Saturday, 24 October 2015


Cast My Memory Back There, Lord

A few years ago when I was in the process of moving back to Edmonton from Calgary my friend of 20-odd years, Rene, a graphic designer and advertising colleague, offered to take a load north; he was headed that way anyway. I hitched a ride with a bunch of my stuff, boxes of books and music packed and labelled alphabetically by genre.

We were rocking up the Queen Elizabeth Highway listening to a mix of tunes on the dashboard stereo by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, the Neville Brothers and the Kinks (a rare Dave Davies lead vocal) among others. Rene said, ‘Sound familiar?’ Yeah, weirdly, all the albums the songs came from happened to be behind us on the truck bed. ‘You made me a cassette in ’91 or ’92,’ he went on, ‘I’ve been trying to replicate it ever since.’

We were on the phone earlier this week. Rene needed some copywriting and so we discussed the brief. I confessed to being a bit wooly after a beery night lost and alone in the YouTube vortex (I’ve yet to hear back on how much his client thinks my morning after copy sucks). We then got sidetracked wondering why one song will suggest another. Is it the riff or bass pattern? Cowbell? A lyrical theme or phrase? Or just feel?

I have not assembled a 90-minute mixtape since the late 20th century. I don’t even have a tape deck any longer, a regrettable gypsy divorce casualty, things get left behind. The tapes had to be Maxell Chromes rolling on the NORMAL setting with the Dolby turned off. A disposable Bic pen with its six or eight stem edges was an indispensable tool for tightening cassette spools. Two and a half hours work would yield an average of 11 songs per 45-minute side. Rules and motifs evolved: for instance ‘All Aboard!’ by Muddy Waters could only be followed by the Stones’ ‘All Down the Line;’ Marshall Tucker’s ‘Can’t You See’ worked nicely with ‘Midnight Rider’ by the Allmans and ‘Aimee’ by Pure Prairie League, and their sequence would affect the flow of the balance of the recordable minutes remaining. ‘Take It So Hard’ from Keith Richards’ first solo album demanded to be coupled with Skynyrd’s ‘Gimme Three Steps’ or ‘What’s Your Name.’

Regrettably I have lost touch with an 80s Montreal friend. Daniel and I used to argue about everything: Molson beer versus Labatt’s, Quebec nationalism, Dylan’s Christian phase, Genesis, the Rolling Stones, Brian Eno, Gentle Giant, Robert Fripp and discordant art sounds I couldn’t begin to fathom such as Philip Glass and John Cage. We did however share a subscription to the long defunct Musician magazine. And we could spend an entire day cruising and perusing in Montreal’s many record stores; we had a well-trodden route.

Daniel was an audiophile and conveniently for him his younger brother Marcel managed one of Montreal’s premier stereo shops. I still have a Dual 506 turntable which Daniel sold to me after he’d owned it for just two unhappy weeks. His system of McIntosh and Mission components was arrayed on a giant, lovely antique roll-top desk. Daniel had two turntables and a fader. I’d turn up with an armful of albums and a case of beer, and we would record mixtapes and argue. Those were some of the best nights of my life. Daniel, it may behoove you to know that I now own ‘Another Green World’ and consider it genius. ‘Music for Airports’ too. Really. Oh, and by the way, Quebec’s separatist movement is dead. Salut, mon ami.

I never embraced the digitization of music. We have an iPod; I regress into a spaz trying to rotate the silver selection dial. I’m honestly not clear on how songs get onto an iPod. Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Neil Young are all on record repudiating the quality of MP3 file formats. I think those guys know of which they mumble and slur. For most it seems simple remote rote to create a playlist these days; tune times are no longer of the essence - it once mattered that ‘Honky Tonk Women’ clocked in at 3:03 even if the London label read 3:00. The modern process reduces a mixtape to a mere grey, cubicle task. Mine the compressed glorious noise stored on your laptop or desktop. Move a title from one window to another; see how the little coloured bar moves: Zzzz. Who enthuses over formatting and then listening to a tinny, hollow-sounding spreadsheet? No one I know or knew. Rene said down the landline, ‘Now you just click and drag. You don’t even get to hear the songs. Where’s the fun in that?’

And it was fun. Songs about blue suede shoes and angelic red shoes raised questions about boots of Spanish leather and the low spark of high-heeled boys. Did they turn their heads and walk away or did their imaginations runaway with them again? After the night busted open and the boys were back in town, did Johnny the Fox ever cross paths with the Magic Rat? ‘These Eyes’ by the Guess Who may or mayn’t segue nicely into Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ or Smokey’s ‘Tears of a Clown’ or ‘In Your Eyes’ by Peter Gabriel. And they were crying in the rain on a rainy night in Georgia as the hard, silver rain kept falling in the summertime to wash away their blues. That particular tape was a good one. I wonder where it is now. Somebody’s probably thrown it away.

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