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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)

One day they'll get these things pocket-sized.

Sorry, I’m doing it again.  I wrote about record players last month but in the spirit of that great old saying “Everything in moderation except the things you love”, I must keep exploring this new element in my life – for three reasons.  Firstly, the cute little baby is now happily ensconced in my house.  Secondly, the process of returning to technology that by rights should have been extinct years ago has been surprisingly revealing.  Thirdly, I’m in love.

It’s such a humble object: all black, no brand name (I didn’t buy it from a supermarket, it’s just that minimalism is how modern turntable design is done), and it has only one button (on/off).  Even though I’ve had it for two weeks I still find myself checking it out.  Sometimes I wonder what it’s doing there: as soon as it was out of the box it gave the loungeroom a very 70s feeling; but in the right light it also looks like it’s flown in from outer-space and is nesting beneath the television.  Other times I just gaze at it longingly, lovingly, wantonly.

But it needed setting up.  That’s right, it wasn’t just a matter of plugging it in and bunging on a record – I actually had to piece it together.  And this is where it all became quite strange.  Turntable technology hasn’t progressed in the last twenty years; in fact, it’s regressed like nothing else on earth.  To change the playing speed you must adjust a ‘fan-belt’ (as described by He Who Loves 2008 Gadgetry Not 1978 Gadgetry).  To  get a deeper bass sound you adjust weights.  To improve clarity you tweak a thing at the back that looks like a little man fishing for carp.

If the truth be told, I had to get a man in.  He arrived with tools attached to his belt and then proceeded to spend an hour explaining how I’d put almost every component together incorrectly, which was why the first record I played – ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush on single – sounded like I’d trodden on an al-foil covered cat.  When the man was finished, however, I poured myself a cheeky port and put on a record and let my hearing do the rest.  Yes, there’s the familiar crackling and popping, but once I’d readjusted my ears the sound was amazing – it’s very perky indeed.  The musicians are in the room: I can hear plectrums hitting guitar strings and bows drawing across cellos.

But perhaps the most extraordinary gift this little black contraption has given me is engagement.  There’s the whole cleaning-the-record thing for starters (in warm dishwater, say the audiophiles), and then you must carefully place the stylus down on the vinyl, but, as the arm is not automated these days so you have to lift it back up again once the record is finished, you really can’t put on an LP and then go clean the bathroom.  To get the most out of it, you have to stall your life for the music, you must stop and listen.  And in a world which seems to be fracturing at a horrific rate, stopping and listening to beautiful sounds, or melancholic or bone-rattling aggressive sounds, are good things, great things – fundamentals.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, November 1 2008)

I’m going to do it, get the needle and slowly, carefully, put it where it needs to go.  Then I’ll stretch out and let it wash over me, through me, and enjoy the utter gloriousness of it.  After decades of abstinence, you see, I’m going to have a record player in my house again.  And I can’t wait, though I will have to wait because I have to scrape together the last few pennies.  But I’m already going through my small (and rather dusty) collection of LPs and singles, trying to decide which will be lucky enough to have First Spin status.

It could be New Order’s Substance, partly because it has ‘Blue Monday’ on it, which will sound great through the new speakers (you can’t buy a record player without getting new speakers), and partly because I can remember riding my bike up to the St Ives Shopping Village, which was my haunt for the first eighteen years of my life, and buying this double album, although it actually contains “12 x 12-inch a-sides”.  Back home, however, I discovered in one of the records an imprint of a sneaker, so I returned it to the store and was given a replacement.  But I’d learnt that at some stage in the manufacturing process, records must be pliable enough for a mark to be left when, perhaps, an overworked factory employee stumbles.  Vinyl indeed.

'The Queen is Dead' by The Smiths. Greatness.

Or it could be The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead.  The first time I heard this record, in 1986, my last year of school, I didn’t understand it one bit – my older brother’s best friend had just told me that if I was keen on music I must give The Smiths a listen.  But I thought the singer, whose lyrics referenced Wilde and Yeats, sounded like a morose yodeller and his lines ran counter to the music, the music being pleasant enough, in a jingly-jangly sort of way, but it simply wasn’t to my less-than-developed private-schoolboy taste.  Needless to say, two or three years later I realised that Morrissey sang all his words for me and me alone.  Even now, at the age of 39 and 51 weeks, I’m still a Smiths obsessive.

Or the first record could be ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ by A-ha or ‘Victims’ by Culture Club, both on 45.  Then again, maybe not.

It’s true that this is all about nostalgia – I even admitted as much when last weekend I nervously walked in to a hi-fi store and told them what I was looking for.  Yes, I’m having a sentimental yearning for the past. But what does ‘sentimental’ actually mean?  A romantic or nostalgic feeling; by emotion rather than reason.  Hang on, my decision to own a record player is entirely reasonable, and sensible, and logical; emotion has nothing to do with it, thank you very much.  Besides, even now, in 2008, some bands still put out music on LP, so this might not be about the past at all – it’s just about…options.

Whatever, if I am being nostalgic, I really don’t care.  It was Lou Reed who said ‘I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine’.  And this nostalgia is all mine, baby.  If only I was cool enough as a kid to own a Velvet Underground record.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, October 4 2008)

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The past