May 18, 2007

“Love Is A Mix Tape” mix tape

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.

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



  • Like Oddjob, I know of Rob Sheffield from Rolling Stone, but unlike Oddjob, I usually enjoy Sheffield’s writing. I was going to pass on this book, but I think you’ve sold me on it.

    Speaking of mixtapes, I got one (actually a CD) last Christmas. The first one in many, many years. I’m still trying to figure out the reason behind it!

    aikin — May 19, 2007 @ 4:14 pm

  • Heather –

    You have to see Once with Glen Hansard of the Frames and then write about it. I saw it tonight and it blew me away. Not coincidentally, Falling Slowly is as powerful (if not more so) in Once as The Blower’s Daughter was in Closer.

    I also have to check out this book. I think I heard Sheffield on NPR talking about his love of GBV last week, not sure.


    lbc — May 20, 2007 @ 12:25 am

  • Long post, good songs

    Emmanuel — May 20, 2007 @ 5:56 am

  • Great selection of songs! Me and my girlfriend just listened to the mix in the car as we drove to Kitty Hawk, NC. Heading to the bookstore to check out the book!

    russ! — May 20, 2007 @ 8:31 am

  • I like Sheffield’s writing – I just wish he hadn’t included so many mediocre indie rock songs in his mix. Many forgettable songs that may have meant something in the context of his relationship, but don’t stand up particularly well outside of that context.

    Ben Lazar — May 20, 2007 @ 8:52 am

  • Ben, point noted but I completely disagree. The book is all about the context of his relationship. To NOT include those sometimes-mediocre, one off rock hits in the book would be unfaithful to the memory of those days. We all have mix tapes full of songs that we go back and listen to and maybe rock out but maybe also sometimes cringe. It’s all part of the glory of that moment, and I don’t wish he’d changed a thing.

    heather — May 20, 2007 @ 10:10 am

  • It’s a great title for those us who are wound that way.Thinking about it – would you go out with someone who wasn’t into making or exchanging mix tapes? if you had lived and breathed music since you were 12…..for some people even the way the sticky label curls at the edges and your partner’s title fluently curls inside it is part of the whole mix tape kindness and passion for the muse.

    Will have to buy this now…..two top mix tape songs:when you’ve got a heartache – Bobby Bland and I thought – Bryan Ferry – a late track composed with Eno on Frantic – which is gorgeous and ofcourse Picture This by Blondie which has to be on every mix tape because it just has!

    russell — May 20, 2007 @ 4:04 pm

  • here’s the link to the cool wisconsin public radio interview with rob sheffield about the book:

    lbc — May 20, 2007 @ 4:08 pm

  • you’ve convinced me to buy this book.

    how great is that Lois sung? Elliott sounds great on it.

    Dave — May 20, 2007 @ 9:32 pm

  • The book arrived today, and have just opened it… what do i see on the first mix tape shown.. Bettie Serveert “Palomine”. Can’t believe that’s there. I know of no-one other than a friend who introduced me to their music who has heard of them!

    groovyf — May 21, 2007 @ 1:44 pm

  • I absolutely loved this book but can’t believe you missed out sleater-kinney’s One More Hour from your mixtape!! The passage where he describes that song in the book absolutely made it for me.

    Low Fi Girl — May 22, 2007 @ 5:18 pm

  • Man, I miss mix tapes. Does he cover the topic of “mix tapes you made for someone but chickened out and never gave them so it’s still sitting in your desk drawer to this very day”? Those are arguably the worst kind.

    Mix CD’s just don’t cut it, they’re too easy. I’m gonna make my girlfriend a mix tape.

    Pete Pizza — May 23, 2007 @ 7:44 am

  • While I love almost any literature having to do with pop music, pop culture, relationships and mix tapes, I found myself reading this book fast, yet often thinking, ‘Wow, I love the subject, but this writing is awfully redundant. It’s also just not that good.’ Then, next thing I knew, I was close to sobbing during the May 11, 1997 chapter. You gotta admit, he says the same thing over and over, and his many movie references are a bit much, but you also gotta admit it’s great to have a voice like his in the mainstream saying it’s all right for your life to revolve around music.

    Larry Bird — May 24, 2007 @ 12:08 pm

  • Hey, that was a really great post. I just finished the book, and wow, it was amazing. I’m really glad to find these songs, I’d been wanting them for a while now.

    Be well,

    Anonymous — May 28, 2007 @ 8:27 pm

  • Something to go along with our obsessions – reading about them! I got Thurston Moore’s “Mix Tape” and Brett Milano’s “Vinyl Junkies” this year and am looking for “Gracias Por La Musica” – I suppose I will be ready for Sheffield’s heartbreaking memoir someday.

    Mixtapes and CDs are an art form I’ve enjoyed dabbling in, even when a woman wasn’t responsible the creative process. Faves in my portfolio include a tape called “Summer Singles” from about 9 years ago (“If You Show Me Your Tan Line…” comes close, tho’ mine had a bit more rock) and a “Soul Sisters” CD comp. Thanks for sharing, Heather!

    – Dan A.

    Anonymous — June 2, 2007 @ 6:18 am

  • I rarely get inspired to read an actual BOOK anymore, but something about this one made me just HAVE to have it… I got it on Amazon and have only read 40 pages so far, but I’ve already had to choke back tears a gazillion times and it’s completely sucked me in. I can’t wait to spend the weekend ignoring my family and finishing the book! (just kidding about the ignoring-my-family part, kinda)

    Thanks for posting about this one!

    Sarah — June 22, 2007 @ 9:56 am

  • Finished up the book last week. Loved it. I love that his music tastes isn’t narrow-minded – he likes the ‘pop’ stuff along with no name groups. I always hated when people would ask me my favorite bands or what type of music I liked. I always answered, ‘I have favorite songs.’

    Also I would point you towards this article.

    courtney — July 5, 2007 @ 8:57 am

  • best…book…ever!

    Eloquent review :-)

    Blair Hook — October 13, 2007 @ 12:47 am

  • I left a comment last week or so recommending this book. Did not realize you already reviewed it till now. Love that you loved it! Yes, the synthrock duo ideal of love was very endearing.

    mikkie — October 19, 2007 @ 2:26 pm

  • i discovered this book through your blog, and it showed up from amazon today. Now, I don’t really read a lot of books, but this one has floored me. I’m 180 pages in, i’ve been actively googling all the allusions that rob makes that i’m not hip to, downloading tracks off itunes, and generally finding it hard to breathe. It’s funny, it’s cute, it’s heartbreakingly sad. It makes me think of mix tapes in my past, lost loves, and songs i can’t listen to without a uncontrollable physical reaction.

    thank you!!!

    d — November 15, 2007 @ 1:12 am

  • Heather, I devoured this book in a NIGHT. I COULD NOT put it down, and when Rob wrote the line, “When we die, we will turn into songs, and we will hear each other and remember each other,” I finally put my head in my hands and sobbed. I wish I had written that sentence.

    I remembered you reviewed this book, so I came back and looked for this entry. What an amazing, amazing book.

    HRH Courtney, Queen of Everything — December 28, 2007 @ 8:17 am

  • This book really is wonderful. I read it last weekend, over the course of Saturday night to Sunday afternoon. I was visiting at a friend’s house and it actually belongs to her. If I hadn’t already been a rude enough house-guest, I would have finished it in one afternoon, I was that drawn in. This idea of being able to define and chronicle your life in terms of music and mix tapes is not foreign to me. I have actually made lists in my journal (before the days of blogs) of whatever music went along with that time in my life. And I think I have made at least one mix tape for every category that Rob mentions in his book. I’m glad I’m not the only music junkie out there that truly “got” this book. And since someone who commented mentioned Nick Hornby, I’m going to go ahead and mention Sarah Vowell’s essay from “Take the Cannoli” titled “Thanks for the Memorex” You all can look that one up too. Now all I have left to do is go buy a copy of this book for myself!

    Sarah — February 22, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

  • I saw this in the local Barnes & Noble and after reading your recommendation picked it up. Might have picked it up anyway with that title, but gladly did so after reading your glowing review. Thank you for passing the word along. I loved it completely, even if it had not been as emotional and compelling, I still would have loved the style and music. Thanks again.

    Stephen Kuykendall — June 2, 2008 @ 6:47 pm

  • love

    Anonymous — October 15, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

  • i cant wait to read this book, it sounds great. i cant seem to download the songs or the zip file. i was wondering if someone could link me to this somewhere else or email it to me at thanks

    matthew — December 2, 2008 @ 7:15 pm


    This has legitimately been my favorite book of all time for years now. No one knew about it and I have since gone out and bought Talking to Girls about Duran Duran. I was amazed by his command of prose.

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    Globetrkkr — November 20, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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