Where have all the cassettes gone?

It was a surprisingly sunny morning after the June showers lashed our tin roof through the night. Mother woke me up and smiled at me saying “Willie, I’ve just finished cleaning and arranging the store room mo”. I lazily looked at my HMT watch in the side of my pillow. It was 10.30 am. I slept for long hours as it was a Saturday. I slowly jumped out of bed, brushed my teeth and had breakfast. After playing with my cheerful puppy in the garden, I entered my house to check out Mother’s work with the store room. All the scattered things were neatly kept in paper boxes and large white plastic bags. But there were some things missing in the small wooden shelf my father made-his audio cassettes. I quickly went to Mother and asked her “I don’t see the cassettes Mother”. And she gently replied “I disposed them son”. I was dismayed by this. Words cannot express how much I loved those cassettes even though I now listen to downloaded music on the computer. I felt Mother had to keep them at least. They were antiques in every sense. And so I can only write here about them as they are not anymore with me.audio_tape

I was like every teenager who existed in the mid 2000s, listening to punk bands like Blink 182, Sum 41, Good Charlotte and Simple Plan. Everyone can relate to their lyrics being the age of 15 or 16 at that time, and everyone can fondly remember these groups. But one day, I got a cassette of John Mayer from a close friend. The year was 2003. The last song on Side B was ‘Lenny/The Wind Cries Mary’. It was a blues medley played live with just the guitar. I instantly fell in love with it. The purity and sincerity of the sound took me by surprise. Then I saw inside the contents of the album that it was a cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. From that time onwards, I wanted to know more about the blues. I slowly lacked the desire to listen to punk bands and fell in love with this particular genre.

I was so lucky to have a good collection of blues audio cassettes that belonged to my father. There was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘In Step’(1989) where Stevie did a brilliant cover of Buddy Guy’s ‘Leave My Girl Alone’ and an original jazzy instrumental ‘Riviera Paradise’ which was a shift from his repertoire. ‘Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble Live at Carnegie Hall’(1997) was a historic concert where Stevie, in a mariachi suit, hat and boots, played his dreamy ‘Lenny’, a dedication to his wife at that time Lenny Bailey. My father was a huge fan of Eric Clapton. He had in his small wooden shelf the albums ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’(1970) of Clapton’s brilliant but short lived band Derek and the Dominos, ‘Riding With the King’(2000) and ‘Reptile’(2001). ’Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’(1970) is a rare classic and thought by critics to be Clapton’s greatest achievement. The song ‘Layla’ in the album was about his affair with Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend George Harrison. The album also had ‘Have You Ever Loved a Woman’, without a shadow of a doubt Clapton’s best effort with slow blues. He starts it slow but gradually progresses to a crescendo where only his guitar leads the song. ’Riding With The King’(2000), a collaboration with B.B King, won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album in the year 2001. It had King’s beautifully written ‘Ten Long Years’ that spoke of a husband’s recollection of the ten long years that he spent with his wife who sadly passed away. Some lines from the song go:

  “It’s all over baby.
       Babe you know I’m all alone.
Well, the reason you hear me singing the blues, baby,
Yeah, you know my baby’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone”.

B.B King had another record-‘Blues Summit’(1993) which was present in my father’s shelf, a classic featuring Buddy Guy(‘I Pity the Fool’), Albert Collins(‘Call It Stormy Monday’), John Lee Hooker(‘You Shook Me’), Etta James(‘There’s Something on Your Mind’), Koko Taylor(‘Something You Got’) and many other greats. I was also lucky to have listened to J.J Cale’s ‘The Very Best of J.J Cale’ which had the freewheeling ‘Call Me The Breeze’, the yearning of a beauty ‘Magnolia’ and the deeply perceptive ‘Sensitive Kind’. The painful emotions of how a lover feels when he is deceived by his woman I listened with delight in ‘Don’t Touch Me’ and ‘Grinder’ in The Robert Cray Band’s ‘Bad Influence’(1983). And I can fondly remember ‘Free Bird’ from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Greatest Hits’, a song with a long solo by two guitars that every country-blues fan can reminisce till this time.

I would repeatedly press the rewind button on my small grey Akai tape to listen to these songs. With the audio cassette, patience matters and one would be duly rewarded and satisfied in the end. It was a painstaking process, but it was all out of love and enthusiasm. I related to the lyrics during those years as I was going through some distress. A man deceived by his woman, a man longing for love, a man who was alone and broke and finds that his only consolation lied in singing a song- I could relate to all these feelings, and somehow felt I was not the only one who was sad in the world.

Blues is a genre and musical form that originated in African-American communities in the “Deep South” of the United States around the end of the 19th century. The genre is a fusion of traditional African music, European folk music, spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, is characterized by the call-and-response pattern and specific chord progressions. The first appearance of the blues is often dated to after emancipation and, later, the development of juke joints.

The African slaves, cruelly and inhumanely treated by the white man who was their master, used to sing work songs and field hollers in the Southern plantation fields as they slogged with the hot sun burning their backs. They were seen and treated as inferior to the whites, often seen as animals and not as humans. A student of Literature would be familiar with the themes of slavery, oppression and racism explored in novels such as ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain and ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison. The black slaves consoled themselves by singing songs of their suffering, despair and also hope at times.

Now, we see the blues has had an impact all over the world. First it was Britain during the 1960s , and then continued the rest. Pop, indie, soul, R & B, jazz, rock music etc all owe something to the blues as it was the first type of music to have solely existed in late 19th century America. Shillong, a small hill town in India, can boast of Soulmate, a great band in its own right.

The first cassette was produced in 1958 by RCA Victor. Between the early 1970s and the late 1990s, the cassette was one of the two most common formats for pre-recorded music, first alongside the LP record and later the compact disc. Compact Cassettes consist of two miniature spools, between which a magnetically coated plastic tape is passed and wound. These spools and their attendant parts are held inside a protective plastic shell. Two stereo pairs of tracks or two mono aural analog audio tracks are available on the tape; one stereo pair or one monophonic track is played or recorded when the tape is moving in one direction and the second pair when moving in the other direction. This reversal is achieved either by manually flipping the cassette, or by having the machine itself change the direction of tape movement and head respectively. The audio cassette’s life ended in the mid 2000s with the coming of the MP3 player and CDs being in demand as they both produced better sound. Nowadays, with almost every household having an access to the internet, anyone can download music from their phones from sites like MP3 Juices, MP3 Skull and many others.

I will miss my cassettes. I will make sure that I download all those classic and iconic albums I once had. My advice to readers is to please restore and keep them safely (if you still have them), be it in any part of the house. Their shape and sound have a beauty of their own. When one plays and listens to a cassette, one is transported back to those days during the nineties or early 2000s when life was simple, when mobile phones and I Pods were unheard-of in our everyday lives! In America and some parts of the world, antique and pawn shops always purchase audio cassettes for double the price. So they’re special things, part of the stories of our lives as some of us existed and grew up in the seventies, eighties, the nineties and the 2000s.


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Willie Gordon Suting is a writer and poet from Shillong. He currently works as a schoolteacher.

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