This piece was suggested to me by the team at http://www.invaluable.com so credit to them for providing me with a fun idea and hopefully the result is a quality read.
A home isn’t a shell of wood, cement and brick. That’s just a house. Amid the functional blankness of unavoidable purchases — dead sofas, cutlery, toiletries — people cocoon themselves in treasured memories; that’s what makes a home. Mementoes record where we’ve been, certificates and trophies of one form or another capture what we’ve done, photos nod respectfully to the people with whom we’ve done it. We curate museums of self. What we value most will be hung on walls and placed atop units telling who we are, who we have been.
It’s more than a declaration of self. A home binds us to our tribes. The living and the dead comingle in our belongings, we preserve them, give life to them, honor them. We open that door not just to friends, family, acquaintances. Memorabilia is a mark of gratitude thanking those we might never have met but who — through their works — gave us comfort, color, inspiration. We pledge allegiance by adding physical markers of their lives to ours so no one can tell our stories without acknowledging theirs. Memorabilia says someone or something mattered.
Though I’m not a rich man, I’m tempted. A friend of mine says he’ll accept $7,500 to $10,000 dollars for it. Plastic casing at least twenty-seven years old, not too battered for being not much shy of my age and twenty-seven is a sacred number in this context . A handwritten chunk of card roughly twelve centimeters wide and maybe a little longer. I imagine the cassette weighs a hundred grams. I used to patiently re-spool cassettes just as unremarkable as this using a pencil to feed the magnetic tape and the tip of a finger to screw-drive the reel one turn at a time.
I’ve never valued picture discs, limited editions, numbered copies, or any of the other sleights of hand used by canny businesses to confer preciousness on industrial end-products. If the music isn’t worth it, I don’t want it. I clear out records that leave me cold or that I never feel like playing. But downloads are too slight a thing to be satisfying. They strip sound of worth, reduce it to anonymity, to musical wallpaper and corporate filename formats. I want the commitment that comes with an object given shelf space even if I don’t fetishize plastic, paper, vinyl.
Human connection invigorated these objects; handicraft kindles value for me in extinguished substances. A CD-R with a Xeroxed cover bought from Dylan Nyoukis at a gig in Brighton. John Lydon’s memoir hand-signed then embossed at the 100 Club. Woodblock covers for Michael Gira’s home recordings. The Fire Ants’ only single sent as a thank you from Ed Dekema for writing the band’s oral history for their new reissue. A polaroid from Marcus Gray’s Parasite project. The Blood Circus t-shirt Geoff Robinson sent. A lathe-cut 7” of a Dumb Numbers’ song.
And this tape…I’ll play it two times and the second someone else will have to do it for me. It’s Nirvana’s first studio session on a cassette Kurt Cobain dubbed off by hand in early 1988 as a gift for a friend of his I’m now happy to call a friend of mine. It’s the only item of music memorabilia I’ve ever thought of owning. A tape a twenty-one year old pauper boy copied back before his band meant anything at all to the world. I’d be too afraid to play it more than twice.
I’ll never have been so scared as on that first occasion. I’ll be praying; “Allah, please, don’t let my grandfather’s old tape-deck fuck it all to hell.” Electric skin and cold sweats expecting to hear the tinfoil crinkling of a mashed tape at any moment. If it breaks there’s no replacement; Cobain handed out other tapes but I’ll never come near another one. It’s handmade aspects mean another one still wouldn’t be this one. From beginning-to-end, though I know ever note, every nerve in my body will be set shaking like crystal, a never-felt intensity arising from pure fear that this might all go wrong at any moment and it might become just a hundred grams of trash.
The second time, I’ll be in a hospital or, if I’m lucky, my own home. It’s the best any of us can hope for; that we have a chance to pause and say goodbye when the end is coming on strong. I hope I’m not alone. I’ll ask someone to take the cassette out of the transparent reinforced fireproof security box I’ve had welded to the floor. I’ll ask them to put it on for me. And I’ll smile because it’s so silly — who the hell else’ll care about a guy who died some sixty years back in another century? Do you cry for the music-hall stars of the 1890s? But I’ll welcome the comfort of music I’ve lived with since age thirteen played on a tape that’s as close as I’ll ever come to shaking the man’s hand and thanking him for making music that made my life better.
I don’t think it’s too much money. If I can scrape it together I’ll be delighted to make that much of a difference to my friend’s life. The tape’ll look so incongruous sat in the middle of my home, so nondescript, a monumental nothing appealing to my sense of humor. I’ll rest it on the rare Nirvana CD single kind people in Tacoma gave to me and signed their names on. Cobain’s tape’ll be surrounded by memory of one friend, the names of half-a-dozen others — I like the idea of their writing being as precious as his, a gathering of people he knew or would have liked.
There’ll be no re-sale value once memory of Cobain fades. There’ll be an ever-shrinking cluster of aging collectors I’ll find it too much trouble to track down and I can’t imagine museums shelling out for a 1988 tape in 2050. There’s the absurdity of buying something just because it passed through the hands of someone I admire; something I can’t play or use, that’ll I’ll need to buy protection for. If I don’t take pleasure in the ridiculousness of it I’ll talk myself out of it.
I know already the day after the purchase it’ll feel too small a thing and I’ll wonder at all the things I could have done with that kind of money. I’ll have overpaid because I’m buying from a friend and turning it over in my hands I’ll feel a bit silly. It’s a just a thing I’ll tell myself. It’s just a possession…But that word will make the difference. Someday when my body has turned traitor I’ll draw strength from the ghosts inhabiting the things around me because that’s what they’re there for. They’re spirit totems stored up to carry us through dark times…
…And I’ll remember that the money and the silliness don’t matter; they’re just cause to smile. I’ll recall the one hour I sat, face pale, composure like porcelain balanced precariously on a table edge — that time when I never listened to music so intensely. And I’ll know this tape will play me out of the world paying my respects to an epiphany at age thirteen; to personal glories in my mid-thirties; to friends and memories and all my ghosts. And I’ll hold the hand of someone I love and the tape won’t matter anymore, it’ll just be people. And love. And it all won’t matter.