If there was a sport that consisted of humans versus cassette decks, and I was a world famous competitor in said sport, the fans would fondly refer to me as, The Destroyer. You remember your most favorite stuffed animal or blankie? Remember how you slept with it, carried it everywhere, dropped it on the ground, dragged it around the house, and loved it until it lost it’s shape, some eyes (if it had eyes) and the stitching came apart? That’s how I was….but with cassette decks. Ok, ok, I didn’t sleep with them or take them everywhere with me. But, I did love them. In fact, I loved them so hard that as a child I earned a reputation in my family. A bad reputation. For breaking them. Repeatedly. In my defense I now am aware that my family has always had, and still has, a tendency to be cheap. If something is marked down or on sale it must be a deal, right? In my defense I would like to propose a high probability that the cassette decks that were gifted to me were already not the most durable or quality items in the first place.
I used the portable cassette decks in our household both like a tool and a toy. This was the height of the cassette tape’s reign, the glorious 1980s. It was truly an amazing amazing thing to have the capability, the easy and unlimited access, to record sound independently anytime, anyplace, whenever and however you wanted. I distinctly remember hiding under the dining room table and recording my grandmother and mother talking. Later when I did the big reveal and played it back for them I remember that my grandmother was shocked. “Is that me?” she said, “Is that what my voice sounds like?” Yes, Grammy, that is what you sound like…behold the power of the cassette! In addition to spying on unsuspecting family members I also (like many other people at the time) would “tape” songs off of the radio. These recordings would often come out sounding warbly and watery as if they had passed through some type of psychedelic funnel but it didn’t matter. They were now my songs. I could play them back whenever and as often as I wanted.
The majority of the “taping” I did occurred during some point in my elementary school life (I’m fuzzy on what grade I would have been in at the time) when I developed a consistent routine of coming home after school, pulling out a few very specific stuffed animals from my ever evolving collection, and recording stories of my own creation onto tape. I used different voices. I used different stuffed animals. I would sing. Sometimes, actually more like often, the stories had a moral lesson. Be nicer to other people. Don’t exclude people. It hurts to be picked on or teased. I was simultaneously working out what I was seeing and experiencing at school and making sure that the stories ended as I thought they should. Friendship and kindness always triumphed. Bullies went down in flames. I was making art but I didn’t know it. I was having fun but I also had some vague concept that this was important work. I vividly remember needing multiple reminders from my Mom to come downstairs for dinner because I was too busy working on a particular story. There is nothing more frustrating than being in the middle of recording and suddenly there is another voice on the tape that should NOT be there, “Are you coming downstairs?” Argh! Rewind. Play. Stop the tape at the exact right spot so that you can start over and pick back up where you left off before the interruption.
I’m not exactly sure what it was that I was doing that resulted in so many broken cassette decks other than using them. And, well, okay, sometimes I would push different buttons simultaneously just to see what would happen. But, who didn’t want to do that just to find out what would happen? I didn’t mean to break those machines. They were magical, fun, and helpful. It was the cassette that allowed me the ability to record my perceptions of the world and rework them into an alternate reality that made more sense to me. Cassettes also allowed me to showcase my creative abilities. I could play my stories for my family, friends, and also could listen to them myself. I could save the “good” ones and erase or re-record the “bad” ones. For those of us who aren’t always that good at talking about how we feel or explaining ourselves to others sometimes a tool is needed. For my elementary aged self, that tool was the cassette.
If I never received that clock radio for my 11th birthday in 1995, I may be a totally different person today. Though my dad would play his own cool records (Bowie, The Police), my very own radio allowed me to listen to almost whatever I wanted. Without that clock radio, I may have never discovered The Smiths on the Saturday morning “Prehistoric X” show on Pittsburgh’s 105.9. I may never have known U2 was coming through town on their 2001 Elevation tour, thus missing my first concert. I never would have annoyed my mom to bits while blasting The Four Non Blondes’ “What’s Going On?” I certainly never would have woke up on time for school without the alarm jerking me awake with whatever was on the radio at that very moment. I can’t think of the last time I willingly listened to the radio, but it’s all many of us had once upon a time. Maybe I didn’t have as much a choice in what I listened to on the radio as I thought, with record companies and media giants throwing their weight around over the airwaves, but I innocently believed I did. I let in what spoke to me most, and without that clock radio, I’d have missed out on something big.
My vinyl copy of Tigermilk by Belle and Sebastian is dear to me, but the intangible mp3 on my first-generation iPod got the hell played out of it. MP3 players may not be as cool or impactful as vinyl, but they can go everywhere with you. During the summer of 2005, I rode buses from my parents’ home in the suburbs to downtown for work. Two hours round-trip, I used the time to contemplate job plans, relationship dreams, living situations, and life in general to the sad soundtrack of Tigermilk thanks to my first-generation iPod. It was bigger than a deck of cards and heavy as a brick, but revolutionary. I could go from being moody to moodier or moody to happy over the course of a bus ride thanks to being able to carry my favorite music with me all over Allegheny county. No doubt there’s something magical about holing up in your bedroom with a pile of records, but there’s something differently beautiful about carrying your favorite music in a handheld device all over the world.