The Making of a Good Mixed Tape
We were driving down to Big Sur a few weeks ago, when I popped in Tom Waits's Heart of Saturday Night, and "San Diego Serenade" came on.
"I must've put this on a mixed CD for you," I said to Justine, as I continued to drive through the sudden fog that drifted in along the coast.
"Why'd do you say you must've?"
"Because I put it on every mixed tape I make for every girl."
Justine looked appalled. "You put this same song...on another girl's mix?"
Of course you are going to put some of the same songs on a mixed CD (though when I started making "mixed tapes," they were quite literally cassettes). How many songs do you think there are? OK, a lot. But the emotions of love are not that complicated, and a mixed tape/CD is all about manipulating those feelings to get the girl to love you, right?
I have made probably close to 7,000 mixed tapes for girls, give or take, so it's not hard to recreate a typical one. Some songs do get repeated, but it's all about the ebb and flow, the feel of the musical journey, using someone else's words to effectively say I'd like to have sex with you. Lots and lots of sex with you.
So here are 10 songs that have often made the cut. I am leaving out the cheeky stuff like "Tonight, It's You" and shit like that. I'll also try to keep it in the modern milieu. If you want to know what 19-year-old Joe was putting on a mixed tape, just apply these same principles and roll back the clock 20 years (and you'll get a fucklot of the Smiths, Connells, 'Mats, and Jesus Jones).
10 songs, from me to a pretty girl, that say/hint/suggest/plead, I'd really like to see you naked.
1. "Why Can't I?" Liz Phair
This is a pretty good one to get things started with a new girl since it is a song all about getting things started with a new girl. The fun part. The loving part. The part before you start hating each other. A lot of people, music snobs mostly, hated this record, which was much slicker than stuff like Exile in Guyville. But the same people who hate it are the same people who are still pissed that Dylan went electric, or Paul Westerberg stopped singing about erections, Gina Arnold-types who won't give Cracker a fair shake because they're not Camper Von Beethoven. And they're not. Never can be. But that doesn't mean David Lowery's "other" band didn't also record some terrific shit, as well.
"Why Can't I?" is a simple and sweet pop song. Non-threatening, it'll show your more sensitive side. Until she really listens to the lyrics, which have just the right touch of creepy. And if you've been stalking your neighbor on Facebook, it's a better introduction than "Hey, I've been watching you shower for the past six months."
2. "Bruised," Jack's Mannequin
Obviously, there are a lot of different reasons to be making a mixed tape for a girl. Well, actually only three. You want her. You got her. You lost her and want her back (there is a fourth version, though not nearly as popular, a "She Gone, Good Riddance." This might be reserved for, say, when you find out your second wife was blowing a friend of yours in Houston. In which case, you might slot in "Heard It from a Friend" by REO Speedwagon. Hypothetically speaking of course.) Still, regardless of which of those three we're dealing with, the second track has to now say something about you, not the least of which is, Hey, I know cooler bands than your last doofus boyfriend. Which makes Jack's Mannequin a pretty deft touch. You could also try the Silver Jews' "Punks in the Beerlight." Or maybe even something more mainstream like "Sometime around Midnight" by Airborne Toxic Event. Because you are not only saying something about your musical taste, you want the words and music to suggest something all chicks dig: a guy who's a bit wounded, a little dangerous even. I don't know why women like this, but they don't like milquetoast or Johnny Square. Depending on the girl, I've been known to even go with a little Nashville Pussy in the 2 hole, something like "I'm the Man." But if you're laying down, "Wake up with my balls on fire / spread gasoline when I piss fire," you better be damn sure of your audience. Usually you want to be a little more subtle. Just a hint of the quirky will do (as Idan "the Machine" Levin says, "Quirky sells, junkie smells." And as we say in da hood, Mr. Machine, tru dat. Tru dat).
Since so many of my relationships have revolved around one of us leaving on a plane (or greyhound bus), this one was often a staple.
3. "Sweetness, That's Your Cue," Slobberbone
You could also go with .38 Special and "Caught Up in You."
Yeah, you read that right, mutherfucker. It's a great fucking song. And if you automatically dismiss the power of the well-placed .38 Special, go to your room, draw tattoo designs no one'll get and listen to Fugazzi. Girls don't like Fugazzi. At least the pretty ones don't.
Some people like to cool it with the third track. I like to ratchet it up. I'll often put a Replacements' tune here, or a I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House, a heavier alt-country or cowpunk number. Outlaw country shit. And if you are dead set against .38 Special, I'd say go with the Slobberbone. You don't get the same watered-down version of being crazy about a girl delivered via a tasty Southern Rock, radio-freindly lick, but Brent Best belts it out pretty goddamn good. Here's my heart, please don't break it. And they fucking rock.
(Interesting side story [mildly] with this one. I once had a very sweet girlfriend for whom I included this song on a mix. When she saw the band's name, she said, "Oh, like a dog and his bone!" Yes, sweetheart, just like a dog and his bone...)
4. "Whole of the Moon," the Waterboys
I like to treat the 4th spot just like clean-up on a baseball team. You want the heavy hitter. And by that I don't mean the loudest, or fastest, or punchiest. You want layered, complex, a little odd, a little danceable. You want some fucking majesty here. Dylan works. Springsteen works. Orchestral shit. Mike Scott and the Waterboys do the trick perfectly.
When it comes to making one of these things, there's no way getting around the obvious: you didn't write the fucking song. Still, whichever band you're throwing down is now speaking for you. Vague is your friend; "Ms. Jackson" is not. I don't know what the fuck Scott is singing about. Rainbows? Flashes? Unicorns? Cannons? Who the fuck cares. He pulls it off. Girls swoon. I don't know anyone who doesn't like this song when they hear it. So if you don't like it, you are probably wrong.
5. "Everybody Here Wants You," Jeff Buckley
You want a woman to get all squsihy, you put this fucking song on her mixed tape. No exceptions.
I said before that this is a composite list of all the mixed tapes I've made, a guesstimation of what I might include. Except this one. This song goes on every mixed tape, for every girl, every time. End of story.
Take a listen, and you'll see why.
Yeah, I thought so.
6. "Ordinary World," Get Set Go
This is a nice follow-up to the honey-dripping sugary pained wail of Buckley. A simple song about "ordinary boys fucking ordinary girls." Maybe some girls would be offended by this song, but not the kind of girls I date. It's a neat trick perfected by the Smiths, pairing upbeat major chords with miserable lyrics. This is a sad song, don't be fooled, but the tune itself is so goddamn jaunty that you forget about the most crushing blow this life can deal you: the death lull of mediocrity. We can't all be superstars (http://tinyurl.com/3wq4epa). A really good writer, song- or otherwise, excels by making the universal unique and vice versa, and here Mike TV shine's a light on loneliness and the mundane, and ain't nothing lonelier than the number two, and he makes the ordinary a beautiful thing.
This is the story or two world-class fuck-ups, Peter and Mary. It's about the bad decisions we all make, and will have you thinking about the countless strangers clinging to each other like terrified trembling lambs in the night, and all the losers packing up their shitty car after getting fired from their shitty job, and heading into the sunset, foolishly believing in the possibility of something better despite all evidence to the contrary. Quiet desperation, my friend.
7. "I Coulda Been a Contender," The Gaslight Anthem
You can't put her to bed (at least not yet), you need to keep the line moving, and this one is pretty high octane stuff, from the best new band in America. It's got all the quintessential American elements: faded dreams and highways, sleeping in the park and making last-minute heroic stands for naught. In short, it's fucking romantic. But not like Nick Sparks romantic. This is tough guy romantic. Broken hearts, blue jeans and white T-shirts. Tattoos and overnights in jail. It's rock 'n' roll, man.
Brian Fallon's lyrics carry more soul-wrenching weight than 99% of the poetry I've read.
8. Reno, Bruce Springsteen
You want something classic here. "Let's Get It On" might work if the girl can overlook the shamelessly obvious. You can go with the Stones or the Beatles, an "Evening Gown," a "Maybe I'm Amazed" or "Don't Let Me Down." Really, I could put any track from Springsteen anywhere on any mixed tape, and it'd be the right call, because it's the fucking Boss. This one is off of Devils and Dust, a lesser-known, more recent effort.
No one tells a story like Bruce, and the molasses slow waltz toward the sad sex ending is one of his best turns ever.
9. "Good Time," Leroy
Justine likes to make fun of my always including some white boy rap on every CD I make for her. (Sorry, Justine, I guess I thought you could appreciate the literockfunktasticity of the Lyte Funky Ones. Your loss.)
(Oh, and by the way, the singer is now dead. Hope you're happy.)
This isn't exactly white boy rap. But it's not that far from it, I suppose. I first heard it on Scrubs. Which, as you may know, was my favorite show. Loved it so much, bought every fucking season on disc. My girlfriend borrowed them. Then she broke up with me. Said I had "no earning potential." Can't exactly go back and ask for your lousy fucking $125 Scrubs DVDS after she says that, can you?
10. "Hallelujah," John Cale
OK. So we're ending on a bitter note. But every thing ends on a bitter not, doesn't it? Otherwise it wouldn't really end. And if you want to make them really cry (and feel like total shit for stealing your fucking Scrubs videos), this one should do it. Some people prefer the original. Most prefer the Jeff Buckley version. For my money, you can't beat John Cale. This was how the song was meant to be sung. Simple, elegant, understated piano and a pained voice choking with regret on every word.
There are a million variations, of course. This compilation might be indicative of why I've been divorced twice. But maybe not (I'm pretty sure this third one's gonna stick). I am a cynic, and like all cynics, I'm really just a wounded romantic. And no place tells that particular story better than rock 'n' roll. I might not be able to keep them. But I sure as fuck can get them. And a good mixed tape has always helped my cause. That, and being really really good looking.