Walk in Silence – Beginnings

The first Walk in Silence mixtape, made October 1988 at the start of my senior year, and the Sony CFS-300 boombox (aka the Jonzbox) it was made with.

Walk in Silence, the mixtape series I’d started in 1988, was not the first mix I’d created (that goes to an unnamed multi-cassette collection from late 1982, taping songs off the radio and MTV), nor is it the first of the thematic mixes (that would be the noisy Stentorian Music from May 1988), but it’s the first one I’d made specifically to fit the mood I’d found myself in at the time. It was sort of a sibling thematic mix to the Listen in Silence mix I’d made in August, which was essentially “my favorite college radio tunes of the moment”. Walk in Silence, named of course after the first line in Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”, was meant to be more about dealing with my darker side. I was still feeling the sting of nearly all my closest friends having escaped our small town for college and the bigger world out there, and I’d made this to deal with that.

College radio was indeed my oasis during my senior year, alongside those Sunday episodes of 120 Minutes. I was doing my damnedest to deal with the frustration of still being stuck in a small town. The sources of these mixtapes were equally from the records I’d bought from Main Street Music and Al Bum’s, vinyl borrowed from the local radio station I’d worked at, taped off WAMH 89.3 (Amherst College), or second-hand dubs of albums I’d borrowed from that same group of friends. I wanted to start making more of these mixtapes, now that I understood how to create a smooth mix, and more importantly, fit as many songs onto each side of a 90-minute tape with minimal leftover blank space.

I still remember opening up a new cassette from its wrapper and smelling that fresh slightly plastic scent. I was super careful with the boxes they came in and would buy empties whenever I found them. I treated these tapes just like I treated my purchased albums: I made sure they were wound correctly, had a readable label, and didn’t get worn out or erased. I rarely bought the fancy expensive hi-def brands — I usually stuck with the affordable and reliable Memorex dBS 90s — because I didn’t care so much about the quality as much as I just wanted the music itself as part of my growing library.

I cataloged these mixes in notebooks primarily so my friends could see what was on them if they wanted to borrow them. It’s only because of this that I was able to successfully recreate nearly 99% of my mixtape library digitally, missing maybe only four or five lost and unavailable songs total. I used the Walk in Silence theme off and on, and currently I make at least two of them a year alongside two Listen in Silence and end-of-year mixes.

I bring this up to personally thank Lou Ottens, who helped invent the compact cassette tape, who recently passed away at age 94. I used so many blank tapes over the years for so many things: mixtapes, recordings of jam sessions for jeb! and The Flying Bohemians, live shows, soundtracks for my novels, dubbed albums, and maybe even a few class lectures now and again. I completed then hard-to-find discographies of favorite bands. I will totally admit to spending food and lunch money on blank tapes. I’ve put scotch tape over those holes on the top to use actual albums nobody wanted as fresh blanks. I came across a blank or two recently while cleaning out and rearranging things here in Spare Oom. I have a storage box full of my mixtapes, a few I’d remade around 2000 but many of them still the originals.

And now I see that cassettes are making a comeback, believe it or not. Indie bands are selling them on Bandcamp. And Amoeba Records has a nifty little corner full of cassettes new and old.

Thanks, Lou. Your invention was a huge and important part of my life.

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