Your cassette pet

Pub date February 6, 2008
WriterTodd Lavoie
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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REVIEW How’s this for a universal truth: if you’ve ever given a good goddamn about music and you’ve ever been touched by someone in your life (or wanted to be touched, as the case may be), you’ve surely sat yourself down and made a mixtape to put all of those feelings into 90 minutes or less. It’s a rite of passage for any music freak who dares to live beyond the safe confines of his or her headphones; many of us revisit that breathless, nerve-racked experience over and over again, freezing our latest crushes in little plastic time capsules, hoping they’ll build to something bigger. The messenger may have changed — we’ve gone from tape to disc and now maybe to the playlist — but the message remains the same: "I like you. Do you like me?"

Rock journalist Rob Sheffield is an expert on such matters, as Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time (Three Rivers Press, 224 pages, $13) clearly demonstrates. Taking the reader on a song- and swoon-studded travelogue through the inner workings of his heart, the memoirist begins with the wince-along bumblings of a gangly adolescent mixtaper and continues through to the instant click of meeting his similarly tune-centric wife and eventually to — and here I am not giving away anything that isn’t already mentioned on the book’s cover — her sudden death from a pulmonary embolism. It’s a genuinely moving, thoughtful, and frequently cackle-inducing work, and — perhaps best of all — it bounces as much as a book can with boundless verve about songs that have soundtracked every blunder, triumph, and openhearted, weak-kneed moment of falling in love.

For every smile and nod of appreciation at the mention of particularly meaningful musical moments — Sheffield’s anecdote about Gladys Knight and the Pips’ legendary "Midnight Train to Georgia" resonates so effectively in part because everyone knows the song in the first place — there’s a delightful story about an obscure songwriting gem just waiting to be found, thanks to the enthusiasm with which Sheffield conveys his household’s eclectic tastes. His bright-eyed declaration of love for "In a World Without Heroes" — a fey 1992 glam ballad from a short-lived Mark Robinson one-off named Grenadine — could very well send a few readers scurrying to the record shop.

Love Is a Mix Tape isn’t just a collection of musings about favorite songs from a rock critic; Sheffield celebrates the music by placing it in the context of finding his soul mate and thus allows the tunes to help tell the story of their relationship. Whether capturing the endorphin rush of being introduced to a new all-time classic, grinning unapologetically over so-bad-it’s-good radio cheese, or seeking solace from a country weeper, he offers music lovers a sympathetic reflection of their emotional lives, bumps and all. Readers, in turn, will laugh, shout, and cry — not solely because of the experiences detailed by Sheffield, but also in reaction to the author’s pinpoint prose. At its best, this book is a glowing little wonder that reminds us never to dismiss the joy or comfort we receive from a simple song.