Waaaaay back during recording for our October 18, 2021 episode, I learned that Will had never received a mixtape from anyone. I felt a little sad about that, and decided right then and there to remedy that situation. After all, at their core, mixtapes (or as I call them, “mixed tapes”) represent a creative exchange between friends. My friendship with Will didn’t really form until 31 (!) years after our first meeting at college in 1989 (pictured above), but the significance of a mixed tape as a symbol of connection and camaraderie, especially in the context of the 1980s Now podcast, made this expression of fondness a must-do.
My foray into the production and reception of mixed tapes didn’t begin until 1990, but the origin and popularity of them is rooted firmly in the 80s. Until this past August I hadn’t made one since about 1995, not from lack of means, but with no impetus to do so. As time passed and technology continually shifted, the stereo tower and boombox in the living room ultimately switched places with the basement-residing desktop computer, which could of course play CDs, mp3s, and stream Pandora.
At that moment in time during our October 2021 recording when I learned of Will’s lack of a personalized mixed tape, I thought the biggest hurdle I’d face for this project would be unearthing the stereo system from its hiding spot in my chock-full basement. I already amazingly possessed two new, unopened blank cassette tapes, recently discovered in my mom’s attic; I’d come up with a decently clever title (“Better 1980s Now than Never!”); and, I had my original 80s collection of vinyl records from which to curate. It seemed so simple!
I was SO wrong.
Settling on what songs to include was fairly easy. At some point along the podcasting way I learned that Will and I shared a fondness for vinyl singles, and so I decided that would make a great parameter, or theme. In the 80s, Will’s reason for acquiring 12” singles was for DJ-ing purposes; I would frequently purchase 45s from a local record store for favorite radio or MTV songs instead of springing for an entire album that I wasn’t sure I’d completely enjoy, or for a B side that wasn’t included on an album. I had plenty to choose from, and I spent more time than was probably really necessary deciding what order to put them in, but that was part of the fun creativity. I had my list ready at the end of December 2021.
At some point in January 2022, I was able to access the stereo and hook up speakers. I opened a fresh cassette (that was magical), placed “The Reflex” remix on the turntable, pressed record/play, and set the needle down. As I basked in the satisfying feeling of creative analog progress combined with the notes of a beloved song, I detected a most horrifying crinkling sound— the bane of a cassette lover’s existence!!— of the tape being mangled. That sound marked the beginning of a seven-month roller coaster journey of overcoming discouraging challenges including, but not limited to:
● Borrowing of various turntables, receivers, and stereo cassette players from friends & family
● Repeatedly asking my very patient (and fortunately, challenge-loving) husband for technological troubleshooting assistance
● Eventual repair of a broken borrowed turntable that wouldn’t TURN
● Disappointment that I was not going to be able to get this to Will in time for his birthday
● Devastation upon hearing skips on three of the 45s (and eventual relief it was only three)
● Dismay at the prospect of potentially pivoting to songs from LPs (I was really attached to the 45s theme)
● Research on how to properly clean 30 years’ worth of attic dust from vinyl grooves
● Acquisition of a special carbon fiber brush for above mentioned groove cleaning
● Realization that my 45s probably got a bit warped hanging out in my mom’s attic for 30 years
● Inability to control for the precise intended speed of the songs
● Acceptance that some of the songs may have a slightly warbly sound to them
● Discovery that I had room on each side for extra songs, so the original flow got mixed up a bit
● Ultimate completion of the tape!
As I finally wrote the song names on the cassette insert and packaged it up in late August, I reflected on how this was not exactly the highest quality mixed tape I’d ever made. In fact, I wasn’t even sure that I wanted Will— a musical composer, sound designer, and all-around audiophile— to actually listen to it! And if he never does, I’m ok with that. In this case, it was absolutely the thought that counted, and for a long time I feared that’s all it would be in the end: Just a thought. Almost a Never! But in spite of the skips and warbles, I’m totally glad I persisted. The process of designing it— from the title to the song choices/order to the pressing of the buttons, and placing of the needle— was all a source of sentimental and current joy, and the product, complete with imperfections, is a fitting symbol of friendship a looooong time in the making.