J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Notes From Underground - #41
A Cassette Valediction: Part Two


I never want to own a car without a cassette player.

That may sound like a hyperbolic statement - especially since it's becoming less and less likely that even my next car purchase will have a tape deck installed, let alone all future ones - but you have to see it from my perspective. The first car I drove on a regular basis was a 1988 Chevrolet Suburban, dual exhaust diesel. A friend of mine called it 'the Beast.' When I purchased my first portable CD walkman, I bought an adapter kit to hook it up to the stereo in my Suburban. It promptly blew out a few fuses. I took that as a sign. That car was made for cassettes.

So whether it was those Replacements bootleg cassettes that the most randomly kind person ever in the world gave to me (ask me that story sometime) or Toad the Wet Sprocket's Dulcinea or any other number of tapes I owned, they were the permanent soundtrack. My friend Andrew would often hijack my player when he was riding shotgun. He was perpetually in possession of some sort of tape to put upon me. My first listens to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five came through those tinny speakers. So did my first listens to Highway 61 Revisited.

I won't defend cassettes when it comes to sound quality. But for those of us who came of age with them, there's a feeling about them that is similar to the way people feel about vinyl versus digital music. A commenter on the first part of this series noted that tapes offer a level of complexity/duality that CDs can't, and I think that's why cassettes have felt like the stylistic link, in some ways, from vinyl to CDs. Cassettes offered the portability and versatility that CDs would while maintaining the aesthetic feel of vinyl with two sides to each record. The dip in sound quality was an obvious setback - cassettes offered neither the clarity of CDs or the warmth of vinyl, so from that perspective, they lose.

But they were also the first major commercial format to give control to the listener. Blank cassettes offered us a canvas in a way that hadn't been done before. Who had a vinyl pressing machine in their house? Or how easy to use or non-formidable was a reel-to-reel? People make arguments about the digital-download age bringing about the destruction of the album, but couldn't an argument be made to trace the beginnings of that process back to our ability to make mix-tapes? It was a lot more complex to make a mix tape than a mix CD, but it was still the chopping and screwing of whole pieces of art into new collages.

Until recently I had not thought that much about cassettes. There are two of those cassette holder drawers (you know, the ones with fake wood paneling) that sit here along with the vinyl records and CDs. I listen to tapes off and on in my car, but I listen to CDs or the radio more often. But there's something magical when I pop in that copy of Come On Feel the Lemonheads and the first notes of "The Great Big No" come out of the speakers, somewhat awash in a vague compressed hiss that only a cassette provides. That hiss is as important as the pops and crackles of vinyl and it will always bring a smile to my face.

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