Love Is A Mix Tape just absolutely knocked my socks off. I devoured this book in one long weekend in San Diego and enjoyed every single page, heartily. On the surface this is a true story about mix tapes, digging out the shoeboxes full of them and looking back at a life spent seeing the world in a series of 45-minute vignettes (then, of course, you flip the tape over). Rob Sheffield has penned an honest yet wildly entertaining book, one that also managed to affect me more deeply than any book I’ve read in recent memory, all woven throughout with a genuine and bleeding love for music. It’s electric.
The meta-theme of the book is simple, and has been told a thousand times in all our great epic tales and poems: great, rich love and deep, hard loss. But this one comes with a soundtrack all around and sewn into his relationship and marriage to Renee, a girl who he says was “in the middle of everything, living her big, messy, epic life, and none of us who loved her will ever catch up with her.” Rob loved Renee, and chronicles that here beautifully from their first meeting to her sudden death at 31.
Parts of the book are evisceratingly intimate. I felt almost too close to his darkest and most intense moments, and because I knew so much of the music that he ties in so effortlessly with all of his memories I almost felt like I had a personal stake that kept stabbing at me. I thought I was just getting into this because, duh, it’s about mix tapes, but I ended up thinking about what kind of areas of us need to be loved in order for us to be fully happy, fully whole.
Even if you don’t like reading about other people’s love stories, you should still 100% read this book. If you are a music nerd (I mean, you’re here) then theirs is the kind of relationship that maybe someday, somewhere, we all dream about finding. Renee was his muse, but his passion (and hers) is thoroughly and unabashedly music. He writes of their relationship, “We had nothing in common, except we both loved music. It was the first connection we had, and we depended on it to keep us together. We did a lot of work to meet in the middle. Music brought us together.” Can that work? They were both music writers and radio DJs, they fell in love hard and married young. They made lots and lots of fabulous mix tapes, and each chapter begins with a reprinted tracklist from one cassette from that era in their lives.
And please, tell me this. How could I do anything but love a man who starts chapter 14 with: “Every time I have a crush on a woman, I have the same fantasy: I imagine the two of us as a synth-pop duo.” He goes on to elaborate on how she is in the front (“tossing her hair, a saucy little firecracker”), stealing the show and he is hidden in the back behind his Roland JP8000 keyboard, “lavishing all my computer blue love on her.” He even lists all the best band names he’s come up with for their synth-pop duo: Metropolitan Floors, Indulgence, Angela Dust.
And you should hear him wax poetic about mix tapes: be still my heart. Rob writes, “There are all kinds of mix tapes. There is always a reason to make one.” (Yes. There is.)
He gives his examples:
The Party Tape
I Want You
We’re Doing It? Awesome!
You Like Music, I Like Music, I Can Tell We’re Going To Be Friends
You Broke My Heart And Made Me Cry and Here Are Twenty or Thirty Songs About It
The Road Trip
Good Songs From Bad Albums I Never Want To Play Again
. . . and many more. “There are millions of songs in the world,” he writes, “and millions of ways to connect them into mixes. Making the connections is part of the fun of being a fan.” The book starts with Sheffield pulling out a box of old tapes and all throughout the book –from his childhood school dance recollections, to the first mixes he can remember making for Renee, to the ones that accompanied him in the dark days and months following her death– the mix tapes and the songs are as much characters in this story as the actual people are.
I like that because that is how I see music, and exactly precisely how important it is to me. I’d never heard anyone articulate it as well as he does, with such gentle grace and razor-sharp humor. It made me feel a little less oddball and a little more deeply appreciative for the gift of the music that’s gotten me through it all.
Since each of us have our own completely sovereign and self-focused memories surrounding our favorite bands and favorite songs (the unique feelings, smells, companions, activities associated with them), there is something that I just find so ebullient about “seeing” all these bands and songs through the unique rubric of their lives.
Take this amazing passage about their first Pavement concert (summer 1991):
The night of the show, the floor was abuzz with anticipation. None of us in the crowd knew what Pavement looked like, or even who was in the band. They put out mysterious seven-inch singles without any band info or photos, just credits for instruments like “guitar slug,” “psued-piano gritt-gitt,” “keybored,” “chime scheme,” and “last crash simbiosis.” We assumed that they were manly and jaded, that they would stare at the floor and make abstract boy noise. That would be a good night out.
Royal Trux went on a few hours late, which I’m sure had nothing to do with buying drugs in Richmond. They were great, like a scuzz-rock Katrina and the Waves. The peroxide girl in the football jersey jumped around and screamed while the boy with the scary home-cut bangs played his guitar and tried to stay out of her way. She threw a cymbal at him. We wanted to take them home for a bath, a hot meal, and a blood change.
But Pavement was nothing at all like we pictured them. They were a bunch of foxy dudes, and they were into it. As soon as they hit the stage, you could hear all the girls in the crowd ovulate in unison. There were five or six of them up there, some banging on guitars, some just clapping their hands or singing along. They did not stare at the floor. They were there to make some noise and have some fun. They had fuzz and feedback and unironically beautiful sha-la-la melodies. The bassist looked just like Renee’s high school boyfriend. Stephen Malkmus leaned into the mike, furrowed his brows, and sang lyrics like, “I only really want you for your rock and roll” or “When I fuck you once it’s never enough / When I fuck you two times it’s always too much.” The songs were all either fast or sad, because all songs should either be fast or sad. Some of the fast ones were sad, too.
Afterward, we staggered to the parking lot in total silence. When we got to the car, Renee spoke up in a mournful voice: “I don’t think The Feelies are ever gonna be good enough again.”
Our friend Joe in New York sent us a tape, a third-generation dub of the Pavement album Slanted and Enchanted. Renee and I decided this was our favorite tape of all time. The guitars were all boyish ache and shiver. The vocals were funny bad poetry sung through a Burger World drive-through mike. The melodies were full of surfer-boy serenity, dreaming through a haze of tape hiss and mysterious amp noise. This was the greatest band ever, obviously. And they didn’t live twenty years ago, or ten years ago, or even five years ago. They were right now. They were ours.
I think about those days, and I think about a motto etched onto the sleeve of one of those Pavement singles: I AM MADE OF BLUE SKY AND HARD ROCK AND I WILL LIVE THIS WAY FOREVER.
I know this is getting long (who cares) but that part made me seriously consider getting that tattooed down my side in tiny script, I am made of blue sky and hard rock. Then this next part, well, it made me believe. Again. In things I stopped believing in.
Renee and I spent a lot of time that fall driving in her Chrysler, the kind of mile wide ride southern daddies like their girls to drive around in. She would look out the window and say, “It’s sunny, let’s go driving” — and then we’d actually do it. She loved to hit the highway and would say things like, “Let’s open ‘er up.” Or we would just drive aimlessly in the Blue Ridge mountains. She loved to take sharp corners, something her grandpa had taught her back in West Virginia. He could steer with just one index finger on the wheel. I would start to feel a little dizzy as the roads started to twist at funny angles, but Renee would just accelerate and cackle, “We’re shittin’ in tall cotton now!”
We would always sing along to the radio. I was eager to be her full-time Pip, but I had a lot to learn about harmony. Whenever we tried “California Dreamin’,” I could never remember whether I was the Mamas or the Papas. I had never sung duets before. She did her best to whip me into shape.
“They could never be!”
“What she was!”
“No, no, damn it! I’m Oates!”
“I thought I was Oates.”
“You started as Hall. You have to stay Hall.”
We never resolved that dispute. We both always wanted to be Oates. Believe me, you don’t want to hear the fights we had over England Dan and John Ford Coley.
Have you ever been in a car with a southern girl blasting through South Carolina when Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Call Me The Breeze” comes on the radio? Sunday afternoon, sun out, windows down, nowhere to hurry back to? I never had. I was twenty-three. Renee turned up the radio and began screaming along. Renee was driving. She always preferred driving, since she said I drove like an old Irish lady. I thought to myself, Well, I have wasted my whole life up to this moment. Any other car I’ve ever been in was just to get me here, any road I’ve ever been on was just to get me here. Any other passenger seat I’ve ever sat on, I was just riding here. I barely recognized this girl sitting next to me, screaming along to the piano solo.
I thought, There is nowhere else in the universe I would rather be at this moment. I could count the places I would not rather be. I’ve always wanted to see New Zealand, but I’d still rather be here. The majestic ruins of Machu Picchu? I’d rather be here. A hillside in Cuenca, Spain, sipping coffee and watching leaves fall? Not even close. There is nowhere else I could imagine wanting to be besides here in this car, with this girl, on this road, listening to this song. If she breaks my heart, no matter what hell she puts me through, I can say it was worth it, just because of right now. Out the window is a blur and all I can really hear is this girl’s hair flapping in the wind, and maybe if we drive fast enough the universe will lose track of us and forget to stick us somewhere else.
LOVE IS A MIX TAPE – MIX TAPE
I am heading home from San Diego this weekend so I’ll leave you guys with this, and I’ll be listening to it too. New stuff, some old friends — all these songs are assembled from the mixtape liner notes that pepper the book. Thanks to Rob for opening the vaults.
Call Me The Breeze – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Coax Me – Sloan
Slow Dog – Belly
Thirteen – Big Star
What You’re Doing – The Beatles
Your Favorite Thing – Sugar
Fall On Me – R.E.M.
Debris Slide – Pavement
Supernova – Liz Phair
She’s Gone – Hall & Oates
Sister Havana – Urge Overkill
God Knows It’s True – Teenage Fanclub
Rougher – Lois (with Elliott Smith)
Houses In Motion – Talking Heads
Midnight Train To Georgia – Gladys Knight and The Pips
You Don’t Love Me Yet – Roky Erickson
Gold Star For Robot Boy – Guided By Voices
Freezing Point – Archers of Loaf
Bang A Gong (Get It On) – T Rex
Questioningly – The Ramones
Waiting On A Friend – Rolling Stones