Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time

Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time

4.0 95
by Rob Sheffield

View All Available Formats & Editions

What Is love? Great minds have been grappling with this question throughout the ages, and in the modern era, they have come up with many different answers. According to Western philosopher Pat Benatar, love is a battlefield. Her paisan Frank Sinatra would add the corollary that love is a tender trap. Love hurts. Love stinks. Love bites, love bleeds, love is the drug.…  See more details below


What Is love? Great minds have been grappling with this question throughout the ages, and in the modern era, they have come up with many different answers. According to Western philosopher Pat Benatar, love is a battlefield. Her paisan Frank Sinatra would add the corollary that love is a tender trap. Love hurts. Love stinks. Love bites, love bleeds, love is the drug. The troubadours of our times agree: They want to know what love is, and they want you to show them. But the answer is simple: Love is a mix tape.

In the 1990s, when “alternative” was suddenly mainstream, bands like Pearl Jam and Pavement, Nirvana and R.E.M.—bands that a year before would have been too weird for MTV- were MTV. It was the decade of Kurt Cobain and Shania Twain and Taylor Dayne, a time that ended all too soon. The boundaries of American culture were exploding, and music was leading the way.

It was also when a shy music geek named Rob Sheffield met a hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl named Renée, who was way too cool for him but fell in love with him anyway. He was tall. She was short. He was shy. She was a social butterfly. She was the only one who laughed at his jokes when they were so bad, and they were always bad. They had nothing in common except that they both loved music. Music brought them together and kept them together. And it was music that would help Rob through a sudden, unfathomable loss.

In Love Is a Mix Tape, Rob, now a writer for Rolling Stone, uses the songs on fifteen mix tapes to tell the story of his brief time with Renée. From Elvis to Missy Elliott, the Rolling Stones to Yo La Tengo, the songs on these tapes make up the soundtrack to their lives.

Rob Sheffield isn’t a musician, he’s a writer, and Love Is a Mix Tape isn’t a love song- but it might as well be. This is Rob’s tribute to music, to the decade that shaped him, but most of all to one unforgettable woman.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers
Do you remember the song that was playing when you fell in love for the first time (Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are") or when you suffered your first breakup (Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer")? How about that song from the perfect summer at the beach (Elton John's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight")? Memories and music are inextricably linked -- which is why Sheffield's memoir struck such a chord with us.

Before becoming the acclaimed rock critic that he is today, Sheffield was a grad student in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, too, lived Renée, a fellow student with whom he began conversing about (what else?) a song. Before long, they were a pair, eating cheap food, renting an inexpensive apartment, devouring books, and sharing their mix tapes with each other. Marriage soon followed.

With his bond to Renée as the cornerstone, Sheffield's unique memoir (complete with playlists) is built upon the music that affected both of their lives. Tragically, Sheffield's life with Renée ended much too soon, though one can't help feeling that he will survive -- with the aid of his beloved music. And once readers finish this bittersweet book, they'll compare their own playlists with Sheffield's. Even now, we can almost hear the sound of computers whirring as the downloading begins. (Spring 2007 Selection)

Product Details

Publication date:
Sold by:
Random House
Sales rank:
File size:
3 MB

Read an Excerpt


October, 1989

Side One
Big Star: *Sister Lovers*
The Bats: “Sir Queen”
Velvet Underground: “Radio Ad”

Side Two
Big Star: *Radio City”
Lucinda Williams: “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad”
The Raincoats: “Only Loved At Night”
Marti Jones: “Lonely Is As Lonely Does”

As far as mix tapes go, *Big Star: For Renée* is totally unimaginative. It’s basically just one complete album on each side of a tape. But this is the tape that changed everything. Everything in my life comes directly from this Maxell XLII crush tape, made on October 10, 1989, for Renée.

Renée and I met at a bar called the Eastern Standard in Charlottesville, Virginia. I had just moved there to study English in grad school. Renée was a fiction writer in the MFA program. I was sitting with my poet friend Chris in a table in the back, when I fell under the spell of Renée’s bourbon-baked voice. The bartender put on Big Star’s Radio City. Renée was the only other person in the room who perked up. We started talking about how much we loved Big Star. It turned out we had the same favorite Big Star song - the acoustic ballad Thirteen. She’d never heard their third album, Sister Lovers. So naturally, I told her the same thing I’d told every other woman I’d ever fallen for: “I’ll make you a tape!”

As Renée left the bar, I asked my friend, “What was that girl’s name again?”


“She’s really beautiful.”

“Uh huh. And there’s her boyfriend.”

The boyfriend’s name was Jimm, and he really did spell his name with two M’s, a dealbreaker if I ever heard one. Renée had actually just broken up with the guy that night, but I didn’t know that yet. So I just cursed my luck, and crushed out on her from afar. I memorized her teaching schedule, and hung around the English department whenever she had office hours, hoping to run into her in the hallway. I wrote poems about her. I made her this tape, and slipped it into her mailbox. I just taped my two favorite Big Star albums, and filled up the spaces at the end of the tape with other songs I liked, hoping it would impress her. How cool was this girl? She was an Appalachian country girl from southwestern Virginia, Pulaski County. She had big curly brown hair, little round glasses, a girlish drawl. I just knew her favorite Go-Go was Jane Wiedlin.

One Saturday night we met at a party and danced to a few B-52’s songs. Like all Southern girls, Renée had an intense relationship with the first three B-52’s albums. “All girls are either Kate girls or Cindy girls,” she told me. “Like how boys are either Beatles or Stones boys. You like them both, but there’s only one who’s totally yours.” Her B-52 idol was Kate, the brunette with the auburn melancholy in her voice. I wanted to stay all night and keep talking to Renée about the B-52s, but my ride wanted to go early. So I left her stranded and went home to pace up and down the parking lot outside the subdivision, shivering in the cold with my Walkman, listening to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.” The ache in his voice summed up my mood, as Prince sang about a girl driving right past him, the kind of car that doesn’t pass you every day.

Renée and I ran into each other again when the poet John Ashbery came to town for a reading. He was one of my idols, the man who wrote *The Double Dream of Spring*. I got to meet him after the reading, but I blew it. A bunch of us were hovering around, trying to think of clever things to say. He’d just read his poem “The Songs We Know Best,” and was explaining that he’d written it to go with the melody of Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited,” because the song was all over the radio and he couldn’t get the tune out of his head. So I asked if he was a fan of Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” which of course has the same melody as “Reunited.” He smiled graciously and said, no, he hadn’t, but he liked George Michael. Then he went back to saying nothing at all and my friends were furious and I was mortified and I will go to my grave wondering why I spent my one moment in the presence of this great man discussing Wham! (and not even a good Wham! song) but I guess that’s the double dream of dipshit I am.

Afterwards I stood at the bar, drowning my sorrows. Renée came up to kick my shins and bum a cigarette. She mentioned that her birthday was coming up in a few days. As always, there were a few other boys from her fan club hovering around, so we all went out for a late-night tour of Charlottesville’s cheaper drinking establishments. I squeezed into a booth next to her and we talked about music. She told me you can sing the *Beverly Hillbillies* theme to the tune of R.E.M.’s “Talk About The Passion.” That was it, basically; and as soon as she started to sing “Talk About The Clamppetts,” any thought I had of not falling in love with her went down in some serious Towering Inferno flames. It was over. I was over.

We hung out again the next night--Renée showed up with another gang of suitor boys, all giving her puppy dog looks, but I wasn’t too worried about outlasting them. Joe passed out around midnight. Paul staggered out a few minutes later. Steve’s offer to help walk Renée home lasted as long as it took for him to smash into the wall twice on his way down the stairs. I was the last man standing. Renée led me to her place, a couple of miles away. It was so dark I couldn’t see her at all while we walked; I just followed her voice. I spent the night on her couch, sleeping under a huge portrait of her painted by some sweet indie-rock boy back in Roanoke. I was a little sad about being on the couch, but I was going for the long bomb. Her incredibly annoying cat, Molly, kept jumping on my face all night. I woke up at dawn and lay there drowsing, feeling a little less lonely than I had the morning before, waiting for this girl to make some noise.

Renée had Saturday errands to run, and I invited myself along to keep her company. We drove all around Charlottesville in the afternoon sun. We listened to a mix tape another guy had made her, back in Roanoke. It had some lame indie rock, some decent indie rock, and one really great song: Flatt and Scruggs doing their bluegrass version of “Ode To Billie Joe.” She told me she’d thrown a Billie Joe party that summer. “I had it on the third of June,” she crowed. “You know, the day the song takes place. I served all the food they eat in the song: black-eyed peas, biscuits, apple pie.”

We couldn’t think of anything else to talk about, so we just drove in silence until she dropped me off at my place. I spent the rest of the day making a birthday tape for her, mostly Senegalese acoustic music by Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck, just in case she smoked pot. I started to add Bob Dylan’s “I Want You,” but then thought better of it. Instead, I added Scrawl’s “Breaker Breaker,” to show off my affinity with feminist trucker punk songs, and the Neville Brothers, to make her think maybe I smoked pot.

We met up at a dive called the Garrett on Monday, the night before her birthday. It was not a romantic bar--the carpet was so pot-soaked you got a buzz walking to the bathroom--but it offered privacy, cheap liquor, a cigarette machine that was easy to tilt, and pool tables to distract pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders. I’d spent the day writing a sonnet sequence for her. I’m not sure what I was thinking--I mean, I used the word “catachresis” in the first line. But I was certain my prosodic ingenuity would melt her heart for good. I used one of my favorite rhyme schemes, stolen from the James Merrill poem “The Octopus,” though he stole it himself, from W.H. Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror, rhyming the first syllable of a trochee with the final syllable in the next line. How could she resist?

At midnight, I gave her the poems.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“Well, the last word in the first line is a trochee, and it rhymes with the end of the next line. So ‘catachresis’ rhymes with ‘fleece.’”

“No, what’s going on?”

“In a catachresis?”

“No. What are you talking about?”

“Uh…I have a big crush on you.”

“Oooooh,” she said. She smiled and let the pages drop on the table. She relaxed in front of my eyes. “So how did it start?”

“Well, I think you’re really beautiful.”

She relaxed a lot more--in fact, her face changed shape a little, got a little more round, as if her jaw unclenched. I didn’t know whether that was a good sign or not, but I couldn’t shut up yet.

“I always thought so. Right away, when I saw you.”

“The amazing black dress,” she nodded. “I was wearing that when I met you. There’s, uh, a lot of *me* in that dress. My Fuck the Hostess dress. It’s a real ‘drop to your knees and say amen’ dress.”

“I noticed. It’s gotten worse since then.”

“I know.” She lit one of my Dunhills. I had never seen her so comfortable. “I was on the phone with my friend Merit tonight, and she was like, Does Rob like you? And I said, I don’t know, he made me a tape and he didn’t call and then we danced together and then he left and called and left a message but didn’t call after that. Merit was like, So do you like Rob?”

I couldn’t believe she was making me do this. “So do you?”

She smiled. “I don’t know. He’s not my type, but I really like him.” She told me her type was farm boys with broad shoulders, football players. She took her time smoking that cigarette. She still had most of her beer left and she was in no hurry at all. I was too scared to talk but I was more scared to not talk.

“I don’t know what your type is. I don’t know what your deal is. I don’t even know if you have a boyfriend. I know I like you and I want to be in your life, that’s it, and if you have any room for a boyfriend, I would like to be your boyfriend, and if you don’t have any room, I would like to be your friend. Any room you have for me in your life is great. If you would like me to start out in one room and move to another, I could do that.”

“But you’d rather be a boyfriend than a friend?”

“Given the choice. No, not given the choice. That’s what I want.”

“Where are you parked?”

“I walked.”

“What’s a catachresis?”

“A rhetorical inversion of tense, kind of like a transumption. Let’s go.”

In her car, we listened to Marshall Crenshaw’s first album, and when we got to her place, we sat on the couch under that big painting. She was not comfortable any more; she was really scared. She got up and put on my Big Star mix, then took it off. She put on Marshall Crenshaw again. I went through her shoeboxes of tapes. This girl was definitely an eighties girl. She had one tape with REM’s Murmur on one side and U2’s War on the other, another with The Velvet Underground And Nico backed with Moondance. Uh oh, she also had a lot of XTC tapes. We’d have to work that out later.

“Oh, Rob,” she said. “I’m really scared.”

I was scared too. That was a long, long night. I swear her face changed shape several times. I don’t know how this is possible, but it did. Her eyelids got heavier and wider. Her breathing got slower and deeper, and her jaw kept dropping lower, making her whole face bigger. She had a solemn look in her eyes. Around dawn, she said, “I hope I do right by you.” I didn’t know what she meant, so I didn’t say anything. I was wearing my Husker Du t-shirt from the *Warehouse* tour. She was wearing a Bob Jones University sweatshirt. I figured there must be a disturbing story there, but I didn’t ask.

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. I felt myself just melting in Renée’s room that night. I remembered being a kid, standing on the bridge over the Pine Tree Brook, when we would find a wax six-ring holder from a six-pack the older kids had killed. We would touch a match to one corner, hold it over the water, and just watch it drip, drip, drip. We’d watch the circular rings, long before the flame even touched them, curl up or bend over in agony. The circles turn into writhing squiggles, and they’ll never be circles again. Six rings of wax, twisting and contorting permanently, doing a spastic death dance like the one Christopher Lee does at the end in Horror Of Dracula when the sunlight hits him.

The minutes dripped by, each one totally bending and twisting my shape. We stopped getting up to flip the tape, and just listened to dead air. I could feel serious changes happening to me the longer I stayed in Renée’s room. I felt knots untie themselves, knots I didn’t know were there. I could already tell there were things happening deep inside me that were irreversible. Is there any scarier word than “irreversible”? It’s a hiss of a word, full of side effects and mutilations. Severe tire damage--no backing up. Falling in love with Renée felt that way. I felt strange things going on inside me, and I knew that these weren’t things I would recover from. These were changes that were shaping the way things were going to be, and I wouldn’t find out how until later. Irreversible. I remembering that we discussed The Towering Inferno that night, the scene with Steve McQueen, the valiant firefighter, and William Holden, the evil tycoon who owns the hotel. William Holden asks, “How bad is it?” and Steve McQueen answers, “It’s a fire, mister. And all fires are bad!” That’s the last thing I remember before I fell asleep.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 94 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of my all-time favorite books. It's not only an endearing love story, but a heart-breaking one about loss. But, it manages to be funny at the same time. The music references may be over some people's heads, but if you get them, they are what really makes this book special.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book had me from the first sentence. I had laughed out loud and shed tears by the end of the first chapter. I started reading it on a Friday evening and by Friday night when I was out with my friends, after hearing a song that zoomed me back to high school with the first few notes, I was trying to explain to a 22 year-old new acquaintance (I am well over 22), what a mix tape was and the beauty of them. I told her to read this book. It was an inspiring piece of writing that makes me appreciate my loves (my husband and music) all the more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
And to think this whole time I thought it was a battlefield.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
KatrinaO More than 1 year ago
A remarkable memoir of Rob Sheffield on finding his wife-his true love, feeling real happiness, and dealing with a broken heart on the loss on his wife, Renee, through the mixes they both shared and compiled.  A beautiful, sad and moving story on dealing with the death of a partner in the midst of the height of happiness in marriage. Rob’s difficult journey truly is heart-wrenching. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
JBernardo More than 1 year ago
Rob Sheffield is the sweetest geek ever. The way each chapter has an actual musical score to all of his life events resonated well with me as I do the same thing. All my life events has a song that goes along. His heartfelt story of the loss of his wife and how he dealt with this was sincere and quite endearing. Loved his musical originated lifestyle with all it's flaws and triumphs!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book, nice pace, its a good fast read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In a time where making mix tapes was a way to express your feelings, seeing this love story develop was beautiful and heartbreaking.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Heartfelt. Humor within tragedy. It will tug on your heartstrings
crash354 More than 1 year ago
How often have you been living your life, and from out of nowhere a song is heard, immediately transporting you back to another time and place? The sights, sounds, smells and feelings come flooding back, providing a window to the past for one to look through and remember. Such is the case in Rob Sheffield’s “Love is a Mix Tape,” allowing the reader to connect with him through the music that is making the mix tape of his life. Sheffield’s deft structural approach allows the pop and rock driven sounds of his life, through the very mix tapes that he and others around him made, to build a story that anyone who has ever loved (which is all of us) can relate to. Leading you through the mostly chronological story, each chapter starts with a mix tape that relates to the events occurring in Sheffield’s life. Even in the world of mp3’s and iPod’s, the idea behind the mix tape is easier to understand. One takes a collection of songs that express a certain meaning or desire and puts them on a single tape. There are a lot of rules to making a mix tape, and Sheffield follows these rules very closely (read Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” for a complete listing). Sheffield’s collections are often eccentric and obscure, making one immediately feel a certain level of apprehension, intimidation, or thinking “who the hell is this pretentious guy.” Even those tracks that are recognizable made me go, “Really! You actually liked that song?” Then I remember that the point of music is that same as poetry, film, and books; to transfer and hopefully connect the ideas of the artist to that another. In this aspect, Sheffield delivers in a way that regardless of musical tastes, one is able to immediately relate and empathize. But it is the hidden musical gems, song lyrics and references that are thrown in as simple sentences, which demonstrate how much music plays a part in Sheffield’s life. In this way you see the light behind many of the dark moments in the story. The story follows Sheffield primarily from age 25 to 31; a period of life most of us have issues with even when not dealing with the events that occur here. The plot is simple, well, it is sort of simple. There is no complex event that leads Sheffield to the Holy Grail or to some great moment that would have the crowds up and cheering. What does occur within the pages of the book is the unfolding of the soundtrack of one man’s life, and what he learned and experienced while writing the lyrics. Sheffield’s favorite band lineup, the “boy-girl synth-pop duo” best sums up what Love is a Mix Tape is meant to convey. With the boy behind a row of electronics, the strong female vocalist driving the crowd into frenzy, one can quickly surmise that Sheffield understands himself and what type of music/person he needs in his life. In Sheffield’s words, “One is voice, celebrity, performance; the other is music.” Sheffield also acknowledges that bands don’t stay together, and that music changes. Music is a character in the story, as it is in most of our lives, helping to elevate, motivate, and inspire in ways we never give it credit for. Love is a Mix Tape is emotional in the realest way one could imagine. Within the same page one may have to wipe their eyes from crying or laughing. Sheffield connects the reader through his truth, and through his music. Any more information here would be wrong, for this isn’t my story to tell. These are not my songs. I thank Rob
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bought the book after seeing rob on some vh1special. This is a really fantastic story, and I am glad he was willing to share his love and loss with us.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago