The J Card

J Card
TDK SA90 J Card, circa 1980

I have been making mixtapes since the fall of my freshman (and only) year at Carnegie-Mellon University. I was housed in Donner Hall, A-Level West, among a group of young men, mostly engineers of one kind or another, among whom were half a dozen who remain to this day the most obsessive, passionate, knowledgable and enthusiastic music fans I have ever met. They had powerful audio systems and deep record collections. And, in several cases, imposing and elaborate bongs.

They were my teachers, and their records were my texts. Within the first month I had ordered–by mail, as I recall, from an ad in the back of a magazine–a TEAC cassette deck, so I could more rapidly (and cheaply) absorb and study key texts  like The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974), Raw Power (1973), and Loaded (1969).

At some point somebody presented me with a hand-dubbed compilation of Pink Floyd rarities, the J card maniacally  and painstakingly annotated with dates, variorum and other particulars in an obsessive E.E.’s angular hand.

I was inordinately moved. Like all great mixtapes it was not just a gift of music; it was a gift of time. It offered knowledge not simply of the artists and the music they played but, more importantly, of its compiler, of his capacity for patience, his ability to focus, his calling to spread the word, his lack of any active social life to speak of apart from evening sessions around a bong shaped like the Mayan god of dreams, listening to Jeff Beck’s Wired (1976).

Shortly thereafter, at the old Garbage Records store on Forbes Avenue (remote ancestor of the amazing Jerry’s in Squirrel Hill), I discovered the glory of T. Rex , in the form of three albums: Electric Warrior (1971), The Slider (1972), and a cheapo Pickwick cutout “hits” collection, still in its shrink-wrap. Like a lot of cheapo compilations, it consisted of a bunch of early tracks (from the hippie Tyrannosaurus Rex days) and one anachronistic subsequent smash (“Get It On (Bang A Gong)”).


Optimistically but forlornly entitled “Vol. 1”

After a week or two, I had fifteen or so favorite tracks from among the three disks, and one afternoon I put them all onto one side of a 60-minute TDK, calling it “Electric Wizardry.”

That was my first mixtape, I suppose–but it was, by definition, left forever incomplete. A mixtape is not a mixtape until it is shared.  The honor for First True Mixtape goes to a tape I made for my mom, when I came home for Christmas that year. She was throwing a New Year’s Eve party, and I snobbishly compiled some “non-disco” dance music she could play once people got tired of Tavares. The only tracks I remember being on it, now, were Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug,” and the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs”, which she loved.

Since then I have crafted dozens and dozens of mixtapes–playlists, as the digital versions are routinely styled. For girlfriends, for fellow fans, for my wife, for our children. To win over, to create a mood, to establish a continuity, to uncover a previously hidden pattern or theme, to encompass, to summarize, to play a musical game. And above all, to educate the intended recipient, passionately and with rigor, about music, and about myself.

I’m not sure if this is really going to work, but thanks to the ubiquity and relative comprehensiveness of Spotify, it occurred to me recently that I might be able to share my mixtapes, the standbys, the “classics,” and the new ones that I’m making all the time, with all of you, whoever you are.

Who knows? You might hear something you like. And maybe you’ll learn something about me.

Michael Chabon: Berkeley, California


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