Every day I open the coffee shop I get 30 minutes before we open to blast the music. I love this time of the day.
Some days it’s grunge, some days its delta blues, other days it is Lana Del Rey or Norah Jones – regardless, it is always loud and I just let go. This week I had Nirvana threatening to blow our Sonos speaker apart.
Now music is a powerful entity. It can pull you back to times in your life, the memory strong and all the emotion as raw at times as it was in the moment. Pure nostalgia.
So, there I was grinding beans, prepping machines and making things ready for those first customers, when one of those moments hit me when one particular song cued up. With the first muted strums leading into the main riff, Rape Me from Nirvana’s album In Utero began. And back in time I went.
And where, you might ask, did this gut-punch of a titled song transport me back to?
It’s not really another story about India though. It is a story about cassettes, and priorities and choices.
Analogue v. Digital
These days we take for granted having thousands of songs at our immediate disposal. All in a device that holds more computing power than the first space flights and the moon landing, and it fits in our pant’s pocket.
In 1994, compact discs ruled the music industry. However, until you could afford to replace them with CDs, cassettes were still ubiquitous. Back then, the Sony Walkman was the go-to portable device; as portable CD players were shit and not as prolific as their tape and reel counterparts – and so cassettes still had their niche.
A standard cassette, or CD for that matter, held on average 15 songs. A single cassette was roughly the size of your smaller iPhone, say an iPhone 6. Of course, it was just a hunk of plastic and magnetic tape until it was placed inside the battery-guzzling Walkman that was easily twice that size.
For twice the weight and space as an iPhone then, you got only 15 songs and had to carry separately each additional 15-song hunk of plastic – and that didn’t include your spare batteries.
Packing In Analogue
For India I had a travel ruck about 50L in size (the straps could be stowed away). It held a tent and sleeping bag, few extra clothes, toiletries, and the hard-copy Lonely Planet and Frommer’s guides and maps we used before the Internet (the books were equally heavy, and space gobblers).
Now keep all that in mind as you continue on this journey with me, as we go to pack that Sony Walkman and the cassettes I would need for an undefined period of travel – but not expected to be less than 6 months.
With the Walkman critical to the whole portable music equation, and holding its own space, there was little room left for cassettes. If memory serves, I had enough space for 5 or 6 cassettes. That’s 90 songs, for 6 months. So, from a smaller collection of cassettes (my CD collection was much larger), I had to select no more than 6 cassettes.
That’s a huge dilemma. Especially as it was the 90’s and there was so much great music to choose from. Here, then, is how that decision unfolded. These are, to my recollection, the six I chose:
- Nirvana – In Utero
- Nirvana – Nevermind
- REM – Automatic for the People
- Cat Stevens – Tea for the Tillerman
- Beethoven – Compilation (but it absolutely had my favourite piano concerto No. 5, ‘Emperor’)
- The quintessential mixed tape (there was always a mixed tape)
And that is how Rape Me from Nirvana’s album In Utero flung me back to 1994.
Let me share though how this all ended. About a month into my travels I began to move east from Vijayawada towards Goa – coast to coast. Trains facilitated this particular journey. It was a chance to settle into my seat, headphones on, and just let the scenery glide by in that blur of movement that trains offer as they cut through multiple scenes.
Traversing savannah, it was mostly browns. Animals moved about between urban and rural settings, while hills and flat horizons alternated in the distance. I can’t recall how far into this journey I was when it happened; the dreaded slowing of the music as the tape ground to a halt, signaling either dying batteries, or worse, that the tape was snagged and starting to stretch and wrap on itself. In this instance, it was the latter.
I was able to stop the tape before it was too far gone, but I was not able to recover it fully without cutting the tape. The song this happened on was Save this House by Spirit of the West. Absolutely not the worst song to be stuck on, and the only that the Walkman would play at that point, but eventually I had to sacrifice that cassette. This was a big sacrifice though. As you may have caught on, Spirit of the West was not one of the artists for which I had a dedicated cassette. That’s right, this was my mixed tape, my sanctuary of variety, created with much love and painstaking effort. Gone.
If I Had To Do It Again
That was heartbreaking for sure, but let’s explore this a little. If I had to again select only 6 cassettes, that’s 90 songs, from only 6 artists, where the songs would be presented to you in the same order every time, where fast-forwarding and rewinding where not only slow and inaccurate but also battery killers; what 6 cassettes would I select as those to keep me company for an unknown period of time?
However, this time, and unlike the ones I brought with me to India, which were not purchased for the journey, but rather selected from my lesser collection of music – the larger being my CD collection, I am allowing myself to choose any 6 (but not mixed tapes). Here we go, quickly and without deliberating too long:
My 6 Companion Cassettes
- Nirvana – Nevermind
- Leonard Cohen – The Best of Leonard Cohen
- Bob Marley – Legends
- Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.9 ‘The Emperor’
- Radiohead – Pablo Honey
- Pearl Jam – Ten
What would your 6 be? I’m curious, let me know.