How I Learned To Pirate Music

July 13, 2010

The first record I ever pirated was Joan Jett’s I Love Rock ’n’ Roll. It was 1982, and my cousin Debbie, who is now an avant-garde playwright, and that part is actually true, had bought the album on cassette. She might not admit to this now. I wanted it, but I had only $5 — not enough.

“Buy these,” she said, holding up a three-pack of blank cassettes. “Then you can copy it from me.”

I didn’t know such a thing was possible. I knew I could copy my records to tape to play in my new Panasonic Walkman clone, which weighed about six pounds and came with a shoulder strap. But tape-to-tape? Such things were unheard of (remember, the double-cassette ghetto blaster had yet to become common).

So what we did was put my cheap-ass tape recorder, one of these you see to the right, beside her ghetto blaster. She pressed play, and I pressed record, and then we piled blankets over the machines to block out sound, because they lived at a busy intersection in Thunder Bay and it was kind of noisy, plus we were playing Smurfs on ColecoVision in the next room and it tended to get kind of loud. That was a good game, Smurfs.

After tiptoeing into the room to flip the tape and repeat the process, we waited for the recording to end. And then I think we went to the mall to look for the new V.C. Andrews book or something, and it would be hours before I could listen to my new tape.

Later that night, on the Greyhound home (I spent most of my teens wandering Canada on Greyhound buses), I played the tape and found … Joan Jett singing through a warbling, muffled hiss, punctuated here and there by us laughing, and at several points by the sound of the door opening while I checked to see if the tape was still recording.

I just found that tape again, in a box of junk that has somehow survived three decades of travel, mystery, adventure and crisis. On its flip side? The Fame soundtrack.

Reading all this stuff about the crackdown on file sharing has me worried I’m about to get popped for ripping off Joan Jett. That’s why I don’t use my real name on this website. Also, once I forgot to tell the border guy about the Sisters of Mercy import I bought in Detroit and brought back into Canada without declaring. So I have to be careful, because if the U.S. authorities don’t get me, Joan Jett will, and she’s still the toughest person to ever sling a guitar, except for the guy who punched out Glenn Danzig (bonus content below).

It isn’t easy being an outlaw.

I just realized I kind of gave Debbie up for this piracy bit. Ah, well, she still has my V.C. Andrews books.



  1. That’s pretty cool article Rick of Tampa, Florida. I used to do the same thing with a small tape radio and recorded songs of the radio. Then got a double tape deck radio in 1988. I think I still have it.

  2. Man, this piece made me realize two things. One is that I’ve been a music pirate way longer than even I realized. How many mix tapes did I make from friends’ records? Would dubbing music off the radio count as well? Oh, I’m so busted if that’s the case. Maybe I need to join you up there in Canada before the Feds find me here.

    Oh and the second thing I realized is…Joan Jett still rocks my world. But that’s a given.

  3. Something my brother and I discovered when we found our aunt’s tape recorder was that if you record a burp, and hit pause before the burp ended, then record another burp, you could create a five minute long belch. Good times.

  4. I remember trying to record stuff off the radio and trying to anticipate the DJ speaking at the end of the track haha aww good but infuriating times.

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