Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Don't worry, I've got it all on tape

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was this thing called the audio tape. It was a strange looking device - metaphor turned to machine - two toothed spools held together by wafer thin tape, turning in perfect unison like the engines of some fate in which good and bad were equally balanced and wound tightly together. In the world of the audio tape there was always yin and yang, Side A and Side B; you couldn't skip straight to the good stuff - you had to go endlessly back and forth, sometimes falling short, sometimes overshooting, before you found that one perfect instant that you wanted to be at. It was hard to believe that this clunky, plastic rectangle contained the voice of the Gods. Hard to believe that what those slow mill-wheels were grinding out was, in fact, Music.

It wasn't the greatest way to listen to music - the sound quality was often poor, the tapes themselves were notoriously prone to damage - they would thin out with wear or get damaged in the heat or sometimes the tape would get crumpled and the whole thing would jam and you'd pull the tape out of the deck and there'd be the long trail of the ribbon hanging out of the tape like entrails. But there was something deeply visceral about it, something intensely physical in the way you could jam the tape into a cassette deck, slam it shut, push play and watch the cogs starting to turn, the music flowing forward, outward. Plus it was a great way to carry music around - you could hardly slip an LP player into your pocket and walk around listening to music on your headphones.

The truth is, I belong to a generation that grew up on cassettes. Sure, my parents had an LP player when I was a kid and my Dad had this cool collection[1], but by the time I started buying my own music cassettes were the way to go. I got my first walkman when I was 11, and I was 19 before we had a CD player at home, so pretty much all through my teenage years, tapes were the only form of music I collected.

And boy, did I collect them. It wasn't just that I bought an insane amount of tapes - it was also the number I recorded off other people - making copies of tapes they owned (remember high speed dubbing?) or, in those later years when CDs were around but I couldn't afford them, taping them off other people's CDs. Even today, some 60% of my tapes are copies - mostly scratchy, poor quality recordings that the intensity of my adolescent years and my urgent hunger for more music turned into the most sublime sounds in the universe. I craved for those tapes like I did for nothing else on the planet (except maybe poetry anthologies - but that's a different post). , I connected to them in ways that only a heady mix of hormones, innocence and a deep, abiding boredom with school work can make possible. Other guys my age were obsessing about women, I was chasing after recordings. Every new tape that got added to my collection was a conquest, a rite of passage, a notch on my musical gun. Just the thought that I had a recording of Mozart's Piano Concertos 1, 2 and 3 waiting for me back at home was enough to keep me blissfully happy for weeks.

Okay, so it wasn't the kind of collection that was going to give the HMV archives a run for their money or anything. Even at its peak I doubt it was more than a couple of hundred tapes, which is not much, considering the amount of music I carry around on just my iPod. The point about it, though, was that it was a COLLECTION. Every one of those tapes had meant sacrifice and effort, every one of those tapes came packaged with both the exhileration of discovery and the crushing risk of disappointment, of loss. I had an emotional bond to each and every one of them, the way I don't have to my collection now.

For one thing, this was back in the days (high school, college) when money was a real constraint - so that the purchase of every cassette was a decision to be pondered and debated, and involved the kind of hard choices one never thought to find outside William Styron novels. Many's the time that I've lingered in a music store, looking longing at the recording of a Beethoven Piano Concerto or a Schubert Symphony, and then choosing something else, but promising in my heart that I would come back as soon as I could to rescue them from the shelf[2], if only they would be faithful, if only they would trust me (how does the Tracy Chapman song go: "I'll vow to come for you / If you'll wait for me"). And surely it was part of the glory of the music, part of its pathos, that it came at the cost of movies left unwatched, samosas left uneaten, masala chais left undrunk.

The other thing that made those tapes so precious was that in the world before Amazon and music mega-stores [3] good music (especially good classical music, or good jazz) was often hard to find. You couldn't just go online, scroll through a bunch of recordings and pick the one you liked best. A Berlin Philharmonic / Karajan recording was a serious windfall - and just the mythic hope of finding one would send you back to the Music Store at Khan Market again and again, like a deep-sea diver combing the sea-bed for doubloons. So that there was a real sense of achievement in finding a truly good recording and being able to show it proudly off to your friends (read: the three other people in the world who were as besotted with music as you were - everybody else had long since given you up as terminally wierd).

Finally, there was the very fragility of the medium, its manifestness. This wasn't some obscure series of electronic impulses hiding deep in the circuits of your iPod (forgive me, O Venerable One, Thou knowest I do love thee and would never compare aught to thee, save to Sing Thine Praises!) , this was music as tangible as it could get - all it took was a keen eye and a little imagination, and you could actually read the music right off the tape, you almost didn't need a player.

Perhaps part of growing up is betraying the things you love most dearly, about leaving them behind and pretending that you've moved on to something better and trying to ignore the ache in your heart that tells you that it doesn't matter if you have - to let go of something or someone you love is always a loss. Over the last five years I've focussed mostly on building my CD collection, and when I moved to the US 18 months ago, I decided that there was no way I could carry my tapes with me, so I bought CD versions of the ones I absolutely couldn't live without (my Dylan albums, for instance, or that fiery recording of Menuhin playing Beethoven's Violin Concerto) and put all of my tapes away in shelf and left them behind. It was a tough decision, a hard goodbye, but, I convinced myself, an unavoidable one. Conscious of my guilt, I convinced myself that it extended only to abandoning my tapes for a little while - I would return, I told myself, and they would still be here.

But treachery breeds further treachery, and to accept one blow is to make yourself strong enough to bear the next one. Staring at the shelf of cassettes lying open before me today, I finally had to admit the truth to myself - I was never coming back. Too many of those tapes were now duplicated in my CD / electronic collection, too many of them had sound too faint, too scratchy, too coloured by static for me to ever listen to them with anywhere near the joy I once brought to them. I love each and every one of these tapes, but the world has moved on, and the time has come when I must let at least some of them go.

I started by setting aside the ones that I absolutely could not give up. My Miles Davis albums, the complete set of Sony Jazz Classics that I bought when they first came out in India, the Beatles Live at the BBC, tape upon tape of Zakir Hussein and Vilayat Khan, Tracy Chapman singing Let it Rain, that version of La Boheme I sat up all night recording and then kept falling asleep in office the next day, a mixed Jazz tape my ex-girlfriend gave me - that sublime recording of Ella singing I ain't got nothing but the blues, the Reality Bites soundtrack, Dylan - Street Legal, Time out of Mind, yes, even Love and Theft. Oh, and that recording of Simon and Garfunkel a record shop owner in Jaipur made for my parents back in '87. The tape that defined poetry for me before I knew what poetry was.

Right. Still about 50 tapes left. I harden my heart - pick a few that I absolutely need to save, decide to let the others go. There's some good stuff here - my first ever Chopin tape (the kind of 'best of' tape that I've come to abhor - but still); the Doors; Indian Ocean's Kandisa, with its memories of WIMWI; Haydn's Die Schopfung, badly mutilated by scratches on the CD it was recorded from; a recording of Beethoven's 9th by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Mutti conducting. But there's a point beyond which I have to stop deluding myself. There's a line that has to be drawn and this is where I've chosen to draw out. Better to get this over quick. Better to rip the bandage off and get rid off it before the numbness can turn to pain. Let these words answer for what is done, not to be done again. Let the judgement not be too heavy upon us.

This is not a blog post. It is an apology pretending to be one. It is a ritual meant to propitiate whatever dieties of music may be watching this trespass against their defenseless children. It is a requiem for the death of that part of me that could never have been so practical, so sensible, so ruthlessly logical. For the part of me that could never have sat thus in judgement over my own past. It is a Kaddish for 3,600 minutes of music that once helped me keep sane, that helped me grow into the very adult who is now discarding them. It is an apology. It is not enough.


[1] It was a nice-ish collection and I had some fond memories of it, but I was always a little puzzled by the depth of his obssession with it, the lengths he went to before he finally gave it up. I think I'm beginning to understand how he must have felt.

[2] I once bought a recording of excerpts from Swan Lake which I didn't really want only because it was sitting on a shelf in this tiny little electronics shop, between a recording of fifteen different version of the Macarena, and something called Get Down And Party 2. I figured the owner had simply been misled by the fact that the tape was called The Dance Album and couldn't stand the thought that someone might buy it expecting dhinchak beats. I figured it was up to me to keep Tchaikovsky safe from such cretins.

[2] I still remember flying to Singapore when I was in college and being completely blown away by the HMV store on Orchard Road (?). Ah, the joy of being that young, that naive.


Cheshire Cat said...

Excellent writing. I'm reminded of how I used to cherish my tattered, yellowing collection of 60s era sports magazine "Sport and Pastime". A bookworm's delight (literally).

What's with the spellings though -"exhilerated" and "wierd"? Too much emotion, excusably, I suppose.

Heh Heh said...

the problem with having a tape collection is that it requires immense discipline. the average half life of tapes in my collection was around six months. tapes would jam, get stolen, borrowed and never returned, grow fungus.. everything. i think there is something fundamentally flawed about having so perishable a recording medium.

Jabberwock said...

Also "deities", not "dieties" (unless there's a pun in there that I've missed).

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

With this guy, those are typos and not the products of an American education. So lay off, you tribe of sinister sub-editors.

"Simon and Garfunkel ... The tape that defined poetry for me before I knew what poetry was." Which one? For me, it was 'Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme'. Specifically, 'The Dangling Conversation'. And to think that in a '94 interview he said he was ashamed of those lyrics, he found them too self-conscious.

There's this new thingy out that seamlessly converts analog to digital. I have a slew of stuff lined up ...


Crp said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Falstaff said...

Cat / Jabberwock: Apologies. That's why you shouldn't write posts at 3 am after you've had an emotionally exhausting day and haven't really got your sleep cycles settled yet.

heh: know what you mean - and the thing was there really wasn't much you could do about it - I mean with a CD you know how to be careful - these tapes seem to have a mind of their own - they just bail out on you whenever they feel like it.

JAP: Personally the song that always got me was For Emily, Whenever I may find her. Just the title of the song was enough to give me goose-bumps.

Crp: Nice. I wonder if she realises that Die Forelle is just maacch by another name.

ozymandiaz said...

Growing up in an area that had three television stations and four radio stations (that all sucked so I never listened to) the cassette recorder that my brother and I had was an invaluable source of entertainment. Many of the most memorable moments of my formative years was spent with family and friends creating radio shows of various types on the old mono recorder. Even when we recorded music we interjected ourselves as the DJ making up voices and slang. We would create old time radio shows of mysteries or sci fi. We spent countless hours singing jingles from commercials. A lot of imagination was poured into that machine. A lot of imagination and a lot of love. Thanks Falstaff. I had forgotten about how much effect that an insignificant little machine had on me, that what is now considered an archaic piece of electronic technology was my medium. Good stuff.

Crp said...

Hang on to your old cassettes, boy. You won't believe the wonderful sound effects that are produced by fungally altered tape. Better still when you play them on a walkman with dying batteries.

Re: your post, I faced a similar predicament a few months back -- I had about 500 cassettes I didn't know what to do with. Then I noticed our cleaning lady (an illiterate Bangladeshi immigrant) listening enthusiastically to an old Grieg tape I was playing ... long story short, I've found my beloved cassettes an old age home.

So the next time you hang out in the Bangla ghettos of Gurgaon you'll probably hear sweet strains of a string quartet interrupted occasionally by death squeals from some aging, worn out tape. Nice.

Crp said...

Falstaff: Sorry for deleting my earlier post. I just felt it wasn't morbid enough for your blog :)

Mrudula said...

Aah! Those wonderful tapes. I faced a similar problem a couple of years ago with my rather large collection. (I've retained about a hundred cassettes which I couldn't discard!)

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