Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song At a Time by Rob Sheffield
During our courtship, Mr. Potts had a morning drive-time show on the Memphis City Schools radio station. The station's format was crap adult contemporary, but he started sneaking in songs he thought I'd like hearing on my way to work. The station was really so awful that for all he knew, I was the only one listening to his playlist. However, these morning love letters to me developed a cult following among the Memphis hipster working stiff contingent, as well as some virulent detractors.*
People who love records have better relationships, because their love lives get soundtracks. And I'm sure that most of those people have great songs they can never listen to again or bad songs that they've put on pedestals simply because the music gets all tangled up with the relationship. When someone makes you a mix tape, it means "here's some music I thought you'd like" on the surface, but it can also mean anything from "let's be friends,"** to "I have a major crush on you," to "this is my freaking soul laid bare."
Love Is a Mix Tape is a memoir about Sheffield's wife, Renee, who died of a pulmonary embolism in 1997 at the age of 31. It's about how they met, and about the years they spent writing freelance music articles, DJing at the local college station, going to shows, and being young, broke, and in love. And making a lot of mix tapes.
Each chapter begins with a mix tape playlist, some of which Sheffield made, some Renee made, some they made for each other -- music for falling asleep to, doing the dishes to, having a party to, etc. Sheffield's stories about Renee are tender, sweet, and funny, but the stories caught up with music they shared are the best ones.
Whether Renee is explaining how all girls who like The B-52s are either Kate girls or Cindy girls ("Like how all boys are either Beatles or Stones boys. You like them both, but there's only one who's truly yours"), or making up new lyrics to Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" (Out on the road today, I saw a SubPop sticker on a Subaru/A little voice inside my head said, yuppies smell teen spirit too), it's easy to see through these stories how special she was, and how much Sheffield loved her.
Of course, the book's subject matter is incredibly sad; however, the book is more a celebration of Renee's life than a meditation on her death. Sheffield tastefully blends humor with tragedy, and sweetness with sorrow.
If you like music writing with an intensely personal bent like Chuck Klosterman's Killing Yourself to Live, this book is for you.
* e.g. the woman who called in to complain about "that man with the awful voice butchering that nice Rod Stewart song" and the person who demanded to speak to a supervisor after, Elvis Costello-style, Potts pulled the plug on a Celine Dion song and said on the air, "there's no reason to play this song here."
** Oddly, I have a "let's be friends" mix tape that actually became my favorite "doing the dishes" tape.