On one of those windy nights, Rob Sheffield has a ritual: he fills his coffee pot, sits on the chair by the window and listens to the first compilation tape that Renée, his wife and travel companion made for him, died on Saturday afternoon from a pulmonary embolism while she sewed and he made some cinnamon toast. In his book Vives en las cintas que me decorate (Blackie Books), Rob writes that at that moment, next to the window with the night closed and the coffee, he lets the music do with him “whatever he wants”.
He sighs slightly, almost with a tragicomic point, when on the other side of the phone the writer recognizes that this is not his only rite to be near the woman of his life. When you listen to Big Star’s Radio City, it happens too. Radio City was the tape that played in a bar in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the two of them were 23 years old and met one night that ended between bourbon glasses and records. “She was the only one in that whole bar who reacted to the music. I thought: that girl has something. It was like seeing the first star on a dark night. I went over to talk to her and I was lucky that she wound me up,” she says. Today, when she listens to that other tape, Big Star’s fall pop-rock also does with him whatever he wants.
As its subtitle says, Vives en las cintas que me grabar is a confessional book of love and loss, but it is above all a beautiful song to music as a refuge. “I believe in God, but I also believe in songs in a religious way. I understand that sometimes they speak to us in a more direct and necessary way, as if they possessed a gift that does not exist in other abstractions of the human brain,” explains Rob, who because of his closeness is impossible to call Sheffield as the canons of journalism command.
A world that, like so many others, was inhabited by songs and concerts. In the tapes you recorded for me, this editor of Rolling Stone, who leads the “absurd life of a music journalist”, tells in detail a love relationship not unlike that of any other couple. Until her death, it is a relationship without epic or great dramas. Simply with a lot of everyday life, but where one feels that “strange things happen inside”. “Changes that would determine the forms of things in the future, a form that I would not discover until later. Irreversibly,” he writes in the book. It’s like what Elliott Smith said, a genius of nostalgic songs who like Renée also died very young -at 34 years old-: “If there’s nothing more than what you can see, then the world looks very small”.
Reading Vives on the tapes you recorded for me, you understand that music, that melancholic food for those who live by love as defined by Julio Cortázar, widens life. Songs that stand out in the book, such as some by R.E.M, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Morrisey, Billie Holiday, Martha and the Vandellas, Frank Sinatra, Sleater-Keany or Sweet, not only keep company but show other possible worlds. Like time capsules that can stretch into infinity, songs have the power to shut us in and discover existential horizons and passages. “You can hide, but in the end there’s always a song that ends up finding you,” Rob says.
It’s the songs that choose us, not the other way around. It happens even more in the most adverse circumstances when one feels that the world is collapsing or that piece of flesh that looks at us from the mirror is stripped of all meaning. Then, a song always appears. Then, a song goes through you, as if it were that “ray that breaks your bones and leaves you stuck in the middle of the courtyard” that Cortázar referred to when he spoke of love, “that word…”, in Rayuela. And, of course, it’s not chosen as “the rain that’s going to hit your bones when you come out of a concert”.