFinally got to see 1947’s “Repeat Performance” this week after several decades. Ten years ago (ten!) I wrote about my frustration in even figuring out the name of this old piece of noir. I last saw it when it featured on some cable channel somewhere in the mid-1980s, and while I often don’t remember a lot of plot points of films, some particular features of this one always stuck with me. In particular, I’d been interested in seeing it again because it was a New Year’s Eve movie, and there just aren’t a lot of films that take that as a topic (other than “The Apartment”). Figuring out its name didn’t turn out to be a total help at the time, because it wasn’t available anymore on VHS, wasn’t available yet on DVD, and streaming wasn’t a thing. Periodic searches through the years turned up nothing except the occasional bootleg that appeared to have actually been shot off a television screen. Still, it was eligible to be added to my Amazon Prime list even though it didn’t really exist — and then, suddenly, it did! So we had to watch it before it disappeared from our life again.

It stars Joan Leslie as a young stage actress who became a star in a vehicle written by the man who would become her husband, played by Louis Hayward. The movie begins with her shooting her wayward husband, who has been having an affair with the woman who wrote Leslie’s current starring vehicle. Fleeing the scene she finds her friend, a charming young poet played by Richard Basehart, in a role that otherwise would have belonged to David Wayne. As they try to get to someone they think will know what to do, she wishes she had the whole year to do over again. With no explanation, she gets her wish.

I was a little disappointed that one of my key memory points about the film, a fact that I had carried ever since I saw it in the mid-’80s, was, in fact, wrong. I recalled that the poet Basehart played was offered a bound volume of his poetry, with morocco endpapers. Always thought he was specific about the endpapers. Turns out, he was offered a volume on vellum, morocco-bound. The morocco was on the binding, not the endpapers. Most likely my brain confused morocco with marbled end papers. Why this change in detail disappoints me, it’s hard to say. Perhaps it was the idea that someone cared about how his endpapers looked.

It is a perfectly fine film for its time — not the best of its kind, but far from the worst. Plenty of scenery is chewed, but we expect that from this kind of affair. If you’re a fan of love triangle murder almost-mysteries, build-ups to inevitable fate, or what may be the thinnest mustache ever filmed (on Tom Conway), you’re probably into this. Also, to show the passing of time they used a theater marquis instead of falling pages from a calendar, an invention I appreciated.

Was this as good as most things you wait 30 years for? Yes, pretty much: exactly what I thought it would be, no better nor worse an experience than any other.


When everything is possible, nothing is amazing

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When Everything is PossibleWe recently put up a new poster in the back bathroom, a gorgeous bit of work from Hatch Show Print made for the 2016 edition of Blobfest, our town’s wonderful, crazy celebration of the early Steve McQueen movie that was filmed right here in Phoenixville. To add to the sprucing up, my wife bought a new rug for the room, put it down, and declared that it really tied the room together. And so it did.

And then I thought, you know what would really tie the room together? If the poster were the rug. If that great image  (and, sorry, I don’t have a good capture of it) of a sleek alieness (now a word) were reproduced into a mat — that would be pretty cool.

And then I was dismayed by how very, very simple that would actually be. Time was, if you wanted some kind of a custom image woven into a rug, you had to find someone who knew how to do custom work, have them plan it out and figure where to put what colors of thread, and pull the whole thing together. There would probably be graph paper, and some attempt to render a piece of art with some cool continuous tones and smooth ink lines into a medium that, in its own way, resembles pixels, because in a rug you can only have one tuft of one color of yarn occupy a space, and you’re stuck with a rectilinear grid. It would be crazy expensive, and a lot of work. If such a thing existed, it would be amazing. Similarly, to get an image custom woven into a normal fabric pattern (not a tufted rug) would be even more complicated, and it would be less likely you could find someone with the capability. So if such a thing really existed, it would be fantastic, just for its rarity.

Of course, today, you just go to a custom rugmaker on the web, and send them a digital art file. They run it through some software that tells the machinery what to do, and for a couple of hundred dollars, you have a rug. The only real effort was the effort of the original designer – everything else was figured out by computers.

So, ten years ago, if I had walked into the back bathroom and found a custom rug version of the Blobfest poster, I’d have been blown away. That would have been really amazing. But now, now that it’s eminently possible, it’s just not that amazing.

I feel the same way about digital imaging, especially CGI in movies. Now that anything you can think of can be rendered with some level of believability, sometimes seeing those imagined worlds or impossible feats just doesn’t seem like anything. Look back at a movie like “The Blues Brothers,” and think that every single police car crash (and they were legion) actually happened. That’s impressive. Today, they’d all be CGI’d, and not really mean anything. The effort isn’t in the act, and while the artists creating these worlds are extremely talented, and they’re able to bring things to screen that might not even be possible with practical effects, somehow it’s just not . . . amazing.

The Impersistence of Memory

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Tarantula by Bob DylanHave you ever been annoyed by a detail in your memory, a detail that by its very presence tells you that something in your memory is wrong or incomplete?

Not to even get into what science tells us about the tremendous fallibility of memory and our lack of understanding of its very construct, but sometimes I’ve got a very complete memory in my head, associated with something very specific, and yet I know that it has to be wrong in some way.

This one was spurred by my attempts, as a very late-starting piano student, to learn the Rolling Stones song “Angie.” (Pretty simple, simply pretty, and highly recommended.) But that brought back memories of the album it came from, “Goats Head Soup,” which was the big release for the Stones when I was going into eighth grade. My memory only tangentially involves the album, however.

I’m in the eighth grade lunchroom, which was just sort of a multi-purpose room with tables and chairs. I’m talking with a kid named Mark. I kinda liked Mark but I had the sense that he basically tolerated me, so friends would not be the word. He has a copy of “Goats Head Soup.” Why? I’m not sure . . . perhaps for a record report? That was a thing we had to do in our junior high music classes. A couple of times a year we had to bring in a record and pick a particular song to analyze, mostly focusing on the mechanics of the song: time, verse structure, beats per minute. Maybe we talked about the lyrics. That would be a reason to have an album in school; I can’t think of another. But I don’t think the album was our main topic of conversation.

Proving how faulty memory can be: this lunchroom scene could be at either end of a thread. I think it’s the first end. I think that in order to have something musical to relate, I’m expounding the virtues of a book I’ve been reading. That book is “Tarantula,” a book of prose poetry (to be kind) written by Bob Dylan. While the material was several years old, it had only been officially published in 1971, and in one of those weird surprises that libraries sometimes offer disaffected teens, the Scotia Public Library, the squarest little library in the world, had a copy of Tarantula on the shelves. I borrowed it, probably many times. I read it, definitely many times. I thought it was brilliant. I was 13.

“Tarantula” is stream of consciousness writing — not such a stretch for Dylan, given his lyrical tendencies. But what works in song, where music, rhythm and spaces can give meaning to the most nonsensical words, doesn’t necessarily work in print. You could say this work owes something to the Beats; an apology, possibly.

“aretha with no goals, eternally single & one step soft of heaven/ let it be understood that she owns this melody along with her emotional diplomats & her earth & her musical secrets the censor in a twelve wheel drive semi stopping in for donuts & pinching the waitress/ he likes his women raw & with syrup/ he has his mind set on becoming a famous soldier  manuscript nitemare of cut throat high & low & behold the prophesying blind allegiance to law fox, monthly cupid & the intoxicating ghosts of dogma …”

In my defense I can only offer that I was 13 and profoundly miserable. It sounded brilliant to my unformed brain.

So in the first version of this memory, I relate the brilliance of this epic to Mark. It’s even possible I have the library copy with me, that I’m reading it at lunch. And he is at least interested, if not intrigued, and later undertakes to read it himself and provide me with his review in a locker-side conversation days, weeks, months later.

In the second version, I have already related the brilliance of this slim volume of nonsense (and please understand that at this age I own exactly zero songs by Bob Dylan), and Mark has dutifully investigated the passions of another music fan, and he is now pronouncing his verdict. Whether at the lunch table or at his locker, the verdict is the same — delivered with the disdain that only a 13-year-old can really fully muster, he informs me that “Tarantula” is horseshit, delivering with it the implication that my opinion on pretty much anything else in the universe is to be disregarded in the future.

That’s not unreasonable, by the way. Today, I view it this way: Mark was certainly smarter and more discerning about the fact the book was horseshit. On the other hand, when you’re 13, you’re supposed to love things that will turn out to be totally ridiculous later, to have things that speak to you in ways you can’t articulate then and are mystified by in later years. So it’s my hope that he had that experience, too, even if it wasn’t with this book. I don’t want to think that someone couldn’t be passionate about something stupid in junior high school.

But here’s the problem with this entire memory, the nagging point that makes me question everything: I didn’t eat lunch in the eighth grade lunchroom. I was a walker, walked home every day for lunch. I wasn’t eligible to eat in the lunchroom, and even had I wanted to, I don’t believe they actually served lunch there; I think you had to bring your own. So . . . was there some other reason I would have been there? Other than the monthly teen dances (as far as I know, still called “Teen Town” to this day, despite how desperately square that sounded even in the ‘70s), I can’t think of a reason I would have been there. We didn’t have classes there. Study hall didn’t exist. We didn’t normally sit around with record albums and library books there. So I can’t come up with a construct that makes any sense for why I would have been there.

What part of this memory didn’t happen? An optimistic mind would have it be the part where I read “Tarantula.” Several times.

My favorite Christmas ornament

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We have had a lot of Christmas ornaments over the years – bought, given, inherited, made by children. Every year, there’s the process of deciding if we really want to keep all the ornaments that have accumulated in the boxes, which would easily overwhelm any tree and which certain would drag our new pencil tree, designed for our narrow urban space, down to the ground. So each year we part with a few that no longer have any particular value and hope not to acquire too many more. It’s a little process that lets us think about and appreciate each one and remember what it means. But being who I am, the one that means the most to me, or at least that I will never part with, isn’t a Christmas ornament at all, really. We’ve had it as long as I can remember even putting up any kind of Christmas decoration, and it’s been on the tree every year. It’s our weather brick.

I don’t even remember where I got it, other than that it was when I was typesetting for a living. It’s possible we were tasked with typesetting new cards (though I know from looking at it that that’s not my work.) In any event, the weather brick was a “public service” of the Empire State Masonry Institute in Syracuse. It’s a very small brick, about an inch and a half long. You can see from the instructions how it works. It’s the dumbest thing ever, and the dumbest joke ever. I just love it. While the instructions indicate you can use any brick or block to observe the weather, we find that having one that was intended for just this purpose works best. And thus is occupies an honored place on our Christmas tree.

Holiday travel

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Boy, there was a time when it was simple … our families were all pretty much in one place, and there was no traveling for the holidays. Dealing with the Thruway between exits 23 and 25 was about as stressful as the traveling got. (Although, for a while, there always seemed to be a meeting I simply had to attend in NYC the day before Thanksgiving; that was not appreciated.) Now, most of our families are still all in one place, but we’re not in that place, and neither is one of the daughters. So when the holidays happen, travel is mandated. Even by normal holiday standards, this one was heavy on the travel, and we put about 1160 miles on the car in five days. Of course, that wasn’t in a straight line — that was up to Troy, over to Worcester, a slide or two or three to Schenectady, back to Worcester, back to Troy, and finally back home to Phoenixville, where we deeply appreciate our walkable lifestyle. But if it had been in a straight line – well, it would have taken us farther north than I’ve been, beyond James Bay (where I have been). A tilt to the east would have taken us well into Newfoundland. Due east would have sunk us in the ocean, though to the south we’d have reached Cuba. To the west, we’d have reached Nebraska. So, that’s some miles.

Despite the miles and hours in the car, we got to spend some good time with family, and good time with not-family. For a number of years we have enjoyed a tradition created by some wonderful friends who host a host of people for Thanksgiving in the woods – once you think about it, it seems like the only thing that makes sense. A hundred or more people hike a half-mile into a space in the woods where a core of volunteers has organized a wonderful little space for us all to break bread together. We sing in something that in no way resembles a circle, we eat in the open, we gather around the fires and sing some more. Some years are coldish, some years are colder, some years it snows. We stay until our feet are cold and then we hike on out, lungs full of fresh cold air and ready for a significant nap. It’s wonderful.

Another great tradition for this holiday weekend is to spend as much time as possible in Troy, and it was particularly satisfying to see so many, many people shopping downtown on Small Business Saturday. Had we remained in the Capital District, there is little question we would have tried to end up in Troy, and we’re so glad to see it continuing to grow. There is an unmatched variety of shops in the Collar City, and it’s entirely possible to do ALL your Christmas shopping at the shops and the Farmer’s Market, and in so doing you’ll come up with things you would never have thought of giving. This Sunday is the 35th Victorian Stroll, so if you haven’t been to Troy recently, and you want to see it dressed in its most charming clothes, this is your chance.

Not Static At All

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When you were a kid, didn’t you think life was just static after a certain point, that grown-ups just became grown-ups and that was that? Crazy that that child’s perception of time can carry with you for ever.

If there was anything about my perception of the world as a child or teenager that was just flat out wrong, it was that sense that adult lives are sure, stable, boring. I don’t think I was alone in thinking that once people got to a certain age, married, had kids, and were all settled in at their jobs-for-life, it was just a slow trudge to the grave (a trudge that, like any right-thinking teen rebel, I wanted no part in). And certainly there were examples close at hand of people who just existed in the same way, day to day, year to year, not changing, not growing, just getting by. I wondered how they could tell the years apart. My great grandmother, widowed at 69, lived on another 34 years; other than the last 10 when dementia took hold, her days hardly differed, doing the Jumble and watching TV, making pies in season, not doing much else. Others in the family lived much the same lives. My parents, the adults whose lives I should have had the most insight into, just seemed to be taking each day just like the last. They had worked for the same employers forever (it seemed), and always would. While they poured massive effort into renovating our house, there wasn’t anything going on in the outside world that they were involved with. It all just seemed like it had always been and always would be the same.

Time grants us the gift of perspective. What appeared then to be a life of (boring) stability from a child’s perspective was really just a brief period for those adults. Rearing children is constant change in itself. There was drama aplenty —anxiety about jobs, worries about money. There was drinking and infidelity. Friends and family died on them. It simply couldn’t have been as stable day-to-day as I perceived it. I was a kid; what did I know?

But it also can’t have been the constant progression I’ve experienced as an adult. I had a long stable period, too, where I was at a single job for nearly 10 years. But even in that stability, mixed in with all the challenging tasks of rearing children, there were new things to take on, new sports and arts to figure out. And after that long stable period was the most hugely unstable period of my life, at least financially. I had to point myself in a new direction and row like crazy to make shore.  Life changing events continued apace – deaths of friends and family, cancer, changing jobs and finally changing cities. Even in the last couple of years, there have been some serious new challenges. It honestly feels like my life has been nonstop change rather than nonstop doldrums. It’s a little exhausting.

As I get older I wonder more and more what of my parents’ lives I really saw, and how much I understood. Do we ever solve that mystery? Can I possibly be as much of a mystery to my children as my parents are to me? (I’m gonna have to say no.) I’m less engaged in most of the old hurts (and yet . . .) and more able to really just wonder what their lives were all about, and what it was like to have led them.


Five Typefaces That Ruined the ’70s

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apple's way game boxThe other day someone in one of the Facebook groups I belong to decided to post this odd bit of ephemera (if a board game can be considered such) from a short-lived TV series called “Apple’s Way,” a production by Earl Hamner Jr. of “The Waltons” fame. I have zero recollection of the show other than that it existed; nevertheless it set the match to an anger kindling deep inside me, as I again remember how the typeface Bookman Swash ruined the ‘70s. And it wasn’t the only typeface that deserves some of the blame for everything bad that happened in that mixed-up decade.

Let’s be clear: there are no bad typefaces (okay, well, there are some). But there are bad applications of typefaces, and there are trends of overuse of certain typefaces. In an age when the universe of people with access to type was vastly more limited, and when there was only a handful of foundries producing new designs for the very select machines that were available for setting type in the cold type days, designers had comparatively fewer options than today. They also seemed to be quicker to pick up trends, some might say to copy, and for someone who was actively setting type in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it is often possible to date a piece of printing within a year or two just by looking at the typeface.

Some typefaces (I haven’t yet given up on the distinction between a typeface and a font, which is a typeface in a particular point size, a lost battle though that is) were used so much, and often in such inappropriate applications, that it’s fair to say that they characterized the ‘70s, and not in a good way. Each of these five typefaces was extensively used by the laziest of copycat designers, and really helped to ruin the ‘70s.

Bookman Swash character sheetBookman Swash

Bookman is a venerable, readable, simple oldstyle face, not particularly suited for text but useable for advertising and trade printing. While it goes back into the 1800s, it first went by the name Bookman in 1903, released by American Type Founders. But in 1975, International Typeface Corporation (ITC), as part of a general campaign of ruining classic typefaces by “updating” them into sometimes horrible revisions that satisfied the modern desire for fatter characters and higher x-heights, had designer Edward Benguiat design ITC Bookman. And with that, came Bookman Swash.

Now, it appears there had been swashes for Bookman before — but in the hot type days, selecting an alternate character was difficult work and a deliberate choice. They rarely bothered anyone, because you could really only use them for titles. In the early phototypesetting days, they were still hard to access and limited in use. But around the time of this redesign, phototypesetters were getting vastly more sophisticated, even computerized to some extent, and choosing alternate characters and ligatures was getting easier, letting designers start to make some horrible choices. Some weren’t afraid to ask the question, “What if EVERY character had a swash?!” The answer: you’ll be living in the unreadable ‘70s.

bookman sampleIt was meant to imply something homey, old-fashioned, and comfortable, and there was a weird fad for the old-fashioned in the ‘70s, so it fit right in. I don’t know if this example is something that was actually produced, but it shows what happens when you decide to have your type say “HEY LOOK AT ME” instead of conveying the message it’s supposed to.

Mary_Tyler_Moore_Show_title_cardPeignot Bold

On the one hand, you know this ubiquitous typeface from the Mary Tyler Moore Show titles, a perfectly effective and appropriate use. On the other hand, we had local convenience/dairy chain Stewarts using it as a text face, which it is not.

Peignot was a French typeface from 1937, designed by the famous poster artist Cassandre. As you can see, it’s perfectly fine. It is also only capital letters, making it somewhat limited in application. Rather, the lower case has a selection of letters that look like traditional lower case; the rest look like upper case, but carry a lower x-height. Good for some logotypes and titling. That is it. In the 1970s, Peignot underwent an insane revival. It was used everywhere: product logotypes, book titles, advertising headlines.

Perky milk cartonAnd where I grew up, it was used by the aforementioned chain store, for everything. Everything. All labeling, all in-store signage, milk cartons, everything. All words were in Peignot. They were hardly the only abuser of the typeface, but they didn’t help things. (They later replaced it with a horrible, also caps-only, brush face.)

Avant GardeAvant Garde

This is a Herb Lubalin ITC font that perhaps defines the ’70s. He designed it as the logotype and cover face for the magazine Avant Garde. It was everywhere, all the time. There is nothing wrong with Avant Garde, per se, but it has some alternate characters that designers felt compelled to use because they were just, so, avant garde. Allow me to correct that: it has many alternate characters. too many for ’70s designers to be trusted with. EVERY CAPITAL A DOES NOT NEED TO SLANT TO THE RIGHT, CREATING A GAPING HOLE IN YOUR TYPOGRAPHY. Abused, it defied the principles of good kerning, and oh boy was it abused. Even its own magazine couldn’t resist showing off everything the typeface could do, sacrificing legibility for “hey boy howdy lookit this now.” It was supposed to be arty and show what you could do when just designing with type. It also showed what you can overdo.avant_garde_1969_web


Like Avant Garde, but hippier dippier. This was one of the first ITC faces when they went on a spree determined to ruin every classic typeface there ever was, although Busorama was an original design. Current owner Linotype says “Busorama melds Art Deco and 70s flower-power into a delightful sans serif design. Designed by Tom Carnase, this three-weight sans serif family still turns heads.” Again, there is nothing wrong with it per se. It belongs on album covers and cosmetics logos. Perfect. It’s when you start composing sentences in it that YOU DO REALIZE THIS IS AN ALL CAPS TYPEFACE, DON’T YOU? Even before the modern interpretation of caps as shouting, setting type in all capital letters was known to slow reading comprehension, and even more so when the characters were funky. A word, two words, short sub-heads – these are all good uses of Busorama. But even the limited amount of text on this book cover starts to stretch the bounds of legibility of this typeface (and it isn’t helped by the trendy crash-kerning).

Souvenir Sample Text from U&LCSouvenir

I don’t think I can properly express how much I hate Souvenir. It may be irrational. You may not agree. It’s okay for you to be wrong. Again, this was an older typeface developed by ATF back in 1920, and then revised and revived by ITC’s Ed Benguiat in 1970. Sort of light and curvy and non-traditional without being completely illegible, it seemed to gain rapid favor as a text face by designers who couldn’t wait to get away from the “old-looking” Caslons, Baskervilles and Garamonds whose use, despite centuries of success, would label them as hopelessly out of touch with the times. Every character is just a little bit soft, a little bit odd – rounded W’s, snipped tails on the g’s, b’s whose backbones don’t touch the ground.  Souvenir is just a little too light and quirky, and a little too damn even, and the result is a page that is light gray, not terribly interesting, and not exceptionally readable. It is not bad. It is not good. But again, every designer who wanted to do something a little different did it with Souvenir. When I arrived at my college newspaper, the nameplate of that venerable institution was set in Souvenir, the least inspiring flag of all time. Why was it in Souvenir? Because we had a very limited set of headlining fonts available to us on the Compugraphic 7200 headliners we used. When I changed the flag to a version of Trooper Roman (no, I can’t defend my 19-year-old self), we had to buy an additional type ribbon at a fairly crazy cost.

440px-CooperBlackspec.svgBonus: Cooper Black

It’s probably not fair to say that this typeface, released way back in 1922, ruined the ’70s, so I won’t count it among the five. But there is an odd way in which it defined the ’70s, and not just because it was used for television show logos (“The Bob Newhart Show,” “Diff’rent Strokes) and many album covers. It’s because it was the only typeface that appeared on custom-made T-shirts. In every mall in America, there was a t-shirt shop that would put just about any saying you would like on a T-shirt. Rather than screen-printing, they did it with iron-on letters. They’d line up your saying over a shirt, press it with a giant clamping iron, and out came a steaming (and usually slightly misaligned) custom T. Every one of those iron-on letters was in Cooper Black. (Think “Vote for Pedro.”) And everyone had one, or two, or five. Today it’s making a comeback – though usually through screened mass-production shirts, not the slightly thick, sometimes fuzzy heat transfer letters used in the ’70s.

Just my thoughts, mind you, based on having lived through, and set type during, that nutty decade. Again, nothing wrong with any of these typefaces themselves – but there were some horrible uses and overuse of each of them. When it comes to typography, this is the most important lesson designers can learn:

Home Taping Was Not Killing Music

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Old tape deckA group of music friends got into a discussion: Does anybody still make mix tapes/mix CDs, or are there any from back in the day that they still play? That led to a flood of thoughts.

I really discovered music right around age 11, just around the start of middle school, with an AM clock radio set almost exclusively to the local Top 40 radio station, WTRY. AM only. Radio then was wildly diverse – just look at the top 100 for 1972: that was all playing in the Tri-Cities. When I fell into music, I fell into it hard – trips to Apex Music Korner, where sample 45s of the top hits of the week hung from wooden pegs, and you could take the listener over to a school-grade turntable and listen to it on a monophone pressed to your ear, just in case you hadn’t convinced yourself you needed it yet. Fork over 79 cents, and it was yours.

Apex Music Korner 1972The radio ruled our lives – what was playing was everything. And of course, we couldn’t afford to buy everything we wanted to hear, and you couldn’t necessarily count on hearing what you wanted to, so we did the only thing you could do in those days – tape off the radio. I had, everybody had, a small portable cassette recorder with a built-in microphone that dutifully picked up the sounds of its own motor turning the compact cassette. Place it next to the radio, and wait to pounce on those buttons when a song you wanted to capture might be coming on. You had to listen closely – maybe the DJ would front announce so you’d know “Rock the Boat” was coming up. But probably not. As the commercial came to an end, you’d do the three-finger move: press “play” and “record” simultaneously, then immediately step on the “pause” button. But the pause buttons on those machines would only hold for a few seconds, so if an unexpected weather report came up, you had to back off, hit “stop,” then be ready to start again. Get all set up, hear the DJ start his patter, try to pick out the first notes and decide if this was a song you wanted or not. We could all name that tune in no more than 3 notes, but the irony is those were the notes that usually got clipped off with this technique. Finally, catch a song you wanted to keep, listen through to the outro, and pop the stop button. At least at the back end, you could decide to back up a little and tape over the DJ’s talk. Do this to capture 30 minutes to a side of the cheapest department store tape your mom could find, and you sort of had something to listen to.

When we had records we wanted to tape, it was only marginally less primitive. Maybe somebody had an external microphone that we’d put near the speaker. We’d talk up the records like the DJs did, trying to time talking all over the intro just right (what I now know they called “hitting the post”). We’d be able to put songs in an order that seemed to make some sense to us. Sometimes, we’d do it up Dickie Goodman style, fake interviews that would be answered with song snippets. We thought we were hilarious – I only wish any of them survived. It might be a real insight into the mind of a 14 year old suburban ‘70s white boy. Or just scary, take your pick.

It wasn’t until college that I got a real tape deck. Bounced a check for it (by accident, honest – I paid up) the summer after my freshman year, figured out how to connect it to my hand-me-down stereo console with no auxiliary output (I recall the arrangement as questionable, but not a fire hazard), and started laying down mix tapes. This was around 1979, what may have been the dawn of the mix tape era. Good quality tape existed, and I could almost afford it. Taping off the radio was over (and for me, so was radio, pretty much). I was getting a decent record collection and learning more about music from hanging out at Desert Shore Records than I could ever learn from what passed for radio in Syracuse at the time. Those early tapes were mostly a mix of whatever I had bought most recently with a smattering of old favorites. I got a new amp/receiver/tape deck combination and suddenly, I could copy tapes. And give them to people. In terms of my concentrating on anything else, it was all over.

Best Flaming Rock 'n Roll Tape Ever Made!Making mix tapes became my obsession, and my stress relief. If I had a major project to get done, you could be sure I was working on a tape. Instead. Every one went through multiple versions, changes in songs and song order, decisions about whether there would be filler and bumpers, and selection of just the right Ventures song to fill the last spot (because you can always fade out on an instrumental). One of my tapes features an already sped-up version of The Ramones “Needles and Pins,” with a crazy little spin-up at the end, partly for effect and partly because it almost fit on the tape, and I wasn’t taking no for an answer. To this day, I expect to hear that at the end of the song.

The spine design became a whole other thing. I had access to presstype and, later, to actual typesetting equipment, so my covers could look slick as hell for the time. With the ubiquity of desktop design programs today, you’d give it no thought, but if I handed someone a tape with what looked like a seriously designed cover in 1988, it was something unusual.

Bulletproof HeartThere were many of these tapes. Most of them survived until just a few years ago, when I digitized them as best I could, copied the covers, and let them go because I was just not listening to cassettes anymore. But I carefully (and where did I get the time for this?) recreated every tape in a playlist on iTunes. In a lot of cases, those are the only versions of those songs in my library. I burned some of them to CD for listening to in the car (though the tapes were 90 minutes, and CDs were 72, which ruined some of the flow as some things had to go). And when the mood hits, I do still listen to them. Some are as ill-thought-through as I thought they were at the time; others feel like absolute perfection to me, and any time I hear a particular song, I expect the next song on the tape to follow. That’s how it should be.

The tradition didn’t stop entirely with cassettes. For a quick five minutes, I was doing the same on MiniDisc, the little portable format that was hot at a time when burning CDs was still out of reach for most of us. But it didn’t stay out of reach long, and all the work I put into digitizing albums and making new playlists on MiniDisc was for naught. The cassettes stayed around longer. Once CDs became easy, I made a bunch of those, too, but by then I was deep into parenthood and work and all the things that keep me from giving what is now called a playlist the serious thought that it requires. So, sorry to say, these days when I want to mix it up, I tend to hit “Genius” on iTunes, see what it comes up with, make some edits to the playlist (or not), and leave it at that. For some things, like roots music, folk, and blues, it does a beautiful job, staying largely within style. For others, say, anything that was a ‘60s hit, it just returns a bunch of other ‘60s hits that have nothing to do with each other, so that’s hopeless.

I want to do it again, to really have time to think about how one song flows into another, and to have the time to listen and appreciate the effort. Whatever it is, there’s never enough time.
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