Gotta Get Unbottled Up

“We possess ideas, but we are possessed by feelings. They lie too deep for understanding, astir with their own secret life and carrying us with them.”

– Thomas Flanagan, as quoted in The Divided Mind by John Sarno

 

Sort of a cardinal rule—don’t disturb the mixtape artwork. Would you draw on a piece of art that someone gave you for your wall? No. Then don’t mess with the J-card. Hence my ambivalence about writing on the J-card I received from an acquaintance one summer in the mid-1990s. I wrote the track’s artists at the bottom. This is because they had not been provided. Withheld, in fact!

Image of J-card with songs

 

Inside J-card with artists written in

I did, indeed, request Other Artists. I scribbled them at the bottom.

Some of my friends in college lived in Old Ellicott City, MD in a set of small rowhomes on the back side of the fairy-winged, patchouli-laden marketplace running through Main Street.

rowhomes where Spider lived in Old Ellicott City

The rowhomes where Spider lived in Old Ellicott City, as seen today on Google Maps

They were part of a larger group that traveled in a pack. They prided themselves on being rowdy. They drove scooters. They loved mod fashion. They played football. Or was it football as in soccer? In any case, I did not fit in there. I would wall-flower my way around, wearing Dead Kennedys t-shirts, hoping to be able to talk about music with someone, eyes wide at the cacophony of energy.

Enter Spider. He showed up there for a brief period from out of town. He was shy, which I liked. He liked to talk about music. His favorite band was Devo. He was a kindred spirit.

I never used his real name and cannot remember it. But I do remember this. Even though he wrote in the J-card that there was insufficient room to write the names of the artists, he gave me a different reason when he handed me the tape. Instead, he told me he did not write down the artists because he didn’t want me to have negative impressions about any of the songs before I listened. No pre-conceived biases. I was surprised. I wondered if he thought I seemed close-minded. But I was excited about the tape.

My favorite song on this tape, which ignited a lifelong love of John Cale, was his cover of Memphis:

I left Maryland to move home from college for the summer not long after meeting Spider, and this tape was my parting gift. It was a mainstay that summer. Spider and I exchanged some letters and phone calls. That’s how I have this photograph he sent me. “That’s you?” I remember asking him. Even his photograph was obfuscating.

 

Black and white, stylized photograph of Spider, stuck in a mini photo album

Spider. Unfortunately, his photo is stuck in this photo album because of tape I left on the back.

I ran across this photo album a few months ago. Spider’s photo reminded me to dig out the tape. The tape makes me happy! Sweet memories of carefree summer days took the edge off the pressures and emotional weight of the holidays this year.

I asked one of my old college pals what happened to him: “I never really knew Spider- I have no idea…” Although Spider was adept at protecting himself with mystery, revisiting the conditions attached to receipt of this tape has, ironically, reminded me to be free, to embrace mystery. I’ve been thinking about the tabula rasa that Spider wanted me to have about the music—how my most profound moments in life are those with complete openness. It’s a faith that whatever you feel and think and like are all going to be okay. It requires patience, trust, and self-confidence, all of which can be thorny.

It has reminded me of the value of not getting pulled down into the mire of emotional baggage, of preconceived ideas, of unfounded fears that often preface experiences. They sour the milk. They prevent me from getting lost in the joys of life. Or in this case, a Henry Badowski song. May your new year bring happy surprises.

Sarah

Sarah (photo by @grady182)

Sarah makes this website for fun, volunteers at Dischord Records helping on Ian MacKaye’s archive of letters for fun, listens to music, reads, and writes for fun, and spends time with family, friends, and dog for fun. Work is for the U.S. government in energy statistics. If you are reading this, I am honored for your time! Thank you!


The stolen Memorex tape

Stolen Tape

In the mid-’90s I took a year to study abroad in Ireland. If I’m being honest I chose Ireland because I wanted an adventure and I was too lazy to learn a foreign language, so it was either the UK or Ireland for me. Trying to pack for an entire year within the airline’s luggage weight limit was challenging. I made carefully reasoned decisions of luxuries vs necessities.

Ireland’s 220V standard electrical outlets and the limited space in my duffel convinced me to leave my CDs behind and bring only a Walkman and a handful of mix tapes. This was literally the equivalent of Desert Island Discs. The songs I carried would have to last for an academic year.

Drawing of Mark with a walkman

Artwork by Ursula Renner

A lot of the stereotypes of Ireland are well… true. It rains a lot, especially in the West where I was studying at the University of Limerick (UL). I once experienced every form of precipitation in a 30 minute wait at a bus stop – rain, freezing rain, hail, rain, and back to sun.

The drinking culture there is also hard to overstate. All social life revolves around the pub and pretty much everything starts, happens, or ends with a round of drinks. The people are tremendous though. Wit and sarcasm are a national sport, and you will never want for good conversation.

My plan to survive the year with a few mix tapes fell apart in a few weeks. It didn’t take long for me to tire of the tapes and the specific order in which the tracks were laid out.

I was living in a student housing village that was built primarily to house foreign exchange students. There were a few Americans, but the majority were Europeans who were at UL through the Erasmus student exchange program. I got along fine with the flatmates in my apartment, but all my friends lived in flat 42 a few doors down. I lived mostly there and only went back to my flat to sleep.

Most importantly, my Austrian friend Marion who lived at 42 had a small boom box. Music was back! There was a stack of communal CDs next to the box and we would argue about who got to go next and what we wanted to listen to. There were random mix tapes of various Euro bands in different languages. If you’re familiar with the “Now That’s What I Call Music” series, that’s mostly what was playing in 42. I still have a soft spot in my heart for those Euro-pop club tracks from Alice DJ and Robbie Williams to this day.

Drawing of boombox with cds

Artwork by Ursula Renner

I was warming up to EDM and club music, but I still listened mostly to Alt Rock and that scene was pretty good in Ireland. It was different from what we were listening to in the US at the time and I loved the novelty. Therapy?, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, Suede, Blur were just some of the bands that were popular at the time on campus. While I was there, The Stone Roses had just released The Second Coming after a five year wait, and it was the album everyone was talking about. A nearly perfect album in every way.

Ironically everyone liked to poke fun of Dolores O’Riordan from the Cranberries since they were the local Limerick hometown band. No one I met knew her directly, but everyone had a friend of a friend story about her. Who knows if any of it was true. In light of her recent passing, it all seems a bit cruel now so I don’t want to repeat any of those rumors here.

My friends in flat 42 were throwing a house party one weekend. It started off small as all parties do, and then got crowded and out of hand, all sorts of people I’d never seen before. I think it was a good party, it’s hard to recall any particular party, and nothing memorable happened. I fell asleep on the couch in the early morning. I woke up the next day to the smell of stale cigarettes and spilled beer. I put the kettle on and made a cup of tea while trying to shake the hangover off.

Drawing of party scene

Artwork by Ursula Renner

It seemed only fair to help clean up since I adopted 42 as my second home. I started collecting empty cans and half empty glasses of Carlsberg with cigarette butts floating in them like bath toys. Tunes, definitely needed some music to get me going. I went over to Marion’s boom box and popped open the tape well. There was a mix tape in it. No description, no label. I took a chance and pressed play.

Drawing of Mark discovering mix tape by boombox

Artwork by Ursula Renner

It was good. Real good. Some of it I recognized, like The Smiths, Psychedelic Furs, and Green Day. But most of it I never heard before or vaguely recognized. Most importantly it was something I hadn’t listened to a thousand times before. I finished straightening up, put the tape in my pocket, and went back to my flat to shower and go back to sleep.

Later that day I went back to 42, because where else would I be? On the way there I ran into Ciaran, an Irish acquaintance of mine. I was dating a friend of his at the time, and that’s really the only way I knew him. We were both headed to 42.

“Say Mark, did you happen to come across a mix tape at the party? I think I left it there.”

Drawing of conversation between Ciaran and Mark

Artwork by Ursula Renner

I could feel the color drain from my face. I panicked. I have no idea why. It seemed unbearable to part with my new treasure. It was like giving up Gollum’s ring. And so I did the only thing I could do. I lied. I lied straight to his face.

“No we didn’t find anything, I’ll keep an eye out for it.”

“Ach. All right, please try to find it. I can make another one, but some of the songs come from my brother’s collection, and a few of the tracks I recorded off of vinyl and that’s a pain.”

I secretly think he knew I was lying. I think he always had me pegged as a scoundrel. Maybe it’s because I broke up with his friend shortly thereafter. I avoided him afterwards. Ciaran was always friendly to me, but he always had that look in his eyes of, “I know who you are. You’re a no good tape-stealing child who doesn’t have the decency to ask me to make a copy of the tape which I’d gladly do if you’d just ask me.” Maybe that’s not actually a look someone can give. Maybe that’s the guilt talking.

What made it worse is that since it had no handwritten jacket, I had no idea what half the songs and artists were. If I had just asked Ciaran to make me a copy, I could have had just asked him who the artists were. Who knows, it might have even led to another friendship.

I still have the tape. It took years to uncover many of the artists on the tape. I’d play it for various people over the years and occasionally someone would recognize an artist, “Yeah I’m pretty sure that’s World Party.” It wasn’t until the advent of Shazam that I was able to discover all of the songs on the tape.

It’s a classic mix tape. Most of it dubbed from cassette to cassette and a few from vinyl to cassette. The unevenness of the sound levels, the hiss and pop from hitting record and stop. There’s even a great record skip in the middle of The Wedding Present when someone must have bumped the table during recording.

As far as Irish treasures go, who cares about the Book of Kells. I have a rare and singular artifact meticulously handcrafted by an Irishman of what seminal sounds of the mid-1990s were. It’s wabi-sabi at it’s finest. It almost felt like it was crafted specifically for me.

In my mind, a great mix tape comes from someone who knows you well, and then cares enough about you to spend an entire evening composing the right sequence of tracks. They select songs they know you like, songs they think you’ll like, and songs that mean something to them personally and they want to share with you. This tape has all those elements and so I feel like it was destined for me.

Wherever you are Ciaran, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have stolen your tape, and I do regret it–kind of… But take it as a compliment, you make a mean tape. I wish you the best. Sorry and thanks.

Side A
“There is a Light That Never Goes Out” – The Smiths

“Interlude” – Siouxsie & Morrissey

“Lenny Valentino” – The Auteurs

“Your Ghost” – Kristin Hersh Michael Stipe

“Love Spreads” – The Stone Roses

“Debonair” – Afghan Whigs

“Mall Monarchy” – Compulsion

“Pearl” – Chapterhouse

“Brave New World” – New Model Army

Side B

“Pretty In Pink” – Psychedelic Furs

“End of a Century” – Blur

“Hit Song” – Peter Murphy

“Is It Like Today?” World Party

“Shall We Take A Trip” – Northside

“Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm” – The Wedding Present

“Welcome To Paradise” – Green Day

“Basket Case” – Green Day

Mark before his trip to Ireland

Mark – then

recent photo of Mark standing at the beach

Mark – now

Mark has given up his life of crime and now lives in Lancaster, PA where he lives with his wife, son, and two cats. He hasn’t been back to Ireland since the 90s, but would love to return if the statute of limitations will allow him to. He is down to one working Sony cassette player. His current interests include backpacking, K Drama, and hammocking. If you make him a tape, please include a few tracks from the Mountain Goats’ Bleed Out, Boy Genius, DJ Shadow, or Massive Attack.


Boy, I Just Love Mix Tapes!: In memoriam Jeff Briel

The light and sound of old pals – how temporal but real – real always – they are!

I remember my friend Jeff Briel, who passed away just last week.

Mat Darby and I interviewed Jeff and his first band for the ill-fated second issue of our ‘zine. It was a straightedge band called Dead Issue. Straightedge hardcore was serious business back then, but Jeff always had a silly sweetness that betrayed any tough facade. 

This tape was a present from Jeff for my 20th birthday. I remember when he handed me this mixtape, and I was struck by how endearingly “uncool” the cover art was. It was light and sweet, like Jeff.

Mix tape art work: Jungle Book with a character saying "Boy, I Just Love Mix Tapes!"

Cover art for mixtape from Jeff

Track list for mix tape

Mix tape track list 

I don’t really recall how much or how little I spent time with Jeff, or “J Briel” as we came to jokingly call him. He was always around in those days in the way friend circles effortlessly circulate when you are young. I remember Jeff driving us through the York, PA Burger King drive-through. He introduced me to the concept of “a vegan Whopper,” which was a Whopper with no meat or cheese. It was lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles on a fast food bun. It was a little silly, but serious, too. Like Jeff.

Jeff standing in my high school bedroom

I lived in Richmond, VA for graduate school. By then, Jeff’s band Sadaharu was on the touring circuit and came to Alley Katz. He shared his elaborate system for tracking all the album sales. He was very dedicated to it. He talked about moving units, tongue in cheek. Or was it? Sometimes you couldn’t tell with Jeff and it didn’t matter. It was so fun to see him enjoying his band. 

I didn’t keep in good touch with Jeff. I ran into him over the years and sometimes heard updates through the grapevine. This last update was a terrible surprise.

My love to all who loved him. I’m proud to have been one such person. Love to you as you pass through, Jeff Briel. There will not be another even remotely like you, that is for sure.


 

One of These Days, I’m Gonna Get Myself Organizized

Discovering new music is less rewarding than it used to be. Some middle-aged people like me seem to enjoy complaining that new music is not good. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the opposite problem. There is so much of it—an endless fountain of ideas and sounds. Much of it is innovative, inspiring, and just plain cool. So why am I not playing it on repeat like the tapes I bought in high school with my lunch money, many of which I was not even sure that I completely liked? And why do I keep listening to WFMU in hopes of finding a new band to love, chasing down other people’s recommendations, gazing at the Musicophilia website, borrowing and buying stacks of cds, begging for mix cds and then giving them short airplay?

Photo of three 100-cassette racks

Growing up, my bedroom slowly accumulated these racks, in which I neatly alphabetized my tapes. My listening choices were all just here.

I read Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals about 19 weeks ago. The average person lives for four thousand weeks, Oliver Burkeman explains. And here is where your boundless passions can get you into trouble. It is your dim anxiety about finitude that keeps you racing around, as the tally of weeks clicks along. Maybe you are feverishly collecting obscure music references, maybe becoming the preeminent scholar in some arcana, whatever your bag is. “…it’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do,” Burkeman says. If I listen to one of my favorite albums from 30 years ago, I will not be listening to one of my favorite albums- or artists- or songs- from one year ago. I will not be creating an even newer, better, more inspiring favorite. Enter my over-reliance on the shuffle feature on my smartphone; it cycles through thousands of albums and sends up one song at a time, allowing me to avoid a decision.  According to Burkeman, it’s “existential overwhelm.” He says I should discover “the joy of missing out.”

And I have!

I find some peace in admitting to myself when quiet sounds sweetest, when the most comforting thought is “You are here*,” as Adam J. Kurtz says, “*for now.” In the most peaceful moments, the privilege to exist is a great reward. At lunch, I stare out the window with a bowl of food, the moments, and my thoughts instead of grabbing a book or switching on the news. I love the bookends of each day, when I awaken in the morning and take the dog out as the sun comes up and when I lie still at night with the day’s expectations behind me.

But there is another antagonist here, and it’s not just mortality- it’s distraction. Yuck, this one might be the worst. Every few weeks I see my children’s usage of their various electronic devices and consider a new set of rules about screen time. Burkeman reminds us of what we already know but seldom practice: “What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is…At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been.” When you let distractions like Twitter or Instagram commandeer your time, you are “paying with your life.”

And I am indeed distracted. I use the “like”s on Twitter to index playlists or radio stations or albums or tours or books or artwork or ideas that I want to spend more time on. And then I am often distracted by finding more. Neither the deep engagement with these resources nor the experiencing life part happens. And on it goes. To make time for what matters, I need to give things up.

Small stacks of cds atop a microwave

Some of my most pleasurable listening happens while cooking. A few CDs take residency here and tend not to leave. Hence, repeated listens. On these stacks, there is the Yard Act CD I’ve listened to nonstop since seeing them at the Black Cat, a Christmas CD I still have not put away, my friend’s band Glue Factory that I’ve been digging, the Kurt Vile cd that does not get old to me, and some Sunny Day Real Estate cds I dug out when I was contemplating whether or not to go see them play.

Burkeman even suggests that there is something wrong with planning! The nerve! I love to plan. What dreamer doesn’t? Sober up, because Burkeman writes, “Really, no matter how far ahead you plan, you never get to relax in the certainty that everything’s going to go the way you’d like…it’s important to see that this underlying longing to turn the future into something dependable isn’t confined to compulsive planners.” Burkeman believes that a desire to plan is rooted in worry, and that worry is “the internal demand to know, in advance, that things will turn out fine.” Not ultimately beneficial.

Joe Strummer said the future is unwritten and Oliver Burkeman said that “You can never be truly certain about the future.” Do you see the difference? If you embrace the latter, you can let yourself off the hook. Relax. Enjoy the unpredictable. Don’t worry so damned much about writing your future. Just do what you do little by little.

Future is Unwritten movie poster

You Can Never Be Truly Certain About the Future: Let that Free You

What does all this have to do with mix tapes? It’s the time and attention. In present day language, it’s the mindfulness of the mix tape.

You could never plan the tape out perfectly, and it didn’t matter- it was to be expected. The mix tape maker may have been prone to change her mind about a song and go back and start a section of the tape again. If a song getting cut off at the end of side A did not feel right, she was liable to search for a shorter song and try again. No big deal. It was part of the process.

Mix tape playlist with Short Sleep by Love as Laughter as last song

I had a go-to last song for mix tapes during a certain era – Short Sleep by Love as Laughter. Easy to fit! Great outro!

Generally, mix tape making required patience. It required that you miss out on other weekend goings-on in favor of hanging by yourself. Mix tapes required days to make. They required dedication. You focused on the perfect time to press the buttons – only timing mattered in those moments. And musical ideas. Yes, you were awash in your insignificance as you felt around in the wide infinity of musical expression.

Meanwhile, you were hopeful that the tape would be liked or maybe even just noticed among the recipient’s other listening choices. Mix tapes did not guarantee a friend, a partner, a date, or a fuck. They were a way to say hello, I care about you. They were unselfish. Unless you were one of those assholes who quizzed your friend on how closely she listened to the tape, they were a pure gift.

And the tapes cut you off! At 60 minutes or 90 minutes. Or were you a 120-minute tape user? No matter. You are getting cut. Embrace your finitude.

Blank J card for 60 minute tape

60 minutes only. Limits.

I do not honestly know if I have the temperament any longer for mix tape making. I’d blame it on a lack of time, but that is bullshit. (See above.) It’s the choices I make for my time. For now, I’ll settle on choosing one album and playing it over and over until I hear the next song start in my head before it truly starts. Or I’ll choose an old favorite and sit with it like I used to. Baby steps.

 

I hope you are going deep and slow with all you love. Thank you for choosing to spend this time with me.


 

Finale – John Davis discusses a mixtape that presages the Q and Not U debut

In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, I gotta pause to give thanks for a teenage pen pal turned short-lived romance turned lifelong friend. I now have 4 beautiful Davises in my life, and I could not be more grateful. Our conversations about bands and music are balanced with conversations about our children and evolving creative aspirations; it’s the best.

And here in this exciting conclusion, we learn about how becoming less reserved was a personal AND musical transition. Enjoy, and thank you for listening! 

Photo Outtake from Q and Not U No Kill No Beep Beep

Photo outtake from No Kill No Beep Beep album. Photo by Shawn Brackbill

Zoom in of Sarah standing behind John on Q and Not U outtake photo

Zoom in on me smiling ecstatically behind John in outtake photo 

cover of Charles Earland Black Talk!

Background music by Charles Earland