Kid, if you're like me (which you most likely are) and you find yourself to be terrible at vocalizing the way you feel about someone, the solution is music. Specifically, a mixtape, one curated entirely by you and placed directly in her hands. Or his hands, whichever the case may be.
There's an art to it that can be difficult to navigate. Too much saccharine and you sour the vibe. Too little and you end up in the friend-zone automatically. You've got to pay attention to the ebb and flow of harmonies (or discordance, depending upon her tastes). You've got to know that putting Metallica in the middle of a mix fundamentally requires the songs around it to be loud and probably angry. Unless this is what turns her on, you should probably disregard metal and most loud rock altogether.
It needs to be a blend of styles she likes, songs she's never heard before, and then (sprinkled throughout) there needs to be those few songs you've shared together. Think of these latter as the glue that keeps the other songs relevant to your message. They're a constant affirmation that the tape is specifically for her but that it's about the both of you.
You can get fancy with the cover art if you're crafty. If you're smart (and I know you are, since you're my kid), you can pick songs with titles that pretty much spell out what the mixtape is going to tell her. That's a less subtle approach, but it's effective. And if she's already interested, then you're golden.
If she's not already interested? Then you pray that she gets the message in the mixtape because sometimes it gets lost and then you've basically wasted your time and inadvertently cock-blocked yourself. It's nuance, kid. You've got to find the nuance and ride it like a never-ending wave until the tide of music in your head goes still and silent.
I don't know where you found this particular one that I made for your mother, but I remember every decision for every track on here. I remember why I chose the songs I did and why I placed them where I did. Ebb and flow, son. Ebb and flow. Nuance.
Granted we were already together at the time I made this mix, but she was no less appreciative at the effort. She listened to it so often; I'll be surprised if the thing actually plays. Now sit down so I can explain a few things. You'll hear the way it moves through the air, so you can hear the way it moved your mother.
Side A, Track 1
Robert Glasper - "Maiden Voyage/
Everything in Its Right Place"
You want to start with something that has a very distinct flavor, something that contains the essence of every other song you choose. This song became an immediate personal favorite of mine as soon as I heard it. Not only is it great jazz, but Glasper also includes his own interpretation of Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place," a gorgeous song all on its own. Your mother was a Radiohead fan, so this seemed especially appropriate at the time.
I remember watching her as she pushed play on the Walkman (yes, we still had one that worked back then). The headphones seemed to disappear beneath her hair. She took an afternoon to recline on the sofa and simply stare out the window, watching the storm clouds gather on the horizon as the music played in her ears. The smile that erupted across her face during those first few minutes was worth every hour of work putting the tape together.
Side A, Track 2
Al Green - "What Is This Feeling?"
The problem with dropping Al Green on a mixtape for someone is that Al Green can totally tip your hand if you choose one of the standbys. You can definitely put "Love & Happiness" or "Let's Stay Together" in the mix, but those are the obvious choices. Everyone's done it before. Putting a song like "So Tired of Being Alone" in the mix has the potential to make you sound needy and desperate, kid. Especially if you've put some other tracks in there with the same kind of vibe to them.
For your mixtape, make sure you include a song that means something significant to you both early on in the mix. If placed right, it will bring back a tidal wave of memories of you both together, a subconscious allusion of being good for each other. A reminder of your unity even through tough times.
Luckily, our wedding DJ knew to avoid the clichéd wedding songs and played some that still made the reception a great celebration of our day. A long-time friend of ours, we told him to surprise us with the song for our first dance. We didn't know what to expect, so we were crazy nervous out there in the middle of the dance floor. Was it going to be slow? Was he going to pick something ridiculous to trip us up? We held hands, your mother and I, palms unbelievably sweaty. And then we heard the opening horns of this one, a song we knew very well (as our DJ friend knew, too). The tempo was perfect. The lyrics more so. While this played and we danced, we both forgot there was a crowd around us and let ourselves drown in the moment. This is my favorite memory of that day. I think your mother might say the same.
Side A, Track 3
Soul Coughing - "Soft Serve"
It's important that your third track have some similar sounds or styles to it as the first two. You're easing someone into the mix, you don't want to force it. So far, there's a jazz song and a soul song. In some ways, following up a classic soul song with a group called Soul Coughing seemed appropriate. The song itself has serious jazz elements and the kind of lyrical whimsy that your mother adored. I never understood her love of the absurd, but we both loved Soul Coughing.
Long before we ever married, this song was on the radio. We were young, not even dating then. Too young to drink legally, too old to want to stay cooped up in the house on a Friday night, we drove around with our school friends. We'd post up at a local coffee shop that stayed open until midnight. We'd all play dominos or cards or talk about movies we'd seen. These were good times, simple times, and they served to solidify some great friendships that have remained intact over the years.
When we began dating years later, I happened to have this CD on in the car during our first date. We sang along the entire way back to her house. We let the song finish, laughed, and shared our first kiss together before she scampered off into the house.
That first kiss is the sweetest, son. It makes your body go all electric, shaking you from the inside and there's nothing you can do to stop it, nothing you could want to do to stop it. A singularly wonderful sensation I hope you get to soon enjoy.
Side A, Track 4
Leon Ware - "I Wanna Be Where You Are"
While it's good to focus on your intended audience's taste, you've also got to surprise them with something that is distinctly your own that they've probably never heard of. My father used to collect records. Old funk and soul, mostly. Fifth Dimension; George Clinton; Earth, Wind & Fire, so on and so forth. I know these names mean nothing to you, but that just means I'll have to make you a mixtape soon so those names eventually mean something.
My father played this record often. He loved Leon Ware, couldn't get enough. When I grew up, I remembered the tune of this song, but could never remember the name of the song or who sang it. Eventually I was able to hum it for my father. He knew exactly who it was and put the record on immediately. A quick drum beat and then the vocals came in and Dad started dancing and singing along as if it were twenty years earlier down in our basement.
The title is obviously a big reason for including this particular track of Ware's in the mix, but again, your mother and I had been married for many years before I made this one. I felt I needed to include one of those obvious messages reaffirming that I swooned for her then the same way I did the first time.
Side A, Track 5
José González - "Heartbeats" (cover)
Utilizing a cover of a popular song in a mixtape can be a dicey endeavor. Sometimes people just have certain affinities for the original, and that's totally fine as long as you remember that. Your mother and I both loved the original of this one done by The Knife. A great song on its own, the difference between it and this cover by José González is striking, especially when one is played after the other.
The original is an upbeat synthpop kind of sound. It elicits a summery vibe of positivity and joy despite the lyrics feeling less so. But if you listen to this acoustic version directly after, the emotions that bubble up are so vastly different. There's a real sense of longing that comes from both the lyrics and the music. The tempos aren't that different, but the music is and that's what makes all the difference.
I chose this one because I knew your mother had never heard it until I started playing it through the headphones strapped across her belly while you slept inside her. There's a sense of quiet yearning in the way González sings the song that strikes me in the best of ways. It contains something, for me, that the original does not. A closeness? No, that's not quite right. An intimacy? Yes. Definitely a kind of intimacy.
Side A, Track 6
The Cinematic Orchestra - "All Things to All Men"
You're coming to the end of the first side of the tape. How do you end it? You've got to really think about the progression of things now since you're nearly halfway done. It's important that you don't lose the feeling of the ebb and flow of the music. I chose two lengthy songs to end this side and, while I love the actual final song, this is my personal favorite of the two.
English rapper Roots Manuva appears on this sprawling track that pulls from the history of jazz and more than a few other continental influences. I don't know the names of all the instruments, but they sound as if they could be North African or possibly Middle Eastern in nature. It sounds like a crazy combination of styles, so it seemed perfect for your mother. Plus, as an avid Dr. Who fan, I had a feeling she'd appreciate the reference to the Tardis from the show.
Musically, this song shares ties to the others that came before it. Tempo, tone, strings, style... but it takes a certain kind of person to get down with an eleven-minute song and your mother certainly didn't mind them as long as they were good. Turns out this was probably her least favorite of the songs I included on the entire mixtape but only because of (what she called) "lackadaisical rapping." I disagreed on that particular point, but she loved the actual music itself.
The lesson with this one? You're not going to please someone with every one of your choices. If you do, you've done a pretty amazing thing, but don't be afraid to fail. Whether in making a mixtape or in some other aspect of your life, do everything with confidence and own your choices. Every time.
Side A, Track 7
Explosions in the Sky -
"The Only Moment We Were Alone"
I started this side with a long, jazzy instrumental song, so I wanted to close it with something long and instrumental as well. Ease them in, ease them out. Your mother had some pretty eclectic tastes, so I had a large selection of tunes to choose from. In some ways, that freedom made it so much easier to pick and choose music for her. In other ways, that freedom was confining to the point of almost being choked. Too many options is almost as bad as too few.
We saw Explosions in the Sky live on stage years ago. They're just four guys, but the wall of sound they create with their instruments is astounding. You'll hear what I mean halfway through the track. Their sound and style can make a room of any size feel like an open air concert that the heavens seem to perform for us down here on earth. Lots of guitar effects, great sweeping melodies, and the feel of hearing something truly epic happening. Like listening to beautiful gods going to beautiful war with each other and still—everyone lives in the end. The song crescendos into gorgeous chaos and then dissipates. A great song to end on.
The first side of your mixtape is important. It should establish a certain kind of feeling in the listener. Where this side is primarily a rehashing of the beginning of our time together, the second side became, intentionally, a reminder that while our physical time together was ending, she and I were forever as far as I was concerned.
Side B, Track 1
Failure - "The Nurse Who Loved Me"
Another song that's been covered (by A Perfect Circle), but I chose the original for a multitude of reasons. Most importantly, your mother was working as a nurse right out of college, so she always got a kick out of me singing this to her if I ever visited her at the hospital. For whatever reason, she never got tired of hearing me sing about a nurse (her) being in love with a patient (me).
I heard this one back in high school. The entire album is a great listen. It gets a little loud in places, but that's why you bring the tone down slowly over the next few songs. You can start anywhere with the second side, that's the beauty of tape; it can be edited and revised until it's just right.
Pace. Ebb and flow. Take note of how the songs work with each other. If you have to start over in order to alter the vibe of the music into something more cohesive, take the time to do so. Not only will you be happier with the final product, but you'll be giving her something that you're proud of and it will show when she finally gives it a spin.
I saw your mother do this song once at a karaoke night. We started off joking that one of us should do it and then she got a little boozy confidence in her and actually did it. Son, there are many moments in which your mother has made me fall in love with her over and over again; watching her completely own this song on that stage is easily in my top five. Not only did she sing it wonderfully (something she was definitely not known for), there was something in her body language that just... I don't know. I don't mean that it was sexual, it wasn't, but it's like she belonged up on that stage. I don't know how better to say it. It was awe-inspiring.
Maybe it was because she stared at me the whole time, half-lidded and nearly serenading, like we were the only two people in that overly crowded bar. Maybe I'm biased.
Side B, Track 2
Jimmy Eat World - "For Me This Is Heaven"
Your mother didn't know about this one before I put it on her tape. She was a fan of their later stuff but, lucky for me, she hadn't listened to much of their earlier stuff, so this was a great surprise for her. That she liked it as much as she did was wonderful. Sometimes I'd hear her blasting this one in particular while she showered after work. Again, not well, but it was nice to hear. When you're able to choose a song that someone immediately gravitates toward, it's a great feeling.
I love this one. The drums are great, creating this weird waltz-like rhythm that makes me nod my head in a weird stutter-stop kind of way every time. Can't help it, I just start doing it. The melody is phenomenal, building up solidly to a loud kind of catharsis where singer Jim Adkins is asking if one can still feel the butterflies, but sounds like he's screaming up to God, pleading for someone to feel them the way he does. Whether it is Burch or Linton (or both) doing the back-up vocals on this, I'm unsure, but their throaty additions to the slowly building end are perfectly haunting.
Powerful. A great listen.
Side B, Track 3
The Radio Dept. - "Tell"
Alright, bud. You're three tracks in to your second side. You think you've done a pretty good job of making your message clear without bashing her over the head with it. Maybe you've been successful up to this point, maybe you haven't. You won't know for sure until later. Time to just throw something out there that has ancillary branches that touch on everything you've pieced together so far, but may have zero substantial meaning to you or to her. The track is there purely for filler, but it's not a throwaway. Not even by half.
Your mother was still working at the hospital full-time while I was in grad school. I went back because of some deeply engrained desire to be the breadwinner of our home (despite the fact that your mother was far smarter than I and far more likely to excel in whatever she did). Plus, I rather enjoyed the classroom atmosphere, regardless of the average age of the students. They treated me like an equal, not out of pity, but because we were all there for the same reason—to learn.
So we all got to talking before class. Music came up, of course. They thought I listened to shit they'd never heard of, and they were right. I got to school them on some fun stuff that blew their minds. They schooled me on some stuff that blew my mind. This group, The Radio Dept., was suggested by more than a few.
It's interesting that these guys were so big with the younger generation. Fun drum tracks, great melodies and harmonies, but overall, they sound like some kind of pirate radio station blasting unfettered sunshine through the speakers of a 1970's-era transistor radio on the verge of losing signal.
Side B, Track 4
Washed Out - "Don't Give Up"
From the way-less-personal to the way-more-personal. It's good to vacillate back to something your intended recognizes and immediately connects with here. Hook them back in and keep them paying attention until the end.
There was a time when your mother and I had some rough spots. There's no reason to go into the details (and I won't tell you who was more at fault for the problems that arose), but we found ourselves in a fix. We argued the way married folks often do. We had taken to sleeping apart at night; no hands on hips, no arms wrapped around waists, no arms going sleepless just to feel the other upon waking. We'd turned cold toward each other. Let me be clear—this is incredibly unhealthy. If you find yourself in this same situation, you fight your way out of it immediately. Don't be aggressive toward them, be aggressive towards the problem.
Regardless, your mother and I were at a horrible impasse. Probably the worst we ever faced, even after the diagnosis and the multiple conversations with multiple doctors and weaving our way through the nonsense of insurance companies. She was working less due to cutbacks and lack of funding at work. I was trying to work more, trying to make up for what wasn't coming in on her end despite it being out of her control. If I had to guess, I'd say I was exhausted from working all day and sitting in class at night and she was stressed from not working. I wouldn't say either of us was the cause on our own.
For awhile there, I got caught up in the chillwave stuff my classmates were passing my way. This Washed Out character was one I enjoyed a great deal. At first, this song became a way to bolster my shitty attitude when your mother and I soured. It was the only thing I listened to on the way into work and it was the last thing I listened to before crashing out at night. It was incredibly therapeutic without actually doing anything to solve the problems between us.
Then, your mother's diagnosis came. We left the doctor's office in silence. I think that was the day we both realized that life was bigger than the both of us. Sure, there's the possibility of cancer going from malignant to benign, but your mother and I... we're deeply empathetic people. Neither of us was happy about the things we said to each other. Post-diagnosis, we did a lot of apologizing and a lot of making up, even for things we never did just to make sure our bases were covered. We overcompensated because we cared deeply for each other despite the friction that found its way between us.
But, we remained. And this song became a kind of anthem for the two of us, something to get us through the worst parts into the places where our better selves waited. There's only so much a song can do, but if it gets you through the really tough times, you hold on to that tightly. You'll need it. And you'll use it. Don't you ever let it go, not for anything.
Side B, Track 5
Björk - "All Neon Like"
I've told you that your mother loved the eclectic stuff. Björk is no exception. I loved Björk too, but your mother owned all the CD singles, the EPs, the LPs. Hell, she even had some subway-sized posters of album covers and promo shoots.
"Homogenic," the album this comes from is my personal favorite. Not unlike the Jimmy Eat World song, this has interesting rhythms that distort the normal groove most are accustomed to. I think that may be why I love it so much. That and the fact that Björk keeps repeating the phrase "I'll heal you" over and over. I'm certainly no doctor and I know next to nothing about cancer (even to this day), but this was just another way for me to tell your mother that, regardless of all our issues in the past, I was in her corner. I was on her side. Whatever cliché she needed to believe in to know that I wasn't shying away from the tough times we knew were coming.
Whomever you end up with, tough times will come. God willing, they will not be nearly as tough as what your mother and I went through, but they will come. It is your duty as a husband and lover to help quell those angry seas, to man the oars through the storm so that the both of you arrive on land safely, holding on to each other. A song that serves as a reminder of the bad times for both of you is a good idea. Just be sure to pick the right one, the one that reminds them of how you came out of those troubled days together.
Side B, Track 6
Billie Holiday -
"Don't Explain" (Dzihan & Kamien Remix)
Your mother loved Billie. In fact, she was the one that turned me on to her. I loved the jazz from the 60's on, but hadn't ever really dipped much further back than that. I never really got into the old big band or swing stuff, but Billie always did it for me. I think it's because my first recollection of hearing "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" was in her bedroom. Early on, when things were more innocent, I would nap with her at her parents' place. They didn't mind as long as the door was open so they could peek in every so often. We were very okay with this agreement. Those were unbelievably nice afternoons. I hope you get to enjoy something similar soon if you haven't already. Back then, your mother's room smelled like rosewater. Subtle, but arresting and very, very distinctive. Any time I smell it, I think of your mother and Billie. Strong, wonderful memories tied to that smell.
This is the only 'remix' I included. The original is super nice, but it's the use of the tablas and the dark nature of the remix that made me want to include it. For awhile there, I was in a pretty dark place. This particular choice is a tough one to express. There is a lot of joy found in the time spent with Billie, but there is some great wallow found in the remix surrounding her voice.
This particular song is incredibly bittersweet for me because of the opposing forces of the memories involved. It's good to know where your weaknesses reside.
Side B, Track 7
Little Dragon - "Cat Rider"
Time to really slow it down. You're near the end. You can't give your intended something that stretches the limits of both the speakers and your enthusiasm. Easing into the final stretch is a perfect idea. End strong, sure, but build up by slowing down. You've dropped a lot of hints and messages at this point. Feel free to pump the brakes a bit and go for pure aesthetics, pure sound.
You know what they like. Choose a song that takes a beautiful route, regardless of the lyrics. The singing on this one is pure lovely. The lyrics are... well, it's not a love song, let's just leave it at that.
I didn't find this one until well after your mother and I stitched back together the nature of who we were before the diagnosis. Before all the doctor visits. Before all the chemo and puking. Before I could lift her with ease from the bed and bathe her in the evenings before putting her back into bed. Before I felt her go brittle and fragile in my arms.
I don't know how to accurately describe watching the one you love completely and slowly disintegrate before your eyes. You almost need to create a villain to focus all your negative energy upon. Real, imagined, whatever... you need somewhere for all that bullshit, that anger, to go. In this song, I found a villain, some imaginary man that had no bearing on my life or hers. I think she was familiar with it, but only in a "I think I've heard that before" kind of way. A great tune musically, however. Super chill, great singing, good melody.
Side B, Track 8
Jeff Buckley -
"Lover, You Should've Come Over"
After her diagnosis, your mother and I found ourselves drowning in wallow for awhile. It's good to wallow. Not long, but just enough to feel the sadness acutely. Trust me on this. You'll have some songs you'll go to that will help you stay in that dark place after your first real breakup. It's okay to wallow, just know when to pull up out of it.
The first time I heard this song, it totally wrecked me, brought me to tears, and I'm not embarrassed to say that. I knew that once the cancer finally had its way with your mother, this was going to be the song I fell into and over and over and over again. When a man sings from the belly of his soul that he would give up everything just to kiss his lover's shoulder, that's more real than damn near anything you can imagine. That whole section of lyrics is a punch in the gut for me because I know what he means now. Sometimes when I listen to this one, I think about the day she died here at home. Other times, I think about the day of her funeral, holding you aloft on my shoulder as you slept, not knowing or understanding the events surrounding us.
This is probably not the kind of song you want to put on your mixtape. It's sad, it's depressing, and can give your intended audience the wrong impression. For your mother and I, however, it was a nice life raft for awhile. It helped us, so I put it in knowing that it would be a good thing for her to hear during her last months.
Side B, Track 9
4Hero - "Conceptions"
Here it is, the final song. Your last chance to say whatever it is that's been on your mind for so long. I find it's good to leave on an instrumental note, something that speaks volumes without words, speaks a litany of truth somewhere in the melody. I don't remember where I first heard this one. Maybe I got it from scouring the internet for new things to listen to. Maybe your uncle turned me onto it, which is highly likely. Either way, it ended up in my morning playlist that I'd put on while your mother slept and I made breakfast. Something calm and soothing that wouldn't wake her so much as slowly bring her back from the world of dreams.
She walked into the kitchen, smelled the coffee brewing, and smiled. She cocked her head to listen and then stumbled out of the kitchen without a word. Curious, I followed and found her at the computer curled up in my chair. I laid my hand on her shoulder and she leaned her head against it, sighing. She said, "This is what sunrise sounds like." I've never been able to listen to the song in any other way since those words passed her lips.
I made this the last song for her because of that moment. Your mother and I spent a lot of time watching the sun come up on the back patio, coffee in hand, nestled against each other under blankets. I thought, as the cancer began spreading, that she would love to have access to this song so that she could remember the sunrise when she got too weak to get out of bed, too weak for us both to meet the sun's arrival in the morning.
So you see, son, I used up the entire tape to show your mother how I felt about her. Forty-five minutes on each side. I had to be careful about the songs I chose. Each one is a memory of her, or is at least tied to a memory. Sometimes several at the same time. She may not be around anymore, but I still have her in different ways, less substantial ways. And I would certainly give up all of my senses, definitely a limb or two as well, if I could have her back. She and I both lived as best we could with the circumstances we found ourselves in.
My point is this: use every inch of tape. Fill it all. If you can't say it on your own, find a way to make your voice known in other ways. Don't leave anything left to chance, don't leave anything unsaid. Give your voice to someone and fill up the entirety of every side. Don't waste a single minute of what you've been given. Find a way to show if you can't find a way to tell. Go and create a lifetime of memories and find a way to keep them whole and intact, son. Never let them go, no matter how much they may hurt to revisit.
Title image "Homegrown" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2016.