If you’re under 45 and over 35, you made mix tapes. It’s a fact. A shameful, groan-inducing fact. It’s also a marker of your meta-ration; something self-referentially meaningful that no one did before and will most surely (and mercifully) never do again. Yet, despite their regretability score, mix tapes have become a point of pride for my peer group. We swoon about them, remembering how seamlessly “Separate Ways” led into “Take On Me.” We long for that Native Tongues tape with the best tracks from “Three Feet High and Rising” and “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” and that one good song the Black Sheep had. And how you got Soft Cell and The Velvet Underground on the same 90 minute Maxell is a mystery. But you did it, damn it!
Somehow, though, mix tapes have become too well respected. Pop culturists have written treatises on the energy and effort that went in to composing them. Suddenly, making a mix tape is to making an iTunes playlist as pumping water from the town well is to turning on the faucet. You kids don’t know how easy you have it!
I still have a few of my mix tapes. They’re awful; the audio equivalent of skid marks on your underwear at summer camp. Distilled audio embarrassment. But I still have them. And so, they’re not forgotten. And, by extension, not wistfully remembered. And that’s where I’m going with this. The best treasures are lost. True relics must be buried in the sand. A real artifact, a true generational marker, is something that has all-but vanished from planet earth (and preferably eBay). It’s something once ubiquitous but now virtually impossible to find; like radio dramas or typewriter tape.
Which brings me to personalized music on outgoing answering machine messages. I know this is an obscure topic because anyone under 30 had to read that last sentence at least twice. Journey, if you will, to my bedroom, circa 1989. My mother has recently given me my own phone line as a birthday present. This happened because, the previous week, she had to have the operator do a “call interrupt” after our line had been busy for two hours while I listened to Anna Beckett, the girl who had only three days earlier, taught me to properly inhale her Marboro Red, read her journal into the phone. To this day, I remember her deathless line, “Envy is the only color green that flatters me.” (Three weeks later, she would blow marijuana smoke into my mouth; her lips physically inside mine, yet somehow not touching them. Thus marking the first and possibly only time in recorded history that a contact high led directly to a case of blue balls.)
So I had my own phone. A red one with a black receiver and rubberized push buttons. It had a switch that went from “tone” to “pulse,” in case, for some reason, you needed your touchtone phone to behave like a rotary one. It plugged right into the wall next to my bed. The number was (415) 383-1017. Without question, the ten most important digits in my life. The phone and the number were my mother’s greatest gift since my life itself. (In retrospect, they were merely the price she paid for getting her own home phone back. In the era before texts, Twitter, cell phones, and Facebook, acne-ridden teenagers relied exclusively on home phones to overcome their loneliness. And then came call waiting! Something my mother wouldn’t pay for, but was surely my generation’s polio vaccine.) But the red-and-black phone was lonely. I knew what it needed. I saved money from my job at the take-and-bake pizza store and bought an answering machine from Pacific Stereo. State-of-the-art, my machine had two miniature cassettes inside; one for recording incoming messages and another for recording my outgoing message. This second tiny tape became my evolving opus, a post-Reagan-era status update, an analog tweet that could be updated only when I was home and only when my mother wasn’t running the vacuum in the background. (Within two years, I purchased three replacement cassettes for my outgoing message because I would re-record it so often that I stretched the tapes out.)
The first song I put on my outgoing message was “Hotel California.” The warm smell of colitas and the sweet sounds of Joe Walsh and Don Felder’s guitars greeted all three people who ever called me. Type-written words cannot truly capture the soundscape created by a twelve string acoustic guitar played from a $67 boom box into a one centimeter microphone next to a belt-driven motor onto a two millimeter metallic audio tape. It was aural magic. I waited a full eight bars before beginning my greeting. “Hey, this is Jesse. You know what to do.” Don Henley’s trilling crash cymbal seemed the perfect crescendo to my cryptic invitation.
When the recording was complete, I ran to the kitchen and used my mother’s phone (my old crappy phone, still mounted on the wall next to the garage door) to call my new phone. It rang four times. And then it picked up. Oh my, was it beautiful. A personal statement of rebellion; the sonic equivalent of AC/DC spray painted on the high school gym or a Powell Peralta logo stenciled onto a backpack. People would talk about this.
If they ever actually called me.
A day later, I moved the switch on my answering machine so it would pick after only two rings. As if the four-ring setting was what was preventing my imaginary girlfriends from calling.
Eventually, people did call. My friend Sasha Lewin, the boy who’d grown his bangs so long that he now habitually sucked on his own hair. Meghan Baker, the girl who’d led me to Anna Beckett and who’s father very possibly provided the pot that Anna would soon blow into my mouth. Aaron Schaffer, who left a message about fingering Anika Grunter (yes, Grunter) on the bench in the little league dugout. And each of them had something complimentary to say about my outgoing message. Deep down, in my self-doubting, insecure, tortured teenage mind, I both feared and hoped that they were calling to hear my answering machine.
So like any great performer, I began working on a new act.
Many hours of contemplation went into my next outgoing message, but in the end, there was only really ever one choice. “Red, Red Wine” was Jennie Solomon’s favorite song. Jennie was just unattractive enough for me to have a real shot with, but just busty enough, and, when her acne was waning, just cute enough for me to lust after. And she had my number. She’d overheard me talking about getting my own phone line.
“Yeah, you could call me, if you want,” I’d told her.
“Um, sure. I guess. What’s your number?”
True, she’d written it in erasable ballpoint ink on her hand, but she might have transferred it to her diary before it had washed off. And if she’d done that, and if she was kind of bored, and if she’d noticed my new Maui and Sons t-shirt with the neon geometric shapes logo, she might call me. Just because.
And she did.
It turned out that Jennie was blessedly more mature than I was. And lonely. And needy. Her father had left her mother and moved to Santa Barbara or somewhere to surf or something and he didn’t call very often. The details were fuzzy even then, mostly because I was overwhelmed to learn that bras could open both in back and in front and there was really no way to know what you where getting into until your hands were already under her shirt, by which time it was really too late to do anything smoothly. But thankfully Jennie didn’t seemed to care as long as I listened to her poetry and played UB40 a lot.
Many months passed. Months of swirling-tongue kisses and slobbery inner ears. Months of hickeys and nipple caressing and dry humping. And months of new songs on my outgoing message. “Nothing Compares 2 U.” “Lights.” “The Flame.” “Tiny Dancer.” “She Drives Me Crazy.” “Higher Love.” A veritable Top 40 of pathetically horny anthems; each one a reverent tribute to the orgasms neither of us was having.
And then one day it all changed. My jeans were unbuttoned. Hers were unzipped. From the back. We didn’t have sex. But hands went where they hadn’t been before. And touched things they hadn’t touched before. And it was good.
I found confidence I never knew I had. I no longer saw my braces and Accutane prescription as grotesque and shameful but as sexy and mysterious. The sweatpants I still sometimes wore to school were no longer a catastrophic fashion error but a statement of disdain for acid washed jeans and Doc Martens.
And I put a new song on my outgoing message. More accurately, I put a specific part of a specific song on my outgoing message.
The third song on side one of Led Zeppelin II is called “The Lemon Song.” Somewhere near the end of that song, Robert Plant sings, or more accurately, moans the words, “Squeeze me, baby, till the juice runs down my leg. Squeeze, squeeze me, baby, till the juice runs down my leg. The way you squeeze my lemon, I’m gonna fall right out of bed.” For the first time in my life, I knew what he was singing about.
And for some reason, I chose to share my sudden awareness with the world on my outgoing message. This time there was no greeting from me. Just Robert Plant ever-so subtly double ententre-ing my inner monolog onto a miniature audio cassette for all the world to hear.
Including my mother.
Honestly, I don’t recall how she expressed her desire for me to change my outgoing message. She’d heard all the songs that came before and never commented on any of them. But this time, she found a way to let me know that it wasn’t okay. There were no threats. No, “I’ll take the phone line away.” My mother never needed to be that direct. But she somehow managed to let me know.
I don’t remember any of the songs that graced my answering machine after “The Lemon Song.” There were many though. But they never again had a purpose. Never an objective. I’d learned that my outgoing message couldn’t make me cool. Jennie Solomon had done that.