Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time
Each chapter of Love is a Mix tape opens with a mixtape title, a track list, and an approximate date of conception. It feels geeky, High Fidelity, and Klostermaniacal enough for a guy in Rolling Stone contributing editor Rob Sheffield's arguably vaunted position: pop-culture starting points for all manner of rearview-mirror riffs and hijinks. As you dig in, it becomes clear that Love's subtitle is no joke: This is an intimate window into the Boston-bred author's private life. Sheffield's new memoir movingly illustrates the enormous emotional and personal compilations that ensue when you lose the person with whom you've built your life. They're measured out in shoeboxes of all-but-obsolete C60s and C90s made while growing up and for Renée, his Virginian wife--a boisterous, lively Gladys Knight to his rapturous Pip--and as a shaken widower following her May 1997 death by pulmonary embolism.
The couple's common language was pop music--fate connected them at a Virginia bar when they happened to be the only two patrons who perked up when a Big Star album started spinning--and their courtship and marriage dovetails with the rise to commercial prominence of grunge, indie, and hip-hop. In Sheffield's nostalgic, sweet 'n' sour hindsight, concerts, maturity, death, milestones, FM serendipities, and flooded apartments are utterly inseparable. The summer before grunge takes over the world, they catch Pavement live for the first time--a band whose frontman resembles an old high-school boyfriend of Renée's--and smacked-out openers Royal Trux: "We wanted to take them home for a bath, a hot meal, and a blood change." Nirvana's In Utero shakes Sheffield to his core for reasons unrelated to the Kurt Cobain suicide and martyrdom it foreshadows: "It got under my skin. Singing about drugs and despair--no problem. Singing about lithium--kid stuff. But `Heart-Shaped Box' was about the fear of having somebody on your hands you refuse to let go of, and that was so new to me. I was terrified to hear somebody my age singing about it."
He makes tapes of Top 40 cheese like Lionel Richie, Right Said Fred, and Fine Young Cannibals for the relaxing chore of dishwashing; she rocks out to homemade comps of New Romantic, punk, and R&B while sewing size-specific clothes for herself using the tackiest fabrics imaginable. Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville and R.E.M.'s Murmur are among the albums they listen to on Renée's last evening alive; they share the same favorite Meat Puppets record and an obsession with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that helps Sheffield mourn when he stumbles upon an exploitative, post-JFK assassination documentary album that he classifies as "perfect 1960s diva pop, up there with anything by Dusty Springfield or Ann-Margaret." Almost as sobering as Sheffield's requiem is the realization that, under slightly different circumstances, this book could happen to any of us.