It’s Record Store Day, and that means a rush on local haunts such as Waterloo Records and End of an Ear. Hundreds of collectibles were issued specifically for this annual event designed to help keep brick-and-mortar shops afloat in the streaming age. The resurgence of vinyl means most special RSD releases are in that format — but at least a couple of cassette reissues have popped up this year, and a handful of underground indie labels have been putting out cassettes lately.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Chris Riemenschneider, who wrote for the American-Statesman in the 1990s, today leveled an attack on cassettes as part of his contention that the CD format deserves a comeback. I have no argument with the latter: I, too, still value CDs as an ideal bridge between physical and digital formats. (My former colleague Grayson Haver Currin recently wrote eloquently about this in relation to a yearlong cross-country Sprinter-van odyssey.)
But I’m here to testify: Cassettes have enriched my life so much in the past couple of years that I must challenge Riemenschneider’s assault on the format’s integrity.
This all stems back to the fall of 2016, when I wrote about Austin band Croy & the Boys as part of our Austin360 Artist of the Month series. Attending the band’s record-release party at Hotel Vegas, I noticed that in addition to CDs, they were selling cassettes of their new record for $5. I thought it was charming and I wanted to support the sentiment, so I bought one.
Maybe it’s because the band’s Doug Sahm-esque combination of country and rock with occasional Tex-Mex overtones harkened back to the era when cassettes were commonplace, but something about that music just sounded great when I played it in my car, which thankfully was old enough to still have a cassette deck.
That was the turning point. Soon after, I began raiding an upstairs closet where I’d filed away a couple hundred cassettes that mostly contained music unavailable in any other format. As fate would have it, one of the tapes I found was the 1991 demo of an Austin band called the Troll Dolls that featured songs written by George Reiff.
A few months earlier, the Austin music community had learned that Reiff had cancer. Slipping the Troll Dolls demo into the car deck, I was reminded that for all of Reiff’s talents as a bassist and producer, he was quite a talented songwriter as well. I wondered if George remembered, so I shot an iPhone video of his song “Unsteady State” playing in my car and sent it to George’s brother.
The response from George arrived a few days later. “WooooooWWW!!!!! Where in the world did you get this? The good thing is it’s actually not bad. I was so worried I would hate it! I was sweetly surprised. Thanks so much for sharing.”
George died four months later. I’ll treasure that last note from him forever, and it all happened because of cassettes. (Eventually, more came of it. Former Austin duo the Mastersons played the song at a private family service for George, and last December, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis sang it at the public memorial for him at Emo’s.)
That’s the most deeply sentimental story to relate, but it was just the tip of the iceberg in digging back into my cassette archives. The real treasure trove, I soon discovered, was the mixtapes, which took me back to the exact time, place and feeling of their creation.
The gold-standard was the one pictured above: “The Long Journey Home,” made to document a drive of more than 4,000 miles from Alaska to Austin in August 1987 after a summer internship at the Anchorage Daily News. It included a song by a never-heard-from-again Anchorage indie band called the Guests, whose cassette-only release I’d purchased at the hip record store up there.
In responding to Riemenschneider’s article on Facebook, former American-Statesman music writer Don McLeese noted that cassettes may hold a greater pull for Austinites of a certain era because some great music was released initially (and sometimes still only) in that format: Daniel Johnston’s early homemade recordings, Butch Hancock’s “No 2 Alive” marathon of live recordings from the Cactus Cafe, collections by the radiant pop band Grains of Faith that never made it to vinyl or CD. Just yesterday, en route to the Old Settler’s Music Festival, another Grains of Faith tune I’d totally forgotten about popped up on one of those mix tapes. (“True Love Is On the Street Again,” if you’re reading this, Joe McDermott or Jennifer Summers.)
I suspect, though, that any of us who made mixtapes back then would be amazed at the powerful memories, and long-forgotten songs, those cassettes can rekindle if you dig them out and play them again now. This last year and a half of rediscovering those cassettes has resulted in some of the most rewarding music-listening experiences of my entire life.
Finally, to specifically rebut a few of Riemenschneider’s charges against cassettes:
1. “Those cheap, flimsy, plastic thingamajigs that warp in the slightest sunlight.” They made it through Texas summers in my car, and three decades later, they’re still no worse for the wear. This surprised me too: Initially I thought I’d have no luck playing most of these old cassettes. But the format is surprisingly, remarkably durable. Almost everything I’ve dug out still sounds as good now as it did back then.
2. They “require you to press the fast-forward and rewind buttons 25 times if you ever dare to replay a song.” This is a sad strawman, Chris. Everyone knows that by the early-mid 80s, most cassette players had added a search function that automatically skipped ahead or back to the next pause in the tape, so you could go right to the start of the song. Yes, it takes slightly longer than the instantaneous jump to the next track on CD players; but I’ve found those pauses of a few seconds to be kind of refreshing. It was OK when everything wasn’t immediate, and it still is.
3. Sonic fidelity is “weak and underwatery, except for in the right gas-guzzler cars.” It’s possible I just happen to have the right kind of old “gas-guzzler car” for this — and I’ll concede that I do think having a car that plays cassettes is a significant part of the appeal here, because these old tapes have sounded especially great when driving.
But I still have a cassette deck and turntable hooked up to a receiver in the house, and I still have an old boombox, and those tapes have played just fine on those units as well. If younger generations are going to champion vinyl and buy turntables, it’s pretty easy to accept cassette technology as well, especially since the price-point is much better, and they’re lighter and take up less space (important when moving).
In conclusion, I’ll simply paraphrase one of the great SNL comic skits from the glory days of cassettes: Chris, you ignorant slut.