category: Throwback

My First Blank Tape

Back in 1984, I got my first blank tape. I don’t remember if someone gave it to me, if my parents bought it for me, or if I saved my own money to get it. It had a very distinctive smell to it (which lingers ever so slightly to this day) and ended up becoming the first tape where I recorded my favorite songs off of the radio and record (by holding my boombox up to my turntable’s speaker). This is the tape, a relatively unassuming Certron 90 minute cassette, scrawled with my horrible handwriting:

Certron Side BCertron Side A

For fun, I decided to throw together a Spotify playlist of all the tracks on the tape. I wasn’t able to include the “Michael Martian” version of “Thriller” (Michael Martian was an alien version of Michael Jackson that I drew, represented aurally by a 33 1/3 RPM record being played at 45 speed), which came after “The Stroke” on side B. I also wasn’t able to close out the mix with The Chipmunks’ version of “The Longest Time,” so I opted for Billy Joel’s original instead.

VHS Memories

VHS tapes

A recent episode of The Projection Booth podcast (one I started listening to because I’ve enjoyed Mike’s Cashiers du Cinemart magazine) focused on the subject of VHS. While most folks have moved way beyond VHS (and physical formats in general), the giant cassettes have made a comeback in recent years with new producers popping up and collectible tapes fetching hundreds and hundreds of dollars on eBay. How popular have they gotten? Enough for this episode to be over four hours long featuring interviews with directors of four separate documentaries in the works about VHS (ETA: a few weeks later, they did a 2 1/2 hour follow-up!). Having grown up on VHS, practically living at Medford’s mom-and-pop rental shop (first West Coast Video, then Couch Potatoes, which existed up until just a couple of years ago) and still owning a pretty sizable VHS collection, I was enthralled by this look back at the history of the format, the huge cultural impact it had allowing people to not only bring movies home to watch but to record content from television, and the recent resurgence the format has seen. One of the movies featured in the episode is Rewind This!, a film whose Kickstarter campaign I tossed a few bucks at a while back. It looks like it’s going to a fun flick, as does the last one featured in the episode, Plastic Movies Rewound. The latter will feature a 30-minute segement on forgotten and virutally unknown alternate formats that go way beyond Beta, Laserdisc, and Videodisc.

The Projection Booth solicited call-in contributions, so I shared my memories. It can be heard at about 42 minutes in, or being the egomaniac I am, I trimmed it down to just my portion so I could embed it here:

In the first story, I discuss my attempts at copying tapes as a teenager. I would rent a bunch of movies on the cheapest day of the week from the local video store and the copy the ones I didn’t have a chance to watch (or that I really liked) using a crappy portable VCR that I’d rent from the public library for $1. Unfortunately, thanks to annoying (but admittedly clever) copy protection schemes like Macrovision, copies would fade in and out making them barely watchable. (Side note: how can there be no videos on YouTube with examples of what copies of copy protected videos looked like?).

In the second story, I talk about Movie Mania at the former Pennsuaken Mart in New Jersey. Movie Mania still exists at the “new” mart in Willingboro, but I haven’t visited so I can’t compare it, but the original was a wonderful place where the most obscure titles could be found and if not found, ordered. Indeed, I special ordered both Anguish and the big box version of Zombie for significantly less that they would have cost me paying “Rental-Only” pricing.

I admit to having some level of nostalgia related to VHS, but it’s not so much for the format itself. After all, the movies released on VHS were rarely letterboxed (at least until near the end of the format’s lifecycle) and the quality was not-so-hot compared to the formats that replaced it. What I am nostalgic for is the community that surrounded the VHS era. I practically lived at West Coast Video (and later, Couch Potatoes) and any money that I earned that didn’t go to CDs from Tunes went to renting movies. And rarely did I rent the blockbuster of the day. Instead, I was renting catalog horror titles–the weirder the better–or old, mid-80s WWF tapes. Usually the local video shop didn’t hassle me about renting R-rated films at 15-years-old, but every so often I’d run into an overzealous new clerk that was adamant about being an upstanding citizen.

There was also the thrill of visiting video shops in new towns or, when I was in college, making a trip to TLA Video in Philly since it was near where my dad worked. Their selection blew my mind and started to introduce me to the more obscure titles by foreign directors that I loved. I’d watched Peter Jackson’s ultra-bloody Dead/Alive probably two dozen times on the screener copy my friend Dave gave me, but it wasn’t until TLA that I was able to see his earlier work like Bad Taste or the sick Meet the Feebles. Likewise for the harder-to-find (at the time) Argento and Fulci films and even more obscure arthouse flicks I was just starting to get into.

I won’t lie: I love being able to stream movies from Netflix at will or being able to watch random Weng Weng movies in full on YouTube, just like I wouldn’t give up my MP3 collection and music streaming subscription for anything. But I still appreciate physical formats and, even more, the community surrounding and experience of finding, renting, and buying movies (and music) at brick-and-mortar stores. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some sort of mini-resurgence of video stores in a few years the same way new record shops have started popping up. But, for now, I admit to longing a bit for the Friday night trip to the rental store to stock up on videos for weekend viewing.

Recently, I’ve been feeling a bit of an urge to revisit a lot of the old media that’s in my basement. For a while, the Normal Bias project has been underway, but I think I need to revisit my old VHSes. Perhaps a video series?

Getting My Columbia House Records, 28 Years Later

I was flipping through an issue of Song Hits magazine from March 1985 today. For those that don’t remember (almost everyone), Song Hits was a magazine that, if it existed online today, would show up in every Google search for “lyrics” and would have a bunch of malware attached to it. Its primary focus was lyrics to songs that were popular on the radio six months earlier. There were also articles and album reviews as well as a nice dose of ads.

Among that issue’s ads was one of the ubiquitous Columbia House “11 for 1 cent” promotions:

Columbia House - March 1985

When I looked closer, I realized nine-year-old me had filled out the form, but never sent it in. Ignoring the fact that I wrote in album names instead of the ID numbers, as instructed, I decided to build a quick Spotify playlist of all the albums I would have gotten (on vinyl, take note) if I’d mailed the form in with $1.86. Only two albums (Rockwell’s Somebody’s Watching Me and The Stray Cats’ Rant N Rave were not available on Spotify).

(Another interesting bit: all selections except for classical or jazz albums were available on 8-track, even in 1985. This is because “1982 was the approximate year the 8 track tape disappeared from record stores yet Columbia continued to release new titles in the format until 1988” (Wikipedia). That’s why it is possible, though difficult, to find some hip-hop on 8-track today, if you look hard enough.)

Giving new meaning to “moving house”

From the same home video as this one, this clip from my grandfather’s collection shows the house my grandparents lived in from the 1960s until my grandmother died in 2005 being moved from its original location near 23rd Street in North Wildwood to its current location at 327 5th Avenue. Here’s what momma had to say:

“The house started out as a private residence with a motel built behind it. My father, who was a contractor and built a number of motels in North Wildwood, was hired to build an addition to the motel, which I believe was located on or near 23rd Street. The year was 1963. Since the house was in the way of the addition, he and my mother purchased the house and had it moved down Surf Avenue to it’s present location on 5th Avenue. The house remained in the family until 2005.”

Two things struck me about this video:

  1. The truck that’s carrying the house isn’t particularly large. It’s pretty amazing they were able to move a house (even a small one) on such a tiny truck.
  2. Check out the dude just chilling on the roof like it’s no big thing!

The house now (thanks to my sister for sending this one along, which she took this past summer):

He likes hoagies.

It’s not my first print publication, but it’s mighty close: the February 1988 edition of the Super Saturday Xpress, a photocopied newspaper created for a Saturday morning enrichment class about newspaper production. I was 12, in 7th grade, and my passion for writing about my obsessions was starting to form.

On the front page is my timely take on the Super Bowl that year. In the piece titled, “Super Bowl Disgrace,” I eloquently and impartially declare “This game was the WORST Super Bowl disgrace, except for the 1979 Super Bowl XIII when Pittsburgh beat Dallas.” Also provided is a handy sidebar of the most significant Super Bowl blowouts (nice touch, 12-year-old me!).

In “Scoops About Our Staff,” the paragraph about me helpfully shares, “He likes hoagies.” Indeed!

On the same page is an uncredited contribution that’s clearly mine: a capsule review of L.L. Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer. What exactly the difference was between a check plus and five checks, I’m not sure. And I clearly understood that James Todd Smith was trying to target the lucrative “12-23” age bracket with his release. This may have been my first published music review.

On the last page, I took out an ad (is that ethical?) to sell my homebrew software for the Apple II. Football (surely Tackle Smash Kill!!) is mentioned, as is wrestling, which I’d completely forgotten about. (Note to self: create a Youtube series of run-throughs for games I wrote as a kid.) I even offered readers quite the deal: “A free random number generator to give variety to your programs.”