Rob Sheffield

I’ve got playlists on my I-Pod.

I’ve got dozens and dozens of CD’s with some fine, tasty mixes.

But it’s the cassettes that seem special.

Something about the box, the hand-written list of tunes.

And maybe a splash of art.

Splash?  I have a friend (Gregg) whose wife-the-art-teacher-and artist (Ann) took the cassette decorating to a whole ‘nother level.  These gems would arrive in the mail several times a year, the cassette-size miniature colored-pencil scenes as good as the tunes inside.   Funk.  Reggae.  Brit Pop.  Country.  Rock.  Punk.  Something new, something dug up from a vault, some sort of theme or package. You Name It.

Music creates the bond, becomes the bond.  Music fans know this.  It’s nothing new.

Back in the cassette age, there was nothing like having a case full of these tapes to take on a trip or a weekend away.  To select the mix of tapes (and their sub-mixes) was its own enjoyment.  Lake Powell for a week?  You’d need a few cases of cassettes and hope you wouldn’t run out.  Favorites get flipped over and over.  Welcome to K-Crack. Funk Dat. X Amount of Dance Hall Hits. Big Sky Country. Tex-Mex Revisted. Sweet and Dandy. Witegirl (sic). The Sound Of Miami. Hear What The Brother Say. Reggae Novelties. Raphowyalike. Return to Hoboken. Bass In Your Face.

Rob Sheffield knows music and bonds and the power within.  “Love Is A Mix Tape” is for anyone who listened to music (pop, rock, R&B, rap, hip hop, indie, whatever) over the last, say, five decades.  If you fit that category, you should read this book.  You don’t fit?  Then read “Love Is A Mix Tape” if you’ve ever been in love or if you just enjoy a heartfelt , well-written and very funny and equally sad memoir.

“Love Is A Mix Tape” has it all.  (The book jacket writes the title lower case, “love is a mix tape:  Life and Loss, One Song at a Time.”  I like the lower-case vibe, like the scrawl on the binder of, yes, a cassette.)

You’ll smile, you’ll cry, you’ll dig Sheffield’s self-effacing whacks on his own ego. Rock music fans in particular (and I’m using ‘rock’ in the broadest possible sense) will admire Sheffield’s open spirit.  He seems to operate on multiple musical planes. He’s a true jumble-jungle master and he was born, one must conclude, to be a DJ.  Or rock critic.

Hey, he nailed it

He is Sir Mix-A-Lot, open to slapping L7 and 10,000 Maniacs on the same mix.  Frank Sinatra and U2 on the same side with Leonard Cohen and Roxy Music?  Okay.  More than his thirst for music of all varieties, he seems equally interested in how music leads him to people—and communities.

“Love Is A Mix Tape” is about his relationship and marriage to Renee.  Opposites attract, perhaps, but if music is the glue then it may as well be the strongest epoxy ever developed.  When they first connect, Sheffield takes us right to the universal moment, complete with a touch of gentle humor.  “I felt knots untie themselves, knots I didn’t know were there. I could already tell there were things happening deep inside me that were irreversible. Is there any scarier word than ‘irreversible’? It’s a hiss of a word, full of side effects and mutilations. Sever tire damage—no backing up.”

Sheffield lets us inside the developing relationship and the fun, unusual wedding (one of my favorite chapters, “A Little Down, A Little Duvet.”)  Renee, as Sheffield tells us early on, dies suddenly at a very young age. The balance of the book takes up Sheffield’s road to recovery.  Along the way is a rapturous ode to Pavement and a terrific take on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and why “In Utero” and “Unplugged” mattered so much.  “People like to claim his songs were all about the pressures of fame, but I guess they just weren’t used to hearing rock stars sing love songs anymore, not even love songs as blatant as ‘All Apologies’ or ‘Heart-Shaped Box.’ And he sings all through Unplugged, about the kind of love you can’t leave until you die. The more he sang about this, the more he upset me…I would have been glad to push his music to the back of my brain, put some furniture in front of it so I couldn’t see it, and wait thirty or forty years for it to rot so it wouldn’t be there to scare me anymore. The married guy was a lot more disturbing to me than the dead junkie.”

Sheffield’s references to a few favorites—Palace Brothers, Veruca Salt, Urge Overkill, Yo La Tengo, Meat Puppets, Roxanne Shante, Meat Puppets, ELO, Jim Carroll, Sebadoh, Camper Van Beethoven—deepen the bond, the likability.  Even if he just listed some of these in the cassette song lists that start each chapter, they create a link, a zillion reference points in the universe of tunesville.  You feel like if Sheffield dropped over for the first time, you could just plunge right in on the music talk—and go for several days straight.  (I wouldn’t bring up Jackie Kennedy, though; not quite sure I get his fixation with her.)

In the end you wonder whether this book could have been written if Renee had survived—and you hope that’s the case.

But, you wonder.  You wish he could reach the conclusion he reaches about life and love without the tragic loss of Renee, but you figure probably not, which really sucks.

Here’s to the power of the mix.  Here’s to the music.  Here’s to Renee.  “Love Is A Mix Tape” is highly recommended for its charm, wit and Rob Sheffield’s drive for the perfect mix.

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