Hello everyone, Zach Corsa here. If you’re reading this now, you’re probably familiar with Lost Trail, the noise/drone/ambient guitar music I make with my wife, Denny (we’re active members of the internationally-known Living Room Visions collective of labels and experimental sound artists). Or maybe you’ve found us via my cassette label, Wood Thrush Tapes. Well, this is how it breaks down: I’ve become vastly, vastly bored recently with the concept of a standard blog, which I have little time for, as my lack of entries in this blog’s former guise most clearly indicated. Anyone who knows me even a little knows of my deep fascination with cassette tapes, the older and more damaged the better. Cassettes are a technology that (to me and other capstan fetishists) only sound more beautiful as they disintegrate (William Basinski’s classic Disintegration Loops proves this point nicely, as does Belong’s October Language). Nothing is more moving to me than a tape that sounds as if it were dug out of a forest soil, or from the cracked floor of an abandoned factory, having laid unlistened to and exposed to rust and the natural elements for decades, forgotten. I’ve built our whole musical schematic in Lost Trail around a polestar of damaged tape manipulation, of pops and cutouts, flutter and warble and hiss. If the tapes don’t sound rough enough, we gleefully degrade them with whatever we can find (paperclips, fire, water, you name it). It’s all done out of pure love for the medium. In a world of digital gloss and empty sterile ‘perfection’, of over-compressed mp3s and sequencers and Pro Tools, it appeals to me to utilize a method of sound that seems carved from the earth and primitive, essentially organic. Cassette more than any other medium sounds like it was recorded by people in a room, hanging out. There’s something nostalgic, admittedly, about cassettes (and their similar no-fi cousins, videocassettes, Super 8 film, and Polaroid and Holga photography). That evocative sense of a golden decay and loss as time passes and we grow achingly older. Obsolete technology equals mortality, from the pitch drone of a melted VHS tape to the scratches on a Super 8 film or the blurs in a chemical-stained Polaroid snapshot. Cassettes more than any other format are a gateway to a halcyon era long since slipped past, these colorful logos of forgotten companies like Certron, Coronet, Goldstar, Universum, and Magnex still reminding us of a childhood past that the rest of the world seems in a hurry to obliterate and erode, to smooth away the edges of in our empty corporate consumer rush for ‘perfection’. So I do what I can to keep the clock from turning. I treasure my antique objects and use them defiantly to ward off the tech wave.
I own over 1,000 cassette tapes in my library, many of them dating from the early eras of cassette’s dominance in the commercial market (the late sixties/early seventies). I’ve learned a great deal about their technology, their commercial history, and how to effectively date and assess them. This of course is not even to speak of my collection of tape and reel machines, also dating back as far and further, all the way to the earliest Sony Cassettecorder model made for the public market.
Most of these tapes come via The Scrap Exchange (www.scrapexchange.org), a fantastic junk shop/curio warehouse of wonders in nearby Durham, NC, which has always blessed Lost Trail with an extensive number of broken machines, VHS tapes and (primarily) forgotten old cassettes to play around with. Part of the fun in this is the experience of discovering what’s on these tapes, and often in the band we end up using these discoveries as special “Found Sound” in our pieces. From the voluminous number of tapes from the Edgar Cayce Institute for Past Life Research in Virginia Beach (featuring lectures about all manners of supernatural and spiritual experiences), to countless meditation and exercise guides and historical/theological studies, digging through these crates is always such a wonder. The Scrap Exchange itself is a perfect sort of reflection of Durham itself, and central North Carolina in general, a decaying landscape of faded, ruined industry where technology meets the land and nature, and thus the mysterious, unquiet past, head-on. This is why we love to call this state home.
So without further ado, here’s my idea for this blog. Once a week I’m going to dig through these crates and randomly select one of these artifacts, photograph it for you, document its contents, and hopefully dig up some information about its manufacturing.
Ready? Okay, let’s go.
First up is a real mystery cassette (the best kind of find!). Marked only ‘60 Minutes (30 Minutes Per Side)’, this black cassette looks about mid-1980s vintage, judging by the sturdy plastic ‘studded’ housing (which began circa 1983 or so) and the generally good condition it’s found in. The handwritten (feminine writing, definitely) labels that are lettered to indicate Side are not marked as such, so no idea as to Side A or Side B. One side is marked: “Melody House Publishing Company, 819 NW 92nd, Oklahoma City, OK, 73114.” The flipside is helpfully lettered: “The Magic of Movement: Exercise For Senior Citizens”, with an additional typewritten stub sticker marking the tape as a “master” copy. There is not even the smallest hint as to which firm manufactured the cassette.
As noted, this tape is in very decent condition; I’d say a 7/10 on my personal scale, with only a little melting typical of age and sun exposure near the tape-run. The tape itself appears to be in good condition, no visible scratching or tangling evident. The heads seem tight and stable, and resistant to dislodging from extensive jostling.
Some quick Googling turns up www.melodyhousemusic.com still at the above address in Oklahoma City. I had assumed upon some earlier unsuccessful searching that they were just another fly-by-night tape company that went bust upon the upswing in dominance of CD and Laserdisc at the end of the 1980s, not even leaving enough of a trace for the barest hint of a legacy. Apparently though, Melody House is still very much extant, and mostly focused on childrens’ musical education. They describe themselves in their “About Us” section as ”a proven leader in the development of educational recordings for the classroom and living room, founded in 1971”, and further claims that they were one of only a handful of companies at the time to focus specifically on childrens’ musical recordings. Despite this clear focus, there still remained the section marked ‘Senior Citizen Recordings’ in their sidebar. And lo and behold, friends: www.melodyhousemusic.com/catalog/senior-citizen-recordings/magic-movement
Check out the majestic dove! Ironically flying grandly against the landscape on the cover of a cassette of exercises designed for disabled seniors. Thanks, dove asshole. Dr. Betty Benison appears to be the lobotomy case responsible for haunting the dreams of countless mobility-limited elderly of the 1980s. “The delightful music not only enhances the workout, but also motivates and helps to make each movement precise.” Well, I can see where it would certainly motivate one to make each sleeping position precise. $10.95 for this shoddy cassette I found in a bucket at a junkshop for nearly nothing! Get with the times, Melody House! (and this from a cassette blog, ho ho).
And shiny website or no shiny website, I may have to reconsider promoting Melody House from my earlier fly-by-night assumptions, as Melody House appears via Google Maps to be housed in a pretty tacky suburban-style ranch with an ominous-looking sweatshop looming in the background (‘You children will have to WORK for your education! Let me see those little hands move faster!”):
All in all, Melody House (at least from this image) looks like a joyless Dickensian hell where children go to have their dreams slaughtered wholesale, or to simply die themselves (like much of Oklahoma). THREE CHEERS FOR THE POWER OF LEARNING AND MUSIC!!! They even appear to have brought along the tree from Poltergeist.
In accordance with the physical condition of the tape, the audio quality is also about a 7 out of 10. It’s frankly in better condition than most of our tapes, and this will surely be utilized for Lost Trail recording later on (after its been violated a little, naturally). There’s some faint pitch warbling evident in the incredibly hokey music, and a little bit of rough bumping/cut-outs here and there in the dialogue (where the tape may be losing its magnetic material in tiny flakes, or where Dr. Betty’s incarnate evil may be bleeding through from its otherworldly origins), but it’s still a very listenable cassette, which goes to indicate again the endurance of this technology (despite its reputation for finickiness) while CDs fall victim to scratches and dust of every method imaginable. As for the content here, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it’s along the line of many other ‘meditation’ style tapes from the time period we own, only slightly less new-age (less synthesized Indian flutes and simulated eagle’s cries, that’s for sure). A mellow piano-based smooth jazz score backs ageless Ole Bettyface, who sounds rather zombie-like and draggy, leading the hypothetical senior in question through rudimentary exercises as if she were an especially condescending and Valium-addled teacher trying to inspire Kindergarten students or the mentally feeble. Periodically, she speaks to the listener, encouraging them about their “great job” and “nice work”, which reminds me eerily of that regrettable variety of children’s show where the characters ask the viewing child questions, staring blankly at them from the screen as if waiting patiently for an answer. What would happen if no one ever answered them? I remember thinking once. Would they be frozen there forever, as if only moments had passed? Or would they starve, grow panicked, resort to cannibalism to survive, unable to leave until the child viewers told them where Swiper the Fox was hiding? I suppose the saddest thing in listening to this tape is to consider that any senior listening to this cassette in hopes of using devoted exercise as a talisman to ward off old age has since fallen victim to the inevitable. It puts one to mind of a disembodied voice on tape speaking to a roomful of ghosts. This is how cassettes lead one to think of time, mortality, and aging. As our technology advances towards a final reckoning, eventually so must we all.
Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? Check back next week for another crate dig. After that I’ll be on tour on the East Coast and Canada for a month, but no worries, I’ll be bringing a few tapes with me so I can blog from the road about my discoveries. Maybe I’ll stop at a Goodwill or two (or ten) and pick up a few new finds on the way!
Oh, and PS, gang…Dr. Betty apparently liked to mock her disabled elderly with balloons they couldn’t ride in, also: