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Book Review "Love Is A Mixed Tape" by Rob Sheffield

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader


I usually don’t read memoirs because I’ve learned it’s hard to trust people when they talk about themselves. Writing about the major events in your life is tricky business, and it is a rare artist who can resist the impulse to distort the truth about what really happened to them. I’ve heard friends relate a story that I was a participant in, and, on the re-telling I couldn’t help but think, It wasn’t like that. This doesn’t make them liars, necessarily, it just illustrates how capricious memory and perception can be. Autobiographers have a daunting task before them, then, for what they perceive to be "the truth" sometimes doesn’t correlate with what the facts are. All of this is easily forgiven, of course, if you like the person telling the story. The last autobiography I tried reading was Peggy Guggenheim’s Out of this Century, and no matter how fascinating her life was (and it was), the author comes across as such an oppressive and aristocratic hellbitch that I tossed the book after 20 pages. Nobody did more to champion 20th century art than Peggy Guggenheim yet as a reader I felt so trapped by her imperial manner that I hated her and when I put the book down I thought, ‘I’m glad she’s dead.’

So when a friend gave me Love Is A Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield I was wary of trying another memoir. It took me a month to take it down from my shelf, and when I did, I opened it at random, thinking, “If I don’t like this page I’m not reading it.” Here’s the passage I opened to, as the author describes his future wife: “Renee was my hero. Have you ever had a hero? Someone who says, I think it would be a good idea for you to steal a car and set it on fire then drive it off a cliff, and you say, Automatic or standard? That’s what Renee was. A lion-hearted take-charge southern gal. It didn’t take long for us to get all tangled up in each other’s hair.”

Like that, and I’m sold. Love Is A Mix Tape is Sheffield talking about his two great loves, rock and roll music and his wife, Renee, and he keeps this tone intact throughout his story, even when the narrative turns tragic. Guys in their early 40s don’t usually write memoirs about their wives unless the wives are dead and after 10 pages Sheffield lets it out: they were married in 1991, had five years together, and then she died, shockingly, of a pulmonary embolism in 1997 at the age of 31. The book is a remembrance of her, their time together in the 90's, and their mutual love of rock and pop music. Sheffield uses a great framing device to tell his story–each chapter begins with the song list of the mix tape he was listening to at the time, and he relates the associations he made between the songs and his life.

The first two-thirds of the book remind me of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, even though Sheffield’s book is non-fiction. Both writers have a keen eye on male, post-adolescent adolescents in the 90's: Sheffield’s description of himself as "another hermit wolfboy, scared of life, hiding in my room with my records and my fanzines" puts him right there with the other "Rob," Fleming, the main character in High Fidelity, and all the misfits that inhabit Championship Vinyl in Hornby’s London. Sheffield is very funny about rock and roll as well, and I love the way he defends pop music, in this reference to a mix tape that has both "Life is a Highway" by Tom Cochrane and "One" by U2: “In some circles, admitting you love Top 40 radio is tantamount to bragging you gave your grandmother the clap, in church, in the front row at your aunt’s funeral, but those are the circles I avoid like the plague or for that matter, the clap. The beauty of Top 40 is you don’t have to be any kind of great artist to make a great record–indeed, great artistness is just a pain in the ass, which is why moron-rock choo-choo hack Tom Cochrane sounds right at home here with his idiot anthem, while U2 sound like Jesuits trying to act cool for the youth-group retreat.”

This is dead-on accurate to me, funny and mean-spirited yet in no way unjust. A great critic is one who points out what you’re thinking before you think it, and throughout this book Sheffield nails what is great and awful about rock and roll, and he does it in a companionable voice. And because he’s not a musician he doesn’t get bogged down talking about chord changes and similar boring musician talk — he associates like a fan. In a quickie review of Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted he writes, "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." There’s nothing remotely technical here, no deep explanation of the songs, yet it still sounds like a perfect encapsulation of Pavement to me.

The majority of the book, though, is a love story about Rob and his wife, and it’s in this heartbreaking remembrance that the book really gets under your skin. Rob and Renee were that couple, the cool couple, the ones their friends loved, the two weirdos that spoke their own secret language and seemed that rarest of breeds, the happily married. When Renee dies it seems impossibly wrong, like a sick joke played by the gods. Sheffield writes about the day she died so simply and directly–they’re having lunch, cinnamon toast and coffee, she gets up from the chair, falls forward, and is gone. Like that. Her death doesn’t register to him, of course (how could it?) and Rob spends the next day in a state of total incomprehension. The following day he’s with her parents, shopping for gravesites.

It’s at this point that Love Is A Mix Tape moves beyond Nick Hornby and Lester Bangs and into C.S. Lewis territory — indeed, the last third of the book is one of the smartest explorations of grief I’ve read since To A Grief Observed. Sheffield retraces his benumbed steps through that horrible time, trying to make some sense of it all, and not really finding any answers. At one point he reads Ralph Waldo Emerson’s "Experience," an essay about loss, and discovers more sad truths: “I always had to stop to butt my head against that sentence: ‘I grieve that grief can teach me nothing.’ I was hoping that was a lie. But it wasn’t. Whatever I learn from this grief, none of it will take me any closer to what I want, which is Renee, who is gone forever. None of my tears will bring her closer to me. I can fit other things into the space she used to occupy, but whether I choose to do that, her absence from that space is permanent. No matter how good I get at being
Renee’s widower, I won’t get promoted to being her husband again. The loss doesn’t go away–it just gets bigger the longer you look at it.”

Books like this don’t have happy endings, but it does have hope, and I found it inexpressibly moving when Rob tries to combat his pain with the other great love of his life: rock and roll: “I’d been thinking about "One More Hour," the saddest Sleater-Kinney song ever. It was blaring in my mind all week, whether I was as the funeral home, or trying to sleep, or sitting on the floor waiting for Richmond to call and say it was all a mistake. It was all around and in my head, like the train rumble Al Pacino hears in The Godfather right before he shoots the Turk. "One More Hour" is a punk-rock song where Corin Tucker sings about how she has to leave in one more hour. Once she leaves the room, she can’t come back. She doesn’t want to go, and she tries to talk her way out of it. But Carrie Bownstein sings to her in the background vocal, telling her it’s over. The way their voices interact is like nothing else I’ve ever heard. Corin sings about walking out of a place she can never return to, leaving something she never wanted to let go, trying to haggle with someone who can’t talk back. The guitars try to hold her in check, but she screams right through them, refusing to go quietly because it’s already too late for a graceful exit. Corin snarls and she stalls, all for a little bit, just a little more time.”

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