Monday, July 14, 2008

Love is a Mix Tape

I remember a simpler time when the best way to tell a girl you liked her was to make her a mix tape. Well… maybe it wasn’t the best way, but it was the easiest way. And clearly I wasn’t the only one who employed this tactic – there is an entire generation that’s nostalgic about that particular dating ritual, from novelist Nick Hornsby (High Fidelity) to music critic Rob Sheffield.

Sheffield has recently written a wonderful memoir called Love is a Mix Tape (Random House, 2007), in which he charts the ups and downs of his relationship with his wife. Theirs is a story worthy of a pop song: Rob was an shy, awkward boy from the North. Renee was a vivacious girl from the South. They had nothing in common except their love of music, so they kept exchanging mix tapes until the day that Renee died – stricken down suddenly by a pulmonary embolism while casually walking across a room in her own apartment. The rest of Sheffield’s book reads like a variation on C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed – with Sheffield re-learning to love his god: music.

I can’t remember the last time I read a book that I enjoyed so much, but I must admit that I’m a bit biased. Much of the story is set in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, and I can’t help but get a little nostalgic when the author mentions familiar local landmarks: Tokyo Rose, Bodo’s Bagels, the Plan 9 record store, etc. Turns out the author lived in an apartment below two guys I went to high school with – brothers who formed a grunge band called Navel. Sheffield remembers listening to the guitarist (Wally) play Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” over and over, while his brother (Drew) had “incredibly loud sex in the room above mine, to the point where I would get up and go sleep on the couch.” A quick Google search tells me that Navel is still going strong, now based in L.A. God bless ‘em.

During my sophomore year of high school, I was hopelessly infatuated with a girl who was infatuated with Drew. He even wrote a song for her. How could I compete with that? The best I could do was make mix tapes. There was, if I remember correctly, a lot of Pink Floyd and R.E.M. on the first one. I had no chance of winning the girl, but I did get a few mix tapes in return. The first one started with a song by the Primitive Radio Gods: “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand.” If you came of age in the mid-90s, you know this song when you hear it…. though odds are good that you haven’t heard it since the mid-90s. There were also songs by Phish (“Fast Enough for You”), Beastie Boys (a remix of “Root Down”), G. Love and Special Sauce (“This Ain’t Living”), Spearhead (“Hole in the Bucket”), and independent east coast artists like Fighting Gravity, Emmet Swimming, Shannon Worrell and Okracoke.

She was much cooler than I was.

Another girl I was briefly infatuated with in high school made me tapes that introduced me to Oasis, Buffalo Tom, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant… and one of the tapes ended with the first half of REO Speedwagon “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” (Now whenever I hear the song, I’m always surprised that it doesn't end abruptly.) She also put the occasional country song on her tapes. I’ve never been a fan of country music, but there are a few artists and a few songs that I associate with that particular time and place – songs that evoke memories of Charlottesville and of people I knew there: “Angel Eyes” by the Jeff Healey Band, “When You Say Nothing at All” by Alison Krauss, “Strawberry Wine” by Deana Carter, and just about anything by local folk singer Terri Allard (who occasionally rented movies at the video store I worked in). Feeling equally apologetic about his love of certain country songs, Sheffield writes, “It’s always that one song that gets you. You can hide, but the song comes to find you.” That was the great thing about mix tapes – through the selection of particular songs, you were sharing your thoughts and feelings with the people who meant something to you. For most of us, I think, finding the right song was easier than finding the right words.

Years later, some of us still can’t find the words. Music brings back all the abstract thoughts at unexpected moments. Rick Moody wrote a short story about a drug that allows people to vividly re-live key moments from their past. I think even Moody knows that the drug is music. He once said that the only way to truly experience his first novel (Garden State) as it was meant to be experienced is with The Feelies playing in the background. Likewise, Sheffield provides a soundtrack for every set of memories … going all the way back to “Free Bird” and “Stairway to Heaven” at his 8th grade dance (which begs the question: will those two songs EVER be pulled out of the rotation for 8th grade dances? ).

What’s so great about Love is a Mix Tape is that Sheffield, on several occasions, does find the words to express not only his feelings… but, somehow, the reader’s feelings (or, at least, this reader’s) as well. For example, the following passage perfectly sums up my memory of the first time I hung out with a girl in her bedroom: “Sometimes you lie in a strange room, in a strange person’s home, and you feel yourself bending out of shape. Melting, touching something hot, something that warps you in drastic and probably irreversible ways you won’t get to take stock of until it’s too late.” And here’s a simple sentence that sums up my response to the first time that a girl I liked told me that she liked me too: “Suddenly, I felt like part of the world.” Better still, the second time that a girl I liked told me that she liked me too: “If she breaks my heart, no matter what hell she puts me through, I can say it was worth it, just because of right now.”

Not long after Renee’s death, Sheffield left Charlottesville for Brooklyn. He had to leave all those songs and memories behind in order to move on with his life. Now, when he looks back, he wonders where the hell the time has gone. So much has changed, and not just in his personal life… Sheffield misses the music scene of the 1990s, when garage bands and girl bands were running the show. He remembers the decade as a time “when peace and prosperity and freedom were here to stay"... before the “nineties dreams” were “stomped down so hard it seems crazy to remember that they were real, or at least part of real lives.”

Wow… is it already time for 90s nostalgia? Like Sheffield, I can’t help wondering, Where the hell has the time gone? And was the world really a simpler, better place ten years ago or do we just remember it that way because we were younger… and wearing headphones everywhere we went?

Afterthought: I just found the official Love is a Mix Tape webpage, which features a mix tape contest. Sadly, the deadline has long since passed… but here’s my entry anyway. It’s an all-Beatles mix that charts a passionate relationship from first blush to full-on obsession to the recovery room. I call it The Love Me and Leave Me Experiment:

1.“The Word” (an overture, from Rubber Soul)
2.“If I Needed Someone” (playing it cool, from Rubber Soul)
3.“Got to Get You Into My Life” (how quickly we change our tune, from Revolver)
4.“I Feel Fine” (bliss, from Past Masters Vol. 1)
5.“Come Together” (sexual innuendo?, from Abbey Road)
6.“Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” (no more innuendo, from The White Album)
7.“Flying” (post-coital bliss, from The Magical Mystery Tour)
8.“Hello, Goodbye” (and then it all started to go wrong, from The Magical Mystery Tour)
9.“Martha My Dear” (my favorite Beatles song because it single-handedly got me through a bad breakup, from The White Album)
10.“We Can Work It Out” (pleading, from Past Masters Vol. 2)
11.“She Said, She Said” (longing, from Revolver)
12.“Eleanor Rigby” (lonely, from Revolver)
13.“I’m Looking Through You” (pretending, from Rubber Soul)
14.“Yer Blues” (lonely again – with a vengeance, from The White Album)
15.“Happiness is a Warm Gun” (perhaps getting a little bitter..., from The White Album)
16.“Run for Your Life” (self-explanatory, from Rubber Soul)
17.“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (breakdown / breakthrough?, from Abbey Road)
18.the entire second side of Abbey Road up until “Her Majesty” (just because)
19.“I Will” (acceptance, from The White Album)
20.“All You Need is Love” (obviously, from The Magical Mystery Tour)


  1. Joe -- this is one of your best posts ever. I really enjoyed reading it. Great mix of cultural history (mix tape) and autobiography.

  2. Joe
    This is Izzo-- in LA I wanted to keep talking but I think presentations got in the way--thanks for kind words-- love that you did horror book-- I go back to the 50s 60s with Famous Monsters of Filmland and once worked for the Monster Times a fanzine in 1972

    let's pick up our conversation--can't remember if I told you I published a historical novel with Huxley as the leading 'character'
    and a fantasy with Huxley as a giant cat---- you can see this stuff at

    email me at