It’s no secret that I’m ride or die for physical media. Over the 16 years that this column has been a part of The Loafer, I’ve written about my love and obsessions for music, especially on vinyl. Incidentally, sales of new vinyl records topped CD sales for the first time since the 1980s recently. For the earliest years of my life, I mostly listened to music on cassette tape. For good reason too. I was always obsessed with music and tapes were the most portable format. There wasn’t going to be any family vacation that I’d go on without my beloved walkman.
I have a crystal clear memory of my family and I going to Gatlinburg in the early ‘90s, the last vacation my grandfather ever went on with us. We rented some type of large condo and I remember walking the steps up to it while listening to “Baby, Baby” by Amy Grant on my headphones. But come the mid-‘90s pretty much all my music was on CD, it helped that the price of portable CD players came down in price significantly too.
Cut to the start of this pandemic and the long-rumored, much discussed, Ross Family Basement Organization Project finally began as what the heck else were we gonna do? We sorted through so much, years and years worth of stuff. Things that belonged to both sets of grandparents that wound up with us. I had old test papers from grade school for some insane reason in one box. Then, in another, much to my great surprise was nearly every single cassette tape I ever owned.
Tapes I hadn’t seen in 25 years, tapes that I thought were long gone, yet here they were. Not everything I recall owning, but most of it. Some in cases, some without. The tapes were very typical of me between the ages of 4 and 9. Lots of soundtrack albums to movies I loved. All three “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movies, “Dick Tracy,” “The Mask,” and Prince’s “Batman” album. There were tapes tied to the TV shows I watched too. “Animaniacs,” “Tiny Toon Adventures” and “Where In The World is Carmen Sandiego?” It was a delightful time capsule.
I’m sentimental as heck, and there was no way I was going to get rid of these tapes now that I just found them again. Which meant that soon the bug entered my head “It would be fun to play these again.” This year has been a nightmare in every conceivable way, so anything I could do to help get a little more of that precious serotonin I’m going to explore. Tapes have had a small bit of a revival in the indie and underground music world. There are still places in America that manufacture and duplicate albums on tape.
Several years ago my friend’s band The Mystery Twins put out an EP on tape, I thought it was such a delightful and novel idea. But I didn’t think at that time I’d ever find myself wanting to add a tape deck to my stereo. I’ve got it pretty much covered between CDs, an interface for my phone, and my turntable. Yet just about a month after finding my old cassettes, I began searching for a tape deck.
I began by searching online as I’m only going to places that are essential right now. This did open up my options to getting something exactly as I wanted. The prices for used tape decks have gotten quite high in the last couple of years, due to folks like me wanting them. So if I was going to spend high, with shipping just as high as the tape player, I might as well get my bang for my buck, right? I wanted to find a deck that would have been at least in the middle higher end of things back in the day. All the noise reduction filters, that kind of thing.
So I set a saved search on eBay. There were several players I liked but just were a little too high for me to justify jumping on them. Then one morning after months of looking and looking, I thought I’d look at Facebook Marketplace. A distant pick up would be a good option, as I was still off-put by shipping costs as high, if not higher, then the unit itself on eBay. Soon, I found what I was looking for. A Yamaha deck from 1995 that was right in my target of what I wanted. Higher-end, all the Dolby filters, and even better yet it had the original manual and box.
It came from a couple in Kingsport that I assumed was downsizing. It was a socially distant transaction, one that I was very happy with. The box even had the original packing materials and the deck itself looked brand new. A record collector friend of mine has a theory that “the right record finds the right person at the right time.” The way that music has an inherently spiritual quality that sometimes allows the planets to align just so.
That kinda happened with my new/old tape deck. Months of looking, then I found just the right one, the one that I suppose was bound to become a part of my massive music library. It’s been a hoot playing my old tapes too. Not to mention my shock at how good these tapes sound. I would have thought a few decades of sitting out in a basement would have degraded them. But no. Many sounds better than I recall, no doubt aided by a good tape deck and not a crappy portable player in the back of the family van.
2020 has been a year that has put us all through the wringer. We’re just trying our best to make it through this madness, this is one way I’ve found that’s been a very happy discovery. I have that soundtrack to “The Mask” playing right now while I write this. It’s so wonderfully dated in the most 1994 way possible. It hasn’t stopped at my old tapes either. Recall I mentioned you can get new indie music on tape? Last month when indie record label Polyvinyl was having their summer “Garage Sale,” I picked up three albums of new music all on tape. It was quite a kick doing so, and the albums were really good too. The best of the three I bought being the super fun album “Seattle Gossip” by Who Is She?
Here I am enjoying my old—and new—tapes. A turn I wasn’t expecting this year to take, but one I am enjoying nonetheless. Now the real awkward test will be going over tapes of my old radio show from about 20 years ago and cringing at the sound of 17-year-old me on the radio. But, I may put that off for…a long, long, time. See you next week.