When Love Was a Mixtape

If you’ve not read the book Love is a Mixtape by Rob Sheffield I implore you to get a copy immediately and dig in. The story of Rob and his wife Renee, and the music that inspired their relationship, is a gift to anyone who reads it. Their time together was short and ended tragically, but their obsession with documenting the love they shared through homemade mixtapes is endearing.

The two wed after graduate school, both became music journalists, and were married only five years when Renee died suddenly on Mother’s Day, 1997. While together, they compiled tapes that covered things as mundane as doing dishes, as extravagant as professing love for each other during their courtship, and everything in between. Rob even shares the tape he curated to mourn the death of Renee. You’ll need a tissue or two to get through the entire novel.

We’ve all made mixtapes right? Hell, the movie High Fidelity was based on the sole concept of creating them. Today’s versions that use MP3s and streaming services are the bizarre, grotesquely mutated, and genetically altered brethren of what children of the 1960s and 1970s remember and love. Many Spotify playlists go over 100 songs deep, something impossible when you’re working with a 90-minute cassette.

What are the things we truly miss about making mixtapes?

  1. Every tape you made or received was genuinely one of a kind.
  2. Figuring out exactly where to put the song that says exactly how you feel on a crush tape. Side A Track 4 was always my go-to-song, and where I laid everything on the line.
  3. Using tapes to either begin or end relationships and coming up with representative sentimental titles. These are known as emotional prologues and epilogues.
  4. Making your tape as eclectic as possible to give the impression that you were some kind of all-knowing music genius. Notice I made this point #4.
  5. Breaking out the markers to make some custom packaging.
  6. Getting inventive with your handwriting on the cover.
  7. Keeping a mental catalog of one- and two-minute songs to fill up time so you don’t have any dead air at the end of a side.  Thank you Fall On Me by R.E.M.
  8. Coming up with arbitrary rules like “you can’t repeat an artist on a mix” or “no cover versions or remakes of classic songs.”
  9. Making a list of songs you wanted to put on your mix before you made it and scratching off the ones that didn’t make the cut, OR, saving them for a followup mixtape.
  10. Hoping to meet that one soul mate who would spend an eternity trading mixtapes with you, just like Rob & Renee.

From sending a mix to an awkward crush to making one for a road trip, mixtapes have always been our musical companions to real life experiences. No matter the medium, the intention remains the same: conveying something not easily said in words by using songs to describe feelings and life experiences.

Obviously, there’s more to a great song list than just music sequencing. It is equal parts art and science, both cinematic and inspiring.  A mixtape is created to touch a nerve, to strike a chord, and/or to generate response and action. Let’s face it, your finished product is a ninety-minute opening line to a potential soulful/spiritual connection.

Though my heart belongs to nobody right now, I still feel the urge (at times) to create romantic playlists, and this weekend I took apart an old dual cassette deck and got it working again to help me go back to my analog roots. Inspired by Rob and Renee, here is the first mixtape I’ve made since the early 1990s.

1. Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley from the album Grace (1994) 5m 43s – Hands down the most beautiful song ever written and I believe the only way you can debate that is if you are purposely contrarian when it comes to music. Depending on your mood, you can choose Buckley’s spiritual adaptation or the more funereal, broken version by the song’s composer, Leonard Cohen.

There are biblical references to three notoriously lionhearted women in this song: Bathsheba, Delilah, and Mary, which makes sense because the lyrics offer a bewitching connection of sex to spirituality.

  • “You saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you” – Bathsheba, who tempted the king to kill her husband so he could have her.
  • “She tied you to her kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair” – Delilah, who shaved the locks that held the key to Sampson’s superhuman strength.
  • “But remember when I moved in you and the holy dove was moving too” –  a reference to the divine conception of Jesus by Mary.

Buckley’s portrayal is in stark contrast to the fallen angel version by Cohen. The inclusion of David, writer of psalms, in the lyrics is important to the true mood of the song. David loved God but remained purposefully disobedient, and Cohen’s version may be an inimitable look at the lustful side of relationships. Delilah is therefore Cohen’s prefect foil – a true love to David, yet a prostitute to Samson.

2. Mandolin Wind by Rod Stewart from the album Every Picture Tells a Story (1971) 4m 48s – A masterpiece of dynamics, Mandolin Wind is a stunning and poignantly beautiful free-verse narrative, an exercise in symmetric and harmonious expression. As far as love and fidelity is concerned, there may be nothing lyrically better. The arrangement earnestly adds and subtracts instruments in waves, and the mandolin-pedal steel (Ray Jackson/Ron Wood) interplay annotates the one-to-one relationship defined in its poetic recital. It’s almost unbearably resplendent in its honest emotion and may be the perfect love song despite its somber storyline.

3. Thank You by Led Zeppelin from the album Led Zeppelin II (1969) 4m 49s – This is the first lyrics composed solely by Robert Plant. Heavily inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Plant copped the lyrics “If the sun refused to shine” and “When mountains crumble to the sea” from the Hendrix ode If 6 Was 9. The longing subtlety in Plant’s vocals is genuine, and his use of imagery belongs with the great classics of the Western canon. Compare “If the sun refused to shine, I would still be loving you,” to Shakespeare’s “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee,” from Sonnet 18.

4. Let It Go by James Bay from the album Chaos & The Calm (2014) 4m 21s – Sometimes the greatest example of selflessness is realizing that it is time for a relationship to end. This song brilliantly ascertains the strength needed to walk away from someone you truly love. It’s a haunting effort, anchored in grief and sorrow, that manages to keep the latent emotion of love intact amidst the manifest breakdown of its subcomponents.

5. Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel from the album Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970) 4m 55s -The simplicity of this song’s deeply moving lyrics is masked by its lofty arrangement and the grandiose range of Art Garfunkel’s vocals. Indeed, the song is nearly hymnal in its orchestration and resonates within its soaring melody.

6. There’s Never a Forever Thing by A-Ha from the album Stay On These Roads (1988) 2m 52s – If you’ve never heard this song that’s ok. The single for this song was only released in Brazil and 99.9% of people who listen to music only know A-Ha for their monster hit Take on Me. At first take, this song sounds a lot like Tears for Fears. The song also feels like it should be a James Bond theme song, which is ironic since The Living Daylights – which is a James Bond title and song – is included on this album.

7. Awake by Secondhand Serenade from the album Awake (2007) 3m 59s – The lyrics are basic and the melody has been used over and over in indie circles but I still dig this song. It’s going to remind you of a hundred other songs, but its banal simplicity is sweet so I’m including it.

8. Help Me by Joni Mitchell from the album Court & Sparks (1974) 3m 24s – More of a song about free love, but beautiful nonetheless, especially if you believe that love need not carry labels. If you’ve fallen for someone as part of what is a likely doomed relationship from the start, you’ll relate to this song.

9. I Only Have Eyes For You by The Flamingos from the album Flamingo Serenade (1959) 3m 23s – With backing vocals that nobody could decipher correctly (doo-bop sh-bop), the song was 25 years old when the Flamingos charted this go-to, high-school-hop, slow dance song in 1959. The opening lyrics capture the essence of the song: “My love must be a kind of blind love, I can’t see anyone but you.”

But it’s not just the smooth vocals of the Flamingos that makes this song so breathtaking. The arrangement is spectacular, featuring a prominent reverb effect which provides its dreamy ambience. Boyz II Men did a great cover of this song in 2017, but it lacks the pure emotion of the original.

10. The Air That I Breathe by The Hollies from the album The Hollies (1974) 4m 17s – The guitar on this track is positively sublime, and the arrangement alone, featuring a hint of orchestration and strings, would by itself put this song on this compilation. The lyrics define being lost in love but contain an almost palpable feeling of ennui and fatigue. It is considered pop’s greatest ballad by many, and that opening guitar lick? Damn.

11. Something by the Beatles from the album Abbey Road (1969) 3m 02s – You don’t have to be a Beatles fan to love this song because George Harrison songs are very un-Beatles like anyway. Frank Sinatra once called Something the greatest love song of all time so if you won’t to take my word for it, take his. 150 artists have covered this song, a powerful tribute to Harrison.

Producer George Martin architected the arrangement and it is simply stunning, using 21 string players with numerous overdubs. Still there is no denying Harrison’s wanton guitar and vocals, and Martin deserves credit for silencing nearly all aspects of the instrumentation when George puts pick to strings on Something’s wonderful bridge, before igniting that same orchestration as guitar counterpoint during the song’s coda.

12. Just Breathe by Willie Nelson (with Lukas Nelson) from the album Heroes (2012) 4m 02s – I love the original by Pearl Jam but Willie just does it better. The lyrics “Love you ’til I die, meet you on the other side” would seem to be about saying goodbye to someone at death’s door, but it is about true fidelity, one that encapsulates this world and whatever comes next.

I know Just Breathe is played at a lot of funerals, but taken in true lyrical context, this song is really about living every moment to its fullest with the person you love more than life itself. It is not a remembrance to be repined after life ends. Eddie Vedder, who penned this song, called it “the closest thing to a love song that I’ve ever written.” There you have it.

13. Angel Falling To Close To The Ground by Willie Nelson from the album Honeysuckle Rose (1981) 4m 28s – I rarely go back-to-back with the same artist but this fits right here, right now. “If you had not had fallen, I might not have found you” could be the singularly most loving opening line to any song. And in reference to the previous song, this sonnet is inarguably about remembering someone who has passed. The instrumentation builds to an incredible crescendo on the bridge, and once again, Nelson’s soft vocals are heavenly.

14. A Song For You by Whiskeytown from the album Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (1999) 6m 40s – A very intimate love song that drives home its point with a line in the last verse: “I love you in a place where there’s no space or time.” The song was originally written by Leon Russell in 1970 and Gram Parsons covered it in 1972. The version of A Song For You by Whiskeytown featuring the unfeigned vocals of Ryan Adams and the transcendent steel pedal of Chris Roser is the best of the bunch. It’s tough to find a streaming copy of the song, so I have included the YouTube video for your listening pleasure.

By the way, Willie Nelson also covered this song in the movie Honeysuckle Rose.

15. God Only Knows by the Beach Boys from the album Pet Sounds (1966) 2m 53s – Brian Wilson’s pocket symphony is the perfect love song, hands down. Paul McCartney called it the greatest song ever written, and used it as inspiration for the song Here, There and Everywhere.

Sung by younger brother Carl Wilson, the Beach Boys’ recording was produced and arranged by Brian using an unorthodox selection of instruments, including French horn, accordions, sleigh bell, harpsichord, and a quartet of violas and cellos as a diametric counterpoint. The song’s structure has been cited for its harmonic complexity, inspiring tension through its avoidance of standard cadences and signature. Wilson closes the song using perpetual intonation (think Row Row Row Your Boat), a device not normally heard in popular music.

16.  Sleepsinging by The Damnwells from the album Bastards of the Beat (2004) 4m 37s – Loving someone means giving someone full power to break your heart while ultimately trusting that person not to. That sums up Sleepsinging, an angsty, post-grunge ballad that describes giving that power to the wrong person. There’s a haunting beauty to its cascading instrumentation though it feels far more uplifting than the lyrics suggest, which represents the structure of almost every pop song from 2004 anyway. Everything ends, and not always on our terms, as Rob Sheffield attests in his great book.

Published by Michael Canter

I love music, particularly indie music. It's a bittersweet affair that has been equally fun and soul-crushing, but I couldn't live without it. Personally, I'm a Deadhead, but my passion for all music styles is unparalleled. If I like you I will let you call me Mickey. If you look hard enough, you'll find me at SXSW every year.

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