You are seventeen and sitting in your dorm room. You peel the plastic off a new ten-pack of blank ninety-minute cassettes you bought at Sound of Market. You select one of the blanks and peel the plastic off, take the cassette out of the case and study it carefully for defects. You put the label aside to use for notes. You’ll be making a custom label once the tape is finished. Next, with side A facing you, you insert a number two pencil into the hole on the right side and carefully twist it until you’ve cleared the transparent part of the tape. The cassette is ready.
You’re also going to need a pad and pencil. There’s math involved. You write 45:00 at the top of the pad. With every song you’ll be subtracting from that, with the aim of leaving less than thirty seconds of blank space at the end of each side. More than thirty seconds and you might as well start over.
The first song is crucial. It establishes intent. But it needs to be eased into. You want to build up to it. Set the tone without revealing the entire game plan. At seventeen you are still incredibly sensitive to these things. The first song says “I get you.” If you have any shared musical history start with that.
Needless to say, you are making this mixtape for a girl. You have a couple of classes together. And if you time it right, you usually manage to sit right behind her. As you flip through your records for the second song, you remember what the nape of her neck looks like.
The second song is a breather. Having set a tone with the opener, you wanna bring it down a little here and give her a few minutes to wonder about things. Most guys would keep building up with the second song. You know better. You have ninety minutes to work with. Have it fade in. Obviously, you’re not doing two songs by the same band in a row anywhere on the tape. But if one of the musicians from song one has a mellower side project this is the perfect time to drop it in.
From the third song on you can really start building up to your story. But first you need to decide on what kind of story you want to tell? Is this just a booty call tape? (Lame.) Or is it the story of two kids who should get to know each other, stay up late making each other laugh, taking a break in the middle of Art History class to sneak a shared cigarette? Is it the tape you listen to on the drive to her mom’s house when she brings you home for Thanksgiving break? Make that tape.
And don’t forget that your story has two acts. Side A is a shot in the dark. You’re putting everything on the line here with no idea how it’s going down. So while you want to go in confident you also want to give yourself a little wiggle room. You’ve got classes together, and you don’t want her to avoid you because you came on too strong. Bring Side A to nice slow landing with something older and a little obscure. You wanna show some depth and mystery here. And remember not to leave more than 30 seconds of blank tape at the end.
But Side B? She flipped the tape! So your crazy idea might have some legs after all. We’re halfway there and things are looking good. Here’s some solid advice. I don’t want to tell you what to put on your tape, but trust me on this one. Start side B with Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey. Because side B is going to be about her.
Listen to the girl as she takes on half the world.
Your mixtape is your advance team. You won’t be there when she opens it. You won’t be there when she looks over the tracklist. You won’t be there the first time she plays it. And hopefully you won’t be there when she plays it a second time. Or even a third. It may, however, be playing in the background when she calls. You’ll hear it immediately, and for just a second it’ll be hard to focus on her voice because you’ll be trying to remember at what point in the tape she decided to pick up the phone. (This is big data!)
And if you’ve made a successful mixtape she won’t even ask you about any of the songs on it. It’ll never be reduced down to a collection of songs. It’ll exist in time as an entity unto itself. A moment of hope and courage frozen in time. Forever optimistic. Forever linking the both of you to a fixed point. Where it sits on a special place in a drawer of her bedside table. Soon to be joined by a second. And a third. Each one meticulously slaved over to communicate things that were too complex for you to express at nineteen.
And on a particularly hot August afternoon when you’re laying in bed together, she’ll reach over and grab one of your mixtapes out of the drawer and slip it into the boom box on the bedside table. And you’ll remember making it, but you won’t say a word. But you’ll suddenly realize that you finally have the words you needed when you first made the tape. Except you don’t need them now.
And ten years after making that first tape, the one for the girl you liked, you are marrying this girl. And you realize not every story you write needs to be sad.
(For the record, mixtapes aren’t dead. My friend Timothy Buckwalter puts together a weekly podcast called The Mixtape which is just phenomenal. You’ll really enjoy it. http://www.muleradio.net/themixtape/.)