Love Is a Mix Tape
Life and Loss, One Song at a Time
by Rob Sheffield
January 2007, 224 pages, $22.95
“I met Renée in Charlottesville, Va., when we were both 23,” Rob Sheffield writes. “When the bartender at the Eastern Standard put on a tape, Big Star’s “Radio City,” she was the only other person in the room to perk up. So we drank bourbon and talked about music.”
The tall, skinny, geeky grad student soon found himself at her doorstep, sputtering, “I don’t know what your type is. I don’t know what your deal is. I don’t even know if you have a boyfriend. I know I like you and I want to be in your life, that’s it, and if you have any room for a boyfriend, I would like to be your boyfriend, and if you don’t have any room, I would like to be your friend. Any room you have for me in your life is great.”
Before long, he was making her mix tapes, a rite of passage shared by most music-obsessed lovers. Almost as quickly, she reciprocated.
Love Is a Mix Tape is a new memoir by Sheffield, whose smart, witty “Pop Life” music column is one of the saving graces of Rolling Stone magazine. Chronicling his romance with fellow rock critic Renée Crist, a woman I knew, Sheffield’s book is a moving meditation on love and loss—and the (musical) ties that bind us.
“Before I met her, I was just another hermit wolfboy, scared of life, hiding in my room with my records and my fanzines,” Sheffield writes. “Suddenly, I got all tangled up in this girl’s noisy, juicy, sparkly life.”
A noisy, juicy, and sparkly life, yes—but a brief one.
“Renée died on May 11, 1997, very suddenly and unexpectedly, at home with me, of a pulmonary embolism. She was 31. She’s buried in Pulaski County, Va., on the side of a hill, next to the Wal-Mart.”
Until that year, I never had a friend who died. Renée passed away about two years after I left Charlottesville, where we both worked at Plan 9 Records.
I still remember the day she joined our motley crew of record store clerks. Her reputation as a rock critic and an all around kick-ass woman preceded her, and needless to say, we were stoked to be in Renée’s presence. Her music writing provides evidence of the “lion-hearted take-charge southern gal” Sheffield depicts. In the SPIN Alternative Record Guide, for instance, she describes Marshall Crenshaw’s debut album this way: “he longs for a ‘Cynical Girl,’ doesn’t have any interest in ‘The Usual Thing,’ and promises to take his pick ‘Rockin’ Around in NYC.’” She adds, “Sign me up.”
“The world got cheated out of Renée,” Sheffield writes. “I got cheated less than anybody, since I got more of her than anybody. But still, I wanted more of her. I wanted to be her guy forever and ever.” In many ways, though, Love Is a Mix Tape cheats death. It transforms their relationship into a well wrought, beautifully written work of art—offering it back to the world for safe keeping.
“We only got five years,” Sheffield recounts in the book. “On our fifth anniversary, we drove out to Afton Mountain and checked into a motel. We got righteously wasted and blasted David Bowie’s “Five Years” over and over. ... ‘Five years!’ we screamed in unison. ‘That’s aaaooowwwlll we got!’ It was all we got. That was a good night. There were a lot of good nights. We got more of those than we had any right to expect, five years’ worth, but I wanted more, anyway.”
The book opens years later with Sheffield listening to a cassette, in a different apartment, a different town.
“This mix tape is just another piece of useless junk that Renée left behind. A category that I guess includes myself.”
At the beginning of the first chapter, and in every chapter, Sheffield lists the songs on an old mix tape. The melodies, the lyrics—even the way the songs are ordered—help him remember.
“[T]his is the tape that changed everything,” he writes about the first mix he gave her. “Everything in my life comes directly from this Maxell XLII crush tape, made on October 10, 1989, for Renée.”
One of the book’s strengths is its attentiveness to the way recorded music has an uncanny ability to archive our memories. It is this conceit that helps organize the book, and though it largely unfolds chronologically, it is also a bricolage.
“Walter Benjamin, in his prescient 1923 essay, “One Way Street,” said a book was an outdated means of communication between two boxes of index cards,” Sheffield writes. “One professor goes through books, looking for tasty bits he can copy onto index cards. Then he types his index cards up into a book, so other professors can go through it can copy tasty bits onto their own index cards. Benjamin’s joke was: Why not just sell the index cards? I guess that’s why we trade mix tapes.”
Anyone familiar with Sheffield’s writing knows that he swims pop culture. He seamlessly integrates these references into his music criticism and, in the case of this book, his own life. Take the following story: “One day we were driving around in her 1978 Chrysler LeBaron and Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” came on the radio. Renée sang lead, while I sang the Pips’ backup routine. She’s leavin! Leavin’ on the midnight train! Woo woo! A superstar but he didn’t get far!”
“When we got to the final fade-out,” he continues, “with Gladys on board the train and the Pips choo-chooing their goodbyes, Renée cocked an eyebrow and said, ‘You make a good Pip.’ That’s all I ever wanted to hear a girl tell me. That’s all I ever dreamed of being. Some of us are born Gladys Knights, and some of us are born Pips. I marveled unto my Pip soul how lucky I was to choo-choo and woo-woo behind a real Gladys girl.”
Or another example: “I always pictured us growing old together, like William Holden and Ernest Borgnine in The Wild Bunch, side by side in our sleeping bags, drinking coffee and planning the next payroll heist.”
As an homage to Sheffield’s love of pop culture-drenched analogies, I’ll share a memory of Renée, a memory embedded in an infectious, reddish-orange colored compact disc. In 1994, TLC’s second album, CrazySexyCool, was a much-needed pop plague that infected every Plan 9 employee not completely poisoned by elitist indie sensibilities. I remember our resident punk rocker raised eyebrows among said elitists when she bought the cassingle of “Creep.” I think she identified with TLC member T-Boz (the cool one), who was tall and fit and skinny, just like Plan 9’s own punk rock girl.
The slinky “Red Light Special” was the next single released from CrazySexyCool, and my red hot lady friend from Louisiana confided that she not only liked the song, she had a crush on Chilli (the sexy one). The two of them—Chilli and my friend—both had innocent-looking exteriors, but you could tell they were bad bad girls.
In my own mind, Renée was Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez (the crazy one). Left Eye, some of you might recall, was a short spunky singer/rapper who once one-upped Jim Morrison by trying to light her boyfriend on fire (football player Andre Risen).
Renée was also short and spunky, and even though she was a firecracker, she wasn’t burn-down-the-house-with-flaming-sneakers nuts. Just crazy-fun.
When I hear TLC’s CrazySexyCool or even just see that album cover, I think about that time in my life—and I remember Renée.
Love Is a Mix Tape isn’t just a meditation on one woman—it’s a book that also mourns the loss of a special moment in time.
“Something was happening in ‘90s music that isn’t happening anywhere in pop culture these days, with women making noise in public ways that seem distant now.”
“It was an open time, full of possibilities, changes we thought were permanent,” Sheffield writes. “It seemed inconceivable that things would ever go back to the way they were in the ‘80s, when monsters were running the country and women were only allowed to play bass in indie-rock bands. The ‘90s moment has been stomped over so completely, it’s hard to imagine it ever happened, much less that it lasted five, six, seven years.”
Most people would point to the iconic ‘60s when making such a celebratory statement, but not Rob. Or Renée.
“I remember the summer of 1996, at a drunken wedding with one of my professors, a Hendrix-freak baby boomer, when he was complaining about the ‘bullet-in-the-head rock and roll’ the kids were listening to today, and he asked Renée, ‘What does rock and roll have today that it didn’t have in the ‘60s?’”
Renée’s response: “Tits.”
Reflecting on the present, Sheffield mournfully notes, “The radio has become homogenized, with practically every station around the country bought up and programmed by the same corporation, and in a shocking coincidence, the weird girls have been shoved back underground.”
Despite the fact that Sheffield looks back wistfully on the ‘90s, he’s not blinded by nostalgia, at least when it comes to technology. He loves his iPod. Loves it. Rob claims he would rather have sex with his MP3 player than Jennifer Lopez. But he notes that there’s a difference between the way we consume mix tapes and the way we take in digitally stored music.
“MP3s buzz straight to your brain. That’s part of what I love about them. But the rhythm of the mix tape is the rhythm of romance, the analog hum of a physical connection between two sloppy, human bodies.”
His discussion of analog tapes and digital files got me thinking about some big questions.
Digital technologies open up many new possibilities, sure, but they also create problems archivists have worried about for years. For instance, are you able to open a computer file that you created in 1991? Chances are, you can’t.
I’m also willing to bet that those encrypted, copy-protected iTunes music files I bought from Apple won’t open 15 years from now—at least, not without great difficulty.
On the other hand, I recently listened to a tape recording of my college radio show from 1991, one that was lying around in a box. This analog tape doesn’t sound as bright and crystalline as a compact disc—“The cassette is full of tape hiss and room tone,” Sheffield reminds us, “it’s full of wasted space, unnecessary noise”—but it still played.
I also discovered that this ratty little tape had soaked up a few of my memories, ones I thought had been lost forever. Those sounds and those songs brought it all rushing back to me.
Late-19th century writings about the phonograph pitched it as a device that staved off death by preserving a loved one’s voice, or that of a favorite singer. It’s no wonder, then, that one of the music industry’s most enduring logos is the RCA-Victor dog, “Nipper,” who is pictured obediently listening to “his master’s voice.”
According to corporate lore, Nipper’s owner was dead, but this naïve dog couldn’t tell the difference between the recording and the real thing. Decades later, an audiotape manufacturer’s ad campaign asked us, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?”
Last year my friend and colleague, Ken Cmiel, died as unexpectedly as Renée. At his memorial service, Ken’s family played a selection of songs he loved, which his kids found on his iPod’s “Most Played” list.
I remember sitting there, watching people fill the room as Aretha Franklin’s “I Say a Little Prayer” hovered in the air. It was one of Ken’s favorite songs, and as each tune gave way to another—John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” Perry Como’s “Magic Moments,” Dionne Warwick’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”—my mental picture of him came back into focus.
“The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with—nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape,” Sheffield writes, reminding me of both Ken and Renée. “Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they add up to the story of a life.”