Whatever We Deny or Embrace

Scouring secondhand stores is nothing new for me. One day last week I realized that I was clothed entirely in used gear, excepting my socks and my boxers.1

But lately I’ve been searching Goodwill, Salvation Army and Valley Rescue Mission resale shops for something not on the rack, but tucked on dusty, seldom-explored shelves, often hidden behind the broken and sad toys, the puzzles with long odds of being successfully reassembled, or dog-eared Danielle Steele novels.

I’m after cassette tapes.

This isn’t some lo-fi manifesto — the natural move from vinyl records to something with a little more portability and less fidelity2 — although I was chagrined to see that one of my favorite bands, Okkervil River, is releasing its new album on tape.

No, this was a move of desperation, based on the following facts:

  • The Bluetooth speaker I tried using was draining the crap out of my phone battery, jeopardizing its primary function of making or receiving telephone calls.
  • I refuse to listen to the radio.
  • I don’t want anything too expensive over there, since any house obviously under construction is a magnet for break-ins.

So I grabbed an old double-cassette boombox from Jenn’s dad’s house a few weeks back, when we were cleaning out some of the stuff. He had a couple of useful tapes, too, including a Patsy Cline collection and the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, which, as I recall, we gave him back in the day. But I’m a dude who could not abide the Texaco Radio Hour operas or Chuck Wagon Gang cassettes. Hence the shopping spree.

“You can actually still find tapes?” my buddy Jeff asked me in disbelief.

Indeed. And what they’ll set you back varies wildly, from 19 cents at Valley Rescue to 50 cents at Goodwill (unless its sticker is the Color of the Week, at which point it’s half price!).

The selection has been, um, spotty.

I’m not sure I really needed a deeper exploration of Julian Lennon’s “Valotte,” for instance, but beggars aren’t choosers. I don’t think I ever would’ve thought to pick up a collection of the greatest swing tunes (!) in any other circumstance. And, in hindsight, I lost some respect for Annie Lennox after hearing the entire “Medusa” album. “The Lighter Shade of Pale” is just one of the cover tunes she assassinates on this collection. Actually, no one needs to record a cover of “The Lighter Shade of Pale.”

Other treasures?

  • Boston’s “Third Stage,” which is not only their third album, but was their third best album, up to that point.
  • Hall & Oates’ best-of, which has held up remarkably well. I think I can just listen to “Rich Girl” on endless repeat until the house is done.3
  • An album from the mid-1990s by Morris Day and The Time, which includes — seriously — a song called “Donald Trump (Black Version)”.4
  • The first entire Pat Benatar album I’ve owned (even though I took a lot of guilty pleasure in “We Belong” in high school. I can say that now, right?). This is also live and includes “Heartbreaker” and “Love Is a Battlefield”.
  • That Eric Johnson album that everyone seemed to have back in the day with “Cliffs of Dover” on it.5 Who knew that Johnson sang on some of the tracks? (In related news: Johnson should not have done this.)
  • Lenny Kravitz’s “5” — which I’ve still not heard, as the tape deck chewed it up immediately, as if in condemnation of any Kravitz album that was not “Let Love Rule”.6

I gotta say it’s all made me a bit nostalgic, both about the music of my childhood and the method of listening to it.

I remember making mix tapes by listening to the radio, cassette tape loaded — the “record” and “play” buttons pressed at the same time, and “pause” engaged — with my hand hovering over said pause button, ready to record the song if it was a good one. Which, I mean, you had to make a spot decision sometimes, until you learned to tune into the Casey Kasem or Rick Dees countdowns, since they might give you a hint as to what song was about to come on.

I remember listening to a dubbed copy of U2’s “Unforgettable Fire” and knowing where the pitch would shift in the middle of “Elvis Presley and America” because the buddy who copied it for me dropped it in and out of high-speed dubbing to check the progress. I still miss that warbly shift today.

But I also miss the deliberation of listening to — of having to listen to — a full album, or at least a full side of an album before making a change; of not skipping songs, because it was too much work to find the next one; of not having 2,886 artists to choose from, many of which are forgotten entirely unless my eyes happen to fall on the artist while scanning the music library on the PC.

I guess I’m saying that I go to the beat-up old house to renovate deliberately. I used to listen to music deliberately, too, up until a ripple in the universe eliminated like 40 percent of the hours in my day, and I started making choices based on convenience rather than deliberation.7

But I’m gonna fight this. I’m gonna listen to music, and live life, more deliberately.

Hell, maybe I should check out this vinyl record phase after all.

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1For the record, I will never buy used socks or underwear. Just want to make that clear.

I’m not one of those vinyl nuts. To me, records have less fidelity than CDs (sorry Neil Young), more noise from wear than discs, and require finicky care. I understand the ritual of listening to a vinyl record, with attention, in a small space. But that same deliberation could be achieved with no more effort with a CD or MP3 album, and I wonder how long until vinylfiles migrate to even more expensive turntables that let them cue up multiple records at once. Then how long until they decide that, hey, wouldn’t it be more convenient to be able to take their music on the go with them, like on a tape in the car?

I would like to formally apologize to former coworker Chris Graham for maligning H&O. I was wrong. They’re the shit.

Prince wrote this song for them, it seems. It harkens to a more naive impression of Trump, the business magnate. “Donald Trump — black version. Maybe that’s what you need. A man that fulfills your every wish, your every dream.” But, I mean, ask Melania how that’s working out.

Eric Johnson was sort of the prototype guitar shredder, before the likes of Joe “Satch” Satriani. If you’re ever listened to a classic rock station, you’ve heard the searing riff that opens up “Cliffs of Dover,” which won a Grammy.

Rightfully, most likely.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson could explain this, I’m sure.

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