My sister started making these mixes and, like so many creative endeavors, I followed her lead until the both of us brought these tapes to my grandmother’s house on Sunday evenings to showcase them on Grandma Jean’s stereo while we played Scrabble and Pinochle or worked on arts and crafts projects. I remember listening to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and Don McLean’s “American Pie” as back-to-back songs to close one of those early mixes and thinking that it sounded epic, and perfect, and far better than the component pieces could ever be as stand-alone tracks.
I started writing novels in high school and associated particular songs with particular scenes. One of the rewards at the end of each project was making a new mix as a soundtrack to each draft. Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” was the love theme from Free Throw, backed by Matchbox 20’s “Girl Like That” for a montage of the protagonist preparing to ask out his love interest and Semisonic’s “This Will Be My Year” for the New Year’s scene in which they get together. I wrote a vampire novel with more greater intensity, anchored by Eagle Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight,” a novel about high school nerds featuring REM’s “Hope,” a novel about robots with music ranging from Lifehouse to Pat Benatar to the Indigo Girls to Creed.
I made mixes for girls. Sharing my music, embracing the mix CD as a bridge between self-expression and demonstrating an understanding of someone else by assembling a collection of songs she wouldn’t know but would like. Would adore, even, and by extension adore me. Such mixes achieved mixed results.
I started burning soundtracks to years. Compilations of music to mark the events of a year--the music I was listening to it various times in a year or that were introduced to me by different people, or that I remembered hearing at specific moments. An autobiography as told through the music other people made.
I made mix CDs to edit and write and layout by in the newspaper office in college and to listen to on my increasingly frequent road trips that came up after college as I aimed to stay in touch with people who were still at school, people at home, people who had moved to new but not unreasonably distant locales, and later on trips to review a cappella shows.
Indeed, time in the car became inextricably connected to music for me. Driving alone, I’d listen to new favorites, but also not hesitate to break out guilty pleasures from my youth--the Rod Stewart, the Kid Rock. And when I knew I would have passengers, I more often than not invested a few minutes in the car before I picked them up to plug in the CD I thought would best facilitate that particular ride.
And then I plotted a trip across the country to move from Baltimore, Maryland to Covallis, Oregon. I had the luxury of an excess of time, pay off from my excess of left over vacation days made it financially viable to rent a moving truck and hold onto it for ten days. A charted a course through the Midwest and north to Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Twin Falls in Idaho.
And, of course, I made mixes.
By then they were playlists. Not bound by 45-minute cassette sides or an 80-minute CD. The only real limitation was the capacity of my iPhone, but space was measured in gigabytes. I made some general playlists. Old favorites I rediscovered in the process of organizing and packing old CDs. New discoveries.
Around that time, Tom Petty had a new album coming out, Hypnotic Eye. Truth be told, it had been years since Petty released music that I much connected with, and though I suspected I would eventually check out the album, I didn’t feel especially compelled to download it for the drive. But amidst the press about the new album came a lot of reflection on Petty’s previous work. A career retrospective from Grantland. A countdown of his top tracks on any number of music sites.
I remembered a childhood growing up on Full Moon Fever. Choreographing a lip sync routine to “I Won’t Back Down.” Writing a song that was a pretty transparent rip off of “Apartment Song.” Listening to Wildflowers in high school, and singing “You Don’t Know How It Feels” at open mic nights in college. The dozens of other Petty tracks I’d encountered over the years.
I set to ripping old CDs and to downloading. Over the course of an hour or so, I relived roughly 30 years of material to arrive at a personalized playlist of all of my favorite songs from the Petty catalog, arranged to ebb and flow, front loaded with Americana rock along the lines of “American Girl,” “Saving Grace,” and “You Wreck Me,” dipping down to “A Face in the Crowd,” closing on the one-two punch of “Here Comes My Girl” and “Learning To Fly.” To my ear, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are synonymous with traveling music, and as such, I wound up with 90 minutes of perfect songs to speed across highways and rouse myself on moonlit country roads.
I’ve never been much of a musician, as much as I’ve tried to be one now and again, and as much as I’ve written about other people’s music. Making these mixes is my gateway to that world--the songwriter, the singer, the dude who shreds it on his electric guitar. I can take the work and, in a small way, make it my own. Codify it. Tell a new story.