Never mind the title. Rob Sheffield’s first book, Love Is a Mix Tape, isn’t really about cassettes. Nor is it about the history of ’90s indie rock, or late-20th century pop culture, or even the teenage misadventures of the Rolling Stone contributing editor and occasional MTV and VH1 talking head who wrote it. Granted, Sheffield begins each chapter with a different mix tape that he has either compiled or received, a conceit that allows him to touch on a variety of subjects (including Pavement, celebrity gossip, and embarrassing scenes from a youth spent outside of Boston). But Sheffield’s memoir is really about his relationship with his wife, Renée Crist, who died of a pulmonary embolism in 1997, when she was 31.
Crist was a writer, too—a good one. When Sheffield met her, they were both 23 years old and working on graduate degrees at the University of Virginia. Sheffield wanted to become an English professor; Crist, who he describes as “a real cool hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl,” wanted to find a publisher for her fiction. Neither got their wish. Instead, like so many wannabe academics and novelists who also collect records and obsess over the radio, they got into print by writing about rock ’n’ roll. In the midst of the early-’90s alt-guitar explosion, when “punk broke” and Kurt Cobain’s face was everywhere, Crist contributed features and reviews to the Village Voice, Spin, and the now-defunct Option.
Crist specialized in what she called “pro-girl” music—feminist punk rock made by bands such as L7 and Bratmobile. Yet her aesthetic was broad enough that she, along with Sheffield, became a regular at Tokyo Rose, a Charlottesville, Va., sushi restaurant that had turned its basement into a niche-spanning rock club. I met the two of them there a decade ago, in the winter of 1997. It was late. We were drinking. Much of the evening is now a blur. I’m pretty sure that Steely Dan came up; we might’ve talked about mix tapes. But I do remember that the couple was chatty and generous. They had a certain aura about them. Crist, especially, struck me as confident and knowing. She seemed smarter than most of the people in the room, or at least smart enough to come across that way.
Then, a few months later, she was gone. I chatted with her and her husband only that once, so I never got a chance to learn many of the details that fill the opening chapter of Love Is a Mix Tape: her sartorial flair (she sewed her own silver vinyl pants), her Southernness (she referred to Eudora Welty as “Miss Eudora”), and her love of a good rhyme (she could rap Roxanne Shanté’s “Go On Girl” from memory). Sheffield writes that the “whole world got cheated out of Renée.” She loved adventure. Her favorite song was the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Perhaps it should’ve been “Do It,” the Pink Fairies’ get-off-your-ass anthem from 1971. “Don’t think about it, man,” the hard-rockin’ band sings. “All you gotta do is do it.”
Sheffield, by his own admission, wasn’t so great at the whole just-doing-it thing. “I cowered before passion and talked myself out of adventure,” he writes. “Before I met her, I was just another hermit wolfboy, scared of life, hiding in my room with my records and my fanzines.” What he found waiting for him—what he found when he met Crist—was a “noisy, juicy, sparkly” life that nonetheless seems kind of hermit wolfboy-esque. It’s hard to imagine the average Rolling Stone reader or music-channel surfer feeling the frisson as Sheffield reminisces about the Big Star cassette that brought him and Crist together, the Pavement show they caught in the summer of 1991, or the package of Grunge Gunk styling gel they nailed to their bathroom door. It’s not until tragedy strikes that Sheffield’s tale takes on a greater resonance.
Who, after all, hasn’t imagined themselves in a similar position: young, in love, and suddenly alone? Sheffield didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. He was making lunch in their apartment when Crist collapsed nearby, and by the time he dialed 911 she was dead, killed by a blood clot that broke off in her leg and traveled up to her heart. One of Sheffield’s great strengths as a writer is his eye for detail, and the details surrounding his wife’s death are devastating. “Our living room was just the way the EMTs left it,” Sheffield writes. “The couch was pushed up against the bookcase, and there was medical debris all over the floor—yellow plastic caps, syringe wrappers, needles, styrofoam pads for the heart-jumper-cables. I was grateful that the room was so trashed because it offered visible proof that something bad was happening, that this wasn’t just a bad dream.”
Sheffield seems to crave any kind of reminder that Crist was more than just a figment of his imagination. But, of all the evidence that she left behind, nothing means as much as the mix tapes that spill out of his kitchen cabinets and that litter his bedroom floor. Unlike, say, a scrapbook or a wedding video, a mix tape offers an evening’s worth of companionship. At the beginning of the book, Sheffield finds “Rumblefish,” a Crist compilation that he had never heard before. He sticks it in the boombox, pours himself a cup of coffee, and—voilà—he might as well be listening to her play DJ from the next room.
It’s hard to imagine having a similar experience with an iPod. Cassettes are less convenient, sure, but they’re also much better at capturing a moment in time. “Rumblefish” is more than just magnetic tape inside a plastic case: It’s 90 minutes of Crist’s life, 90 minutes that Sheffield discovered while rummaging around for some random paperwork. As a music fan, he’s what some industry folks call “platform agnostic”—he could care less about analog vs. digital. What he cares about is spending a little more time with someone who died before she, or any other music fan, got a chance to exchange a cassette deck for a computer.
One gets a sense that this whole book is like a date for Sheffield, that he needs not only the closure that the tapes help provide but also the sense of communion as well. Reading the book sometimes feels like voyeurism. Other times—such as when he’s writing about Biggie, or Jackie O., or Sleater-Kinney—it’s not all that different from his column in Rolling Stone. Sheffield’s most obvious talent is that he can do both on the same page. He can make Pavement sound brand-new while reminding his readers that time is fleeting, that loved ones need hugs more than anyone needs an expanded reissue of Slanted and Enchanted. Even if the details of Sheffield and Crist’s relationship don’t resemble yours, the book will no doubt sharpen your focus on the VIPs around you. For that, if for no other reason, the book deserves to make waves beyond the record-nerd community. It is, to borrow a phrase from music critic Valerie Wilmer, as serious as your life.