01 May 2009
By Paul Kelly, written for The Monthly (May 2009 edition)
In my last year of high school the two coolest records were Hot Rats, by Frank Zappa, and Gasoline Alley, by Rod Stewart. (Yes, there once was a time when Rod Stewart was underground.) I wasn't in the hipster gang, but I knew what they listened to. I managed to get copies on a cassette: Frank on one side, Rod on the other. This was the beauty of the C90 tape. You could always fit two albums on it, because they couldn't make vinyl records longer than 45 minutes.
I took off travelling the next year and never lived in one place very long; I didn't own a record player – too bulky, too fiddly – and so became a maker of tapes, feeding off other people's record collections. I knew a guy who had a lot of blues records and, by his good grace, I taped Sonny Boy Williamson, Sleepy John Estes, Little Walter and Blind Willie McTell, writing the titles in small script on the case covers. Someone else had a stack of Bob Dylan bootlegs in plain sleeves, no artwork. Some of them had titles: The Great White Wonder was one. I sucked up the lot and learnt how to play ‘I'll Keep it with Mine' and ‘Quit Your Low Down Ways', rewinding the tape over and again to catch the lyrics and figure out the chords. I taped Blue and For the Roses, by Joni Mitchell, and old-time and folk music from record labels like Vanguard and Rounder: New Lost City Ramblers, Eric von Schmidt, Woody Guthrie and more. I was hungry for all kinds of music, and plundered where I could. Close to 40 years later, I still have some of those tapes.
Cassettes were convenient: nice and small, good to travel with. And when I started writing songs, a portable cassette player was all I needed. Just press play and record at the same time, and sing your idea into the inbuilt mic. I still use that method today – there's no quicker one – though it's getting harder to find decent little tape recorders that don't break down after a year.
Friends made tapes for me and I did the same for them. Nick Hornby, in High Fidelity, wrote about the rules for making compilation tapes – never two songs in a row by the same artist, that sort of thing – but everyone has their own rules. It's all about the flow. You find out that your friend Clare has gone through life not knowing the music of John Cale (which you discovered years ago, on a tape Phil gave you). So you go through your Cale collection. You focus on the early records – Fear, Vintage Violence, Slow Dazzle, Paris 1919 – and start to make a JC best-of. But how do you fillet Paris 1919, the greatest record of all time at one point in your life? Hard decisions have to be made in the interests of the overview, but ‘Andalucia', ‘Half Past France' and ‘Hanky Panky Nohow' are walk-up starts.
In the early '90s, Richard, who's living in New York, makes you hip-hop compilations of songs he tapes from the radio: A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B & Rakim, NWA, De La Soul, Biz Markie, EPMD, Boo-Yaa TRIBE, and those mighty women Queen Latifah, Roxanne Shanté, Salt-N-Pepa and Monie Love. Tapes from tapes. And years later, when your niece turns 18, you make her an old-school hip-hop compilation from that golden era (it's the golden era to you), picking the eyes out of those tapes. Tapes from tapes from tapes. "The hiss is important," you tell her.
A lot of time goes into making a cassette compilation. You don't just drag and drop into a playlist and then click burn, as you do to make a CD. You have to listen to the music as you do it. You might be doing other things at the same time – housework or cooking or writing letters – but you need to be on hand. When a song stops, you have to press pause straight away, then cue up the next track. Press play on one deck, then record on the other; get your timing right so the gap between songs is a good length. You have to make sure the song doesn't cut off at the end of a side. If you make a mistake – accidentally erase part of a track, miss the start, or change your mind about the order – you have to go back and start again.
So whenever you make a tape for someone, you make a copy for yourself as well. You want a return for the work you've put in. These tapes are for you, anyway – making them for others is just an excuse. Of course, you give them the high-quality copy and keep the dub for yourself. Your copy of the hip-hop tape is now fourth-generation; it lives in the car for a while, where you rotate a lot of your old tapes. Dust and the years do their work, too. Your nephew borrows the car from time to time. When he returns it one day, he says, "I love that old-school tape but, man, it's muddy!"
"Yeah, they use a lot of samples."
Your niece loved her birthday present, and next year you make her another one. She sang Patsy Cline's ‘Crazy' at the last family Christmas, so you decide to make women singers the theme. Your starting point is ‘Sweet Bitter Love', by Aretha Franklin, which you taped from a CD Renee lent you. You've been playing it every day for a month. It's been your get-up-in-the-morning-and-go song, your chopping-vegetables song, your glass-of-wine-in-the-evening song. You've figured out the chords – the B moving up a semitone to the C kills you – but the singing you can't touch. It's pain turned to glory; it's the walls of Jericho tumbling down; it's pure Aretha.
The title of a compilation is important. Sometimes you start with it; sometimes it emerges. This time, you know right away what it's going to be: Sweet Bitter Love. But you don't want to lead with that song. You need to build up to it, guide the listener along the path, then – wham! You decide to start way back, with Adelaide Hall singing ‘Creole Love Call' with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. She's imitating a horn. No words, so it's like an overture. Then you set the scene with Etta James's aching ‘I'd Rather Go Blind', her first stretched out phrase – "Something t-o-ld me" – sounding like a bell tolling, the oldest bell in the world, the bell that says, "You don't love me anymore." You bring in The Staple Singers after that, for a little release and to get things on a groovy track: ‘I'll Take You There'. Mavis is singing about heaven, but she makes it sound like a place of eternal fucking. You slip in Nellie Lutcher, with her ‘Fine Brown Frame', to keep things sweet and tight; then Big Mama Thornton who, like Mavis, sings from below the waist. You're on a roll now, making it up as you go, pulling out CDs and cassettes from the shelves, making a clutter, jumping around in time with the music. Billie Holiday has to be in there, of course, and Irma Thomas and Nancy Wilson.
You're pretty pleased with yourself halfway through side B, after sequencing a run of three Bacharach-David tunes (a theme within a theme) sung by different women: Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick and Aretha again. It's within the rules to bring someone back on the second side. So here comes Etta one more time, happier now, luxuriating in the pleasure of ‘At Last'. You bring it on home with Ruth Brown and the returning Staple Singers. Mavis was always gonna have to have the last word. Mmnph! … oaah … unhh … mmnh … oaah … unhh!
Quentin Tarantino's film Death Proof (2007) contains lots of car stunts, and menace and mayhem – and, true to form, also a couple of long non-action scenes of people just talking. There's one in the back of the car where four women are chatting about men, sex and dating. They're tough, savvy girls – starlets and stunt drivers – trash-talking, shooting the shit, serving it up. They've been there, done that. Not long before all four of them go out to hunt a bad guy and bash him to death, one mentions a boyfriend who made her a tape. "He made you a tape," the others softly chime, "not a CD?" "Yeah, a tape!""Aw." And their faces go all soft.
Early in the millennium, you're going out with a tall blonde who's a writer, a radio presenter and a trained musician. She can play piano and clarinet, and sing Ella Fitzgerald. You like her a lot, though in those first courting days she confesses she doesn't much like football or country music. You brood upon this and start writing a list for a compilation. You start with the name: She Don't Like Country. You're gonna have to pull out some big guns. George Jones, from East Texas, is definitely in the team. ‘The Race Is On' is one long metaphor, loaded to brilliant breaking point – she's a wordie; she'll appreciate that. And she loves soul music. George is a soul singer to his bootstraps. Lefty Frizzell, too, is a must. He taught George most of what he knows. Lefty came via a tape slipped to you backstage by a fan, a hundred years ago, and he's travelled with you ever since. Experience counts.
Your tall Ella-singing blonde likes to go to Bennetts Lane and other Melbourne jazz clubs, so she's bound to hear the jazz in Willie Nelson. He's cool in the clinches. She also has Manu Chao and Youssou N'Dour in her record collection, and loves to dance. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were making world music 50 years before the term was invented, blending Hawaiian, African and South American music, jazz, blues and country in a nutty, joyful brew you could dance your socks off to. So they're an automatic selection – plenty of flair, those boys.
You set to work one long rainy afternoon, assembling your squad. Buck Owens is a natural choice for captain: you'll start him up forward and put him down back later. He leads the team on with ‘Above and Beyond'. It's a bold statement of intent, a high, ringing declaration of love. And it swings like hell, aiming straight for the middle of the big sticks.
She returns the favour. Driving out to a B&B on the west coast one summer weekend, she slips the third act of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier onto the car stereo. Three sopranos, intertwined, squeeze out honour, grief, sex and ecstasy through the small speakers as you wind along the Great Ocean Road; outside, sunlight and spray dance above a heaving sea.
Nine years later, you're still together. You've been shacked up for a while now. Sometimes, on a Sunday afternoon, she'll play a Gillian Welch record in the back room, lying down to listen with her eyes closed. Occasionally, on a Sunday morning, you'll put on a Renée Fleming CD and come back to bed, where you can both hear it drifting down the hall. And once in a while, on a Saturday, if there's a close game of football on the telly, she'll come and snuggle up on the couch to watch a quarter or two.