The (Not Quite) Lost Art of the Tape Cover
Dan Skolnik | December 30, 2016
Auggie had never heard of moe. He and his buddy were hitchhiking on Route 80, east of Salt Lake City, late one night in June, 1995. Before I could see their faces and scraggly hair, I saw their sign: “Red Rocks” in bold letters. They were waiting for someone who understood what that meant, and I did. That’s where I was going.
They jumped in and I turned my music down. We rode a few miles exchanging vital information – names, hometowns, number of Phish Shows. I was coming off the Grateful Dead’s three Bay Area Shows the week before, heading for the East Coast run, with the Phish Shows at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater in between. I lived in New York and was boomeranging the country for Dead Tour, having the time of my life. They saw Phish the previous two nights in Boise and Salt Lake. After a while I turned the music up again.
“Good jam, who is this?” Auggie asked.
“Band called moe. A Show they played in New York City last year.”
“That’s a weird name.” He reached for the cassette case on the dashboard in front of him. “Whoa, cool tape cover, man. You make this?”
I nodded, smiling like a father watching his kid score a goal. A full, wooden tape rack lay face up on the back seat, and the other guy started telling Auggie what I had. We zoomed down the highway, surrounded by a fluid “Yodelittle” jam in my car.
The Golden Age of tape trading started in the early 1970’s when reel-to-reel tapes were replaced by cassettes. I started trading in 1987, and by 1995 I had about 600 tapes. Mostly Dead, but I was starting to collect tapes of Widespread Panic, Phish, moe., Dave Matthews and some bands you maybe never heard of, like The Ominous Seapods, Percy Hill and Moon Boot Lover. Along the way, I started decorating the 3x4 tape covers with crayons and magic markers – tools made for youths to express youth. I was in a flurry of tape trades when Jerry died in ’95 – the mailman expressed condolences to me – and I poured my grief as gratitude onto tape covers.
By ’96 most of my tapes were polychromatic. Writing the song titles in sinuous letters came first, then drawing swirling lines with colored ink or magic marker, then blanketing it all with random swaths of crayon. Blues and reds and greens.
Sometimes I laid the crayon coat down and then carved wild paths in the wax with the edge of a penny. There was no wrong way to do it. Just the bravery and arrogance and intrinsic Headiness of inside and outside the lines.
Then there were the spines – the part of the tape cover that shows when the tapes are in the rack. (The spine is the ticket, the tape is the Show.) Even though the spines were narrow, I tried to make them burst with meaning. I’d write the band, the venue and the date in that order, then color over the narrow, blank whiteness. But I never wrote “Grateful Dead” on the spines of my Dead tapes. They didn’t need to distinguish themselves from the other bands. It went without saying. I understood.
I wrote tiny numbers next to each song title. These were the counter numbers on my tape deck. They allowed me to forward through the infamous “Dead Air” – the minutes of tuning and cheering and ear-piercing whistles between songs – to where the next song started. Later I came to think of these symbolically. What if I could just fast-forward through the rent checks, frozen pipes, break-ups and hair loss? What if we all could just pass over the boring speeches, the aversions and disappointments and little deaths? Just let them be understood, but unsaid, so we can get to the graduations and successes; the friends and lovers; the nuggets of grace that will come.
From the tape cover I knew exactly where the pearls would be.
My first Phish tapes triggered an internal debate about whether to decorate them too. I wasn’t familiar with their music yet. Was it an honor, a ritual, reserved for Grateful Dead tapes? The second-generation bands didn’t have the gravitas for me, and I hesitated to presume that in time they would. On the other hand, the plainness of song titles against the white background seemed starkly incomplete. I decided to try creating some Phish covers and see how I felt about them after a few listens. So I did, and I never looked back.
It was just fun.