The Mythos of Cassettes

On January 1, 1985 Rob Chalfen was visiting from Boston. He took a look at my collection of cassettes, of magazines with my reviews of those cassettes, including Op magazine, which had folded in 1984 with the publication of the Z issue. He says that I should do something with all this unusual and unique cultural stuff. He suggested that I should put together a book of all those cassette reviews. That sounded like a good idea. What to call it? At the time I was reading a book of H. P. Lovecraft stories called The Cthulhu Mythos, so I popped off, how about Cassette Mythos?…

Thus the project was born. I managed to gather my friends and did my best to include them in ownership of the project. I had a list of people who had sent me cassettes that I had reviewed. I wanted them all involved, but they were far away. Closer by was my friend Rich Jensen, who had lots of ideas. He suggested creating a document, a newsletter, to send to all the list members to gin up interest in the project. It could have a questionnaire, a self-administered interview, and the folks could respond and it could be compiled and sent back around in the next newsletter. Maybe new people would come upon it and maybe mysteriously somehow understand what new creative things they could do, whatever that might be. I like mysterious things. Thus came the newsletter/interview part of the new project. Remember, this was long before the internet, it was all about postal correspondence. You write letters, you put your tape in the mail, and you wait for a week or so. Maybe you hear back and maybe you do not. It’s all about the mail. They call that stuff Mail Art, and when you say it out loud some people think you are saying Male Art. Zines had recently been introduced into contemporary underground youth culture, you stay up all night and make a small magazine with pictures and whatever you want to say and you make photocopies of it and now you are a publisher. Usually it’s about your band or your favorite bands. Sometimes it’s about special interests.

So we made a little newsletter with a 10 question interview and mailed it to everyone who had sent in a cassette to review, and anyone else we thought might think well of the project and might even be persuaded to join in.

These are the questions:

1) What is your earliest memory of using cassettes? What do you do with them now? How did you get started?

2) What are some of the best ideas that you have heard for using cassettes? Don’t limit yourself to music, or even commercially available material.

3) What are, if any, the worst ideas that you have heard for using cassettes?

4) Do you have any comments about legalities regarding home taping (copyrights, taping records, distributing cassettes, taping other people’s tapes)?

5) How do you get your cassettes around? Do you trade? Do you have distributors? Do you send them to magazines or people that you like?

6) What does the term “networking” mean, in the context of our subject matter (audio cassette art exchanges)?

7) Who has produced outstanding cassette creations and utilizations? What did they do?

8) Do you have any observations about the uses of cassettes in different parts of the world: Africa, Japan, South America, Europe, Australia, etc, (marketing techniques, amateur/home activity, etc)?

9) Do you have any comments about the technology surrounding cassettes?

10) How can people make money with cassettes (for example, some bands sell their tapes at shows, etc) Do you? How much do you charge? Does it work?

11) Do you have any other comments that you would like to make regarding the general topics we have discussed? What have we missed? Do you have any tips to share?

You might notice that there are actually eleven questions, or maybe the compound questions clustered by topic should be counted separately, for a total of 22. This is for deliberately baiting closed-minded inflexible thinkers and blowing their minds. We did some tinkering with the wording as we went along, but overall kept the basic stuff. In the early version the eleventh question was more of an unnumbered afterthought, a last minute addendum question to follow up the interview, but later it became the eleventh question, but by then the name “Ten Question Interview” had been established.

Most of the responses were earnest, one was obscene. Do we show off our amazing liberal tolerance of deviance and include it? We included it and alienated way too many potential contributors. Are you keeping track of my mistakes? Someone should learn from this. Including one pervert can stink up the whole project, no matter how noble your idea of inclusivity seeks to demonstrate. Maybe if we were to have explained it better it might have worked better. That is the real lesson, always properly explain your revolution or be discounted as merely another annoying misfit.

Some tales of unexpected developments caused by the project came back to us at the home base. There was even some romance. One Singer met another Frank directly from reading about each other in the newsletter and they went and had a romance. Lots of collaborations through the mail came about specifically as a result of the work. New ideas were generated. New bands formed. We learned about some of them but I am not at liberty to disclose them at this time. Well, really I have forgotten the specifics, they tell me it’s a part of the thrill of getting older.

Overall it was more successful than we hoped for, we got responses, we got artwork, we got TAPES of people speaking their responses. We were wondering how are we going to transcribe all that. Well, screw that! We re-recorded bits from the tapes and made an audio newsletter. We took bits from their music. We created bits for transitions, introductions and closers. We made stuff up as we went along.

One of my biggest regrets is my misunderstanding of the red light on many tape recorders that indicates a signal overload when recording. That means that the signal is too loud, it’s over-modulating, and distorting. I interpreted the red light as more of a power indicator, and decided that I should keep that sucker lit as much as possible. So now when I listen back to ANY of the old audio newsletters it’s a horrible hissy mess. Hal has one of the audio digests posted on Electronic Cottage, he did something to make it sound GREAT! Thanks Hal!

At the time I had no idea about overloading the signal. I did get some feedback from the folks I sent those tapes to, I thought they were just whiners. They sounded just fine to me. Sorry folks. You were right. Now I know how to stay under the threshold of the red light and to keep it from coming on at all. If only if I would have if I had only if I could do it all over again.

Here is a question that never really got resolved. Should I sell samples of other people’s sound art, art that I have arbitrarily excerpted and transformed and lowered its original quality by over-modulating it, should I just take their art with no consent from them, basically take it and ruin it in my own way and then present it to the world and even sell it? Reasons no: they worked hard to make that sound the highest quality possible and they would probably try to defend themselves. Reasons yes: if I can present it properly, even in low quality, it’s a promotional contribution to their efforts and I can direct potential buyers directly to the original artists for the best possible product.

Hence, the Audio Alchemy Digest was born. There were ten of them (there is that number ten again, you know it’s unreliable when I say it). The first three were combined into something we called the Death Pack. We made a poster with the program notes and pictures and such, two sides. There was a print shop nearby who could print stuff on 24 by 36 inch paper. Easy to fold and mail with the three cassettes. We made one more poster for the next Audio Alchemy Digests, for a total of two big posters. They are interesting to look at but hard to work with, for example scanning them is difficult if not impossible.

At the end of 1985 The Death Pack was used in a project that was… ahem, adapted from another artist’s conceptual work. They would propose a product to sell and then collect orders and create just enough of their product to match the demand. We decided to try pre-selling nifty packages of our collective strange sonic art, in fancy boxes. I had a bunch of photograph paper boxes (measuring about 10x14x4 inches) from my job at the time with the State of Washington. I had a source for cedar boxes. I had the tapes and the posters. I added more odd small toys, trinkets and whatnot, baseball cards and polaroid photographs, slide transparencies and plastic trolls, whistles, clickers and fire crackers and a whole bunch of strange crap. So the geegaws went in where I could fit them.

I found ten or so buyers to agree to accept these boxes and prepay. One friend was a painter and she painted the interior of the cedar boxes where the tapes and poster would go. I had the art from Suz Dycus and made a stencil, which became the cover, the photographic paper boxes were painted black and the image applied and the cedar box fit inside that. It was awesome! At the last minute I had the idea to add actual cedar boughs, they sure smelled great. So they went into the package and kept the smaller boxes from bouncing around too much. They smelled great. They looked great. They were fresh and fragrant. What could possibly go wrong? I will tell you. Time goes by. The cedar boughs dry out and crumble. The bits get into everything, magically, all by themselves. The bits go into the cassettes. When you play the cassettes chunks come loose and lodge in the tape recorder and cause all kinds of interesting things to happen, none of them good.

Evan Cantor was one of the recipients of the 10 Death Pack boxes.
In 2018 he donated his box to EC Editor Hal McGee.

The ordinary Audio Alchemy Digest cassette newsletters went to little music-art places around the world. Many cassette makers were pleased to send their precious tapes to us for free just because they want others to listen to them. Or better yet, to play them on the radio. Most smart people only sell them, no giveaways. The rest usually can often be persuaded to swap a tape for a tape. I had the newsletter tape to trade. I had a radio show at my local community radio station to play the tapes on. We had connections with all kinds of places, a radio station in Tokyo, a radio station in Germany somewhere (back then it was Western Germany because Eastern Germany was enslaved behind crude cement walls guarded by men with angry dogs) we were in contact with a Butcher guy in Australia. An Insane contact in Belgium. A Radio Theater collective (mostly one guy really) in Holland. A college student who was travelling in Africa. It was huge. We owned the whole world.

Next came the Video Bicycle Trip. A bicycle trip is a pre arranged travel adventure where you have arrangements with folks along the way who agree to put you up for one night as you travel along your route. What we did was get an agreement from willing contributors to accept the VHS video tape, add their stuff, and then be responsible for paying to send it on to the next person on the list. There were three of them (not ten this time) and ONE made it back.

​There was a shaky camera video visit to a roller coaster ride, there were various animations, lots of appropriately strange musics or whatever you might call it, let’s call them soundtracks. There were some other things that are hard to describe. Nothing more came of it, I showed it to anyone who would watch and now it’s an old VHS tape with a well worn cover.

What about the book? Back to 1985. I was willing to try anything. I had lots of cassette reviews. I decided that I might want to make it more interesting and break it up, mix in some essays, here and there, one or two or… ten. A little spice to add to the reviews. I tried reaching out to a traditional publishing agent to see if they could find me a sweet deal with a real publisher, then I would be paid for all this work. It made perfect sense. I called and called. Finally I got one! She said to dress it up with famous people, how about Frank Zappa and Bruce Springsteen, and maybe Tina Turner. So I reached out to the publicity agents for Frank and Bruce and Tina and a bunch more. Bruce had just released an album titled Nebraska which was entirely recorded on a home cassette portable studio. Frank was my hero and showed us all how to break lots of rules and have a great time changing the world because it needs our help. I was willing to learn more about Ms. Turner (oh heck yes!) so long as Ike was not going to come and kick my ass. Nobody got back to me, not even Ike. Time went by. The agent wished me good luck and that was the end of that.

One of the most amazing people I met during this time was a Canadian by the name of Alex Douglas. He created a project years earlier that pioneered the concept of a contact list, he called his the Contact List of Electronic Music otherwise known as CLEM, and another named CLAS which I forget what the acronym stands for. He lived on Whistler Mountain in British Columbia, in a ski lodge up there. He would do stuff for the lodge and spent the rest of his time listening to electronic music and doing related correspondence. He gave me his tape Stitching Small Tears, which is a compilation of contributions from the artists on his list. He just up and knocked on my door one day, a gigantic man, a friendly giant.
Editor’s Note: CLAS was Alex Douglas’ label.

One of the strangest coolest in my opinion BEST packaging designs for a cassette release is probably from Zeitgeist and the Seven Year Itch, designed by Tracy Bigelow. The tape is in its box, wrapped in gauze, tied with black strips of some kind, maybe a bicycle tire inner tube cut in long pieces, and then black wire twisted around it forming a tripod which keeps the tape upright and even more strange looking. There is no way to do anything with it but place it on the shelf or table top. The music is saxophone-based and performed by the legendary Jeffrey Morgan and his cohorts.

The most colorful j-sheet I have come upon was by Silent But Deadly (aka Mark Murrell), here is the cover for Bump Tiddy Bump Tiddy by Dangling Ganglion, a collage masterpiece. His thing is cruising thrift stores and collecting those old records made for children with instructive messages and content that make really funny collage mixes. He is a master of the tape loop and the skipping record. He had a spray painting system worked out, with a cardboard cowl to use when applying spray paint in his home, which can kill you in the winter when the windows must remain closed. He opens the window and sets up the cowl which sort of helps prevent massive heat loss, and when he sprays he doesn’t get the deadly vapors or overspray on his home. He uses stencils for text and textures and has developed lots of different application techniques. He has a radio show, well, he has a radio personality that turns up on lots of radio shows, called Ed Special on WFMU in Ann Arbor (Michigan of course). At the time the radio reached all of one entire dorm at the University of Michigan, now its global, no, its universal, thanks to the advent of modern broadcasting technology and support from the University. A j-sheet is the decorative paper that wraps around the cassette in its box and acts as the album cover and liner notes and whatnot. It has a spine display where the cassette title goes, so you can line up a stack of them and read all the titles. The fold makes the j part, and that makes the main cover art, and usually some strategic flaps and folds. The one depicted here is a long rascal from Bump Tiddy Bump Tiddy and it folds up to fit perfectly in the little clear plastic box.

I went ahead and reached out to my list of cassette maniacs, many of them jumped at the opportunity to write something for The Book. Most audio artists are not so good with writing, that is why they work in audio art. I wanted that to be part of the book, real people with real eccentricities. Flawed writing from extraordinary people. I got lots of stuff. It was AWESOME!

Why do cassette maniacs make strange noises? Because they have to.

The whole thing was impossible. What to do? Sue Ann Harkey was working for a publisher collective in New Yawk Citay called Autonomedia and they have a magazine-type serial book called Semiotext(e). I was invited to go to the big city and negotiate with Jim Fleming. Wow! Heck yes! HAIL YAH! The deal was Sue Ann would make it look awesome, and others would pitch in with the final editing. My job was over and I could go on and do other things. I would pay nothing, and I would get a box of books that have my name on them! They would reach out to each contributor who was ready to cash in big, they would get A FREE BOOK, no cash. I would not have to negotiate with them any more, not that I minded contact with them, but there were so many by this time, it was extremely distracting from my new life trying to actually make a living in a responsible way and reform my previous life as an artist-parasite. Let’s say that I was a Cultural Worker.

In January of 1992 the book came out, ISBN 978 0936756691. It had started as a vehicle for the huge volume of cassette reviews, and the final product had no cassette reviews in it at all. By then most of the artists had moved on, gotten jobs, gotten married, etc. and the physical mailing addresses were useless.

I still get a kick out of seeing Cassette Mythos on Amazon. I like to look at the section where they sell used copies, the more worn the better. Someone has actually read it! Someone carried it around and spilled stuff on it and maybe there are some stray burn marks from when the dropped their smoke. Someone loved it.

In 1992 the professionally printed book came into the world. I was finished with library school and moved on to other thangs than cassettes. The next new technology were the round silver rainbow mirror CDs and at that time only rich folks could manufacture them. I did not look back at cassette technology except to keep the tapes. It just happened. A few years later the internet came along and now nobody has to wait for the mail to get exotic recordings to listen to, you just click. No more pulling damaged tape out of the capstan and pinch roller and trying to stuff the accordioned tape back into the cassette shell using a pencil to twist the little spool in there.

Recap: I had no idea of what I was doing but things happened anyway. They happened naturally and in their own time. I gave up and quit over and over again and started over and took it further and had to quit and later it started again. The project kept going within me and without me.

One of the most negative things was from one of the correspondents who were soooo disappointed, that guy sent me two long rambling hand written suicidal death threat-type letters (this is still before the internet and common trolls) chewing me out and cursing me for ruining his life, he was really excited about the project when it started and I went and did it without him and he was robbed. For some reason a thousand letters that say GREAT JOB! are diminished by just one creepy “you screwed it up and now I must punish you” letter. It’s important to keep a perspective.

The book was published! I am extremely grateful. It is one of my best achievements. Thanks everybody, for contributing!​

​What Next? Along came the CD. The Cassette Mythos Audio Alchemy CD. Now that was totally awesome! I put out the invitation and Sue Ann Harkey designed the package and booklet, and Steve Peters managed the rest of the adventure. The CD has a very nice high quality sound, and it contains great stuff. The sounds have been properly pirated by WFMU and posted on their Beware of the Blog website and you can hear it for free with a simple click. Another triumph! Free things are cool.

Time went by.

At one point I moved from Seattle back to Michigan, then Pennsylvania, then Ohio and back to Michigan. I had to make some hard decisions about what would get tossed and what would get preserved. I had the cassettes, I had the letters and the amazing hand decorated packaging, I had the extra geegaws that many cassette artists tend to stick into the package before they mail it, I had it all, and I kept the cassettes. Now Jerry Kranitz of Aural Innovation (in Columbus, Ohio) has the cassettes and can take better care of them than I can now. I think the project is much bigger than me, and it will live on forever as an example of electronic folk arts of the 1980s.

What would you have done?

Originally published at https://www.electroniccottage.org.

Born in 1956, the year of Sputnik and the emergence of Elvis Presley, contributing editor for Electronic Cottage and BrainVoyager Electronic Music