I’ve been making mixtapes a lot recently. We have a tape player in the kitchen – basically just an act of nostalgia, because my parents always had one in the kitchen too – and I’ve really embraced the trend of small bands and labels doing a lot of tape releases these days. Hell, we do it ourselves too. It’s just nice. It’s nice to have ‘a thing’ to represent your release, even if it is small scale and even if it is only a run of 100.
This has meant, inevitably, that I’ve been digging out old mixtapes and making some new ones. I have to confess that I cheat, these days, however. I make a playlist on Spotify and just plug the computer into the input for the tape machine and do it that way. I know, I know, judge me all you like, that’s just my compromise with the 21st Century, and I’m not proud but I have decided to accept it.
I’ve been making a lot of new mixes of course, as you would, but given its ‘all the music that ever existed in the universe ever’ model, Spotify is actually really good for tracking down the fragments of half-remembered mixtapes from your past and attempting to cobble them back together.
When we lived in Singapore my parents’ vinyl collection warped and went mouldy in the heat and humidity. It was unrecoverable, tragically, but they managed to make some great mixtapes out of the remains before it was all chucked out. Early Americana Vol.1 is something of a legendary standout from that period. My Dad is Canadian so he was raised in a rather different musical environment to my Mum and certainly to myself. This tape was ninety minutes of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Bob Seger (no sniggering, I love some of his tunes), Jackson Browne, The Band, The Holy Modal Rounders, The Eagles (oh fuck off, The Last Resort is a cracking song), and it was fucking ace.
There was also a far less heralded Early Americana Vol.2 of course, but it just didn’t quite click in that way that first one did – in the elusive way in which great mixtapes do – but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some great songs on there, so I sat down on Spotify to try and compile a rough sort of Best Of from the two tapes.
Some of the individual tracks themselves have continued to play a huge role in all our lives, so they didn’t really need much lobbying to end up on the final mix. Walking Song by Kate and Anna McGarrigle still brings an actual, literal tear to my eye every time I hear it, and All the Tired Horses by Dylan became something of an alternative nursery rhyme in our house, if I am remembering things accurately, which at this sort of distance I might not be.
It’s not all ‘the classics’ of course – in fact that’s pretty much the entire point of a good mixtape. In going back through these songs I happened across some forgotten gems. With some, like Bob Seger and James Taylor I found myself remembering how much I actually like some of their stuff, despite the unavoidable whiff of soft rock about them and the absolute gold medal levels of unfashionableness.
Slightly different was Kris Kristofferson. I’ve always fondly remembered Me and Bobby McGee from that tape. For a child I think the lyrics have something immediately appealing about them, and lines like “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” always stuck in my head. I had entirely forgotten that there was another Kris Kristofferson song on one of the tapes though, and it turns out that its relevance to my current line of work is absolutely uncanny. It’s called To Beat the Devil, and I’ve embedded it at the top of the page.
I know every generation thinks they are the first to face the weight of all the world’s problems, and there are no shortage of articles by old duffers lecturing modern musicians about the fact that trying to live off being a full-time musician has always been a losing proposition, but it’s sort of heartening to hear someone from an entirely different era and genre singing about the exact same nagging internal debates about futility, reward, and the sisyphean nature of full-time music.
There’s not much actual ‘song’ in the song, either. It’s more a rambling monologue, but there are two little glimpses, and it feels just like a combination of me at my most cynical, most resigned, and yet also most determined. With lines like “back when failure had me locked out on the wrong side of the door” he even acknowledges that this is sung from the point of view of a relatively successful musician. And he’s still fucking broke. I heard it again after all these years and all I could think was ‘holy fuck, this is like an anthem for my whole fucking label’!