All Good Tapes Go to Heaven
They lie beneath a sea of crumpled paper, slowly collecting dust and weathered debris. Alphabetized by name and organized by date, they sit snuggly in their wooden slots, waiting for a pair of headphones that will never come. Their labels show signs of wear and tear, relics from road trips forgotten long ago. At times they seem dated and dull, the remnants of a forgotten kingdom of fun— fossilized remains of an extinct era. Yes, of course, I am talking about my cassette collection.
For most of the 1980s and early 1990s, the soundtrack of my life was available only on audiocassette. But, sometime between my first allowance and my adolescent obsession with alternative rock, I discovered the compact disc. Given my post-diapers dedication to The Disney Afternoon, it seems fitting that the CD that sparked my collection was the Ducktales soundtrack, a colorful picture-disc designed as a promotional item intended to turn cassette-loving children onto newly developed entities called CDs. In some act of innocent irony that Ducktales disc ended up my trash bin, inconsequential to my tape centered childhood. But, slowly, as CDs replaced cassette tapes as America’s favorite musical medium and albums began to phase out action figures in my display case-like closet, Case Logic tapped directly into my bank account. From New Kids on the Block to Nirvana, Duran Duran to Dave Matthews, all my tween and teen tapes were at one time replaced by compact discs, carefully filed into their proper Caselogic place. Yet, as Phish and the Grateful Dead assumed full control of my allowance, cassette tapes had a sudden eleventh-hour return to prominence. After all, at the time, it didn’t take a prep-school education to know Shakedown Street green cards aren’t awarded to kids with stor- bought CDs.
For many years, I worked hard to cultivate a perfect tape collective, picking and choosing the proper Phish performances and making sure my cassettes created a skeletal map of the quartet’s musical evolution. As my senior year grades surely showed, I worked hard to harvest this collection, spending numerous nights on the Internet and making good friends with my mailman as I sent off seemingly billions of B&P’s. As if it had spent months at a jam band gym, my cassette collection was firm and toned, with all the unnecessary fat trimmed off with a simple overdub. But, as I entered college, CD burners began popping up at a rapid rate and, slowly, the digital revolution began to reek havoc on my carefully constructed tape collection. Upon the discovery of Furthernet and the announcement that almost any note of music could be bought directly from a band via the Internet, my music library began to bloat into a large, almost intangible, ideal, rather than a carefully groomed collection.
For many years, I considered dissolving my cassette collective, liquidating these lingering childhood cassettes. Set snugly between my TV and barely-used beanbag chair, it often seems like these cassettes have become more of a visual collection than an audio one. Yet, the idea of dissolving these tapes to make more room for compact discs or whatever post-college hipster compulsion I decide to adopt, always seemed out of the question. After all, I worked offly hard to organize these concert albums into a true, well-crafted collection. Not only that, each tape I own is etched with asterisks, number signs, and segues, the small notes and abbreviations that originally called out for collection.
In college, someone once described newspapers as the first drafts of history. Similarly, I think cassette tapes can be described as the first drafts of jamband culture – the original notes and scrupulous scribbles that will, in turn, help mold common musical perception. One day, when someone writes The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion: The Thirty Year Journey of Jambands, their source material will, without a doubt, be the set lists originally transcribed into recorded history to accompany their audiotape collection. A dead language today, cassette tapes sparkle with asterisks and number signs, special moments within musical history. Sure, CD liner notes and Itunes information bars can single out certain musical moments, but the ten commandments of jamband culture were originally recorded on cassettes. Discarding these original recordings seems, to put it simply, sacrilegious.
At times, I feel a similar sentiment rippling through other aspects of jam nation. In an odd way, asterisks have always turned me on. Anytime a set list appears on my computer, I immediately scroll down and explore its notations. In fact, without having attended a concert, a set list’s footnotes carry its non-musical flavor. Since I became a full-time set list student, there have been certain asterisks that called out for second, third, or even fourth, double-takes, as if to prove these events actually took place: Hanson jamming in with Bob Weir at the Wetlands, Trey sitting in with Kid Rock on Saturday Night Live, and, last week, Jack White waltzing on stage with Bob Dylan. Yet, at times, on stage collaboration has become such a commonplace occurrence, I’ve grown numb to its impact. Perhaps the most musically overbearing moment of my life took place at the Wetlands in January of 2001. One of the famed club’s traditional power jams, almost all of jamnation seemed to send at least one representative to this winter summit. In fact, it doesn’t take a magnificent mathematician to understand that the following equation adds up to something special: 4/5 of moe., 2/4 of the Disco Biscuits, 4/6 of Deep Banana Blackout, 1/3 of Soulive, 2/4 of Brothers Past, and a slew of other choice musicians ranging from Guster’s drummer to Pete Shapiro’s head orderly. But, three years later, even that orgy-like jam doesn’t seem so special. These days, a set list seems naked if it’s not footnoted with special guests, crazy concert theatrics, and enough breakouts to bolster one’s Phantasy Tour statistics. Not that I’m adverse to including special stunts in a set—-heck I was almost a theater major at one point—- but time has been tough on non-footnoted shows. From a history major’s standpoint, this transition makes sense. Historians weave special moments into stories, often times forgetting the every day occurrences that carry an entity’s overall theme.
Perhaps Phish is the best example of this phenomenon. Perusing the Pharmer’s Almanac, fans have a tendency to remember the more theatrical concerts: the cover albums, New Years spectaculars, and thematic segues. In an odd way, I think this trend culminated with what, in my mind, was the most disappointing Phish show since the hiatus, the group’s twentieth anniversary gathering. Sure, there were special moments: rarities like "Kung" and "The Wedge," a "Tweezer"-less "Reprise" and a "Mike’s-less "Groove." But, compared to the overly asterisked moments that fill up my cassette’s cases, these songs seemed commonplace. As a slightly sarcastic friend of mine pointed out after hearing my initial criticisms, "nothing short of Phish flying around in a Hot Dog would have made me happy." Despite my eye-roll response at the time, he’s right. Perhaps the most special thing Phish could have done to symbolize their anniversary was to play a note-perfect showa feat Phish surely accomplished upon re-listening to their performance. As is usually the case, special moments tend to arrive in jam nation when no one is really looking, whether it’s Phish’s Pittsburgh rarity show last summer or the Disco Biscuits decision to debut the Chemical Warfare Brigade during the blizzard of December 2000.
Sometimes, on a lazy Saturday afternoon or Sunday when I feel like procrastinating, I’ll take my tapes out for a walk. For some reason, despite their dated existence, I can never bare to keep them bound up for too many months at a time. Years after, they still play perfectly, most of them second or third generation sources that were always marred with a bit of historical hiss. After experiencing the instant world of the Internet, there is something comforting about listening to audiotapes that took a bit of time to acquire. With asterisks allover the place, and shows available for purchase as soon as they conclude, it’s a bit daunting to try to keep up with all that is going on in jamband land. So, at times, its nice to listen to something a bit nostalgic and remember what it was like before the digital dynasty began.