The Kevin Tapes

Kevin Stuessy, ca. 1980.

Wendy Stuessy texted me by Messenger on October 8 that “Kevin’s funeral was today.” I rarely open the Messenger app, but by chance I did that day, and found Wendy’s shocking news. I didn’t know what to say, or what to do.

After a few days numb, I thought of something. I dug out Kevin’s tapes, and listened to them for the first time in many years. I catalogued the tapes, then digitized some outstanding tracks. Then I put up this modest remembrance of the years Kevin and I were closest, though farthest apart geographically.

Kevin was a dear friend in high school and for years after. Starting in the mid-1970s, about when I joined the Army and was stationed in Alaska, Kevin and I began a correspondence with music tapes. Starting about 1976 or ’77 we exchanged cassette tapes a of couple times a year, until about 1980, when we got together again to start up a band. But that’s another story.

These are no mix tapes – they’re filled with original compositions and performances – usually on guitars, and sometimes with voice, and with sound effects, like TV, radio, and shortwave radio squeakings and squawkings. Several digitized samples are posted below for your listening pleasure.

The recordings are ultra low-fi. Kevin recorded his (and I, mine) direct to cassette using the cheapest available recording equipment. Kevin’s original cassettes are pictured below. The digitized songs are noisy, usually monaural, and sometimes distorted due to tape damage, or on purpose.

What Kevin jokingly called the “grim fidelity” of the recordings may be distracting if you’re new to the tapes. Please, don’t listen with the mindset you bring to professional recordings made for big audiences with commercial intent. These weren’t supposed to be “records.” They weren’t even demo tapes. These were letters, written and recorded for an audience of one. Each cassette letter was an expression of our latest musical ideas, not of finished work. Kevin and I stayed close by sharing our low-tech, DIY musical ideas. Hearing them again reminds me how great it was to receive each new tape, and discover its surprises, mysteries, and inside jokes. Below I present 12 select digitized excerpts from five tapes Kevin sent me over a three or four year period. I address comments about the excerpts to Kevin himself, wishing he was here to listen and discuss the tapes with me.

Undated; 1977?

50 More Years of Music

Kevin, I love this tune for solo guitar. It’s so growly. My guess is it’s your acoustic (the Guild?) recorded with the cassette mic placed inside the guitar body. That would account for the thick tone. The main riff marches forward with swagger. Then come the majestic, half-note chords in the middle section. I don’t think there are bigger chords on a guitar than those. Where’d you get that? And do you remember the year you made it?


Summer 1977, Middletown PA

Falling On

I also love the miniature notebook with your handwritten liner notes for Marshmelodies. About “Falling On” you wrote “first impressions of Middletown.” It’s a lovely little song. I wish we’d heard more of your vocals and lyrics. I also wish that damage to the 40-year-old tape hadn’t garbled some of the second verse.


Marshmelody in the Electric Age (Track 16)

This one sounds like you recorded the background guitar first, played it back on a portable cassette player while playing the lead guitar into the same mic. Both guitars are the fuzz-toned Jazzmaster, right? The jagged cuts between sections we learned from Zappa. About this three-part tune, you joked, “This is what Dog Chow commercials will sound like when we all wake up & it’s 1996 outside.” Imagine that: 1996 was once in the future.


Cocktails for Two – Live in Mooretone, NJ

This is such an affecting letter from home. You and Bruce Rogers in a car, Bruce riffing on whatever came to mind or into your view, cutting up on trip to the liquor store. The soundtrack transported me when I first heard it, across the globe in Anchorage it transports me now, again.


Undated; 1978?

So Long (Track 3)

I don’t have any liner notes for this tape. Not even a date, although I suppose that could be reckoned on very close listening. This little tune is haunting, brother. Do you remember when and where you made it?


Track 4

This tape stands out for me because of its several bright, upbeat tunes for solo guitar. Like this riff.


Track 7

This sprightly riff is recorded over some old TV movie soundtrack, featuring a dialog between two plutocratic characters. “Oh well, it can’t be helped.” Did the juxtaposition happen by chance, as I suppose?


Track 14

This is the only recording of you whistling that I can remember. It’s a wistful tune, but cheerful too. I wonder when and where you recorded it. It sounds like it was a good time.


Undated; 1978?

Tragedy at the Pond

This little suite also comes in three parts. The first part sounds like three guitars: classical, flanged acoustic, and super-fuzz electric lead. Right? It sounds like a mono double dub. The riff sent me to early 70s Zappa records to find something similar, but didn’t. Second comes a (harmonized?) vocal refrain, and a guitar solo over the bridge. And a thumb piano! Do you remember all this? And what was the dream?


June-December 1979

The Bite

Your notes say “Final product assembled on Sankyo STD-1650 deck, Dec. 14,15.” So were you home for the holidays, recording in the basement again? That would explain the stereophonic recording. And the ultra-fuzz bass in the left ear.


‘Hanks Again V.V.

Your notes say we’re hearing Jazzmaster (heavily flangered), Guild, and bass (and a couple of “thank you”). You write, its “a sad story that I tell myself continuously.” Who was V.V.? The tune rocks a little; it doesn’t sound like too sad a story!


That’s All (Track 8 excerpt)

Would you recognize this? Its the last couple of minutes of the 7:40 song that ends The Dr. Graveyard Anomalies. The excerpt breaks into the middle of your free-improvised solo guitar duo. You recorded quieter guitar first, right? Then played it on a portable cassette player recorded at the same time, with the same mic, as the louder guitar, yes? You and I spent a lot of evenings improvising free like that. And we both loved abrupt, surprising endings and snarky comments – like Frank did.


The Stuessy basement in Moorestown NJ, ca. 1970.

Sincere condolences to Wendy, their children, and their family on the occasion of Kevin’s untimely passing. Kevin was a special and talented man. I’m grateful for the times and music we shared.

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