Monday, August 22, 2011

The unnecessary tale of how I wasted the summer of '95 (because I didn't have the internet)

Warning: Maximum self-indulgence is found in what follows.

Part of the beauty of the online experience is the ease of sharing. That's not saying that all sharing is equally worthy of being shared, but without any printing presses or broadcasting networks involved, and the availability of free blogs and Twitter/Facebook accounts, etc., it's not such that even if nobody reads what was shared it cost much.

With internet access (which too can be found at no cost if one tries) and the most important freebie—free time—there's nothing to stop the sharing other than one's own personal standards.

When I think back on the period of months in 1995 when I was unemployed and what I would have done were it that I had a computer at home and had the internet been what it is today, I shudder to think what kind of havoc I could have wrought in the area of over-sharing.

Instead, I devoted way too long to a series of (we'll call them) mix tapes to represent a sampling of my musical tastes of the time.

That was certainly no more of a waste of time (in retrospect) than was even the most banal tweet, but it was a hell of a lot more effort.


If much of the internet is an outlet for abject narcissism and time-wasting, what I did back in '95 was a pretty good analog in that pre-ubiquitous-online period.

But first we need to go back farther.

In the mid-'80s, while still in high school, I began really buying records. It's not that I never purchased the occasional album or 45 prior to then, but there came a point around my sophomore and junior years that the inchoate stage of actual collecting commenced. This was the very beginning of what now manifests itself in the form of over 28,000 tracks in the iTunes library.

Over the course of the last half of the '80s my music purchasing increased exponentially, and had come to encompass both LPs and CDs. As to what possessed me to spend my money on that I'm not sure, but clearly there was some combination of inclination and the influence of the people I hung around (some of whom were collectors on a scale I would never reach). Perhaps there is no explanation other than it was something I enjoyed (and I fancied I had the disposable income at that time in my life).

What defies explanation is that in 1989, with maybe half a decade of being "into" this, I embarked on a project where I would record on a set of audio cassettes a representative sampling of my collection as of that time. The idea was that every album (be it LP or CD) would get one track—or maybe two if it was a particularly good album where its importance would not be achieved through a single song—in the project. These tracks would be arranged alphabetically by the artist, which was how I had my albums organized. For artists where I owned more than one album (and hence there'd be more than one song in that artist's "section" they'd be arranged in whatever order struck my fancy; here my mix tape-making background would kick in and put the songs in some modicum of order than sounded good.

The way I recorded made it a bit more complicated than just pulling out an album (or albums) by the first artist, picking the track(s), putting it on and pressing record on the tape deck. No, I had a mixer with a turntable and two CD players as inputs, and I'd try to record the songs with cross-fading, with as few stops as necessary. So this meant I had to carefully time how long each song was to know how long the total time would be (as to avoid running longer than the side of the tape), practice the cross-fading between the given songs (with notes about which songs had fade-outs and which came to abrupt endings), check sound levels to know what adjustments would need to be made, and then, when ready, try to record usually around 20 to a full 45 minutes straight, cuing up the next song on the other track of the mixer as the previous song was playing. And if I messed up I had to start over.

And somehow I planned out eleven 90-minute cassettes' worth of songs and recorded them over the course of several weeks.  That was the state of my collection and what I was "into" at the time, all presented in a manner that was, by any standard, more effort than could possibly be justified. But that was the sort of crazy from which I suffered in my early 20's.

I would listen to those tapes a lot in my car, so it wasn't like they just sat in a drawer collecting dust. (And yes, I still have them to this day, although it's been a while since I popped one in.)

But here's the truly insane part: Approximately six years later, when my music collection had grown by another exponential factor (even relative to its state as of that first retrospective project), I found myself thinking that I should do a follow-up project. Then when I found myself laid off in 1995 (after I'd reached the point where I needed a break from constant want-ad-searching), I decided that sitting in my little studio apartment and planning this next retrospective was something I could do without spending any money; I had the discs, I had the blank tapes, I had the equipment, and I certainly had the time.

So sometimes for hours at a time I sat by the stereo, putting on one disc after another and listening to portions of each track to determine which one would be its selection. (In the case of the albums I still had from '89, I had to select a different track than was used in the first project.) I don't recall how long it took me to go through all of my collection, but it must have been months just to get the project planned out. When I had just the plan completed—without even starting recording in, yes, that same cross-fading way—it came out to fill (I am not exaggerating here) thirty-three 90-minute tapes.

I will say this about that process: It really made me listen closely to my entire collection—not merely to those tracks that made the cut but to all of them. It put that music deep into my consciousness.

Partway into the recording process I did finally get a job, and the project stalled out after twenty-two tapes.
Yes, 22. I still proceeded with executing the actual recording of forty-four 45-minute sides of cassettes with the material I had planned out (and not all of them were successful on the first try); we're talking about dozens of hours of effort just for that. And that's not even including making little covers with the song titles. All of which was merely for my own listening enjoyment.

(I did dub copies of a few of the "volumes" in the project for friends—not the entire collection, but the first few tape—whom I seriously doubt actually listened to them. Oh sure, perhaps one or two of them may have popped in one and listened to a side, but that's as much as should be expected of anyone. It's one thing to have a friend make you a single mix tape which holds the implication of having songs that person thought you might like; it's quite another for that tape to be part of a massive project that essentially shows off his CD collection, and is merely a document of what he likes.)

I'm not saying that the project was a waste of time (although I did name it "How I Wasted My Summer Vacation"); I did listen to it numerous times over the years (it was the soundtrack for a long solo drive I made several years later). It holds the satisfaction of nostalgia and, along with its predecessor, being precisely what I set out for it to be.

However, given that now I could put together a full playlist of the entirety of both projects (including the last third of the second project I never finished) in less time than it took me to write this post, and fit all of it on to my mere 8 GB iPod Nano (with room to spare), the nostalgia and pride of the job does diminish in its personal historical importance.

Were I to take that same long distance driving trip (to which I parenthetically alluded) now, I'd certainly just load up the iPod and use the adapter to plug that into the car stereo. Sure, the songs would lack that cross-fading element that I worked so hard to achieve on tape, but given my schedule these days that's without question a trade-off I would make without hesitation.  (And if I had the time, the technology available on the computer would allow me to put together big mp3's of the songs combined into one 45-minute-long track where they were cross-faded in far less than 45 minutes.)

However, the real question is that if I had back then the same computer functionality we have today (or even just a fraction of that functionality) would I have ever have bothered with doing that project? (Did I just do it because it was something I could do without spending money I did not have, as a way of occupying my time?) Were it I had been born sixteen years later than I was (so I'd now be the age I was then) and I had the same propensity to collect music, would I even want to keep track of the state of that propensity at this arbitrary time increments? I presume I'd have the same youthful delusion that someone else might give a crap, but with the current state of the internet (and especially social media) I probably could find some group who'd pretend to care (as long as I pretended to care about their projects in return); such is the beauty of the ostensible interconnectedness the 'net allows. But would that interconnectedness perhaps have burst my narcissism a bit through the realization that the only way somebody would possibly sit through dozens of hours of my tastes would be if I were willing to do the same in return, and thus it would be better to just find some other ways of occupying that free time?

If I seem to be suggesting how these kids today don't know how good they have it, I certainly didn't realize how good I had it back in my youth, merely in different ways.

Of course, given the way I've continued this practice over the years, as evidenced by the habit of what I continue to do here on the blahg, it's clear that I've learned nothing. I merely transferred that inexplicable tenacity and transferred the delusion of being interesting to others to another outlet of questionable merit. Our proclivities never really change; they merely manifest themselves in ways that better take advantage of technological advancements in the field of passing the time.

I have no doubt someday we'll look back at our present obsessions and find them of equally quaint worth.


Of course, had my proclivities of those past years transformed into a role as one who runs a mixing board, those tapes would have been the inchoate stage of a career path.

It's easy for most activities to seem a waste in retrospect.


And, of course, were I inclined to mix together video and post it on YouTube, I could have thousands or even millions of people watching and telling me how much I suck.

That's something those mix tapes would never have a chance to encounter.


  1. Doug, this is great. I believe there is a "time wasting" gene imprinted somewhere on the male chromosome. Whatever you were doing, it is probably the result of millions of years of natural selection, and it was this particular proclivity for wasting time among the male of the species that allowed us homo-sapiens to thrive and eventually dominate the earth. Well done!

    As for myself, I have found numerous new ways to waste time in today's technologically enhanced musical landscape; digitizing LPs, scanning album artwork and editing/enhancing it in Photoshop, etc.

  2. Thanks, Pete. Thank goodness all of our preceding generations weren't inclined to do something more productive!

  3. This post reminds me how years ago I would carefully record FM music programs on cassette tapes, carefully indexing and labeling each one. Now I have a hoard of tapes, most of them I've never heard. When will I ever have the free time to listen to them (especially before the tape gets too old and brittle)?

    Actually, I have the time but I prefer silence while "wasting" time here on the Web.


So, what do you think?