It used to be, the music you recorded for your party was as important as the food and the booze. But what to do with those tapes 30 years later? (By John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

There’s a museum practice called “de-accession.” That’s when, say, a gallery gets rid of its velvet Elvises to concentrate on poker-playing dogs. The term you’re more likely to hear these days is “declutter.” All the TV home shows are about that now. Strip your walls down to shiplap and display nothing but weird seed pods and framed eye charts.

My brother Chris and his wife, Marcia, have been decluttering hard as they prepare to put their house on the market. Their real estate agent brought in a stager to help.

Stagers work best when the stage is empty, and this lady walked around their house pointing at things — end tables, rugs, vases — and announcing “Edit . . . Edit . . . Edit.”

“What she meant was, ‘Delete,’ ” Chris said.

We were commiserating because I’ve been going through a great deletion myself. My Lovely Wife and I decided to paint all the rooms in our house. She thought this was a great incentive to purge unneeded possessions. Since our furniture was going to be pushed to the center of each room, why not lighten the load?

I’m in the “out of sight, out of mind” school. God invented things with doors — cabinets, dressers — so you could keep stuffing your possessions inside and forget about them. Ruth was having none of it.

The books, especially, were a problem. Did we want to move them all twice: off the bookshelves and into the basement, and then out of the basement and back to the bookshelves? Some, sure: the first-edition of Orwell’s “1984.” But if I hadn’t yet read that hardback on the history of peanut butter, was I ever going to read it?

So, some books were set aside to donate. Other household items were thrown away during a trip to the transfer station. That’s always satisfying. You get to open the back of your car and just toss stuff out.

I tell you, no Artemis loosed an arrow with as much grace as Ruth did when she flung an old metal hamper frame into a pile of broken refrigerators and rusting window AC units, where it landed with a satisfying “clang.”

But getting rid of an old metal hamper frame is one thing. My records, CDs and cassette tapes are another. They’re personal.

Not that I was totally averse to pruning. I could accept that there was some duplication. I started with LPs that Ruth and I both owned that had somehow nestled together for 30 years. I saved the better copy, unless Ruth had written on the inner sleeve of the other one, fixing typos or correcting erroneous lyrics, in which case I saved that one as a reminder that My Lovely Wife has always been the sort of person who proofreads liner notes.

CDs I was never going to listen to went in the giveaway pile, too. That included three year’s worth of the CD samplers that came every month with College Music Journal. This saddened me. But even if I binge-listened to all of it, it would only provide me with a grounding of alternative music of the mid-1990s. I’m pretty sure nobody’s gonna ask me now what I think of Chumbawamba or Superchunk.

Then there were the cassette tapes. People make fun of that obsolete technology today, but there was a time when it was cutting edge. Or cutting middle, anyway. The cassette tape was the birth control pill of personal audio, symbolizing freedom and choice: Listen to it in your home, on your person, in your car!

And when it got tangled and mangled in the tape deck of your Toyota Tercel, roll down the window and chuck it out, holding a bit of the brown ribbon between your fingers as you let it unspool in the slipstream.

So, I have a fondness for cassettes. But even I had to admit that a TDK dub of Marshall Crenshaw’s debut album was surplus when I also had it on vinyl and CD (and iTunes). Out it went.

But what do you do with a mix tape? Those musical scrapbooks expressed real personality. They also represented real toil. Unlike an iTunes playlist, each one took at least as long to assemble as it did to listen to. There was no dragging and dropping with a mix tape. There was no sending the track list to the inkjet, either. You had to handwrite each song title and artist. Or artist, then title. And commas to separate? Or semicolons?

Whatever mix tapes I made for old girlfriends are, like the girlfriends themselves, long gone: in their closets or basements or nearest landfills. (The tapes, not the girlfriends.) What I had were stacks of party tapes. These had been crafted with care — and no small amount of wishful thinking. Side One of Tape One would start slow and mellow — guest-arrival music — then build in tempo and intensity until somewhere around Tape Three the bacchanalia soundtrack kicked in.

That was the idea, anyway. These days, I guess it’s easier just to say, “Alexa: Play orgy music.”

Of course, I never would. Wouldn’t want to mess up the new paint.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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