Back when the Hold Steady were but a glimmerlet in Pitchfork's eye, singer-songwriter Craig Finn was in a band called Lifter Puller (or LFTR PLLR, if you desire knuckle décor). In the song "Touch My Stuff," he sings about English majors who "wanna be some super-genius novelists [but] end up music journalists" (ouch), and adds "chicks ain't that into it." Double ouch.
But it's a legitimate claim, especially when you're a musician. Many rock critics can scarcely make eye contact with their barista's wrist tattoo, yet they still try to qualify someone else's heartbreak? ("Less melisma next time," says the writer. "At least there's blood in my veins!" responds Johnny B. Goode.) So my soul cringed at first thought of Rob Sheffield's new book, Love Is a Mix Tape, an alt-cult autobiography jacketed in colors mellower than saltwater taffy. Here's the gist: Sheffield, a self-described "hermit wolfboy," meets golden-hearted, Southern, and punky Renée. They fall in love, mix tapes, and marry—five years later, Renée dies from a sudden heart attack. Love Is a Mix Tape is eulogy and valentine first, and an attempt to define that battlefield and tender trap second.
"The troubadours of our times agree," writes Sheffield. "They want to know what love is, and they want you to show them. But the answer is simple: Love is a mix tape."
It's a whopper of a setup, and even more so when you realize that Sheffield is a former English student and current Rolling Stone staffer. Not only is a "wannabe super genius" trying to answer the question even Shakespeare couldn't, but he's also trying to understand the death of his own Sweetest Thing, not even 10 years postfacto. It's risky business, but so was Justin Timberlake's leaving *NSYNC, and look how well that turned out; Love Is a Mix Tape is the "Rock Your Body" of the crit-lit world.
Each chapter begins with a track list, which you'll likely flip ahead to before reading the rest of the book. "Jesus," said a friend, seeing a Side B that begins with five Pavement songs, starting with "Black Out." "He must have felt awful." He did, and in a way that just can't be ordered into two sides and 90 minutes.
Sheffield sometimes makes connections that don't actually mean anything. ("[Renée] was born on the same day as Björk.") Occasionally, he tells an anecdote, using only musical references, that means zilch if you've never heard the Feelies. But time's the only thing that'll stop the pain, so picking apart Sheffield's music journalistiest passages completely misses the point, i.e.: "When your wife dies, all you can do is eat peanut butter and listen to Skeeter Davis, over and over, and even that doesn't help." You can't pull quote your way out of mourning, but God, you wish you could.
Luckily, Sheffield's a great wisher. There are expert spins on Kurt Cobain, Corin Tucker, and Jackie Kennedy, plus bumper-sticker moments like "Uncle Ray and the Electric Slide go together like a 1976 Ford Pinto and a box of matches." He paints himself as a pasty dork, clueless about everything but Pavement lyrics, but then describes his anger and sadness in ways unbloggy and well salted. It's an impressive dance, and because of the anger (and the section where he washes dishes to En Vogue), I boogied along.
There are also some flat-out super-genius moments: Renée's cuckoo clock, her malapropisms, and the way she'd kick his shins while sleeping. These rarely make a whole, and certain lines are schmaltzier than an Aerosmith ballad, but that's true with the best mix tapes, the most intimate loves, and the truest everyday. Forget segues and fumbling to grace, because "the rhythm of the mix tape is the rhythm of romance, the analog hum of a physical connection between two sloppy, human bodies."
Sheffield isn't the first rock critic to attempt an autobiography of loss, nor is he the first to write about a girl who isn't in his life anymore—Klosterman did it, and so does Cometbus. But Sheffield goes a step further, because he gives Renée a voice, too. A couple of paragraphs are copied directly from notes he found in her pockets, and whenever he talks about her body, it's about how she felt inside it, not what he wanted from it.
It's truly the first feminist memorial I've read this side of a Xerox machine (Sheffield listens to Sleater-Kinney's "One More Hour" after the funeral, for chrissakes), and I think even Finn could appreciate that. I'd raise my Zippo, but Renée died in 1997, so I'll pour out some Zima instead.