Musical Biography or Archaeology?

The cover I made for "Past Lives and Long-Lost Friends," which I originally burned onto two CDs.  The idea for the cover came from a  timeline feature in my high school yearbooks.

The cover I made for “Past Lives and Long-Lost Friends,” which I originally burned onto two CDs. The idea for the cover came from a timeline feature in my high school yearbooks.

I don’t know if I realized it at the time, but following up a song by The Weepies called “Can’t Go Back Now” with “Summer, Highland Falls” is kind of a definite statement.  The latter’s first lines are, “They say these are not the best of times/they’re the only times I’ve ever known.”  While I can’t confirm this, I am pretty sure I wrote that in a friend’s yearbook at the end of my senior year (or at least I was thinking of it).  It has always been one of my favorite songs and at the time I graduated high school, it fully encapsulated what I was feeling.

I’m pretty sure that is why it wound up on a playlist I made back in 2010 called “Past Lives and Long Lost Friends.”  Silly as it sounds, I put it together because at the time, I was fifteen years away from that day in late June of 1995 and the mix tape, at the time I was a teenager, was my preferred form of artistic expression.  if you were a girl I was dating (or a friend on whom I was crushing), you more than likely wound up with a 120-minute Maxell normal bias cassette that may or may not have had a custom label created using Arts & Letters, an ancient Windows 3.0 graphic design program.  Now, I’m not sure how many of those girls kept my tapes.  My wife did, but I think that’s because she never emptied them out of her car (a car, by the way, that I now drive to work every day).  But the old girlfriend whose relationship with me ended in utter disaster?  She probably torched them all the moment after I gave her one final goodbye over the phone (not my idea, mind you; she forced my hand).  And some of those other girls?  Part of me hopes that a copy of “The Last Worthless Mix Tape” is floating out there, playing in the old tape deck of someone who is feeling sentimental.

Which brings me to this five-year-old playlist that’s still on my iPod.  Like I said, I was hitting the fifteen-year mark and was feeling sentimental, so I began dragging and dropping songs into a playlist.  The phrase “long-lost friend” had been bouncing around my head for a while as had the idea of my having led a past life, or everyone I know having led a past life.  Because when you think about it, the people you are around on a daily basis have stories that are bigger than the one they have with you.  Or maybe I just notice this because it’s the curse of the writer’s mentality.  But the idea that everyone is interesting in a way, that there is always something to find out about them, is fascinating.

It seems completely pretentious to me try and encapsulate that in a mix, and looking at the song list, it probably could be at least five songs shorter.  It still would fit on a 120-minute cassette, but there are too many anthemic songs of youthful defiance (“We’ll Inherit The Earth,” “Death or Glory”) or aging punk anthems (“Scattered,” “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”) and the middle drags on through some very slow and soft folk pieces that don’t hold up (“See You Later, See You Soon,” “This is Me”).  But it was good enough to earn “permanent playlist” status.  Either that, or I was just too lazy to delete it, which is probably the more likely explanation as to why it has spent five years on my iPod.

Mix tapes seem to be this thing that is a part of my youth, whereas playlists are something you throw together because you want to listen to a variety of songs, often with the same rhythm or tone.  I make workout playlists (admittedly, I probably should start working out more often), Christmas music playlists, dinner music playlists, and even a breakfast playlist that is filled with French jazz and other brunchy music.  It’s all very adult because it serves a practical purpose, an extension of the tapes called “Tom’s Crap” that I used to make so that I had something to listen to on my Walkman or in my car.  Part of me shrugs at this, but part of me is saddened.

There was a point in my life where everything had meaning.  If I gave you a tape, it was because I wanted to say something or introduce you to something.  And no matter how crappy that tape was–and trust me, some of those tapes were crappy–I thought it was important.  “Past Lives and Long Lost Friends” was an attempt at making something important like that and also an attempt to hold on to the self-importance that comes with “meaning,” as if I am attempting to dispute the statement that Ally Sheedy so boldly makes in The Breakfast Club: “When you grow up, your heart dies.”

At seventeen, I believed her; at 37, I’ve come to realize she’s wrong.  You simply turn your focus elsewhere.  Adulthood is priorities and responsibility.  It’s not that I don’t want to sit and contemplate an entire album for an hour; it’s just that I don’t always have the time.  My geeking out happens amidst a flurry of multitasking and when I do get those moments to contemplate, I usually fall asleep in front of the television.

I’ve heard Billy Joel explain the meaning of “Summer, Highland Falls” as hitting that point in his life where he was starting to see the world for what its complexities.  Much of that playlist, if you look at several of the songs, is a similar contemplation but I don’t know if I was contemplating graduating high school as much as I was coming to terms with the onset of middle age.  At seventeen, I would have never put “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne on a mix tape (granted, I’m pretty sure that “Running on Empty” and “Somebody’s Baby” were the only Jackson Browne songs I knew), nor would I have considered Paul Simon essential listening.  If I was being contemplative or sentimental, I would have chosen 10,000 Maniacs, but mostly I would have gone for the bombast of Queen.

To be honest, I have thought about making a Twenty Years On mix.  I can’t decide if I would go for nostalgia or reflection, though.  Twenty years kind of dictates that I should throw together a collection of the Pearl Jam, Green Day, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Joel that I listened to in a Big Chill soundtrack sort of way.  Being reflective would be more of what I did five years ago, which might be belaboring the point.

“Summer, Highland Falls” ends with a few lines that have always stuck with me:

How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies
Perhaps we don’t fulfill each other’s fantasies
And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives
With our respective similarities
It’s either sadness or euphoria

It’s a final statement worth a close examination.  If it is, as he says, the a moment of realizing that you’re getting older, it’s a perfect expression of that realization.  There’s no violent anger here, just acceptance and resignation.  Perhaps, even, there’s a bit of maturity.  Place this in the larger context of, say, looking at one’s own adulthood or having a moment of forced nostalgia like the anniversary of graduating high school, and the same ambiguity exists.  The bloom comes off the rose pretty easily when you really start thinking about all of it; thankfully, there are mix tapes, CDs, and playlists to help guide the way.

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One comment

  1. I love everything about this.

    Also, I want to know the tracklist for “The Last Worthless Mix Tape” (Brilliant mix tape title, btw). Do you recall any of it????

    Also this: “Because when you think about it, the people you are around on a daily basis have stories that are bigger than the one they have with you. Or maybe I just notice this because it’s the curse of the writer’s mentality. But the idea that everyone is interesting in a way, that there is always something to find out about them, is fascinating.”

    I feel like this ALL the time. Wonder on this, contemplate it, mull over what everyone’s story must be, even sometimes strangers on a train, or in a bar, at a concert, in the grocery store…

    And…Twenty Years On mix – please do this.

    This post resonated with me so much. I do put a lot of careful thought into playlists still, more than maybe I should (but I still love it). That said, it isn’t the same as the labor of love that putting a mix TAPE entailed. The careful choices, the air at the start and end, the right song to end side a and the right song to end the entire thing on side b. Making the cover, writing on those damn tiny lines. Even mix CD’s took effort, lovingly so, but still it was more work than drag and drop. The mix TAPE though – those meant something.

    I still have all the mix tapes anyone ever gave me, even the ones from boys who broke my heart and who I tore up pictures and letters of (one I did light on fire, actually – the only picture I ever did that to – it smelled terrible as it burned), but I could never get rid of the mix tapes.

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