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Suspicious Minds 

Wednesday, Sep 18 1996
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Long-distance love affair by cassette tape: It happened to me. While digital romances grow increasingly common, our strange fling was quaintly analog. Oh, we talked on the phone for hours and enjoyed the occasional mushy rendezvous in the flesh at airports and bookstores and bars. But mostly we wore out the heads on our respective tape decks compiling Memorex mash notes. I'm not really the scented envelope kind of girl, preferring instead to send yellow Jiffylite mailers packed with whatever song's on my mind.

The most interesting thing about the correspondence was that we rarely, if ever, agreed. I think my scrappy little pop songs got on his nerves, and his ambient soundscapes left me impatient for something, anything, to happen. But I gritted my teeth through them all, groaning over every last spacey synth jam as if I were doing him some kind of personal favor. Since he went to the trouble of making the tape, the least I could do was sit there and take it. Not that I miss those "songs" since we parted ways -- not by a long shot. But what I did get out of the entire sad situation (besides big phone bills and a box of cassettes I'll never touch again) was a lingering sentimentality about the act of taping itself; a homemade tape is a work of friendship.

A lot of readers of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity picked up on the vinyl fetishes of his three record-store employee characters, but it was their taping that struck me. Clerks Barry and Dick are emotional cripples stuck in that male pop culture circle of hell in which having seen a film (the right kind) or owning a record (ditto) acts as a substitute for being able to express what these things mean to them. Since they are incapable of really talking about human feelings with even a whisper of depth, they get by on standing next to each other at rock shows and making each other complicated tapes of songs that remain obscure for concrete reasons.

Rob, their employer/"friend" at the record store, has just been left by his girlfriend, Laura, a woman he met a few years back as a DJ at a dance club. He initially wooed her by making her a tape -- an artifact he slaved over: "I spent hours putting that cassette together. To me, making a tape is like writing a letter -- there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again, and I wanted it to be a good one." Later on, Rob and Laura tentatively reunite, but he flirts with another woman, offering to make a tape for her. "I know that I'll do it, tonight, probably," he confesses, "and I also know that when I'm peeling the wrapper off the cassette box and press the pause button, it will feel like a betrayal."

While I was reading Hornby's book, I happened to glance at the back page of this paper. An ad caught my eye: "LP'S, NO TURNTABLE? I'll tape record albums for you. Reasonable rates, excellent service. Pick-up available. Bob 415-731-4446." Prostitution! That's what I thought, anyway. I fully comprehend the technological context of this odd little enterprise, but still: Paying someone to make a tape for you seems a whole lot like paying someone for a kiss.

I talked to Bob -- a very nice, sane person actually -- and expressed my reservations. ("What a weird job!" I said, subtly.) He claims that by recording his clients' old Dottie West and Frank Sinatra Jr. records he "brings to life something that was essentially lying dormant in their life and now they go back to it, so I feel great. ... Music invokes a nostalgia in people and an emotion in people that very few other things do, and I'm happy to be able to provide that."

Last week, I caught up with Hornby, in town promoting the freshly paperbacked High Fidelity, and showed him Bob's ad. I was curious how his characters Barry and Dick would respond if they had seen it. "Their public view would be that it's a terrible, awful job for a grown man to do, and why haven't all these people got their own turntables? But I think maybe they'd think secretly it was kind of a neat job and they'd like to sit at home all day taping other people's records."

Eventually, some client is going to pay Bob good money to tape something as a gift for a friend or lover, further muddying the psychological situation. All I can say is this: Whoever you are, please label that cassette in your own handwriting. It matters.

By Sarah Vowell
svowell@aol.com

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Sarah Vowell

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