Monday, June 24, 2013

Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time

Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, Rob Sheffield
Read: 2 January to 3 January 2012
4 / 5 stars

I started reading this book during the two-day buffer between the beginnings of both 2012 proper and the working year, thinking that I’d have to look no farther than the other end of the couch if the story really destroyed me to the point of needing my myriad mostly-under-control-but-always-threatening-to-surface spousal fears allayed by husbandly hugs. Turns out, catching up on laundry and tidying up our soon-to-be-vacated first home ate into my reading time and I wound up finishing this about an hour after hubs left for work. (Luckily, this book wasn't the sob-fest I was fearing, which is a huge point for the "pro" column.)

But you know what? That lost solitary reading time was put to good use. Hubs and I giggled our way through the brutal minute-long walk to the laundry room, encountered a comedy of errors while corralling our smallclothes and turned vacuuming into a contact sport. And I think that, more than actually sitting down with Love is a Mix Tape, helped drive home the unspoken point of the book, which is that you never know how much time you'll have with someone so you'd better make the most of the present.

Every time I’ve seen Rob Scheffield wax eloquent about music on television, he always seems to have this goofy grin and be a generally amiable person, an image which I’m sure is aided by how not pretentious he is about the music he loves (which is admittedly foreign territory to me). We can all agree that a personable demeanor is unusual for a rock critic and an avid connoisseur of music, right? Because you should believe everything you see on TV, I assumed he was a happy-go-lucky dude who just truly loves and is animated by music. So imagine my surprise when I realized there’s a heart-rending tale under all of that.

This isn’t a prettied-up-for-mass-consumption account of an individual's personal tragedy that is just, like, so super unique and deserving of publication because the author said so, thank god. It’s about Rob. It’s about other things, too, of course – music being chief among them – but mostly how they’ve left distinct and indelible marks on Rob’s persona. His late wife Renee gets a lot of page time, but she’s a living, thriving presence for most of the book. The reader wouldn’t get the full extent of the things that made Renee so magnetic if this was another pity-party strutting its stuff for affirmations of the author’s suffering. Instead, Rob presents enough of her traits and habits to make us understand her without betraying all of her secrets. We see Renee through Rob’s eyes: She’s flawed but good-hearted, quirky but grounded, an individual who’s bubbling over with life.

It is so obvious that Rob is still smitten with Renee and probably has been since their first encounter. And it’s obvious that his love is motivated by who she is as a whole rather than what she represents to him. For someone with so little relationship experience, like Rob, that kind of selflessness is nigh impossible to either understand or execute. But you can tell that this boy is just wild about his girl by the way she’s framed within the book.

A memoir like this should be more of a tribute and less of a fishbowl therapy session, and it should exist to deliver a message rather than parade the author's personal tragedies in morbid self-congratulation; thankfully, this one rises above the usual credibility-killing narcissistic pitfalls. There are no excessive displays of grief and Rob doesn't rely on his wife's death as the storytelling vehicle, as either would be disrespectful to Rob and Renee’s short-lived union. Rob mourns his wife, of course, accepts that he’ll never be rewarded for dealing with his widower status by getting to have Renee back, and spends an appropriate amount of time in the fetal position, but he does so with dignity. He doesn’t want to wallow in self pity or spend night after lonely night in a cemetery because to do so would be to succumb to a dismissal of Renee’s joie de vivre, which was clearly one of her defining attributes.

There were definite divisions marking life before, during and after Renee, which certainly helped the story find a universally applicable element, but it’s Rob’s love of music that gives this books its strongest framework. Just like there was life with and without Renee, there’s music before and after Renee, too. For every milestone, be it as a child or a grieving adult, there’s a song or album or band to serve as the soundtrack. What is music’s greatest purpose if not to act as a personalized landscape for each individual, after all?

As someone who went through a rabidly elitist phase of music consumption (a phase that has, fortunately, waned over the years but still needs to assert its lingering presence at the least appropriate times) and is drawn to those who’ve traveled a similar path, I feel pretty confident in saying that the least musically talented music aficionados aren’t the most accepting folks. It’s easy to scoff at pop music and the bands who create it but Rob doesn’t fall victim to this. He admits to secretly loving some disco ditties as a teenager and accepts his phases of enjoying some truly craptastic tunes. The mix tapes’ track listings that open each chapter illustrate that he never really let go of that open-mindedness, which make his honesty and vulnerability regarding other facets of his life that much more credible. He doesn’t limit himself to the music that’s peripherally cool or only listen to what the radio spoon-feeds him, which, to me, demonstrated an unabashed affinity for all music, much to his credit.

One of the points that Rob subtly made was that when two people are just as sick about music as they are about each other, music gradually becomes a third entity in the relationship. Having that life raft of shared music (and, later, music he wishes he could share with Renee) is what kept the intimacy of his late wife close and, as I saw it, kept Rob from totally coming unglued. It always seemed like he knew he’d soldier on without his other half, but music seemed to be what kept propelling him forward, however stumblingly or reluctantly.

Music does emerge as the real hero and great unifier when it comes to the crux of the story, though the quiet messages of human kindness and self-discovery serve as its moral. I held myself together through Rob’s accounts of Renee’s death and funeral and his mourning period; what finally pierced my groggy heart was Rob’s awe over complete strangers’ acts of kindness toward him. I’m a sucker for the moment the veil of cynicism is lifted (probably because I am pretty certain humanity comprises a bunch of selfish jerks and, therefore, get all warm and gooey when someone can convince me otherwise for a little while), and Rob’s realization that he can’t go back to his former skepticism over the goodness of people was a defining moment of the story. Yes, there is some goodness in the world: It just took a world-shattering tragedy for Rob to gain some firsthand knowledge of it. Human kindness helped him to move on while pointing out the places where some silver lining is peeking through.

It is hard to write about a loved one’s sudden death without summoning every cheaply sentimental cop-out to prey on the audience’s emotions, so Rob gets all kinds of kudos for offering up a good read rather than a cloying trick. This is a beautiful remembrance of a well-loved someone while doubling as a love letter to the music that will always be there through the highest highs, lowest lows and every small moment or long car ride between.

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