Cassette From My Ex, revisited

[In 2008 Jason Bitner asked me to contribute something to a project he was working on called Cassette From My Ex. A website and MP3 archive, and later a book, it was exactly what it sounds like: a multimedia celebration and documentation of 80s and 90s mix tapes and the stories behind them. I sent Jason a  short piece, basked in the warm hit of nostalgia it produced, and then forgot about it till the other day when the story came up for some reason and I went looking for the piece online, to send to a friend. Alas, the site is no more, but (somewhat incredibly) the essay still lives on my laptop, and it still gives me a fuzzy glow … so here it is for posterity. Or at least until this site too goes the way of all things.]

happy side/rockin side

My college boyfriend sent me this tape sometime over the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. We hadn’t been together long before vacation started, and what leaps out at me now is how aggressively, hilariously unromantic this playlist is. Most of it is loud, snotty, cynical, depressive, angry, noisy—I mean, the first song is the Descendents’ “Clean Sheets.” There’s not a lot of romantic promise in “Even though you’ll never come clean you know it’s true. Those sheets are dirty. And so are you.”

But I don’t remember minding much. When I’d turned up at school a year earlier I was still tangled up with a guy back home, a 17-year-old seduction artist who wooed me, persistently, with candles, cheap wine, and Roxy Music. But, by Christmas he’d turned out to be a two-timing cokehead and by spring break he was history. Jon, meanwhile, was loudmouthed and funny and, conveniently, lived upstairs. He had painfully thick glasses that were, in their ugliness, a badge of honor, and a mop of curly hair that usually hung in his face. He played guitar, of course, and had emphatic, hyperarticulate opinions on every band you’d never heard of, but he was from suburban New Jersey and I was from Seattle and had seen Green River. It was this (I think) that hooked him; he bided his time.

Burned by my amped-up Romeo, I was leery of high romance. I switched from Sangre de Toro to Genny Cream Ale. I cringed when I heard Avalon. I’d like to think maybe Jon picked up on this, but it’s more likely that flowers and candles had just plain never occurred to him. I was his first girlfriend and while I can’t actually remember the language with which he finally declared his intentions, I remember him being gracelessly blunt, almost spitting out the words as if to make them go away.

Over the summer he languished doing landscaping with his band in Atlanta while I slung espresso 2,000 miles away, but we talked on the phone here and there, guarded and full of prickly bravado. I was happily surprised when the tape turned up in the mail—“Oh! He does like me.” But even here, the tongue-in-cheek title card—which reads “Black Flag, Death of Samantha, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull”– is all about what isn’t inside, rather than what is. (I thought Henry Rollins was a poseur and John Petkovic a sleazebag for hitting on me once in a Cleveland club. To this day I don’t know what my problem was with Yes.) There was a letter too, pages full of bitterly funny liner notes, but that’s long lost. I remember, though, that at the very end was a tiny, tender note.

When school started again we were a couple, and we stayed that way for another two years full of all the high drama you’d expect from kids who can’t imagine the future. We fought and fooled around and dealt with sad, confusing, scary things for which, in hindsight, we were breathtakingly ill-equipped. And we struggled, oh how we struggled, to communicate—but when we did, there were magic sparks.

He graduated a year before me and moved to New York, and I fell in love with someone else. I still feel shitty about the way I didn’t deal with that but by then the future was coming into at least soft-focus, and neither of us figured in the other’s. Everybody moved on. Got older, got wiser, got married (or he did, at least). Whatever bad feelings there were fell away, unmourned, and without even noticing we found ourselves with a different kind of shared future—the kind that springs from 20 years of common cultural ground. I don’t know what happened to my Roxy Music boyfriend, but Jon and I, we’re Facebook friends. I wrote to him to tell him I was doing this. “I am TOTALLY IN LOVE with the idiot 18 y.o. that thought it was a good idea to put ‘Pretty Fuck Look’ on the tape of a girl he liked,” he replied. And I laughed all over again.

Track list

Happy Rockin’ Side:

Clean Sheets (Descendents)
Walking/I don’t need the reasons (Eastern Dark)
Driving the Dynamite Truck (Breaking Circus)
Postcard (Salem 66)
Cheap Tragedies (Avengers)
Blow Up! (Dils)
The Other Side (Moving Targets)
Jak (Volcano Suns)
Seven Days (Offbeats)
Jersey Devil/Best things in Life/Earth People (Harm Farm)*
Jersey Devil/Whiskey (Brad Pedinoff)*

Angsty, Dirgey Side:
Curtain of Surprise/Happy/She Does (Lilies)**
Assassin (Rat at Rat r)
Pretty Fuck Look (Pussy Galore)
Man in the Trees (Die Kreutzen)
Mary had a little Drug Problem/For Crying out Loud (Scratch Acid)
Goin to the Beach/Slackjaw (Killdozer)
Still A Child/Man I Love (Skin)

* SF band fronted by the below-mentioned Brad Pedinoff; Jon’s roommate played drums for a while.

**I don’t think Jon knew that like half my friends I had a crush on Steve Immerwahr when he put this on the tape. This was his terrifically bleak, pre-Codeine Oberlin band.