Sides One and Two: Rob Sheffield’s Love Is A Mix Tape and Me

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(Two of many copies of Love Is A Mix Tape along with a tracklisting for a tape I’d made in high school, along with a reminder to check out the Buzzfeed website).

I had originally planned a much heavier essay last week about holding oneself accountable in relation to major lifestyle changes and making the appropriate changes to becoming the ideal version of ourselves, but I’m frankly not ready to openly write about this part of my life yet; When my “IRL” self isn’t ready to be as honest and transparent as my online blogger self, I have to wait.

Instead, I wanted to talk about something equally as personal in light of the hellscape that is the United States of America in the last week, but much lighter. Books!

I’m embarrassed to compare the number of books I read in 2018 to last year, but I’m slowly fixing this hole and hanging out at the library more often! This week, I want to tell you about a book that changed the entire course of my life. I’m aware this statement is powerful when I’ve been reading regularly since I was ten years old, (I would walk down the hall at school while reading, and would often walk into walls), but this particular book did more than make me walk into walls. It fueled my heart and made me wear it on my sleeve more than I did already, (and reader, that’s a WHOLE lot), changing the course of my relationships forever. AND LET ME TELL YOU, the relationship this book impacted the most was my relationship with music. My marriage with music has been much more blissful for the last decade, but we’re more privy to arguments because I am VERY meticulous about the intricate details, thank you very much.

This golden addition to my life would be Love Is A Mix Tape, the first book written by Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield. It would be a few years before I would start reading Rolling Stone on a regular basis, but I was bent on growing up to be the female version of William Miller from Almost Famous. I can’t tell you how hungry I was to digest music commentary from someone whose love and dedication mirrored my own! The moment I read Love Is A Mix Tape, I knew I was done for forever.

I want to refrain from spoiling any of the book’s contents, but Sheffield’s memoir is one of the most painful but triumphant looks at falling in love with someone and experiencing all of life’s unexpectant ups and downs and learning how to understand every aspect of the person you love and share life with, and the effect falling in love has on your sense of self. These are incredibly intricate lessons for a fifteen-year-old to start thinking about while listening to the first two R.E.M. albums on a loop. I mean, I enlisted my hero Michael Stipe’s early lyrics to speak for me when I didn’t know how to articulate my feelings in general, and I will not make any excuses for my tendency to mumble, Mom and Dad!

I’ll never forget when I first laid eyes on my first copy of the book. I’ve grown to accumulate four or five copies over the last ten years, and I had no idea the illustrated cassette tapes on the cover would become one of the central images in my life. I was hanging out in the music books section of the Borders bookstore in Nashville, and I saw the cover, and immediately snatched it up. I can still hear the other books on the shelf tumbling over fast. My 9th grade self knew nothing about almost anything, but I KNEW this book would become my bible, and I would become a lifetime member of the Church of Rob Sheffield.

My mom looked at the book I was asking her to buy and asked if I was sure, after scanning the cover flip of the book. She was right to be concerned; this book would eventually become the pamphlet for how I lived my life, and the first explicit lesson in life’s heartbreak, but whatever! I just wanted to read about someone who lived his life obsessed with making mix tapes on ACTUAL cassettes!

Enough about the raw pain and suffering life can bring us shown to us through hardened lessons of adulthood, I was going through what I believed to be real pain and suffering through the beginning of my teen angst period; I had no idea, but I was looking for an outlet to show my personality but also explain to the world how deeply I felt about everything, and how much I JUST WANTED TO HOLD A BOY’S HAND WHILE WALKING DOWN THE HALLWAY BECAUSE LOVE HAS TO BE REAL, RIGHT?

In January of 2009, I was a freshman in high school, and like many of us, I was overwhelmed and blown away by the newness of high school, and I just wanted to be accepted by my filmmaker and extremely limber dancer peers at my art school. Like all teens who just want to be identified for something cool or great, I quickly resulted to wanting to share my love for older music and combine it with my love for outdated culture because I was obsessed with the notion of “the manic pixie dream girl” which would be popularized by Zooey Deschanel’s character in the film 500 Days Of Summer, which was released that summer. I desperately wanted to be APPEALING in all senses of the word, even in ways I wasn’t ready for.

Over the Christmas holidays, I found my ticket to Cool Town and frankly, to Guyville. I had discovered my Dad’s copy of the recent rerelease of R.E.M.’s debut album, Murmur. Dad had been listening casually to the album as you would do to the pile of media you received for Christmas. To his confusion (and delight, no matter what he may tell you), I responded to the album fanatically. To this day, I don’t have a concrete reason why; I just heard Michael Stipe’s mumbled vocals and Peter Buck’s jangling guitars, and I was absolutely done for.

Dad drove me to school every day for four years, and our morning commute was where I heard so much of the music which would become part of my life’s fabric. For six weeks in early 2009, I forced him to keep Murmur in the stereo. For Dad, hearing this record over and over was probably a mild form of nostalgic hell; he had been a fan of the band since the record was originally released in 1983, and had seen them live a year earlier before they were signed to a record deal.

Reading Love Is A Mix Tape coincided with Dad demanding we listen to SOMETHING, ANYTHING ELSE in the stereo. I had finally put the album on my I-Tunes and spent every free moment I had listening to Murmur. I spent class changes walking silently through the hallway, deeply focused on what “up to par and Katie bars the kitchen signs, but not me in” meant. The cogs of my mind were spinning wildly; my deep relationship with music and words was being cemented, and I was falling in love for the first time.

The first few chapters of the book focus on Rob’s early years and the songs that shaped them. He tells a beautiful story of spending an afternoon with his father in the late 1970’s where the duo spent time crafting a mixtape of “Hey Jude” on a loop. I spent countless afternoons with my dad during my child and teenhood, hanging out at record stores, and devouring absolutely any song he had to show me. I was immediately transfixed because I realized I had so much in common with Rob, even at the very beginning of the story! The way he and I seemed to respond to music made me feel like I belonged to a very exclusive club that made me feel “seen” and “safe.”

Love, of course, plays a huge role in Rob’s story. Rob and his love story with Renee Crist, is told in his memoir through the mixtapes of their lives together. The complexity of love and the intricacies of their love story was something I couldn’t understand at 15, but I knew I could grasp the fact I wanted a great love story with Radio City by Big Star, and my favorite Marshall Crenshaw songs playing in the background. I was still nearly a decade away from experiencing a love with any “real” type of loss, but I was more concentrated on experiencing something intense with “Moonlight Mile” by The Rolling Stones playing softly in the distance.

I was cradling my new copy of Love Is A Mix Tape under my arm in the Spring of 2009 while walking down the hallway when I saw The Boy. I had had crushes on boys before and had seen enough of John Hughes’ filmography to have an idea that boys aren’t totally gross (unless you’re James Spader in Pretty In Pink), but this boy was the boy to end all boys. He was hanging out after school with one of my friends, and he promptly asked me for a hug when I went up to talk to my gal pal. That was the first thing this guy had ever said to me.

I awkwardly hugged this guy, and I must’ve looked incredibly uncomfortable because he was looking at me with a confused look on his face as he wrapped me in one arm. I was uncomfortable only because I guess I was realizing how important this boy was going to me; there are few moments in life where we realize our lives were going to be different from here on out, and this moment, wrapped in one arm of this boy, was one of my realized life moments.

Pretty much every moment when you’re a teen is huge and intense, and my almost immediate crush on this guy was a BIG and INTENSE moment. As we got to know each other through afternoons spent in the school lobby and nightly games of 20 questions through MySpace messages, I knew I wanted this guy to be the Rob to my Renee, and I wanted to show every single song I’d ever loved to this guy, and guess what? I DID! I included my favorite U2 song of the moment, Gloria, and I knew including some Bono into my composition of greatness could be perceived as lame, so I made sure to include an Elvis Costello cover of “Ring of Fire” to appear the most interesting and worldly 15-year-old girl in the world. Reader, I was not.

I continued to make mixes for this boy via the internet and eventually moved on to physical tapes, not caring if he had a cassette player (I don’t think he did). I really, really liked this boy, but what I was doing felt much bigger to me than just snagging a crush, I felt like I was learning how to speak through the lyrics of other people’s songs to tell the world how I felt. I really believed using other people’s words to tell someone how I feel made me appear to be more poetic or interesting, but on another more positive note, I was learning how to communicate, and learning how to be open and vulnerable, and as soul-baring as you could be as a freshman in high school.

When I was gearing up to finally tell The Boy how I felt about him, I decided to make a bigger, more important move; I was going to lend him my precious paperback of Love Is A Mix Tape. In the years since this monumental exchange, I began to grasp that sometimes, boys just don’t read, but really, I still don’t care about that as much as I should. I knew Rob’s story was not mine to tell, but I felt very strongly that his story WAS mine to tell. All I wanted was for The Boy to know I had layers, and those layers would slowly be uncovered through those pages.

As Rob says on page 61 of the book, “I was too scared to talk, but I was more scared not to talk.”

The Boy told me his mother wanted to read the book, too. In hindsight, his mother’s desire to read the beloved copy of my all time favorite book was a bigger honor and one of the sweetest pleasures of my life to date; I include this detail in this piece for those of you who know who I’m talking about. May the good lord shine a light on you, Maggie.

—-

Lending my copy of Love Is A Mix Tape to all of the boys I wanted to love became a pattern for me. My desire for these dudes to read Rob’s writing wasn’t because I wanted to be him or to appear to be cool by showing these guys I could supply music for their collection for a lifetime if they wanted, it was my burning desire to tell my story through the music of my life while creating a new life where I could share my music with someone else and it would be ours to keep. I thought I was too cool to publicly listen to Taylor Swift when Speak Now was released during my sophomore year of high school, but I privately identified with everything she was singing about in “Mine.”

The music I would go on to associate with different dudes and the tapes I would make for them would be the best thing that would ever be mine.

I spent the rest of high school carefully curating mixtapes and playlists for boys I liked, desperately hoping the songs I painstakingly put in order would make up our stories. I would make tapes for the boy I’d make out with occasionally because he liked Roxy Music, and he had to know “More Than This”, “Avalon”, and some obscure Elvis Costello demo from 1977 were going to have my fingerprints on them forever. As weird and uncomfortable as this sounds for me now, I think being remembered through old new romantic songs from 1982 was all I wanted; I wanted to be associated with something and remembered for something which would have a lasting effect, and would be much bigger than me.

Part of growing up and making mistakes first became familiar for me when I lent Love Is A Mix Tape to the guitar player boy in my 10th grade English class who eventually became my boyfriend for three days. I taped an R.E.M. bootleg on side A on my first tape for him, and he broke up with me days later because he had declared “he knew me well enough” to know it wouldn’t work out. Maybe it was because I taped most of the Valley Girl soundtrack onto side B.

He never gave my book back.

“Like a lot of stories, this one begins, “I was too young to know better.” Like a lot of stories that begin “I was too young to know better,” this one involves Cheap Trick.- Rob Sheffield, Love Is A Mix Tape, page 27.

—-

There’s a specific passage in the book where Rob writes about couples who stop making each other mix tapes at some point in the relationship, and he wonders what happened to those couples. I thought about that line years before I had a serious relationship, let alone a boyfriend. I can only remember making my boyfriend of four years and the guy I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with, exactly one mix, where I taped the first Clash album on one side. Sometimes now, I feel there’s some truth to that passage. By no means was my lack of mixtape composition-ing the reason why our relationship failed, but I do wish I had made more cassettes for him.

The sharing of Love Is A Mix Tape in my adult life started when I bought a copy for our shared bookshelf. He read the book too, and we both became particularly fixated on a particular passage in the book detailing the early days of Rob and Renee’s courtship. Rob lovingly details how the two would sit around with the music they wanted to impress each other with, and how they would drink Renee’s beloved bourbon, and she would tell Rob, “Don’t bruise the bourbon!”

I think we wanted to believe in our heart of hearts that we had found our people. Rob and Renee were our role models and we wanted to be like them in every way possible! We would scream “Don’t bruise the bourbon” at each other years before we had actually graduated to drinking bourbon and were still drinking Natty Light, before dizzily falling asleep to a rotation of our favorite Squeeze records.

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—-

The combination of my tape creation and book exchange wasn’t limited to potential significant others. It was evident early on my rampant media consumption would play a huge role in the foundation of my most sacred friendships in life!

I met my best friend when I was thirteen. Upon meeting me, Ashley went home and wrote about me in her diary where she said something along the lines of “I met this girl named Taylor and she’s obsessed with the 80’s!” Reader, it must be noted I was indeed obsessed with the 80’s. I had a mullet in 8th grade when we became best friends, and she is still my best friend a decade later, through my most shameful hair choice to date!

I forced Ashley to listen to R.E.M.’s Murmur the summer we were fifteen while she laid on my grandmother’s bed, and I expectedly watched her for a reaction. Any, any reaction at all. She wasn’t impressed. She also was not in love with my beloved Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers. Thankfully, with time and vague temporary threats to end our friendship, she’s come around to the latter band.

The summer that Ashley got her driver’s license was the summer I started making tapes nonstop; these songs would be our soundtrack to FREEDOM, and I knew it in my bones I was making these memories to write about later for ~introspective~ life pieces such as this one. I made her tapes for when the boy at the pretzel kiosk didn’t like her back; there was little “Doll Parts” by Hole couldn’t fix. It didn’t matter how inexperienced and naive we both were about love, Elvis Costello’s cover of “Good Year For The Roses” was the CURE for teenage heartbreak.

When you think of those friendships few of us are fortunate to have, where you believe you knew this person in a past life, and you know you were meant to meet and be connected by the stars and all of the other sentimental crap? I met one of my soulmates when we first started working together at our college’s radio station, and he became known around the studio as the only person on staff who didn’t worship the biggest song in the world, “Royals” by Lorde. What a dweeb, man!

Our friendship was quickly defined by our mutual love of music and our unparalleled excitement to show one another the songs that had defined our lives up until that moment, and we would go on to fanatically chronicle the events in our lives and friendship through Spotify playlists. He, too, would read Love Is A Mix Tape early on in our friendship, to which he promptly made me a physical mixtape full of 60’s pop nuggets and sad bastard poetry.

—-

My friendship with Ford marked a new era in my life; this is a time I refer to with both annoyance and affection, as “the Spotify years.” Similar to Penny Lane’s “It’s all happening”  line in my beloved Almost Famous, I began to simultaneously live in the future as well as in the moment. Every moment I was presently living, I began paying attention to the songs playing in the background, for I would later put these songs on a Spotify playlist. These songs were going to become MY memories to always remember. I knew a three-minute pop song would stick in your head forever whereas you would forget what you had for breakfast a few hours later.

Having an obsession with nostalgia and nostalgic media while I was still going through a time period where so many people feel the most amount of nostalgia, makes me feel rather strange. I was obsessively planning for a later period where I would be looking back through the music of my life and reminiscing about moments I had yet to live! It almost makes me angry now after going through a major life change last year. I would lose two very important loves for very different reasons and in the moments of anger and sadness, I would feel angry about a later time in my life where I would inevitably look back on my “lost weekend” period where I listened to nothing but Daniel Johnston and early Modest Mouse. Would I ever feel nostalgic for the first time where I was forced to stop looking at the past, the future, other people’s stories that I had worked so hard to emulate in hopes it would become my life, and start looking at myself?

My relationship with music in my teens became a lesson in learning what it meant to be honest and vulnerable, even though it would take me years before I learned to do so by myself through my own words. I guess you can say this is my first step to unwinding an idea I projected upon myself after college, (along with the inauguration of Donald Trump as the President of the United States), that suppressing your emotions and feelings were the way to go because no one really gives a shit about empathy.

I recently spent some time on the road with the guy I affectionately refer to as my “sort of boyfriend” figure though tweets and the tangled web known as my journal. I slowly began to introduce him to the music of my life and I chose that moment to introduce him to my favorite Beatles song, “Dig A Pony.” I started to playfully analyze John Lennon’s nonsensical lyric pairing in the song, and kept half screaming “THESE WORDS DON’T MAKE ANY SENSE TOGETHER BECAUSE THEY DON’T HAVE TO!” We bantered about my beloved Beatles for a while, while he looked at me from the corner of his eye with a slightly amused but confused look on his face.

In order to wipe this confused look off of his face, (or to make it worse), I recently made him a mix with over 200 important songs. Many of them were from my past and my present. I don’t know anything about the future whether it be my own, or if there will be a future with this person, but I know for sure that there’s always a mixtape to play in the background while we’re gathered here today to get through this thing called life.

 

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