Friday, November 17, 2006

The Christmas List

It’s that time of the year to put together my Christmas mailing list: a fretful undertaking. Doing this thing every year is a reminder of those who’ve fallen along the way, i.e., people who, for one reason or another, aren’t going to be on the list. I’d say the main reason is usually lack of contact – and I mean being out of touch for years, not months. Whatever the reason, it’s a reminder that our worlds tend to settle back on those who matter in our lives, rather than expand to some glorious horizon where we constantly acquire new friends like blossom on the wind.

I never liked the idea of Christmas cards, so I don’t do them. What I do like is making music compilations, so back in the early 90s, I figured rather than sending cards, I’d send people cassette tape compilations of whatever I was listening to that year as a compromise between a Christmas card and an actual present – complete with home-made art-work.

For those uninitiated or too young to remember tape mixes, making these was quite an ordeal. At that time in the early 90s, my music collection was half records/half CDs. So it was a matter of collecting the songs I wanted on X number of discs, putting them in a pile, taking a few days to wade through and decide on some sort of song order, then do the dirty work. This involved assiduously notating the times for each song, and adding them up to see how well they’d fill out a side of a cassette tape.

I favored TDK SA 110s. SA being some designation for a slightly higher grade of tape than their bargain stuff, and 110 meaning 55 minutes per side. But the reason I liked TDKs was that they usually had about two minutes extra time on each side – an informal gift to those of us looking to pack as much music as possible onto a tape. November would find me with stacks of CDs and records sitting on a table, me at the table, with a writing pad and calculator, making sure to note the crucial difference in adding seconds, that the roll-over was 60 and not 100.

Putting together the compilation would be great fun. It may be too early to say I missed my calling as one of those people who compile songs for soundtracks. If there’s anyone out there who’d want a top-notch compiler, I’m the one. That would be one job where I’d skip to work most days and have a ball. But in terms of the tape compilation, I’d have to sit down one night, after the push-pull of deciding the best song orders, and make the master tape. With the advent of CD burners, especially now that they can burn an entire CD in under five minutes, this seems like the “walking five miles in the snow to borrow a book” Abe Lincoln analogy. Real time recording. We’re talking about three hours when you count in breaks and monkeying with the recording level so the sound would balance. God forbid I botched the times, which did happen … and would entail me fading out the last track, or stopping it at a pause in a song. I still remember one of my friends saying, “Asshole, ‘Rockaway Beach’ doesn’t end at that first break – what did you do with the rest of the song?”

Once the master is done, then the drudgery of dubbing X number of tapes – in my case, that was around 40 tapes, give or take. Man, tapes sucked. I know from knowing musicians that professional recording tape is excellent and amazing to listen to on studio monitors. But the stuff made available to consumers was just dogshit, and it kills me that we’d sit around debating which brand/type was better, when all of it hissed and was nowhere near the quality you’d get from an average CD, forget about a well-remastered one.

The home-made CDs I put out now every year sound as good as anything you’d find in a store and leagues beyond any cassette tape. And chances are rare you’d find an officially-released collection getting anywhere near the variety of shit I do regularly. I think the first tape I did was a basic 70s Cheese collection, then disco, then bizarre Christmas songs, etc. A particularly memorable one was a muted collection of country/folk for Christmas 2001 called White People’s Soul Music – inadvertently coincided with the prolonged 9/11 malaise everyone was suffering from.

After dubbing came purchasing of mailers, stamps, and the mailing. It really is a lot of work. I’ve gotten in the habit of pulling together whatever mix I’m going to do in the spring of a given year, letting it sit for a long time, then dubbing the discs in November. I’ll also try to do the cover art in the spring, so that wherever I’m working throughout the year, chances are I’ll be able to nail down a color copier between then and Christmas. Didn’t happen this year – first time ever! But I eventually found this year’s offering looks better with a B&W cover anyway.

After mailing, some folks respond in kind with their own recordings, others with a card, others call, but honestly, there’s some silence, too. I tend to find that the folks who fall silent, year after year, tend to be the kind who fall and stay out of touch. A gradual process, and the Christmas tape dilemma is usually the icing on the cake. It’s the last baited line being thrown out on my part before I decide to stop throwing out the line. And these folks have not done anything in return for years, not offered any indication that they want to be a part of my life, even tangentially. Life doesn’t work like that. At least mine doesn’t.

Used to take that sort of shit personally, but now? If you want to fade out, I’ll let you go and won’t be calling at 2:30 some morning asking what the hell’s going on. What are you going to do with people? I never quite grasped the concept of fading out. I’ll gladly throw you out of my life if you’ve done something that I find unacceptable or wrong. But this fading bullshit is for the birds. So while I don’t lose sleep at night over this stuff, it does annoy me, more in the act of waffling than anything else.

Again, with Dad’s passing, probably one of the greatest teachers in life, death. If people aren’t in your life, it’s a waste of time to pretend that they are. Because when they’re gone for good, and I mean no longer walking the earth, the weight of that lands on you like a Cadillac falling from the sky. I used to really pump up that Christmas list – I think at its height a few years ago, we’re talking 50 people I’d be burning a disc for every year. But I was bullshitting myself and padding it out with people I knew I wasn’t all that close to in any sense. The real number, now, is right around 30, which seems like a good number of people to give a shit about. (There are probably a handful more whom I don’t mail to, simply because I know they’re not interested or too old to get into whatever music I’m going to put on a disc in a given year.) It's a weird feeling to look at that list and know that's it -- however big the world is, these are the people you are in some type of regular contact with.

Ho, fucking, ho. It’s a time for giving – and recognizing there are some folks you got to throw overboard from the creaky boat of your life. So they can row their creaky boat wherever the hell people like that row their weird boats. Where you apparently don't do shit for anybody, and nobody does shit for you. Happy holidays!

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