He spent most nights drowning in blues in apartment 7Q, wearing Priority Records sweatpants that promoted a Snoop Dogg release and watching Lifetime Channel movies.
Gifted rock critic Rob Sheffield was 34. It had been about three years since his wife died suddenly from pulmonary embolism.
Sheffield, who’d recently moved to New York from Charlottesville, Va., eventually dug out of his funk. Not through yoga poses or hiking the Appalachian Trail, but inside karaoke bars that appeared to have been “decorated by a color-blind stripper in 1982.”
It was while belting out the ELO track “Livin’ Time” at a Koreatown place during his first night singing karaoke when Sheffield realized this was how he’d turn the corner.
“And I didn’t walk into the karaoke place thinking about that song,” Sheffield, now 47, says, “but for some reason I just kind of urgently had to sing it even though I didn’t know if I could hit it, because there are some high notes and lots of dramatic pauses where the cellos are playing. And you don’t know what you’re supposed to do during the cello sections.
“But for some reason the song just like carried me and lifted me though it. Afterward people were high-five-ing me and hugging me. ‘Huh, that’s how people act in a karaoke bar. It’s pretty fucking weird. It’s pretty fucking awesome.’”
Sheffield chronicles these explorations in his latest book, Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love & Karaoke. Within the 269-page tome’s self-effacing, hilarious and stirring arc, the author finds a new sweetie, riffs on the complexity and simplicity of growing up Irish Catholic, attends Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp and explains why all women are like The Beatles’ White Album.
On a recent morning Sheffield is seated on a park bench, not far from his Greenpoint, Brooklyn home. He’s listening to Hole’s Live Through This album on an iPod when he answers the phone for this interview.
Paste: A lot of the quintessential karaoke songs have been around for a while. What are some more recent tunes that seem poised to become karaoke jams?
Sheffield: Well, I think we’re living in a golden age for them. One of the huge karaoke jams of the summer, for me anyway, is Daft Punk “Get Lucky.” It’s perfect for karaoke. First, it’s really, really fucking easy to sing. Also, it’s got that “raise our cups to the stars” thing, and no matter how wasted someone is at a karaoke bar they can probably lift their hand high enough to raise their hands to the stars. I feel like it could have been written for a karaoke bar.
Another one is Icona Pop’s “I Love It.” And boy, that’s a fucking great karaoke song. Everyone can scream that one. It has one note. Seriously, one note all the way through the song. It’s like a Neil Young “Cinnamon Girl” guitar solo, except with drunk Swedish girls singing it.
Paste: What’s your approach to working the karaoke microphone? Is it brooding Ian Curtis or supernova David Lee Roth?
Sheffield: Sometimes the song calls for a certain amount of hammyness, and some songs call for a certain amount of reverence. One of my favorite karaoke songs to do is “Tell It To My Heart” by Taylor Dayne, a big, ’80s anthem. I’ve literally never got to the second verse of that one because a couple of drunk girls will always grab the mic and want to sing that one. If that happens, I think I kind of did my job, did right by the song and that’s what should happen.
Paste: I’ve never done karaoke. Would you mind commenting on how you think some songs might work in that context?
Sheffield: That sounds awesome.
Paste: “Electric Avenue,” Eddy Grant.
Sheffield: Okay. Perfect karaoke song. If you can’t bring down the house with this song, you’re just in the wrong house. Everybody fucking loves this song, and everybody can sing the [sings] “Oh, no!”
Paste: “New York Groove” by Ace Frehley.
Sheffield: Oh my God. That’s one I always love to do. “New York Groove” is great because it’s got elements of hard rock, elements of disco, elements of glam. There’s that cool talking part in the middle. I would call that the absolute zenith of the Ace Frehley karaoke songbook.
The White Stripes’ “Hotel Yorba.”
Sheffield: It’s funny because it’s a little harder to sing than you think it’s going to be. Jack White songs are like that in general—they require you to have a really flexible and powerful voice.
Paste: “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways.
Sheffield: Anything that involves Joan Jett or Lita Ford in any capacity whatsoever is A-plus karaoke.
Paste: In Turn Around Bright Eyes, you note how you don’t embarrass easily. Last time you were embarrassed?
Sheffield: This was a few years ago at an outdoor rock show in my neighborhood at McCarren Par Pool and I saw this dude that had this cool, homemade T-shirt of Morrissey done up as a vampire. And I go back next summer and see the same T-shirt and the same guy. So I go over there this time and tell him how much I like his T-shirt and he goes, “Oh yeah, thanks man.” Then I say, “I noticed you here last year and you were wearing that same T-shirt.” And he just got that super fucking creeped out look in his eyes. And he just started backing away. And I could see my wife just burying her face in her hands.
Paste: Given the title of your first book, Love Is a Mix Tape—which Bright Eyes is sort of a sequel to—do fans ever ask you to autograph cassettes?
Sheffield: Sometimes. It’s really nice. The thing is I still listen to cassettes all the time. I like them just as a way of listening to music. People care about cassettes so much, and for a lot of people I think it goes a little deeper than that.
Paste: There’s a great moment in Turn Around Bright Eyes where you go to pick up Ally [now Sheffield’s wife] at her hotel the first time she came to see you in New York. Up to that point, you’re not sure this is a date. But you’re relieved to see she’s wearing “date shoes.” What do “date shoes” look like?
Sheffield: She’d come up via Amtrak and the shoes she was wearing definitely not the shoes you wear on Amtrak—they were pumps with awesome heels. And it was good she’d changed her shoes. Did you ever see a terrible Vin Diesel movie called XXX? There’s a scene where he’s in a diner and he can tell the waitress is a spy because she’s wearing heels, and an actual waitress on the job would never do that. It’s the same kind of thing: You look for codes and clues and find them in girls’ shoes.