Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Today I made you a mix tape, and decorated it with lots of stars..."

Title: Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time
Author: Rob Sheffield
Publisher: Crown
ISBN: 978-0-307-35157-9 (0-307-35157-2)

For those of us who came of age prior to the digital revolution, mix tapes were our ultimate musical expression. Sure, technology has advanced to the point that creating a mix today is as easy as shuffling some songs on an iPod. But where is the soul in that? Even mix CDs leave something to be desired, because the creator is simply pulling a group of songs from a database and tweaking the running order before hitting the “burn” button. I guess one could argue the same about mix tapes, but tapes by their very nature are more physical. Making a mix tape takes time—the creator has to actively listen to each song as it is recorded, and oftentimes the very act of listening to a song inspires the follow-up song. The format demands your time and attention. It is easy to get lost for hours whilst creating a mix tape, for it isn’t an instant gratification arrangement, as any of us who sat in our rooms with albums scattered across the floor and our fingers on the pause button, can attest.

And although many of the themes are easily recognizable for seasoned mixers, (the road tape, the you-broke-my-heart-and-made-me-cry tape, the good-songs-from-bad-albums tape) Rob Sheffield’s book is not about making the perfect mix and all the subtle nuances that go with the territory. And while there are those that might argue the point, there are no hard and fast rules for making mixes. There are some who will insist that it is in bad form to put the same artist on a mix twice. Those types might also argue that Whitney Houston has no business sidling up next to L7, and that female singers should never be placed back-to-back, but you know what? The true beauty of mix tapes is that there are millions of songs out there, and infinite combinations in which to mix them. Mixes are highly subjective and intensely personal. So quash that inner music snob. It has no business ruining this beautifully poignant memoir.

The story begins with the discovery of a mix tape dating back to 1993. It has no track listing, but the author recognizes the curly, girlie scribble of the handwriting on its title and knows he’s in for another long night. As the hours roll by, he replays the cassette the girl created, releasing her ghost and letting each song guide his memory. "All these tunes remind me of her now. It's like that old song "88 Lines About 44 Women," only it's 8844 lines about one woman. We've done this before. We get together sometimes, in the dark, share a few songs. It's the closest we'll get to hearing each other's voices tonight."

Who among us hasn’t stumbled upon an old mix and given it another listen, just for old time’s sake? And are there any who haven’t been transported back to a certain place and time with the opening strands of a half-forgotten song? For Sheffield, the songs all circle back to Renée, the fun-loving, hell-raising Appalachian punk rocker who, in the short time they were together, coaxed him from his shy, hermetic existence, and got him “all tangled up” in her “noisy, juicy, sparkly life.”

Each chapter introduces another mix tape, from the Radio Mixes created as a spotty ‘70’s kid immersed in Top 40 radio, to college mixes, to those found after Sheffield became a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. Along the way myriad friends, school mates, neighbors, and ex-girlfriends are brought vividly into focus via the power of music-provoked memories, none moreso than the lovingly detailed, bittersweet reminiscences of the effervescent Renée.

It was the music on those mix tapes that brought Sheffield and his muse together, encouraged their romance, and kept them together though they were worlds apart. He was a “shy, skinny, Irish-Catholic kid from Boston,” and she southern born and bred, “warm and loud and impulsive.” He fell hard for her: "I thought, there is nowhere else in the universe I would rather be at this moment. I could count the places I would not rather be. I've always wanted to see New Zealand, but I'd rather be here. The majestic ruins of Machu Picchu? I'd rather be here. A hillside in Cuenca, Spain, sipping coffee and watching leaves fall? Not even close. There is nowhere else I could imagine wanting to be besides right here in this car, with this girl, on this road, listening to this song. If she breaks my heart, no matter what hell she puts me through, I can say it was worth it, just because of right now. Out the window is a blur and all I can really hear is this girl's hair flapping in the wind, and maybe if we drive fast enough the universe will lose track of us and forget to stick us somewhere else."

The mixes find him chasing phantoms, however, for all the greatest love stories are tinged with tragedy, and theirs is no exception. Not only does he chronicle the music that brought them together, but also the music that held him together when the rest of his world fell apart. Renée’s presence looms large on each page and every song, while he struggles to relearn how to listen, because the music they shared together just isn’t the same when half of him is missing.

“Love is a Mix Tape” is a beautifully written, honest and heartbreaking reflection of life, and loss, one song at a time.

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