Righteous riffs

First Cuts ….

In the sobering light of the new year, we’ve forced ourselves to begin reckoning with our clutter. Less a resolution than a survival tactic, more akin to scooping water from a sinking ship. 

I refer to it as ‘editing.’ 

This makes Karry angry. 

We’re throwing shit out, she informs me. 

To equip you with the appropriate measure of tension in the present exercise, picture me chaining myself to a tree while Karry, in hardhat and chomping a cigar, is revving a bulldozer, committed to getting a good parking spot at happy hour.

After building confidence with my sock drawer (the sock drawer of a man who should have more than two feet), I was assigned a neglected set of shelves in our laundry room. Behind jars of canned tomato sauce and a crate of all the crayons accumulated over my children’s lifetime (an obscene number), I stumbled upon shoeboxes and cases containing old audio cassettes. 

My teenage and early 20-something music library.

I lift the lid on a shoebox like John Travolta opening that case in Pulp Fiction. 

There’s my older brother. My Dad. 

Ha, my college girlfriend. 

My altar egos. My heart. What used to pass for my confidence.

I heard a feint whisper, “Rest here awhile.” 

At least that’s what I think it said. Was kinda’ hard to hear over the bulldozer upstairs.

In any case the ensuing editing was going to be slightly more nuanced than my sock drawer.

Speaking of cases, close your eyes and listen. 

Remove. Insert. Press Play. 

Rewind. Fast-forward. Flip. Eject. Remove. Replace. 

The hard-plastic hands-on ritual. The tangible tethering between you and the experience.

I used to commandeer the back room, listen for hours. Gather with friends around their family’s hi-fi system like a campfire. Still remember the time Jeff Hughes hopped on top of his dining room table to air guitar to Ratt’s Round and Round. Can still hear his Mom’s voice instantly drowning out Stephen Pearcy’s with a rafter-rattling, “Jeffrey!” 

Pretty much until middle school, music was a purely stationary exercise. You in proximity to the console, headphone jack if privacy was required (i.e. whenever I raided my brother’s Steve Martin albums, eventually committing each and every bit to memory. ). 

Until that one summer afternoon shooting hoops at Areford Playground, when JonJon McCoy announced his presence from afar, appearing at the top of Garard Avenue, gratuitously sized boom box perched atop his shoulder, gloriously blasting Mr. Roboto from the new Styx album.

He was the modern man. 

For context, JonJon was not the tallest in our village, and he lived on Carnation Street, which was a three-block straight hill climb to the playground. Coupling his diminutive size with the enormity of his ‘portable,’ he was proportionally half-man, half-blaster.  I imagine he had to shift shoulders multiple times en route. Upon arrival on the court, he set the radio down behind the basketball pole, a conquerer from a far off land planting his flag, and proceeded to ball out (his game had sauce). 

Domo arigato. 


So much of the experience was born of expectation. 

Waiting for Friday night and a pilgrimage to the National Record Mart. If you were lucky, enough in your pocket for one good one. Heat-seeking the selections on sale for $5.99, weighing whether a $7.99 or, gulp, a $9.99 was worth the risk. 

What risk? In the days when music was doled out by the machine with an eye dropper, usually the one song they played on the radio was your only clue. Got burned often enough to make the cassingle, the cassette-ization of the classic 45 record (A and B sides), a safer, though lamer, surgical strike (I never grew tired of rewinding Real, Real Gone by Van Morrison or Every Time I Roll the Dice by Delbert McClinton). Spending precious dollars on musical roulette is also why so many of our early collections were stuffed with greatest hits. More bang for the buck. Who didn’t have the Eagles, Skynyrd, Steve Miller, the Beatles, Stones (Hot Rocks)? Homogenized like so much of our diets growing up.  

At times, though, the decision was made prior to arrival. Word of mouth was immutable law in junior high. I don’t remember a thing about a particular middle school dance, only that we gathered at Jerry Rehanek’s house first, where he played the new Quiet Riot before we walked up the hill to the school. We were all banging our heads by week’s end. And I still contend that Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry was the best $5.99 (on sale, yes!) I’ve ever spent in my life.

The cover alone made unwitting art collectors of teenage boys.

The final confirmation, though, came when you stepped to the counter to hand your money over to Bill, the big, bearded, long-haired, dark-glasses-wearing manager, whose approval we courted and counted as much as our teachers’.

As I type this I can summon any song I want without lifting a finger. 

Meant a whole lot more when you had to wait for Friday night, make your one choice count, and big Bill affirmed your selection.   

Real, real gone.


True music liberation came with our driver’s licenses. 

Or in my case, my friends’ driver’s licenses, as our family’s 1980 Mercury Monarch was equipped with only an a.m. radio. 

That a.m. radio was tuned to the cosmos, though. After picking up my rented tux for the prom, I was sitting at Five Corners waiting for the light to change when “Everybody Plays the Fool” came on (sigh). And when the Monarch finally died in front of our house, I sat, sad, in its front bench seat and tried unsuccessfully to turn it over one last time. I gave the radio dial one last twist, and it played, “Don’t Worry, Baby,” by the Beach Boys. 

Truth be told I wouldn’t have loved that car any more had it had an enviable cassette deck. 

The absence of one added more novelty to riding with friends. 

I first experienced Dave Brubek’s Blue Rondo A La Turk riding cramped in the backseat of Lenny Baron’s VW Rabbit. Take 5 made driving familiar streets feel like discovering a new planet. 

So much of my friends’ music just sounded better on cassette over noisy engines and piped through thin car audio systems with the heater full blast in the middle of winter. Exhibit A – The Violent Femmes. 

I forget what 8 was for.


When music became portable, and (cue angel chorus) recordable, everything changed, as evidenced by the time capsule in front of me.

Run DMC’s eponymous first album, courtesy of Jeff Hughes’ dual-cassette deck. 

No better baptism for one’s boom box than Reverend Run. 

Your weekly $5.99 suddenly stretched a heckuva lot further (‘ … spreadin’ … just like the flu….’). 

A lot more of your allowance went into Scotch, Maxell, TDK, Memorex. Your portfolio diversified exponentially. More shoeboxes required to collect your treasure. 

Still, you remained so tethered to the experience. Who remembers sitting with your finger ready on the record button waiting for the radio to play that song? Who is now not smiling at that recollection? Shoot, I remember calling into Jesse Thurman’s radio show in college and snatching “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” on request. 

It was the teenage equivalent of calling in a prescription to your pharmacist. 


And when She was really going out with Me, the tectonic plates of sonic existence shifted once again. 

Um, I’d forgotten how hard I mix-taped. 

Hard not to laugh now — a lot of extra cheese sandwiched between those playlists. Some questionable choices, yes, but not a single regret (which is how I choose to remember my college years). I’m not sure I took anything more seriously in my life at that time. When ceding your heart to surrogates, you not only agonized over each selection, but their precise sequencing. The whole experience such a sweet meditation. 

Love letters to a much smaller and simpler world. 

Poring over the fossils I note we had friends play a couple of those songs live at our wedding. After all they were our soundtrack.

Ha, and staring back at me now — the last mix-tape I ever made her. 

Last played April 3, 2001. 

I’d forgotten that the birthing suites at St. Clair Hospital had some bitchin’ retro sound systems back in a day. 

If memory serves our firstborn came into the world to the strains of Running on Faith by Clapton.

“… what else can a poor boy do?” 

Cue the closing credits of our couplehood. 


As I wade into the task at hand, I feel for the fine line between careful Editing and the blunt force trauma of Throwing Shit Out. 

I text a couple friends who share similar relationships — with music and with gracious wives whose patience, um, occasionally wears thin. 

I ask them what they ever did with their old cassettes. 

Andy: I still have a bunch of them here. 

Doug: I’m embarrassed to say I still have most of them. They’re stored in various places around the house — the basement, under my bed, etc.

I ponder Doug’s squirrel method for a moment, then quickly realize I’d probably end up having to ask him if there’s enough room in his basement for me and my collection.

So I end up making two piles, the larger one honoring the task at hand, and the request of the girl who I now drive mad, but who once drove me to make mix tape after mix tape. I say goodbye to casual acquaintances I hadn’t heard from in decades. Thank them for keeping me such good company when I needed them, for helping me process, escape, remember, hope. So good to catch up. I snapped pix of a couple I may want to look up again somewhere down the road.  

The second pile I neatly consolidated amongst the shoe boxes. Will make room in some attic corner.

Because I’ve learned that sometimes it’s OK for us to leave bread crumbs. 

So we can find our way back to the campfires of our youth… 

… for when there just aren’t enough adult socks in the sock drawer to keep us warm. 


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