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Neurological Rubin and The American Dream

I started making mixtapes as far back as I can remember, but I haven't always been the completist, obsessive-compulsive music materialist I am now. I was brought up on records—or "ellll-peeees" for those who were there—and some might say my juvenile mind was far more selective than my adult one is. Back then, I always noticed the bad songs on any album—to me, there wasn't an album without at least a few. My father taught me respect (bordering on fear) for the full package of an LP—the hunk of vinyl, the record's sleeve, the equipment on which it played—so I was most likely home alone on an ostensible sick day when I secretly took it upon myself to operate the turntable and the tape recorder simultaneously, sloppily dubbing together a random Moody Blues tune with late-period Beatles and whichever Simon & Garfunkel songs I recognized. Using my friend's boombox to play my homemade tapes on repeat, I finally had the means to figure out the words to the songs, which in turn granted me the means to begin considering, then discussing, why Paul Simon needed to get up to wash his face in the middle of making love to Cecelia. Despite the sexual education I derived from my early mixtapes, they were ultimately a bit unsatisfying at the time, what with all the pops and hisses, the weird squeaks and thuds between songs, and the incomplete fadeouts and long gaps of silence.

During the 1990s, important changes took place in music and mixtapes. American bands that weren't quite punk rock but that valued some of the punk aesthetic began to reach the mainstream and paved the way for much more challenging music. Similarly, newish consumer technology like compact discs and high-speed dubbing decks became more accessible and affordable. Suddenly, mixtapes became the means to hear 10 great bands at once, since there wasn't enough time to listen to an entire album of far-out, impassioned noise by any one band, no matter how inspiring. Alternative rock made discordant segues sound progressive, even if they had previously been considered too rackety. Distortion became cool, disjointed rock replaced smooth pop and R&B, and raw sounds were drawn out in the studio with new richness. To my maturing ears, the shortcomings of the mixtapes I made as a kid became a little more forgivable as the paradigm shifted. I stopped making mixes to simply collect my favorite songs and started constructing mixes (and listening to other people's mixes) to communicate some message, whether about my changing taste in music or about a period in my life or about a set of events that simply needed a new soundtrack.

My buddy Kibitzer captured the attitude perfectly on his mixtape tour de force "Neurological Rubin", which shouldn't be confused with actual neurological rubbing. On second thought, maybe it should: just before the Dickies' "Just Say Yes" kicked in, Kibitzer included a sound clip of muffled, middle-aged voices talking about how Jesus probably should have been a social worker, set in the context of neurological rubbing. That mixtape got its name because Kibitzer couldn't fit both words on the cassette's spine with his left-handed chicken scrawl and couldn't spell worth crap. But it became the mixtape that launched a thousand other mixtapes, nonetheless, and the standard by which all future mixtapes were judged.

After "Neurological Rubin", my college crew and I started devoting all of our time not spent in class, in bed, or at work to expanding the mixtape format. Note that we barely ate anything that didn't come in a 12-pack, which probably helped the creative process (in the short run). We brought recorders to parties, taped each other babbling incoherently during camping trips, and dubbed vocals from late-night infomercials, horrible talk shows, and our favorite movies. We spliced it all together using what we considered precision surgical tools—the pause button, jerry-rigged wires, and dual tape decks—and added the essential songs of the moment on tapes like "The Mystery Of Mano-Tiki-Tia" and "Alien-Human Hybrid". My friends and I constantly tried to outdo each other with every new found-sound masterpiece, most of which were downright hilarious.

However, I didn't discover the true potential of the mixtape until my first real gut-wrenching breakup. All of my favorite songs were her favorite songs, and everything else I wanted to listen to somehow still reminded me of her. So I decided to get over it by listening to all that painful music nonstop, just bludgeoning my emotional receptors into numbness. I succeeded, but I also abused my ears as a means to pummel my brain and heart into complete detachment. When my friend A.C. passed me "The American Dream", his most recent mix, I had no way of knowing that a familiar song would end up saving my life. Short of inviting everyone in the world who has ever felt really lost to listen to "The American Dream" while driving an isolated stretch of road at night, I'll give away the surprise ending: the tape started out with the aural equivalent of cronic repetitive disorder, followed that up with the sounds of a brain hemorrhage, and closed with John Lennon's "Imagine". After a relentlessly brutal two-sided assault of the most extreme music and noise I had ever heard, those poignant four minutes of voice and piano brought me to tears. I stopped the car and unleashed a few years' worth of repressed pain. I don't know how long it would have taken me to reach that point by any other means, but my friend's mixtape delivered me to an emotional breakthrough in just 90 minutes.

I don't think I've ever made a mix quite as potent as "The American Dream", but I've been trying ever since. The popularity of CD burners, .wav editing, and iTunes makes mixtaping easier, but I've misplaced the wherewithal to swirl all those disparate media into a cohesive whole since I stopped recording directly to Maxell 120s. The tiny analog-loving human still living inside me will eventually be killed off when the whole stereo setup is fully integrated into the home computer—any day now, folks. Maybe then, I'll be able to completely let go of those old mixtapes and start creating multimedia events from a different starting point altogether. To be honest, though, there's a better chance of the official Earth day being extended by a couple hours in the afternoon. More likely, I'll sooner or later just return to the cassette deck from whence I came.

-- Cal Roach, 02/28/2007