Captured on Cassette

New memoir evokes an emotional era for one rock critic

Renee Crist, age 31, died suddenly, in the arms of husband Rob Sheffield, of an unforeseen pulmonary embolism in 1997. The '90s passed away much more slowly, as decades will do, cause of death unknown (though Fred Durst was almost certainly involved). In his new memoir, Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, Sheffield eulogizes his wife and his epoch. And, as a bonus gift to music nerds everywhere, he rehabilitates our tarnished image.

Sheffield has wielded the nattiest form of pop communiqué since that other Bush was president. First at Spin, the Village Voice, and Details, now senior editor at Rolling Stone, Sheffield's punny pith has encapsulated depths of insight. Where High Fidelity author Nick Hornby haunted record collections — the solitary mausoleums where our treasures are archived like so many jars of accumulated pee — Sheffield rhapsodizes the mix tape, with each chapter introduced by a track list from a tape he's given or received. And there's the rub — mixes are exchanged; they have a purpose, occasionally (read: often) sexual. Sheffield's careful list of topics includes "We're Doing It? Awesome!" and "You Like Music, I Like Music, I Can Tell We're Going to Be Friends" — "frequently confused with the "I Want You' tape by the giving or receiving party, resulting in hijinks and hilarity all around."

Celebrating the love of music as a human drive, Sheffield implies that those who don't share it are the weirdos. And they are. Music is how we interpret and communicate with one another. And it's what initially brought Sheffield together with Crist, a sharp rock crit in her own right. After some fun teen reminiscences, Sheffield's real story begins in 1991, as a lanky, diffident kid from the Boston suburbs and a wild Appalachian gal meet at UVa, bond over Big Star, marry at 25, and write lots of record reviews. "In the Planet of the Apes movies, it was the year-of-the-ape revolution," Sheffield writes, "but I'll settle for the 1991 we got."

Love Is a Mix Tape is the story of a woman who was once alive, not a woman who died. And it's a balanced tale — for all the examples gathered of Crist's vivacity, it's her concealed insecurities that stick with you. One example is the index card she carries, on which she's written, "Lots of people like me." "She crossed out "lots of,'" Sheffield adds, "and wrote, "Enough.'" And he has a pitch-perfect ear for the intimacy of squabbling, constructing a taxonomy of his arguments in the same way he categorizes tapes. (One concerns the Cure's "Let's Go to Bed": "When she gets depressed and asks, "Honey, is this song about us,' the strategic answer is, "Yes, but so is "Just Like Heaven."'")

Death also lurks throughout Sheffield's '90s, as indicated by his brilliant reading of Nirvana's Unplugged — "Contrary to what people said at the time, [Kurt Cobain] didn't sound dead, or about to die, or anything like that. As far as I could tell, his voice was not just alive, but raging to stay that way." Of course the Nirvana chapter begins with the goofball announcement, "The spring of 1994 was marked by two key events in rock history: the death of Kurt Cobain and the birth of Zima." As with Pavement's Steven Malkmus, Sheffield's quick quips have long been mistaken by dumb people for straight-up glibness. Make no mistake — those people are our enemies.

It's tempting to moan that our decade holds a funhouse mirror up to the '90s, minus the fun. But Sheffield refuses to settle for that cheap comparison, and we should, too. True, Love Is a Mix Tape makes me wish I'd loved the '90s more, but it also reminds me that if I had, they wouldn't have been the '90s. The book generates the opposite of nostalgia, the importance of basking in the present, and being grateful that there's the chance to love the '00s as much as they deserve.

 
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