Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Book review: Love is a Mix Tape, by Rob Sheffield

Ahhh, the mix tape. At first it was a rite of passage as an adolescent: When a friend made a mix tape especially for you, that was one of the ultimate signs of true friendship. Same goes for when a boyfriend or girlfriend made you one; it was a sign that he/she really cared.

I remember creating mix tapes as early as the fifth grade. Back then I would have the radio on for hours, listening intently for my favorite songs, and would press record the minute they came on. In high school and college my mix tape creations evolved to bumming CDs and cassettes off friends and dorm mates. I was meticulous about creating the perfect playlists. I purposely chose songs that would forever remind me of that one special occasion, that one special car trip, that one special place or person in my life.

For me, music can take me places that other senses can't: It stirs memories, feelings, and passions way down deep in my soul. If you play, for instance, "Sherrie," I'm immediately transported back to my college's mailroom. That song was playing the first time I ever checked my on-campus mailbox. You play "American Pie," and I'm back in Boston, in 1993, when I was at a leadership conference for Catholic youth.

Rob Sheffield, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, feels the same way. Each chapter begins with a list of songs on a mix tape that is significant to a specific year. Love is a Mix Tape is, indeed, a love story about Sheffield and his wife, Renée, a punk-rock loving girl from the deep south. He uses the mix tapes to chronicle their courtship, wedding, and first years of marriage. He and Renée, at the time, were both freelance music writers. Early in the book, Sheffield recalls the first time he met Renée, in a bar in Charlottesville, where they were both attending grad school:

When the bartender at the Eastern Standard put on a tape, Big Star's Radio City, she was the only other person in the room who perked up. So we drank bourbon and talked about music. we traded stories about the bands we liked, shows we'd seen. Renée loved the Replacements and Alex Chilton and the Meat Puppets. So did I. (p. 3)

Rob and Renée's love affair lasted seven years, ending with her sudden death at the age of 31. (No, this is NOT a spoiler; it was written in the summary on the back of the cover.) Following her death, Sheffield is plunged into a very deep grief. He writes candidly and frankly about his panic attacks, his self-imposed isolation from his friends, and the depression he experienced upon her passing. Throughout his journey, like he did earlier in the book, Sheffield includes his mix tapes, and reflects on how certain songs got to symbolize this painful time in his life.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed Love is a Mix Tape so much was that it was as much of a journey into music history as it was a memoir about a lost love. Sheffield is passionate about punk, and reflects upon how he and Renée felt when they saw their music "go mainstream" in 1991. Then again, one shouldn't be surprised about this aspect of the book, considering that Sheffield is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, the granddaddy of music journalism. Sometimes, though, Sheffield goes off track when he starts writing about the evolution of music and veers far away from the main storyline, but he always returns to it when a fresh chapter starts. If you're really into music, you'll appreciate this layer to the memoir, but if you're not, you may find it a little tedious.

I have to recommend Love is a Mix Tape for the storyline, the storytelling, and the commentary on the music industry. Sheffield also includes, in several places, his thoughts about the iPod and how that has made the mix tape obsolete. Which reminds me...there were some excellent songs on all of the mix tape lists that Sheffield has included in this story. You may wish to have your computer beside you as you read, so you can download some of the songs from the iTunes bookstore. If anything, this book helped me fill in some gaps in my iTunes library.

BONUS LINK: There is a website called that is about preserving childhood memories, especially if you were a kid growing up in the 70s or 80s. Here is a page dedicated to the mix tape. Enjoy!


Jeanne C. said...

OMG! Memories! I was cracking up when you said you pressed the record button as soon as the song came on! I think we all did! And you did a good job when you didn't hear Casey Kasem announcing the song in the first 3 seconds!
This looks like a good read! Thanks for a late night laugh!

Grand Pooba said...

Oh I remember the mixed tapes :o) Then it was mixed cds. Now? Um, an itunes gift card? LOL

septembermom said...

I loved making mixed tapes. I can remember holding a tape recorder up to the radio speaker. LOL.

blueviolet said...

it sounds pretty good!

Jenners said...

I was a famous for my mix tapes in college. It was a bit of an art form -- putting together songs that worked well together. And it was a tedious process with cassettes and records and radios. It was not done lightly!!

I have a copy of this book and you made me much more interested in reading it. Thanks!