When you work in a record store, rather, if you worked in a record store when I did you were always listening to music. It was your vocation and your avocation and it was what you spent your money on. In my early 20s I spent, conservatively, 14-16 hours on any given day listening to music. It was what you did. And having so much at one’s fingertips led one into the always fun, not always rewarding world of mix tapes. I made mix tapes, loved doing it, loved sending them to my friends, loved to hear their feedback. I did it all the time. And I remember when I got my first CD burned, for the computer, and how challenging it was to replicate what I could do with a tape deck and a CD changer. Of all the mix CDs I would go on to make, there are only a grand few that I think back on fondly, that flowed like an old mix tape.
With a tape you could have side one and side two. You could start with a bang on side one and end the tape with a song that was so amazing you just wanted to flip the tape over to see how it was going to follow the first side. You could build 30 or 45 minutes of music, throw in snippets of whatever to ease the flow of songs, and then just kick it up and out into the ether. Then you’d name the tape and the sides, and take it with you. A CD demanded 74 continuous minutes. It felt like an eternity to build up that much music with no pauses or breaks. To find yourself creating something that felt familiar you would have to create two CDs to replicate what you could do on one tape. It was challenging and felt unnatural.
Over the next few weeks I will be writing about a few of these early mix CDs I made, the stories behind them, finishing with a fat file of the mix itself, mixed together for your listening pleasure. Along the way I hope to talk about mix tapes, how I view those tapes now in my middle age, and how the advent of MP3s and digital playlists make the issues I felt when I transitioned from tape to CD feel quaint. I’ll begin, as I so often do, in the past.
I remember the day and the circumstance as if it was twenty minutes ago. The CD title says it all: Winter 1-1-02. The six weeks prior to this date were incredibly up and down for me. The bookstore I worked in had moved from our cozy old space to a new, mall-sized store. The selection got bigger, and so did the responsibility as the addition of a media section bumped me up from bookseller to manager. I’d spent a solid month in a cavern-sized space unpacking pallet after pallet of music, organizing it, setting up sections, and alphabetizing everything to build to the store’s re-opening. It was everything I had ever wanted up to that point in life, the opportunity to build something of my own. I won’t say looking back that it was what I thought it would be, but at the time it was everything.
After opening the store with what felt like five employees, we were driven nearly insane by post 9/11 inspired spending, the new location, the new areas of the store, and so on. I would leave the store at lunch and remember driving back into the parking lot, my mouth on fire with stress-related sores due to the mania I felt like I was descending back into. When the holiday was over, it felt like a vacuum. I decided to make a calm mix CD for myself and my girlfriend. My gift to her two weeks prior was a mix CD for Christmas. And I was growing into wanting to make calm, quiet mixes to allow me to soundtrack emotional events and things like the weather. And so I looked at the music on my shelves in the basement, on my dresser and in my dresser drawers and put together a series of songs that I thought felt needed to be heard on a dark snowy nights and cold blue winter days.
There are two “sides” to the mix; one without words and one with words. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule of the mix, but I did try to find soft, soothing songs to bump up between songs with words. A quiet guitar version of the Shadows’ classic “Apache” starts the disc and quickly, and quietly, shifts into Sinatra’s version of “Dindi” by Jobim. “I haven’t sung so quietly since I had laryngitis” is the Sinatra quote that placed the song on the mix. The peaceful sounds of Satie’s “Gymnopédies” gave way to a Bill Evans number before an instrumental Creeper Lagoon song gave way to an old Coleman Hawkins track, which makes me think of fireplaces and big soft flakes of snow. Now after the Hawk I feel like I made a miss-step (one that I did not correct on this new edition of the mix) by plunking a George Harrison song right before a nice old jazz track. I should have swapped those out, especially as I placed an instrumental Roots Manuva cut before a (now) famous Sigur Ros track. The nine minutes of “Svefn-G-Englar” remain a favorite of mine. I have always delighted in the singing of Sigur Ros and the way that the sounds of the songs may or may not be words. This song was meant to transition between side one, with its mostly instrumental tracks, to side two, the side with words.
In my heart, side one ends with Sigur Ros, and side two starts with John Martyn. “Over the Hill,” from the LP Solid Air, is so different than what came before it on the mix, so pastoral, so sunny and cheery. I love it so very much and the song brings so much out of me each time I listen to it. It can make me smile or make me cry by making me think, making me remember, making me feel so many different things. Next a fun song by Milton Nascimento pays respect to the volume of Verve LPs I was buying at the time, then a song by the French band Mellow. Great opening line, great refrain, great sound. Talking about snow tied into the winter theme, especially thinking about the cover of snow on the ground. Next comes another fantastic song, “Countdown” by the great Lindsey Buckingham. The lyrics are questioning, open. “How the madness fades” still resonates with me. Another song that can make me weep like a baby, especially now when I hear the lyric “Right through your fingers/time slips away”. I was 27 when I put that onto the mix. A song by the band Oranger turns into a Cat Stevens song (Rushmore soundtrack anyone?) before heading into the closing parts of the mix. “River” by Joni Mitchell is next, with its Christmas piano opening and its gorgeous sound.
This disc was put together in late 2001 when Ryan Adams was the new genius on the scene. I remember hearing “Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd” the first day I was being trained at my store’s Grand Rapids headquarters. It stuck in my head then and has been in my head ever since. And ending the mix, unbeknownst to me at the time foreshadowing how I would spend the latter part of 2002, is the song “Winter” by the Rolling Stones. It felt natural, to end the mix with a song of the same name. Goat’s Head Soup may not have been everyone’s favorite, but this song rightfully sets it up among the Stones’ greatest tunes. I always felt that the song ends romantically and that was part of my mood at the time: romance.
On January 1st, 2002, I loaded up my 35mm camera and my medium format Pentax that was the size of a tank and drove across town to the Fenner Nature Center. I went walking on a crisp, clear day with white snow and blue skies. I took rolls of film and took picture after picture. The images of the day, coupled with the music, fused into one in my brain. I will always remember the circumstances of the mix. I will always remember the circumstances of the day. 2002 went on to being a true annus horiblis; summertime was difficult beyond anything I could have comprehended. And yet it passed, as so much does.
Here is a link for the mix, in one handy/dandy track. Once again my attempts at uploading to SoundCloud were waxed due to the estate of JURGEN INMAN! And here are some of the photos I took that day, to better give you an idea of where I was at the time in my life and within that moment.
Mike Vincent is a teacher, dreamer, grouch, and runner. He lives in northern Michigan and his favorite Beatle is George Harrison.