I don’t mean to brag but I can stop time. Seriously, I can. And I’m happy to share with you how I do it. Extra carefully I select a bundle of CDs; extra carefully I select songs off these CDs. Then I rip the songs onto my computer (since I forked out hard-earned cash for the CDs I reckon I can do whatever I like with the songs). Then I get the order perfect, then I burn away. Finally I lie down on the couch and close my eyes and listen and listen.
Yes, at my age – midlife milestone minus one year exactly – I make mix CDs.
I’ve always done it. It’s one of the few constants in my life (Blundstone boots is the other). I remember being twelve years old and buying my first tape-to-tape cassette deck. At last I could put my most favouritest songs on one tape! I worked on it for hours. And I couldn’t wait to play it back. But when I did, something was terribly wrong. It seemed that just shoving good songs onto a tape didn’t work. It was as if I’d tried making a three-course meal out of cup cakes.
Thankfully I’ve discovered that this game has rules. Nick Hornby wrote about them in his novel High Fidelity. He reckoned a mix tape had to ‘start with a corker, to hold the attention’, that you can’t have white music and black music together ‘unless the white music sounds like black music’, and that you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side.
He’s right. But I have some rules of my own, and they’re specific to the CD format, because, let’s be clear, CDs are very different to tapes. You have to start with three upbeat songs, and these must be followed with two slower songs. Sad songs must be buried midway through the second half. If you have 20 songs in total, song 10 must be mellow and short and to the point – don’t ask me why, it’s just the way it is.
If the collection is for the car then the majority of it has to be singable, because sitting next to me, most likely, will be He Who Loves To Sing. A great mix CD should also have a theme; it can’t simply be a grab-bag of ‘good stuff’ (as I learnt all those years ago). Recently I did one using only mid-90s singles. Before that I did one using songs by unknown Australian bands; I called it Australia to get up Baz Luhrmann’s nose.
But what does it all mean? Hornby says that putting together a mix tape is like writing a letter. For me, it’s a journal entry. This is who you’ve been: Morrissey-loving miserablist; grunge junky; four-to-the-floor techno-freak. It’s also about confirming where you are now, and where you’re going. Mix CDs are like maps: they tell you about terrain.
And I can’t live without them. It’s highly likely that even as an eighty year old with no teeth and Swiss cheese for brains, I’ll still be making mix CDs (or in whatever new-fangled format they’ve developed by then).
Because I’ll still need to know who I am.
And I’ll still like stopping time.
(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, 13 October 2007)