Music of the Shea-Lyn Monks

Yes, indeedy, this is a new post (5 October 2010).  What follows is the introduction to a mixtape I have made.  Technically, it’s issue 2.5 of Afronaut, my sporadically published zine.

If you’re just interested in the music and not the spiel, head to my zines page and scroll down for the goods.  If you’re especially lazy, here’s the A-side; here’s the B-side; and here are the liner notes and front matter.  Enjoy.

UPDATE (April 2013): Alas, the mixtape is no longer available.

In high school and college, during the 1990s, I made mixtapes a lot for my friends. Who didn’t? That decade was perhaps the heyday of the mixtape, before DJs and MCs made them with their laptops—thereby making the name ironic—as aural résumés. On coffee-stained legal pads, I wrote down my ideal setlist, scratched out selections, added some more, re-thought a sequence, crumpled up the paper and started again. Once I had something close to perfect, I checked out the length of each song on the CD covers, tried to remember if a track had a superfluous outro that I could excise.

In the transition from legal pad to my cruddy dual-cassette boombox, ideals got downsized to harsh realities. I tried to maximize each side of a Maxell 90-minute tape. I bit my nails as I recorded each song, as the tape reel got nearer and nearer to the end. I glared in dismay as that brown spool as it unfurled, re-furled. As songs got placed on the tape, I realized that I didn’t want them there after all. I rewound, recorded four minutes of tape hiss over the now-offensive track, re-thought the sequence again. After roughly 40 minutes had been filled, I remembered that each side was more like 48-49 minutes, not the requisite 45, and that I had better come up with something killer for that sudden, unexpected three minutes of free space. (On b-sides, the Beatles’ “Her Majesty”—all of 23 seconds—often served as a perfect down-to-the-wire coda.) Then there was the frustrating realization that different songs were recorded at different volumes, so that the softshoe ending of “The Girl from Ipanema” would blast into what I thought was a spare, equally soft, folk song. I had to compensate, tweak dials.

Mixtapes were hard work but I loved it. They were letters to friends who had one-upped me with great mixes of their own, mash notes to prospective lovers, thank-you notes for a tender hug or a much-needed late-night conversation on the phone, accompaniments to dance parties.

The only mixtape I ever made for myself was this one but it wasn’t intended that way. Rather, it was supposed to be given a girl but life intervened. Until a month ago, I’d forgotten both the girl and the tape.

Back in 1996, when I worked as a cashier at Whole Foods Market, I made this mix for a girl who worked there named Shea-Lyn Stephens. I was desperately in love with this girl and her fairy-tale blond ringlets of hair and her penchants for wearing overalls and striped shirts but still being sexy as hell. Anyway, the mixtape was called Music of the Shea-Lyn Monks, with a photo of Buddhist monks on the cover, and for obvious reasons I had the self-awareness/cowardice never to give it to her. So, it ended up in my car and, because it was the greatest set of 26 songs (48 minutes a side) I would ever compile, I played the ever-loving shit out of that tape. It stayed in the glove compartment for three Dallas summers, and the casing eventually warped. The tape itself got so frayed that the reel would switch from A-side to B-side in the middle of a song, and music got crackled and fuzzy near the beginnings of songs, where I rewound constantly to restart or at particularly great points—a terrific bridge during Stereolab’s “Wow and Flutter,” the drum breakdown of Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child,” DJ Towa Towa’s breakbeat/scratching at the end of Deee-Lite’s “When You Told Me You Loved Me.”

Some time in 1999 or 2000, once I’d graduated from college and no longer worked at Whole Foods, I ran into Shea-Lyn at Borders and had my heart go pitty-pat all over again. I stammered something like hey, Shea-Lyn, how’s it been? Her exact words: “Oh gosh, I remember you! You worked at Whole Foods, right? Your name’s Michael, right?”

Soon after that, I lost the tape, either because I threw it away or my tape player finally ate it for lunch.

Fast-forward a decade, and David McCarty’s discussing a mix of Birmingham musicians from the 1990s that he remembers fondly. I remembered those local mixes, too, from my hometown: the Dallas Observer’s “Scene, Heard” compilations of local post-punk, alt-country, jazz, and straight-ahead indie pop; Tales from the Edge, a multi-volume set of CDs sponsored by the Edge (102.1 FM, KDGE), then the hero station for local alternative rock; whatever was playing over the speakers at Big Bucks Burnett’s 14 Records shop that week.

Mixtapes are inherently hyper-local, in that they reflect the tastes of the mixer. As a mixtaper, I took it as an article of faith that mixtapes should reflect the place in which the mixtaper lived. I am a Dallasite, so much of Music of the Shea-Lyn Monks features Dallas artists. Fortunately, the 1990s were a great time for Dallas artists: the Old 97’s; Centromatic; Cottonmouth, TX; MC 900 Ft. Jesus; Ronnie Dawson; the Deathray Davies; Leaning House Records’s roster of bebop musicians; Tripping Daisy; UFOFU; Pleasant Grove; Mazinga Phaser; and my beloved, much-missed Bedhead.

So, David’s recollection got me thinking about local mixes, about my own mixtapes, about those soundscape letters I wrote, received, and studied like the Torah. In particular, I kept coming back to Music of the Shea-Lyn Monks because, as it was the only mixtape I kept for myself, it was the only one I got to listen to obsessively after its creation. (Believe it or not, I didn’t make copies of those tapes I gave out. I’ve got no idea what’s on those reels anymore.) I listened to Shea-Lyn so much that there are whole swaths of it that I recalled, sequences that seemed pristine and singable and etched into my brain. As a mental exercise, I thought to myself: Could I reconstruct the whole thing, in order?

I had a start: I remembered that each side started with a sound cue from Luscious Jackson’s Natural Ingredients (1994), probably the biggest hit from the Beastie Boys’ ill-fated indie hip-hop label, Grand Royal. I recalled that the 2nd song on the A-side was R.E.M.’s “Second Guessing,” that I transitioned from a Tribe Called Quest song (couldn’t remember the name) to “Peter Gunn Mambo,” and that this somehow worked. Again, it was a start.

Music of the Shea-Lyn Monks gnawed at me over a month. During a work meeting, I would suddenly remember two songs that went together. On a late Friday afternoon spent staring out the office window, the second half of the B-side returned to me in a flash. Over the course of September 2010, I got it all back, in order.

Sort of. Again, I made a lot of mixtapes, and sometimes sequences of 3-4 songs would appear on multiple tapes. (The transition from They Might Be Giants’s “No One Knows My Plan” to Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” to the Afro-Cuban All-Stars’s “Alto Songo” made its way on a lot of mixes.) Even now, after considering this mixtape for a month, I worry that I’m confusing mixes.

Honestly, though, how much worrying can I do? I’m 90% sure what you’ve downloaded (or are about to download) is the tape I blared down I-20 from Dallas to Jackson, MS, at the end of each college summer from 1996 to 1999, that I shouted along to on my way to work in the spring of 2000, that I’ve missing for these ten long years.

But the namesake of the tape… I can’t even remember her face anymore.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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5 Responses to Music of the Shea-Lyn Monks

  1. You’ve described the spirit of these shared music expressions exactly. A savvy radio dj in Springfield once made me a mix tape of the Replacements. It was fantastic—how had I missed these drunks! I played and played the tape, but when I started collecting the albums… I never got back to that shock of discovery and the joy of what was chosen by my friend.

  2. Pingback: A Horny Summer: A Mix for Summer 2011 | Quiet Bubble

  3. Pete Asplund says:

    If this was the same girl (and what’s the likelihood that there were two Shea-Lyn Stephens’ in Dallas at that time?), I have tried to find her ever since I lost her during high school. I’ve looked for her in several different women, to no avail. I was attending Richardson High School, and she is the highlight of that era of my memories; a wonderful human being whose energy I’ve missed and whose lessons I’m still learning. I thought I’d chime in here because, in spite of the haziness of my life, I do remember her face vividly.
    I also remember what I was listening to on repeat at the time I knew her: Faith No More, Spot, The Beatles, Front 242, and MC900 ft Jesus got heavy rotation in my mixtape creations. I was 16, I drove a crappy blue beetle with a smashed ignition so that it required push-starting for weeks as I learned how to fix it (I wrecked it one night instead), I owned a piece of that berlin wall, I skipped school 3 days a week but never missed study hall at the public library (which consisted of playing chess with my best friend and then reading anything I could find that wasn’t likely to be required for school), and every time I see mandarin oranges I remember how their tanginess added soul to the pizza we baked once in Shea-lyn’s oven.
    I’ll be downloading this track list and drowning in nostalgia for the next few hours at least — thanks. You’ve earned a new subscriber.

    • Anorak Wolf says:

      Sorry to break it to you, but I married Shea-lyn:) I fell in love with her long ringlets, and her sweet voice every morning. She hasn’t been a Stephens for awhile…

  4. Pingback: Song of the day: Soul Coughing’s “Blue Eyed Devil” | Quiet Bubble

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