July 28, 2014 in Book Reviews
I know I’m not the only one with memories of lurking around the AM/FM radio console/cassette player waiting for my favorite song to come on the radio. Every time a song neared its end, I would kneel before the cassette player, place my finger on the Record button, and wait, hoping that finally my song would be played next so I could record it.
I spent many hours making mix tapes of “the best songs ever!” for my friends and they did the same for me. I even made a “Labor Tape”, a tape filled with songs that relaxed and inspired me through the births of all three of my children. My oldest was born to Paul Simon’s Mother and Child Reunion (no joke). My middle son came out in a Counting Crows Rain King/10,000 Maniacs Trouble Me combo (which is actually quite fitting for him), while my youngest was born to another 10,000 Maniacs song Like the Weather, from which you may conclude that either a) I am a huge 10,000 Maniacs fan, or b) my youngest’s mood can change on a dime.
The days of mix tapes are over, but you can re-live them again in Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, so he is no music slouch. It is a trip down memory lane to be reminded of songs from quintessential music groups like The Cars, Supertramp, ELO, and Stray Cats. But Sheffield does one better: he uses his mix tapes to tell a story. Musical era by musical era, he chronicles several key moments from his own life, but the majority of his memoir covers his seven years with Renée, the woman he fell in love with, married, and lost much too early to a pulmonary embolism at the age of 31.
I was in high school and college during the 80s and 90s, the decades Sheffield covers in his memoir, so these are my songs. They have woven their way into my DNA. Whenever I hear so much as a refrain or a signature chord, I am transported back to a moment. Cruel Summer by Bananarama drops me into the landlocked traffic in Newport Beach, my portable cassette player beside me in the passenger seat cranked to high, the windows rolled down, the sun shimmering off the cars and asphalt, as I try to worm my way into a parking lot near the beach without running over a lackadaisical barefoot surfer crossing the road where no crosswalk exists.
They are Sheffield’s and Renée’s songs too, and Sheffield has no shortage of songs linked to the memories of his life. It is a delight to be reminded of these old songs and of the highlights of the era (they loved the The Cutting Edge too!). It is also a delight getting to know Sheffield and Renée. When she died, instantly, with no warning, she left Sheffield anchorless, swimming in grief and unable to turn to music for solace because every song reminded him of Renée, and they were simply too painful to listen to anymore. (I have a few of those too. Don’t we all?)
Sheffield’s writing is engaging. He lures you in with music, holds you close with anecdotes from his relationship with Renée, and then slams you with loss and grief (I confess I shed a few tears). But music continues to evolve, and eventually Sheffield found his way to new music, a new place to live, and with time, a new love.
We carry our memories forward, and the key to accessing them is through a song. Or in Sheffield’s case, a mix tape.