My Life in Mix Tapes: A Musical and Political Memoir in Titles

I made my first mix tape in 1984 at the age of 20. Many others from that era made mix tapes as well, but gave up the habit long ago for all the obvious reasons. I made my last one a few years ago, when I still had a truck with a cassette player.

All 500 or so are safely stored in a large tote in a basement. I’ve thought about leaving them to someone, but who would want them?

Some year ago, at the prompting of a friend who saw all the mix tapes displayed and read their often profane titles, I arranged them in chronological order on my living room floor. The task took a couple of hours. Then I read all the titles aloud, stepped back, and beheld this odd personal archive. It suddenly occurred to me that I was staring at a highly eccentric form of musical and political memoir and quite possibly, a historical artifact with unique cultural value.

A little while later, I began to notice other people’s mix tapes for sale at garage sales and thrift stores and I couldn’t believe anyone would so callously abandon their youth like this. I almost felt a historical duty to adopt these orphans and create some novel museum with them, but I never did.

It was during this time that my friend Nancy emailed me and asked if I wanted her collection of mix tapes. She had a new baby and wanted to get rid of a lot of old, useless stuff. I was appalled and berated her, demanding she box up the tapes and save them for her kid. I told her to imagine her daughter as a teenager, listening to the tapes on some ancient cassette player. (Guardians of the Galaxy ripped this idea off from me.)

For some parents, their music collections become the only way their children ever get to know them or at least think they were once cool. Why in the world would you ever throw the greatest soundtracks of your youth away? You may never listen to them again, but certainly your kid or nephew will. Do you throw away your the books of your youth, or pass them on to your kid? In the end, Nancy promised she would safeguard her collection.

With all this in mind, I’d like to present My Top 25 titles for mix tapes. It was a very hard task of culling, I assure you. Some had dates when they were made. I also added a few notes of explanation for the source of some titles.

These are in no particular chronological, but I remember making every single one of them and can tell you where I was living at the time.

Newt Gingrich Can Eat My Shit (1-95)

Sand in Her Cleavage

Whiskey Sour and Red Hair Girl Dreaming (2-89)

Make Me a Man of God Mr. Devil Rock Fucker

Turkish Afternoon Delight.

Eyes Like Wet Currants (3-94) (Quote from Chekhov)

Kenny G Fuck You

Castrate Donald Rumsfeld (6-03)

From the Morbid Compost (Quote from some French poet, possibly Rimbaud)

I Drink a Liquor Never Brewed (’99) (Quote from Emily Dickinson)

Bring Me Ken Starr’s Gonads (12-98)

The Howard Cosell Memorial Party Tape

Escape the Sexual Gulag (1-04)

To Live like Thoreau, Except for the Women (Quote from Jack Kerouac)

Urge and Urge and Urge (10-03) (Quote from Walt Whitman)

Rock N’ Roll Pagans with Old Crow Nightmares

Satan’s Favorite Band (The Stones, of course)

Vodka, Love and Glory (Quote from Jack Kerouac)

A Peasant Back to the Dung Pile (11-00) (I think a quote from Russian literature or H.L. Mencken )

Jesus Loves Scotch (2-92)

Ocean Air and Gin (’03) (Quote from Malcom Lowery)

Got Tight on Absinthe Last Night and Did Knife Tricks (Quote from Hemingway)

A Drunken Gnat In a Pub Urinal (Quote from a French poet)

A Waco in My Soul (’99)

Bob Packwood

You probably have a few questions about my mix tapes after reading my list. Let me answer them:

  1. What is my greatest mix tape? This is very tough but if someone held a gun to my head, “Castrate Donald Rumsfeld” would win.
  2. Do I have a philosophy or system for a mix tape’s musical progression? No, although I know some mix tape aficionados have very rigid mixing philosophies. I go strictly by feel, the moment. I do, however, like juxtaposing hits and rarities, sometimes from the same artist, sometimes from completely different musical genres. For example, Prince following Merle Haggard.
  3. What song appears on the most tapes? No contest. “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones: studio version, a dozen different live takes, bootlegs, Keith singing it solo.
  4. What song do I most regret putting on a mix tape? Easy. “Get into the Groove” by Madonna. Also, anything by Pavement.
  5. Is there an artist you wish you would have included on more tapes? Yes. Thelonious Monk. His music mesmerizes me and makes me write sentences in my head in concert with his piano playing.
  6. What’s the best mix tape someone made for you? 1) “The Fuck Truck” series by AS; “Confessions of a Love Child” by AM. The former included Polaroids for covers and the latter introduced me to some new incredible music, that now of course, is classic alternative rock.
  7. What’s the best non-musical riff to ever appear on a mix tape? “Greed is Good” speech by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street as it fades into Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing.” A close second is a Cherokee Indian war chant.
  8. What’s my favorite song from a band that’s totally disappeared? “Drinking on the Job” by The Rainmakers, with its immortal line, “The generation that would change the world is still looking for its car keys.”
  9. What’s my favorite obscure line from a big rock star or band? Tie. “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for from “Tattooed Love Boys” by the Pretenders and, “Let’s put our hands together and start a new country up,” from “Cuyahoga” by REM. I pretty much do that every time I make a new mix tape. I like to think my creation is the sonic Declaration of Independence and Constitution of a new country all rolled into one.
  10. Do you know anyone better at making mix tapes than you? Yes, my ex wife, Cindy. She taught me the art of naming. She was the greatest mix tape maker I ever saw. And she always illustrated or water colored her covers.
  11. Did you ever make a mix tape with someone? No.
  12. Is there any artist’s record that is an absolute must to have around when making a mix tape? Yes. Buddy Holly. He’s got a few great rocking songs that clock in at around 1:30 and are perfect fillers at the end of sides.
  13. Is there anything sad or melancholy that overcomes you when listening to some of the tapes? Yes, one in particular. I had a wonderful girlfriend in the late 80s named Janet who had a special love for one tape. She insisted we listen to it on our way to some bar or party. I can remember us having sex to it as well, many times. A few years after we broke up, she died of cancer, and whenever I hear that tape, it truly makes my heart collapse.
  14. Anything else depress you listening to the tapes? Yes. It is sometimes incredibly sad to trace the slow or sometimes fast downward spiral of an artist who was formerly great. Obviously, Sting is number one in this category. REM comes in a close second, tying with Rod Stewart. Bruce Springsteen places third. Then of course there’s Neil Young. He got neither better nor worse during his epic recording career. He’s just Neil Young and that says it all.
  15. How would you describe the evolution of your musical tastes over the years? In the beginning The Stones swam with me in the primordial soup of classic rock and roll and there I have mostly remained. I know I got old. I don’t even listen to rock music anymore unless it’s one of the tapes.
  16. What’s something especially novel about your collection? From 1993-1997 I played guitar in a spectacularly mediocre garage band called Gravy that played mostly parties and dive bars around Portland. I recorded a lot of the shows with a cheap single microphone hanging from the ceiling and some of the songs from these drunken gigs ended up on mix tapes from that era. There’s nothing quite like hearing yourself rock the living shit out of “Sympathy for the Devil” and then having one of the Stones’ versions follow. I smile every time a Gravy song blasts through the speakers. Wince a little, too.
  17. Is there a song that you dogs particularly loved? Yes. “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin. Sonny the dearly departed husky went nuts to it.
  18. Did you ever try making mix CDs? Yes. I burned exactly three in the early 2000s and found the experience particularly unsatisfying because I couldn’t see anything, get my hands on something corporeal or estimate the time remaining on side B that called for a song I knew probably would fit the probable 3:37 left on the tape. Making mix tapes is essentially a tactile skill, a craft, and making mix CDs definitely is not. The same goes for digital playlists. Dragging and dropping in files, or worse, allowing a random selection to compile a mix, is almost the anti-thesis of the true mix tape experience. It’s about using your hands, a tactile relationship to music, like albums used to be.
  19. What especially intrigues you about your collection? Two things: One, I find it utterly fascinating that I can pull out a tape that I haven’t listened to for 15 years, hear a track, say Marshall Crenshaw’s “Cynical Girl,” and know that “Save it for Later” by the English Beat will follow. I sometimes play a little game where I try and predict what song will come next. I’m right about 99 percent of the time. Some scientist should study this. The second thing is the weird feeling of playing a tape from the 80s and rediscovering my hate for Ronald Reagan.
  20. Is there a tape you really want to make but haven’t got around to doing so? Yes. A collection of the greatest Oregon rock and roll songs of all time. Naturally, “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen would lead off.
  21. Do you list all the tracks on the inside cover? I used to in the early days, but gave up the habit.
  22. On average, how long does it take to complete a mix tape? I usually finish one in a week but have taken as long as six months.
  23. And finally, the most important question of all: How do you name a tape?” Sheer gut instinct. I just snatch whatever line or quote or feeling enters my mind at the moment I take up a pen to write the title on the cassette liner. I have rarely invented a title and then made the tape.

Over the years, I’ve developed a loose set of rules about some of the peripheral issues related to making mix tapes:

  • When breaking up with someone, always get your tapes back.
  • When you make a tape for someone, realize that you’re really making one for yourself.
  • It’s okay to make a tape for someone in the pursuit of seduction.
  • No more than three songs in a row by any one artist.
  • Don’t use 120-minute cassettes because they invariably break at some point.
  • Use the word ‘rock’ in the title of a tape at least once a year
  • It’s okay to fade out on “Free Bird.”
  • Don’t be too arcane with song selection, Throw in some hits.
  • Try not to cut off a song before the tape ends. Never continue a ruptured song on the other side.
  • Never include The Doors’ “The End.”

Writing this wants me to make a mix tape, but I don’t have the proper supplies for the job. I will work on that.