Sheffield’s ‘Mix Tape’ rocks the heart

becky.korpi and becky.korpi

When I was a junior in high school, my friend Sam gave me my first mix tape. It was an actual cassette tape full of lyrics and voices I had never heard before, and it ensured that I wasn’t totally clueless when we listened to music at Sam’s house. Someone else taking the time to share the soundtrack of their life with you is a feeling that rock critic Rob Sheffield hones in on in his debut novel “Love is A Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time.”
A “shy, skinny, Irish Catholic geek from Boston,” Sheffield finds company in music from a young age, and not just the songs that were popular while he was growing up in the ’70s. His penchant for underground music, specifically the American rock band Meat Puppets, leads him to Renee.
A “warm and loud and impulsive” West Virginian, Renee proves to be Sheffield’s stark opposite. But through long drives in the country and a mix tape for every occasion (including falling asleep), they fall in love – “I had no voice to talk with because she was my whole language,” writes Sheffield.
Without really planning to, the two music junkies marry in 1992 and begin a new life together in a cramped box of an apartment with take-out fried chicken for dinner almost every night. After five poverty-stricken but strong years, it is May 11, 1997. Sheffield finds himself in the kitchen making cinnamon toast for Renee, who is sewing one of her many attempted projects in another room.
In a matter of seconds she rises, collapses and instantly dies of a pulmonary embolism that no one saw coming. With his soul mate abruptly taken from him, Sheffield learns to cope one day – and one song – at a time.
What made me like this book, before I even read the first page, was the way Sheffield introduced each new chapter with a list of songs from one of his mix tapes. From “Candy Everybody Wants” by 10,000 Maniacs to Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song),” these lists offer the reader an intimate glimpse at the music that defined certain moments in Sheffield’s life. Considering I wasn’t familiar with most of the music, it also illustrates how unconventional Sheffield’s tastes are as well as how much of a mainstream girl I really am.
Sheffield’s journalistic background serves him well in his writing style; his story is descriptive without going overboard and gets to the point in a concise manner. Although he has been writing for years, his voice belies his expertise. It’s as though he is just casually telling a story, not trying to impress anyone, and that garners brownie points in my book.
What kept me from becoming fully immersed in this book is not Sheffield’s fault. In terms of cultural references and Billboard hits I couldn’t relate to what was going on until he started talking about the ’90s, which doesn’t happen until almost halfway in. Those savvy with the underground rock scene will definitely relate more in terms of how certain songs and bands affected different periods of Sheffield’s life and although it made me feel like an outsider at times, overall I was able to keep up.
Since that fateful day of my junior year, I’ve exchanged and received dozens of mix tapes with friends, co-workers and lovers. The “tapes” are usually CDs now, but the gesture still represents a way to get to know the people in your life and share an intimate part of yourself with them in return. My comrades don’t always like what I put on mine – I think they probably pass up the Ani DiFranco tracks every time – but Sheffield has it right: love is, indeed, a mix tape.