The most formative twelve months of my life happened between August 1989 and July 1990. When digging around in the basement more than thirty-two years later, my wife uncovered a box filled with cassettes containing a veritable treasure trove of nostalgia and some pretty awesome music.
Therein were dozens of purchased cassettes, mixed tapes, and bootlegs recorded tape-to-tape or from these newfangled digital compact discs. Included in this musical ark were my first two attempts at making mixes with meaning that documented those magical, formative twelve months and ushered in a new era of my human development.
Before we get into a rundown of my autobiographical mixes, let’s first take a minute to appreciate the sheer eclecticism of this collection. If you know me and my wife, you’ll be able to pick out whose are whose, but there is some definite and in some cases surprising overlap (I’ll leave it to you to guess what that is). On the top layer alone we have the following artists represented:
REM, Steve Vai, The Mighty Lemon Drops, George Michael, The Northern Pikes, RUSH, They Might Be Giants, Billy Bragg, Sting, Concrete Blonde, James, Bootsauce, Pink Floyd, Beastie Boys, 54-40, Yaz, The Grapes of Wrath, ABBA, Sarah McLachlan, The Pursuit of Happiness, Tori Amos, Culture Club, The Jam, Depeche Mode, Rage Against The Machine, Aerosmith, Pachelbel, The Cure, L7, Sinead O’Connor, Lenny Kravitz, Tom Petty, Faith No More, House of Pain, Lava Hay, Voice of the Beehive, Bananarama, National Velvet, Violent Femmes, Ride, The Murmurs, The Watchmen, Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam, and Michael Jackson
I don’t think there’s a playlist in existence that contains all of those acts and I suspect that iTunes’ or Spotify’s algorithms wouldn’t have the foggiest idea what to do to come up with a “recommended for you” list.
It’s worth noting that with all my wife’s (clearly superior) tastes intermingled with mine in one fantastic pile of music there was but a single cassette requiring pencil surgery!
Challenge:Here’s mine (minus National Velvet because they aren’t on Spotify)
Create a playlist with one (1) song from each of the above artists and share the link. I want to see what you come up with.
Let’s start with a look at the music I put on those tapes back in the middle of 1990 and I’ll walk you through the reasons they’re on there after you’ve had a chance to absorb the list:
- Mixed Emotions – The Rolling Stones
- Hold On To Your Hat – The Rolling Stones
- Rock And A Hard Place – The Rolling Stones
- Get Off Of My Cloud – The Rolling Stones
- Paint It, Black – The Rolling Stones
- Ruby Tuesday – The Rolling Stones
- You Can’t Always Get What You Want – The Rolling Stones
- The Joker – Steve Miller Band
- Swingtown – Steve Miller Band
- Rock’n Me – Steve Miller Band
- Here I Go Again – Whitesnake
- All Join Our Hands – White Lion
- Love Ain’t For Keepin’ – The Who
- Pour Some Sugar On Me – Def Leppard
- YYZ – Rush
- My Generation – The Who
- Pinball Wizard – The Who
- Hello, I Love You – The Doors
- In My Life – The Beatles
- Revolution – The Beatles
- Imagine – John Lennon
- What A Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
- Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
- Welcome To The Jungle – Guns N’ Roses
- My Michelle – Guns N’ Roses
- Fallen Angel – Poison
- Baba O’Riley – The Who
- Money – Pink Floyd
- With A Little Help From My Friends – Joe Cocker
- YYZ – Rush
- The Spirit Of Radio – Rush
- Limelight – Rush
- Tom Sawyer – Rush
- Red Barchetta – Rush
- Take The Money And Run – Steve Miller Band
- You Shook Me All Night Long – AC/DC
- All You Need Is Rock ‘n’ Roll – White Lion
- My Michelle – Guns N’ Roses
- Red Red Wine – UB40
- Blowin’ in the Wind – Bob Dylan
- It Ain’t Me Babe – Bob Dylan
- Paranoimia (feat. Max Headroom) – The Art Of Noise, Max Headroom
- Mr. Tambourine Man – Bob Dylan
- Legs – The Art Of Noise
- Peter Gunn (feat. Duane Eddy) – The Art Of Noise, Duane Eddy
- I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) – The Proclaimers
- Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2
- Magic Carpet Ride – Steppenwolf
- Wild Thing – The Troggs
- Piano Man – Billy Joel
Three and a half hours of music, 50 tracks (48 unique), and very little of it current for the time. So what exactly was going on?
The Rolling Stones (7)
In late 1989, at the age of 15, my good friend Jon who was a year older than me, got tickets to see The Rolling Stones through a contact of his grandfather (I think he played cards with a concert promotor). It was the Steel Wheels tour and it was my first ever concert. Forget the fact that it was at Skydome (now Rogers Centre) before they figured out how to make the sound work well. Forget the fact that we were a mile away in the lower bowl. I was with my longest-standing friend watching the Rolling Stones and it was freakin’ awesome.
RUSH (6), Billy Joel (1), Louis Armstrong (1), Joe Cocker (1)
Two words; High school. More specifically, Jer, Shelby, Nicky, Melissa, Michelle (more about her later), Deborah, and Heather.
For reasons I cannot remember, Louis Armstrong and Joe Cocker songs were popular, but all those friends were who I hung out with so I’m just assuming they had something to do with them being on the tape.
Billy Joel is on there because he was definitely a favourite of all the girls I mentioned above. I didn’t go to his concert with them but they did surprise me with a concert t-shirt the next day and that was really cool.
As for RUSH, that’s entirely Jer’s doing. I was sitting in the hallway with him one day and he gave me his headphones and pressed play on his Walkman. The opening riff of Limelight blasted into my ears and could do nothing but sit there, mouth agape and in complete awe. I was hooked and they remain one of my favourite bands to this day (RIP Neil).
Whitesnake (1), White Lion (2), Guns N’ Roses (3), Poison (1), AC/DC (1)
From late 1988 to the summer of 1990 I worked as a bus boy at a place called The Firefighter’s Club. My dad, not a firefighter, had a membership and put in a good word for me with “Coop” (John Cooper) and got me the job.
There was supposed to be an initiation that involved being wrapped in an extension cord and hung upside down from the balcony of the pump house beside the pool or dunked in the grease pit or something. I don’t remember exactly, just that as the new guy it was a rough introduction to my first job outside of delivering newspapers.
Everyone had a nickname: Pig, Der, Smurf, CC… I didn’t have one for the longest time but eventually, a couple of the others started calling me “Bat Butters” on account of the fact I had a 1989 Batman t-shirt I wore in the mornings when we’d be cleaning up from the night before and setting up for that evening’s events.
Anyway, the job sucked. It was incredibly long hours with little pay. I may have even been promoted to washroom cleaning at some point. However, it had its perks. Most notably, open bars at weddings from which the bartenders would slip the bus boys and girls drinks. If you were lucky enough to get the pump house as your assignment it was a veritable free-for-all, which was nice.
The kitchen where the dishes were done was separate from the kitchen where the food was cooked and that was where Pig lived. I think his actual name was Dave, but he was the resident dish pig, and so he was named. He was a metalhead, a super nice guy, and played music, loud music, while he washed the dishes. Whitesnake, White Lion, Guns N’ Roses, Poison, and AC/DC were all bands that he played that had some tunes I enjoyed – even if they weren’t as heavy hitting as the songs Pig preferred.
Missing from my tapes that Pig liked to play: Metallica, Motley Crue, Iron Maiden, and Black Sabbath.
It’s also worth noting that the GnR song I included in the mixes was there because I was into the aforementioned Michelle. It’s not a song one would normally associate with a teenage crush, but the title aligned, and so on it went.
Pink Floyd (1), The Doors (1)
I won’t go into too many details here, but suffice it to say that it was Smurf who introduced me to a beer bottle with a hole in the bottom and that had a lot to do with my sudden interest in Pink Floyd and The Doors.
Def Leppard (1), Led Zeppelin (1)
Toward the end of each academic year, my high school had a big dance. Everyone got to vote on their favourite songs and we’d have a Much Music (the Canadian equivalent of MTV) Video Party to count down the top 100 songs. They’d write them on a big thing of packing paper and unroll the list until they got to #1.
For both Grade 9 and 10 (1989 and 1990) Pour Some Sugar On Me was still hugely popular, in spite of the song coming out in 1987. Stairway To Heaven was the perennial number one, mostly because it was a song you could dance slow to (for most of it, at least) and was like thirty-seven minutes long, so you knew that so long as it hadn’t played you still had some time to work up the nerve to ask someone to dance (I was supposed to dance with Shelby but Evan swooped in before I could work my way over to her and I’ll be honest I’ve never really forgiven him for it).
Steve Miller Band (4), The Art Of Noise (3), Bob Dylan (3), The Who (4), Steppenwolf (1), The Troggs (1), The Proclaimers (1), The Beatles (2), John Lennon (1), U2 (1)
Two words: summer camp. More specifically, Rhett, Doug, Matt Zinner and an incident that simply became known as “The Belt”.
In August of 1989, I was in my last year as a camper at Sparrow Lake Camp (SLC). It was my fourth or fifth year there and as I’d have to apply for the counsellor in training (CIT) program next year nothing was guaranteed. My counsellors, Doug and Rhett, either took this into consideration or were just awesome guys because they gave me the most memorable two weeks of all my summer camp experiences.
While the Art of Noise and Proclaimers were in general popular around camp, it was Rhett and Doug that made sure Bob Dylan, The Who (Magic Bus was our lip synch contest song that year), Steppenwolf, The Troggs, The Beatles, and John Lennon were firmly entrenched in the soundtrack of the summer. Rhett and Doug also helped me through the traumatic belt incident. They helped me “lean into it” and taught me more about human nature in those two weeks than I’d ever learnt to that point.
My one cabin mate, Sean, whom I’d shared a cabin with in previous years was a huge U2 fan. At one point the year prior he’d written the lyrics to Sunday Bloody Sunday on the cabin ceiling (seeing as it was a United Church camp it was his little piece of rebellion). There was also another counsellor named Roop that, when I first met him a couple of years prior, wore a Joshua Tree concert t-shirt. Both of them were cool cats and remarkably nice and the prospect of getting to see them again in the summer of 1990 was exciting.
Lastly, we have the Steve Miller Band. At that time, his Greatest Hits 1974-1978 album was experiencing a resurgence, especially at summer camps for some reason. At SLC there was this one particular counsellor, Matt, who was the absolute shit. I can’t remember if it was 1989 or earlier, but Matt was the reason I wanted to become a counsellor myself. He was remarkably well-liked by the campers and treated everyone really well. I wasn’t one of the “cool” kids, but in the presence of Matt it didn’t matter, because he made me feel like I was. One day I was in the communal washroom taking a leak and Matt sauntered in (he was too cool to simply walk) and stepped up to the urinal beside me and just started singing Steve Miller’s The Joker at the top of his lungs, adding extra emphasis on the “midnight toker” part and then giving me a wink.
UB40 (1) and Guns N’ Roses Reprise
Remember my high school hallway hangout crew from earlier? Well, this is where shit gets teenage angsty. Heather’s Sweet 16 party was held on a boat that cruised the Toronto harbour and Michelle was there. For months I’d been working up the nerve to make a move and with the school year winding down and summer camp on the horizon (I was accepted as a CIT and would be gone for all of July and Michelle was going to be away at her camp as well), Heather’s party was my chance. She wore a red dress and we danced to UB40’s Red Red Wine and either shortly before or after that song (it’s all kind of a blur so many years later) we kissed.
A couple of days later her brother drove her to my baseball game where afterwards she took me aside and explained that her parents forbade the relationship because I wasn’t Jewish. I was devastated and as I watched them pull out of the parking lot, her brother turned and gave me this shit-eating grin before driving away (like Evan with Shelby, I haven’t forgiven him for it, not that I hold 30-year-long grudges or anything). So, UB40 made it onto the second mix along with My Michelle (again) in an effort to help process (read: wallow in) my grief.
Michelle and I stayed friends, which is good because she was a beautiful human and we shared a lot of common friends, one of whom was Jer (remember, he was the one who introduced me to RUSH). I forget when, but she started dating him at some point, was crowned prom queen with him as king our graduating year, and then they married. They’re still together and they’re both still beautiful humans that I am fortunate to know.
So, there you have it. My memory isn’t what it used to be, but the ones I shared above are about as permanent as they get. As I look at the other mixed tapes I created in the years that followed I can clearly see not just the evolution of my musical tastes but also the evolution of me as a person. The twelfth mix was done sometime in 1995 and with the exception of one Hootie and the Blowfish song it still holds up today.
I’ve created Spotify playlists of the first two in the twelve tape series (sadly, I’m missing #6 and #10) and will create more for the remaining tapes when I get the chance.