I’m in my office, scanning a three-rack stack of old cassette tapes. As my finger runs down the middle column of the lower rack, there are Keith Richard’s Main Offender, T. Rex’s Electric Warrior, The Best of the Band . . . Like everything in those racks, each tape has its own story. I can remember liking “Wicked As It Seems” after I saw the video on MTV, a black-and-white montage that featured a near-elderly Keith Richards emerging from the darkness to mumble his lyrics. I can remember discovering T. Rex after seeing that iconic image of Marc Bolan, face covered and top hat on, the look that Slash was copying. I can remember buying The Band’s album as a primer to that group I’d heard about, the one that backed up Bob Dylan in the ’60s.
And I don’t want to throw them away.
Some of the hundreds of tapes in those racks don’t even play anymore. Every once in a while, when I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll pop in various ones of them to find that the spools won’t budge. I try flipping it over, rewinding and fast-forwarding— nothing. I try using a pencil to loosen it up manually— nothing. Then I have to make that decision: Do I throw it away? Maybe . . .
I can remember when tapes became a thing. In the early 1980s, my brother and I used to buy new music at a record store in the open-air arcade of the now-dilapidated Normandale Mall. The albums had unusual prices, like $7.69 or $8.29, proclaimed on a bright-colored sticker attached to the plastic wrap, and singles in their paper sleeves were usually a little over a buck. But you couldn’t carry an LP and a record player with you. And then came tapes! And the Walkman.
Those racks of tapes symbolize my youth. My mother bought them for me, one by one, as she grew increasingly frustrated by the piles of music laying all over my teenage bedroom. Those disparate titles testify to my changing tastes. Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil and Megadeth’s Peace Sells . . . But Who’s Buying and— oh my goodness, Danzig, with their comic-book villain doomsday metal. And Anthrax’s attempt at rap, I’m the Man. I look, and then wonder what I was thinking when I was 14 and 15. Then I went classic: Steppenwolf, Hendrix, The Doors, The Band, Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison. That was 16 and 17. Then it hit: “alternative.” I’ve still got my required listening – Nevermind and Ten and Nothing’s Shocking and Hole’s self-titled album and everything Sonic Youth did up to Dirty and BloodSugarSexMagik and August and Everything After and a couple of REM albums – with some other oddities: The Dead Milkmen’s Smoking Banana Peels, My Life with a Thrill Kill Kult’s Kooler Than Jesus, and a couple of Taang!-era Lemonheads albums. Those document 18 and 19 and 20— later I settled down from grunge, let my goatee grow into a full beard, slowed down the tempo, and accepted my eclectic tastes: James Taylor and Widespread Panic, CSN and Neil Young, Victoria Williams and the Dead, Chris Whitley and Gordon Lightfoot.
And I don’t want to throw them away. Though I’m right now chuckling at the person I was when I put so much stock in those songs, those outdated relics need to stay where they are and continue collecting dust.
Because I’m not reconciled to all that yet. I may be forty-something, married with kids, and I may spend my time worrying about lesson plans and healthcare premiums, but I still haven’t made sense of the shit that went down when I was a teenager. Even though I question the quality of the music that those miles of tape contain, I also still question the events and the people and the attitudes that made me seek solace in those lyrics and those melodies and those sounds. I may be middle-aged, but I’m not dead.