The (Not Quite) Lost Art of the Tape Cover

Dan Skolnik on December 30, 2016

Auggie had never heard of moe. He and his buddy were hitchhiking on Route 80, east of Salt Lake City, late one night in June, 1995.  Before I could see their faces and scraggly hair, I saw their sign: “Red Rocks” in bold letters.  They were waiting for someone who understood what that meant, and I did. That’s where I was going.

They jumped in and I turned my music down. We rode a few miles exchanging vital information – names, hometowns, number of Phish Shows. I was coming off the Grateful Dead’s three Bay Area Shows the week before, heading for the East Coast run, with the Phish Shows at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater in between. I lived in New York and was boomeranging the country for Dead Tour, having the time of my life. They saw Phish the previous two nights in Boise and Salt Lake. After a while I turned the music up again.

“Good jam, who is this?” Auggie asked.

“Band called moe. A Show they played in New York City last year.”

“That’s a weird name.” He reached for the cassette case on the dashboard in front of him. “Whoa, cool tape cover, man. You make this?”

I nodded, smiling like a father watching his kid score a goal. A full, wooden tape rack lay face up on the back seat, and the other guy started telling Auggie what I had. We zoomed down the highway, surrounded by a fluid “Yodelittle” jam in my car.

The Golden Age of tape trading started in the early 1970’s when reel-to-reel tapes were replaced by cassettes. I started trading in 1987, and by 1995 I had about 600 tapes. Mostly Dead, but I was starting to collect tapes of Widespread Panic, Phish, moe., Dave Matthews and some bands you maybe never heard of, like The Ominous Seapods, Percy Hill and Moon Boot Lover. Along the way, I started decorating the 3×4 tape covers with crayons and magic markers – tools made for youths to express youth.  I was in a flurry of tape trades when Jerry died in ’95 – the mailman expressed condolences to me – and I poured my grief as gratitude onto tape covers.

By ’96 most of my tapes were polychromatic. Writing the song titles in sinuous letters came first, then drawing swirling lines with colored ink or magic marker, then blanketing it all with random swaths of crayon. Blues and reds and greens.
Sometimes I laid the crayon coat down and then carved wild paths in the wax with the edge of a penny. There was no wrong way to do it. Just the bravery and arrogance and intrinsic Headiness of inside and outside the lines.

Then there were the spines – the part of the tape cover that shows when the tapes are in the rack. (The spine is the ticket, the tape is the Show.) Even though the spines were narrow, I tried to make them burst with meaning. I’d write the band, the venue and the date in that order, then color over the narrow, blank whiteness. But I never wrote “Grateful Dead” on the spines of my Dead tapes. They didn’t need to distinguish themselves from the other bands. It went without saying. I understood.

I wrote tiny numbers next to each song title. These were the counter numbers on my tape deck. They allowed me to forward through the infamous “Dead Air” – the minutes of tuning and cheering and ear-piercing whistles between songs – to where the next song started. Later I came to think of these symbolically. What if I could just fast-forward through the rent checks, frozen pipes, break-ups and hair loss? What if we all could just pass over the boring speeches, the aversions and disappointments and little deaths? Just let them be understood, but unsaid, so we can get to the graduations and successes; the friends and lovers; the nuggets of grace that will come.

From the tape cover I knew exactly where the pearls would be.

My first Phish tapes triggered an internal debate about whether to decorate them too. I wasn’t familiar with their music yet. Was it an honor, a ritual, reserved for Grateful Dead tapes? The second-generation bands didn’t have the gravitas for me, and I hesitated to presume that in time they would. On the other hand, the plainness of song titles against the white background seemed starkly incomplete. I decided to try creating some Phish covers and see how I felt about them after a few listens. So I did, and I never looked back.

It was just fun.

Of course, we in the tribe collected more than tapes: ticket stubs, tie-dye shirts, campground maps, bumper stickers, setlists scribbled into pocket pads in the dark, bandanas once soaked with Show sweat, dancing bear amulets and posters, definitely posters. (Remember that one with the dreamscape of “100 Dead Songs”?) Some were partial to the tour poster listing multiple dates. But I preferred the posters made for individual Shows. A Show-specific poster makes a Show-specific memory suite.

One Friday in 1997, a batch of tapes arrived in the mail from a girl in St. Louis I did a trade with; ten tapes with fresh, white insert cards waiting for splashes of color. That night, the tenants in my building in San Francisco opened all their doors for a floor party. I did the titles and laid the covers out on a table with some markers and crayons and invited my neighbors to go to town. One of them looked over a few of my boisterous covers from the wall and said, “These are pretty cool, man. You should put them on a webpage or something.” (Back then, this was still a pretty new concept. Times were changing.)

Those were the last years of the Golden Age of tape trading, and really of tapes themselves. Cassettes were rapidly being replaced with mp3 files burned onto Read/Write CDs, then digital music on hard drives, iPods and phones. People stopped trading tapes, because digital “files” (what an antiseptic word for music) became easier to distribute. There’s no waiting, no shipping costs, no hours of dubbing. And no interaction. Now you can fit virtually every show a band ever played on a single thumb drive or two. But you can’t color a thumb drive.

With the tapes racks hanging on my wall, 100 tapes each, some of the spines eventually faded from exposure to light. But so what? I remember what they said. Who hasn’t lost most of what they learned from books? Turns out we don’t need a lot of the written details anyway. My covers, like smells, created permanent associations I didn’t expect; very clear memories, like stowaways on a voyage. The sight of the cover makes me remember the audio quality of the tape – soundboard or audience recording, too fast or slow from too many generations of copies before mine. “Oh, yeah, that’s Chipmunk Dead” or “That one’s syrupy.” And I remember the Show itself, if I was there. I can see it as though from the seat where I actually sat. Just as sweet, sometimes when a date within those thirty years is referenced on TV, in a magazine, a plaque on a park bench, whatever, I see tape covers in my mind.

Most of all, two things jump up inside me when looking at a tape cover: when I got the tape and the room I made the cover in. Where I was at that stage of my life, what I was doing, why I thought I was doing it. They don’t just make me remember Shows; they make me remember myself.

Through every move I’ve made across town and around the country over the last thirty years, I lugged those heavy tape racks. (Took me a while to hit on the idea of wrapping them with plastic to stop them from falling out in transit.) In all the rooms I lived in, I always had those seven tape racks on the walls with their kaleidoscope of spines. Through all the doubts and epiphanies; during all the times of hope and of disenchantment; enduring the bummers and sustaining the laughs; they tied the rooms together.

In the early days of digital media, I thought I should scan my covers for future pairing with digital versions of the Shows. Doing it wasn’t that easy, though. I had all these tapes but lacked the time or inclination to seek digital replacements. So even after the era of tape trading, I stayed with tapes as my listening medium. Until around 2009, I was loyal to my tapes and they were loyal to me.  They got me through a lot – all of it, in fact.

But for a year now, the tapes have been in my sister’s basement in another city. The tie-dyes, too.  My stickers are in a folder in a file cabinet stuffed with shit I don’t want, but have to keep. Old contracts, warranties, tax returns, car repair records and insurance claims. I collect those things, too, but not because I want them. It really makes me wonder why.

Sometimes now, I just don’t get it. The planet’s orbit has been perturbed by the gravity of our times. The whole shebang feels out of whack; the one percent; the lead in the water; the reflexive divisions. Villains and lunatics are all around; ravaging the Middle East; preying across the Internet; lobbying for guns, guns, guns; getting elected. I can’t watch the news. So much is so hard to get over, to surmount, to escape by recalling that dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago. We always knew the world outside the Show wasn’t nearly as perfect. We knew it never could be. But years later, I can’t help finding that world harder and harder to understand.

We can’t fast-forward past all of this, but in a way, we can rewind. The world inside the Show is crucial to hold onto. We always knew that, too. I mean, that was the whole point. That’s why we went, you and I, while we could, through the transitive nightfall of diamonds. We marveled and danced amid the shimmering sounds and radiating colors; amid the sheer magic. We Got It. And we put it on tape and sent it around the world.

My old tape deck is gone, like my youth. I’ve learned the Sun’s insistence doesn’t always make things brighter. But to my joy, my tape covers remain transitive – one thing moves into another. The past moves through the present, into the future, just as the jam transits one song into another and another. To gather – to keep – that magic and use it to understand The Now, is what, to me, makes the nightfall of diamonds transitive.

So I’m going to my sister’s house to get my covers. Those stowaway memories make me feel good. Some things I fully understand. They are all nightfalls of diamonds. They cover me.

And maybe Auggie and his buddy now hitchhike to moe.down every year.

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