DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
A good mix tape is like a little chunk of history you can hold in your hand. It's a plastic time capsule, a memorial to who you were and what you were thinking when you wrote out that hand-lettered playlist. For writer Rob Sheffield, those tapes are a way to keep alive the memory of his wife, Renee. His new book, "Love is a Mix Tape," tells the story of their relationship in 15 beat-up old cassettes. Rob Sheffield is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine and he joins us now from our New York bureau. Thanks for being here, Rob.
Mr. ROB SHEFFIELD (Author): Thank you, Debbie.
ELLIOTT: Let's just start here. Why is it that choosing songs and putting them together in a new order is such a powerful thing?
Mr. SHEFFIELD: It seems like nothing connects you to a moment like music. So I grew up making a tape really to mark every point in my life. There was when I first got license, I made my first driving tape. And the first time I fell in love, I made my first falling in love tape. And the first time I got broken up with, I made my first I just got dumped tape. And it seems like every occasion in life had its own special songs that it was called for.
ELLIOTT: Now, most of the tapes that you write about in your book were either made for, or by, Renee, your wife. And you call her, at one point in the book, a real cool hell-raising Appalachian punk rock girl. How does that translate to a mix tape?
Mr. SHEFFIELD: Well, she was someone who music was just a fundamental way of expressing her passion about the world. And funny, before I met her, music for me was, you know, almost a way of hiding from the world, kind of disappearing into this fanatical, obsessive, teenage boy kind of way of thinking about music. And for her it was all about communicating straight from the heart.
ELLIOTT: There's a section in your book where the two of you are together and you're realizing that she is an important part of your life. Can you read for me this passage?
Mr. SHEFFIELD: Definitely.
ELLIOTT: You're in the car and of course there's a soundtrack.
Mr. SHEFFIELD: Have you ever been in a car with a southern girl blasting through South Carolina when Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Call Me the Breeze" comes on the radio, Sunday afternoon, sun out, windows down, nowhere to hurry back to? I never had. I was 23. Renee turned up the radio and began screaming along.
(Soundbite of song "Call Me the Breeze")
LYNYRD SKYNYRD (Music band): (Singing) Call me the breeze, I keep rollin' down the road.
Mr. SHEFFIELD: Renee was driving. She always preferred driving and she said I drove like an old Irish lady. I thought to myself, well, I have wasted my whole life, up to this moment. Any other car I've ever been in was just to get me here. Any road I've ever been on was just to get me here. Any other passenger seat I've ever sat on, I was just riding here. I barely recognize this girl sitting next to me, screaming along to the piano solo. I thought, there is nowhere else in the universe I would rather be at this moment besides here in this car, with this girl, on this road, listening to this song.
(Soundbite of song "Call Me the Breeze")
LYNYRD SKYNYRD: (Singing) And I ain't hiding from nobody, nobody's hiding from me.
ELLIOTT: You were enjoying yourself?
Mr. SHEFFIELD: Yes, indeed.
ELLIOTT: Now, the really, really sad part of your book and your story is that the two of you were only married for five years. She died very young of a pulmonary embolism, very suddenly and unexpectedly. You know, after her death, what became of the music and the mix tapes that had been such an important part of your relationship?
Mr. SHEFFIELD: It was strange because some music was too painful to listen to. And some music was actually cheerful and sustaining to listen to because it connected me with those earlier, happier times. And so it was strange because I couldn't predict which songs were going to hurt too much to listen to and which songs were going to carry me through. And for years after she died, I was holding on to those tapes. It was almost like a life raft. Those songs were the only connection I had to the life that I used to have and the person that I used to be with.
ELLIOTT: Is there one song that's really special, that speaks to that for you?
Mr. SHEFFIELD: One of the really special songs is Big Star, "Thirteen." They were a southern band in the early '70s. And the first time I ever met Renee was in a bar in Charlottesville, Virginia is 1989. The bartender put on an album by Big Star. And I really perked up and I said to the friends I was sitting with, hey, this is the band I was telling you about. And I noticed Renee across the room also perking up to the same song. And we had our first conversation about how much we both loved this band and the times that we'd seen them perform live. And this song later became the first dance at our wedding.
(Soundbite of song "Thirteen")
BIG STAR (Band): (Singing) Won't you tell your dad, get off my back. Tell him what we said 'bout paint it black.
ELLIOTT: It's a pretty song.
Mr. SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it's a lovely song. And we were talking about it and I said, I'll make you a mix tape. And that turned out to be the first time that ever really worked in impressing a girl.
ELLIOTT: You know, mix tapes are somewhat of a relic these days, back in the days when we all used cassettes and analog tapes. We're living in a digital world today. I'm wondering, you know, does an iPod playlist work the same magic that a mix tape once did?
Mr. SHEFFIELD: It's funny. It's a different format, but I think it basically does the same thing. Mix CDs are so much fun to make because you can put them together so fast and you can take all sorts of different songs and whip them together.
ELLIOTT: But doesn't that take away some of the emotional weight of it? Like, I'm thinking of back when you were, I don't know, in seventh or eighth grade and you're making the dance tapes for your class dance and all the pressure that was on you to make that perfect mix tape. Today, it just might be a little too easy to do that.
Mr. SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it's - something's lost but something's gained, as Joni Mitchell might say; it's something where it's so easy to do that, it's become more democratic. It used to be if you made a mix tape, you were showing someone that you were really thinking about them, that you devoted hours to making this mix for them. And you put special thought into what was going to be the first song on side two and you maybe came up with a special cover or different titles for side one and side two. And there were all these rituals that were associated with it.
And now you can make the same mix CD for six different people in the same day. And it's funny that it's - there's something lost in that process, but it's just so fun to be able to keep making so many different kinds of mixes.
ELLIOTT: Rob Sheffield is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. His new book is "Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss One Song at a Time." Thanks for talking with us.
Mr. SHEFFIELD: Thank you so much, Debbie.
(Soundbite of song, "Thirteen")
BIG STAR: (Singing) Would you be an outlaw for my love? If it's so, well let me know. If it's no, well I can go. I won't make you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.