Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Books of 2008: "Love Is A Mix Tape"

You either make mix tapes, or you don’t. And if you do, in all likelihood you obsess about music. You don’t just try to figure out which songs are good, and which songs aren’t. You take it a step further – you try to figure out which songs sound best together. When a series of great songs strung together ends up sounding like less than the sum of its parts, you wonder why. And when a series of fair-to-middling songs strung together ends up sounding like the best album ever made, you get a few goose bumps, smile to yourself, and wonder at the miracle which is music.

Rob Sheffield makes mix tapes. In Love Is A Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song At A Time, Sheffield – a rock critic and columnist for Rolling Stone magazine – tells the story of a “shy, skinny, Irish Catholic geek from Boston” (Sheffield) who met “a real cool hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl (Renee),” fell in love, wooed the girl with a mix tape, and got married to her without any real idea of what life would hold in store.

What life held in store was a few years of bliss, followed by tragedy:

We met on September 19, 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 the Wal-Mart.

Reading Love Is A Mix Tape, it soon becomes clear that, even though Rob and Renee didn’t have a lot in common, their mutual love of music was more than enough to make their time together one of enduring happiness. It wasn’t perfect; as Sheffield writes, there were songs for fighting and songs for leaving the house just as there were songs for the kind of things that married couples do when they’re feeling really good about each other. And as with anyone for whom music plays such a large role in their lives, the songs they listened to became the soundtrack of their life together. Which is as it should be – everyone should have songs that remind them of the great times in their life, as well as the bad times. For me, one such song would be “Round Here” by Counting Crows. For whatever reason, that happened to be the song that was cued up on my car’s tape player when I was driving home from the hospital after the birth of my second son, and on the 30-minute drive home, I simply hit rewind and re-listened to it, rather than allowing the tape to advance to the next song on the tape. So, even though the song itself has absolutely nothing to do with childbirth, it’s the song that will always make me think of that night.

Love Is A Mix Tape is a very good book up until the point when Renee dies, at which time it becomes a great, albeit heartbreaking, one. It’s hard for me to imagine the pain of going through the death of a loved one like Sheffield did. And for someone like Sheffield – who makes a living from listening to and writing about music – having the meaning of so many songs changed overnight must have been a shock almost as enduring as the one he bore from the initial shock of losing his wife. Fortunately, music also plays a role in his recovery. But even though life may be just as good, just as enriching as it was before, it will never be quite the same. One of my favorite passages is one near the end of the book:

After Renee died, I assumed the rest of my life would be just a consolation prize. I would keep living, and keep having new experiences, but none of them would compare to the old days. I would have to settle for a lonely life I didn’t want, which would always remind me of the life I couldn’t have anymore. But it didn’t turn out that way, and there’s something strange and upsetting about that. I would have stayed in 1996 if I could have, but it wasn’t my choice, so now I have to either move forward or back – it’s up to me. Not changing isn’t an option. And even though I’ve changed in so many ways – I’m a different person with a different life – the past is still with me every minute.

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