In a town full of J. Crew preppies, Sarah wore a torn jean jacket and Converse All-Stars, both decorated with intricate ballpoint penwork. She chewed gum, wore earrings, and had dark brown hair. After school, when she looked after me at home, she brought delicious contraband with her from Cumby's. While I did my homework on the kitchen counter, she would dispense the illicit Skittles, Nerds, or Runts and tell me about high school life.
Given the opportunity, I would pore over the graffiti that covered her own school notebooks, binders, and clothes. The graffiti mostly consisted of inside jokes with her friends, references to bands they liked, or sexual innuendo that I was sometimes old enough to be suspicious of but not sophisticated enough to understand. (One line had her and her boyfriend's initials on the left side of an equals sign, with the phrase "schlong meisters" on the right.)
What really made my 10-year-old brain idolize Sarah was her privileged knowledge of, and access to, cool and dangerous music. By this time I was buying my own cassettes and CDs and making tapes of my parents' albums: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, CSNY, stuff like that. But hanging out with Sarah was the first time I became really aware that a whole other universe of music existed — music that was popular now and was not made or listened to by people my parents' age. (Until I was five, we had no TV at all. By '91 we had cable but I watched nothing besides PBS, MacGyver, and maybe Saturday morning cartoons.)
She'd arrive at our house listening to tapes on her Walkman, tapes full of metal, punk, funk, hardcore, rap, and all kinds of other stuff I didn't know the names for. I must have listened to her own tapes a few times — I'm not sure. What I remember is watching hours of MTV with her: 120 Minutes, Yo! MTV Raps, Beavis and Butt-Head, Club MTV. I was fascinated by videos like AC/DC's "Moneytalks," Warrant's "Cherry Pie," Gerardo's "Rico Suave," and La Tour's "People Are Still Having Sex." We watched it all, even the silly pop stuff, and Sarah made her opinion known about all of it.
My favorite artist of all time, at this point, was Paul Simon. I also owned albums by Bobby McFerrin and the Indigo Girls. I must have eventually started to annoy Sarah with my adult-contemporary tastes, or maybe she just decided my musical horizons needed broadening, because eventually she took it upon herself to do what needed to be done: she made me a mixtape.
The tape, which I still have, is a thing of beauty. Remember that in 1991 we had CDs, but no CD burners, and the cassette was really the only way to share music with someone. I still remember how cool I considered this particular type of cassette tape, with its fully translucent body. Extensively hand-lettered in blue ballpoint just like Sarah's Chuck Taylors, it had a rebus for a title:
Here is the handwritten track listing...
And then this note, part of it hidden until you removed the cassette and then looked inside the spine, or removed the entire insert:
Now, on to the music itself.
I have reconstructed Sarah's mixtape in digital format; click the play button below to listen to the mix while you read through my comments below.
- Thirty Dirty Birds / Red Hot Chili Peppers
- One part of making a great mixtape in the cassette era was planning out how much music would fit on each side of the tape. In this case, it's a 90-minute tape, so you get 45 minutes per side. A mixtape artist always needed a few short tracks in his or her arsenal to make the most of the entire tape, and this funny old Brooklyn joke of a spoken-word RHCP "song" is just such a track. What's especially impressive is that she planned this out well enough to fit the throwaway short track in at the beginning of the mix.
- I'd never heard the Beastie Boys at this point, so I'm not sure I fully got the joke of this song, but in retrospect it's pretty funny. This came out in 1987, a year after Run-DMC's cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way." I guess this was the logical next step. In fact, as you'll see, a lot of this tape is about rock-rap fusion.
- Holy shit, I never noticed how amazing the production on this song is. I guess I've never listened to it on headphones before. Can you hear the slowed-down, distorted "sweet emotion" vocal during the intro? 10-year-old me wasn't a big Aerosmith fan and neither is 31-year-old me, but this is obviously a classic.
- As with other stuff on here, it amuses me to no end to think that a teenage girl was listening to this song and then playing it for a 10-year-old boy. At one point you can hear Axl say, "Take it for what it is" — a joke, I guess — but he had a pretty messed-up sense of humor.
- As with two other songs on this mix ("More Than Words" and "Hard to Handle"), this song was everywhere in the summer of 1991. To me the inclusion of this shows that she wasn't afraid of a guilty pleasure. This song still holds up well as dance pop, I think. Wikipedia tells me that the "Oh!" that precedes each guitar break is a sample of comedian Andrew Dice Clay.
- Two Aerosmith songs on one side of the tape is a bit much. I guess Sarah was going through a phase. Again, though, it's pretty hard to say anything bad about this song, except maybe the lyrics.
- Oh my God, do you know what I remember about the video for this song? Carrots. Also, fat suits. That's it. (Watches video.) That was a pretty kickass video, especially the breakdown part starting around two minutes in.
- If there's one band that epitomizes my perception of Sarah's musical taste from this era, it's Faith No More. Again, though, can you imagine playing this for a 10-year-old? So creepy but so funny and funky. Listening to this, don't you think Mike Patton is the long-lost musical sibling of Dean and Gene Ween?
- I just read that American military pilots in Operation Desert Storm loved to listen to this song while going on bombing raids, I'm guessing because of the line "Mother America is brandishing her weapons." Apparently no one picked up on the cynicism of the very next line, "She keeps me safe and warm by threats and misconceptions." A pretty good little butt-rock one-hit wonder, at any rate.
- I didn't go on to become a huge fan of any of the bands on this tape — except for this one. If you like power pop along the lines of Big Star, Matthew Sweet, Brendan Benson, etc., do yourself a favor and seek out the short-lived band Jellyfish's two incredible albums, Bellybutton and Spilt Milk. After listening to Sarah's cassette of Bellybutton, I bought it on CD and pretty much wore it out. This is one of the slower, more twisted and introspective tracks on the album and it contains some kind of proggy elements. The production is Pet Sounds-level genius, in my opinion.
- This is the kind of song that makes me wonder why I don't listen to more (or any) hair metal. I can totally imagine screaming along to the chorus of this with 10,000 leather-and-spandex clad fellow citizens.
- Paradise / Tesla
- Of course, as Poison pointed out, every rose has its thorn. For me, if the Mötley Crüe song is the rose, this is the thorn. The singer is trying too hard to sound like Axl Rose, and the guitar riffs are hitting me over the head with a stupid Flying V. If this had been on a CD, I would have skipped the track. Feel free to do so, yourself.
- Wait, there was a time when Lenny Kravitz was actually funky? Yes, there was. It was called 1989. This is one of the only songs in the mix with swearing on it; I have to assume that was Sarah attempting not to offend my sensibilities, which were in fact pretty delicate at this point. The "fuck you" in this song would have been acceptable, being in the service of anti-racism.
- This is the biggest head-scratcher on the tape, for sure. It's really hard for me to imagine Sarah in 1991 listening to any solo stuff by Sting, especially not this obscure, 5-minute instrumental jazz B-side. Maybe she got this from her mom or something? It is actually kind of pretty, in a Bruce Hornsby/Pat Metheny kind of way.
- I'm sure this is the only song on here that I already knew when Sarah made me the tape. I think this was just her throwing me a bone, like "See? I listen to some classic rock, too." As with most Doors song, the only reason I'd still consider this worth listening to is for Ray Manzarek's awesome fuzzed-out organ.
- Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, the horror! I don't think I can make it through this whole song. If I were a teenage girl in 1991, though, I don't know how I would have been able to resist its power. Apparently, the rest of this album is actual metal.
- This kind of terrified me, which I guess is the whole point. I am noticing now that this is a song about the world after an ecological/environmental apocalypse, which is kind of interesting. I love that Sarah sandwiched this between two pop hits — genius.
- I am kind of embarrassed to admit that I didn't know this was a cover of an Otis Redding song until, like, last year. The Black Crowes get a lot of shit but I think it's obvious that they captured the essence of the song pretty well here. I guess they were like the Jet of 1990... except that they're still releasing albums. Maybe Jet is too, I don't know.
- This song is so funny and sarcastic; I love it. The best part about this tape was that it exposed me to stuff like this that I never would have known about. I just read that tracks from this album got substantial airtime on MTV, which in retrospect is almost unbelievable.
- Same thing with this one — just weird and funny and cool. This is like a precursor to Girl Talk or something, with the addition of goofy punk vocals. How many samples can you spot? You can find the full list on Wikipedia.
- These days I associate Steve Vai with 40-something guitar-metal nerds, but I guess it's worth remembering that guitar-metal nerds were young once, and apparently at least one of them — Sarah — was even a girl! This track is badass, and of course as a 10-year-old I was absolutely slain by the student-recital skit part of it.
- What a killer closer. Faith No More might be the only band that truly belongs on this mix twice. Sarah sure knew how to pick 'em.