Let's pretend your life revolves around music. Shouldn't be too hard. It's your religion, your ultimate seduction aid and occasional money provider. A good, no, GREAT, weekend involves flipping through stacks and stacks of records in someone's garage with your wife at your side. She drives you home, taking hairpin turns and fights with you over who gets to be Oates when She's Gone
comes on the radio. There's years of this, there's fights, there's making up but mostly there's music. And of course, love. Love and music. What happens when something happens, something irreversible and that part of your life is gone? Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield
is a memoir about just that: love, music and the five years he spent with his first wife, writer Renée Crist.
I have to backtrack a bit here for the inevitable personal interjection. Back in the day, I bought a book called The Spin Alternative Record Guide
. It was a reference book with information on everyone from A.R. Kane to Ornette Coleman. I wore that thing out; circling particularly astute entries, nodding yes to things I already knew, resolving to follow up on things I didn't. This book with the garishly Tang colored cover was the most important guide I had ever read. And once I'd finished reading it as reference, I went back and read it as pleasure. Slowly, certain names kept popping out as being especially readable*
: Renée Crist, dream hampton, Ann Powers and my personal favorite, Rob Sheffield. Why the favorite? Sample quote, regarding Adam Ant: "Like Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps
, Friend or Foe
is a meditation on celebrity, corruption and the passing of youth. Unlike Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps
, it employs a circus horn section to toot-toot its way through the rhythm tracks." Yes please! More of that! I love humor in critical thinking. Especially
in music writing. Because while sometimes I'm way too serious, as a serious as cancer, not your average dancer; like sex, music is something I laugh at in tandem with loving it. How else could I possibly explain why I still compelled to buy those late night disco compilations they sell on TV? Or why I still love ABBA? Or for that matter, current R&B?
I had a vivid image I invented in my head of this Sheffield. He was a flashy dresser; queeny and vituperative. A brilliant conversationalist with a Morrissey-an pompadour who smoked cigarettes with a cigarette holder. I could never meet him because I would most certainly get tongue tied, weird and wind up saying something really stupid about my favorite Cure song. He would flick ash at me and go back to talking to his underwear model boyfriend. And I would cry.
Fast forward to a few years later. I was watching late night cable and they had a show about film directors and their music videos. I heard Jamie Thraves mentioned, whom I LOVE, so I sat myself down to watch, toothbrush in mouth. The host of the show was this skinny guy with darting eyes, a fidgety, nervous smile and a speaking voice with a strange lilt. Not directly Southern, but Southern approximately like a Dylan song. And his name was Rob Sheffield. That
Rob Sheffield. No way! Get the fuck out! He remained my favorite music scribe, despite the fact that he didn't look like I pictured. Thanks to him, I can still read something
in the disappointment that is Rolling Stone and know that I'll laugh out loud in recognition. Consequently, when I saw in a magazine that he had a book coming out called Love is a Mix Tape
, I didn't bother with the blurb, I just jotted down the title, figured it would be something
about music, and therefore awesome. So I went out and bought it.Love is a Mix Tape
is a memoir about music and mix tapes. But it's also about the people associated with those tapes, that music. The tough kid in at a Catholic camp who thought Funkytown
was a good song, the 'We're Doing it? Awesome!' mix with Gregory "WEEEELL, WEEELL" Abbott's Shake You Down
on it, and the chock full o' Garth Brooks mix CD
(remember the first time you made one of those?) Sheffield's sister gave her golf loving husband. But mostly about the music shared with his partner Renée. The hymns, the disco and the songs of five foxy guys who didn't look like they sounded either.
From Love is a Mix Tape
by Rob Sheffield:
"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 be either fast or sad. Some of the fast ones were sad, too.
Afterwards, we staggered to the parking lot in total silence. When we got to the car, Renée 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 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."
You know from the beginning of the book that, like the David Bowie song, they only have five years. That one day, while sitting at home, Renée will have a pulmonary embolism. Sheffield's humor and warmth guide you towards this moment in such a way that despite knowing how it all ends, you still want to know everything about life with this singular lady. You fall in love with the pair of 'em, with their dusty little apartments filled with fabric scraps and records. Their strange cocktail inventions like the unholy combo of Chambord and Zima. They could be your friends or you and your best friend, especially if you're the sort of person who makes 'Going to Sleep' mixes or appreciates the sound of music in fast moving cars. That's not to say that you have to be dorkus musicus to appreciate Love is a Mix Tape
since the operative word in the title is Love. There is so much affection in Sheffield's anecdotes about his marriage that even when he recounts a day spent sitting in his car in order to avoid Renée after a fight, or his young husband panic at realizing he will never be able to completely protect her from harm; it says something lovely and real about their relationship. I believe the quiet, unflashy truth of these people. And when the terrible moment finally arrives, the sudden emptiness seems like the silence when a record is over and the needle returns to its cradle. It isn't over of course. Sheffield's coming to terms with being a widower and his trip back from grief is just as much a part of the book's journey. A beatiful tribute from one music lover to another.Song to seek (Not from Slanted... but I can cheat, can't I?):Frontwards/PavementBuy Watery, Domestic by PavementBook to buy: Love is a Mixtape by Rob Sheffield.
This went the other way too. Many years later, at a bar, I was introduced to another writer who worked on that book, one whose selections I didn't care for at all. I didn't actually remember this at the time which is why it's kind of amusing that my reptile response at hearing him say his name was to punch him repeatedly in the arm until J pulled me off him. The critic took it like a champ though. Apparently he gets this a lot.**
Because of this program, I was able to recognize Sheffield when he sat across from me at the downstairs area at Bowery Ballroom before a Hold Steady show. Even without the aforementioned imaginary cigarette holder, I still couldn't bring myself to tell him how much his writing meant to this Lilliputian Latina from the Y-O. So instead I did what any sensible, inebriated person would do and asked him...if I could borrow a pen. (Covers face with hands.) Yeah, I have no idea what that was about either. Was I gonna a write a postcard? It doesn't matter, he didn't have one.
Labels: D, Love is a Mix Tape, Rob Sheffield