One thing that really sucked about the pre-MP3 era was that it was a huge hassle to get your car a cheap source of music that didn’t sound terrible. As I gather components to set up my Dodge A100 Hell Project with an ironic 8-track setup, I’m forced to recall the hot cassette deck that was more or less forced into my not-so-willing hands back in 1982.
My first car was a 50-buck 1969 Toyota Corona sedan. It came with a factory AM radio (with the CONELRAD stations indicated by Civil-Defense symbols) in the dash, which meant I could listen to scratchy, mono-dash-speaker stuff like Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock-N-Roll” on KFRC.
It also came with an underdash Kraco 8-track player. By the early 1980s, 8-tracks had become laughably obsolete (but not yet ironic-hipster cool), and no 16-year-old wanted to be seen with an 8-track tape in his or her possession. That would be as humiliating a 16-year-old having a Zune now. Being broke, I picked up a genuinely lo-fi piece of audio hardware for $1.50 from the U-Pull yard on 85th Avenue in east Oakland: a cassette-to-8-track adapter. Yes, such devices actually existed, and they almost worked! Well, no, they didn’t.
Cassettes sucked, too, but they sucked less than 8-tracks (this Non/Boyd Rice tape is the only store-bought cassette I can dig up at this hour; I’ve given up finding an image of the X cassette I really wanted for this rant). What I needed was a proper cassette deck for my Corona, so I could crank the Dead Kennedys and Motörhead as I cruised Park Street with a mighty 1900 cubic centimeters of Toyota R power at my command. Back then, however, you couldn’t even get an off-brand Taiwanese Staticblaster cassette player for the kind of money I was able to scrape up from my after-school job stocking the beer fridge at the Herpes Central Beach And Tennis Club Bar, not if you were trying to save up the cash to buy a ’71 Satellite with header-equipped 318. Junkyard decks weren’t much cheaper, not if they worked. What to do?
I figured something would come up, but my friend “Sick Dog” (second from left in the yearbook photo of my crypto-Baja-ized ’58 Beetle, above) couldn’t stand riding in my car and being forced to listen to “Kill The Poor” through a warbly-ass 8-track adapter and decided to take decisive action. This decisive action consisted of Sick Dog ripping off the cassette deck from a Capri II owned by a young woman who lived next door; he believed that she had once called the cops on him for doing bleach burnouts in his (six-cylinder) ’68 Mustang and thus deserved to get her Capri de-stereo-ized. Dressed all in black, including ski mask— he was on a mission, you see— he coat-hangered his way into the car and spent hours silently dismantling the dash and removing the Realistic cassette deck. Next day at school, filled with pride, he handed me a paper bag containing the stereo. “Let’s install it tonight!” I was horrified, but what could I do? Rat off my best friend to The Man? I told him he was an asshole. “What’s done is done,” he replied, “Now you’ve got tunes, dude!”
So, we rigged up the cassette deck in place of the AM radio in the Corona, using some junkyard speakers sitting in holes crudely hacked into the rear package shelf with a jigsaw. Powering it up, we discovered that it had a cassette inside. Not just any cassette, in fact— this was one of the greatest albums ever recorded: X’s 1980 masterpiece, Los Angeles. I’d heard of X— they were starting to get medium-big in Northern California with Under The Big Black Sun around that time— but I had never listened to Los Angeles all the way through. It immediately became my favorite tape and went on many road trips over the next 20 years (it was finally eaten by a tape-hungry boombox in my ’76 Nova)… but I always felt a twinge of guilt, thinking about the poor Capri-driving woman losing both her stereo and (what I’ve always assumed was) her favorite cassette. Actually, more than a twinge of guilt; there have been times that I’ve felt like the protagonist of an Edgar Allen Poe story, being stalked by a ghost who hums “Johnny Hit And Run Pauline” while dragging chains over an endless expanse of busted tape decks.
I’ve often wondered if Sick Dog, who grew up into a reasonably law-abiding guy, feels bad about his youthful stereo theft, or if he even remembers it. For my part, I can tell you that there is such a thing as Hot Cassette Deck Karma; I’ve had plenty of cassette players ripped off from my vehicles over the years. Sure, living in urban-entrepreneur-heavy San Francisco and Oakland had something to do with it, but the real reason was the straight-outta-Poe ghost leading miscreants to my parked car. It’s been at least 10 years since I’ve had a car stereo theft, so the Tape Deck Ghost appears to believe that my half-dozen disappeared cassette players was a sufficient price to pay for the tainted deck in my Corona.
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