Why I love those little plastic rectangles

What’s my favorite way to listen to music?

Streaming opens up whole new worlds of sonic discovery, and records have exquisite sound quality, but in all honesty, I prefer cassette tapes.

You know, those things teenagers in ’80s movies would make for each other as a sign of affection.

Vinyl sounds great, but LPs are crazy expensive, and every time I hold one, it reminds me of handling my newborn nephew. I never dropped the kid or a record, but the anxious thought was always there. Plus, records and record players can take up a lot of space in the home while clearing out a lot of space in your wallet.

And streaming is just hard to keep straight. I’ll put it on when I get in the shower, hear a bunch of great, new stuff and then immediately forget all that music because I don’t have it saved.

In terms of sound quality and how much information they can hold, cassettes are inferior in nearly every way to records and digital files. But maybe that’s what I love about them. The scratchy sound is charming, and flipping from side A to side B still gives me a rush.

Aesthetically, cassettes are like the musical version of a pack of cigarettes or playing cards: they fit squarely in your palm and come in this cool package. Blame it on nostalgia, but tapes remind me of the Nintendo 64 cartridges I used to stack in my childhood bedroom — technically adequate, virtually indestructible and always reliable fun.

I guess one of the reasons I like cassettes is because they remind me of my grandma.

Let’s take it all the way back to 2017. I was slinging craft beer at a downtown brewery, writing stories for an online music outlet and rolling in the Hamiltons. My Grandpa Kelly had already passed seven years prior, and my grandma wasn’t in the best shape. She couldn’t walk too well, let alone drive, so she let me drive her Mercury Grand Marquis as long as I would pick her up Frosties from Wendy’s and show her how to work the TV. Despite the brougham top and pale blue color, I looked like a cop cruising around in this giant sedan that drove like a boat on land. The radio didn’t work and neither did the CD player. However, the cassette deck was still intact.

There was only one tape in the car — a homemade beauty with the Band’s “Stage Fright” on one side and Johnny Winter on the other. For months, I rocked out to the “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” and “Daniel and the Sacred Harp” over and over and over. I never got tired of it.

Then one day I stopped inside my local record shop. Again, I didn’t have money for records nor did I own a record player, so I was pretty much that dude who would pick up all the cool LPs just to see how they felt and then ultimately say “Oh yeah, I’m broke.” But to my surprise, off to the side, was a small collection of cassettes, old and new. Yes, they still make cassettes for new releases.

So I picked one of each. I got Lou Reed’s “New York” and Bon Iver’s “22 a Million” for about $10. Just ten bucks for an amazing assortment of music. Soon, I couldn’t stop myself. The Shins, Alt-J and Father John Misty took up vacancy in my car. I couldn’t have asked for better tenants.

When my grandma passed away, we sorted out her worldly possessions. I didn’t need or want much — some silverware, a few bowls and plates and a cast-iron skillet. Then, as I was scrounging around in the garage, I found it — a genuine early ’90s Panasonic cassette player, a glorious vessel you could either plug in and listen to all day or stuff giant batteries into its underside and get maybe an hour’s worth of music.

I no longer have the Grand Marquis, but no matter where I move, I always bring those cassettes and grandma’s little tape Panasonic. It even has a handle for easy carrying.


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