The Mix Tape is not dead. Long live the Mix Tape.
It's an art form, you know, a truly underrated, nearly forgotten, and frequently horribly abused art. I'd like to say it's a thing that can be developed, but I'm not sure that's true. I think a person either has an ear for it or they don't. I believe, like drawing where you can have an eye without a hand (not literally, stick with me, people) and the hand can be developed with time as long as the artist is entirely committed and throws themselves into the 10,000 hours (again, not necessarily literally, maybe only 7,500 hours) it WILL take to develop the hand.
When I was first developing an intimacy with Elizabeth's father, I'm not talking about sex, I mean true intimacy, he took me to SUNY Purchase (yup, that's where she's going) where he spent one solid year as close to suicide as he'd been in his life and has only, to the best of my knowledge been one other time, after walking me all over that campus which you either find beautiful or rather prison like in it's stark lines he brought me back to his apartment and pulled out every single one (I thought) of his first year newsprint pads. Do you know what those are? They are 18x24 inches and come in 50 or 100 sheet pads. These days a Strathmore 300 series, 100 sheet pad retails for $14.01 (best price I can find around here) and is currently completely out of stock but you can still get the 50s, God help the poor student who waited too long for supplies, it's going to be a wait...). During a 50 minute Drawing 101 class a student may flip through 25 - 35 pages depending on what's going through their head at the time or what the teacher is asking of them. Start! Turn! Flip! Stop! Start! Turn! Flip! Stop! Start! Turn! Flip! Stop! Start! Turn! Flip! Stop... observe... what do you see?
I remember doing this. You let yourself go. You stop trying to draw a picture. You forget about that kneaded eraser; you don't even look at the paper, really, you just look at the object. Often you don't remove the charcoal from the page and with each exercise you see improvement as the connection between what the eye sees and the hand can put on paper is established (you already thought it was when you walked through those doors, didn't you?) and neurologically something shifts. It makes me think about Elizabeth dancing; it came slower than most but when it landed, it landed hard. I have to dirt dive something maybe fifty percent longer then most as well.
Elizabeth's dad spent one year in tears.
I flipped, page after page looking at absolutely zero progression and looked up at the man sitting still beside me, in tears. I asked him if this was related to the story he told me sitting under the lone tree in the meadow. Yes.
Keep going, he said, go to the very last two. They're from the end of April. I flipped slowly through two hundred sheets of newsprint and there it was, the connection.
Wait. I looked at the pile on the floor by the bed. These can't possibly be all of them.
No. These are the best.
Eventually he transferred to the School of Visual Arts in the city but I don't think he ever got over the loss which wasn't really a loss in the end; not a true loss because if you could see what he does today I don't think you'd be able to reconcile it with that first year of commitment. The year he opened his veins onto the floor of a room swimming in charcoal dust and shattered his heart. He turned around and discovered he had a talent for working with fonts, and he really does. To this day he makes his living as a graphic designer specializing in book covers; he's done some truly beautiful work. Eventually he went back to Purchase to study at night. He did this year after year and produced work I think of as the human body as landscape. He had one show of his own in Stamford back in 2003 but I think it nearly killed him, the anxiety, and he couldn't bring himself to do it again. I don't remember if he sold anything. He let me keep a piece when he left. I think of her as the Rastafarian Botticelli; it's something about the way he captured her hair, posture, and expression. It flattened the world a bit, it compressed time. It's rather large and hangs in the foyer. Unless you're blind or the foyer is dark, it's the first thing you see when you walk in the front door.
That's a horrible angle, but it'll do. I have a barely started and headless (he seems to have quite a few of those) HUGE drawing of me about four months pregnant and it is obvious enough that is me, at least to anyone with an eye, that it's not ever going to see the light of day.
By the way, that paper started out white. The man goes through quite a bit of charcoal and prepping the paper is quite a process.
One more thing before I start to bring this back around again. An older woman in my class once noted, looking at me pointedly, that it might be uncomfortable to be in a relationship with him. When I asked why she said, 'his eyes, dear, he sees every little thing, don't you think?
Oh yes, he does, but I'm not sure you understand what he's seeing. I left it at that.
However, what he sees and what we see once it hits the paper are often two entirely different things. His teacher, now gone, talked about being sensitive to the subject. This puzzled Elizabeth's father. Think on that. Or not.
Roll all the way back to the connection between the ear and, well, setting music down on whatever media is currently available. Forget about laying down tracks for any one specific audience and think about laying down tracks for a broader audience. Roll way back. Today these people don't really exist anymore. Not even on public radio except maybe late at night. Tom Petty, also blinked right out of existence, brought up the subject when he released The Last DJ in October, 2002 (that link is to a 2017 article, by the way. Not sure exactly how I feel about some parts of it but all relevant points are made and I don't have to agree with the sentiment).
I know exactly where I was when I heard that song. I know exactly where I was when the song ended. I remember the DJ - I can hear his voice, I can almost bring back his name - , I remember the station, the time of day, where I was going, and what he said when the song was over. I remember driving right past the right turn onto my street because I didn't think I could walk through the front door without a few minutes to wipe myself off. I remember wondering what the hell was going to happen to music and where I would find it if the stations in the New York Metropolitan area and surroundings, and the public stations had finally crumbled. I know why the station I mostly listened to fell down. I remember when it happened. It happened when the funding dried up; not the government funding because we never counted on that, the public funding. Public radio. It is PUBLIC FUCKING RADIO, PEOPLE. If you want it, YOU have to pay for it. Here we are in one of the wealthiest places in the world, not just the country, the world, and people I know who listen to this station, snarl and tell me they don't much feel like throwing $10 a month at a radio station. I asked how much they were dropping on iTunes and this was before Spotify and the answer was anywhere between 20 and 200 but I OWN that, but how did you hear that music... blah blah blah and I shut up.
And public radio died. I tuned in to that station the other day. There still aren't commercials but the music has changed. Somebody is paying to have it played. I know it was always so, the labels paid for airtime but I do know the stations, the DJs had a lot to do with who hit the airwaves. I also know they play to the donors now. The day I heard Celine Dion three times in a week was the day I turned the dial and left it turned. Not too much longer I turned the radio off entirely. What's wrong with Celine Dion other then I can't stand her? That's personal, there will always be music some of us don't like or simply cannot tolerate on any one station. The issue was that THIS stations did NOT play Celine Dion or any of that genre. EVER. Except maybe as a collection of oddities, something outside the box of alternative and into the mainstream, just to hear it. Three times in a week just before fundraising season meant they'd done an analysis on the last round and made a painful decision.
I listened again the other day and then looked up the playlist. The fact that I recognize anything on the playlist is terrifying. I should not. It should all be new. The DJs are not new. I want to send them love because from what I can see, they're still busting their asses to create art. I understand what they're doing even if I don't much care for what I'm hearing. What I do know is this: The art of the DJ, the art of music, selecting and mixing music, playlists, knowing what and when to play and how to play IS an art. I can't imagine what it is to keep that art alive working with something that goes against the grain but they're still at it in one form or another.
I don't know if, like with the hundreds of pads of newsprint, you can teach someone to make the connection between the ear, the heart, and the mind, the things we know about a person, the things we want to impart, invoke, evoke... I do know it's a skill that has to be developed, at least the technical part. I have heard some truly awful mix tapes just as I've heard some truly awful programming (usually late at night, maybe somebody is in a break in period) and in analysis I've thought, you know, if you just arranged this a little differently, it could work. I don't know if that can be taught. That might be the sort of thing that is there or it is not. I think, if pressed, Elizabeth's dad could have articulated it but I'm not sure he really knew what he had until somebody put him on sound, gave him control of the music and the mixer and eventually handed over the playlist and said, put the next thirty minutes in order. You have to have context in order to do that and how many of us can truly link context to music? Maybe one song, maybe two, but an entire list? An entire list for more then just one person? The man can do it. He can do fonts the same way. It was drawing that took a lot more work and drawing that's got a death grip on his heart. As a side note, he's also a book savant. Want a good book? Get to know the man a bit and suddenly you'll have a book from your genre (or one of them) and it will be very good and you will not have read it and you will suddenly realize that not only has he not read it but he never would. But he knows you would. I have no freaking idea how he does this.
Rolling back to the mix tape which is associated mostly with the eighties I think, when people suddenly had access to decent equipment and eventually some people had access to components that allowed them to do some pretty cool stuff. I remember when the world went digital. I did not. However, in 1994 when I left the farm I spent a significant amount of money (for me, anyway) on a Denon receiver, turn table, 5 CD flat changer, and dual tape deck. Oh, and speakers. I slotted the system, except the speakers which were too big, into a solid rolling cart with shelves on two sides, open front and back and plugged it in. I still have this cart downstairs waiting for something, anything... The Denon receiver is still in use. The day it dies will be a very hard day for me. I don't know what happened to the turn table, I don't know what happened to the dual tape deck, but the CD changer died three weeks after David left and the speakers were swapped out for David's better and much smaller speakers the day we moved into this house.
In December, 1994 I learned two things. I learned that if I started randomly pulling LPs and cassettes off the shelves and laying them in the middle of the floor while thinking about a particular person then it wasn't really random at all. I learned to keep a supply of 45, 60, and 90 minute blank tapes in the apartment. I learned that 120 minutes was way too much music and 90 was pushing it. I learned that if I kept thinking about this person while I sifted through the music on the floor with a pad of paper and a pen in my hand I'd come up with at least 20 tracks and sometimes a whole lot more. Sometimes I'd have to go back depending on what I ended up with. I learned if I kept thinking about that person, what I wanted to say would eventually solidify; I learned that I'd had something to say all along which is why I'd started pulling music off the shelves and tossing it on the floor.
The list grew. When I had at least ten I started to look for a pattern. If I didn't see it, I kept going. If I did see it, I checked to see if the tracks could be arranged or if they were too much alike or if there was significant discord or conflict. If any of that was going on, I had to start thinking about the rest of what I picked up. Sometimes things got discarded and other tracks got picked up. When I thought I had a complete list, I stopped. The perfect number is anywhere between 13 and 17. 13 is only enough if each track is perfect and rolls from start to finish exactly the way they should. 17 is nearly too much and will only work if each track is perfect and rolls from start to finish exactly the way they should. The problem with too many tracks is that they become noise and the message is lost. When you start with 20 or more on your list, you know you're going to have to cut some of them.
I wasn't always that disciplined and when I put Lucia's 18th birthday CD together I cut absolutely nothing and she ended up with four freaking CDs and I am afraid that not only was the music lost but some of what went on those CDs should not have been there. Given the time in her life, I wanted to give her as much as I could and what I really should have done was taken 17 of exactly what worked and then given her three outtakes. If that playlist still existed today I'd do it over for her. If she still had those CDs, I'd ask to have them back and do it over for her. That's the problem with something that doesn't quite land, it gets lost.
Mike got his CD when he turned 16 because he really needed it. When my kids get a CD it is a compilation from music given by immediate family members. Since most of our immediate family members have done a series of trainings that eventually give you at least one piece of very personal music, most of us know exactly how to do this and why there should only be one or at most, two. The rest of the family has music embedded in their bones and just get it. My brother gave my son Put Your Lights - Santana/Everlast and gave Lucia Beautiful Day - U2. He was spot on both times.
Roll back to when everything still went onto cassette tapes. Roll back to analog when fade in fade out was possible, when a thing called overlay existed, when beautiful things could be done by mixing and meeting tracks with the precision of a few dials, a good ear, a steady hand, and the willingness to start over again if that thing sounded like shit, or didn't work out quite the way you thought it might or should. And when you handed over that cassette a couple of things could happen.
Honestly, the most frequent response was, thank you very much and a blank face, or what's this? Huh? Oh, OK.
You could try to mitigate that with a song list and a brief explanation but that often just made it worse. See, the thing about giving somebody a mix tape is what you're really doing is saying, I see you. I don't even know if the people who make them, or made them realize this. I do know that sometimes people are handing over a tape or a CD and saying, look, this is me and sometimes that's received a little better but in truth, at the bottom of that what are we really saying? This is me but I'm giving you the part of me that I think you'll recognize. And it's a gift.
Annnndddd... it's a vulnerable thing to do, or it can be. So the mix tape took a beating and we are still laughing our collective asses off at the music geek who handed the girl, heart in throat, a piece of himself which was really about her.
When I left the Factory in October, 2003, I made CDs for all of my direct reports and then some. All five managers and several of my peers. I probably spent two solid weeks on this. I got them all burned to CDs, wrote up maybe a quarter page for each CD, which is literally nothing but tracks, artists, and a two or three sentence explanation about the disk, laid out the tracks for printing the back of the jewel cover inserts and then came to a dead stop because it was time to do the artwork.
Well no, just no. I don't think I can do this. And I didn't. I have no idea where those CDs went but they did not go back to that building. I couldn't tell you what was on them either. That's the only time I've ever started and stopped. It's also the only time I've tried to do more then one at a time. Until now.
Now I am doing three at one time. Sort of.
I don't know when I started thinking about this. It might be only a year ago, maybe longer. I remember thinking, well this just sucks. Elizabeth is not getting her CD. The world has moved on and you can't give people music anymore unless you actually buy them a CD and they have the capability of playing an actual CD which she does not. And even supposing I made a playlist on iTunes, how the hell would I get those protected files off my Macbook and over to her Macbook in playlist format so that she could have them. In a playlist. Well this just sucks.
I think the year I thought about this, it wasn't actually possible. I think I could have told her what songs to buy and the order in which to play them but here's the thing, that is NOT giving someone a mix tape. It doesn't work that way. And you either get that or you don't.
About a month ago Elizabeth said, so, about my CD...
Elizabeth, you aren't getting an actual CD. I don't know how we're going to handle this but I can't even burn CDs anymore and you don't actually have the ability to play them.
Yes I do. I play them in the car all the time.
You what?! What CDs?
The ones in your cabinet and the one from the wedding (I gave her the wedding CD last year, mostly for the list and the artwork).
You listen to that?
I listen to that all the time, it's a great CD.
OK, so I don't have a CD burner or drive in my Macbook.
Dad has an external burner.
So I'm going to burn a CD and from the CD, with a USB to USB C adapter she can load this the files onto her Macbook. But that won't give her a playlist. I don't think. Haven't tested it yet, but here's what I did test.
The CD I had to make first was for Lucia. Technically it was supposed to go with her Dear Daughter letter but I ran out of time. I put it on a thumb drive in a folder called Dear Lucia. I also exported the playlist in three formats but I realized that was probably a very bad idea and told Elizabeth's father to delete the files before he did anything. I suggested he copy the entire folder as if it was an album to his iTunes library and see what happened. What happened was he clicked on the first track. That's all, he just clicked on it. It started playing and the entire damn thing copied itself to the library. It lost the superficial metadata I forced as a rename but it went. I'll have to ask him if he had to put it into a play list or if it just went there.
So the CDs will be burned, the artwork applied, the jewel cover inserts finished and given to both girls on the 21st.
What? The 21st?
Elizabeth is getting a CD before her birthday. It has nothing to do with her birthday and not a whole lot to do with who she is collectively over the last 18 years. The CD is called Bon Courage and it has two contributors: Her parents.
Elizabeth is terrified. She's having trouble moving through the quicksand she seems to have sunk herself into, neck deep. I asked about her exit plan last week, in terms of T, yes, that kid. What is your exit plan, Elizabeth?
Oh. Well, I guess I'll just drive home on weekends to see him
Elizabeth, we have had this conversation. Do you want to live in the dorm or not?
Then live in the freaking dorm. That means weekends too.
Ok, then I guess he can come here on weekends.
No, Elizabeth, that is a very bad idea (I am remembering my year of driving to Bryant College every weekend). You will fail to acclimate and he will fail to acclimate and you might as well just stay home and commute. Wait...
Elizabeth... are you ready to go to school because it's OK if you're not ready to go to school. You don't have to go to school and you should not go to school if you aren't ready. I know you already paid your tuition but you only paid half and losing $8,000 now is far better then going to school distracted and not really going to school. I promise, I will not be mad at you. You dad will NOT be mad at you (because I will drug him if I have to). No one will be mad at you. We will all just think you're very, very brave and smart.
Mom. I really want to go to college now.
And live in a dorm?
Yes! And live in a dorm! I just wish my roommates would respond!
Honey, it's OK, it's not like they've been online and not responded, they just haven't been online.
What if one of them is an axe murderer?
Then one of them is an axe murderer. It will be very exciting!
Elizabeth. It's A Whole New World out there. Don't make me sing the song because I WILL get all Disney on your ass. (Yes. Some witch had the audacity to slap that song on MY sorry ass one weekend).
Oh, God, Mom, no, please (you'd better believe it's on her list).
So, Elizabeth, your exit plan. I'm not telling you to break up with him. I am telling you to have the conversation young people all over the world have when they go away to college. I don't know what that sounds like, only you two will. But it starts like this: T, I leave for Purchase on the 23rd which is 600 miles away and I'll be home on holidays. What you say after that is up to you.
Mom. I'm not going 600 miles.
Elizabeth. Yes you are. And also, when you think about your friends and your family, while you aren't going quite 600 miles because you don't have the same umbilicus, you are, for example, going 150 miles from your friends and anywhere from 200 and 2000 miles from your parents depending on how we react when we're separated. The more extreme, the farther we have to pretend. On the other hand, the geographical distance, at least by miles, between you and your sister is real and you can treat it that way. However, have you looked at your bank balance? Think about whether or not you have enough gas money to drive to Hamden (because we know damn well she's got nuthin' this year) very often and also think about whether or not you can focus on your classes AND get a job this year. I would suggest not if you can help it.
I'm still not sure what was said but I'll ask shortly.
So Elizabeth has a CD and a thumb drive which is USB on one end and USB C on the other (it's the cutest thing, flips back and forth) and Lucia has the same except no USB C. The thumb drives, I decided, needed artwork as well. That was difficult. I finally went out to Etsy and found very small boxes.
This is the Bon Courage box. The card won't read 'Congratulations':
And this will hold Dear Lucia:
Unfortunately the artist of the purple granite stained glass box is a lousy photographer and I'm going on faith based on the other boxes in other colors, but this will hold Elizabeth, December 11, 2000:
So that's it, the state of music in this household at the moment. Now all I have left to do is finish the artwork, burn the CDs, and package everything up.
Oh, that's not actually true. The playlist for Dear Lucia is ready to go. The artwork for the CD is ready to go. The photograph was taken sometime after sunset on October 22, 2005 sometime during what was a fairly complex wedding ceremony which happened to include Kaddish which was never said for either of David's parents as well as an acknowledgement of our prior marriages (Beautiful Sadness - Jane Olivor and YES, I did and it's probably the last time I managed to make eye contact with Joe that had any sort of authenticity but at least there was that).
Lucia was just 14. Doesn't look that young, does she? She started the 8th grade at the end of August and was still hiding in the bathroom at lunch. The pain she experienced in acquiring the dress you can't see was exquisite. This was the year her body image was ground into dust. I remember calling home and asking David to take the boys and be gone before we got there or at the very least, be having dinner on the back porch, not the kitchen, trying to explain that one of us was shattered and the other had no more skin. I remember he was there, in the kitchen with the boys having dinner. In retrospect, he wasn't being an asshole, he was just being an asshole. Not the sort trying deliberately to cause pain, the sort that just doesn't give a shit because the words entering his ears aren't connecting with his brain. My entire relationship. He didn't want to be an asshole. Truthfully? Nobody does.
So why this picture? Because it was right before the shit seriously hit the fan. It hit the fan and continued to hit the fan for the next seven years. Yup. Seven. On this night she pulled herself up in that beautiful black dress which you cannot see, wearing her mother's pearls with her first set of highlights (yup, a little young but it was the right thing to do) and makeup by Mom and heels just high enough to walk in without wobble and there she was, on the cusp of full blown woman for just a moment without pain. She experienced herself as beautiful without objectification.
The playlist for Dear Lucia is entirely her mother. Honestly? I can't remember the last time I made a mix tape for somebody and actually delivered it. I'm going to guess sometime in 2003.
I threw one youtube video at a time over the proverbial fence for thirty days, ending on December 31, 2015 with the final playlist on an Excel file at or about midnight but you can see how that might be a slightly different sort of thing. It was not meant to be heard in succession, one track connected to another. It was not meant to be kept. It was turning the bag inside out and letting whatever remained exit quietly. That was an odd thing.