Bless Rob Sheffield. The Rolling Stone scribe returns to grace us with his third book and the spiritual follow-up to his debut, Love Is a Mix Tape; Turn Around Bright Eyes softens the hardest of hearts (trust me) and offers laughter and hope in some of the most unexpected places. A widower, Sheffield left his Virginia home for New York City in 2000, just in time for the new millennium and, within a year, the transformation of the Big Apple in ways that none could have predicted. He also finds new love and shares with us some of what he’s learned with warmth and generosity.
Some will tell you that this isn’t just a story about karaoke or that it’s not just a story about love. It’s about both, of course, but it’s the latter that comes to the fore and makes us fall in with our hero and laugh when he laughs, feel a tinge of grief and doubt when he does. We’ve all taken comfort in Lifetime movies during those long stretches of loneliness when the pain is too painful and the world around us is painfully dull, and so Sheffield’s description of his own time on the couch is especially poignant. That is, for most of us, the darkest hour, the emotional nadir, akin to lighting candles and sitting in a darkened room while listening to Blood on the Tracks or Beck’s Sea Change on repeat. Sheffield knew the abyss into which he was sliding and soon found that there was on thing that could save him: The karaoke bar.
We get a sip of karaoke, as well we should, but mainly through the prism of the author’s life. Because musical taste is personal, we follow along with him as he winds his way through the soundtrack of his youth, his early adulthood and beyond, knowing that if the songs don’t remain the same for us there are similar tunes bound to evoke the same feelings. You may not have the same Boy George fascination as our author but you can empathize with his love of gooey, frivolous pop.
Sheffield is no musical snob, and his knowledge of music from across the universe helps better tell the story. There’s the day when he contemplates picking up a disc by Blackeyed Susan, a side project for former Britny Fox vocalist Dean “Dizzy Dean” Davidson. What one days seems like the record that will always be there, like a used copy of the Spin Doctors’ Pocket Full of Kryptonite in 1995, is soon gone. Within days of his contemplating purchasing an “absurdly overpriced” copy of the record (at $4.99!), both it and virtually everything around it had become a pile of rubble. This is his 9/11 experience, but he doesn’t overstate its significance of play it for the cloying sentimentality that others might.
Turns into family history and the Irish drinking songs that go with it are hilarious and touching, and we’re more than thankful that Sheffield’s parents are as cool as they are, a family with its quirks but a family that has raised a young man who will, in the end, be alright. He even survives Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, where he rubs elbows with Vince Neil, Jack Blades (one of rock’s most affable frontmen), and various sidemen whose credits include time with both Peter Frampton and Billy Joel. (John Waite even crops up!) There’s a meditation on how some men, whether they have all the luck or not, are bound to become Rod Stewart, and, of course, the all-important Beatles.
The chapters that tell the story of how Sheffield meets his second wife and falls in love to a soundtrack that includes Depeche Mode and The Smiths, can’t be beat, and we cheer for him and his new love more than we’ve cheered for any couple in any romantic comedy for the last two decades. It’s the love story that reels us in and holds us in rapt attention as the book unfolds before us, and it’s the love story we’ll remember long after we’ve closed the book for the first last time. You might even argue that Turn Around Bright Eyes is so well-written and the story it tells powerful enough that it might just make you want to fall in love all over again.