Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time

for Mom and Dad

I wasted all your precious time
I wasted it all on you.

—PAVEMENT

rumblefish

IDES O’ MARCH 1993

T
he playback:
late night, Brooklyn, a pot of coffee, and a chair by the window. I’m listening to a mix tape from 1993. Nobody can hear it but me. The neighbors are asleep. The skater kids who sit on my front steps, drink beer, and blast Polish hip-hop—they’re gone for the night. The diner next door is closed, but the air is still full of borscht and kielbasa. This is where I live now. A different town, a different apartment, a different year.

This mix tape is just another piece of useless junk that Renée left behind. A category that I guess tonight includes me.

I should have gone to sleep hours ago. Instead, I was rummaging through old boxes, looking for some random paperwork, and I found this tape with her curly scribble on the label. She never played this one for me. She didn’t write down the songs, so I have no idea what’s in store. But I can already tell it’s going to be a late night. It always is. I pop
Rumblefish
into my Panasonic RXC36 boombox on the kitchen counter, pour some more coffee, and let the music have its way with me. It’s a date. Just me and Renée and some tunes she picked out.

All these tunes remind me of her now. It’s like that old song, “88 Lines About 44 Women.” Except it’s 8,844 lines about one woman. We’ve done this before. We get together sometimes, in the dark, share a few songs. It’s the closest we’ll get to hearing each other’s voices tonight.

The first song: Pavement’s “Shoot the Singer.” Just a sad California boy, plucking his guitar and singing about a girl he likes. They were Renée’s favorite band. She used to say, “There’s a lot of room in my dress for these boys.”

Renée called this tape
Rumblefish
. I don’t know why. She recorded it over a promo cassette by some band called Drunken Boat, who obviously didn’t make a big impression, because she stuck her own label over their name, put Scotch tape over the punch holes, and made her own mix. She dated it “Ides o’ March 1993.” She also wrote this inspirational credo on the label:

         

“You know what I’m doing—just follow along!”

—JENNIE GARTH

         

Ah, the old Jennie Garth workout video,
Body in Progress.
Some nights you go to the mall with your squeeze, you’re both a little wasted, and you come home with a Jennie Garth workout video. That’s probably buried in one of these boxes, too. Neither of us ever threw anything away. We made a lot of mix tapes while we were together. Tapes for making out, tapes for dancing, tapes for falling asleep. Tapes for doing the dishes, for walking the dog. I kept them all. I have them piled up on my bookshelves, spilling out of my kitchen cabinets, scattered all over the bedroom floor. I don’t even have pots or pans in my kitchen, just that old boom-box on the counter, next to the sink. So many tapes.

I met Renée in Charlottesville, Virginia, when we were both twenty-three. When the bartender at the Eastern Standard put on a tape, Big Star’s
Radio City
, she was the only other person in the room who perked up. So we drank bourbon and talked about music. We traded stories about the bands we liked, shows we’d seen. Renée loved the Replacements and Alex Chilton and the Meat Puppets. So did I.

I loved the Smiths. Renée hated the Smiths.

The second song on the tape is “Cemetry Gates” by The Smiths.

The first night we met, I told her the same thing I’ve told every single girl I’ve ever had a crush on: “I’ll make you a tape!” Except this time, with this girl, it worked. When we were planning our wedding a year later, she said that instead of stepping on a glass at the end of the ceremony, she wanted to step on a cassette case, since that’s what she’d been doing ever since she met me.

Falling in love with Renée was not the kind of thing you walk away from in one piece. I had no chance. She put a hitch in my git-along. She would wake up in the middle of the night and say things like “What if Bad Bad Leroy Brown was a girl?” or “Why don’t they have commercials for salt like they do for milk?” Then she would fall back to sleep, while I would lie awake and give thanks for this alien creature beside whom I rested.

Renée was a real cool hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl. Her favorite song was the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Her favorite album was Pavement’s
Slanted and Enchanted
. She rooted for the Atlanta Braves and sewed her own silver vinyl pants. She knew which kind of screwdriver was which. She baked pies, but not very often. She could rap Roxanne Shante’s “Go on Girl” all the way through. She called Eudora Welty “Miss Eudora.” She had an MFA in fiction and never got any stories published, but she kept writing them anyway. She bought too many shoes and dyed her hair red. Her voice was full of the frazzle and crackle of music.

Renée was a country girl, three months older than me. She was born on November 21, 1965, the same day as Björk, in the Metropolitan Mobile Home Park in Northcross, Georgia. She grew up in southwest Virginia, with her parents, Buddy and Nadine, and her little sister. When she was three, Buddy was transferred to the defense plant in Pulaski County, and so her folks spent a summer building a house there. Renée used to sit in the backyard, feeding grass to the horses next door through the fence. She had glasses, curly brown hair, and a beagle named Snoopy. She went to Fairlawn Baptist Church and Pulaski High School and Hollins College. She got full-immersion baptized in Claytor Lake. The first record she ever owned was KC & the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight.” KC was her first love. I was her last.

I was a shy, skinny, Irish Catholic geek from Boston. I’d never met anybody like Renée before. I moved to Charlottesville for grad school, my plans all set: go down South, get my degree, then haul ass to the next town. The South was a scary new world. The first time I saw a possum in my driveway, I shook a bony fist at the sky and cursed this godforsaken rustic hellhole. I’m twenty-three! Life is passing me by! My ancestors spent centuries in the hills of County Kerry, waist-deep in sheep shit, getting shot at by English soldiers, and my grandparents crossed the ocean in coffin ships to come to America, just so I could get possum rabies?

Renée had never set foot north of Washington, D.C. For her, Charlottesville was the big bad city. She couldn’t believe her eyes, just because there were
sidewalks
everywhere. Her ancestors were Appalachians from the hills of West Virginia; both of her grandfathers were coal miners. We had nothing in common, except we both loved music. It was the first connection we had, and we depended on it to keep us together. We did a lot of work to meet in the middle. Music brought us together. So now music was stuck with us.

I was lucky I got to be her guy for a while.

I remember this song. L7, punk-rock girls from L.A., the “Shove” single on Sub Pop. Renée did a
Spin
cover story on them, right after she made this tape. She’d never seen California before. The girls in the band took her shopping and picked out some jeans for her.

When we were married we lived in Charlottesville, in a moldy basement dump that flooded every time it rained. We often drove her creaky 1978 Chrysler LeBaron through the mountains, kicking around junk shops, looking for vinyl records and finding buried treasures on scratched-up 45s for a quarter a pop. She drove me up to the Meadow Muffin on Route 11, outside Stuart’s Draft, for the finest banana milkshakes on the planet. Every afternoon, I picked Renée up from work. By night we’d head to Tokyo Rose, the local sushi bar, where bands played in the basement. We went to hear every band that came to town, whether we liked them or not. If we’d waited around for famous, successful, important bands to play Charlottesville, we would have been waiting a long time. Charlottesville was a small town; we had to make our own fun. Renée would primp for the shows, sew herself a new skirt. We knew we would see all of our friends there, including all the rock boys Renée had crushes on. The bassist—always the bassist. I’m six-five, so I would hang in the back with the other tall rock dudes and lean against the wall. Renée was five-two, and she definitely wasn’t the type of gal to hang in the back, so she’d dart up front and run around and wag her tail. She made a scene. She would dive right into the crowd and let me just linger behind her, basking in her glow. Any band that was in town, Renée would invite them to crash at our place, even though there wasn’t even enough room for us.

Belly? Aaaargh! Renée! Why are you doing this to me? This band blows homeless goats. I can’t believe she liked this song enough to tape it.

I get sentimental over the music of the ’90s. Deplorable, really. But I love it all. As far as I’m concerned, the ’90s was the best era for music ever, even the stuff that I loathed at the time, even the stuff that gave me stomach cramps. Every note from those years is charged with life for me now. For instance, I hated Pearl Jam at the time. I thought they were pompous blowhards. Now, whenever a Pearl Jam song comes on the car radio, I find myself pounding my fist on the dashboard, screaming, “Pearl JAM! Pearl JAM! Now
this
is rock and roll! Jeremy’s SPO-ken! But he’s still al-LIIIIIIVE!”

I don’t recall making the decision to love Pearl Jam. Hating them was a lot more fun.

1991. The year punk broke. The palindrome year. In the
Planet of the Apes
movies, it was the year of the ape revolution, but I’ll settle for the 1991 we got. This was the year we got married. We knew it would be a big deal, and it was. The next few years were a rush. It was a glorious time for pop culture, the decade of Nirvana and Lollapalooza and
Clueless
and
My So-Called Life
and
Sassy
and
Pulp Fiction
and Greg Maddux and Garth Brooks and Green Day and Drew and Dre and Snoop and
Wayne’s World.
It was the decade Johnny Depp got his
Winona Forever
tattoo, the decade Beavis and Butthead got butt-shaped tattoos on their butts. It was the decade of Kurt Cobain and Shania Twain and Taylor Dayne and Brandy Chastain. The boundaries of American culture were exploding, and music was leading the way.

There was a song Renée and I made up in the car, singing along with the radio.

         

Out on the road today, I saw a Sub Pop sticker on a Subaru.

A little voice inside my head said, yuppies smell teen spirit too.

I thought I knew what love was, but I was blind.

Those days are gone forever, whatever, never mind.

         

At the end of the working day, we rubbed each other’s feet and sang Pavement songs to each other, and we knew every word was true, even the one that went, “Fruit covered nails/Electricity and lust.” I rubbed Lubriderm into her pantyhose burns. The Reagan-Bush nightmare was coming to an end, so close we could taste it. Nirvana was all over the radio. Corporate rock was dead. On
90210,
Dylan and Kelly were making out on the beach to “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” We were young and in love and the world was changing.

When we weren’t being students or working lame jobs, we were rock critics, freelancing for the
Village Voice
and
Spin
and
Option.
Our friends in other towns had fanzines, so we wrote for them, too. We were DJs on our local independent radio station, WTJU. Bands that would have been too weird, too feminist, too rough for the mainstream a year earlier suddenly
were
the mainstream, making their noise in public. Our subcultural secrets were out there, in the world, where they belonged. After work, Renée and I would cruise by Plan 9 Records and flip through the vinyl 45s. There was always something new we
had
to hear. We wrote as fast as we could, but still there was more great music out there than we had time to write about. Sometimes we got checks in the mail for writing, so we bought more records. Renée would hunker down over her typewriter and play the same Bratmobile single for hours, flipping it over every two and a half minutes, singing along: “If you be my bride, we can kiss and ride / We can have real fun, we can fuck and run.” Everything was changing, that was obvious. The world was so full of music, it seemed we could never run out. ’Twas bliss in that dawn to be alive, but to be young and overworked and underexposed and stuck in a nowhere town was very heaven. It was our time, the first one we had to ourselves.

It was a smashing time, and then it ended, because that’s what times do.

Whitney Houston, “I’m Every Woman.” Mmmmm. Whitney was so rad back then. What the hell happened?

Renée left a big mess behind: tapes, records, shoes, sewing patterns, piles of fabric she was planning to turn into skirts and handbags. Fashion mags and rock fanzines she was in the middle of reading. Novels jammed with bookmarks. Drafts of stories all over her desk. Pictures she’d ripped from magazines and taped up on the walls—Nirvana, PJ Harvey, John Travolta, Drew Barrymore, Shalom Harlow, Mo Vaughn. A framed photo of the 1975 Red Sox. A big clay Mexican sun god she brought back from doing the L7 story in L.A. A stuffed pumpkin head from—well, no idea. Nutty things she sewed for herself, mod minidresses from fabric she found with little snow peas or Marilyn Monroe faces all over. She was in the middle of everything, living her big, messy, epic life, and none of us who loved her will ever catch up with her.

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