Friday, July 25, 2008

It All Started With A Mixtape...

My wife just got her first iPod, and a couple days ago she asked me if I could re-create the first mixtape I gave her in an iTunes playlist. Could I recreate a mixtape I had made nearly thirteen years ago for her iPod? Yeah, I could do that. If she had asked me to do something simple like change a diaper or take out the garbage, I probably would have said "in a minute," then promptly forgotten about it. But creating a playlist for my wife was something I was willing to get to work on immediately.

The timing of her request was fortuitous because today happens to be our tenth wedding anniversary, and re-compiling that first mixtape provided a good opportunity for a trip down memory lane. To make a long story short, I am a lucky guy. Very lucky.

Beyond my eternal eagerness to fuss with my music, I was touched by the sentiment behind my wife's request. It showed me that after all this time (though I shouldn't need reminding) that she still thinks of me as something more than the father of her children and husband (not that those are unimportant things). Even though she knows me so well now, she still thinks of me as an interesting person, someone whose ideas and passions are worth exploring. I find this thought comforting because I know I feel the same way about her.

It didn't take me very long to put the playlist together because I had already loaded most of the tracks onto my own iPod. I exported tracks from my iTunes library and imported them into hers. Then I purchased the one track I didn't already have on my iPod from the iTunes store rather than rip it from vinyl. Next I scanned the original cassette cover, cleaned the image up a bit in Photoshop, then pasted the picture to the tracks' meta-data to replace the original artwork. Viola! A perfect digital simulacrum of an analog cassette mixtape (minus the added analog hiss and plus some artifacts from lossy compression).

The speed and ease with which I was able to complete the playlist was somewhat disturbing. I remember the amount of time it took me to create the original tape. Back then I had to do everything in real-time. I couldn't just drag, drop and be done with it. I had to listen. I had to give things some thought. I had to carefully match the sound level of each track, making sure the volume never peaked too high on my cassette deck's VU meter, all the while maintaining a relatively consistent volume level.

Today iTunes makes everything a little too easy. If two tracks don't flow together properly, there's no need to rewind and erase, just move the offending track elsewhere in the mix. iTunes also automatically normalizes the volume of the mix with its "sound check" feature (though, it must be said, not as well as a skilled mixtape wizard would have). And of course there's no need to actually listen to the thing (if indeed you can still call it a "thing") before you finish it.

Back in the day, putting together a good mixtape was hard work. Some might call it a lost artform. I wonder what a young man seeking to impress a special lady does these days without the mixtape as an ally? Do they loan their potential sweetie a flash drive or email them a Rapidshare link? The RIAA might have something to say about that. Do they gift some very special tracks via the iTunes store? That could get expensive fast (90 minutes of music would cost considerably more than a good blank type II audio cassette). And besides, what if that special somebody you have your eye on has already downloaded the She & Him track you just know will win her heart? You just wasted 99 cents buddy. Cripes, what if she owns a Zune instead of an iPod? Life today is complicated. I'm glad I did my romancing during a simpler era. I wasn't very good at it then, but I don't think I would have the skills needed to pass along my genetic code in the brave new world of digital media.

Listening to the simulated mixtape on my own iPod, it is clear to me that I gave this tape some serious thought. However, it's not always clear to me exactly what I was thinking. Flying Saucer Attack? Spectrum? I could have easily given my future wife the (entirely unfounded) impression that I was a frequent recreational user of prescription cough-syrup. Knowing what I now know about Marjorie's attitude toward drug abuse, that could have been a fatal mistake. What if this mix had given her the wrong idea about me? My mind spins toward all sorts of invariably-unpleasant alternate realities (most of them involving permanent bachelorhood and my parents' basement). I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and I have to shake myself back to reality. Mercifully, I'm not living in some alternate universe where an ill-considered mixtape cut short a promising romance. I can hear Marjorie and our two children quietly breathing as they sleep. I'm not sure how I ended up living in this the best of all possible worlds, but one thought is inescapable: I am a lucky guy.

I find it slightly embarrassing to remember that Marjorie was not the first woman for whom I had made a mixtape. As best I can recall, before Marjorie these tapes were almost never warmly received. I strongly suspect most of them were discarded before they were even listened to (I could almost see the the silent thought bubbles these tapes would engender: "What no Peter Cetera? What kind of freak is this guy?"). Einstein once defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." So why did I keep doing it? Why did I make a mixtape for Marjorie when I should have known it was most likely a waste of a perfectly good type II cassette? Because I hoped things would turn out different this time. Because I wanted her to like me. And by that I mean I wanted her to like me, Pete Bilderback, the kind of doofus who thinks it's a good idea to put a cheesy instrumental produced by Joe Meek or a song warbled by Will Oldham on a mixtape for a woman he's trying to impress. Miraculously, she did!

Somehow it worked. I don't know how. I don't know why. But it worked.
She liked the guy who made her the mixtape. A few years later she agreed to marry him. A few years after that she gave him a perfect son, then a perfect daughter. Maybe it didn't really start with the mixtape, but not a day has gone by since we got married ten years ago that I haven't counted myself lucky. Every day I have spent with this marvelous woman has been a gift and I want to thank her for everything she's given me. Thank you.

Non-Dairy Tape
Side one:
Air Miami - "I Hate Milk"
Number One Cup - "Divebomb"
The Tornados - "Telstar"
Love - "Stephanie Knows Who"
Barbara Manning - "[Untitled]"
Stereolab - "Doubt"
Kendra Smith - "Stars Are In Your Eyes"
Flying Saucer Attack - "In The Light Of Time"
Spectrum - "Undo The Taboo"
Yo La Tengo - "Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)"
Cardinal - "Silver Machines"
The Moles - "Already In Black"
The Velvet Underground - "Sweet Jane"

Side two:
Son Volt - "Windfall"
Palace Music - "New Partner"
The International Submarine Band - "Blue Eyes"
The Byrds - "Reputation"
Camper Van Beethoven - "Heart"
Fairport Convention - "Si Tu Dois Partir" and "Matty Groves"
The Magick Heads - "Standing At The Edge"
The S.F. Seals - "Joed Out"
Sally Timms - "Half Past France"
Buffalo Springfield - "Flying On The Ground Is Wrong"
Opal - "Fell From The Sun"
The Bats - "The Other Side Of You"
Barbara Manning - "B4 We Go Under"


Darren said...

What a great post. Congrats to you both on ten years!

Can I safely assume you've read Nick Hornby's Songbook and Rob Sheffield's Love is a Mix Tape. If not, you probably should.

Anonymous said...

You may be a lucky guy, but your wife is certainly a lucky lady herself! This is a very sweet post. My boyfriend and I exchange cds periodically - there is still an artifact, and the handwriting on the cd sleeve. But I wonder how long that will last...

dan said...

Wow, it's been 10 years? You guys must be almost as old as I am.


Anne said...

This post made me smile all the way through for about a thousand different reasons. Happy anniversary, Pete and Marjorie!

(I have Love is a Mix Tape sitting on my to-read shelf.)

Gordon Winslow said...

Nice post! I'm pretty sure every cassette I gave to a girl has been in a landfill for many years, and that's a good thing. Yours is much better than anything I would have made a decade and a half ago.

Opening side two with "Windfall" reminds me of what we lost when we lost sides. Finish side one, take a breath, reflect, launch into side two. "Windfall" is great as an opener for either side, but I don't think it would make any sense in the middle of something. I'm definitely not one of those cranks who thinks we need to go back to the old days, but, to me, drama is in three acts and, perhaps just due to training, I think music should be in two. Unless, of course, it's your double-LP concept rock opera epic masterpiece.

Pete Bilderback said...

Thanks to everyone for the nice wishes and feedback.

Anonymous said...

I remember the joy of making mixtapes very well. Even trying to incorporate songs that I recorded off of my favorite college radio station. But I also find that I agonize just as much over making mixes now - iTunes just makes the process simpler (and cheaper, no wasted Maxell 90s). I'm not one of those guys who pines for the good old days, as I enjoy my music as much as I ever have. My only complaint is that sometimes I have such easy access to it, that I overwhelm myself with choices.

Jon Sanchez said...

This is so good!!! I've been craving that Kendra Smith record and can't find it anywhere. Searching led me to your post. What a great mix tape. Thanks

Doug said...

Excellent post. Reading this got me ruminating on the mix tape, the first part of which I just posted here (and I did credit your post in it).

After reading your post I also happened to be on emusic, and I was inspired to download a few of these tracks (Yo La Tango, Stereolab, Air Miami). Please don't tell your wife, however; she might get the wrong idea.

Jonathan Rimorin said...

Fantastic post. And anybody who fell in love with you by putting in a tape and hearing "I hate milk and you" pound out of the speakers must be a fantastic woman. That's one fantastic mix, btw.