By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
LOVE IS A MIX TAPE: LIFE AND LOSS, ONE SONG AT A TIME
By Rob Sheffield
Crown, 224 pages, $22.95
The shoeboxes used to be chin-high in my closet — every one of them packed with scuffed cassette boxes and a few loose, unwound tapes. Mixes, made by me and given to me: "This & That," the heavy magnetic tape from Sondra with all the U2; "Savage Indictment of Bourgeois Society," the not-so-savage tape from Chris; Liz made "Tom's Diner," of course, with that awful song by some screechy act called Shelleyan Orphan that, truth be told, was the beginning of our end.
These were not just crafty trinkets, they were solemn discourse — letters cobbled together using someone else's words. Because we were young, without enough words of our own yet, we simply passed on the songs that spoke for us, saying in effect, "Here, listen to Morrissey, but know it's really me saying that."
Rob Sheffield, in his moving memoir Love Is a Mix Tape, seems to understand this undercurrent of Generation X as well as any author since Nick Hornby — and possibly better, or at least more intensely, than Hornby did in his mix-tape magnum opus, the novel (and later Chicago-made movie) High Fidelity. Whereas Hornby got to the root of a music geek's angst — discovering in the end that it's possible, and probably preferable, to love someone whose music tastes are different from yours — Sheffield digs up that root, skins it, cleans it, cooks it and serves it up, all with a tremendous poignancy and, thank Elvis, not an ounce of self-pity.
Music, when appropriated and directed at someone for a particular purpose, does "the same thing music always does," Sheffield writes in this romantic memoir, "which is allow emotionally warped people to communicate by bombarding each other with pitiful cultural artifacts that in a saner world would be forgotten before they even happened."
Sheffield circles his central point carefully, discovering that the reason bookish guys like him made all these mixes for girls like Renee, his star-crossed love interest here, is to prove through some kind of aesthetic science that opposites can come together in harmony. That fact is a cliche, of course, but who among us hasn't found themselves attracted to a person diametrically opposed to our Top 10 Attractive Qualities List and not still marveled at it anew?
The variety of music on each of my own mix tapes, for instance, is maddening and magical. Chris coupled the serrated edge of the sample-crazed band Negativland with the soothing coo of Harry Nilsson. Liz followed Sade with the Sundays — British soul for British soul. On one I made for (OK, about) Sondra, the Stones' "Street Fighting Man" follows Verdi's "Summer" from "The Four Seasons."
In Love Is a Mixed Tape, Rob, a good, shy Irish Catholic boy, struggles to make sense of a similar culture clash: his desire for Renee, a brazen, confident Southern Baptist wild child. Renee is the kind of girl who throws a Billie Joe party, as in the song "Ode to Billie Joe." "I had it on the third of June," she says. "You know, the day the song takes place. I served all the food they eat in the song: black-eyed peas, biscuits, apple pie." Their formula doesn't work on paper, but the real-life harmony between them can't be denied.
Early on, Sheffield deduces this about mix-making: "I guess that's why we trade mix tapes. We music fans love our classic albums, our seamless masterpieces, our 'Blonde on Blondes' and 'Talking Books.' But we love to pluck songs off those albums and mix them up with other songs, plunging them back into the rest of the manic slipstream of rock and roll. I'd rather hear the Beatles' 'Getting Better' on a mix tape than 'Sgt. Pepper' any day. I'd rather hear a Frank Sinatra song between Run-DMC and Bananarama than between two other Frank Sinatra songs. When you stick a song on a tape, you set it free."
One is never quite sure where the songs end and Sheffield begins in this narrative, which only adds to its alluring cadence and rhythm. Sheffield's prose is tight, lean and full of all the details about young love you wish you'd had the brains to write down when it was still beguiling. He throws in musical and cultural references liberally but without alienating us too much (though it helps to have heard Big Star's "Thirteen" to understand how adorable it is that Rob and Renee danced to it at their wedding), putting him in league with Hornby and another crafty name-dropping novelist, Bret Easton Ellis.
Sheffield's euolgy — he reveals early on that Renee died suddenly five years into their marriage — comes equipped with a gimmick: Each chapter starts with a picture of the cassette cover of a particular mix tape. It's supposed to set the scene for each episode, though often the Side A/Side B track listings have little or nothing to do with the action that follows. It's the kind of cutesy gimmick that might ward off curious readers; don't let it — it's harmless.
Love Is a Mix Tape celebrates love and music, and what happens when the line between them is crossed, either way. After their first night together at Renee's place, Sheffield writes, "We eventually stopped getting up to flip the tape, and just listened to dead air." The music may have gotten them together, but ultimately they had to fill the silence themselves. Fortunately, despite all the musical reference and reverence, that's the heart of Sheffield's story — and what makes it so sincere and rewarding.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The documentary begins with a lot of people calling him America's greatest composer. And these are frumpy, serious-looking people, with pianos and bookshelves behind them. Clearly, they should know. It's Gershwin, right? Copland?
No, it's — gulp — a jazz man: Billy Strayhorn. And it's OK if you've never heard of him.
Actually, it's not OK, but it is understandable. He never got much credit. Never sought it, really, at least not until it was too late. But as Duke Ellington's right-hand man for 29 years, Billy Strayhorn created some of the most beguiling and innovative music the world (certainly the jazz world) has ever heard, from songs such as "Lush Life" and "Take the 'A' Train" to innovative and challenging soundtracks.
"Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life," a film by Robert Levi premiering tonight as part of PBS' "Independent Lens" series, approaches the subject with the intent of proving that the real talent in this pair was Strayhorn's. Plenty of ex-Ellington band members are on camera vouching for Ellington's powerful persuasion, if not outright manipulation, and calling him "the king of all bullsh—-ers."
But Strayhorn produced many such revelatory moments at Ellington's side. They completed each other's thoughts, finished each other's musical sentences. As a result — and because Strayhorn never pursued, and Ellington rarely gave him, writing credit — it's impossible to tell where Strayhorn's contributions end and the Ellingtonia begins.
Which leads Levi to wonder: Did Ellington take advantage of Strayhorn? The film can't nail down an answer, but it offers plenty of circumstantial evidence. Strayhorn was openly gay in the homophobic '40s; add that to his shyness, and it surely would have been easy to keep him in the background.
Which is where he is throughout the film. In photos and grainy footage, Ellington is always downstage, in focus, talking or leading the band; Strayhorn is always upstage, in soft focus, over someone's shoulder, silent.
In the end, Strayhorn was more a victim of his own poor business dealings. He never worked with a contract, never took a salary (only occasional cash draws). It's not a story unique to Strayhorn; many talented writers and musicians were taken advantage of in the days before copyright law solidified.
What is unique by the end of the film is the depth and range of Strayhorn's talent — his obviously inherent genius. And any way that's brought to light is a good thing.
'BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE'
10 tonight on WTTW-Channel 11.
Soundtrack CD offers music uninterrupted
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
As with many music documentaries, "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life" spends more time filming people talking about music than people playing it. Just as a combo begins one of Strayhorn's allegedly genius works, authors and experts began yapping over it. We're asked to take people's word for the music's greatness instead of hearing and judging for ourselves.
Fortunately, there's a soundtrack. The combos merely glimpsed in the film are whole on the CD "Lush Life: The Untold Story of Billy Strayhorn" ★★, available via Blue Note Records.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.