Blessed are romantic idiots, for they will inherit heartbreak and weird looks and sometimes the earth.
I am drinking a screwdriver in bed because I can. What a joy to be an adult! The near perfect buzz makes it all too easy to reflect on my absolute and total devotion to the altar of futile gestures. From our earliest years as cavemen with every Bad Religion CD to our late 20s as proselytized and hot ironic messes, the mix tape is about as strong a metaphor for the noble futile gesture as one can find. I’ve read too many articles on making the perfect mix tape, but I renounce the very idea and the very concept of a perfect mix tape. I am a mix tape Dadaist. I can only be who I am, and who I am is kind of annoying and perfection is reactionary villainy.
But a futile gesture is a futile gesture and I happily challenged myself to making a non-perfect tape after meeting a particular lady twice (both times at a vaguely Old West themed bar), bludgeoning my way into a penpalship and figuring the next logical step was to adopt the persona of a person from the early 90s so I could make something to make her (existent?) Walkman proud. It would be the first tape I made in eleven years. She would be teaching in France for the year, and leaving for Baltimore almost as soon as she returned. My endgame was complicated. All the other stuff was simple.
In the outside world the Republican Primary was in full apocalyptic swing. Different idiots claimed primacy for tiny moments until invariably they revealed themselves as charlatans or lunatics. I continued to be a reliable reprobate at my job, fucking up the mundane and the benign and only occasionally speaking at staff meetings. My nights were drunken therapy sessions with friends at parks under the glow San Jose’s yellow streetlights. But this was a mission. In the closing pages of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (yeah, I’ve heard of that book-kind of), Kundera leading man and sex fanatic, Tomas declares that “Missions are stupid, Tereza…I have no mission, No one has.” Though I have forgotten most of that particular book (I think there were some memorable adultery and cuckolding passages) that has remained with me. Missions are stupid. I disagree, Milan Kundera. I quietly disagree.
This was no ordinary girl so I wasn’t about to make an ordinary tape full of my favorite songs. That would be boring. It would probably be objectively better, but it would bore the shit out me and my threshold for getting bored is pretty Spartan.
Armed with a sixty-minute tape, sidekicks (some furry), and some 40s, I readied myself for a noble self-indulgent pursuit. What follows is a less noble but just as self-indulgent re-cap of the first side of that tape that was my opening volley in an attempt to trust another person.
To start things off I opted for “Antioch 277” by Henagar Union Sacred Harp Convention. Those are a lot of words and what they amount to is “fucked up sounding Jesus music”. Sacred Harp is Southern Baptist a capella choral arranged with hound dog booms. The first track on this tape begins with a mumbling word, and explodes into a conflagration of harmonies that bring sinners to their knees and the saved to the everlasting Arm. In retrospect, I can’t recall why this seemed a good choice to open a tape with, or even to include on a tape a song that has such strange and uncomfortable implications. It was a self-indulgent judgment call on a self-indulgent tape. It made sense to me though. That was good enough.
I love it as an opener, but what I really love was the hymns fading into “Obligatory Jock Slaughter Song” by Charles Bronson, finally settling the debate once and for all that power-violence is the ideal second track on any tape. It’s a landmine thrown at your face, it’s thirty seconds of dumb-ass fury, and it is bound to confuse the living shit out of a pretty girl. This was perhaps a strange move, a double whammy of confusion, a bait-and-switch with no switch. It was a defense mechanism of Gilgamesh proportions. Being earnest is the hardest thing. It is the thing I want to do more than anything in the world. Instead I opted for some God music and shrill gutter noise. I really liked this girl. She would understand. Or send the tape back. But even if you committed to “irony” you have to come real with it or go the fuck home.
This girl was pretty and great. My tape was already neither of those things.
The third song on a tape is the moment where shit gets real, when you strike like a scorpion and drop your (weird) thesis. Major labels push for the third song to be the single, so taking a cue from Warner and/or Atlantic, I tried to follow their well monetized blueprint. “Big Girl” by Ghostface Killah, is the absolute standout track on Fishscale. Rapping with some restraint over some crooning soul of yesteryear, Ghost blasts one of the most genuinely sweet songs of his career. I remember proudly nodding to myself after recording this one, as if I had actually accomplished a thing. The song simply made me feel good about being alive. I hoped she would like it. It was the moment where I tried to plant my flag in her heart and brain, to get my well-intentioned claw under her skin.
“My Shit’s Fucked Up” by Warren Zevon follows, an ode to growing old and getting ready to fucking die. Mournful without being maudlin, this brings us back to safety, no more power-violence for the sake of power-violence, no more weird soul rap, just a man who has seen it all playing his guitar at you. Mexico’s junk-punk-shock-rock powerhouse Molotov steps up to the proverbial plate next, wielding machine-gun machetes to forestall mid tape complacency. The quiet moment of Dad approved music is smashed like Humpty Dumpty. I imagine her rocking out to this song. I imagine her frowning hard with cute confusion. I imagine drinking another 40.
I lived with my two cats when I made this tape. One was a beautiful torbie who carried all the love in the world in dainty bread-making paws. The other was a tuxedo with a penchant for banshee screams in the night and heartbreaking bouts of separation anxiety. They crawled over the stereo and did their share of accidental sabotage. They watched me sip Mickeys and they made life difficult and great. They gave me an idea for the penultimate song, and they meowed in ways that kept me sane. Nobody has a mission, indeed.
Andrew Jackson Jihad is a band I know peripherally through friends. Every romantic tape that tries to hide its obvious intentions needs a manic folk-punk jam. The lyrics continued to build on the weird little pathos I was peddling. No give up. “Rejoice despite the fact this world will hurt you! Rejoice despite the fact this world will kill you! Rejoice despite the fact this world will tear you to shreds! Rejoice because you’re doing your best!”
This girl made me laugh.
At this point in the tape, knowing a tiny bit about her musical taste, I had deduced I had populated this mix entirely with songs she would not like. So everything was going according to plan! But it was time to stop being intentionally annoying and get with the program. If I was going to devote myself to a medium so anachronistic I had better at least acknowledge songs that may sound best on tape.
“My Son Cool” by Guided By Voices does the job, though it is not my favorite Guided By Voices song, or even my 8th favorite, but sometimes that is not what this shit is all about. “Cold Cold Water” by folky temptress Mirah will get any mammal ready for boning down and “Streetlight” by Low seemed the perfectly timed interlude before the Beverly Hills Cop theme song takes the tape to new heights of meta circle jerking.
The final song on the first side of the tape was one of my all time favorite songs: “Tigress” by Songs: Ohia. Haunting and spare, with a quietly roaring third act, I needed something to re-establish that I was not a complete moron after wasting three minutes on a song that figures prominently in the careers of Eddie Murphy and Judge Reinhold. “Tigress” said things I wanted to say, without even the help of the song’s lyrics. Just the way he sings, like he’s at once both begging for an audience and begging for forgiveness, the way his words are confident but his voice trembles. If you are going to say a thing then say it like the wind that scatters.
He trails off and Side One hisses to its weird conclusion.
Some people believe that everything means something; that everything happens for a reason, all teleological blueprints conjured from the world’s mysterious brain trusts and think tanks. Some people believe everything means nothing, and while this literally makes more sense, it is a soul-crushing prospect to stare down.
Depending on the several epiphanies I slog through each day, I could partially find my foot in both strange doors. The conclusion I have drawn from staring down the Third Rail of romanticized cassette spools is that some things mean something and other things mean nothing. It was my hope that she would realize this tape was the former; that these were the things that percolated in my heart, and that for everything you believe that means something that turns out to have been a mirage, that is no goddamn reason to stop giving a shit about worthy faces, even if you’ve only seen them twice.
And if she hated it, at least I put a picture of Jared Leto on the cover. And if she hated it at least I had re-learned how to make a tape. And if she hated it I still had cats to talk to, and streetlights to get drunk under, and other things that I’m sure were fine and good. But only that: fine and good.
I sent her the tape. She didn’t hate it. So we moved to Baltimore together.