I traveled a lot this year. My journey took me through America, from Boston to Chicago to Kansas to Houston. Occasionally you’d find me over the borderline as far away as Africa or Asia, or in a big country somewhere else, like down under. Once I even crossed the river Styx without paying the ferryman! All without leaving my library.
If you just had an a-ha moment, you know that I’m talk-talking about my iTunes library, which grew exponentially with 80s music as I digitized my old cassette collection. I didn’t move very far geographically – a tape ended every 30 or 45 minutes and I ran across the room to flip it – but I did go back in time.
I’m so excited to get all of this music on my computer and discard hundreds of obsolete cassette tapes. No more rewinding or using the eraser end of a pencil to spin a stubborn reel. I got my first CD player in 1988 and did a mandatory persuasive presentation in high school Speech class about it, smashing a record with a hammer and pulling the guts out of a cassette to demonstrate the comparative durability and capacity of the Compact Disc.
I mentioned my family’s earlier influence on my musical tastes in Side One of this article, but the 1980s were truly my formative years. They say that popular music is the soundtrack of our lives, but at that age – junior high especially – it seemed to be the focus of our lives, and we were loving every minute of it. Those were our glory days, when Gina worked the diner all day, a girl named Rio danced across the sand, and Nikki was everybody’s darling. There was no need to buy a copy of “Thriller” or “Every Breath You Take”; you simply needed to turn up the radio to hear those ubiquitous tunes. But if you wanted a one-hit wonder, you’d have to buy the cassette. The other option was to sit by the radio, hoping Rick Dees would give a Weekly Top 40 intro long enough for you to get to the record button of your cassette deck before “Our House” or “New Girl Now” or “867-5309/Jenny” came on. If you happened to be listening to Casey Kasem, you might miss the button while reaching for the stars, or (during the Long Distance Dedication), the tissues.
A box of Kleenex was definitely in order when I got to my mix tapes. Up to this point in the digitizing, it was mostly laughter, like when I remembered that the Breakfast Club was a band as well as a movie, or when I would hear tongue-in-cheek shouts of this is my jam! from my wife in the other room for every fifth song. For many, the 1980s meant MTV, new wave and rap, but to me the lasting invention of the decade was the Mix Tape.
The seriousness of a relationship in the 80s and early 90s could be judged not only by sexual consummation, but also by whether one had prepared 90 minutes of meaningful music on cassette, complete with liner notes that looked like somebody dropped an M-80 into a pack of Magic Markers. One of the romantics, I fancied myself the Jam-Master Jay of mix tapes, filling each side of the tape with carefully selected hits and serenades, interspersed with film and comedy clips. In retrospect, I would have gotten more action if I focused more on the girls and less on creating the perfect K-Tel collection, but I’m happy with how it worked out. I gave my wife a Digitally Remastered Box Set of her old mix tapes that she appreciated more than anything I could have downloaded from iTunes.
As I transferred the cassettes, many of them proved as flawed as my high school speech had demonstrated. No matter what I did with the Dolby Noise Reduction switch, Hall & Oates warbled even more than they did in the 80s, while Twisted Sister twisted to a painful death in the hungry cassette player. As these degraded physical symbols of my childhood slipped away, though, I realized that the tapes held more than analog music, and lasted a lot longer than expected, at least in my memory.
There was the road trip I took with my best friend’s family and the Eagles; the Bigger And Deffer hoops games on a youth center court in my ironically Richer and Whiter suburban town; and the mental photograph of my first slow dance, kindly engineered for us by a friend’s mother at a chaperoned co-ed house party. It was awkward, but it was heaven. And although it was 1984, it was not “Heaven,” by Bryan Adams. Inexplicably, it was Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” which is slow-dance bliss until Jimmy Page takes over and you find yourself looking at your dance partner in a wide-eyed “stare way” that says, “What the hell do we do now?”
Eventually we said goodbye to the 80s, Chris-Crossing from jumping with The Pointer Sisters and Van Halen to jump-jumping with Kris Kross in the 90s. I’m not one of these guys who insists that his generation was better than those that followed. I won’t presume to know what musical memories will one day move today’s teenagers – perhaps shared iPod buds or YouTube dedications – but I will share some advice. When I first heard it, this advice was nothing more to me than a random sentence between electronic hand claps. But as I listened to the noisy tape reels wind away into oblivion this year, the message suddenly came across with digital clarity: Hold on to 16 as long as you can, changes come around real soon, make us women and men.
Read Side One of this column.
I wove more than 40 intentional 80s music references into the text of the article and ran an iTunes gift card contest for the first person to correctly identify at least 25 songs and the associated artist. The winners found even more I didn’t realize I put in. See the answers.