Nov 19, 2021

Mixtape: Help?

In tape five, three stories: first, a tale of how the cassette tape supercharged the self-help industry. Second, cassettes filled with history make an epic journey across Africa with a group of Lost Boys. And finally, Simon meets up with fellow Radiolabber David Gebel to dig through an old box of mixtapes and rediscover the unique power of these bygone love letters.

Mixtape was reported, produced, scored and sound designed by me, Simon Adler, with music throughout by me. Unending reporting and production assistance was provided by Eli Cohen.

Special Thanks to: Shad Helmstetter, Vic Conan, Glenna Salisbury, Jerry Rosen, Richard Petty, Sharon Arkin, Angela Impey, William Mulwill for sharing his cassettes with me, and to the British library for sharing some of their recordings from their South Sudan collection, which is housed at the British Library Sound Archive.

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LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: A good way to begin is to say, "All I want you to do is focus on the sensations in your body right now: your shoulders, your neck, wherever there might be tension, just notice. But I don't want you to release the tension just yet. I want you to just notice. It's nice to notice from time to time. So take your time. These changes are slowly beginning. And feel free to rejoin me right now."

SIMON ADLER: Well it strikes me that the tools of a hypnotist are not so different from the tools of a broadcaster.


SIMON: I'm Simon Adler. This is Mixtape. And we're starting off today with Lloyd.

LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: Yeah, Lloyd Glauberman. I'm a psychologist in Manhattan. I practiced on West 86th Street for a long time. [laughs]

SIMON: Lloyd's a skinny guy, oft-times sports a blazer and jeans. And as you heard there, he is a hypnotist.

LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: Hypnosis is always interesting to me. So I went to graduate school, took some workshops.

SIMON: And built himself a practice. And a couple years in, he started to wonder, like, would it be possible for him to hypnotize someone from afar? Now not in the super villain hypno-ray sense, but instead just with his voice on a cassette tape.

LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: That's correct. Right.

SIMON: Okay.

LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: So I tried to create a recorded hypnotic audio experience.

SIMON: Now I've listened to a lot of cassettes over the last year, and what he made is definitely one of the stranger things I've come across. When you press play, the first thing you hear is this relaxing ambient music.

LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: So set the stage. You listen to this, automatically you start relaxing. And then ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, hypnosis tape: The dream ... was similar ... to one the man ... had experienced.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, hypnosis tape: As the group met ... in the large auditorium ... they had ...]

LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: ... two simultaneously told magical fairy tales start up. One in each ear.

SIMON: Okay.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, hypnosis tape: A photograph ... from an earlier time ... the past ... and the future ... floating in and out ... of the sequences ... along with ... the mirror ... a container of some sort.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, hypnosis tape: As useful ... it is something ... you can finish ... with your partner's help ... over time ... and you have enough time ... not all the exhibits ...]

SIMON: Now if you're a little confused, good! Because you're not actually supposed to follow these two stories.

LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: The whole idea is I want your conscious mind to drift away.

SIMON: Because, Lloyd thought, if he managed to get you into some altered state, you'd then be able to receive the secret messages that he was hiding in these stories.

LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: Okay I'm going to tell you the trick, how the trick is done right now. I'm going to expose the contents of this idea.

SIMON: Almost like those trick images that you have to cross your eyes to see. In these tapes, if you want to hear it, what you have to do is listen to what's being said between the two stories. So for example, if the story in the right ear says ...

LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: The word "Feel ..."

SIMON: In the left ear, what followed was ...

LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: The word "Better."

SIMON: Okay. [laughs]

LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: So the listener at that moment in time, the only thing that's actually available for that split two seconds is ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, hypnosis tape: Feel ... better.]

LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: As if I were giving you a direct suggestion to feel better.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, hypnosis tape: Castle ... stay ... relax ... use ... your ... power ... thinking ... positive ...]

SIMON: Now Lloyd went on to make a bunch of these tapes. And I gotta say I think they're both beautiful and a little bit crazy—but mostly beautiful. But either way, they were definitely indicative of this larger trend.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, self-help tape: This is an exciting program to put on tape ...]

SIMON: When the cassette tape hit its stride ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, self-help tape: Welcome to my tape on getting ...]

SIMON: ... self-help as an industry really took off.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, self-help tape: The first step toward improving ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, self-help tape: Losing weight through the power of your mind.]

SIMON: And not just hypnosis tapes, but instructional tapes.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: Now let's look at communications in Windows 95. And to start with we're gonna talk about V-Com.]

SIMON: Like this one for Windows 95. Or this one ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: The airline transport cassette course.]

SIMON: Teaching you how to fly an airplane. I mean there were ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: Ready? Up, up, up ...]

SIMON: ... fitness and workout tapes.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: Designed to help you sell Arrowstar.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: The unspoken strategies for gaining power.]

SIMON: Sales, marketing and business tapes.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: The goal of this tape is a transformation of your thinking.]

SIMON: And tons and tons of new age spirituality and self-improvement tapes. And while yes, these instructional tapes can be dry and the self-help-y ones can be hokey ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: You can be and have all that you want in life. I believe in you.]

SIMON: I have to admit, they're actually what got me hooked on cassette tapes in the first place, because if you stop listening to what they're saying and instead listen for how they're saying it—when they deploy repetition, where they use "I" and "You"—what you then hear is people experimenting with this new medium. And you can hear how this new technology, so hi-fi and personalized and on demand, completely changed what was possible in terms of impacting, really transforming the person who was listening.

LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: There was something about—there was something about a cassette that provides connection, right?


LLOYD GLAUBERMAN: It is a connecting device from this—from this bit of tape to your brain. And so suddenly there was intimacy. And that changed everything.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: I want you to feel like I am talking right directly to you.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: Welcome to an exciting experience ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: This tape was created to help you enjoy ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: Doing more, having more and being more.]

SIMON: This is the final episode in this Mixtape miniseries, and I'm gonna wrap it up with two stories of tapes made to help. First up …

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: How to develop a photographic memory.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: I'd like to personally welcome everyone. This is a memory program. If you do what we say in this program, your memory will become virtually like a superpower computer.]

SIMON: ... memory tapes.

SIMON: So you're up in Syracuse.

JOK MADUT JOK: Yes. I'm currently a professor of anthropology at Syracuse University.

SIMON: And if I can ask, how the hell did you get to Syracuse, New York?

JOK MADUT JOK: [laughs] Ask me again. Exactly. [laughs]

SIMON: This is Jok Madut Jok.

JOK MADUT JOK: So the in-laws.

SIMON: The in-laws.

JOK MADUT JOK: The in-laws. Indeed.

SIMON: And back in South Sudan, where he grew up, he was known for having a crazy good memory.

JOK MADUT JOK: I had almost instant capacity to record a two-hour song in my mind.

SIMON: Oh, really?

JOK MADUT JOK: Absolutely.

SIMON: Which gave him a sort of special place in his community. Folks with this talent actually had a title.

JOK MADUT JOK: Yeah, it's called "Ping."

SIMON: "Ping."

JOK MADUT JOK: Yeah. I think literally it means, "The Hearer." But a "Ping" is sort of the human recorder, because in South Sudan, literacy came there quite late. And even as literacy comes, it's only touched a few people. So a majority of the people are oral.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

JOK MADUT JOK: And so the history of one's family, it was not written down.

SIMON: Okay.

JOK MADUT JOK: So the way Dinka and our people used to record their history was ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing]

JOK MADUT JOK: ... in songs.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing]

SIMON: And this was done on an individual level. So over the course of your life, you'd write or have written for you sort of an album of songs, each capturing a phase in your life.

JOK MADUT JOK: And so there are singers, people like Deng Bin Jok.

SIMON: Okay.

JOK MADUT JOK: And when you are about to—when you are sort of eligible to get married, what do you do? You go to Deng Bin Jok with your story, with your history.

SIMON: You tell him about yourself, important events in your life. But then also, you'd sing for him or tell him portions of your parents' songs, portions of their parents' songs.

JOK MADUT JOK: So what Deng Bin Jok does is he takes a few days to mull it over. You see him murmuring to himself, walking in slow steps. And then one day he can wake you up in the middle of the night and say, "I have your song."

SIMON: [laughs] In the middle of the night?


SIMON: And one of Jok's uncles, he actually had Deng write one of these songs for him.

JOK MADUT JOK: I mean it's long. It will go on for an hour, two hours. But just to give you a flavor of how the song goes ... [singing] And so on, and so on.

SIMON: This two-hour song, I imagine almost like a family photograph, with Jok's uncle sitting in the center, surrounded by his parents and relatives on all sides. And in that way, this song all at once documented his past, situated him inside of it, and provided sort of a roadmap for his future.

JOHN THON MAJOK: These songs play a role in all this as a frame of reference, something that you can use to help you cope with the life in general.

SIMON: This is John Thon Majok.

JOHN THON MAJOK: Director of Grants Management at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for scholars.

SIMON: Lots more from him in a minute. But first, here's the thing—because this song is so long, and perhaps because by the time Deng finishes singing it, he doesn't remember the beginning of it. Deng only sings this masterpiece for you once.

JOHN THON MAJOK: So you better be ready to record.

SIMON: Which brings us back to those human recorders like Jok, those Pings.

JOK MADUT JOK: If you are not very good at doing this, the trick is for you is to come with a Ping who can capture the song in their mind, because then on your way back home with that person, the person would repeat it for you. And then you will have learned the whole thing.

SIMON: After you've learned your song, you sing it for others. They start singing it, sampling pieces of it into their own future songs.

JOK MADUT JOK: And it's handed down, and the fact that I can sing it some 50 years later, even more actually, because it was sang before I was born.

SIMON: Right, it works.

JOK MADUT JOK: It works. It works, yeah.

SIMON: Unfortunately though, this ancient form of remembering and meaning-making the Dinka had developed collided with a genocide bent on erasing them. In 1983 ...

JOK MADUT JOK: The North indiscriminately attacked. It was a reign of terror.

SIMON: And this genocide, this reign of terror, it would require a whole new way of remembering. I mean, across the entirety of the South, these horrible reports and rumors began circulating.

JOK MADUT JOK: Accounts of murder at the hands of the Sudanese army, accounts of people being thrown in wells and mass graves. People being dragged out of their homes.

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: Daytime was not safe.

SIMON: This is Maketh Bul Maboir.

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: I was born in southern Sudan in a small town called Wonkele.

SIMON: And he said he remembers hiding for days as the war closed in on his village.

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: You hear people in the army, soldiers coming to survey the area to see if there are people in that location. So you cannot get water, you cannot get food.

SIMON: He was only seven at the time, so he wasn't really aware of what was going on. But he now knows that the soldiers were looking for him.

JOK MADUT JOK: Yeah, young people were the target because they were the potential army.

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: And so my mom and my dad made that choice that lead—move the kid away from this. So they just sat us down and say, "Guys, I know it's not a easy decision, but we think it will be the safe decision for you to go."

SIMON: And so that night ...

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: ...because night time was safe to walk, I and my sister have to leave. She have to hold my hand and be so close to me.

SIMON: And as they hurried through the night, they began running into other kids.

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: It started from five. The next day, 20, 70, 200. It keep forming, forming and forming and forming and forming.

JOHN THON MAJOK: So it's like people in a crowd.

SIMON: Again, John Thon Majok.

JOHN THON MAJOK: Just walking together, moving to the east.

SIMON: Parents all across the south, including John Thon's, had made the same gut-wrenching decision, and sent their children fleeing down dirt roads and along hidden paths in the dead of night.

JOHN THON MAJOK: As I later learned, there were 16 to 20,000 kids. The parents were not with us.

SIMON: Many people thought the war and having to hide would only last for like a week.

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: But it would take years to see them again. I talked to my mom when I was 19 years old.

SIMON: Wait, that was the—it took 12 years?

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: Yeah, that was the first time to talk to her.

SIMON: Now if you know any part of this story, it's probably this part ...

[NEWS CLIP: Thousands started walking across East Africa alone.]

[NEWS CLIP: Most were from the Dinka or Nuer tribes.]

[NEWS CLIP: Network coverage dominated the news as journalists attempted to shed light on the widening war.]

SIMON: These boys like John Thon and Maketh Bul, became sort of a media sensation.

[NEWS CLIP: Streams of boys became rivers. Hundreds became thousands. An exodus of biblical proportions was underway.]

SIMON: They were even given this name ...

[NEWS CLIP: The so-called Lost Boys.]

[NEWS CLIP: Sudan's Lost Boys.]

[NEWS CLIP: Lost boys of the Sudan.]

[NEWS CLIP: Lost Boys from Sudan.]

[NEWS CLIP: The Lost Boys.]

[NEWS CLIP: Lost Boys.]

[NEWS CLIP: The Lost Boys.]

SIMON: ... the Lost Boys.

[NEWS CLIP: Young boys who were forced to flee their homes or die.]

[NEWS CLIP: The young boys walked thousands of miles fighting starvation and wild animals as they fled...]

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: They just weren't there. Even shoes, you can put them on. And later on I, of course, because it was a long journey, all the shoes worn out, and you have to walk barefoot.

SIMON: What John Thon, Maketh Bul and the thousands of others like them had to do and managed to do is unimaginable. And I mean, what came next wasn't much easier. They ended up in Kenya in this refugee camp called Kakuma.

[NEWS CLIP: 12,000 people here today are lining up to get their monthly food rations. Now those monthly rations consist of a corn and soya blend, that's ...]

JOK MADUT JOK: The camp was big. Like a big city.

SIMON: Different from their villages in every way. It was crammed with people housed in row after row after row of these basically barracks made out of canvas or sheet metal or cement.

[NEWS CLIP: These people from 21 countries around the world. This food is not enough to sustain them for the next month.]

JOHN THON MAJOK: And it was tough. We realized we are no longer around the cattle, we're no longer around our parents.

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: So at nighttime, at the evening time when we come together, there were a couple songs that we used to know when we used to live in the village. And so ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing]

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: ... somebody will sing a song.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing]

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: So those things become a sort of our comfort.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing]

SIMON: Things went on like this for years. The boys grew into men. Some of their family members and elders were able to move and join them in Kakuma. And then one day ...

[NEWS CLIP: Nothing drew a crowd like the list.]

SIMON: This list showed up.

[NEWS CLIP: Once a week, the Lost Boys saw their destiny on a bulletin board. The staples of life.]

SIMON: It was a list of names of those who were being resettled.

[NEWS CLIP: On this day, 90 learned they'd be going to America.]

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: I was running, jumping up and down.

SIMON: Maketh Bul saw his name on that list.

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: And I was told that I was coming to Chicago.

SIMON: And while this is what he'd wanted ...

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: You were praying, you were giving your energy, your thought, anything, because this is like a—America was like a gateway for your life.

SIMON: He and others were suddenly worried as well.

JOHN THON MAJOK: Again, we were going far away.

SIMON: John Thon's name was on that list, too.

JOHN THON MAJOK: And we knew now we will not be sitting around the fire and listening to our elders telling all their stories. We will not be in the cattle camp anymore, so things can get lost.

SIMON: I mean, In America, there wasn't going to be anyone to teach them their families' songs, their history. And no one knew when or if they'd ever return.

JOHN THON MAJOK: And so, while we have a few elders alive, the way to capture this is to record them. And at that point, we had access to the tape, the cassette.

SIMON: Just a few years prior, what had arrived in Kakuma, but these cassette recorders.

JOHN THON MAJOK: We realized the device itself can store this story of the society.

SIMON: No writing was required. And these tapes could travel just in your pocket, collapsing space and time.

JOHN THON MAJOK: You can hear the voice of a singer that you have not seen ever.

SIMON: And so guys like John Thon became sort of amateur historians.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing]

SIMON: Recording the songs of their family members that had joined them in Kakuma.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing]

WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: Can we stop there for a minute?

SIMON: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SIMON: This is William.

WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: Yeah. Yeah. William Manyok Maluil.

SIMON: Today he lives in Boston, but back then he was in Kakuma as well.

SIMON: And so—and so you recorded this?

WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: I recorded that, yeah. It was the wedding engagement party. So there were many people from my clan, and they walk in a line, like in a circle, and I was actually standing in the middle holding the tape player like this.

SIMON: He had to hoist the recorder up into the air because he only had the built-in microphone.

WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: And then people will go singing.

SIMON: Uh-huh.

WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: And they would just go around me.

SIMON: And what were they saying? What were they singing?

WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: So in that first part ...

SIMON: Uh-huh.

WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: ... the guy who would sing the song, he'd say, "All these beautiful color bull will not be just given to any girls. It will be given to"—how do I say? Can you rewind it again?

SIMON: For sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, here we go at the top again.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing]

WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: Actually, it say that they will be given to a girl that have a good heart.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing]

WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: And then, you know, when we have St. Patrick's parade?


WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: With so many people going to South Boston?

SIMON: Yes. You're at the heart of the Irish on St. Patrick's Day.

WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: Yeah, so that's—that's the same when we're getting married.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing]

WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: The marching will be like that. Exactly what happened in South Boston.

SIMON: [laughs] Okay, that's amazing.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing]

WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: It's amazing. It's like—it's better than the written word, but I don't know how to explain it, really.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing]

SIMON: I mean, think about this: thanks to this cassette tape, this spinning magnetic miracle, for really the first time, the Dinka were able to record their history outside of someone's head.

JOK MADUT JOK: Before that moment, it was not done.

SIMON: Again, Jok Madut Jok.

JOK MADUT JOK: It was not possible to be done, because people were focused on survival, and access to technology was limited. So cassette tapes helped to conserve and preserve that which is the essence of people's existence, which include celebrating who they are.

SIMON: And I mean, these recordings weren't just happening or staying in Kakuma.

JOHN THON MAJOK: There were a lot of others doing it. It became like a fashion.

JOK MADUT JOK: I mean, that is how South Sudan was able to remain in contact with each other.

SIMON: As the diaspora spread, so did the tapes.

JOK MADUT JOK: One tape will make it out of South Sudan, and it will go to Calgary, Canada. And then the people in Calgary have relatives in London, so they send it to London the next time somebody's going, right? To South Dakota, to Nairobi, Kampala. And it will take years to make rounds.

SIMON: Thousands and thousands of tapes moved this way. And while in Kakuma, they'd been doing these recordings for a year or so when that list showed up, there was still so much to capture, and suddenly so little time to do it.

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: They say that you have seven day to say goodbye to your—to your people.

SIMON: You only had seven days?

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: Yes. After seven days, you are told to leave the camp.

SIMON: And so with the fullness of their history and the wisdom it contained sort of out of their grasp, they decided that what would be best was for each of them, each of the boys to make one final tape, or really have one final tape made for each of them.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Lost Boy: One, two, three. One, two, three.]

SIMON: Before they left, most of these guys had a sort of a going away party.

JOHN THON MAJOK: Yes. And mine was under the tree. I had my family there, and then my eight mates were there, women were there. And the cassette recorder was on the top of a small table in the middle.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Lost Boy: [speaking]

SIMON: And one by one, folks went up to the recorder and gave one final piece of advice.

WILLIAM MANYOK MALUIL: Mine actually started with prayers from one of my great uncles.

SIMON: This is William again. And in fact, the tape you're hearing is from his goodbye ceremony.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, uncle: [speaking]]

SIMON: When the prayer was finished, William's oldest uncle went up to the microphone.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, uncle: [speaking]]

SIMON: "I am your uncle. The words being spoken to you here today on the occasion of your leaving are being said in times of ruin."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, uncle: [speaking]]

SIMON: "But the idea that you are leaving a bad place is a false one. We are saying, 'Go to America and study so you can become an important person.'"

[ARCHIVE CLIP, uncle: [speaking]]

SIMON: "We, who you are leaving behind, cannot achieve all these things. We can't bring the people together because we can't read or write. So, son of Maluil, go and do something good."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, uncle: [speaking]]

SIMON: And what you hear from different speakers and on different tapes from different going-away parties, is advice doing what these Dinka songs had done so well.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, uncle: [speaking]]

SIMON: "My name is Dhieu Malen Ajok. The family started with Garang Jok a long time ago, and he produced us all, who are so numerous now. Always remember where you came from. Remember that you are not going just for your sake, but for all of our sakes. It's not about you alone, it's about all of us who were born together."

SIMON: I mean one by one, these speakers are reminding these boys of their past, situating them inside of it and advising them on how to move forward.

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: And so yeah, it's "We know you. You left when you were seven. You managed to make it to Kenya."

SIMON: Again, Maketh Bul Maboir.

MAKETH BUL MABOIR: "Now you are taking another journey. But we just want to remind you how lucky you are to be able to get this chance. Don't mess it up. And remember whoever you left behind."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing]

JOK MADUT JOK: The sense of pride in all of that can be quite incredibly touching, you know?

SIMON: Once more, Jok Madut Jok.

JOK MADUT JOK: When the whole world thinks that these are godforsaken people because look what they have gone through, look what is going on in their land, look how far they have fled, and yet here you find somebody not only reconstructing their history and not only lamenting the miseries thrusted upon them, but talking about the need to rise up and rise above all that, because that is the measure of a human. Because life happens. What are you going to do about it? You may be living a nice life in some cozy suburb in the United States, but then you get cancer, or you get afflicted by some terribly ungodly disease. You're just as much suffering there, as if you were in a war zone.


JOK MADUT JOK: What difference does it make? And whatever calamity and whatever journey that you go through with all the obstacles thrown in your path, what is required is for each one of us to be conscious and cognizant of where we come from. For you will not know where you are going and how you're going to—how you're going to chart the path forward, if you have no clue where you've came from.

SIMON: We've got one final story for you, right after a quick break.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, instructional tape: Scientific research, depth psychology and the great wisdom traditions of every culture all strongly concur that the root cause of human suffering is the accumulation of unprocessed experience from the past. This recording will help you explore and make peace with the past.]

SIMON: All right, we are back. I've got one final story for you. This one's about tapes made to help you move on.

SIMON: There's the man of the hour, Mr. David Gebel, holding the door for me. You look dashing!

SIMON: So several months back, I traveled into Manhattan and up to midtown to visit a dear friend and colleague.

SIMON: Who are you?

DAVID GEBEL: I am David Gebel. I work at Radiolab. I do the paperwork stuff.

SIMON: I was telling Eli I was coming up here, and we realized you make appearances on the show more than some producers.

DAVID: Quite often! [laughs]

SIMON: David does a whole hell of a lot more than just the paperwork. He's sort of the beating heart of the show here.

DAVID: Oh heck, yeah!

SIMON: And somehow, the guy's managed to live like a dozen different lives. He lived in Japan for a while, Hawaii. Sang Broadway tunes on cruise ships, acted in television shows, worked on Wall Street. And each of these lives—and this is actually the reason I went up to visit him—are sort of preserved under his bed in a box full of cassette tapes.

SIMON: And so what we have here is a plastic, big Tupperware thing with—I don't know. How many cassettes are in here? There are quite a few!

DAVID: I don't know. It's a bunch of—oh, look at that. There's more!

SIMON: There are, like, 40 ...

DAVID: Well, they're not all mixtapes, but they are all things that I—okay, I got rid of most of my cassettes, which was all I had my music on at one point in my life. But I had to keep a couple because they were the homemade ones, and they had meaning. Meaning someone created them for me.

SIMON: These mixtapes really ran the gamut, given to him by all sorts of folks for all sorts of reasons.

DAVID: Here's one called "Gebel Trauma Treatment," and it was just for when I was feeling bad.

SIMON: "David's Musical Theater." Is this you singing?

DAVID: No, I think this is from my partner long ago, strongly suggesting songs I ought to do.

SIMON: Well, and we've got some nice artwork here. We've got a naked ass.

DAVID: Like a tight, muscled ass where he wrote, "Tokyo, 1989." This one is named so inappropriately that I can't even say it on the air.

SIMON: But the ones that still resonate the loudest with him—maybe unsurprisingly—were from lovers.

DAVID: Vince, who was my boyfriend in Tokyo, he was a, you know, terrible boyfriend, but he really could be great when he wanted to be. "Tree Felling In Wonderment In Japan." It's a good title. "Tree felling," which makes me suspect that is the early stage of "I'm falling for you."


DAVID: And then "Wonderment" is when we're together. It was a great affair.

SIMON: And so we've got a little Panasonic, a Radio Shack cassette player there as well.

DAVID: Yeah, I used to use this for rehearsals in my showbiz days.

[plays cassette]

DAVID: You can tell by the sound. This is—this is romance, this is emotion. Don't make me cry that early in the interview! [laughs] I happen to be a crier, you know? Not everybody is but I am. I just am.

[plays cassette]

DAVID: Let's see what's next. So next should be, what? Tuck & Patti? High romance.

[plays cassette]

DAVID: Oh! Oh, and the feeling was mutual! Oh, man! If somebody sends you this, I mean, oh, it's great.

SIMON: Yeah, so ...

DAVID: It was good to be loved. It was really good to be loved. Yeah, I mean, Simon, if you get something like this, it's a big audio love letter. And I would put this on and miss him, and drink Jack Daniels and [laughs] feel sorry for myself and be very smitten. I mean, think about how much work this is. It's a lot of work. And it's—it's a gift of great affection. So it just brings the emotion back. I sound like such a wuss. [laughs].

SIMON: No you don't.

SIMON: And while this is sort of what I was expecting, you know, listening to old mixtapes is sort of like going on a nostalgia bender, what I wasn't prepared for was how these tapes, some 30 years old and listened to an untold number of times, how they were still evolving in their message and meaning for David. That playing them wasn't like staring at some static artifact, but instead, more like resuming an ongoing conversation between this present and that past.

SIMON: Okay, what is this one?

DAVID: "This Is Your Life, David Gebel." Subtitled, "It's been a pretty good ride." This is from Stephen G. Halts, who was my big love of my life. And we met in college, and he was a native New Yorker, and I was a squeaky-clean Milwaukee kid. Oh my gosh. I'm afraid to put this in.

SIMON: And he put the date it was made.

DAVID: Six—oh, that's my birthday! 6-17-19—6-17-86. 6-17-86. Wow! I've gotta think about that. If he died in '88, this is two years before he died. Because the truth is, we broke up before he died. So, you know, to say the big love of my life died of AIDS, there's a caveat to that because we were not a couple at the time. But we talked every single day. And it was hard for both of us, because the affection was so deep up to, you know, the day he died. There was no doubt of our love for each other.

DAVID: This might have been a "We know it needs to end," and maybe I'd moved off on my own and this is sort of a summary of my life with him.

[plays cassette: "Today the landlady, she said to me. What did she say?"]

DAVID: "What did she say?"

[plays cassette: "Your loony friend just made a pass at me. Perhaps you might enjoy a cottage by the sea. So pack your toys away, your pretty boys away, your 45s away, your alibis away ..."]

DAVID: I love this song.

SIMON: What is this?

DAVID: This is the opening. This is "Moving Out" by Bette Midler. It's so funny.

[plays cassette: "Your silly lies away, your old tie-dyes away, your one more trys away, you're moving out today."]

DAVID: Yeah, I—oh, gosh. I think he's—this is us breaking up, yeah. Because it begins with "You're Moving Out," which is a great song. And then "The Honeymoon Is Over." Need I say more? That's what it's about. And it's funny, this is—but where did we end up? Oh ...

SIMON: What's the last track?

DAVID: "Not When I'm Around" from Sweeney Todd, which is a—I know it's from Sweeney Todd, but it's—well, he's gonna look after me. He's gonna keep an eye on me. "Nothing's gonna harm you, not"—shit! I can't talk about this! Maybe he already knew he was sick. I don't know. Well, I was going off on my own because we had an apartment and the deal was whoever can find their own place first, does it. So we were living together when we were broken up—something I don't advise. But it's New York, you hang on to real estate. And this is "Nothing's going to harm you, not when I'm around." It's probably from the show. I mean, it's probably from the cast album. Do you know your musical theater, Simon?

SIMON: No, I don't. [laughs]

DAVID: It's a really good song. Oh.

[plays cassette: "Nothing's gonna harm you, not while I'm around."]

DAVID: It's more the context of it for me than the song.

[plays cassette: "Nothing's gonna harm you, no sir, not while I'm around."]

DAVID: That's him saying, "No matter what, I'll keep an eye out for you." It just meant we were always gonna be in touch, which is why I'll never throw it out.

ARCHIVE CLIP, self-help tape: Human beings use or abuse the courage.]

SIMON: Mixtape was reported, produced, scored and sound designed by me, Simon Adler, with music throughout by me. Unending reporting and production assistance was provided by Eli Cohen. I want to give a special thank you to Shad Helmstetter, Vic Conan, Glenna Salisbury, Jerry Rosen, Richard Petty, Sharon Arkin, William Mulwill for sharing his cassettes with me, and to the British library for sharing some of their recordings from their South Sudan collection, which is housed at the British Library Sound Archive.

SIMON: This is the final episode in this Mixtape miniseries, and I'd like to once again thank everyone who was a part of this little adventure: everyone who generously hopped on the phone with me to chat, everyone here at Radiolab and WNYC who helped bring this project to life, especially Eli Cohen, Annie McEwen, Soren Wheeler, Suzie Lechtenberg, Jad Abumrad and Dylan Keefe. And maybe more than anyone, I'd like to thank my wife, not only for putting up with me and my cassette obsession over the past year here, but for being an amazing thought partner through this entire project, giving notes on drafts and just support every step of the way. Thank you, darling.

SIMON: All right, that's it. I'm Simon Adler, this has been Mixtape, and we'll be back to our regularly-scheduled Radiolab programming next week.

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