I’m Gonna Bite Down and Swallow Hard

If you’ve been around these parts for a while, you’ll recall that I loved making mix tapes for about a decade, roughly 1985-95. Many I kept for myself, but pretty early on I began regularly showering them upon James. We called them “stuff tapes,” since I’d simply written “Stuff” on the label of the inaugural edition. At first he’d receive a couple a year; by the 90s the practice had evolved into an annual year-end summary of faves from the previous calendar year. For years afterward, “Will songs” would crop up as a topic of conversation in emails or Facebook messages every so often. I hadn’t been smart enough to write down playlists before I mailed them off, so occasionally I’d suggest getting together at his place to listen to them one more time, to jog my memory about what I’d elected to share.

James was game, but of course, we never found a time to make it happen.

Judy spent quite a bit of time last summer helping go through things at James’s house. I joined her once, in early August; my charge was to browse the stacks and stacks of vinyl in the basement. I’d already mentioned the tapes to Judy and she had some to show me when I arrived. Others popped up over the course of the afternoon, mostly on his workbench. (It’s oddly comforting to know there was a time when he’d throw one of them in a player while puttering around down there.) It felt a little weird to take them home with me, but as Judy pointed out, they mean more to me at this point than anyone else.

We didn’t find them all–Stuff and Son of Stuff were missing, as was the tape with highlights of 1993. I’m sure there are others. That’s quite okay. Maybe my grief is assuaged a little by knowing again what was filling the air from time to time at his office, in his home, while driving his car.

For reasons that will become clear, the 1994 tape has been rattling around my head for much of the time since. You can see the whole playlist below, but I’ll highlight a few songs from each side.

US3, “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”
Kicking things off with a Top 10 rap-jazz hit from the beginning of the year. Sampling never sounded so good.

Eve’s Plum, “I Want It All”
The lead singer’s name is Colleen Fitzpatrick, not Jan Brady. I couldn’t tell you now how “I Want It All” came to my attention, as I don’t think it was a big alternative radio hit. I do love the ferocity of the guitar and grit of the vocals.

Tori Amos, “Past the Mission”
The official title of the tape was “1994: A Pretty Good Year,” a nod to the opening track of Under the Pink. While it’s not as even or as thoroughly good as Little Earthquakes, highlights from Pink such as “Past the Mission” are welcome any time.

I saw Tori Amos in concert for the first time last May, in Cincinnati. Greg flew in from VA just for the show, arriving early enough for me to take him on a tour of my old haunts, including my high school and the house where I’d lived in Walton. The show was very good, but since it took place on the day of the Uvalde school shooting, a pall of sorts formed and lingered, particularly in the days following as more and more ugly details emerged (Amos acknowledged the tragedy early on and in my view semi-dedicated one of the songs to affected folks).

Magnapop, “Texas”
Obscure band out of Atlanta that seems to be still chugging along in some form today. The embed below, from the album Hot Boxing, is a different version from that on the CD-single I had picked up on spec somewhere along the way. I prefer that one, but alas, it’s not available on YouTube. Still a rockin’ tune in this form.

Smashing Pumpkins, “Disarm”
I’m not too big of a Pumpkins fan, but “Disarm” is off-the-charts excellent, and I’ll crank it every time.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore, “Where You Going”
Gilmore is a country artist popular in some circles, plenty unknown in many others. Maybe his best-known composition is “Dallas”–Natalie Merchant sang a duet version with David Byrne in 10,000 Maniacs’ MTV Unplugged concert.

There are many fine songs on Spinning Around the Sun. “Where You Going” is track #1 and one of its best.

Lush, “Hypocrite”
One of Lush’s very finest. Should’ve been a worldwide smash.

Frente!, “Accidently Kelly Street”
Yes, that’s really how the first word of the title is spelled. THE highlight on Marvin the Album, even above their re-invention of “Bizarre Love Triangle.” It went Top 5 in the band’s native Australia, and while the video is a bit goofy, the tune absolutely pegs the charm-o-meter.

Iris DeMent, “No Time to Cry”
After listening to DeMent’s My Life disk a few times, I’d decided that two of its songs stood out above the others. The title track had gone on a tape I’d made for myself back in the spring. When it came time to dub songs for James, I elected as I often did not to repeat myself–he received “No Time to Cry,” a meditative piece about shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood and grappling with the cruelties of an often capricious world. I slotted it in the penultimate position on the tape.

You can’t predict when, or how, an innocuous decision such as that might echo through the years.

James’s wife Amy had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in the summer of 2018 and had succumbed the following January, a senseless loss. I offered occasional advice on dealing with paperwork and probate in the ensuing months given my relatively recent experiences following my parents’ deaths. Most of our communication was over Facebook Messenger. By early December, I believe things had mostly been sorted out, and I received a question of a different nature.

(His response is a college-era inside joke, a reference to our friend Warren’s experiences on the high school academic team.)

I didn’t want to make any assumptions about or probe his state of mind, but I did wonder and worry about life weighing too heavily on him, that the phrase under inquiry reflected too closely how he was feeling. I should have gently investigated.

I thought back to that exchange after learning of James’s death, one year ago today. Once I realized I had to dedicate one of my radio shows to my friend, I knew that “No Time to Cry” would be on the playlist.

And so it was, a little more than ninety minutes in. I scripted everything carefully, but ten minutes before I’d be reciting what I wrote about Amy’s death and the Messenger exchange, I knew I would be breaking down when it came time to read it. The irony of crying over an introduction to a song called “No Time to Cry” wasn’t lost on me. But you know, I really did have all the time I needed for tears.

No song has weighed on my mind more over the last year.

What could follow that to close things out?

Nirvana, “All Apologies”
The choice at the time, in light of Cobain’s suicide in early April, was obvious. These two songs form a devastating ending combination, one that suits my mood all too well right now.

I and so many others miss you, James.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: