The List: 4 rediscovered cassettes

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by Jordan Green

1. Reggae mix taped off the radio

My cassette collection goes back to 1984 — Duran Duran’s Arena was my first purchase, if you must know — and continues roughly until the turn of the millennium. Some are manufactured, others are copies with song lists dutifully inscribed with a Precise Rolling Ball pen, while still others are unlabeled and housed in mismatched cases. The latter are the best. One of my favorites arrived in the mail from a friend named Chris Kubic, AKA Finster K. Rain, in the late 1990s. The nearly inscrutable label is a greeting in the secret-handshake language of our personal bond over poetry and music: “Oh yea much goosey.” We called ourselves the Goose Poets; I can’t explain. But the music on the cassette is reggae taped off a radio station in Key West, Fla., complete with bits of static where he’s evidently tuning the dial to improve the reception. Ecstatic, affecting and perfectly sequenced, the songs are total classics, from Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” and the Starlites’ “Dip Them Jah Jah Dip Them” to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “Sonny’s Lettah.”

2. Bill Watkins — country demo

One of the unexpected benefits of small children is they have this uncanny ability to dredge up items you never expected to see again in your life. That’s how I stumbled on an old demo by Bill Watkins, an obscure Cincinnati rockabilly artist who recorded the incomparable “Big Guitar” and “Missed the Workhouse” in the late 1950s. I had the honor of interviewing Watkins for an oral history that served as my senior project at Antioch College. During our visit or perhaps shortly afterwards he gave me a six-song demo of country songs that he wrote. If you can get past the maudlin sentimentality on songs like “Moving Rain” and “Mama Bought the Guitar,” each one is a perfectly formed vessel of Watkins’ mercurial acoustic guitar picking and thin, gentle vocals. The demo suggests an attempt to score commercial success in Nashville in the early ’70s, but Watkins’ huge and gracious personality could never have fit in such a narrow frame.

3. Jesus Chrust/Apostates split

This is truly DIY: a split between the early ’90s political crust punk bands Jesus Chrust and Apostates. The cassette is a blank like you might buy in a package at the drugstore, and the hand-drawn labels look like they were copied at Kinko’s and then glued onto each side. I don’t really know anything about the bands, but by their names you can be assured they were hostile to organized religion. Song topics include animal rights, racism and the South African liberation struggle. The music is blistering, ear-singeing hardcore perfectly balanced on a knife’s edge between fury and idealism. I’m guessing the two bands were part of the scene at ABC No Rio in New York City. But I can’t know for sure because I was a 16-year-old in Kentucky when I mail-ordered the tape.

4. Iris Dement backed with Emmylou Harris

Nothing particularly novel about this, but it hits my ears just right. During the period when I was known as “Country Jordan” at Antioch College, I checked out Iris Dement’s 1992 debut album Infamous Angel and Emmylou Harris’ 1995 left turn Wrecking Ball from the Yellow Springs Public Library, and copied them onto a 90-minute cassette. The title song of Dement’s album should have been a Jack Kerouac novel; the lead track “Let the Mystery Be” is an Americana anthem of agnosticism; and if you’re not crying when you hear “Mama’s Opry,” you might not be human. Harris’ Wrecking Ball, meanwhile, almost singlehandedly started the sub-genre of goth-country. Produced by Daniel Lanois, it’s mostly covers — the title track is by Neil Young — and for my money the best is her reading of “Goodbye,” Steve Earle’s sad meditation on the oblivion of addiction.