Since the release last week of Jason Bitner's engaging new book Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves, the St Martin's Griffin published, 212-page anthology of 60 short stories, has been striking a nerve with readership of a certain age who can directly relate to and recall its pre-iPod subject matter: the bygone era of the homemade mixtape -- specifically mixtapes made to woo new crushes or love objects.
An image that pops into many minds would be the Rob Gordon character played by John Cusack in the Stephen Frears directed film adapatation of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity and his obsession with making the perfect mixtape, regardless of how long it took. Or as Shirley Manson of the group Garbage wrote for Cassette From My Ex's jacket cover, "Anyone who understands the obsessive attention to detail, the time it took to collate, select, and edit the content of a perfectly executed mix tape, or just someone who appreciated the rhythms and nuances of such extraordinary artifacts will treasure this collection of stories, comfortable and secure in the knowledge that such exquisite efforts were not made in vain and indeed there was a time when a humble cassette tape was perhaps the greatest gift of all."
For Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves, Bitner, who is best known as a co-founder of the wonderful Found magazine series, compiled first-person essays about mixtapes fueled by crushes or love (some tragic, some hilarious, many in-between) written by sixty different writers, many of them journalists & musicians. Contributors include author Rick Moody, This American Life's Starlee Kine, The New Yorker's Ben Greenman, The Magnetic Fields’ Claudia Gonson, Improv Everywhere's Charlie Todd, Mortified's David Nadelberg, and former Rolling Stone writer and MTV2 veejay Jancee Dunn.
As stated in its description, the book's varied true stories range from the irreverently sweet, such as the doomed love affair between a Deadhead and a Goth, to the touching, such as the heartbreaking discovery of a former love passing away. This week I caught up with the New York City based Bitner to talk about his new book. That interview follows immediately below the cover art of the subject of the book's moving mixtape story "Felix + Dzintra + Queensryche" penned by Chicago blogger Felix Jung.
Amoeblog: When I first heard about Cassette From My Ex I immediately thought of Found magazine and wasn't surprised to then learn that you were the mastermind behind this book. Is that the direct correlation? How, specifically, did the idea come for the book come about?
Jason Bitner: The idea was totally separate from Found, but having spent so much time around other people's leftovers probably made me a little more susceptible to making a project of it. We're also friends with the folks at great projects like Mortified and Six-Word Memoirs and PostSecret, and share in their love of embarrassing stories from years past, so yeah, it all kind of makes sense.
Amoeblog: Exactly what year did the mixtape finally go out? And what age now is the youngest cassette mixtape maker or recievee?
Jason Bitner: As of today, the cut-off age for crush tapes versus mix CDs, the lower edge seems to be around 28 years old-- with exceptions, of course. I had interned in a recording studio in 1995, and I remember buying blank CDs for $12 each back then. It took a few years for the price to come down to match the cost of blank tapes, so it had to be the late 1990's / early 2000's.
Amoeblog: Flipping through your book and looking at all the mixtape covers, there is an eerie familiarity, since my own tapes, just like everyone else's, were on those instantly familiar TDK or Memorex or Maxell etc. cassettes. They were simultaneously unique and universal, right?
Jason Bitner: Love and music go hand and hand, so mixtapes were pretty universal. Pretty much everyone from a certain area either made mixtapes or got mixtapes, which makes these stories so universal. And for some reason, people just don't toss their old mixtapes-- they're either packed away in boxes, or stored in parents' basements. History has been kind to handcrafted cassettes.
Amoeblog: On page 143 you mention the different cassette brands. Was Realistic tape, the inexpensive brand made by the fine folks at Radio Shack, the worst quality or was there a more flimsy one?
Jason Bitner: I think the worst tapes were the ones that came with answering machines. Remember those things? I don't even know what brand they were, but if you got a mixtape on one of those, you were bummed.
Amoeblog: As a former avid mixtape maker, I know I would often spend an entire long evening making a sixty minute tape -- going back, changing the order of songs and bits. What was the average time put into making tapes by most folks, do you think?
Jason Bitner: It took so much longer to make mixtapes than it takes to cobble together an iTunes playlist or mix CD. We were required to sit down and listen to each song in realtime and choose the next song based on the tone of the previous. It often took days to complete a well-crafted mixtape. In fact, the one that was made for me that I wrote about on the Cassette From My Ex website has Side A being recorded on January 2nd 1991, and Side B was recorded on January 7th. It took Kate six days to craft the thing, and you have to appreciate that kind of effort.
Amoeblog: Did you get and listen to all of the book's mixtapes?
Jason Bitner: Each story in Cassette From My Ex has corresponding tracklistings, and I took great care to make sure we had all 1313 songs listed correctly. First I'd sit down with the tape and go through identifying the songs I knew off top of my head, and if I wasn't sure what it was, I'd pull out Shazam and see if we could figure it out with their software, and between those two, I'd have about a 90% success rate. For the last 10%, I'd grab a specific line of the lyrics and type those into Google and then cross-reference with the YouTube, and yeah, nothing fell through the cracks. It, uh, took a while.
Amoeblog: How important were the mixtape's corresponding covers/cover art?
Jason Bitner: Handcrafted artwork was just as crucial as the music. If you created an amazing mix of songs and didn't put any effort into the artwork and handwriting, you would fail. You had to do something -- whether it was sharpies or glitter pens or magazine cutouts didn't matter. You had to do something to show you cared.
Amoeblog: How much time have you ever personally spent repairing or trying to repair a busted, mangled up cassette tape of some mix that you just had to save?
Jason Bitner: I'm pretty quick at repairing busted cassettes. In fact, my friend Amy recently sent her tape from London, and by the time it got to my place, it had shattered into fourteen pieces. Fortunately, I had a matching blank tape in my basement, and within seven minutes I'd finished open-tape surgery and brought her tape back to life. It was touch and go there for a second, but it made a full recovery.
Amoeblog: Will there be a sequel to Cassette From My Ex? What is your next book or project going to be?
Jason Bitner: I'm not sure what the next book will be just yet, but I'd love to keep going with them-- books stick around even when the power goes out. My next project is a documentary film based on a book I put out a few years back called LaPorte, Indiana. I've been working on it with my friend Joe Beshenkovsky, who just won an Emmy for his editing work on the This American Life TV show. Years ago I came across a trove of 18,000 portrait photos in the back of a Midwestern diner. We're now finishing up a movie bringing these photos to life.
More book info: CassetteFromMyEx.com FACEBOOK Press and Props NPR archives