It’s no surprise that memoirs, at least the good ones, do big business. As anyone who has read, say, Augusten Burroughs’s “Running With Scissors” or Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” knows, the truth can be just as compelling as the alternative.
Perhaps encouraged by the success of two earlier memoirs, Rob Sheffield is back with “Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke,” yet another book based on his life. Sheffield found an audience, deservedly, with his 2007 memoir, “Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time,” a well-told tale of love and heartbreak. (The author’s wife, “a real cool hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl” who shared his love for Pavement and the Meat Puppets, died of a pulmonary embolism not quite six years into their marriage.)
A few years later, Sheffield, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, returned to the well of personal experience to write “Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut.” Both narratives succeeded because the author is likable, a funny, self-effacing music nerd who can rank, in order of awfulness, Rod Stewart’s albums of the 1980s. (According to Sheffield, “Atlantic Crossing” is the worst, and I have no reason to doubt him.)
In “Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke,” Sheffield is still an appealing narrator, but that isn’t quite enough anymore. A bit like Burroughs, who has continued to write about his life even though his life no longer makes for terribly interesting reading, Sheffield doesn’t have much new to say here.
Ostensibly about the author’s obsession with karaoke and how soused nights of singalong helped him shed his sadness, and find romance with Ally, the woman who would become his second wife, “Turn Around Bright Eyes” is really just a mishmash of stories and reminiscences. Sometimes, his tangents are amusing, as when Sheffield recounts a rock-geek conversation with Ally, who ID’s Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan as one of the five sexiest men in rock ’n’ roll.
“I decided I needed to reevaluate my personal relationship to white jeans and leather tank tops,” Sheffield writes.
But his riffs can also be redundant and tedious, like when he goes on about his ultimate karaoke jams — No. 1, sorry to say, is “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” the unforgivable ’80s power ballad sung by Bonnie Tyler — or his frequent digressions related to, oh, record sleeves, movies, the Smiths, and, more Rod “The Bod.” (We get Sheffield’s take on the age-old Rod Stewart-had-his-stomach-pumped rumor.)
“[R]emembering which dude in which band sang which song, or knowing every dusty nook and cranny of their discography — it’s like an obnoxious party trick I can’t stop doing,” he writes. But about two-thirds of the way through this book, we wish he would.
Sheffield is at his best when his observations are buoyed by a little reporting. He has an eye — and ear — for interesting characters, and he finds plenty of them during a week at Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, when wannabe rock stars get a chance to perform — Sheffield bangs on a tambourine — with a not-so-super group that includes Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark Farner, Night Ranger’s Jack Blades, and Eric Burdon, the self-important lead singer of the Animals. (Burdon is not likely to enjoy his cameo in the book, but I did.)
I wanted more reportage. For example, Sheffield starts to tell an interesting story about a guy who sings karaoke for cash — “J.J. puts the ‘bitch’ in ‘leave your inhibitions at the door’ ” — but then segues into a lengthy rumination on the “magic wand” of karaoke, the microphone. Sheffield seems like a sweet guy, someone you’d be lucky to spend a night swilling whiskey and spinning records with. But I’m not sure I need to read another of his books.Mark Shanahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter @markashanahan.