been standing there in front of my music collection for about twenty minutes. It
was starting to affect my body. This, of course, means that I am in the type of
top-flight physical condition in which standing in one place for more than five
minutes "affects" my body. Point being... I had been there awhile, and I wasn't
going anywhere any time soon.
I was actually on the way out of town- a trip back to my hometown of Arroyo
Grande, California to visit old friends and family. From my residence in Los
Angeles, "home" is a mere two-and-a-half hour drive, hardly long enough to
qualify as a road trip. I certainly couldn't use the word "sojourn" to describe
it, yet the journey is long enough to make the choice of music I take on it to
be very important. Granted, I'm one of those people for which the choice of
music on a five minute drive to the grocery store is still key. Extremely key,
in fact. I guess my subconscious soul cries out for the right type of musical
inspiration when I rush out for milk, Q-tips, and a pint of Ben and Jerry's The
Flaming Chips (Ok, ok... that's not a real flavor, but if those hippy
businessmen can honor Phish and Jerry Garcia then I'm pushing for a delectable,
chocolate chip bonanza ode to the Flaming Lips. Have dreams, kids. Big, freakin'
dreams). So, the problem was this: me likey the music. Particularly while
driving. I was set to drive. I had no music I wanted to listen to.
How can that be though? I am a middle-class, single white guy. We are why they
created the "multimedia" section at Best Buy. We spend our days lost in the
aisles of record stores. We turn down dates because girls like American Idol
without a sense of irony. I am in that class and of that ilk, and so I have my
fair share of music to choose from. Aside from the albums, singles, and
soundtracks staring back at me from the shelves of my Svenstrudle Bromhilda
media rack from IKEA, there are several mix CDs and compilation tapes to choose
from. And those- the wonderful mixes and compilations- are the bread and butter
of my road trip soundtracks. They are my personal timelines. A sort of musical
hieroglyphics on the cave walls of my life. No journey is complete without a
handful of these at my side. Have I used enough fancy and romantic music
journalist words and phrases to get across that I value my mix CDs and tapes
There. Done. It's established. Moving on...
So, again, why am I staring at these precious pieces of gold and not wanting to
pick up even one of them? Simple. I've lost my passion for music. Or rather, my
own music. It happens. You've listened to everything you love so many times that
the effect has waned. You've shoved your favorite new band or song down your
friend's throats until even you've started to throw it back up. You've got
albums on the shelf that you bought for one song and never quite got around to
listening to the rest. You've got albums that you bought for reasons you can't
remember. And you've got that third Phantom Planet album that you think you
listened to once, but you can't be sure because it was so forgettable that you
forgot you listened to it by the eighth track (and that album is sitting next to
the Phantom Planet album you love, but don't listen to any more because a
certain network television program forever ruined it for you by overexposing one
of the songs). To make matters worse, all my mix CDs are just the same type of
songs with the same lonely themes and the same lonely melodies. When I sit down
and make a mix, my soul is just trying to tell the same story and the result,
though usually a collection of great songs I cherish, is generally the same as
the mix before it.
So there I was, still standing in front of my music collection, and that
three-hour drive was looming a little larger. For a moment I thought that
perhaps I should just turn my back on my music and listen to the radio on the
way up. Just spend a little quality time with the current top ten hits. Find out
what's going on in Hoobastanks' world (wait, I said current top ten hits. Oh,
snap!). Yeah, it was that bad. After awhile I forced myself to take some of the
old stand-by mix CDs off the rack and grab a couple of long-lost albums. I even
pulled out the There's Something About Mary soundtrack. I hadn't listened
to that since, well, Cameron Diaz was attractive and funny as opposed to
annoying and gaunt. I survived the trip, but on the way home, between another
sing along to The Lemonheads' If I Could Talk I'd Tell You and a
sentimental journey through the middle eight of Jude's King of Yesterday...,
I decided that it was time to get help. I needed a musical shot in the arm. I
Enter James from Colorado.
James is music fan, a true nut for the "whole thing," meaning that lonely, wry,
nice guy who can take it all in stride as long as he has a good mix tape at his
side "thing." According to his MySpace profile (no, I'm not on that thing.
Really), James from Colorado likes twenty-one different styles of music,
burritos, and taking naps in the afternoon. He cries at sad movies and dreams of
working in a mom and pop record store. He wants to meet Tom Waits and admits to
not fully understanding the importance of Radiohead. This here, my friends, is
the guy. This is the guy that can save me from my music-loving dry spell and
restore my passion for mix tapes, great songs, and longing for the moment when
you hear that one song at the right time in the right place that forever adds
texture to your life. This was the guy.
James from Colorado was going to make me a mix tape.
"The call for help"
Putting a call out for help is a lot harder than advertised. Your pride takes a
hit no matter how desperately you need the help (and I needed a lot of help). I
sell myself as a man who knows his music quite thoroughly. While I've started to
accept that I don't know as much of the newer stuff as I used to, I still take
great pride in knowing my "genre" well. I've got a great soundtrack to my own
life. So, it was hard to reach out.
I put together a simple message and sent it to James. I can't exactly remember
what it was. I know that's not the best reporting job. I'm supposed to present
facts and paperwork to back things up, but I really don't recall my words. I
just remember it was short and to the point. For the sake of story we'll say it
"James, please help me. Make me a tape. Restore my love of music. Also, I've
stored the plans for the Death Star in this Astromech droid."
James from Colorado did not hesitate. He jumped into the fray with a burst of
courage not seen on the mix tape scene since 1978, when some dude in Hamilton,
Ohio named Eddie made a tape of new wave songs for his friend Arnie after said
friend uttered the words, "No, I think the Bay City Rollers are my favorite
band." James wanted to provide a little comfort for me, let me know that I'm not
alone in this crazy world. Even though he was faced with a big task, restoring
my love of music, James remained grounded, saying, "No, I wouldn't take it
personally [if he wasn't inspired by the tape]. If it put a smile on his face
for a moment or he found a new artist to check out, then my work was done."
You hear that? "... then my work was done." He's just a music fan helping out
another fan, simple as that. No, it was more than that. Those are the words of a
hero, folks. I'm just saying.
Our hero . . . ehhh . . . James set out to make a tape with a theme that he knew
I could relate to. So, he chose "not having a woman" as the theme with a little
bit of "getting older" sprinkled in. He didn't even have any back up themes or
alternate choices. Apparently even the quickest read through any collection of
my ramblings makes the reader believe that I spend most Friday nights alone.
James didn't even need to dig too deep into my website, MySpace profile (I
mean... what's that? I'm not on that), or articles. He just looked at the time
of the message I sent him asking for help and he gathered (correctly) that no
person with a "better half" would be up at that time worrying about whether or
not he'll be able to appreciate mix tapes any more. So, with the cry for help
answered and the theme in place, James set out to make the tape.
"Attention to detail"
"All the songs on my tapes are from my records." That's a direct quote from The
James. No CD to tape. No MP3s. No iPod. None of that. James takes songs off of
his vinyl collection. No substitute. Which means he has to have the records in
the first place. They have to be there, on his shelf, or they don't go on the
mix tape. That's an attention to detail that would make Lester Bangs shout and
Cameron Crowe cast Orlando Bloom in another movie. I can only imagine what the
scene was like inside James' music-making war room. Records scattered
everywhere. Note pads and white boards with scribbled-out tracklistings. Charts
and graphs. Blood and sweat. Maybe one or two fist-sized holes in the far corner
of a wall. This is how tapes are made, kids. This is why the mix tape is so much
more powerful than any other form of music sharing. It's organic.
It was an all-hands-on-deck situation as James scoured through all of his songs
for the perfect ebb and flow. "I try to start my tapes off with a bang, then I
slow it down near the end of side one and continue on side two, and then I build
back up," said James to a reporter who looked eerily like me. He added, "The
main thing for me is the flow." For James, and for many mix tape experts, the
flow supersedes all other factors. That even includes the theme. Which is why,
sadly, my tapes have yet to include any Britney Spears songs. It's hard to put
Mama Britney next to a Rufus Wainwright track, though God knows I've tried. With
all the songs selected save for one, James pressed "record" on the tape deck
(James tried really hard to get The English Beat's "End of the Party" on the end
of the mix, but, in the end, it was just too much of a downer. This somehow
proves what Spock said about the good of the many outweighing the good of the
one. I think. Maybe not, but remember when Spock sacrificed himself for the crew
of the Enterprise? Then he died and they shot him into space in that little
lipstick tube-like space coffin. But, then he was alive and they found him on a
planet. But he was a boy again and really horny or something).
That was cool.
After a few hard days, the tape was finished.
"Into the mail"
With the tape finished, James put it into a six by nine inch envelope and mailed
it. There was nothing else dramatic about that. He just put it in, sealed the
envelope, and mailed it out. It cost him a buck and some change. Pretty boring,
huh? Why don't you just skip this section and go to the next one.
"Here comes the Calvary"
I trudged up to my house one afternoon and found the package sitting on the
front porch (I'm so glad the United States Post Office places important packages
right out there for the world to see. I dare you to take it, thirteen year-old
neighbor kid with the Misfits T-shirt. Take it). My spirits lifted at just the
sight of the package and- I could be wrong- I swear I heard a choir of angels
singing softly over the majestic sounds of blaring trumpets, announcing the
arrival of this precious package. I mean it sounded like that. Though it might
just have been the sound of a "tricked out" Chevy Impala honking its altered
horn up at the nearest intersection. Regardless, the tape was in my possession.
I have had people in my life that will make me a CD and toss it my way. It's a
nice gesture and I appreciate it, but I can't help but be a little disappointed
when the CD they hand to me is just that... a CD. Nothing else. No jewel case.
No cover. No tracklisting. Nothing. Nada (that's Spanish for nothing). All they
give me is a CD-R with words scribbled across the bottom in a Sharpie. Something
like "Rock Mix" or "Some Toad the Wet Sprocket" (Seriously. A whole CD).
It just diminishes the gesture and the effect of the disc. What am I going to do
with it? How am I going to store it? Balance it on my index finger until I can
get to an available CD player? The making of a mix tape or CD is not complete
until you package it right. My good friend Jay from Pasadena is always taking
the time and going the extra mile to package his mixes properly. James from
Colorado is no different.
The tape, a quality sixty-minute TDK, was in a jewel case for starters. Yet
James had taken the time to cut out a picture from a Denver newspaper that had a
hand-drawn women (eyes only) staring back at me with a sexy twinkle (or was that
a protective glare?) in one eye and some blonde bangs covering her other eye as
if holding back the full prize for later. On the spine of the jewel case was the
title "Everyone Makes Mistakes...: A Mix" cut out from several newspaper sources
and painstakingly glued to the cover. On the inside, the tracklisting was given
a similar treatment, as was a sentence-long description of the tape. That's how
it works. That's how you package a mix tape. I was hooked, and I had yet to even
listen to one note of the music.
01. I've Been Tired - The Pixies
02. Sneaky Feelings - Elvis Costello
03. Be My Love - Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper
04. Dancefloors - My Morning Jacket
05 .Mr. Pitiful - Otis Redding
06. Art Snob Solution - Of Montreal
07. Lovely Rita - The Beatles
08. Lady in the Front Row - Redd Kross
09. That Awful Man - The Muffs
10. Motel 6 - Cub
01. Inbetween Days - The Cure
02. Uncool - The Meices
03. Without Love - Nick Lowe
04. Fired - Ben Folds
05. Better Off Without a Wife - Tom Waits
06. Nightclub Jitters - The Replacements
07. Ko Ko - Charlie Parker
08. Nitemare Hippy Girl - Beck
With tape in hand and anticipation in the air, I dove in. Its good thing some
cars still have tape decks, eh?
"One is not enough."
A quick glance at the tracklisting let me know that I was in for a little
musical journey that I have not been capable of leading myself on for some time.
And that, I suppose, is the whole point. I have gotten myself stuck in "my
music." Over the years, I have found my style and quietly, very subtly, settled
into it. It is a struggle to branch out. We can all get there. Yet in my hands
was a tape that someone else had made for me with some songs that I wouldn't go
near if left to my own devices.
It started strong, as previously advertised, with The Pixies and Elvis Costello.
Hearing Black... eh... Frank... Francis... uhhh... Black... hearing the lead
singer of The Pixies screaming about being tired of the "game," so to speak, was
a great anti-start to a tape about longing and loneliness. There comes a point
when, despite your loneliness, you just want to throw your hands in the air and
walk away from it all. Great start. It set the tone. The tape rolled through
some raw lust (Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper) and flowed perfectly into some classic
ache and Classic self-pity (My Morning Jacket and Otis Redding) and then
flowed into a mix tape masterpiece. James managed to go from obscure (Of
Montreal) to legendary (The Beatles) and into modern rock radio (Redd Kross). It
was seamless and not a small feat. I am a Beatles nut (I know, I know... so few
of us), yet I have always struggled to find a way to put Beatle songs on mixes
because they often stand out like giant beacons blaring a bright light into the
night sky in the hopes of rousting out a superhero to come save the city. Beatle
songs are bigger than life and can take the mix tape listener out of the desired
mood if not handled properly. James handled it perfectly. My mood was in tact,
and I sailed onto side B.
The Cure moaning about growing older poured right into The Meices "Uncool," and
I experienced a wonderful flashback ("The Meices," I exclaimed to no one else
but me. "I totally forgot about them!"). Solid, non-obvious Nick Lowe and Ben
Folds choices took me into the keynote track, one that changed my personal
outlook on an undeniable legend.
Outside of some memorable movie appearances, I have never been a Tom Waits fan.
It was never about his unmistakable voice; I could always dig that. He is the
type of artist that isn't always immediately accessible. You have to really
crawl into his albums and stroll around, get a feel for it all and find a
comfortable place to sit. So, unless you're on board early in your musical
listening life, you might not find your ear drawn to Tom Waits music. Or you
just aren't old enough- there's not enough pain built up into your soul. James
claims that he received a prophetic word from his own father when, at sixteen,
James made fun of Waits' voice ("He sings like a wino!"). With an all-knowing
smile, his father said, "Listen to him after you've had your heart broken a
couple times and then come talk to me." James did, and his father was right.
Now, at 29, it was my turn. James had placed a live recording of Waits' "Better
Off Without a Wife" that came with a wonderful, insightful, and downright funny
spoken intro from Waits. This song is a masterpiece because it is not a direct
cry about loneliness. The song's not about that and, these days, neither am I.
I'm passed that point. I've done my crying and now I'm just confused about where
I stand on love, marriage, and sharing a checking account. In "Better Off
Without a Wife," Waits' strikes the perfect mournful tone as he tries to
convince himself that remaining alone is going be all right. I was hooked. I
have a new theme for my thirties. It was The Song for the mix, the one
centerpiece that brings you back to the tape. You'll listen to all the others
songs long after they've lost their initial effect just to get back to The Song.
Waits' tune was it, and now I have a new artist's catalogue to explore. Just
having that task ahead of me, learning all about Waits, is enough to bring back
some of my passion for music.
The tape ended strongly with The Replacements (always time for Westerberg), some
old style class with Charlie Parker, and another less obvious song from Beck.
The tape was done. I called for help, it came, and it worked.
For the first time in a long time, I took off my own tinted glasses and listened
to a collection of songs without my own preconceived notions about what I like
or what I can listen to. I discovered new songs, new favorites, and material
long forgotten. I rediscovered a little piece of my passion for music. Sometimes
in life you need a little back-up, a helping hand to tilt the wheel in your
favor. The same applies to music. Where are your ears at? What's in your
collection, and what could be there? Take a listen to what is affecting other
people's lives. You just might need it, too. Don't go about it alone. One is not