Revisiting the mechanical world of walkmans and cassettes
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Embracing simplicity, returning to roots, wallowing in nostalgia, all the charges would be accurate to a degree or two. But really, it was an exercise in revisiting old music, some of which I still listen to, some I had forgotten I ever liked.
For a day, I would listen to nothing but my walkman. My only musical intake would come via a primitive piece of machinery that has joined the same format graveyard as beta players and 8-track decks. That day became two days, and then three. And it was a blast.
This grand, insular experiment began rather simply — I just wanted to sleep. I’m in the habit of going to bed to music, but a couple of weeks ago, my iPod, which I’ve had since 2005, began freaking out. The headphone jack only delivers music to the left channel now, and short of an expensive repair, there doesn’t seem to be any way to save it. It had a good run, though.
But it leaves a rift in my bed/headphone listening habit. I could listen to my phone, but my phone is also my alarm clock, so that needs to live somewhere that forces me to physically get up in the morning. And then came a realization. I have a tape player in a crate somewhere. And I have some tapes in there, too.
The walkman would live again.
Originally, I just wanted to wind down. So I reached into my Pearl Jam box, found a tape I’d originally created for my dad, dug out my walkman, and hit the pillow with my headphones on.
I started in the middle of a song, "Off He Goes," as I began the process of drifting towards sleep. But as the song ended, I got a little jolt of excitement — from the hum of the motor. In bed, in the dark, closing out another day and looking towards the next, I went to sleep with my walkman on more nights than not. And I had forgotten about that hum, the tape spool rolling while the gears pushed on towards the next track on the side. That soft, low buzz is what brought me down from the constant buzzing energy that I usually feel.
This is not my original walkman, by any stretch. Rather, it’s a tape recorder purchased in college with note-taking in mind, the budding journalist looking to be as accurate as possible. But it certainly fits the bill, and it’s made by the same company (Sony) as the walkman I had in high school, decorated with self-made Pearl Jam and Rolling Stones stickers, a constant companion for several years.
There’s a bit of history with this tape player, too — I recorded a couple of Pearl Jam concerts on this deck in 2003, and I listened to one of those sets. In fact, this wound up dovetailing well with a general revival I’ve felt for that band in the wake of Pearl Jam Twenty, with the DVDs airing on my TV quite a bit over the past couple of weeks. I had more Pearl Jam tapes than of any other band, and it was a fun revival to listen to songs I’ve heard a million times the same way I first heard them. A little muffled, and through the prism of how I prioritized their music when I was 19.
And it all set the stage for more tapes, more bands and more music.
The mix tape is a celebrated, legendary art form, and rightfully so. The mix tape allowed for music fans to create a snapshot of their lives at a particular moment, share emotions with friends and hopefully more, and assemble a companion that can travel. Mix tapes aren’t thrown together in minutes like playlists or CDs. They’re carefully selected, poured over, prepared, created and loved.
I don’t have every tape I’ve ever made — a good number of them are still at my parents’ house. But I have a few dozen, and I found a mix tape I made in 2003, likely one of the last before my double tape deck died.
I didn't look at the tracklisting for this tape, save for the first song on each side, and rolling back through what I listened to eight years ago was a trip. Not that it was that different or surprising, but the priorities — which bands, which songs, what order, etc. — was revealing. Local bands following up the White Stripes? R.E.M.'s Monster? Phish? Goldrush? Jackpot!
Digging through the collection, I pulled out two more tapes. One was made before my senior year of high school, and serves as a classic rock primer — the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix — and includes some bands I haven’t listened to in close to a decade, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, Metallica, the Doors and Buckcherry. The window for Buckcherry and me was a very, very brief one, I must add.
The third, simply called “Driving Tape” and noted by my typewriter, is a mix of four or five artists, mainly the Allman Brothers Band, Pearl Jam, Zeppelin and Blind Melon swirling around each other, likely made with the winding back roads of Dartmouth, Mass., in mind. In terms of driving, my favorite moments were and are never aggressive; they’re always smooth and slow, with the clouds rolling in. Having Duane Allman’s guitar punctuate that setting every three songs certainly sets a mood.
This was an exercise all about mood. Listening to personal compilations of the Kinks or Nirvana, or live shows, it’s now obvious, to me, that I was very interested in cohesive themes and emotions when it came to my tapes. And no one seemed better suited to be listened to on cassette than Neil Young.
Save for his appearances on the previous mix tapes (and a couple of the Pearl Jam tapes), I still have two Neil cassettes in my possession — one is a compilation of his studio stuff, the other a live bootleg with Crazy Horse from 2001, recorded in Vienne, France.
That bootleg served as the highlight of this cassette revival, with Young’s loud, hairy guitars roaring through the headphones and droning on with the spools and the gears. Here, tape hiss and the mechanized beats of the walkman didn’t just live as a playful reminder of a simpler time, but it actually aided and enhanced the music. Neil and the Horse don’t belong to the digital age. They were made to be heard with imperfections, both in the notes and on the machine. It felt like a truer musical experience.
Of course, there are elements that make it impractical. My tape player is too big to fit into any pants pockets, though it fits comfortably in my jacket. Bringing three tapes created a weird bulge in the bag I carry to work every day. Listening in the car required hooking it up to the stereo’s auxiliary jack. That whole “rewind” thing was an adjustment, too.
But the analog buzz, crawling along with a tracklist rather than bouncing around on a whim, fosters a zen-like commitment to the music. Humming in the headphones, the sound slightly distant and faded, the music feels more immediate than when it’s screaming into the ears digitally.
It felt warm. It brought back my earliest memories of being a music fan. And none of my tapes were eaten. It all worked together, like a successful mix tape, to make the entire walkman experiment a smashing success.
And it’s not going back in that crate.
Nov. 9, 2011
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org