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For Cassette Tape Lovers, It's the Sound of Silence

Personalized mix tapes, which often speak volumes, fall to CDs.

November 06, 2001|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bearer of the bad news is Amber, stationed behind a strip of plexiglass which serves as an ersatz 21st century sales counter. She seems--no, is --befuddled by my request for a Sports Walkman tape player--not the disc players and radios she's twice dispatched me to comb through.

I want something that will play regular cassettes--not DATs--I say, hoping to jog her memory.

"Oh. Thoooose . We don't get those in very much anymore," she says sneaking a peek at me between glances at the DVD version of "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer," which is playing on eight screens--flat, traditional and mini. "I think they're phasing them out."

Another clerk, Jasmyn, her nose-stud chip changing color with the pulsing strobe above us, offers to rummage through the "send backs" and "don't wants" to make "quadruple sure." After many minutes, she reemerges, and, since my quest has included five such journeys in as many days, I know her face is set for "sorry." "Maybe you can try online."

It's hardly a balm, particularly because it doesn't address the inevitable--and the irreplaceable. A Walkman was a vehicle for a handcrafted journey, a way to construct or book passage into a personal world, cut to cut on tape.

A cassette, one made for self or another, can be messy, idiosyncratic, obsessive--a sound print with an individual's presence echoing through it. I have a vast store of these aural missives, stored like old letters in vintage hat boxes and train cases on high shelves.

These aren't the tapes that I blast over the home stereo to inspire productivity, or cue up in the car to inspire calm. They're intimate, and cut by cut, create a progression of music and words that takes you back across years or territory that you only want delivered directly into your ear.

There are 15-year-old "cassette letters" from friends who went to college in London and announced, like veteran radio deejays, programs of punk, ska and New Wave recordings that didn't make it over the water. Tapes full of anguished Astor Piazolla tangos and flirty Brazilian singers Caetano Veloso and Djavan came from old boyfriends wooing (effectively) in Cyrano fashion.

A series of 90-minute music ramblings arrived from a friend who never writes but instead sends a tape, a cycle of songs that tell you what's on his mind--Isley Brothers "Take Me to the Next Phase" or Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home."

With no Walkman to channel them through, what will become, I wonder, of the six or seven hours of tapes from a friend who lives in Paris, who remembers how much I love a radio station there--enough so that I would sometimes delay my sightseeing because I wanted to listen, top to bottom, to a show called "Black Man's Blues"?

And what of the meticulously conceived and produced tapes that my musician brother pieced together as he turned a new corner or was sunk in a mood: "Speed"--which links a Felix Mendelssohn concerto and Niccol Paganini's "Caprices" to jazz fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth and rocker Steve Vai, or "Wing," a tour through Jimi Hendrix's influence and influences.

Now that we don't live in rooms with side-by-side screaming stereos, I treasure these tapes--titles detailed in his cramped, quick hand--like the first Walkman itself, which saved our relationship.

On tape, I was introduced to the startling, quavering vibrato of Little Jimmy Scott before he became "re-fashionable." I heard Western Swing, Texas shouters and Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers before they hit hip soundtracks or eclectic public radio play lists. There's precious bootleg Lou Reed. Naughty outtakes of drummer Buddy Rich yelling at his band. A crown jewel: a one-time pressing of Billie Holiday in L.A., her voice stepping gracefully through "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone" despite hisses and pops.

All were part of mix tapes drawn from long-out-of-print vinyl and 78s culled from the collections of audiophile friends, that deepened the way I appreciated the levels of a song. I could get in close, and appreciate the sonic equivalent of merging brush strokes.

Presented side by side on these tapes, artists from other eras, continents and disciplines proved cultural distances were slim, if not nonexistent, when it came to eliciting emotion or memory, or conveying message or theme. Sure, MP3s, zip discs and this latest generation of CD burners provide a more high-tech version of the old tape swap, but there is something removed and aloof about them, like an air kiss instead of bear hug, and it isn't just the coolness of digital versus the warmth of analog debate. Nowadays, my brother burns hard-to-find CDs for me--Ken Nordine and Jaco Pastorius--but they don't have the same flip, extemporaneous feel about them. He sends them whole--mostly, he doesn't find time to mix.

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