Before I had the self-awareness to even know that I was doing it, I was using music to connect with people in absence of understanding how to do so otherwise. One such glaring example has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s because the U.S. political landscape has made it difficult for me to set aside my differences with Republicans, even those I love. And there is a mixtape that I prepared and gave to someone many moons ago, when like now, I was afraid that any real engagement would set back our relationship.
In the seventh grade, I gravitated to the girl in my class whose hair was the highest and make-up the brightest. She knew who The Cure was because of her older sister. I soon learned that her older siblings were all in their twenties. She was a surprise to parents who were pretty much done with being parents. My parents, on the other hand, were still deeply engaged in the work of keeping me safe. For example, they had a rule that I must dismount from my bicycle whenever a car passed me on the 15 mile-per-hour road on which we lived. Unlike at my house, at Liz’s house, we smoked in her bedroom and experimented with alcohol and boys when her parents were away. She and I were perfect foils. Quiet and loud. Cautious and bold. I brought her security; she brought me spontaneity.
Throughout middle school, we enjoyed new wave, collecting band t-shirts, and playing with black eyeliner and hairspray. We listened to The Cure’s Disintegration in her bedroom while painting our nails black and plotting our next excursion, usually cutting through the neighbors’ yards in her parents’ development to get to the local bar where the cigarette machine was unmonitored by the door. We would be friends forever. I was sure of it.
But something happened. I can’t exactly remember what. Maybe I repressed it. We had traded boyfriends—that may have been the death knell. What I do remember is that as I became more enamored in high school with the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and The Misfits, Liz began wearing tie-dye shirts and moccasins. She had defected to the school’s hippie contingent. Her identity changed. Her friends changed. Our spheres diverged, and our close friendship collapsed.
Meanwhile, throughout high school, I was trading mixtapes with pen pals from across the country. They opened my mind. One pen pal made me a tape that bridged Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop with Pink Floyd and Jefferson Airplane. My little high school cultural walls began crumbling.
track list for Pop Goes the Warhol pen pal mixtape
After a year or so apart, Liz and I began exchanging friendly hellos in high school hallways. She told me about her long-term boyfriend. We were becoming reacquainted. One day, Liz and the boyfriend picked me up so we could spend some time together. Would we rekindle our friendship? We went to the boyfriend’s house. I watched in bewilderment while they took bong hit after bong hit. I sat awkwardly smiling, unaccustomed to drug use. I waited for conversation to commence between lighter flicks and the gurgling of bong water. It was a cordial visit, but one that was never repeated.
That year for her birthday, I did a strange thing. I wanted to tell her that I loved her and that I appreciated her for who she was and what she liked—that I didn’t expect her to always like what I liked. I wanted her to know that she would always be special to me, even after we grew apart. And I did not know how. I took that tape that my pen pal had sent me—the one with Pink Floyd—I dubbed a copy of it and gave it to her. The beautiful artwork on the tape given to me by the pen pal was replaced with a boring TDK insert for the copy for Liz. I wrote “Happy Birthday” on it. I explained to her that it was a copy of a mixtape that I had been enjoying. Any pride I may have normally had about selecting songs and assembling a mixtape experience for someone was eclipsed by this need to share, to try to connect, and to not think too hard about it–to try something imperfect.
pen pal mixtape artwork
Liz told me that her boyfriend and she listened to the tape in his car before school and liked it. I was thrilled.
We never spent much time together again. As adults, though, we did reconnect. Now we get in touch on each other’s birthdays, on Mother’s Day, and at Christmastime. She moved with husband and children to a farm in the South-Central U.S. while I moved outside of the nation’s capital. Our conversations sometimes remind me of the city mouse/country mouse fable. I suspect we may have divergent politics to match. Last year, I delicately dropped a conversation about wearing masks during the pandemic when it seemed we were sailing into threatening waters.
One summer, my tiny backyard garden produced a freakishly gigantic zucchini. Liz sent me lots of suggestions for using it, including some zucchini bread recipes. She often jokes about how I should come visit the farm and how she will put me to work there. Recipes are our mixtapes now.
The gulf between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. feels insurmountable sometimes. Something like the same raw anger of adolescence possesses me when I hear people echo talking points from Fox News. It shuts me down. It feels incomprehensible. I don’t even want to understand. I rationalize that not talking or engaging with the loved ones with whom I disagree is best. But I know it’s rash, and it’s unfair. It’s unfair to them and to me.
Somewhere, deep down, I need to find the resolve to just connect, somehow, imperfectly.
Sarah runs this website for fun. She loves music and literature. She works statistics for a living. She saved all her mixtapes. She snapped the photo below upon completion of this blog post for posterity. And she changed the name of her 7th grade best friend.
Thirty years ago this fall, I started high school. Around midnight on a Saturday night, my sister and I cycled through the 6 television stations received at our parents’ house. We landed on channel 40. “Hey! This is not Pat Robertson! This is not the 700 Club! What in the world is channel 40 playing right now?” And then Nick Cave came on the screen. “Quick! Grab a VHS tape! WHAT IS GOING ON?!”
Thus started the best high school education for which I could have hoped, every Saturday night at midnight.
Below is a clip from the VHS tape that we used to tape our first night of Noise Network. The show included mind-blowers like The Residents, PiL, Siglo XX, and Trotsky Icepick!
And coming soon, my interview with Jeff Moody, host of Noise, who tells me the story of this long lost jewel of a music video show made with passion in Kenosha, WI in the 1990s.
This is a paean to perhaps one of my favorite songs of all time, put on a mix tape for me in 1996. I was thinking about how I take more solace from this song than from almost anything else. So why not anthropomorphize it?
I’m listening to you listening to me. It sounds so sweet. You are reminding me of that time I was feeling a variant of the same thing I feel now- restless, reaching, ready for something new. I heard what your vocal cords emanated. I heard the pathos in your tune. We bonded.
We are together in this existential morass of life. It’s cool.
Your sentiment was carefully chosen by someone who cared for me. A friend who knew I would enjoy your quirky plaintiveness. He knew me well. When it played in the car, we would sing along together with abandon. “Talking to you! Is like I’m talking to an animal in a zoo!” we laughed.
I hear you sing it and the good memories well up. Ah, there’s that joy again. Old friends are irreplaceable.
You remind me of other times, too. Of walking around my college campus long ago, of wearily studying my fellow train passengers on an early morning commute, of a lift in my step while returning home from a run. Sometimes I need to hear about you reading someone’s life story in her “wild, stray eyes” to feel connected to who I was, who I am, and who I will be.
Life is absurd and sad and kind, you tell me. Come here. I want to give you a hug.
Part II picks up where Part I left off–in the midst of an online chat (in several installments over 2 months) between Wrence and John focusing on a mix that Wrence sent to John in Berlin in January of 1993. John had not listened to the mix for many years. Wrence had not heard it since he made it 24 years ago.
Wrence: I had been recording Wilson’s shows on ‘ZBC for years before I met him. I didn’t even know he was the same person as my fave DJ until around the third time he and I met.
John: Do you remember sitting around the apartment and pulling drawers from that desk where I kept my 45’s? Each of us would take a different drawer (A-F, G-M, etc.) And one of us would get Wilson’s box of 45’s. And we’d take turns playing 7-inches. That would have been in 88/89 I guess.
Wrence: Yeah, I remember you and I both were so energized by playing records, basically. We’d only just met back then and that was about our only shared activity at first. Others surely will know the activity, it was basically alternating turns at the turntable and saying, Oh yeah! Great one! Now I suppose it’s what we do with Facebook, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, and whatever apps.
John: I liked your Mekons records. Of course we shared a love of the Beatles. You turned me on to Eric Dolphy, who I previous only knew as a Mingus side man. I did not “get” all your 70’s Stones records at first, but came to appreciate them.
Wrence: You still have my meager vinyl collection, right?
John: You know, I also recently pulled out a WZBC aircheck from 2006. I was back in Boston and back on the air for a few years around then. Wilson was visiting Boston. He sat in with me for a great show! When Wilson came back to the states, he took your records and his. He talks on the 2006 aircheck about going to sell some of the records, but then changing his mind. He says you told him to sell them. But he couldn’t do it. I think he put the lp’s in storage for you somewhere. I think he still has the 45s.
Wrence: What was in that collection? Do you remember?
John’s desk, which still contains cassette tapes
John: Off the top of my head… La Peste, Candy Flip, Virgin Prunes, Paula and Paula … I’m running to that same desk, which I still have, with my 45’s and old tapes….
… From a mix called, “John, Wilson and Wrence’s Jukebox, Vol. I”:
The Neats, ? and the Mysterians, Todd Rundgren, The Nazz, Mission of Burma, Colin Newman, Jane and Barton, Durutti Column, Bongwater, Eyeless in Gaza…
Vol. II track list seems to have gone missing. But Vol. II was apparently taped over my little brother’s cassette of Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins!
Should we turn to track list of PRESIDENT CLINTON tape?
Wrence: The track I treasure most from the PRESIDENT CLINTON mix is Tina Harvey’s cover of “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadows?” This is kind of a tangent but I posted that cover to the FB group called “scattered smothered & covered: songs by others” and it didn’t get the applause I expected. But, that group really is the most fun group for music on all of Facebook. Recommended. The contributors there are all top notch lovers of great, rare music.
Sorry for the detour. We can get to the track list now. 🙂
John: Tina Harvey is a track I was never able to place when I got the tape back in ’93. I was guessing she was someone like Marianne Faithful or something. How did you and/or Wilson discover her?
Wrence: Wilson loved that track. We never knew where she came from. It may have been her only release. Wait, let me check Discogs…
Very minor, but so great. It was a real find. Wilson had the lp.
John: Cool! And what about the classical piece that begins the tape? I never knew what that was, but it’s something I’ve since heard in the soundtrack of big Hollywood movies.
Wrence: Yes, it’s in many film soundtracks. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It’s the kind of thing you listen to when thinking of 9-11 or Hiroshima or The Holocaust. Very somber. I mean the bombing of Hiroshima. The city itself is actually a pleasant, vibrant metropolis now.
John: So then you follow Samuel Barber’s Adegio with all of side 2 of Peter Jeffries & Jono Lonie’s At Swim 2 Birds lp…. and near the end of that you start switching to the NPR broadcast and back… Do you remember actually making this tape?
Wrence: At first I didn’t remember at all. But… As I kept listening it did happen that 1993 came back to mind. I would say I don’t recall the actual session of making the thing, but I recall the time when all of these would have been my listening, my personal playlist in the apartment. At Swim 2 Birds especially is something that I hadn’t heard since that time, 24 years ago. And it sounds great even now, doesn’t it?
John: Amazing! And I must say it was wonderful to hear it in 1993. That was one of my own records, which you and Wilson were keeping for me. It was a favorite of mine that I had not heard in about 2 years!
Wrence: Ahhhh! that explains why I hadn’t heard it since.
I think WZBC listeners would feel right at home with this tape. Very “NCP” (No Commercial Potential), yeah?
John: Well, the mix runs the gamut. Wire, Undertones, Television Personalities, Mekons… all very consistent with the kinds of rock that ZBC would play during the day. At Swim 2 Birds more nighttime “NCP.” But million-selling artists like John Lennon and Neil Young would not get featured very often on any show on WZBC. The Eric Dolphy thing would have been fine on NCP, but as a practical matter, WZBC did not feature much jazz on NCP.
Wrence: Yes. Very eclectic.
John: Back then, I had not listened to much Hi Records stuff besides Al Greene. The Ann Peebles on side 1 was a door opener for me. Great track!
Ann Peebles photo from I Can’t Stand the Rain
Wrence: “I Can’t Stand The Rain” has one of my favorite grooves ever. God that is a good recording!
John: I visited Memphis. Got a tour of the Hi Studios by Willie Mitchel’s grandson, who runs it now.
Happened impromptu. He just happened to arrive while my girlfriend and I were gawking outside. He had some time and invited us in for a quick tour. We got to take our pictures singing into Al Green’s mic and stuff.
Royal Studios photo, from www.royalstudios.com/history
John: Stuff like that happened to us every day in Memphis. Show up after the BBQ joint is closed. They invite us in and feed us anyway….
Wrence: Ann really is like a female Al Green, eh.
John: I’ve bought stuff by Ann Peebles since. I don’t think anyone is a female Al Green. We went to his church too. He gives 2 services every Sunday. One for the real congregation. One for tourists. Pretty bad ass.
John: I’m wondering how spontaneous the NPR mix-ins were.
Wrence: I think it was very spontaneous. For kids reading now, these were the days before social networking apps and “gays in the military” felt very big and controversial at the time. Now it’s kind of a big yawn. I probably just switched the hifi from turntable to radio spontaneously, as you say. The tape itself, by the way, is in places not so fun to listen to. All the scratchiness over the Adagio for Strings at the intro. The radio crap interrupting the musical flow…
John: Yes, the radio switches are a bit jolting. The final song from the Jeffereis/Lonie lp gets butchered!
But the Wrence spontaneity shines through. I had to laugh. It was like I was right there in the living room watching you do it! And imagining Wilson yelling from the next room, “Wrence – what the hell are you doing out there?”
Wrence: Were you living in Kreuzberg 36 at the time?
John: I was living with a pastor at the time – near Alexanderplatz – in the downtown heart of East Berlin. I can remember listening in my room in the pastor’s flat in Mitte. He was divorced. He had a place big enough for a whole family, but he lived there alone. He let me live there for free for a year or so. He was one of my English students.
Crappy iphone photo of East Berlin in 2017, from Sarah’s tourist photographs
Wrence: Did the pastor hear the tape, too?
John: Oh yes. He loved listening to the NPR passage and talking with me about it. He was very interested in learning what NPR was relative to commercial media like CBS, NBC, etc. And discussing the content of the piece. And getting to the point where he could understand the reports. It was perfect. They speak very clearly, but not in a childish way. And the content was also interesting. … and he could rewind it and listen again to the parts that were hard to understand at first. He was less interested in the music!
Wrence: Thinking about how funny memory works. I can remember some moments from 1963 better than 1993.
John: Yes, that’s why rediscovering artifacts like this can be so powerful. Music seems to be especially powerful when it comes to memory. I was at a wedding recently. The groom’s uncle was pretty far into Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t leave his wife’s side. He would peer long and hard at every face, knowing it was someone he probably knew, but could not place. But he could sing along to Irish drinking songs! They played a bunch of those and everyone gathered around him and sang along with him. It was quite moving.
Wrence: Many of us must have brains that function along that continuum someplace. My memory seems both great here and lost there.
The connection between everything from the opening Adagio through to Eric Dolphy on side 1 of the mix sort of indicates to me that all that Widows Walk and Kraft-o-Matic listening probably added some new sophistication to the musical culture I’d taken as my own by then. I was rock and soul as a kid, then punk and dub in early 20s, then this period.
John: Some of the other tapes you sent me had typed track lists. You gave each side of the tape a title. Raucous, Out There, Blue, Soulful…
Wrence: That sounds like me.
Do we need to get the other tracks covered here? Or let the readers just go and listen if they like?
John: I don’t think we need to do song-by-song. But if there are any stories that come to mind for a particular track or sequence… Actually, do you have any photos of us from back then? I have almost no photos of myself from the 80’s and 90’s.
Wrence: I’m going to be sorting through photos (stored up in the attic) today in preparation for the family gathering in Boston next week. Maybe I’ll find something.
Editorial note from John: Wrence did not find any photos of us. But here are a couple photos of us taken in Boston about 1 week after this conversation:
John: I’m now listening to the “Jukebox” tape that was missing a track list. I’m just going to blurt out the songs as they come on – non-sequiter style. But we can keep talking about whatever else.
Wrence: OK, go.
John: No Surfing in Dorchester Bay right now.
Wrence: Richie Parsons, Future Dads
I actually have to go soon and get packing for the trip and setting up my new iPhone before I leave for the states.
John: The reunions next weekend during your visit are going to be something! There are so many people in Boston who I met long after meeting you, but who knew you years before you and I met each other.
Wrence: Right, it is funny how two people in a vaguely common set of circles of friends know some of the same people from different periods. I know what you mean.
John: I’m going to lie down to sleep listening to this mix of our old records!
Chat Conversation End
Go to Part I of this story for more about John and Wrence and WZBC, Boston College radio in the last 1980s.
A note from Sarah: We are a year into the Trump presidency and the only thing I can tell for sure is that hindsight, while it may or may not be 20/20, certainly feels better than the uncertainty of the present and future. My friend from around Washington, DC here, John Straub, engaged in this online chat with his old friend during the first months of the Trump administration. They reminisce about politics in the early 90s. And music. And Boston. And friendship. It’s a pleasure to share their story.
Editorial introduction from John: My friend Wrence and I met in Boston in 1989 or so. I had moved to Boston in 1984 to attend Boston College, where I became very active at the student radio station, WZBC.
Boston is blessed with a lot of college radio stations that can actually be heard in large areas of the city. MIT (WMBR), Harvard (WHRB), Emerson College (WERS), Tufts University (WFMO), and Boston College (WZBC) all devote significant airtime to punk, indie and avant-garde music. With so many “competing” alternatives on the dial, the different stations have organically differentiated their programming. There was plenty of overlap in the 80’s (everyone played Joy Division and Husker Dü). But WMBR tended to favor “less pretentious” punk and indie stuff. WERS devoted more time to reggae than the other stations did. WZBC, where Wilson and I were DJs, devoted more time to avant-garde music – with 40 hours of programming per week set aside for music with “No Commercial Potential.” Wilson and I both had No Commercial Potential (NCP) programs in the 80’s and early 90’s. Wilson’s was called The Widow’s Walk. Mine was called The Kraft-o-Matic Bed o’ Nails.
Wrence grew up in Boston and sang in a local punk band called 007 (later Dub 7). I graduated from college in 1988. In 1988/89 I shared an apartment with a fellow WZBC alum, who we will call Wilson. In 1989, Wrence and Wilson moved to a different apartment together, where I was a frequent guest. We spent a lot of time listening to each others’ records in those apartments.
In 1991 I moved to Berlin. I left all my records with Wrence and Wilson for safe keeping. They sent me mix tapes, which featured a combination of tracks from all of our collections – including my own! In 1995 I came back to the States for grad school. Wrence and Wilson happened to be moving abroad that year, so I took the combined record collections with me to grad school, and sent occasional mixes to them.
Wrence still lives abroad. Wilson has since moved back to the states and reclaimed his records. The 3 of us are still in touch, but not always regularly.
The following online chat (in several installments over 2 months) between Wrence and myself focuses on a mix that he sent to me in Berlin in January of 1993. I had not listened to the mix for many years. Wrence had not heard it since he made it 24 years ago.
JAN 28TH, 1:46PM
John: Hey Wrence, … look what I found in a DC record store yesterday:
Dub 7 7″
Wrence: Wow! I’ll upload the Dub 7 pic to the 007 Facebook page
John: I’m currently listening to a cassette you sent me in early ‘93 when I was living in Berlin and all my records were back with you and Wilson! The mix is called PRESIDENT CLINTON. I’m burning it to CD-R.
Wrence: Cheers! I’m going to dig out old cassettes someday and get digitizing! That mix is from back when we still believed in Bubbah. Haha!
John: Clinton had just been inaugurated. The eventual “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” compromise had not yet been conceived. Clinton had said in some speech as President-elect that he planned to issue an executive order to keep his campaign promise about ending the ban on homosexuals in the US military. The Joint Chiefs and Congress were freaking out. George Stephanopoulos and Bill Clinton are quoted in the NPR piece saying they were going to consult the military about how to do it – but it was going to get done.
Wrence: Right, it’s all coming back now.
MAR 7TH, 5:59AM
Wrence: Did I paste Bubba’s face on the tape like that, or did you?
John: Writing on spine is definitely you.
Photo of Clinton is clipped from a newspaper by you. It was cut to exactly the size of a cassette cover. I took it out of the cassette case and turned it sideways to scan it for the cover of the CD-R I sent you, just so the face and the cassette spine would be oriented the same direction.
Wrence: Excellent. You saw my excessive attention to detail and raised me some. Haha!
MAR 8TH, 11:40AM
Wrence: PRESIDENT CLINTON mixtape posted to Mixcloud in 2 parts. Anyone can hear the mixes (side 1 and side 2) at these links:
Samuel Barber (composer), String Quartet No 2, Op. 11: II. Adagio,
performed by I Musici, Album (Label, Year)
Peter Jefferies & Jono Lonie, Side 2 of At Swim 2 Birds (Flying Nun, 1987)
Where the Flies Sleep
The Standing Stone
Short Was Fast
(Intermittent radio announcer: Central Artery Northbound clogged up, NPR, All Things Considered Headlines: Lifting Ban on Gays in the US Military, Fighting between Serbs and Croats, Weapons Inspectors in Iraq)
Ann Peebles, I Can’t Stand the Rain, VA: The Hi Records Story
(song released in 1974)
NPR – All Things Considered, Lifting the Ban on Homosexuals in the US Military
Wire, Feeling Called Love, Pink Flag (Harvest, 1977)
Undertones, You’ve Got My Number, Why Don’t You Use It?, 7” (Sire, 1979)
John Lennon, Jealous Guy, Imagine (Apple, 1971)
Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch, Out to Lunch (Blue Note, 1964)
Can, Butterfly, Delay 1968 (Spoon, released 1981, recorded 1968)
The Beatles, It’s All Too Much, Yellow Submarine
(Apple, 1969 – song recorded in ’67)
Television Personalities, How I’ve Learned to Love the Bomb,
12” (Dreamworld, 1986)
Television Personalities, Sad Mona Lisa, Privilege (Fire Records, 1990)
Mekons, Slightly South of the Border, The Edge of the World (Sin, 1986)
Mekons, Oblivion, The Edge of the World (Sin, 1986)
Neil Young, Tell Me Why, After the Gold Rush (Reprise, 1970)
Neil Young, Birds, After the Gold Rush (Reprise, 1970)
Tina Harvey, Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadows,
Tina Harvey (UK Records, 1973)
Tina Harvey, The Long Way ‘Round, Tina Harvey (UK Records, 1973)
Galaxie 500, Cheese and Onions,
VA: Rutles Highway Revisited (Shimmy Disc, 1990)
Intro to someone’s version of Pere Ubu’s Final Solution?
Finally – The Actual Chat: SAT MAR 25TH 10:56PM
Wrence: So, why this tape in particular?
John: Well, what’s interesting on Sarah’s blog are the connections between the people who exchanged the tapes. Often the tapes were part of courtship. And now they’re artifacts left over from personal relationships that may or may not still be intact. The music itself is fun to discuss, but especially in the context of the personal connections.
The stories around the tapes that you and I exchanged are not stories of courtship – at least not between you and me.
And the fact that you mixed in NPR stuff about then recently-elected President Bill Clinton – it struck me as quite a contrast to the recent election and inauguration that we just experienced here in 2016/2017.
Wrence: True, we weren’t courting in the romantic sense (maybe sort of a bromantic admiring of each other’s record collections, right?).
I won’t veer us off into national politics too much, but it is interesting that Trump just yesterday suffered his first major defeat from Capitol Hill with rejection of Trumpcare. In the news excerpts from 24 years ago, we hear the joint chiefs had to discuss gays in the military the very first week of Clinton’s presidency.
At the time, much of the left probably had hopes for the Clinton era. Now we’re all so fed up with that neoliberal, sell-out Dem crap.