Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield

Rob Sheffield tugs all the heartstrings in his memoir Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. He writes an elegy for the 1990s: "Remember Brittany Murphy, the funny frizzy-haired, Mentos-loving dork in Clueless? By 2002, she was the hood ornament in 8 Mile, just another skinny starlet, an index of everything we've in that time". His subtitular "loss" is the death of his wife Renee, who loved music as much as he does and died of a pulmonary embolism in 1997. And he tells the story of his life through mix tapes, one per chapter with full track listings-- and even the shameful tracks.

In spite of the tugging, Sheffield surmounts bathos. He's a good writer (contributing editor for Rolling Stone says his bio) and his material is appealing for anyone who grew up in and around the same era. More than an elegy for his wife, Sheffield writes a celebration of her life and the time they shared together, and it's a joy to read. The book's mix-tape chapter structure is fun, engaging and inspiring. There is a certain High Fidelityness to it all, but without the pretension. Rob Sheffield doesn't seem to take himself or his music too seriously, in spite of making a career of it.

Because music is music after all. After his wife's death, Hanson came out with "MmmBop" and Sheffield regretted that she would never know it, because as cool as she was, it was a song they would have loved together. In the chapter "The Comfort Zone", he uses a "dishes tape" to tell the tales of domesticity. He taped most of it off Casey Kasem's American Top-40 countdown, including The KLF/Tammy Wynette with "Justified and Ancient", Kris Kross "Jump', "I'm Too Sexy" and "Baby Got Back". Etc. Also featured was Tom Cochrane "Life is a Highway": "Tom Cochrane had nothing to say, plus a stupid way of saying it, but he helped me get the dishes done." "A Little Down, A Little Duvet", a mix Renee made to fall asleep to at night (and the chapter in which they get married) contains Van Morrison's "Sweet Thing", which is my favourite song in the world. These guys were cool. Sheffield writes about the grunge and 1993, when "the music we loved had blown up nationwide". But then his mix from that time also includes Tag Team and and Lucinda Williams. And I like that.

He doesn't get all up on new technology either, as might be expected. Though the cassette holds nostalgic appeal for Sheffield, he uses the term "mix tape" figuratively (though he's certainly not the only one who does that). He welcomed the advent of the recordable CD, admits to loving his iPod "carnally". But it's the "romance" of the mix tape, and those of us with cardboard box-fulls of the stuff packed down in the basements of our past can certainly understand that. "The rhythm of a mix tape is the rhythm of romance, the analog hum of a physical connection between two sloppy, human bodies... Love is a mix tape" says Rob Sheffield, and his thesis convinced me.

I loved his book like a souvenir of a good time.