I laughed, I cried. This book was a real tonic for me. (Results not guaranteed for you.)
I loved Rob Sheffield’s previous memoir, Love Is a Mix Tape, which was all about his first wife and all the mix tapes they made and her death. This one starts right where the last one left off. Love Is A Mix Tape had a very low-key style and comic touch that made it seem fluffy and lightweight even though it was about being widowed (widowered?), but then it haunted me (in a good way) and I ended up re-reading it a couple times. So this time I was prepared for Turn Around Bright Eyes to be kind of a sleeper! I feel like these are both books it’s easy to underrate, precisely because they’re charming.
The topic of the book is karaoke and how it helped the writer get in touch with his feelings, creativity, and true nature. This was funny for me because my girlfriend just did this project about how playing the drums helped her get in touch with her feelings, creativity, and true nature, so it seemed strangely familiar. If you think karaoke is a thin topic for a book, you’re right, but it is really just a jumping off point. So there’s also a lot of other stuff in the book that’s just tangentially related but interesting, like about his father or how he learned to not hate the band Rush. I identified with the writer because I also can’t sing. He explains it, “I have loved music all my life and as they say you always hurt the one you love.”
Actually, I’m going to let the writer explain what this book is really about: “The happy chapter of my life was over, and the world had run out of surprises. But it turned out my life was just beginning.” “There’s no future without tears. Are you really setting your hopes on not getting hurt at all? You think that’s an option?” “When you chew your way out a steel trap, you don’t return for a receipt.” “Nobody knows if your present mood is just your present mood—-maybe it’s not a mood, maybe it won’t end.” “Once again, I get scared of overdoing, and then end up finding out overdoing is the only thing to do.” “I was lucky to get a second chance. I thought I was too late, but it turns out I was just in time.” “At any moment, a song can come out of nowhere to shake you up, jump-start your emotions, ruin your life.” There, that’s clear, right?
My favorite chapters were:
-Chapter 3, Sing Your Life, because he lays out the whole point of the book in it.
-Chapter 4, Work It, which has a great description of Greenpoint, Brooklyn where the writer lived on Eckford Street, because I lived there for six years. Also sometime later he talks about Foodswings. Yay, best vegan food in the borough!
-Chapter 7, Crazy In Love, which was about microphones. Because he runs down who looks good with a mic, talks about the first time he ever saw the thing where the singer turns the mic into the crowd (it was Joe Strummer from the Clash); just fun stuff.
-Chapter 8, Rebel Yell, because it was about rock stars singing karaoke. It made me think of a picture I recently saw of the guy from Sparks singing his own hit song
at karaoke in Japan, and a part in David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries
where he’s in Manila and someone tries to get him to sing Burning Down The House at karaoke but he’s taken aback and won’t do it.
-Chapter 13, Rock and Roll Fantasy, because it was about Sheffield taking part in an expensive fantasy rock band camp where he played the tambourine and it was alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. Also, whenever Sheffield meets a rock star, he overthinks it and decides to compliment them on their little-known song or band, which sometimes makes them happy but sometimes does not, and that was really funny. I get the strong impression that Rob Sheffield is a nice guy, not an asshole like rock journalists are supposed to be.
-Chapter 16, Debaser. Because this is where he meets his future second wife, an astrophysicist by day, college radio DJ by night. It’s very sweet. “I’m not sure how long it took for the Smiths to come up, but it was under two minutes.” He asks her what her favorite Pavement album is, and when she says Wowie Zowie, he decides he doesn’t have a chance with her because he’s a Slanted & Enchanted kind of guy. Then he’s eating dinner with her and some friends and they talk about the top 5 hottest guys in rock, and based on her answers I think I fancy her too.
-Chapter 26, Ziggy Stardust. Because, duh!
-My least favorite chapter was the one about Rod Stewart because: blech, do not like Rod Stewart.
I also found his depiction of NYC shortly after September 11 more true to life than anything I’ve ever seen in print. I guess that just means his perspective was more similar to my own than other stuff I read. Actually, because the book is not chronological, he started by just saying that he moved to Greenpoint from the Financial District in 2002, and I thought, “Oh great, he is not going to discuss September 11th at all, it’s just understood; how tasteful and humane of him.” But then he did later, however it was still tasteful and humane. I really liked his description of going to his first show downtown in a smelly venue after September 11. With me it was the Moldy Peaches at the Mercury Lounge in November 2001 and they vowed they were never going to play “New York City’s Like a Graveyard” again. (I wonder if they did or not?)
Lots of little things were very funny, like he stored cassette tapes in his oven, or how when he was a college librarian he kept secretly erasing the overdue fines (for a book named Sexual Unfolding) of a girl he had a crush on. Other times I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not. Did Neil Diamond really have a conveyer belt that rotated him around the stage when he played at the Garden? Is life really that strange?
Where did I get this book: As soon as I learned of its existence, I put it on hold at the library. I was prepared to wait, even though there were a few people ahead of me and the book was still on order. But then, I was walking through Grand Central Terminal. . . and suddenly I could not resist. I walked into Posman Books as though pulled in by a tractor beam and walked straight up to the information desk. I did something I never do, the humiliating “I don’t remember the name of the book or the author’s name, but his other book is called. . .” thing. The clerk didn’t even have to look it up, he just smirked at me and pointed out how it was on the table right behind me. But why shouldn’t he have a little satisfaction in his life? I spent $28 on this book! I didn’t even use my one-time 20% discount because I always think I’ll need it more later. Anyway, it was worth every penny. Also just a PSA that bookstores still exist and you can in fact buy your books there.
Book design: The cover, whatever. But the interior is delightful! Each chapter heading has a drawing of a mic, and each one is different. The chapter headings all begin on the right side of the page, so if the previous chapter ends on a right-hand page, then the microphone cable is stringing all the way across the left-hand side of the page which is otherwise blank. (This will all make sense when you see it.) Very cool!
What other book is this like? It’s kind of the lite version of How Music Works by David Byrne.
Theme song: This is silly, when the whole book is itself a big playlist, but I’m going to say Destination Greenpoint by the Fleshtones.