It seemed enchanted to manipulate magnetic tape, the very stuff of real studios, as if you were the next step after producer and engineer and mastering. Somehow, your little black plastic envoy conveyed that churning thing you meant. (Wilson R6)
Amidst the many adventures of a trans-Canadian July vacation, I was bequeathed with a box of old audio cassettes that had somehow been lurking, overlooked, in my parents’ basement for a good many years. (Later on our vacation, I was surprised to see audiocassettes for sale in a Toronto Chinatown shop.) Very few of these are commercial tapes, many more are personal mixtapes–most of them completely unlabelled. So I’ve dusted off the Walkman to give these tapes a fresh audition as my workday soundtrack.
The mixtapes are mostly of the recorded-from-radio variety, and these are chiefly comprised of: recordings of CHUM FM middle-of-the-road playlists and “Sunday Night Funnies” shows from the mid-1980s; recordings of CFNY chart and request shows from the late 1980s; and recordings of college radio house music shows from the mid-1990s. There are some lost classics amidst these reels: not just great tracks but accidental fragments of broadcast history. Like erstwhile CFNY DJ Steve Anthony introducing “Love will tear us apart” with a blackly comic dig at Canadian radio regulations:
Hi there, Steve Anthony at 9:03 and, uh, one of our many CRTC regulations requires that we play music by a band that contains dead people: Joy Division on The Spirit!*
Some excellent** tunes that I’ve rediscovered (including some Canadian ones) are:
- The Arrows, “Heart of the City”
- Dalbello, “Black on black”
- OMD, “(Forever) Live and Die”
- Pop Will Eat Itself, “Def Con One”
- Simple Minds, “Love song”:
- Transvision Vamp, “Baby I don’t care”:
What’s really eerie about listening to these tapes again is how quickly, like within the first few notes, I can identify a song that I haven’t heard in decades — and then sing along, or at least hum the tune. Don’t my synapses have anything better to do than archive forgotten one-hit wonders and art-school tracks? There’s an interesting literature on music, psychology, and neurology that I’ve been meaning to read (see Works Consulted below), and it likely has something to say on the fact — as Friedrich Kittler puts it — that “we all know hits and rock songs by heart precisely because there is no reason to memorize them anymore” (Kittler 80).
On one hand, these tapes are like a short, roughly drafted chapter in the imaginary Bildungsroman that would chronicle the development of my musical tastes; on the other, it’s a set of murmuring echoes from within the cast-off husks of previous selves, discarded subjectivities. They’re a time capsule filled with nonsequiturs from a past somebody, or somebodies, improbably claiming to have been me.
* CFNY, before it became the Cobain-clone sausage party called “The Edge,” was known as “The Spirit of Radio” (as commemorated in the eponymous Rush song).
** You may take this descriptor with however many grains of salt that you wish.
Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986). Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.
Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Penguin, 2007.
Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Vintage, 2008.
Wilson, Carl. “Ode to the yearning, churning mix tape.” Globe and Mail 4 Jun. 2005: R6.