Summary: Mix tapes: Stick one into a deck and you’re transported to another time in your life. For Rob Sheffield, author of Turn Around Bright Eyes that time was one of miraculous love and unbearable grief. A time that spanned seven years, it started when he met the girl of his dreams, and ended when he watched her die in his arms. Using the listings of fifteen of his favorite mix tapes, Rob shows that the power of music to build a bridge between people is stronger than death. You’ll read these words, perhaps surprisingly, with joy in your heart and a song in your head—the one that comes to mind when you think of the love of your life.
Love is a Mix Tape, by Rob Sheffield 7.5
As I was browsing the shelves of the my local library’s used books store, I stumbled upon a book called ‘Talking to Girls About Duran Duran’. As I was in a small Duran phase at the time, and given that this mint condition hardcover was merely 2$, I decided to pick it up – despite knowing very little about it. Part of the appeal was that there were countless references to music from the era, including chapters named after well-known songs. As a music junkie, this was very enticing to me.
After briefly researching its author, Rob Sheffield, I discovered that he had written another book before that. Its title, ‘Love is a Mix Tape’, immediately captured my imagination: beyond being a fan of Duran Duran, and music, I love the art of the mix tape: I hosted a community radio show for close to eight years, and have since put together a Mix CD social group which gathers music lovers (or melomaniacs) together to talk about music-related stuff and share home-made mixes with one another.
Clearly, this was the book for me, so I requested it from the library. When I saw it, I was blown away: each chapter was preceded by a reproduction of the track listing one of his mix tapes – a tape that pertained to the chapter in some fashion. I was immediately taken with it, and decided that I would tackle it first. I was also taken with it enough to go and buy it before even reading it. Such is my passion for music and mix tapes: it just felt natural that I should own a copy, to have it on my shelf.
I knew nothing about it, of course, so I had no idea that this was actually an autobiographical account of his relationship with his polar opposite, a woman so equally passionate about music as he that they firmly bonded over it. It discusses how they met, befriended each other and eventually fell in love, married… and lost each other. Permanently. Because ‘Love is a Mix Tape’ is not just a glimpse at an unconventional pairing, it’s a tragedy: right from the start, Rob tells us that he was widowed all-too-early.
What makes the book a riveting read, aside from its bittersweet love story, is Sheffield’s musings on the musical genres, artists/bands, and those moments in time that defined the late ’80s and early ’90s. As a music writer for Rolling Stone and other magazines, he has a superb grasp on the material and he weaves it finely with his own life story, showing us clearly how these elements peppered and sometimes even defined him, as well as his relationship with Renée.
Because music has long been as integral a part of my life as it appears to be for him, this is what truly gripped me: large parts of my life are firmly attributed to artists or albums, maybe even a song, and I have clear recollection of where I was in space and time when I first heard a certain music, or made certain purchases. Music has been a way to express myself, to (re)live emotions, to exorcise demons and to manage my depression. The power and significance of music is hardly lost on me.
It’s for the same reason that I connected to the film ‘High Fidelity‘, starring John Cusack as a music store owner who is revisiting his past relationships, and whose life is fused to his appreciation of music (I know, I know… I should read the book. I will, someday). Rob Sheffield falls right into that category of individual whose love of music is indivisible from their own self-identity – without their connections to music they live in an emotional vacuum. Everything can and is expressed through music in one form or another.
In a similar way, Sheffield reminded me to some degree of the John Cusack character from ‘Say Anything‘, who was just happy to have landed the most awesome girl and devoted his time to being as awesome as he could be to/with/for her. I know that this is Cusack overkill, but there’s a reason why he made it out of the ’80s alive, unlike most of his peers: he chose to play intelligent, mature, but bewildered characters that were easily relatable to people who came of age in the late ’80s.
It explains their of heroes, too. Who could have anticipated that the angst-filled, miserable persona of Kurt Cobain would connect with so many? There was a reason for this: his problems felt like a whole generations’ problems; his concerns, theirs. Sheffield naturally devotes a whole chapter to the death of Cobain, and how it overshadowed the rest of the spring and summer in many ways. He also goes to discuss Nirvana’s precious few albums, contextualizing them and explaining his personal preferences.
I also relished his chapter on the allure of synth-pop duos: every time that he had a crush on a girl, he would imagine himself in a duo with her (he as the musician, in the shadows, and her as the singer/frontwoman) and would make up band names for them. I understood where he was coming from, even if I didn’t share that fantasy in particular. I didn’t always agree with his assessments or examples (particularly since they rarely were synth-pop, male/female, or even duos), but it was still a delicious read.
I also enjoyed the chapter where he lists the stupid stuff that he and Renée used to fight about, because it so totally captured the pointlessness of the arguments we sometimes have in relationships – getting all fired up about matters that are so pointless in the grand scheme of things, such as the use of certain words, figure skating, getting pets, commercials or even songs. Why in the world these things seem so important in the moment that we should argue is unfathomable. But it happens to pretty much all of us. Weird.
Obviously, the most poignant chapter of them all is the one recounting the desolation he felt after losing Renée. Not only was it sudden, but having gotten to know her through his eyes just prior made it absolutely shocking, devastating – even if we knew it was coming. I could relate to what he felt and did, even though I never experienced anything quite like that: the spiritual gutting, the aimlessness, the self-imposed isolation to lick one’s wounds – these are all things I have experienced at various times.
But nothing quite like he must have.
Without being depressing, he related it so well that I couldn’t help but think about my own mortality the morning I read the chapter. Although I have been fully aware of the ephemerality of life for a long, long time, the suddenness of Renée’s passing made me reconsider how lucky my loved ones and I are to have made it this far, and how I should expect that luck to only last so long. I soberly considered the notion of making preparations for that fateful day, something I’ve only vaguely considered thus far.
Thankfully, ‘Love is a Mix Tape’ gave me other things to think about. Again, it wasn’t necessarily of the light and fluffy variety, but his realization that a relationship consists of failing in front of someone else – that, whoever our partner is, is the person who will be so close to us that they will witness every moment that we fall down. These people will know us in our least graceful moments, and hopefully will be able to continue loving us despite our failures.
This made me wonder what it takes to be that kind of human being, to be able to love another even when they aren’t everything we’d expect them to be – when they not only disappoint themselves, but us as well. What does it take for a human being to accept these moments and then make aim for those that will ingratiate them to us again. How could I ever be that person, when my tolerance has such strict limits, when my forgiveness isn’t sprung from a bottomless well?
‘Love is a Mix Tape’ is obviously about more than just music; it’s subtitled “Life and Loss, One Song at a Time” for a reason. But it entertains just as it offers reflection fodder. And it provides a look into the heart of one person, of one relationship, of one moment in time. It’s not a thorough memoir, it skips years at a time in certain spots, but it’s a carefully crafted one, built from the memories that are attached to each of the mix tapes that are featured within its pages.
It may be filled with bittersweet melodies, but they are melodies all the same.