Imagine if you will. it. You’re just about as multi-talented as they come. You once turned into a child at the fun fair, before turning back into an adult with the help of your best mate. Another time, you ran across America, just because you could (and this was after your time in Vietnam and your exploits as a shrimp based entrepreneur). You’ve been a daredevil cowboy, a much-loved television presenter and America’s favourite pilot. Everybody loves you. I mean you even made friends on a desert island once… with a football. You are Tom Hanks.
And then just when we thought there might be a limit to your talents, you went a wrote a collection of short stories.
As a reader, short stories generally aren’t my kind of thing. So a collection of them doesn’t normally work for me. I like the full development of characters and an actual narrative that I feel a novel always brings. But ‘Uncommon Type’ intrigued me when I spotted it on the shelves of my local supermarket. I liked the look of it, but I have to be honest and say that it was Hanks’s name that drew me in and led to me taking the book off the shelves. Yes, I’m that shallow!
Uncommon Type is a collection of seventeen stories, all set in the USA and as the quote on the front of the book says, ‘All American life is here‘. Several of the tales revolve around the same four friends and their various adventures, but then we also have a Word War II veteran facing up to life after active combat, an actor who suddenly and unexpectedly finds ridiculous levels of fame and also the thoughts of a child facing up to his parents’ divorce and the strange ways in which can sometimes move on. So although we’re largely faced with tales of small town America, there’s a great variation in the stories. And one last twist; all of the stories are connected by the presence of a typewriter (hence the title), which while it doesn’t sound a particularly clever or attractive selling point, is carried out brilliantly.
I have to admit, I was hooked from the first page of ‘Uncommon Type’. It turns out that as well as being lauded as an actor and just an all-round nice guy, Hanks can spin a yarn too. He writes beautifully and although there were one or two of the stories that did nothing for me, I couldn’t put the book down for the majority of my time reading it.
As a reader, you’re immersed in the worlds that Hanks places you in, such is his gift for description. Whether it’s small town America or the other side of the moon, Hanks’s prose transports you there convincingly and makes for an excellent read.
As you’d expect from the award winning Hollywood superstar actor, Tom Hanks can write a character! From Anna, an ex-triathlete with a penchant for telling her boyfriend, “Atta baby” through Virgil and Bud, army veterans, both the epitomy of masculinity and typical of their generation and on to American immigrant and stowaway Assan; all are believable and thoroughly engaging. Hanks has created real people that the reader can’t help but care about and ask questions of. And if you’re like me, all the while that you’re in the worlds he creates, watching the characters go about their lives, it’s all being narrated by the man himself! For all seventeen stories Hanks was my reading voice, which, let me tell you, is relaxing to say the least.
I loved ‘Uncommon Type’. It’s subtle eye for detail, charming characters and sense of humour made it a brilliant, engaging read. Although there are one or two perhaps below par tales here, all in all there’s something for everyone. A definite winner that I’d certainly recommend you read.
The mix tape. In a sense, a history lesson needs to be given before this piece can really get going. So here goes…
For the younger reader – I’m talking late teens to adults in their twenties and onwards, not toddlers – the mix tape was a thing of beauty. It was literally a blank cassette tape, often known as a C45 or a C-60, and then you’d record some of your favourite songs onto said tape, for a variety of reasons which we can go into later. A cassette, by the way, was actual tape that recorded the sound, on two spools encased a a plastic rectangle. Like this one below; glamorous, huh?
Us older people would make mix tapes by playing music from another source – maybe the radio, another cassette or vinyl – and then recording the tracks straight on to the tape. In many ways we were pioneers, early superstar DJs, as long as you ignored the quality. And the superstar bit.
This blog was prompted by a BBC 6Music programme that I listened to one weekday morning, a while ago now. It was Lauren Laverne’s mid morning show and she was talking to a guest, the writer Jane Sanderson. Jane had written a book called ‘The Mix Tape’ and so the interview concentrated partly on the book (which sounds great, by the way) and partly on the idea of mix tapes, while also getting Jane to contribute a mix of songs that she herself would put on a mix tape. I scribbled down some of the ones I liked, but as I was working during a free period, it made it difficult to keep up! I’ll include the list at the end of the blog for you though, dear reader, and perhaps you might want to check them out.
Of course, the interview got me thinking about the days of mix tapes and my own experiences. For me, mix tapes had a dual purpose, as I suspect they did for many others. At first I’d share them with friends as we discovered new music. Usually this would be either purchased from our local record shop – Music Box in Blaydon – or borrowed from the library. Both places were like a kind of Mecca to me in my formative years and I’d happily spend hours in either, perusing what there was on offer, searching for new sounds that I’d read about or maybe even taking a gamble that would invariably not pay off, by rooting round the bargain bin! And while this makes me sound like a very lonely individual, I wasn’t. I had genuine friends. No, honestly, I did. Real, tangible human ones, not just voices in my head or shadowy figures at the bottom of our garden!
Anyway, once sourced I’d tape this new music, adding it to what I laughingly referred to as a ‘mix’, on yet another blank cassette, even though there was no mixing; just the end of the track and the clunk of the stop or pause button, followed by a similar clunk and a hiss as I started recording the next track.
Part of the idea with mix tapes was to offer a taste of new music to the recipient. Us mix tapers somewhat automatically set ourselves up as experts and svengalis who would open the minds of our devotees with the startling choices we made; the musical gems we unearthed. Often the idea would be to try and outdo each other, in a kind of ‘I’ll take your lo-fi garage band mix and raise you my underground East coast hip hop.’ And we would outdo each other with music that we loved, not simply something that we hated, but knew that the other person wouldn’t have ever heard of. In many ways we were a bit sad, but not that sad! Sometimes though it was a simple case of hearing something that you loved and knowing that the person on the receiving end of the mix tape would love it too.
Mix tapes would also be a good way of communicating with the latest object of our affections too. Music was something that I knew quite a bit about and something that I soaked up as much as I could. So it was a subject that I could talk about with at least a bit of authority and hopefully not sound too dull. And a good job too, because my other area of expertise, football, was not of much interest to the girls of 1980s Newcastle. But as quite a shy boy, who inhabited a world of self-doubt, the mix tape was an in with girls. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t some kind of predator; often it was just a good way for a girl to get a free cassette and that was where our interaction ended, but on some occasions it actually worked! On one occasion the girl I fancied payed back my gift of a mix tape full of songs I thought she might be interested in, with a copy of Pretty Woman on VHS, leaving me puzzled as where she saw our potential relationship going. It turned out that she simply loved the film and seeing my enthusiasm for the music, thought she’d reply with something she also loved. And despite our obvious unsuitability, a brief romance ensued. It didn’t end very well, but it definitely started! And all because of a mix tape!
My approach to mix tapes became more sophisticated as I got older. As well as developing my musical tastes, I also developed the look of my mix tapes and started to design front covers for them rather than just presenting them to the recipient with an inlay card containing names of tracks and artists. When I say ‘designed’ it would often amount to cutting pictures from a magazine that might fit with the general feel of the mix tape and manipulating them into the cassette case as neatly as I could. Sometimes though, when my confidence was at its medium level best, I might do a sketch and use that as the front cover. So in some ways I was trying to create some kind of art, I suppose. And until now I’d thought that I hadn’t been remotely pretentious in my teenage years!
However, I suppose what my ‘artsy’ period shows is exactly how seriously we all took mix tapes. Not only did people spend hours carefully selecting not just the tracks to go on the tape, but also what order they would go in to have the best impact on the recipient. Then on top of those hours we’d also add more, collecting images that might look good in a cassette case and even more going through said images in search of exactly the right one for whatever mix tape we were creating at the time. But it wasn’t in any way a laborious process. I’m sure I speak for many of us who ‘curated’ such tapes when I say that it was massively enjoyable. Mix tapes were that important that at times they took over our lives and would often consume entire days. And all in the hope of some kind of connection being made.
As I listened to the interview that prompted this blog, once I’d got past being nostalgic, I began to think about who I might send a mix tape nowadays and what tracks I’d want to include. The whole process would be undoubtedly made easier now because of the internet and things like Alexa. Our playlists are there permanently and waiting to be explored and even a Luddite like me can navigate them.
My obvious recipient would be my wife, but the snag here is that we share a lot of the same musical taste and, having been together for such a long time, there’s very little that we don’t know about each other’s playlists and tastes. Although only very recently she surpised me by being wholly unaware of the song Super Freak by Rick James, preferring to believe that it was MC Hammer who was playing on the radio. For the same reason I’d have to rule out some of my friends. I think I’d still exchange mix tapes with those that I’d class as proper music fans though – David, Andy, Pricey, Emma, Kath, to name but a few. And I’m sure I could put something of meaning together for my wife as well.
After a bit of thinking though, I think the first person I’d want to send a mix tape would be my sister. We’re two very different characters and not the closest of siblings. But I’d like her to know how much of an influence she had on some of my tastes while we both still lived at home together and I’d like to try and bring a bit of sunshine to her life with a few decent tunes. I don’t have an entire mix tape planned out but some of the tracks I’d definitely include would be ‘White Lines’ by Grandmaster Flash, which she introduced me to as a teenager and I’d hope would remind her of better times. Now if you know the song, that might seem like a bad one for a teenager in the 1980s to be aware of, but I can assure you I had no idea what they were rapping about; I just loved the song! Then there’d be ‘Loaded’ by Primal Scream, because I’d bet she’s never heard it and that’s a crying shame (plus I think it might be the kind of track she could do with listening to at the end of every day) and ‘One Big Family’ by Embrace because I think sometimes we need a reminder that we’re actually brother and sister. After that, I could add all sorts of interesting tracks for her to give a listen to. Because of course, that’s the beauty of a mix tape.
In her interview, Jane Sanderson was asked to give 6music a mix tape of her own. Of course, it wasn’t via cassette, but it was a great mix of songs. Unfortunately for me, I was listening during a free period at work and so, had to tune out when it came to teaching again. However, if you’re interested – and you should be as there are some ace tracks – the tracks that I made a note of were, Northern Sky by Nick Drake, I Close My Eyes by Dusty Springfield, Thinking About You by Frank Ocean and I Didn’t See It Coming by Belle and Sebastian. Maybe they’ll be the first four on my first foray back into the world of the mix tape?
Listening to Lauren Laverne and Jane Sanderson got me thinking about the possibility of a cassette revival. After all, we’ve witnessed it with vinyl where after 12 continuous years of rising sales, over 4 million LPs were sold in the UK in 2019. Similar digging for figures revealed that there was a 103% increase in sales of music cassettes in the first 6 months of 2020 with 65,000 cassettes purchased in the first 6 months of the year. Clearly, people are buying cassettes again. Could we see the return of the mix tape? I hope so. How long before I can start sending them out again? Surely it’s only a matter of time! Ladies and gentlemen, we could be witnessing the rebirth of a veritable cultural phenomenon!
As ever, let me know in the comments what you thought of the post. I’d be really interested to know about other people’s experiences of mix tapes too. I’m sure there are some brilliant stories out there!