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.

Cinnamon Girl, St. Jack’s and the White Goddess

jackclubs

A few years back, after a particularly mind-numbing conference, a number of colleagues and I repaired to a little hole in the wall on 3rd Street called St. Jacks. The place, hung with erotic black and white photos and glazed with a patina of dust and grime, look as if it were waking up after a rough night. There were no other patrons and, if I remember right, the “kitchen” had been closed for a very long time.

The place was named after a character in the eponymous novel by Paul Theroux. (It was later made into a film by Peter Bogdanovich which has a weird history in itself.) At the time, I was reading Robert Graves The White Goddess, his archeological/anthropological/mythological treatise on pre-Grecian religion, primarily the matriarchies of early civilizations that spread throughout Northern Europe and the British Islands from the south.

Robert Graves The White Goddess

Robert Graves’ The White Goddess

Several of my colleagues filled the booths, and four or five of us sat at the bar. The bartender’s name was Cinammon. And she was good. In fact, she is perhaps the best bartender I’ve ever encountered. I put the book I was carrying on the bar, and preceded to talk to my colleagues and to Cinnamon.

Yes, her mother had named her after Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.”  And yes, she asked me about the book, but no, she had never read Robert Graves, nor had ever heard of him. After a while, the others wandered out, but my friend Jim and I stayed for a few hours more. The two of us–and Cinnamon–talked about the things we always do when sitting at a bar: music, film, and books. It was a good day.

But now comes the amazing part. We attended a similar conference, one year and a day from that original conference. And like the first one, we all went to St. Jack’s after the conference. And Cinnamon was still tending bar. I hadn’t been in the place since that first time, a year ago. But when I sat at the bar and ordered my pint she asked me if I had finished The White Goddess.

Now, a good bartender should remember the drinks of his regular customers. A very good bartender will remember the drink of the occasional customer. But it is an extraordinary bartender who remembers not only the drink of a customer whom she had served only once a year ago, but remembers the book he was reading at the time.

Jim and I stopped a few more times after that, but Cinnamon left a short while after, left to become a legal secretary. It is a great loss to the bar-tending profession. And St. Jack’s itself is now gone (It had once got in trouble with the Thai government for using an image of the King of Thailand on an advertisement that ran in one of the free city papers. How they came across it is a wonder? Much of the novel/film St. Jack takes place in Singapore and what was then Siam.)  And I have never warmed to the new place.

And for various reasons–I had just purchased James George Fraser’s The Golden Bough which reminded me of The White Goddess, and I have been lately banging out “Cinnamon Girl” on the guitar whenever I get a moment to myself–I have been thinking about St. Jack’s, about The White Goddess, and about Cinnamon.

So here, in memory of the greatest bartender I ever met is Neil Young singing “Cinnamon Girl.”  And as a treat, it is not his familiar fuzz-driven guitar version of the song, but a different version of Neil by himself on the piano from his upcoming album “Live at the Cellar Door.” Enjoy:

Neil Young, Americana and me

On Friday, I received an e-mail from an old friend.  He had been listening to public radio and they had a program called “Old Music Tuesday.”  Here’s what the reporter, Robin Hilton said:

I haven’t kept an official ticker, but if government agents kicked in my door and forced me to pick the one album I’ve listened to more than any other, I’d have to say Neil Young‘s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. It came out 43 years ago this week.

The album was 43 years old that week (Yikes!). Though, I too can likely claim it as the album I played most. My friend linked me to the page–

http://www.npr.org/blogs/allsongs/2012/05/15/152748432/old-music-tuesday-neil-youngs-everybody-knows-this-is-nowhere?sc=nl&cc=sod-20120517

And then he said that he thought of me when he heard the show. He stated that it was I that had turned all our friends onto Neil Young.  I don’t know if that was true, but I do know I very much wanted to be him. I did a credible impersonation and knew all his songs on the guitar –although I never quite mastered  the lead jams. I had a female friend–Sue Shelley–who was a great seamstress and who patched my jeans just like Neil’s with upholstery and corduroy and quilting.  At a festival, a friend’s band invited me on stage and we did “Down By the River.” And I remember once going to a friend’s older brother’s party–whoo-hoo! we were hanging with the big boys–and I played the entire “Last Trip to Tulsa”–all 10 minutes of it–and felt that certain feeling you get as a teenager when the older guys validate you.

First solo album, with the 10 minute “Last Trip to Tulsa”

It was much later, after the Harvest album that another friend said that Neil Young was responsible for thousands of bad guitar players in America.  I’m not sure if he was alluding to me, but I got his point.  Every beginner seems to start with the basic E-minor, D sequence of “Heart of Gold.” But I argued that the simplicity does not take away from the beauty of the songs–it is part of the package, part of the appeal.

I went through them all. Followed the players in their own ventures: a young Nils Lofgren who played on the After the Gold Rush album, formed a exciting band named GRIN before moving on and becoming Springsteen’s guitarist;  the various incarnations of Crazy Horse, whose first album was the soundtrack to so many great moments; the irrepressible producer, Jack Nietzche who went on to win an Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman and being nominated for his music for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Anyway, I will confess, Neil was an obsession. I had every Buffalo Springfield album, and followed the many bands that broke off from there.  The same with CSN&Y.  But it was always Neil that was my focus. (Although a girl once dated me because she said I looked like Steven Stills. Probably, not the best foundation for a relationship, but I ran with it for as long as I could.)

And aside from his music, I admired his integrity. He made albums that pushed music every which way. (He was once sued for an album that the record company felt didn’t sound enough like Neil Young. This was the same year a record company sued John Fogerty for sounding too much like his old band. Ah, the suits, you gotta shake your head some time.)  He made rockabilly and electronica and country and good old rock-and-roll. He got involved in personal and political causes; founding Farm Aid in support of small farmers, as well as establishing the Bridge School for children with verbal and physical disabilities. He also leads the Bridge Festival each year which brings along some extraordinary performers and is a large source of fundraising and awareness for the project.

His performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine” shortly after 9/11 on a televised benefit was beautiful and perfect for the situation. Watch it here:

Under the pseudonym, Bernard Shakey, Neil as directed or co-directed a handful of films and produced even more. The recent film CSN&Y/Deja Vu–which centered on CSN&Y and their 2006 Freedom of Speech tour–was a reminder of Young’s commitment to the small man when set up against the larger, darker forces.

It is this film-making penchant which is front and center now. Having received that e-mail announcing the 43rd anniversary of Everyone Knows this is Nowhere, another friend, out of the blue, pointed me towards a new album that is coming in June, Americana. Neil is back with Crazy Horse and they have recorded an album of Americana songs: “Old Suzanna,” “Darling Clementine,” “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain, ” etc. As of now, he has released three vide0s from the album–not footage of the band playing, but archival film of the rural poor, the ante-bellum rich, D.W. Griffith.  The films themselves are small jewels.  And the music is rocking.

Anyway, here’s the video from “Old Susanna.” Enjoy it: