This is the kind of news that, depending on your first reaction to it, dates a motherfucker: Sony has officially ceased production on the cassette-playing Sony Walkman. At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall writes that the machine, which in its day "managed to provide -- right up against your ear -- a surprising degree of audio fidelity" but adds that "let's be honest -- today it looks like kind of a joke." Whatever, Josh. I don't mean to come on like one of those outdated-format fetishists who build online shrines to their collections of 8-track tapes, but when I found out about this, I didn't think about how lame the Walkman has become but how exciting it was when I first got my hands on one.
This was early in 1985, which should tell you everything you need to know about where I've always been positioned on the high-tech cutting edge, given that this was about the same time that CDs began taking up real space in record stores. There were a few years there, which neatly overlapped with the period when yuppies were replacing their vinyl collections with shiny steel discs, when cassette tapes were my recorded format of choice, just because I loved the experience of bopping into a shop in the mall, buying the latest release, popping it into my player and bopping out again to check it out while scarfing a nutritious lunch of waffle fries. I even remember that the first tape I ever listened to on the thing was Neil Young's After the Gold Rush and that the second was Captain Beefheart's Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), and I think the third was either UB40's Present Arms or Randy Newman's Trouble in Paradise. After that, my memory gets a little hazy, but suffice to say that, for most of the '80s, my music buying habits were largely determined by whatever was sitting in the $2.99 pile in front of the store. Do that regularly for a few months and it won't be long before you find yourself using the word "eclectic" to describe your musical taste in your personal ads.
Both the cassettes and the players were flimsy and rickety contraptions, but none of that mattered as much as the combination of portability and privacy--the fact that you could walk down a city street or sit on a bus (or, in my case, wander aimlessly through a rural Mississippi hellhole so barren of life that every hiccup seemed to echo like the sound of artillery in the mountains) with your own personal soundtrack booming in your head and nobody to tap you on the shoulder and inform you that they did not share your enthusiasm for Timbuk 3. For those of us who grew up with no means of listening to music except for a living room stereo that looked like an above-ground tomb with a tone arm, it was a real Brave New World moment. I got my first portable CD player sometime in the mid-90s, but I still had a Walkman around, because I still had a lot of stuff that I couldn't get on CD. When I bought my last cassette player, which must have been nine or ten years ago, my favorite diversion during long train rides was listening to tapes of This American Life. I was still sometimes using it five years ago, by which time I was feeling a little sheepish about being seen in public with my Discman. (I still don't have an iPod.) By then, the little door had come off and I had to hold the player in my hand so that the tape wouldn't fall out. I knew it was time to retire it when I got aboard an elevator at CBS and someone twenty years older and more out of touch than myself began cooing over my broken-down old Walkman, asking what it was called. It looked so strange to her that she thought it must be the latest thing.