What Is love? Great minds have been grappling with this question throughout the ages, and in the modern era, they have come up with many different answers. According to Western philosopher Pat Benatar, love is a battlefield. Her paisan Frank Sinatra would add the corollary that love is a tender trap. Love hurts. Love stinks. Love bites, love bleeds, love is the drug. The troubadours of our times agree: They want to know what love is, and they want you to show them. But the answer is simple: Love is a mix tape.
In the 1990s, when “alternative” was suddenly mainstream, bands like Pearl Jam and Pavement, Nirvana and R.E.M.—bands that a year before would have been too weird for MTV- were MTV. It was the decade of Kurt Cobain and Shania Twain and Taylor Dayne, a time that ended all too soon. The boundaries of American culture were exploding, and music was leading the way.
It was also when a shy music geek named Rob Sheffield met a hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl named Renée, who was way too cool for him but fell in love with him anyway. He was tall. She was short. He was shy. She was a social butterfly. She was the only one who laughed at his jokes when they were so bad, and they were always bad. They had nothing in common except that they both loved music. Music brought them together and kept them together. And it was music that would help Rob through a sudden, unfathomable loss.
In Love Is a Mix Tape, Rob, now a writer for Rolling Stone, uses the songs on fifteen mix tapes to tell the story of his brief time with Renée. From Elvis to Missy Elliott, the Rolling Stones to Yo La Tengo, the songs on these tapes make up the soundtrack to their lives.
Rob Sheffield isn’t a musician, he’s a writer, and Love Is a Mix Tape isn’t a love song- but it might as well be. This is Rob’s tribute to music, to the decade that shaped him, but most of all to one unforgettable woman.
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ROB SHEFFIELD is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He has been a rock critic and pop culture journalist for fifteen years, and has appeared on various MTV and VH1 shows. He lives in Brooklyn.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
BIG STAR: FOR RENÉE
Big Star: *Sister Lovers*
The Bats: “Sir Queen”
Velvet Underground: “Radio Ad”
Big Star: *Radio City”
Lucinda Williams: “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad”
The Raincoats: “Only Loved At Night”
Marti Jones: “Lonely Is As Lonely Does”
As far as mix tapes go, *Big Star: For Renée* is totally unimaginative. It’s basically just one complete album on each side of a tape. But this is the tape that changed everything. Everything in my life comes directly from this Maxell XLII crush tape, made on October 10, 1989, for Renée.
Renée and I met at a bar called the Eastern Standard in Charlottesville, Virginia. I had just moved there to study English in grad school. Renée was a fiction writer in the MFA program. I was sitting with my poet friend Chris in a table in the back, when I fell under the spell of Renée’s bourbon-baked voice. The bartender put on Big Star’s Radio City. Renée was the only other person in the room who perked up. We started talking about how much we loved Big Star. It turned out we had the same favorite Big Star song - the acoustic ballad Thirteen. She’d never heard their third album, Sister Lovers. So naturally, I told her the same thing I’d told every other woman I’d ever fallen for: “I’ll make you a tape!”
As Renée left the bar, I asked my friend, “What was that girl’s name again?”
“She’s really beautiful.”
“Uh huh. And there’s her boyfriend.”
The boyfriend’s name was Jimm, and he really did spell his name with two M’s, a dealbreaker if I ever heard one. Renée had actually just broken up with the guy that night, but I didn’t know that yet. So I just cursed my luck, and crushed out on her from afar. I memorized her teaching schedule, and hung around the English department whenever she had office hours, hoping to run into her in the hallway. I wrote poems about her. I made her this tape, and slipped it into her mailbox. I just taped my two favorite Big Star albums, and filled up the spaces at the end of the tape with other songs I liked, hoping it would impress her. How cool was this girl? She was an Appalachian country girl from southwestern Virginia, Pulaski County. She had big curly brown hair, little round glasses, a girlish drawl. I just knew her favorite Go-Go was Jane Wiedlin.
One Saturday night we met at a party and danced to a few B-52’s songs. Like all Southern girls, Renée had an intense relationship with the first three B-52’s albums. “All girls are either Kate girls or Cindy girls,” she told me. “Like how boys are either Beatles or Stones boys. You like them both, but there’s only one who’s totally yours.” Her B-52 idol was Kate, the brunette with the auburn melancholy in her voice. I wanted to stay all night and keep talking to Renée about the B-52s, but my ride wanted to go early. So I left her stranded and went home to pace up and down the parking lot outside the subdivision, shivering in the cold with my Walkman, listening to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.” The ache in his voice summed up my mood, as Prince sang about a girl driving right past him, the kind of car that doesn’t pass you every day.
Renée and I ran into each other again when the poet John Ashbery came to town for a reading. He was one of my idols, the man who wrote *The Double Dream of Spring*. I got to meet him after the reading, but I blew it. A bunch of us were hovering around, trying to think of clever things to say. He’d just read his poem “The Songs We Know Best,” and was explaining that he’d written it to go with the melody of Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited,” because the song was all over the radio and he couldn’t get the tune out of his head. So I asked if he was a fan of Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” which of course has the same melody as “Reunited.” He smiled graciously and said, no, he hadn’t, but he liked George Michael. Then he went back to saying nothing at all and my friends were furious and I was mortified and I will go to my grave wondering why I spent my one moment in the presence of this great man discussing Wham! (and not even a good Wham! song) but I guess that’s the double dream of dipshit I am.
Afterwards I stood at the bar, drowning my sorrows. Renée came up to kick my shins and bum a cigarette. She mentioned that her birthday was coming up in a few days. As always, there were a few other boys from her fan club hovering around, so we all went out for a late-night tour of Charlottesville’s cheaper drinking establishments. I squeezed into a booth next to her and we talked about music. She told me you can sing the *Beverly Hillbillies* theme to the tune of R.E.M.’s “Talk About The Passion.” That was it, basically; and as soon as she started to sing “Talk About The Clamppetts,” any thought I had of not falling in love with her went down in some serious Towering Inferno flames. It was over. I was over.
We hung out again the next night--Renée showed up with another gang of suitor boys, all giving her puppy dog looks, but I wasn’t too worried about outlasting them. Joe passed out around midnight. Paul staggered out a few minutes later. Steve’s offer to help walk Renée home lasted as long as it took for him to smash into the wall twice on his way down the stairs. I was the last man standing. Renée led me to her place, a couple of miles away. It was so dark I couldn’t see her at all while we walked; I just followed her voice. I spent the night on her couch, sleeping under a huge portrait of her painted by some sweet indie-rock boy back in Roanoke. I was a little sad about being on the couch, but I was going for the long bomb. Her incredibly annoying cat, Molly, kept jumping on my face all night. I woke up at dawn and lay there drowsing, feeling a little less lonely than I had the morning before, waiting for this girl to make some noise.
Renée had Saturday errands to run, and I invited myself along to keep her company. We drove all around Charlottesville in the afternoon sun. We listened to a mix tape another guy had made her, back in Roanoke. It had some lame indie rock, some decent indie rock, and one really great song: Flatt and Scruggs doing their bluegrass version of “Ode To Billie Joe.” She told me she’d thrown a Billie Joe party that summer. “I had it on the third of June,” she crowed. “You know, the day the song takes place. I served all the food they eat in the song: black-eyed peas, biscuits, apple pie.”
We couldn’t think of anything else to talk about, so we just drove in silence until she dropped me off at my place. I spent the rest of the day making a birthday tape for her, mostly Senegalese acoustic music by Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck, just in case she smoked pot. I started to add Bob Dylan’s “I Want You,” but then thought better of it. Instead, I added Scrawl’s “Breaker Breaker,” to show off my affinity with feminist trucker punk songs, and the Neville Brothers, to make her think maybe I smoked pot.
We met up at a dive called the Garrett on Monday, the night before her birthday. It was not a romantic bar--the carpet was so pot-soaked you got a buzz walking to the bathroom--but it offered privacy, cheap liquor, a cigarette machine that was easy to tilt, and pool tables to distract pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders. I’d spent the day writing a sonnet sequence for her. I’m not sure what I was thinking--I mean, I used the word “catachresis” in the first line. But I was certain my prosodic ingenuity would melt her heart for good. I used one of my favorite rhyme schemes, stolen from the James Merrill poem “The Octopus,” though he stole it himself, from W.H. Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror, rhyming the first syllable of a trochee with the final syllable in the next line. How could she resist?
At midnight, I gave her the poems.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Well, the last word in the first line is a trochee, and it rhymes with the end of the next line. So ‘catachresis’ rhymes with ‘fleece.’”
“No, what’s going on?”
“In a catachresis?”
“No. What are you talking about?”
“Uh…I have a big crush on you.”
“Oooooh,” she said. She smiled and let the pages drop on the table. She relaxed in front of my eyes. “So how did it start?”
“Well, I think you’re really beautiful.”
She relaxed a lot more--in fact, her face changed shape a little, got a little more round, as if her jaw unclenched. I didn’t know whether that was a good sign or not, but I couldn’t shut up yet.
“I always thought so. Right away, when I saw you.”
“The amazing black dress,” she nodded. “I was wearing that when I met you. There’s, uh, a lot of *me* in that dress. My Fuck the Hostess dress. It’s a real ‘drop to your knees and say amen’ dress.”
“I noticed. It’s gotten worse since then.”
“I know.” She lit one of my Dunhills. I had never seen her so comfortable. “I was on the phone with my friend Merit tonight, and she was like, Does Rob like you? And I said, I don’t know, he made me a tape and he didn’t call and t...
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