A Mixed Tape Saved My Life

Summer 1989: middle school hell over and preparing to enter my freshman year at a tiny rural Maine prep school (Hebron Academy; my mom taught there. . . not an actual “prep”). I had been living in Mechanic Falls for two years. I’m sure it’s nice now, but it was a rough place live out my awkwardest years. By the grace of God I started guitar lessons at Jack’s Music Loft at age 11, and sought shelter in music. Thankfully, I had summer camp to look forward. Since third grade, Pilgrim Lodge on Cobbosseecontee Lake had been my summer refuge, and that year I would attend the high school camp and fine arts camp—two weeks of camp bliss!


Early in the week at fine arts camp, in the boys cabin, Jeff G. inspected my tape collection: “Crap, crap, crap. This is all crap,” he informed me. Weeks later, a packaged arrived in the mail. I don’t remember what kind of package; whether it was a box or envelope. I can’t recall if there was a letter. It was a cassette tape. The clear kind—a Maxell 90, maybe? I don’t remember what was written on it. There was no case, no sleeve, or liner notes. Just the music, starting with Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream.” Some artists I knew, others I had to seek out or discover over time: Bauhaus, Elvis Costello, the Cure, Poi Dog Pondering, the PIxies. It was eclectic. It was wonderful. It pulled me out the fog I had been living in, and really marked a transition for me from boy to young man. A young man who made decisions according to his heart and mind, and not the opinions of his peers.  


After this introduction to new music, I sought out punk, hardcore, new wave, and progressive music, effectively ignoring or not noticing a solid 10 years of popular music. I played in “alternative” and punk bands. These were the end times for alternative music—before Nirvana—before “alternative” became a genre, rather than a catch-all for non-mainstream music. We were Nirvana fans, and after they hit there was a lot of great music that got the attention of the music industry and reached the ears of listeners. The landscape of popular music was significantly changed after 1990. This worked well for me, since my bands became welcome in clubs, and not limited to college campuses and church basements. Today I can play Paul Simon, Coldplay and the Smiths, as well as my originals in the same set, and no one bats an eyelash. 


I’ve been thinking about the mixed tape lately, how it was catalyst for change in my life. I was lost, depressed, unsure of myself, lonely. Somehow the music on that tape resonated with me in a way that other music had not, and I new wanted more, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Catalysts can take so many forms. Joyous or tragic events most often: marriage; parenthood; a new job; the death of a loved on. They can also be little things that almost go unnoticed: the way the sun peeks out from the clouds while driving to work; a spilled coffee; a movie, or better yet, a concert. That tape was the first of many waypoints in my life; moments when I can remember visualizing two paths laid before me and consciously choosing one over the other. Strangely, most of those choices involved art or happiness. A conversation for another time—I have in recent years discovered that the two are not exclusive of each other.


I may be at a waypoint now, as I have a break in my gigging schedule. I have revamped my studio/practice space and plan to put it to use. As always, I will keep you all posted on my doings. 


And. . . don’t forget to visit me at https://www.chriskempwhite.com, follow me on FaceBook, and hear/buy music at chriskempwhite.com, and streaming on YouTube, Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, and Deezer.


Peace, love, and happiness,


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