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The day the music died

Love Is a Mix Tape Life and Loss, One Song at a Time Rob Sheffield Crown: 226 pp., $22.95

December 31, 2006|Peter Terzian | Peter Terzian, a senior editor at Culture & Travel magazine, is a longtime critic and pop music aficionado.

I first encountered the writings of Rob Sheffield and Renee Crist in the "Spin Alternative Record Guide," a book of saucy, astute review-essays by Spin magazine contributors that became, for a generation of hipster music lovers, something akin to holy writ. Crist was a generous critic who championed the romantics-at-heart (Marshall Crenshaw, Everything but the Girl). Sheffield's entries were flashy and funny, the work of an '80s music obsessive who elevated the manic pop thrills of Bananarama and Frankie Goes to Hollywood over anything that smacked of rock-elitist stuffiness.

I didn't find out until later -- upon reading about Crist's sudden death in 1997 from a pulmonary embolism -- that they had been husband and wife. It made sense: a pair of ebullient critics, united in their love for the softies and the underdogs, their affection for pop culture shooting sparks off the page.

"Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time" is Sheffield's memoir of life with and without Crist. The Irish Catholic boy from Boston meets the "lion-hearted take-charge southern gal" at grad school in Charlottesville, Va. The two bond in a bar over a shared love for the '70s cult band Big Star and execute a timeless courting ritual: the exchange of mix tapes. The tapes work their magic: Soon the two are making mixes for long car rides together, for falling asleep together. In a short while, they're married.

Each chapter is prefaced with the track list of a tape made by Rob, Renee or one of their friends; the songs reel Sheffield back into the past. Early on, he fleshes out the book's conceit with some pontificating about the how and why of mixology and the "fundamental human need to pass music around." Maybe, but it's a sad fact that many are untouched by this need, and if you didn't spend your Sunday evenings in the early '90s watching MTV's "120 Minutes," Sheffield may as well be writing in Elvish.

" 'Twas bliss in that dawn to be alive," Sheffield writes, "but to be young and overworked and underexposed and stuck in a nowhere town was very heaven." Scraping together a living by teaching and writing music reviews and taking lame jobs, the couple eke out their fun, spending free time at the local mall and seeing every band that passes through Charlottesville. Music is their shared language. They make up their own silly lyrics to pop songs and drive around harmonizing to Hall & Oates. Once, Renee tells Rob, she threw a picnic at which she served only foods mentioned in Bobbie Gentry's song "Ode to Billie Joe."

Sheffield's short reviews in Spin and Rolling Stone, where he is now a contributing editor, are models of the form, written with a marvelously controlled giddiness. "Love Is a Mix Tape," his first book, is loose and shambling, with a tendency to digress on such topics as Zima and the dynamics of synth-pop duos. Many of us use pop culture as a mirror of our emotional lives, but Sheffield happily walks right through the looking glass. There's rarely a moment in his life that doesn't remind him of a line from a song or a scene from a movie. "My moral compass was shaped mainly by the Second Vatican Council," he writes, "plus the episode of 'Welcome Back, Kotter' where Arnold Horshack refuses to dissect a frog." He embraces it all, the good stuff and the junk, with joy and curiosity.

One of his best tricks is to lift pop lyrics and thread them through his prose, drawing out "tiny wisdoms." "Can you stand the rain?" he writes of driving through Charlottesville thunderstorms in the wake of Crist's death. "You say you can, but you don't know. I can't stand the rain. Counting every drop, about to blow my top. Falling on my head like a memory."

Sheffield's narrative shifts dramatically the moment Renee collapses in his arms on Mother's Day morning in 1997. They had been married for six years. Her death is sudden and shocking, and he descends into years of stunned mourning. He movingly describes the alienation of a young widower, the kindness of friends and strangers. "People were kind when they knew that nobody would ever notice, much less praise them for it.... I had no idea how to live up to that kindness."

Sheffield still has a crush on Renee a decade later, and it's not hard to see why. "She rooted for the Atlanta Braves and sewed her own silver vinyl pants. She knew which kind of screwdriver was which. She baked pies, but not very often. She could rap Roxanne Shante's 'Go on Girl' all the way through." He lovingly transcribes their everyday patter and goofy jokes. He dotes on her hobbies, her insecurities, her flirtations, her clothes, her mountain girl one-liners.

But Sheffield is mourning another death as well -- of the '90s, a decade of "peace and prosperity and freedom," when smart, creative musicians found a wide audience and women were encouraged to be visible and vocal. New bands sprouted like wildflowers and the Internet hadn't begun to flatten the world to a rectangular screen. "The nineties moment has been stomped over so completely," he writes, "it's hard to imagine it ever happened." For all its sweetness and wit, Sheffield's memoir can't conceal its persistent note of lament, for a lost Eden and a lost girl.

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