Monday, March 21, 2011

I'm Not in Stereo City Anymore, Am I?

Last Saturday, I found myself doing something that I haven’t done since I was but a young pup: buying a new car stereo.

Last summer, I posted about getting my brand new (used-2002) Chrysler Concorde.  While I may have upgraded my ride, I in fact had the exact same car stereo; a humble little cassette player.  For trips, I’ve been plugging a Disc-Man into the cassette player, but haven’t been particularly happy with all the wires and fumbling around trying to change the disc when I’m driving.  Add to that the GPS my dad sent me, and not I have too many things to plug into a single lighter/outlet.

So rather than get a splitter for it and have even more wires hanging all over the place, I decided to take this opportunity to upgrade my tunes and replace the cassette player with a CD/MP3-capable unit. 

I know… welcome to 2003.

So I found myself in Best Buy, staring at a myriad of different brands and flavors, most all of which do exactly the same thing.  To me, the biggest difference is figuring out how to work it all.  With every car stereo I’ve had since my first car, I’ve been able to just look at the knobs and buttons, and know what they do.

The buttons on these units are made up of a series of microscopic squiggles, jiggles and abbreviations that quite effectively mask their purpose.  I was able to get some competent help, however, from one of the friendly young blue-shirted Best Buy helper people, and managed to successfully consummate the purchase and arrange the installation of my new stereo unit.  As luck would have it, they could fit me in the following Sunday morning.

(Like I would have anything else to do on a Sunday morning?)

It only took an hour, which was easy to kill by wandering around the Best Buy.  (3-D TVs are coooool!  They wouldn’t let me pull up a recliner, though.)

Once installed, everything sounded great.  I was hoping the installer-people would give me some kind of tutorial on the operation, but no such luck.  And it’s not like this card-carrying, fully-registered “guy” is going to ask for directions.  I managed to figure out some basics, but ultimately decided I’d rely on the owner’s manual for the particulars.

Big.  Mistake.

Little did I know that the first thing I’d need is a freakin’ magnifying glass.  The font was not only tiny, but the print was faint.  I mean, I’m all for saving paper on the manual, but can you bold that shit for an old man?

I took the manual in to work with me, so I could try to read it under these bright fluorescent lights, and it did help a bit.  Then it dawned on me to look for the manual online.  I was able to find it and print out the relevant parts (meaning, the parts in English) and go over the fine points.

First order of business is to figure out how to get the clock going.  I mean, shouldn’t that be set up by default?  I guess not… instructions for the clock were buried deep within the manual.  This morning, I learned how addicted I was to look at the stereo for the time while on my way to work.  In a 12-minute trip, I glanced down for the time approximately 15 thousand times.  That’s the problem with time… just when you think you know what time it is, it changes.  You’d think that would be a lot of time with my eyes not on the road, but I tell you, it’s worse if I have to actually look at my watch.

So it’ll be OK, once I spend some time working on the navigation.  Just like anything else new, I’ll just have to get used to it, then it will become second nature.  But I’ll tell you what… “Highway to Hell” sounded pretty goddamned good as I was easing down the road.

Still, it was kind of sad.  I’ve had a cassette player in my cars since 1979.  I put my first one in myself, carving out the holes in the doors in which to install the speakers, then trying it again using the “correct” specifications.  Good thing is was just my beater ’76 Civic.  With my next car, I had the good sense to have it professionally installed.  It also included a power booster/equalizer, which were all the rage back then.  You could hear my AC/DC coming from the next county.

Consequently, I have about a zillion cassette tapes.  I’ve never liked listening to the radio.  I mean, why let someone else decide what I’m going to hear for my ear-bleeding pleasure?  I used to buy cassettes for a brief time while I worked in the record stores, but before too long, I bought a mixing board and began making my own mix tapes in the late 80s.

I can’t even begin to calculate how many hours I’ve spent selecting songs, arranging the sequence and making the recording.  For every 90-minute (or longer) tape, I probably put in 45 minutes of planning.  And the recording process itself was always stressful.

If you’re just recording a series of songs, if you mess something up, like bumping the needle or pushing the wrong button, you just rewind the tape and record the song again.  Because with mix tapes, you overlap the end of one song with the beginning of the next, so if you screw up, you have to start back at the beginning of the whole thing.  Making a mix tape was like a public performance that no one sees until much later.

Timing was also an adventure.  Over the years, I became adept at figuring out how many songs I could fit so that the last song would end just before the end of the tape.  Sometimes, just by eyeballing the rolling tape, I’d have to call an audible and throw in a different song than planned, because it was shorter.  Was I ever pissed when the tape would cut off before a song was over.

I’d always travel with a wide selection of tapes.  In the old days, I had this big 60-capacity tape case that looked like a businessman’s attachĂ© case.  In later years, I went to a series of 12-capacity soft-side cases.  One good thing about having case after case of homemade cassettes in your car: no one ever steals them

But speaking of series, I always had a theme with my tapes.  There was the “Shivers” series, meaning that in order to make it, a song had to give me shivers when I listened to it.  This was my “Best of” collection.

My longest series was what I call the “Beaten Path” series.  I wanted to do a tape of songs that were good, but either weren’t played anymore, or never had any play in the first place.  I called it, “One Step Off the Beaten Path.”  This one subsequently spawned “Two Steps off the Beaten Path,” “Just Around the Corner From the Beaten Path,” “Journey to the Bottom of the Beaten Path,” “Drums Along the Beaten Path,” and eventually the finale, “Smack Upside the Head of the Beaten Path.”

I used to love to drop snippets of movie dialog in between songs.  If I couldn’t use movie lines, I’d use snippets of the recordings we made in The Barn.  I especially liked to put the snippets into tapes I made for others… I knew it would surprise them.  Sometimes I’d do those “interview” things where the narrator asks a question and a snippet of music as the answer, like Dickie Goodman used to do in the 70s.  (Mr. Jaws, Energy Crisis ’75)

Dad used to have me make him driving tapes, and tapes for special occasions like his reunions.  He’d have me do 2 or 3 fast ones, then a couple slow ones, so the rest of the geezens could catch their breath.

As I mentioned in a prior post, I pre-recorded a couple hours worth of music I used at my wedding.  Not only did it work, I got to keep the tapes and use them at other occasions.  In and around these, I also had tapes with a single band on them, tapes for special occasions,

My big “Masterpiece” was called “The Fuck You Tape.”  It was a work born of the pain of a breakup.  It had 4 parts, the first of which was The Realization, featuring songs about learning that your relationship is in trouble.  Next, “The Downward Spiral,” was about the descent into hurt and craziness.  Third was “Hitting the Bottom,” which featured a whole lotta drinking and ‘mah girl done left me’ blues songs.  Finally, “The Recovery…Fuck You!” featured songs about getting back on your feet and putting that screeching harpie behind you for good. 

It was my “Dark Side of the Moon.”

This is what I’m leaving behind: a lifetime of music, sequenced with a purpose.  I have no idea what I’m going to do with them all.  I’ll probably never play any of them again, but I put too much work into them to throw away.  I suppose I’ll keep them for the same reasons I keep everything else. 

Memories… good ones. 

But the next time I hit the road, I’ll be hitting it digital-style.  I can play CDs, plug in my MP3 player, or just stick in a flash drive.

Something tells me I’ll soon be putting a lot of work into some new playlists.

17 comments:

  1. That is cool. You have inspired me to get new speakers for the back of my car as they are both blown.

    And they sell a thing that plays cassettes and comes with the cable and software to burn them to your computer.

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  2. Trash,
    I have one... I can transfer LP, cassette or CD into a computer file. Not crazy about the quality on the LPs, but the cassettes come across fine, if they're not too worn out.

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  3. My Buick, which I've had for a year, is the first car I've ever had with anything other than a radio in it. It has a CD player and a cassette player. When I bought the car I thought to myself, "Who even owns cassettes anymore??" Now, I know. You do. ;)

    I am, however, in heaven with my CD player. I hate the radio. They hardly ever play anything good.

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  4. 'Mix tapes' - haven't heard that in a while. My dad had an old Mercury Cougar while we were kids. Great car, and it had an 8-track cassette. Remember those big clunky things? We had a Lynda Carter tape. Yup, she sang, too.

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  5. Raven,
    Why let someone else choose your music? That's how I see it... I never cede control of my music, especially to giant programming services that spew the same crap from station to station.

    Kernut,
    Oh yeah, I remember 8-tracks. We never had them, ourselves, but I had friends that had them. They were always a pain in the ass to work with.

    I never called them "mix tapes," they were just tapes that I put together, as far as I was concerned. But getting the mixing board was a game changer. No more dead air... not even for a second. And goodbye to the endlessly long slow fadeouts.

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  6. To make mix tapes, I would just keep a tape in my stereo player and listen intently to the radio, as soon as I heard the first notes of a song I liked, I would hit record. I would fill up tapes that way, in no particular order, with the "snippets" being the dumb radio hosts who would talk over the intros.

    I am continually impressed with your planning skillz from music to wardrobe.

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  7. You're telling me that you got a new stereo and didn't get Sirius? They have Classic Rock stations you know!

    I totally loved to mix tapes. Back in MY day I had to get an external CD burner. Because it wasn't installed in my computer! Really? What gives?

    Brings back memories.

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  8. Jessica,
    I did the same thing when I got my first portable little cassette player. I’d lay the mic on the radio speaker and wait for my favorite songs, and shoosh anyone that dared come near. (Note: Moms don’t like being shooshed.) And I HATED when the DJs talked over the songs.

    It took me ages to figure out why whenever I’d start a new tape, I’d lose the first 10 seconds of the song I was taping. Eventually I realized that you can’t record over the “leader,” and had to manually wind past it. Brilliant child, I know.

    But once we got our first good home stereo (and I mean “good” as in better than our 1960s-era record player), I began making tapes with a vengeance. And after my college years working in radio, I bought the mixing board just as soon as I could gather up enough scratch to pay for it. It was always such a thrill when I could find songs whose beginnings and ends meshed up well together.

    Cassie,
    Sorry, I’ll never pay for radio, satellite or otherwise. Why pay for someone else to do something I could do better myself?

    “Your" day… Sigh… I still wear underwear from “your" day.

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  9. I love the ideas behind your Masterpiece! Great work. Me, I throw everything away that hasn't been used in six months. My husband is far from that list!

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  10. Cher,
    I'm going to have to do a post just on the F.U. tape, including the full song list. Like I always say, great comedy comes from pain. And great music, too.

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  11. WOW! I used to create my own tapes years ago! It was lots of fun and I always had them in my car. Unfortunately, though, they stayed in my car even when it was blistering hot outside. It took a while, but I managed to ruin every one of those tapes. Now I only take the CDs that I want to listen to on any given day, and never leave them in the car. I know that they are sturdier than tapes, but I don't want to take any chances.

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  12. Judie,
    It probably didn’t help that you’re in Arizona either, I bet.

    I’ll tell you, I never lost a cassette to the heat, for 2 reasons. Every tape was either in the stereo unit, or in its plastic case. And the plastic case was always in a padded tape case. Best way to get your tape or CD melted is to leave in on your seat or on top of the dash.

    It used to be funny, when I worked at the record store, people would bring in these big curvy, melty records or CDs and claim that we sold it to them that way. I’d be like, “Dude, you can’t even fit this thing in the album jacket. No way we sold it like this.”

    Manager Bluz didn’t play.

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  13. Just curious... have you ever read the book High Fidelity? You sound just like the main character of that book with your mix tapes. Welcome to the digital age.

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  14. Bagger,
    I saw the movie they made based on the book… that was the one with John Cusak and Jack Black, right? That totally would have been me, if I’d have been working in an independent record store rather than one in a giant chain. I was running one of the stores he made fun of.

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  15. HA! I used to do the same thing as Jessica!

    Fiona was my first car with MP3-player capabilities, and I gotta tell you, you'll never go back.

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  16. Mrs. Bachelor Girl,
    Those primitive mix tapes served their purpose. I was always the kid in the neighborhood that not only knew which group sang what. I carried around my portable cassette player so we could have music no matter what we were doing. So what if I only had 15-minute long tapes to work with? (It wasn’t even a “boombox” kind, it was like a little office steno recorder.)

    I’m looking forward to getting out on the road and seeing what the new unit can do. Not much opportunity with my daily 12-minute commute to the subway station. But hey… I learned how to set the clock and turn it on, so that’s a plus! It was killing me this week, not having a dashboard clock.

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  17. Darn! I was going to bring up the John Cusack movie, too. Love that movie. Own that movie. The reasoning behind selecting songs fascinates me. I think I owned less than 10 tapes all the years that people were using tapes, and now I own about 10 cds, most of which are holiday-themed. I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm missing the "the band that wrote that is..." gene. I totally admire it in other people. My hubby has that ability with older rock. Amazing.

    I love the beaten path series. Awesome.

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