ead Letter Office is a column of letters written by Todd Hutlock to a friend named Jimmy, who may or may not exist. The column details real-life experiences regarding work, life, and how Hutlock's obsession with music runs them both.
So when was the last time you made a mix tape for someone?
I have a feeling it has been a long while. Now, I had made tapes for general consumption back when I was DJing. I used to sell mix tapes regularly, and I usually had at least two or three in circulation at a time. But for one specific person? It had been at least six years.
Now I am fully aware of the fact that almost everyone makes mix CDs these days rather than tapes, but as you know, I am a bit technology resistant in those musical respects. Still, I think the prevalence of burned CDs has somehow also curbed my tape making. People just didn’t want them from me, turning their nose up at my primitive technology. I clearly remember telling a guy that I had all of those Jon Spencer Blues Explosion jukebox singles and offering to make him a tape, and him turning me down because he didn’t want them on a cassette. Whatever… Good luck finding them yourself, asshole.
In case you hadn’t guessed by now, I made one recently, and the experience was really pretty cathartic. I know, I know… everything is a little Shakespearean drama for me. But really, this was a pretty profoundly moving thing.
The person I was making the tape for is someone I only met recently, but I seem to have a great connection with, musically and personality wise (a rare combination to be sure). But for all intents and purposes, this person doesn’t yet know me very well, and so my first thought was to have the tape act as an introduction to my general outlook on life and musical tastes.
But after thinking about if for a while (I put an awful lot of thought into this, if you can’t tell), I figured that the whole thing is really terrifically self-indulgent. I mean, why would this person want to hear songs that all refer in some cryptic way to myself, especially someone who is just getting to know me? Jesus, what a crashing bore that would be, eh? I mean I was making the tape for someone else, right? Surely it shouldn’t be all about me. Shouldn’t I at least try to relate it to the recipient?
But then again, isn’t that why we make mixes in the first place? To give the listener some insight into what you were thinking and feeling at that particular place and time? I would argue that all the good ones do anyway, the ones that end up really meaning something to someone, that end up stowed away in boxes for years and played later to great nostalgic effect, typically about whoever made the tape. Mix tapes, if they’re done properly, are enduring portraits of people, places, things, and particular moments in time. In my neurotic perfectionist mindset, this is what I set out to make.
I started off with a pool of about 35 songs that immediately popped into my head as things that I personally identified with. You know, songs that I find myself thinking of lines from at various points throughout my life; songs that are, in essence, written in my soul. (Yes, I know that is fabulously corny, but work with me here.) I had decided in advance that I would use a C60 for a couple of reasons. First of all, just in case I totally missed my mark, the suffering would be relatively brief. Second, I find it easier to sequence that way—90 minutes is just too long to have to maintain the pace, ebb, and flow that I aspired to here. So my initial selections would have to be whittled down a bit.
Deciding what should stay and what should go presented a bit of a problem. I mean, all of these songs were personal favorites with personal relevance to me. How could I possibly decide what parts of my own personality and thoughts are worthy of someone else hearing? In-depth self-analysis, anyone?
I mean, sure, I love “Young People” by the Pooh Sticks, but does it really say anything about me? It probably did when it came out, but now it just reminds me that I’m not so young anymore. By the same token, the Kinks’ “People Take Pictures Of Each Other” seemed to be entirely appropriate. The theme of people looking at pictures to remind themselves of good times past seemed entirely relevant to what I was trying to accomplish here. Not to mention my own lack of photographs (I have very few, and almost none are of me) – I find the nostalgia of looking at old pictures at times nearly unbearable, so when Ray Davies sings, “Don’t show me no more, please,” it really speaks to me very personally, as that very thought has run through my head hundreds of times. I continued this litmus test for all of the tracks and I eventually got the whole thing down to the proper length. Orange Juice and Felt were in; Robert Palmer and the Temptations were out; and so on and so on.
In the end, I was rather proud of the mix. I think I ended up sending away a really heartfelt portrait of myself, expressed in words and music that I could never hope to express as eloquently in my own plain speech. At the very least, I know deep down that I sent a little piece of my soul away in that Jiffy Bag, and all it takes is a cassette deck and a pair of keenly insightful ears to find it.
And no, I’m not making you a tape. You already know me too well to bother. Besides, I’m pretty sure you’d only make fun of me, you bastard.
Your man in the Midwest,