Saturday, January 7, 2012

"You gave me the best mixtape I have..."

Love is a Mixtape by Rob Sheffield
Review, reflection and inspiration

     "We met on September 17, 1989. We got married on July 13, 1991. We were married for five years and ten months. Renee died on May 11, 1997, very suddenly and unexpectedly, at home with me, of a pulmonary embolism. She was thirty-one. She's buried in Pulaski County, Virginia, on the side of a hill, next to a Wal-Mart.
     As soon as Side Two cuts off, right in the middle of a terrible Belly song, I sit there and wait for the final ca-chunka. Then I flip the tape and press play again. The first song is Pavement's 'Shoot the Singer,' which I just heard an hour ago. I have some unfinished business with these tunes. I'm going to be up for awhile. Renee's not done with me yet."

Mixtapes: there’s no easier way to give a piece of yourself to another person, no simpler way of giving a person a window into your mind, your heart and your soul than by giving them a collection of songs that are important to you. And there are so many kinds of mixtapes: the retrospective soundtracks, lists of songs that were important to you at a very specific period of your life; the “I want to improve your music taste” tape, where you give your friend a collection of stuff by your favorite bands, in hopes that they’ll finally see the light; the “I want you” or “I love you” or the “break-up” tapes, tapes for every stage of a relationship. When I listen to my old mixtapes, I feel like I’ve preserved a piece of myself and my life in those songs, like it’s a time capsule for me to open up and travel back in time with, to the day I decided that Ray LaMontagne song and that Bruce Springsteen song would sound perfect back to back. When I listen to the mixtapes from the girl I love, I feel like she’s enclosed a piece of her heart in those songs, and even when we’re not together, I can put them on and feel like she’s near me. Probably the most important mixtape I have is the one she gave me the day I left for school after our first summer together, the summer we fell in love (even if we hadn’t said the words yet). Listening to the songs she put on that mix, the happy, the sad, the lovelorn, the distant, the nostalgic, it felt like a new beginning: I was confused and sad and broken, and felt like I’d just driven 150 miles away from the person I most wanted to be with, but that mix turned my eyes toward the future. Hell, when I listened to that mixtape, I knew we were going to be together for a long, long time.

Rob Sheffield knows all of this: he’s made every type of mixtape that I listed above (along with many others), and he’s heard thousands of songs become the soundtrack of his life, both as the subjects of his mixtapes and the mixtapes his late-wife Renee made for him. Those mixtapes are the basis for the story that unfolds in Sheffield’s 2007 memoir, Love is a Mixtape. Throughout the book, Sheffield chronicles his life through stories about his two great loves: music and Renee, from his early mixtaping days for the middle school dance (I've got stories of my own in that genre), to making his first mixtape for the woman who would become his wife, to soundtracking their final hours together, before she suddenly collapsed one Sunday afternoon and died in his arms; no warning, no chance to say goodbye.

As a book, Love is a Mixtape is over far too quickly, and once I reached the final page, a part of me just wanted to hit rewind, to loop the thing over and over again, or to just have it keep going, but just like Renee and Rob’s relationship, just like Renee’s life, it’s over far too soon. Sheffield is a terrific writer: as a columnist for Rolling Stone, he’s chronicled his adoration for the kind of pop music many of us (myself included) have written off time and time again, and he does that in this book, but he also gives us a window into his life, gives us a piece of his heart, like he’s mixed us the best tape of all. Sheffield’s endlessly sarcastic, self-deprecating wit lends a joyful humor to many parts of the book, from his awkward youth, to his perhaps even more awkward college days, all the way to the strange, euphoric taste of first love and then later, the ups and downs of married life: the great moments spent just driving around with his wife and singing along to songs on the radio, or of the whirlwind social life she brought him into, this shy guy who would have felt so much more at home with his records (I can definitely identify with that one), or of the stupid little fights they used to have, all of which he lost (the girl always wins…).

But Sheffield is every bit as good at painting the tragedy: the numbing shock of her “here-one-minute, gone-the-next” passing; the futility of trying to move on into a life without her; his endless nights of just sitting in the backyard, listening to mixtapes and trying to find her again in the songs; the overwhelming displays of human kindness he found himself surrounded by in the months after her death; the emptiness of things like work and bills and cooking, and how pointless they seemed to him when she was gone. The months spent eating out at restaurants, and the unbearable sadness in his prose as he describes his search for a place where he can just be alone, uninhibited by the stares of others or by the small talk of friends or acquaintances, and especially a place where the memories of the woman who was stolen from him far to soon won’t haunt his every thought. This part of the book, though it follows a hundred solid pages of smiles, laughs and happiness, is so crushingly sad, so painfully haunting, that it was hard to read at times, but it’s also completely honest, raw and powerful, and it makes the book something I don’t think I will ever forget. Some of my favorite songs of all time are songs that I find so powerful because I can feel the artist’s emotion in every word and every note, and that holds true for Sheffield’s book as well.

The mixtape really is a mythical creation: it can be such a simple thing, but when thought and love is poured into it, it becomes something so much more. I always used to think that I would never be happy unless the girl I fell in love with had great taste in music. I don’t know if that seems shallow or anything, but considering that music is one of the most important things on the planet to me, I really can’t imagine falling for someone that I didn’t feel musically compatible with, because that would probably hint at some other compatibility issues as well. One of my first favorite songs was Butch Walker’s “Mixtape*,” and it put this fantasy in my head of finding the perfect girl to make the perfect mixtape for. Luckily, I found a girl who is all of that, and even though love is, unlike Sheffield says here, so much more than just a mixtape, I honestly think the songs I’ve traded with my girlfriend have added a facet to our relationship that I wouldn’t give up for anything. Those songs have provided soundtrack for countless important moments in our relationship, expressed things we couldn’t quite say in words and, ultimately, they have brought us closer together. But like Sheffield discusses throughout the book, music builds bridges and bonds between people in so many ways, the obvious and the subtle, and just like him, it never ceases to amaze me just how many ways that can happen: I hope it never does.

*Later, by some strange coincidence, Jimmy Eat World and Jack’s Mannequin would both release songs of alarmingly similar titles. This means that three of my five all time favorite artists have written songs on the subject. There’s only one other song about mixtapes in my library. Now Bruce just needs to write one and I’ll have a conspiracy theory.

My favorite mixtape my girlfriend ever made for me, just for reference:

  1. Ian Broudie – “Song For You”
  2. Joshua Radin – “I’d Rather Be With You”
  3. Gin Blossoms – “Hey Jealousy”
  4. Hootie & the Blowfish – “Only Wanna be With You”
  5. Ingrid Michaelson – “You & I”
  6. David Ford – “Song For the Road”
  7. Iron & Wine – “My Lady’s House”
  8. Amos Lee – “Keep it Loose, Keep it Tight”
  9. Aimee Mann – “Save Me”
  10. The Wallflowers – “Closer to You”
  11. The Weepies – “Gotta Have You”
  12. Calexico and Iron & Wine – “16, Maybe Less”
  13. Bell X1 – “Eve, the Apple of My Eye”
  14. Grizzly Bear – “Slow Life”
  15. Damien Rice – “Grey Room”
  16. Ben Harper – “Waiting For You”
  17. Alexi Murdoch – “Wait”
  18. Switchfoot – “You”

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