I needed a break from the COVID news, so I went in search of my mixtapes
DUBLIN – My dentist will confirm that I’m long enough in the tooth to remember the heyday of home music recordings, a time in my experience of bulky stereo equipment requiring its own furniture and cases of cantaloupe reused containing dozens of multi-genre LPs.
If you’re younger than me (or just confused) I’m talking about the Mixtape era. Coincidentally, my own back catalog from this period enriches my life again after years of neglect in an upstairs closet.
Long before COVID-19 hit, I worked from home, alternating between my duties as a domiciled father and my efforts as a freelance columnist and author. To create the illusion of a busy workplace, I would turn on the radio for long periods of time during the day, catch up with the news, and hear complaints from fellow citizens, things you would do in any office. .
It is a habit that I continued to indulge in, even after my son no longer needed my constant care.
But about halfway through the current emergency, I realized I was living my own version of Groundhog Day. Except that instead of waking up to chat with Punxsatawney Phil, I listened day after day to the same procession of reports on Irish and American radio stations. The kick came when I found out that I was speaking on the radio regularly, inserting myself into various shows, offering incisive ideas and jokes, often in hilarious voices.
I knew then it was time to pull the plug out, at least for a while.
And so I went in search of my mother mixtape vein.
In the late 1980s, I shared a house with a great guy named Pat Gleason. We met while we were both working at a Cape Cod bookstore and decided to take a winter rental together. As part of this arrangement, I provided a Bose audio system consisting of a precision turntable, megawatt receiver, and two massive speakers. In addition, I had a dual cassette deck, with recording and reverse playback functions. Considering the breadth of my vinyl record collection and Pat’s own records and tapes, the stage was set for us to become amateur sound engineers.
As anyone who’s compiled a mixtape knows, there are two main challenges: song selection and timing. Ideally, songs should reflect a loosely defined theme. For example, two of my productions are titled “Music To Mull By” – a soft, flowing side that, due to wear and tear, is no longer playable – and “There No Accounting For Some People’s Taste” – with songs by Blood, Sweat and Tears, David Bromberg, the band Edgar Winter and Moving Hearts, among others.
And because I was getting tired of applying vinyl to a turntable to listen to my favorite stand-ups and comedy groups, I put on a tape called “Steve’s Comedy Classics” which includes the routines of Bob Newhart, Tom Lehrer , Monty Python and Garrison Keillor.
When it comes to the timing element, I’m always amazed at how little dead air there is at the end of each tape. Some sides even stop for a few seconds after the end of the final song. I remember making lists on a yellow legal block of the title and length of each song. Deciding on the first eight or nine songs was easy. Finding the songs to fill a 45-minute side that were appropriate for both the theme and the length was the hardest part.
Without a doubt, however, I reached the peak of my home recording career when I wrote and recorded six episodes of “The Biff Spinckley Show,” with skits and commercials of varying quality voiced exclusively by the your. I had just discovered the BBC radio parody “Knowing Me, Knowing You” with Alan Partridge. In addition, I was adjusting to my new pre-internet life, 15% unemployment in Ireland. If my wife hasn’t referred me for advice, she never will.
I tried to pass on the magic of mixtapes to my 21st century 22 year old son, whose musical choices instantly spring out of the ether. It is difficult to sell. But he just might come back if my tapes can survive a decade or two.
Because the music on them is timeless.
Originally from Medford, Steve Coronella has lived in Ireland since 1992. He is the author of “Designing Dev”, a comic strip about a young Irish-American from Boston who was recruited to run for the Irish Presidency. His latest book is the “Entering Medford – And Other Destinations” collection of essays.