I've been listening to the Guardians of the Galaxy Awesome Mix Volume One this morning. It really is awesome.
Like everyone who grew up in the 70s, 80s and 90s, I made tapes as well.
It started when I was really young, taping songs I liked off of the radio. The beginning would always be cut off, unless the DJ announced that he or she was going to play it beforehand and I had some heads up that the song was coming. The end may or may not be faded into another song or abruptly cut off as the DJ started talking over it. Mostly Duran Duran got taped, but there were tons of other songs as well. When I was really young, I generally listened to top 40 pop on whatever call letters Q-zoo had, though for some reason, I got hooked on Psychedelic Sundays on KLOL at a fairly young age. When I got older, I moved over to the hard rock on KLOL. As far as the early mixes go, there wasn't any sort of cohesion at all in the playlist selection. The ordering was whatever order I happened to tape something. VHS tapes were similar; a friend taped various movies off of HBO for us, and I remember one particular tape had Empire Strikes Back and the Breakfast Club on it.
Like Peter Quill, I had a walkman with my music on it. Mine was the yellow sports version, with a "water tight" seal. At some point, someone gave me a discman, but it wasn't as portable, because it would skip if it was moved even a fraction of an inch. I think I still have it in a box somewhere. But that walkman, it was a workhorse. Say what you will about Sony, they made excellent products in the 80s and 90s.* That walkman went everywhere with me, and my dad had sharpied my name and phone number on the inside, just in case it ever went missing. It never did.
Do BMG and Columbia House exist anymore? I'm sure I got six tapes for a penny (plus shipping and handling and a commitment to buy more and ruined credit at a tender age) dozens of times over. I remember that the "I Love Rock And Roll" tape by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts was the first tape I ever bought. But I had tons more. And I listened to so much music. At some point in the 80s, I started moving over to CDs, and I amassed quite a collection of music. Again, thanks in large part to BMG and Columbia House.
When I was in college, I started making mix tapes with purpose. They were time consuming and meticulous. I had a boom box that was dual cassette AND CD, so I could make tapes off of tapes and CDs. There was a lot more thought put into them than the early tapes. I was terrified of my CDs being stolen, so I never put them in much of a carrying case. But I could always re-make tapes. The walkman, after being dropped dozens of times, died shortly after I came back from England in the mid 90s. I think it made my first semester or two of law school, but there's only so much abuse a device can take.
But it was in law school that the mix tapes turned into art. It was a procrastination tool to the extreme. Every finals, I HAD to make a mix tape. I'd write down the songs, their times and the time left on the tape. I'd listen to the whole thing over and over again for cohesion and flow and overall completeness. Each side of the tape had to be its own complete work, but it had to flow with the other side as well. Relampago often helped me with these projects, since my stereo was near the floor, and I was sitting for hours there pulling music out of the CD racks and looking for the right songs. He was as much of a music critic as Celosa is now with Graham. I'd write down all of the songs on the label inside the cassette, and I kept most of the legal pads where I constructed the mix. I had to finish it before finals were over, but usually, it was done well before then. I'd usually study with the mix playing.
Most of the mixes were kept in the car for the most part, first in the Suburban, then in my Explorer. I had a travelling case that held something like 40 or so tapes, and it sat on the floor in front of the middle console. But sometimes I'd bring them inside to listen to. Most of the tapes were 47 minutes a side, but some were a 60 minutes. Some of the mixes were excellent, favorites that I still consider pretty good collections of music. Others were more of a time and place indicator, and listening to them would instantly remind me of that period of my life and whatever was going on then. To this day, there are some songs that I automatically assume will come after others, because I heard that song ordering so many times on the mixes.
At some point in the late 90s, CD-RWs came out, and I thought about making CD mixes. They were MUCH more time consuming on the technical side, and slightly more difficult to catch for cohesion, because the song wasn't playing all the way through as the mix was made. After the loooooooooong time it took to rip the song from a CD onto the computer, I just had to order the music in the way I thought would work, and it'd start writing. I wasn't listening throughout the selection and insertion process like I was with the tapes. In making the tapes, I'd have an idea of where the mix was going, but sometimes it didn't work when I heard one song followed by the next. There, I could just rewind and find another song that worked better. With CDs, I'd have to rewrite the whole thing. I made a few, CDs early on, but I preferred the tapes.
In late August of 1999, while I was in Washington DC for about six weeks looking for work after law school, someone broke into the Explorer and stole a pair of rollerblades that was in the back seat. And they stole all of the mix tapes. All of them. I still think about it every now and then. Who steals mixtapes? They mean absolutely NOTHING to anyone but the person who made them and maybe one or two other people. The tapes themselves aren't worth anything. But they mean a lot to the people who owned them. A year or so after that, someone else broke into my car and stole the stereo. Its replacement did not have a tapedeck, because I didn't have any tapes anymore and I was unlikely to ever have them again.
Fortunately, I'm a packrat. I still had most of the legal pads where I plotted out the mixtapes. And I embarked on a two year project to reconstruct them onto CD. Technology improved, though it still seemed like the ripping process was still painful. And in about two years, mainly when I was in Berkeley, I was able to reconstruct most of them onto CD. I even made a few mixes for CD only, mainly road trip mixes (Taos Roadtrip 2001 is a particular favorite). The CDs, like their tape predecessors before them, lived in my car in a carrying case until the Explorer crash in 2011. I'm not quite sure what happened to them after that. Their track listings are backed up on my computer.
iTunes came out in the mid-00s, and in 2005, I embarked on the great CD ripping project. All of my music is digital now. I put all of my CDs away in 2012 during the kitchen renovation, and I can't believe I'm typing that I'm vaguely considering putting them in the family garage sale we're having in a few weeks. I consider them backups now.
All of the surviving mixes have been turned into iTunes playlists. They've made it across three computers and are backed up on two external hard drives. I listen to them every now and then when I'm feeling nostalgic.
I still make playlists. Most of them are for exercise, but sometimes for long drives as well. But they seem different somehow. Dragging and dropping a piece of music into a playlist is so effortless. I don't have to worry about how much time is left. I usually do playlists on "shuffle" so song order isn't all that important. It's easy to skip to the next song if I don't feel like listening to whatever comes up. There isn't generally a narrative or theme, though some of them do have that sense of time and place that the original playlists did. I'm headed on a road trip next week, so I'm certain I'll be putting some music together for it. And maybe, for old times sake, I'll draw out the mix making process to really make it special.
*Side note: I still have the Dream Machine Cube (third one down on the list) next to my bed. It keeps perfect time (unlike the HD clock radio I got a few years ago), and until I got my ipad three years ago, I used it as my alarm. Thing has been next to my bed from 1986ish to 2014. I have no intention whatsoever of replacing it.