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When the J-card is a diary

Amos Pitsch on the strange discoveries in a used cassette collection.

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Stalwart Wisconsin DIY musician Amos Pitsch (best known for his work in Tenement and Dusk and more recently his solo records) finds that the personal remnants of used media allow him to peer deep into former owners’ psyches. Rummaging through musty, stained record jackets and rattling cassette cases is a transportive act, leading the searcher not just to deeper musical experiences but also to the physical imprints of other lives, whether it’s a personal note or the telltale ring of a coffee cup. 

Anyone familiar with Pitsch’s body of work knows that he has a deep grasp of American music—from country to avant-garde jazz and beyond—and anyone who’s read his lyrics knows that he can tap into the dark sump of the national subconscious. But there’s still plenty of wonder to be found. Pitsch says that while humanity’s collective consciousness has been soured by politics and divisiveness, it’s absolutely crucial that we look for joy in unexpected places. 

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“When we stop dreaming, the forces of cynicism have won. And on another level, unbridled capitalism is made stronger,” Pitsch says. “We survive this shit with strong resolve and a lot of imagination.”

While the ongoing pandemic has made it harder to browse used wares, the bridge between old and new owners of used goods grows stronger each time a memory, be it cherished or mundane, is made tangible. 

Pitsch recently purchased a large box of used cassettes for resale through the record label and studio he operates with Dusk’s Julia Blair in Appleton, Crutch of Memory. As he went through the collection of classic rock and pop from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, he realized that a previous owner had once used the tapes as the host of an unconventionally formatted scrapbook and diary. Pitsch shared his experience with Tone Madison


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Tone Madison: Can you describe what you found inside the collection?

Amos Pitsch: The previous owner used their collection as a diary; writing details about the everyday and the mundane on the insides of the J-cards and on newspaper clippings folded neatly and placed inside. Each cassette included what we assume is the date the tape was bought and sometimes the included newspaper clippings even related to the cassette itself, i.e. a John Prine cassette with an article about a recent local performance of his; a small personal dated note scrawled underneath the headline about how their asshole neighbors with the brat kid finally moved out. 

Tone Madison: Where did you buy the collection from? 

Amos Pitsch: We pulled the tapes from a larger collection that hit the floor at a local thrift store before we realized that all the tapes had these diary entries in them. We bought the bulk of the rock and pop cassettes and left most of the country tapes there—a genre that doesn’t garner much interest on cassette, for whatever reason. 

We’re kicking ourselves a little now that these tapes most likely met their demise in a trash compactor. So many great little windows into this stranger’s life that are shut forever!

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Tone Madison: What did the items tell you about the previous owners? 

Amos Pitsch: Well this person’s story involves low income jobs, betting on “the fights” (televised boxing matches) and stock car racing, shitty neighbors, chronically owing people money, constantly fixing shitty cars, references to everything from the L.A. riots to gun violence to prostitution, and common vices like alcohol and junk food.

It’s sort of Bukowskian in nature, without the misogyny. Judging by their collection, they seemed to like hard, redneck country like Jerry Jeff Walker and Hank Williams, some dabbling in commercial ‘90s country music, a lot of classic rock, and, strangely enough, a few musicals and Andrew Dice Clay cassettes. 

Overall, there’s a slight current of loneliness and desperation that runs throughout the diary entries. 

Tone Madison: Did the items found have anything to do with the specific pieces of music they were found inside?

Amos Pitsch: At times they would reference the specific cassettes they accompanied, but mostly they seemed like a record of unrelated events and feelings that occured around the time the cassette was bought. 

Now and then a sales receipt was also included. Usually from Best Buy. When I was a kid I used to buy my cassettes from Media Play and Shopko, so the department store receipts really sent me back to a specific time and place—when physical music media was a strong enough industry to merit a whole large section of a commercial retailer, and the average customer was really just the average American consumer and not just the music connoisseur. 


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Tone Madison: Is it typical to find mementos in collections you buy? 

Amos Pitsch: It’s not terribly common, but it’s hardly unheard of either. My favorite things to find are the long notes written on the inner sleeves. I really love when the jackets themselves are so altered as to be deemed worthless by the record collecting market. It’s such a great portal into the soul of the previous owner. I always check the inside of all physical media completely, and I’m always hoping to find a wad of cash. It hasn’t happened yet in my 16 years of record collecting. 

Tone Madison: How long have you been buying record collections? 

Amos Pitsch: We just started buying collections to resell through our label, Crutch Of Memory, this year—mostly as a means to fund the records and products we release. So far, they’ve played a big part in much of what we’re able to do, as music streaming pays virtually nothing for small artists and COVID-19 has kept us and our artists from making live appearances or even getting together in our studio to film the video sessions we started producing last fall (the existing ones can be found on our YouTube channel). We buy collections large and small—records, tapes, CDs, 8 tracks, you name it—and we will travel if it’s worth it! 

Tone Madison: Is this the strangest collection of non-music items you’ve found in a collection? If not, what was? 

Amos Pitsch: Years ago while one of my bands, Tenement, was on tour in New Jersey I bought a Last Sons Of Krypton 7-inch single and when I got it back to the van with it, I found a folded note inside that was addressed to Eric Apnea (from Milwaukee hardcore punk band Holy Shit!) from Reverend Norb (from Green Bay’s Boris The Sprinkler). It’s a strange, small world.

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