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Is it An Education, or is it Memorex?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Our series on the history of the mixtape continues. In part one, B. James, Gregory Crosby and Krysztof Nemeth talk about the whys and hows of making mixtapes; in part two, Lori Young explains how she used them as a tool for healing. Now, Scott Dickensheets writes about what it’s like to receive a mixtape.

I’ve never made a mixtape; never even tried; hell, never even thought about it. My enthusiasms have always seemed too private, too specific, too — let’s just say it — too Scott-Dickensheetsian to impose on people I like. What I mean is, I tend to love songs for little whorls of sound or import within them: five seconds of a levitating Bill Frisell solo here, the weary timbre of a Dylan vocal there (“Lot of water under the bridge, lotta other stuff, too”). And while everyone’s taste is formed by the meanings they use to link life experience to music, I never thought I could get across the subcutaneous value I found in songs most of my friends would be puzzled to find singled out for mix-tape inclusion. (“Really, Dickensheets — ‘Sledgehammer’?”) So I kept that s— to myself.

But I have received mixtapes; I’m thinking of one batch specifically. Back in the mid-80s, I worked for an arts council in Las Vegas, a fact that should in no way suggest I knew jack about art, any kind of art, despite my frequent pretensions otherwise. I just wanted to be around the stuff. My boss was a genial man named Patrick, a guy who very much did know about the arts — especially music, most especially jazz. And he turned out to be the rare kind of boss who doesn’t try to tamp down the shallow dickhead he’d hired, but rather gently upgrade him. Sometimes it was through rambling talk about the art we displayed; sometimes he’d just stand in my office and read poetry. But best of all, he made me tapes.

The first was a 90-minute jazz mind-blower: an introduction to the bebop greats. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis — oh, Miles Davis! I remember sliding it into the tape deck — Jesus, remember tape decks? — of my dark-blue Hyundai on the 15-mile drive home. Davis’s “So What?” curled into my head that afternoon and has drifted in there like smoke ever since. All I knew about jazz before that afternoon was that my cousin drummed for a Dixieland outfit in Sacramento, and that I hated Dixieland. But this, this was something utterly new and unexpected.

I grasped right away that this music had everything to do with black urban life, and therefore nothing to do with mine (white, suburbs). That’s what made it new. At the time, I was a stone Boss fan, and while I didn’t live in Jersey, Springsteen’s many yearnings — for transcendence, for escape, for community, for girls he couldn’t bring himself talk to — somehow soundtracked my daily life, seemed relevant, however loosely, to what I was actually going through. This jazz, centered completely outside my experience, was the first music I loved that had no hold on me other than pure aesthetics. It expressed no longing that I felt, mirrored no grievance of mine. That’s what made it unexpected. I couldn’t relate to it, and I realized, for the first time, that it didn’t matter. Some say my heart grew three sizes that day.

Patrick continued this education with more compilations from his jazz stock: tapes featuring Ornette Coleman, Art Blakey; plus some avant-electric stuff that I still listen to: The President, Bobby Previte.

The last great mixtape he gave me was his take on the history of the blues. He titled it after a line from a recorded sermon that opened the tape: “This whole world is in a hell of a fix, and you’d better get right with God!” This was my first time hearing Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, a non-country-singing Ray Charles. Mind: blown again.

Patrick left the arts council a while later, and I left after that, our paths diverging until we no longer see each other (but we are Facebook friends); the world moved on to CDs and then $1.29 digital files, and I suppose if Patrick wanted to educate me one last time, he’d send me a link to an artist’s MySpace page. Lot of water under the bridge, and very definitely a lotta other stuff too.

Scott Dickensheets


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