Polyester Plastic and a Magnetic Coat
by Dan Duffy
I have long been an admirer of analog sound storage mediums. Records, eight-track cartridges, cassette tapes. (Not so much CDs, but that’s a discussion for another time). My closest friends and family and I collect records now, sure, but the love goes back a lot further than that. My dad had shelves and shelves of old classical records in the house where I grew up. Even though classical music wasn’t my thing as a kid, I always admired the collection for its heft, its scent, its physicality. Those records seemed way more real to me than my mother’s Simon & Garfunkel tapes, or my sister Jeni’s Billy Joel or Elton John tapes, or my older brother Jim’s Megadeth and Ratt and Poison and Anthrax tapes.
All that aside, though, I have to say that cassette tapes have probably been the most influential source of music in my life to this point. I was born in 1980 and started really listening to music of my own around 1988, so Jim’s tapes were my thing for a while. Those tapes got me through until my early teenage years, when he split and I started developing my own tastes by purchasing Compact Discs in those fucking terrible clear plastic jewel cases.
After a short stint at Illinois State and an even shorter stint in northern Wisconsin, we heard from Jim that he was moving to Arizona to play in a band with some friends. That came right around the same time that Jeni was graduating from Illinois State and getting ready to ship off to the Peace Corps. She was going to Kenya to teach English to a bunch of kids who only knew Swahili, so they could move into an English-speaking country and “make a difference” or whatever. I remember being super excited that both older siblings were getting out and experiencing the world—and excited that I was going to get to see first-hand pictures of Africa—but I also remember feeling like I was getting left behind.
Then Jeni was gone—off in the African bush and only able to contact us whenever she went to Nairobi to get her mail and have a nice hot meal in a restaurant. Jim was pretty much gone, too. He might as well have been in Africa with Jeni. We didn’t really hear from him for a while, other than the occasional cassette tape he sent in the mail. His band out in Arizona was called the A.M. Radio All-Stars, and I’d sit up in my room and listen to the tape of them constantly. They were good.
When Jim finally came home, shortly before Jeni’s return, he came home to stay for a while. I was awakened at like four in the morning one day, and he was standing over me, sun burnt and wild-eyed, his hair down to his shoulders. He said he had a motorcycle, and asked if I wanted to go for a ride. We flew through the hills in the rolling countryside helmetless, past dark houses and coffee-sipping farmers in open barns, going almost a hundred miles an hour whenever the road flattened out. Then we got home after the sun had come up over the cornfields to the east, and Mom let Jim have it. She said she couldn’t believe he’d risk my life like that. He slapped me on the back and I laughed and said, “Aw, Mom. It was fun! I was safe…”
I was in junior high school at the time, and I was excited as all hell. Not only was just cool to have my big brother back, but he also brought home a little carpet bag full of cassette tapes of bands I had never heard of—the early beginnings of indie rock and grunge—and he brought home an acoustic guitar. Whenever he was at work, I’d sneak into his room and listen to all of this strange new music, and I bought a book of guitar tablature—Nirvana: Unplugged in New York—and started to teach myself how to play his guitar.
Anybody who grew up playing a guitar around then knows that the first thing you do is start a band. Then you learn some chords. Then you buy a four-track tape recorder and some blank tapes and you get to work. I made tapes of my own folk music on a Tascam Portastudio for years—one track for guitar, one for piano, two for vocals—and whenever the band some friends and I started practiced up in our apartment above Morrison True Value Hardware, we taped those rehearsals, as well. I was surrounded by tape for all of my junior high and high school years, and I loved it. I occasionally find myself wondering if those old shoeboxes full of cassettes are out there somewhere, but honestly, I don’t really think I’d want to hear them if they were.
It’s been a good fourteen years now—fourteen years of listening exclusively to vinyl, mp3s, and the occasional CD—and now cassette tapes have once again come into my life. When I was slogging through my taxes back in February and I saw how much dough I spent on car rentals and car sharing services last year (I take a lot of road trips), I decided that the time had come to pick up a used car. After a month of searching Craigslist and taking trains out to various suburbs just about every other day, I ended up with a 1996 Saab 900 SE four-door hatchback. The thing is sweet as all hell, and it’s got one of the most styling dashboard panels I’ve ever seen, which includes a tape deck. I could have bought an adapter for my iPod, sure, but I didn’t really want to. Instead I went around to all the great Chicago record stores and picked up some cheap cassettes, and then I got on Amazon and bought the few I really wanted that I couldn’t find in stores.
Driving through the cold winter streets, the heated seat feature of my Saab warming the cracked beige leather under my bum, my fingers drumming the steering wheel and my breath fogging the windshield as I listen to the killer delay on Luther Perkins’ guitar, I really started digging on tape again. Polyester plastic and a magnetic coat, winding over two spools in a plastic casing, bringing the Man in Black’s baritone croon to me in the middle of some godforsaken Chicago night. And the great artwork! J-cards were an amazing thing, and still are. Cassettes’ answer to the illustrious gatefold.
Jim and I both live in Chicago these days, and have for several years now. We play in a two-piece garage rock band called Soft Jolts that is about to record a full-length record and start playing shows again after a long hiatus. We recorded two six-song EPs back in 2008 and 2009, and want to be able to offer some of that music at our shows, but we definitely don’t want to offer anyone a handful of burnt CDs in plastic jewel cases. So why not use my rekindled obsession with the cassette tape to motivate me to release a bunch of cassettes through Handshake Media? Good idea, right?
I spent last weekend designing a J-card and some labels, I ordered some high-bias cassette tapes, and now we’re making it happen. We’ll go ahead and do the Bandcamp thing (a.k.a. offer a digital download of our music for free), but why the hell not bring a suitcase full of cassette tapes to our shows? There are plenty of poor suckers out there in the world who bought used cars with tape decks in them. Just like Handshake Media will hold on to the print medium until they pry it from our cold, dead hands, we’re going to keep on rocking cassette tapes until there isn’t a single working tape player left in the civilized world. Vive la cassette, friends. Vive la cassette!
Dan Duffy is a Chicago-based bartender, writer, and freelance journalist. He is currently finishing up work on an experimental novella entitled The Other Side of the Fence. He is founding editor and publisher of The Handshake.