Mix Tapes and Muscle Cars

By Samir Shukla

The other day I rented a car for a day of business errands.

I had booked a small car, but since the rental car company didn't have any compact cars left, they upgraded me with a Dodge Charger. Black. Sleek. Hood muscles bulging. Motoring down the road, its engine heaving and roaring at the slightest caress of the accelerator, the ride took me back to my first car I bought. A 1972 Chevy Nova. Multi-hued. Muscular. A bit rusty. I paid $200 for it back in high school, in late 1979 or sometime in 1980. Can't exactly remember the date. It was an American muscle car like the Charger, but ancient in technology compared to the beast I was driving on this day.

The Nova's prime technology was the radio. It also had a tape deck the previous owner had installed. The Charger was loaded with contemporary tech goodies that are now common in most cars. The Nova's was sparse, classic you might call it.

The previous owner had begun to repaint it but never finished. He did a lousy job of covering up the rusty spots. The transmission gave out a month after I bought it, but it ran, groaning and roaring, for couple years more after I got it fixed. Minor repairs were needed every few weeks. Hey, what do you expect for 200 bucks?

In the wide, endless expanse of youthful roads, I sometimes pretended that old Nova was really a starship. Afterall, it had a name that evoked a flashy, starry event. I did a lot of cruising on highways, byways, and alleyways, but the darn thing never did get off the ground.

In a moment of reminiscing, the day I drove around the Charger, I closed my eyes for a bit, and pretended it would take off like a spacecraft. Off this virus-ridden planet, somewhere freer. I opened my eyes and accelerated down the road; the stars will have to wait.

Both cars were laden with my mix tapes, in their own manners. I had actual mixed tapes, those handy cassettes for those who remember, in high school and later college, that I made from songs off radio and records, and I would stick one into the Nova's tape deck and roll down the road.

There was Van Halen blasting out of the creaky speakers, running with the devil, Kiss rocking and rolling all night long, Pink Floyd taking me on an interstellar overdrive and Black Sabbath oozing out of the open windows and disappearing into the void. Among many other favorites.

The playlists on streaming services on my cell phone are contemporary mix tapes and they enhanced the ride in the Charger on this warm spring day. I rolled the windows down and let the guitars wail through the air, the sound waves bouncing off the road, into the ether and then out to outer space.

Adding to the sound on this day, along with the guitars of old favorites, Coldplay laying down a hymn for the weekend, Bob Marley singing about so much trouble in the world, Tom Waits growling about how the earth died screaming and Led Zeppelin once again transporting me to a mythical Kashmir.

It's been forty years since the end of high school, graduating and diving into the summer of 1981. It was a summer of open-ended dreaming, working crappy jobs, prepping for college, driving around in the Nova. It was a summer where the Nova saw a lot of the road. I didn't travel much outside the state, but had a good time driving in and around Charlotte.

The radio was king of the car in high school and college days, driving around listening to the DJ spinning song after song. Radio knobs were as important parts of the car as the gears and steering wheel.

The tape deck was always ready for a mix tape when the radio signal was fuzzy, or the Disc Jockey wasn't spinning what your mood of the hour wanted to hear.

I imagined one of my old mix tapes breaking when Eddie Van Halen passed away last year. I downed a couple of cheap beers in his honor that night, thinking of the first time I heard his guitar magic.

Summer 1981 opened a new era of faster adventures, beginning of self-reliance, making new connections, seeing high school friends begin to scatter to their destinies toward the end of the summer.

Summer 2021, a bookend marking 40 years, is strangely similar in its seeking of and finding connections, but of course it is more about reconnections this time, a renewal for the post isolation era, and resuming adventures, yes, but slower, taking time to feel the breeze.

The open roads don't seem endless anymore. There are limitations, destinations to be reached. Loose ends to be tied up, lest time runs out.

Streaming music on the phone, roaming the roads, one can call up a song in an instant, but I miss sticking a mix tape into the tape deck, charging into that sunset ahead, emanating from a very distant, bright and starry Nova.

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Samir Shukla is the editor of Saathee magazine. Contact - Samir@saathee.com