Book Review: Love is a Mixed Tape by Rob Sheffield

"Love is a Mixed Tape" illustration 2014 by jpbohannon (based on book cover)

“Love is a Mixed Tape”
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon
(based on book cover)


On two separate occasions, my friend Jim has stopped the car on the way to dropping me off at the train station to finish listening to Neil Young’s “Country Girl.”  For him, he remembers a particular girlfriend who broke up with him oddly and for whom this song is a reminder. For me, I remember hitchhiking across Canada, sitting on the floor of a Winnipeg record store (Winnipeg was where Neil was born) and copying down the chords from a fake book. For both of us, the song is a lot more than just music and lyrics.

Jim and I often do this. The “where” and “when” of a song, the lives we were leading, the dreams we were having, the people we were hanging with, are as much a part of a song than any of its recordable parts. And for each of us, those elements are different and recall a thousand different memories.

This is the basis of Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love is a Mixed Tape. Sheffield–a writer for Rolling Stone–writes about his late wife and himself through the skeleton of different mixed tapes. The sub-title of the book is Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, and this is exactly it: the life of a man and the life of the woman he loved told through the soundtrack of their lives. And, for some of us, it is our lives as well.

Sheffield starts off going through his dead wife Renee’s belongings and discovering several of her mixed tapes, spending a sad night listening to the first one–The Smiths, Pavement, 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., Morrissey, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Boy George among them–commenting on her choices and their lives together when she made them. He talks about the various types of mixed tapes: the Party Tape, the “I Want You” tape, the “We’re Doing It” tape, the Road Tape, the “You Broke My Heart and Made Me Cry” tape, the Walking Tape, the Washing the Dishes tape. etc. From here he sets up his frame work–the tapes of our lives are the record of of our lives.

And so he begins. He starts by dissecting his own tapes, chronologically starting from a mixed tape he made as a thirteen-year old for an 8th-grade dance through his first romance and subsequent break up to his meeting Renee, their courtship and marriage, her sudden death and his struggles to continue on afterwards.  It is poignant and wise writing about  love and loss and survival.

Mixed Tape Sheffield made for his 8th-grade dance

Mixed Tape Sheffield made for his 8th-grade dance

Many of the bands I had never heard of–both he and his wife were music writers–but the pure affection and excitement that these two shared for new and old music was infectious. He was an Irish-Catholic boy from Boston who grew up on Led Zeppelin, the J. Giles Band, and Aerosmith; she, an Appalachian girl from West Virginia as familiar with George Jones and Hank Williams as she was with the punk bands she adored. Together they made a likeable pair. And their knowledge and love for music is wide and inclusive.

Sheffield met his wife in 1989 and she died in 1997. Their relationship lasted most of the 1990s and this is where Sheffield the music critic is at his best. His analysis of that decade, where the music was going and what it was doing is trenchant: he understands the phenomenon of Kurt Cobain, the importance of female empowerment in 90s’ music, the resurgence of guitar bands. (His discussion of Cobain’s late music/performances as the plights and pleas of a pained husband is unique and insightful and bittersweet.)

The naturally shy Sheffield–understandably–reverts into himself after his wife’s death. He is more and more asocial, awkward and uncomfortable. He writes eloquently about the pain of loss, of the condition of “widow-hood,” of unexpected kindness, and of the haunting of the past. Sadly, music–which once was his  buoy in life–is pulling him down, especially the music that he and Renee had shared.  In the end, however, it is music that pulls him together as well. He moves out of the south and to New York City, he reconnects with friends, makes new friends, and–of course–starts seeing and listening to new bands.

photo 3(1)

This is the tape–the last in the book–that Sheffield made when moving into a new apartment in Brooklyn, December 2002.

Love is a Mixed Tape was recommended to me by a friend, Brendan McLaughlin. Brendan was born in the mid-80’s, not long before Sheffield and his wife first met.  He is connected much more closely to the music than I am, and I am sure that he recognized a lot more of the bands and songs cited than I did.  But that is the great thing about Sheffield’s memoir: you don’t have to be completely tuned into what he is listening to, just to what he is saying.

And what he says is true.

Movie Review: Barbara, The Lives of Others, and Paranoia

Berlin Wall                     2013 jpbohannon

Berlin Wall
illustration by jpbohannon © 2013

The East German film Barbara begins with a sense of paranoia and never backs off. Colors are muted, weather is stormy and damp, buildings are dilapidated. And Barbara (Nina Hoss) enters the picture wary, distant and observant.

Remember that old Kurt Cobain lyric that states that “just because your paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” Well, it has never been truer than with Barbara. The film opens in East Germany in the 1980s with Barbara arriving at her job early. She is alone, aloof, and very aware. As she sits having a final cigarette before going into work, we see two men spying on her from a window and they give us some back-story. They already know her life. Barbara was a prestigious doctor in “the city” and for some misadventure–we are never told what–she has been sent to work in the provinces.

Nina Hoss as Barbara in the film Barbara

Nina Hoss as Barbara in the film Barbara

Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), the young doctor who is her “handler,” is impressed by her skills but flustered by her attitude. He too has had a past that has sentenced him to this provincial hospital. But she sees him as nothing more than a pawn of the government. When he first offers her a ride home from the bus stop where she waits, he drives her home–without asking where she lives. Barbara is very certain of the eyes that are on her.

This oppressive watching makes Barbara’s secret plotting even more difficult. She is repeatedly meeting a lover who is arranging to have her escape to the West. And while the authorities are not aware of her plans, they are unhappy when she is unaccounted for hours at a time. Twice when she returns home, the Stassi are at her apartment, having rifled through her flat and subjecting her to a full body search. The humiliation and oppressiveness is palpable.

There are also two young patients that Barbara and her handler attend to, one of whom grows very fond of Barbara and begs not to be sent back to the work farm where she is sentenced. The young girl will play an important role later in the film, but it would be too much of a spoiler to say how. The other too is a fulcrum on which the plot balances.

Needless to say, the romantic tension between Barbara and Andre grows, but it is always secondary to the political and personal tension involved in Barbara’s escape.

Without giving too much of the ending away, let me just say that it is satisfying, heartwrenching and thoughtful.

The East German paranoia reminded me of another film The Life of Others directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. This too took place in East Germany during the 547_The-Lives-of-Others_375931980s, but the film was told from the point of view of a Stassi spy. Spying on a writer and his lover, he becomes increasingly involved in the life he is observing. And while the oppressive paranoia and wariness is as palpable as it is in Barbara, it is, perhaps, less personal. In the former, we are in fairly familiar territory–the spy thriller, albeit with a twist. In director Christian Petzold‘s Barbara, the paranoia, the fear, and the oppression–engulfing the lives of everyday people as it does– seems more suffocating, closer to real.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I’m not sure what Leonard Cohen has to do with any of this, except he tells us that “next we’ll take Berlin” in this, one of my favorite songs. But the water’s edge where the video begins is eerily reminiscent of the water’s edge where Barbara ends and that is what I thought of. Enjoy: