I got my first tape recorder during the Carter Administration. It was black and flat, about the size of a shoebox. With its stubby buttons at one end, and its speaker stretching nearly the full length in the opposite direction, it resembled nothing as much as a large robotic paw. My friends carried around lucky rabbits feet. I lugged around my tape recorder.
I have no idea where it came from. Did my dad pass it down? Was it a gift? I really don’t remember. I have a vague recollection of one of those microphones you could plug into the side. Not the ball-on-the-top-of-a-large-stick variety, the flimsy kind preferred by game-show hosts that looked as if you could break them like uncooked spaghetti. This was a hearty microphone. Thick-cabled. The microphone itself was long enough for me to wrap one fist on top of the other, like I was gripping a bat. This was the model that presidents used to record their memoirs.
The microphone was my dad’s. That I’m sure of. When I wanted to record something, and didn’t feel like dealing with the external mic, I had to place the recorder’s built-in microphone as close as I could to my source. My source was always some other kind of audio/visual machine. I wasn’t the kid who would secretly record around the house and then play the embarrassing footage for company. Nor was I a budding investigative reporter, trying to figure out how my sister climbed out of her crib or where the cat went at night.
Instead, I’d turn the volume down to reduce the ambient noise and then put the speaker of the recorder as close as I could to the speaker of the television. I’d hush people when they came through. “I’m recording”, I would mouth. They’d mouth back “Sorry” and then tiptoe away.
I had two cassettes filled front to back with Grease. It was in heavy rotation at the time on the then fledgling Home Box Office network. Save for the few seconds that I missed when I had to turn the tape over every 30 minutes, I used to know every word of that movie. Pop it on right now and I’ll still know most of them. I didn’t understand why someone would just want the songs. I wanted it all.
* * *
Around this time we had a competition at school. I was in whatever grade at the time, and in order to keep us all tuned in to current events we were encouraged to bring in clippings from the paper about recent goings on. These were political times, even in Richmond, Kentucky, where a classmate, T.J. Mansfeld, would walk around singing “Because Jimmy Carter has a way of mucking up the U-S-A” to the Oscar Mayer wiener song.
Bad things were going down in Iran. I don’t remember why, but American hostages were being held there. Someone called the Eye-a-tola kept me up at night, with his long beard and skin as pale as a canvas. One of the prisoners launched a hunger strike, which happened to coincide with our current-events project. It was down to me and some other kid. That Friday—the last day of the project—my mom wouldn’t let me take in the clipping about the hunger strike because she hadn’t read the paper yet. I never remember her reading the paper once before that day. Apparently, my classmate’s parents either got up earlier or didn’t care about what was going on in the world because he brought in the winning clip from that morning’s edition. I lost. He was gracious in victory. The teacher told me “Good job” in front of the whole class.
That night we were at (I want to say) Target and my mom could tell I was still smarting from the day’s defeat. She took me to what was surely the scant music department—though it felt like a city block at the time—and told me I could pick out any tape I wanted. I chose Hall and Oates’ H2O. I wanted “Maneater”, though “Family Man” eventually became my favorite song.
On the way home, I asked my mom, “Do you know what ‘H2O’ means?” She said, “Water”. I said, “No”. She said, “It doesn’t?” I said, “It means ‘Hall and Oates’”.
H2O added a whole new layer of mystery to my tape recorder. Unlike the safe models that included completely separate “play” and “record” buttons, my recorder featured a small red “record” button that was embedded in the “play”. This design was intended to make it easier to record, but the last thing my inexpert hands needed was to be able to record more easily. With the “play” and “record” buttons fused, I ran the risk of over eagerly hitting them both when I only meant to hit the one. The splayed “play/record” feature would have forced me to make a concentrated effort. But even that wouldn’t have solved all of my problems. Too easily I fell victim to accidental interruptions with my homemade soundtracks. John Travolta would be in the middle of scolding his dance partner in Saturday Night Fever, and then whoosh, my brother would come storming in. “Ryan!” I’d whine. “I told you I was…” and then by the time I had shuttled him out I had missed half a Bee Gees song.
But H2O was different. Even if I tried to push the record button it wouldn’t go down. One of the older kids on the block, Todd Something (he had a brother named Tad Something), told me it wouldn’t record because of the two hollow spots on the top of the cassette. He said if you put tape over them it would record just like any other tape. I didn’t believe him, but that didn’t prevent me from trying. That night, I covered the hollows with tape, found some extra space at the end of Side 1, and sure enough I was able to push both buttons all the way down.
This freaked me out, so I pushed “stop” pretty much immediately, but not before my sense of wonder had crashed this otherwise professionally recorded tape, the tape for which my mom had paid six whole dollars. I hit “rewind”. I hit “play”. “Cool”, I said back to myself.
The black-box style recorder served me well all the way through the beginning of Reagan’s second term. By this point, we had moved cross-country from Richmond to San Diego. It was fall. My birthday was coming up. It was bound to be a good one on account of the guilt my parents felt for moving us so far away from our friends. I was not disappointed. The guilt paid off.
For my birthday that year I got what was then known as a “box”, which was short for a “boom box”, which was another name for “ghetto blaster”, a term that always had more than a hint of racism for me, or maybe it was that the people who used it were more than a hint racist. The box set my parents back $60. Even now, this seems like a lot to me.
Not that it wasn’t worth it. This bad boy was silver, with a tape deck that was flanked by two speakers that gave the mutha wheels, I tell you. The range of radio frequencies stretched along the top. A switch let me choose between AM, FM, or cassette, but best of all, if a rad song came on the radio, I could hit record and have the song for all time. The record feature was of the splayed variety, but I only had to push down the “record” button and the “play” would magically follow. What’s more, if I hit “pause” (!) after hitting record, I could suspend the recording process. Three buttons would be depressed until I hit “pause” again and released them all. This enabled me to record songs with only the slightest touch. I would listen to 103.5 (five songs, 103 times a day!) and wait for “Mr. Roboto” or “She Works Hard for the Money” or “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (still a favorite) and in as much time as it would take my hand to react I would be recording. The quality was light years beyond my recording-from-the-television method. I was creating my very own Now That’s What I Call Music.
The box loomed large in my room. It was the biggest thing I owned. There was no room for it anywhere other than on my windowsill. On days when I was listening to music and Dad was in the yard he would holler “turn that thing down, you think people want to hear that when they’re trying to relax outside?”. It was the aural equivalent of “shut that window we don’t need to air condition the whole neighborhood”.
My ghetto blaster was not allowed to blast.
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