I love words, really – in any format. In an article or on a screen, on a sticker or the back of a sweatshirt. But I especially love words in a book or in music. I love words even more when it’s a book about music. When I first started reading about music, a new world was opened up to me as a music lover; backstories and secrets you could never find on the internet. I introduce you to “Oh Darling! Please Read Me,” a monthly column about books about music.
When asked to write a column about music literature, it only felt right to start with a book that taught me how and why to even write about music in the first place; that book is Love is a Mixtape by Rob Sheffield. Rob is a music journalist known for his work in Rolling Stone reviewing concerts and albums as well as his music books Dreaming the Beatles, Turn Around Bright Eyes, and Talking to Girls About Duran Duran. But first and foremost, Rob is a music fan.
Love is a Mixtape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time follows a format unlike any other book, as each chapter dives into Sheffield’s past life through his mixtapes that defined that period of time. Most of the book takes place during the ’90s, when mixtapes were what we now call playlists. Rob leads readers through life and love, pain and grief all while music paves the way and narrates the story – bringing him girlfriends and a career, and coping with death. Through vulnerability and honesty, he tells the story of his first love Renée: “We had nothing in common, except we both loved music” (6).
Throughout the book, readers encounter a wide range of mixtapes; a mixtape of the song “Hey Jude” looped enough to last the entirety of both sides, a tape where Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” follows Bob Dylan’s “You’re Going to make me Lonesome Tonight”, a tape gifted from a friend in Southern California sending “happy vibes,” and a tape he spent hours making until the crack of dawn to help him make sense of it all. Rob paints stories through the soundtrack of his life. No matter when the music was actually written, Rob talks about it like it was made for him in that moment, like that artist is whispering to him as he sits alone in his backyard in Virginia teaching him things he already knows.
In one of my favorite chapters, “how i got that look,” Sheffield uses a tape from the spring of ‘94 – the year Kurt Cobain died – to look at Nirvana’s greatest songs in a way I can guarantee no one ever has before. Rob has a way of turning rock stars into human beings. He turns Cobain from “a dead junkie” into a husband facing the fears of entering “a love you can’t leave until you die”. While most people saw Cobain in Nirvana’s Unplugged as a dead man walking, Sheffield saw him as a man who just entered marriage in his mid-twenties, much like Sheffield did himself. “The show [Unplugged] ends with another scary marriage ballad, ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night,’ a song about a woman with a dead husband. Maybe she killed him, maybe she didn’t – we don’t know. But she can’t sleep in her marriage bed anymore. Kurt has nowhere to rest, so he stays awake and shivers the whole night through” (129).
While Love is a Mixtape is a memoir on a shimmering woman Renée that Rob lost too soon, he makes peace of the time they had together through music. You can find music in the cracks everywhere throughout this book. The way he uses lyrics to make a sentence. The way he details the reasons to make a mixtape: “the party tape,” “We’re doing it? Awesome” tape, “The road trip” tape, “I hate this fucking job” tape or my personal favorite, “you like music, I like music, I can tell we’re going to be friends” tape.
Mixtapes, playlists, burnt CDs – they’re all about context. Rob finds a way to prove, without trying, that music has nothing at all to do with music but has everything to do with the time a certain song or a certain album found you. They’re about piecing together songs that normally would never play next to one another, and they’re about introducing artists that could have never possibly met. They’re about a song that you’d normally never enjoy that meets your ears just at the right time when you’re ready to listen and you can never hear it the same again. “I believe that when you’re making a mix, you’re making history. You ransack the vaults, you haul off all the junk you can carry, and you rewire all your ill-gotten loot into something new. You go through an artist’s career, zero in on that one moment that makes you want to jump and dance and smoke bats and bite the heads off drugs. And then you play that one moment over and over” (23).
Sheffield works his magic when talking about Heart’s “Magic Man.” In the tape that the song is on, “a tape that tries to ruin a bunch of great songs by reminding you of a time you’d rather forget,” he talks about how scary and isolating the song feels in that moment, compared to the normal excitement it brings. He finds the magic man a vampire, contaminating everyone he finds with loneliness from the world around them. In one of my favorite moments in the book, he breaks the third wall to admit that he just now realizes this song is actually about drugs (“embarrassing that I never noticed that before”). The thing is, it doesn’t matter what the song is actually about or when Rob noticed that, what matters is what it meant to him. Songs would be nothing without the ears of those who turn it into whatever they want to hear in that given moment.
Most journalism begs for you to remove yourself from the subject, but Rob Sheffield reminds music writers that without you the subject has no meaning. Liking music will never not be selfish, liking music will never not be a way to feel the things you’d normally never be able to feel. At the end of this beautiful tale, Sheffield moves to an apartment in Brooklyn where his china cabinet fills with tapes over plates as he falls in love again with a new city, a new girl and new music. “I realize I never fully understand the millions of bizarre ways that music brings people together,” (212) he ponders. But the thing is, Rob seems to know more than any of us that to be in love with music is to remember life to its fullest, bringing together everything and everyone you’ve ever loved.