I have known Rolling Stone contributing editor Rob Sheffield about 18 years as a colleague, mentor and friend, back when he was a grad student in English at the University of Virginia, an increasingly well-regarded rock critic and college radio DJ with a cool wife named Renee and an encyclopedic knowledge of all things David Bowie, Bob Dylan and New Wave.
In the years since, we have remained in contact, speaking on the phone or exchanging emails often. I get a rather thoughtful acknowledgement in the back of his new book, “Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke,” the book about which I will be interviewing him at BookPeople on Wednesday.
My point is this: You think you know a guy.
“Turn Around” explores a side of Sheffield I know little about, what he calls in the book his “pushy, slutty, noisy side,” which manifests itself whenever he gets down and makes loves to the microphone during a hot, heavy night of karaoke.
The title is a line from “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” the giant-sound radio classic sung by Bonnie Tyler. Before Sheffield began singing it, it was to him “just another eighties oldie.” After he got his mitts on it, its epic build-ups and melodramatic chorus became a symbol of what the book is about: falling in love with both singing in front of people and an astrophysics grad student named Ally, who became Sheffield’s second wife.
In “Turn Around,” Sheffield chronicles his transformation from being an Irish-American guy who likes to write about feelings more than he likes to talk about them to being an Irish-American guy with a legitimately terrible singing voice who finds the courage to belt out Rod Stewart’s “Hot Legs” or Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again.”
More of a collection of essays than a real narrative, with each chapter named after a song,”Turn Around” feels like the third volume in a trilogy that started with “Love Is a Mixtape,” a book about music and love in the 1990s. It continued with “Talking to Girls about Duran Duran,” Sheffield’s 2011 book, which serves as an ’80s-centric prequel to the first, wherein we find out how this lonely-planet boy came to be.
“Turn Around” picks up where “Mixtape” left off, a few years after Sheffield’s first wife died of a pulmonary embolism. It is the early 2000s in New York City, where he moved to start over.
In between living in the city and occasional trips back to Charlottesville, Va., Sheffield falls in love with both a girl and singing. The latter of which does not come naturally to him, mostly because he cannot sing for beans. Like, at all. “My voice has never actually killed anyone,” Sheffield writes. “I am positive of that.”
But for Sheffield that’s the great thing about karaoke: “Talent means nada; enthusiasm is everything. What I lack in talent I make up for in passion.”
“Turn Around” isn’t a detailed history of karaoke in America. It’s about how it changed one man’s relationship with music, a relationship he thought was well established.
“You begin to sing a song expecting to get one story out of it, then you get another,” Sheffield writes. “There are famous singers I have spent my whole life pondering, but after I pick up the mike to try their songs, I become more fascinated by them than ever.”
One of those artists is Rod Stewart, to whom Rob dedicates a whole chapter. He did something similar in “Talking to Girls About Duran Duran,” and that book’s absolutely brilliant chapter to Paul McCartney revised my (and other people’s) thinking about the guy.
Nothing quite that dramatic happens with the Rod chapter here, but then, this is Rod Stewart, a man with a glorious voice who went from making brilliant R&B with the Faces, visionary, recombinant folk-rock on his early solo records and some of the most skin-crawling music of the ’80s, ’90s and today, when he makes albums of standards baffling to anyone who has ever worshiped still-amazing albums such as “Every Picture Tells a Story”and “Never a Dull Moment.” Even people who liked “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” probably find these records boring.
Sheffield acknowledges the rock fan’s complicated relationship with the guy. “He has songs everybody knows,” he writes, “and great pop-trash nuggets on terrible albums nobody ever played twice.”
But it’s Rod’s persistence that Sheffield admires: “I do not believe rock stars should retire gracefully. I believe in milking it, running it into the ground, flogging the dead horse.”
In the chapter on Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp, we learn Eric Burdon is kind of a jerk, George Thorogood is kind of a mensch and that Rob’s let’s-call-it-imprecise tambourine style really annoys noted drummer Carmine Appice. Elsewhere, Sheffield examines how “She Loves You” is “easily the weirdest song the Beatles ever wrote.”
Such digressions act as smart riffs that circle the essential love story, the blow-by-blow of which Sheffield doesn’t really get into until the book’s final third or so. Ally is a constant presence, but Sheffield saves the nuts and bolts of their courtship for last.
But more than anything else, “Turn Around” will give you a new-found respect for karaoke’s ability to reveal secrets about songs you think you know cold and about people you think you know just as well.
As Sheffield says of Ally, “When she sings the line ‘Choose a color, find a star,’ (from Culture Club’s ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?’), she is the star I find and the color I choose, the ziggiest stardust in my sky.”
Turn Around Bright Eyes
It Books, $25.99
Joe Gross interviews Rob Sheffield about “Turn Around Bright Eyes” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.