Katharine Blair (she/her) is a queer Canadian writer, editor, and poet living in California. When she's not overthinking the words she sends and is sent, you'll mostly likely find her wrestling her own writing or elevating the works of others in her role as Chapbook Series Editor for Lupercalia. Katharine also serves as founding editor of Corporeal. She has been published in Trampset, Anti-Heroin Chic, ODD Magazine & more. Katharine tweets as @katharine_blair and fumbles the rest on Instagram @kat_harineblair.
***This piece is accompanied by a playlist: LISTEN HERE
The Lost Mixtape and the Dying Art of a Love You Can Hold
All Along The Watchtower was definitely on there. Side B, I think, but I wouldn't stake my yellow and black Walkman on it. I know there was Dylan and Mitchell and Hendrix...
I’m reconstructing a mixtape—have been reconstructing a mixtape—The Mixtape in my mind, since roughly 1995. It was a gift, as all the best ones are, from a boy who was trying to impress me. Given that twenty six years since my little sister lost it, twenty eight since he gave it, I’m still lamenting the loss, I think it’s fair to say he made good.
In the spring of 1993 we weren't dating yet, but Dave¹ was campaigning. I was fourteen and high on my first real foray into popularity. I thought myself better than his glasses, his deference to adults, and his insistence on always being the smartest one in the room. He was a pint sized Well, Actually man, and doing his bumbling teenaged best to draw my eye.
Clapton and the Stones, but those are easy. What I'm forever stuck on are the trick songs, the deep cuts you never knew you needed that really make or break an A-side. There’s a science to a good mixtape and a magic to a great one. Open with an inescapable hook, double down to prove you’re serious, then pull back a little and show some depth. Next you want to level the energy with something you both know, and then...what? This is the place my memory falls short. It's all classic rock up ‘til now. Okay, yeah, I also have a dad of a certain age, but I remember right about here is where the track list went all in and hit me with something new.
He was posturing. That's what a mixtape is. A testament to your coolness, a stand in for a bravery you’re still trying to find. The you that sits on your bedroom floor with your double deck cutting and re-cutting tracks is a version of you that believes yourself capable of greatness. This isn’t about awkward conversations in the hall or working up the nerve, between you and these ninety minutes of magnetic tape stand only the mood you're trying to set and the words you've been trying to say.
Paint it Black. He was a fourteen year old pseudointellectual, we all knew it was coming.
Long Black Veil. This wasn’t love songs, this was an education. This was Dave telling me, these are the best songs and I need you to know I know them. The hubris of thinking my father and his 500+ LPs hadn’t already done the job, but even then I knew every man thought himself the first. At least with me he was having to work.
To be a mixtape communicator in the age of cassettes and live radio was to be part artist and part god. Weeknights found you rushing through homework and chores to be ready, tape in place, record button down, setup paused. One finger hovered, ready to unpause at a moment’s notice, before the intro music had even begun to play. This is the Top Six at Six and your song, The Song, has been slipping over the last couple of days. If you don’t catch it tonight, all could be lost. The flow of the B side, the whole tape, maybe. This life and death was an accepted stake of the game.
Anyone for Tennis by Cream comes up every time I think about the missing tape, even as I remember it on the follow up; the sillier one he made that August. We were together by then and could relax, have a little fun. Dave gave me Cream and Ain’t No Sunshine—Withers, not Jagger. Ever the classicist, he would have wanted me to start at the source. I never told him that while my father had been deliberately scoring our lives with his psychedelic heroes, my stepdad was feeding us a steady stream of the gospel and rhythm & blues that had taught them all to play. That summer I knew Withers the way I knew Redding and Cooke and James and Franklin. Dave gave me Grace Slick and I gave him Joplin. This, we said. This is what it means to sing.
1993 in Toronto was the summer of silk boxers as shorts and mine were wine red and had never come within a hundred miles of a silkworm. Why silk boxers? No idea. I don’t make the rules and I’ve never pretended to understand them. What I do know is that it was sticky and sweaty as all get out on the July afternoon Dave and I met on the grounds of R. C. Harris on the shores of Lake Ontario. I was still in the screw the sun, I’ll burn if I want to phase of adolescence, and by the time we trudged back over the hill so I could grab the streetcar, I could feel the telltale itch of a burn setting in everywhere the shorts had failed to chafe. As a serially irresponsible redhead I knew the pain I’d be in later that evening, but now I had a secret boyfriend who would listen to me whine.
Yeah, secret. You didn’t think I was going to be the good guy here, did you? Sorry about that. If it’s any consolation, stick around, he’s about to break my heart.
Whiter Shade of Pale - Procol Harum. I can only think this was somehow sentimental. It was schlock to my ears then and still is today. This is my stepmom’s love for the Laura Nyro cover of Dancing in the Street and my Mom’s Lyle Lovett fascination. Some people, I’m told, come to music simply to be entertained. I’ve never understood this position. Words are electric and music is the thrum of the whole world and everything in it made manifest. The power inherent in combining the two elevates the potential of everything it touches. Or maybe that’s just me. I have, and this is both a promise and, let’s be honest, undoubtedly a threat, tried to uncover the deeper meaning of every word I’ve ever been gifted. If I’ve sent words to you, trust I’ve done the same.
Master's Song - Leonard Cohen. Just a truly bizarre choice. There is no way either of us understood even the edges of the implications of this one. But my father played Cohen all the time and I’d recently read his collected poems—my gateway to a lifetime of poetry—so I was predictably caught. After all, I'd snuck both Beautiful Losers and Go Ask Alice under the covers the winter before.
Fourteen is all about getting caught up in things you don’t quite understand and Dave and Cohen both fit the bill. I was swimming in the deep end of my emotions and these men were meeting me there.
The summer after Junior High is a tenuous time. There are futures to consider and a chance for reinvention. Dave was ready for that. I was set to follow the bulk of our class to the highschool closest to his house and he was, paradoxically, pulling away to start over at one closer to mine. He broke up with me in the front hall of my father’s house a week before we went back. I don’t remember what he said but I remember taking it badly. In his absence, I listened to his tapes.
I still send songs. I still write letters longhand on paper and mail them to the people I love. I still believe in the elevated meaning of the time spent and the effort made. The power of I walked this to the mailbox, I took the time to buy stamps, I penciled you into my day, my week; held you in my thoughts long enough to get this thought from me to you.
Last year my own fourteen year old asked for a tape deck and their father bought them a whole box of TDK 90 tapes of their own. They mail them across the country to a friend who had to move away. Songs and voice memos and the odd recording of one of us doing something embarrassing enough to preserve. There’s something to the physicality of it. That 2500 miles away tangible proof of their affection for each other survives. That love can be held in your hand.
My luddite heart hardly lives in a cave. I know all about the 'advancements'. Playlists exist, but I’m not ready to give this up just yet. I’m still building this mixtape, I’m still missing the weight of it in my hands. I’m still trying to pass that feeling on.
(1) I'm meant to say something about 'all names have been changed, but truthfully, if you can find him from Dave alone, I need you. I've a mixtape I'm trying to find.
malady and melody
features staff writers from Flypaper and select music critics invited to review projects and write guest articles. To be released sporadically.