We Broke, But We Gots Blank Cassette

We're packing this AM for a 10 day trek through the Rocky Mountains. Yessir, we're staring down a sixteen hour drive to Flagstaff for the first day's drive. Then it's up to Durango, Los Alamos and Taos, over to Denver, winding back around through Idaho and Montana for eleven shows total. This will be the last run of dates for a while. After this, we fold up the tent, and put it back in the garage for who knows how long.

I was thinking I'd pick a couple choice mix tapes for the journey, so I opened a drawer long ago over-stuffed with cassettes to see what jumps out. In this drawer are the tapes neatly filed in their original plastic cases replete with J-Cards etc. There's a separate drawer one enters at their own risk of barely organized cassettes minus the cases. 

Now honey, we might be broke but we got shelves full of records and blank cassettes for days. Okay, okay, we've heard it all before, hardly profound—I know, but it really is the simple things. There's a warm feeling that comes over me soaking in my old records, a feeling like no other.

There's a lot of fuss going on these days about MP3 vs. vinyl, cassette's vs. CD's, Trailways vs. Greyhound, Gibson vs. Fender, Bush vs. Shaved. Maybe we're all missing the point; as my old running buddy Dan Stuart pointed out to me: it's not the syringe, it's the dope.

Cassettes are rare things though. Not only can you record over a cassette, but they pick up right where you left off, like a book. CD's can't do that. And although it's been a while, I can't imagine rolling a joint or chopping out a line on an iPod; and aside from the obvious skipping issues, vinyl doesn't keep well in a hot vehicle. So don't be dogging on the cassette now kids, I won't hear it. Viva le Cassette! 

This was never going to be easy, the drawer is overflowing with magic, but I have a fear of over-packing, so after much agonizing, I settled on three tapes.

1) Road Tape II "Top of the World"

When did I make this one? The cover is bleached and dashboard yellowed. Early 90's maybe? Let's see, we got Curtis Mayfield, John Prine, Jim Dickinson, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Canned Heat...

On the Road Again. Jump back, Jack Kerouac!

I toss the tape up front to Kevin and James in the Dodge Ram cockpit and they slip it into the player.

Listening to Curtis Mayfield through a dirty windshield is healing. I feel the cloud of depression melt away a little.  Curled up like a pretzel in the back bench seat, I feel mellow, relaxed, gentle. This is the place to be. This is TM. This is van therapy. I feel like we could drive forever. Or in the words of his Bobness: "Until the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies." 

Or maybe just to the next piss stop.

I have an old childhood friend/surfing buddy from Orange County who landed a gig as Johnny Lydon's personal driver. I asked him, "What's that like?" And he said, "Well, mostly I get paid to drive up and down PCH while Johnny listens to tunes and drinks a 12-pack in the back of a Lincoln Town Car. Occasionally he'll want me to stop at one of his favorite surf spots to check out the waves."

Hell, that's the gig for me.

Everybody's got to have a hobby. Sounds like the artist formerly known as Rotten knows a thing or two. That's the definition of success. Carbon hand-prints aside, my van guzzles about $25.00 of gas per hour according to Todd Roper's estimation, one more reason I should start saving for my retirement now. 

Curtis Mayfield, would you come down here for one moment? Let me ask you something: when did music get so angry, so mopey, so flat out uninteresting?

This tape seems to be going over well with James and Kevin up front, too. I spy the backs of their heads gently bobbing in time, occasionally craning back to ask what or who we're listening to.

I'm haunted by my heroes. That's what I'm thinking as I listen to Dickinson's abstract expressionist take on Gershwin's "Beautiful Dreamer". Dickinson, Dylan... must these guys follow me everywhere? Sure, I've picked up and discarded other heroes and mentors along the way, but some are harder to shake than others. Some won't be shaken. Some you just don't want to let down.

The real highlight of Road Tape II for me is a waltz version of "Top of the World" by my long lost brother Rainer.

This actually came off another cassette. One of those dodgy cassette to cassette dubs. There's a back story to this song. You see, once on a GOR session, Randy McReynolds the engineer asked Rainer to "just play and sing a little" so he could get a recording level and Rainer just casually tossed this off.

Randy was a seasoned vet at this point, savvy enough to roll tape at all times. So with the red light on I sat there on the studio couch, holding my breath, arrested by this effortlessly soulful performance. Afterwards, I dubbed a cassette of Rainer's unreal off-the-cuff performance. It's now one of my most prized possessions. I've long forgotten whatever song me and Danny were wrestling with at the time, but this performance resonates to this day. Hits the spot like a motherfucker. Like TWO motherfuckers.

2) Denise Sullivan Mixtape (Untitled)

Someone makes you a mix tape, it's an act of friendship. Here's one from Denise Sullivan. I remember the day Denise dropped this tape off. She rode over on her bicycle with a pink basket with plastic flowers on it. I have to say I felt a little closer to Denise that day. 

Denise left town to be closer to her sweetheart, but I've still got this tape. She's writing a book on black protest music and I'm curled up in the back of this van. But I'm calm and happy, the Buddha of the van's back seat.

Iggy's "Success" is on here. This is where the idea hit me like a punch in the face to pitch the Iggy song to Kelly Willis. We recorded a cool Sir Doug inspired version of "Success" on her "Translated from Love" CD last year. Turned out to be a deft move. Thanks Denise.

3) "Verlaine Trash"

Tom Verlaine and I played an acoustic gig together years ago at the I-Beam in San Francisco. We'd known each other previously from a brief GOR/Tom Verlaine tour of the UK. In fact, we were at one time signed to the same label (Phonogram UK) by maverick record man Dave Bates.

Tom and I ended up cruising around the next day, hanging out and taking a tour of record and book stores of which there is no shortage of in SF. A couple weeks later I received this tape from him in the mail with Lee Hazlewood, Roy Buchanan, Cooder, and some scratchy psych 45's from his deep stash. Looking at it now, I can't help but notice, this tape was recorded over the Canadian roots rock band Blue Rodeo's factory cassette.

Compiling mix tapes, I remember really suffering over the right songs, the right sequence, Type I vs. Type II; Chrome, Metal (both rip-offs). And like songwriting, I learned that suffering doesn't necessary make the tape or the song better. Mix-tapes, like a lot of things, are a cruel art form. I try to build them from the gut. Make it for myself. And if I just purchased an armload or records, I try to include a sample of each one to get my money's worth. One never knows what treasures are disguised as road kill along the way. I don't need to know where I'm going; I'll know when I get there. No outlines, no bullshit, no crutches. However, there is some real technique involved. My old band-mate Steve Croke taught me the trick of sticking your finger in the sprockets and the turning the spool back a quarterturn or so after each song, in order to keep the segues tight. (There's a space between the playback head and the record head that adds a little delay between songs).

Home. Home with my finger in the sprocket and the spool turned almost a quarter-turn back. This is the place to be.

Be true to your school,