The soundtrack of his life

by Beacon Staff • January 31, 2007

The recording of songs onto a cassette tape works as a strikingly modern form of autobiography, and in his memoir, Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, Rob Sheffield uses the mix tapes he's made all his life and hoarded in his closet and cabinets to tell the story of his life.,Who needs a diary when you have mix tapes?

The recording of songs onto a cassette tape works as a strikingly modern form of autobiography, and in his memoir, Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, Rob Sheffield uses the mix tapes he's made all his life and hoarded in his closet and cabinets to tell the story of his life.

This is no James Frey hyperbolic memoir, though.

Love is a Mix Tape is the story of Sheffield's life, told one cassette at a time. It's about how Sheffield made mixes for church camp and how he lost his wife, Renee, to a pulmonary embolism after only five years of marriage. It's about how he survived being a young widower and how he survived life in general, told through his first love: music.

You may recognize Sheffield, either from his byline on Rolling Stone record reviews or from VH1 countdown shows. His uber-cool job of interviewing musicians is mentioned only in passing in the book. Instead, the focus is the music and the mixes that Rob made throughout his life and what he was going through at the time he made them.

Every chapter includes a track listing for the tape Sheffield refers to, allowing the reader to watch as a boy growing up outside of Boston becomes a tall, shy awkward grad student who makes tapes full of Big Star tracks for his future wife when he meets her in a bar.

Love is a Mix Tape is predominantly a story about Rob and Renee's courtship, marriage and the emptiness Sheffield felt after Renee suddenly dies while he's making her cinnamon toast in their apartment.

The writing is funny, knowledgeable and, above all else, honest. Sheffield's descriptions of the people and places around him aren't stunning, but through his choice of songs (everything from Hank Williams to Sinatra to Sugar Ray to Pavement), he brings an emotional force to the writing that gives a clear picture of everything going on around his life at the time.

You may have never heard some of the tracks, but you get an excellent idea about what they sound like and how they'll make you feel.

It's quite clear music and mix tapes have always been a part of Sheffield's life: he tells about spending an afternoon with his dad during which he figured out how to lift the needle on the record player and thus record an entire tape of "Hey Jude" playing endlessly on loop. He spends an entire chapter outlining his logic for making an eighth-grade dance mix tape, another one talking about the summer after Kurt Cobain committed suicide and deconstructing every song on MTV Unplugged in New York.

The first half of the book is laugh-out-loud funny, as Sheffield describes his formative years and his insatiable love for music. He talks about his regrets ("I regret taking a bus trip through scenic Pennsylvania Dutch country once, when I could have stayed home and watched MTV's David Lee Roth Weekend (There'll be plenty of other David Lee Roth Weekends, I told myself. What was I thinking?)") and how his upstairs neighbors made a tape perfect for getting their girlfriends to make out ("The tape goes in, Jeff Buckley moans one of his 10-minute thingies, then his falsetto fades into the guitar intro of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On," and bam-their girlfriends are lap-dancing each other like brazen little colts.").

Once the book moves into the '90s and Rob meets Renee, the energy and happiness she provided him becomes more evident in the tracks that show up in the tapes: Pavement, Nirvana, R.E.M. and the Notorious B.I.G. Describing these happy times in the summer of 1993, he says, "MTV spent the whole summer blasting the video where Snoop Doggy Dogg wore his 'LBC' baseball hat. Renee asked, 'Snoop went to Liberty Baptist College?'"

When Renee dies, the book turns sharply and pulls at the heartstrings as Sheffield talks about the tapes he makes himself so that he can just drive around and avoid going back to an empty bed in his empty basement apartment.

Love is a Mix Tape is a must-read for the music enthusiast.

You'll want to laugh, you'll want to cry and you'll discover that love truly is a mix tape. But by the end, you'll want to listen to music and make mixes of your own, which is exactly what Sheffield wants you to do.