I’m engaged in a battle in a comments donnybrook over the Runaways movie. Despite Lita Ford having a few hits, she’ll forever be known as the chick who did “Close my Eyes Forever” with Ozzy Osbourne, growling in a smoky cave or some shit while Ozzy looks like a drag queen in the video. Aside from the obvious killers of “Bad Reputation” and “Do You Want to Touch Me” and being the blueprint for woman-fronted punk rock, Joan Jett produced the lone Germs record, and that alone makes her cool as fuck. There’s also beefing over Iron Maiden, who sound like an army of balloon animals trotting over a hill while cartoon ducks fly pink and purple bomber planes while their whack mascot Eddie roams around dressed like a pirate to me. Black Sabbath prayed to goat heads laying in pentagrams made of salt. Judas Priest still rips as Rob Halford sports leather fuck me suits while screaming about banging dudes. For my dollar, Heavy Metal is supposed to be scary, not cheerful. This is music nerd 101: argue about opinions and facts that no one else except the dorks in the dispute care about – the shit that women purr over, you know.
I read somewhere that part of what makes us human is our ability to laugh and to love music. I don’t know if that’s bullshit or not, but I like that way it sounds. Banjo twangs and trap beats act as the heartbeat to my existence. I think about music constantly, so why wouldn’t that assessment make sense? The obsession creeps into my everyday life in multiple forms like when I buy bootleg Tribe Called Quest shirts off Instagram, or my best friend and I walk into the bar, he grabs the first round, and I load the jukebox with music that’s objectively good vs. what a drunk dude from the suburbs wants to hear, because some people live their lives putting Sublime’s 40oz to Freedom on repeat. If you don’t do this, you will wind up hearing Crazytown’s “Butterfly.”
I ain’t about that life.
Being a music nerd is a life sentence, it’s an obsession of wanting to know how the Beastie Boys put together Paul’s Boutique, getting into heated debates about how Aerosmith wrote better music while all geeked out on the shit; that James Brown is better than Elvis, how by Low End Theory, Phife could tangle with Q-Tip as a true competitor, and dropping the knowledge that no matter how much labor you might put into it, a playlist will never be a mixtape.
Some of my favorite memories are going with my friends to a record store, browsing the stacks, checking out what was hocked in the used bin, hoping to find that holy grail copy of Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs or an O.G. copy of the Misfits’ Walk Among Us. Nag Champa floated in the air, purging the smell of day shift weed smoked. We had four different record stores in my area on the south side of Chicago. Each store had a different vibe, a different flow, you had to know how the stores worked, how to be cool under the judgy eyes of the clerks. The experience is what matters in music appreciation, we celebrate the journey. Record stores still exist, but so does Amazon. You can find whatever you want with a click. Knowing that Space Lord Bezos will have your copy of Parliament Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain delivered to your door is convenient, but it does take the fun out of the search.
I’m caught in that generation of folks who can adapt to technology, but remember when call waiting was the new thing. With evolutions happening by the minute, there’s a pang of regret, lost in the forgetfulness of touchstones that we once loved, but have faded into memories. Sadly, many times they’re the things we don’t immediately think of when someone brings up, “remember back in 1996 when the Fugees The Score record dropped?”
I’m 40 now. I remember Pearl Jam and Digable Planets being new sounds. I remember when we cared about the radio. My kids care about YouTube.
A mixtape was an act of love, a symbol that they gave the utmost fuck about you. You gotta understand, we didn’t have Facebook groups. There were no hashtags. You either liked someone’s shirt at a concert, in a smokey late-night diner or met in the halls of your school. The communal bonding experience of discovering the other freak who liked early Ministry or the deep cuts of KRS-One wasn’t exactly like knowing who raced home to watch TRL. The mixtape generation was from the mid-1980s when black cassettes became affordable, all the way until we saw the rise of the iPod in the mid-to-late 2000s.
A playlist has its place. A playlist has a purpose. When Spotify shows me playlists, many times, they’re outstanding, and when I’m driving, poking my finger at the screen, they’re just what I need – accessibility. There are benefits to utilizing the technology of ease that a playlist offers. If you want to hear an algorithm-driven mix of the best punk from the Midwest, it exists, the same goes if you’re dying to dive into Dolly Parton’s B-sides.
A playlist is not a love letter, a dare, or a wish in audio format. It’s copy and pasting. Mixtapes aren’t a collection of songs. They’re an introduction to who you are. Makeups, breakups, and make outs happened from these pieces of alchemy. Friendships were formed and allies were cemented. When you made a mixtape, you had to own all of the music you wanted to feature, or you at least had to have a dual tape deck to dub a side of the cassette that someone might have made for you. Unlike a playlist where one can be complied, the songs juked around, a mixtape, was an order, a flow, a collection of music you NEEDED someone to hear, if as an act of friendship, “check out these bands, I think you’ll love them” but as an extension of the self.
The magic about a mixtape was that if the recipient was into Nirvana but only knew the big radio bands, this is where your deep music nerd knowledge cemented everything. My move was giving something a little familiar, so what you’d share could be a bridge into the possible. The sonic roux was there, so my spice was dropping tracks like “Waiting Room” by Fugazi, “Here Comes Your Man” by The Pixies, a little Naked Raygun, Melvins, the Misfits, Sonic Youth, The Jesus Lizard (admittedly a deep cut pick, but there had to be chaotic balance).
But then, there were complicated layers from here on out. What if that Nirvana tape was for a girl, and she liked how thoughtful you were, and then you started making out with her on the regular? The rules changed. The mixtape acted as a continual barometer of season, emotional state, and mood. What if you discovered that she loved dancier stuff? Then you had to take stock of what you had that you could swing to – maybe Michael Jackson, Boney M, Prince, or Justin Timberlake? Maybe she loved techno, or disco, you had to find out how to make it work – you had to dig. What if you were bummed out and wanted to share how you felt without saying it, a tokenized “this is my mood” in hopes someone would get the drift when you were categorizing a successive string of bummer songs in a row, Robert Smith and the Cure be damned?
There was the tracklist and potential artwork, which had to say, “no, I’m not a fucking psycho” without serial killer scrawl and potentially weird drawings. Some folks went to levels of crafting full-blown folk art pieces by cutting up magazines for their tracklists.
And when you finally handed the goods over, you had to wait. You were dying to know if they liked the tape. Did they love it all? Maybe a few songs. Some people put it right on in the car while others let the collection fester, depending on the relationship. I did want to know if you liked Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” on my 80’s dance party mix. What if the recipient took the tapes, knowing that they didn’t give a fuck about them, they were humoring you? Talk about hell. I’ve heard such threats issued during a breakup, “I never even listened to those stupid cds you made me!” and for a dork who can catalog Pearl Jam’s drummers or the nine members of Wu-Tang, that hurts like being told you’ve got a small dick.
The idea of a mixtape endures is that it’s a thunderbolt in the night, banged loudly by Joe Strummer screaming, “what are we gonna do now?” That moment shared was a whisper no one else could hear, even if we cranked the volume on a broken stereo. In an era with so many things built for ease of use, comfort, and disposal, taking the time seems quaint but also emotionally necessary when the little things really do matter.
Robert Dean is a working class writer, raconteur, and enlightened dumbass. You can read his work in places like Austin American-Statesman, MIC, Fatherly, and Consequence of Sound. His first collection of poems, Snakes in the Garden is dropping this fall from Madness Heart Press.