book review: turn around bright eyes — rob sheffield

raleigh, june

I have a lot of feelings about Rob Sheffield’s new book, Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals Of Love & Karaoke. This is, in part, because Rob Sheffield’s writing about music just gives me feelings, because he says things in the way I want to say them, often, where I end up trying to say them but ultimately comparing a band to metaphorical salad dressing instead. (True story.)

But partly why Rob Sheffield’s writing gives me feelings is because, several years, Someone — let’s call him That Boy — That Boy read Love Is A Mix Tape, and That Boy told me that Rob’s Renee reminded him of me. A particular passage, he said. I’d know it when I read it. I did know it, immediately. It was this section, copied this time out of My Clippings on my Kindle, where I have read Love Is A Mix Tape approximately a dozen times, to go with the even dozen I read it in paperback, too:

Unlike me, Renée was not shy; she was a real people-pleaser. She worried way too much what people thought of her, wore her heart on her sleeve, expected too much from people, and got hurt too easily. She kept other people’s secrets like a champ, but told her own too fast. She expected the world not to cheat her and was always surprised when it did. She was finishing her MFA in fiction, and was always working on stories and novels. She had more ideas than she had time to finish. She loved to get up early in the morning. She loved to talk about wild things she wanted to do in the future. She’d never gone two weeks without a boyfriend since she was fifteen.

When I met That Boy, I was 20 and he was 18, and I was that girl, that Renee-girl who loved living life. Then for a while I wasn’t that girl, because of the guy I was with for many years — who was not That Boy — and then I was her again when I found photography, and then, for the last 15 or 16 months, I haven’t really been her at all. I haven’t really been anyone, but especially not myself. There have been moments, of course, where I recognized who I feel like I am supposed to be; when I was in Minnesota with the Every Everything crew, or when I interviewed Frightened Rabbit, or when I shot the National and then sat at the back of Red Hat Amphitheatre and sobbed my guts out when they played “Slow Show”. you know i dreamed about you for 29 years before i met you

But mostly the last 16 months have been a long, hard, sad, colorless slog through the pit that is clinical, chronic depression, and alcoholism. There have been plenty — eight or nine at least — rock bottoms in those 16 months, where I was so far from that Renee-girl that I could barely speak about it; where I couldn’t even think about it, because it gutted me, but despite that, I still didn’t know how to find my way back to myself. One of them was last December, and I ended up calling That Boy, hammered out of my mind at a show, and sobbing on the phone to him about how lonely I was, and how much I loved him, and how badly I needed him to be here. He talked me through that night, a terrifying black-out night that ended in my least fine moment in the 506 ever (and that includes one where I got so drunk I lost my keys and had to call shep. to come rescue me, something she continues to astound me by doing every time I fall into an alcohol-related pit of awful, which is pretty regularly, lately, and she just deserves all the credit and then some for still loving me).

That Boy has barely spoken to me since. That Boy I’ve loved with all my heart since I was 20 years old, who knows me still better than anyone else, who I treated badly and never could be with when he wanted me to even though I loved him fiercely all the while, and who saw me through that December-terrible night and then, rightly, washed his hands of my shadow-self, 12 years after I fell in love with him.

So it’s been a rough while, and Rob Sheffield gives me feelings, the kind where you sit on your front porch and cry into your own cleavage. If you have cleavage. I do. You know how it is.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about Turn Around Bright Eyes; my feelings for Love Is A Mix Tape go so beyond love that they’re barely something I can verbalize, and while I enjoyed Talking To Girls About Duran Duran, nothing in it pushed my musical buttons the way Sheffield’s writing about Big Star and Pavement pushed my buttons in his first. So I was surprised by how delighted this book made me, its slow start and its metaphors about the stars, until I rolled into the middle chapters about Rod Stewart and the Beatles — artists who, unlike Big Star and Pavement, I do not adore, particularly. I like Faces. I think Rod’s written some good songs. Certain Beatles songs make me happy, but I’m a Rolling Stones girl — gimme Sticky Fingers every time, and no boy has ever convinced me otherwise.

I fucking ate those two chapters up, you guys.

The way he talked about every man becoming Rod, about how your favorite song changes and the people in your life help you to find new things about the songs you’ve always loved — man, that just resonated with me. Or the bands that you fall in love with because someone you love loves them; I own that great Faces box set — the box set that started to change my opinion on Rod from “none” to “yeah, okay” — because Patterson Hood once talked about how he and Jason Isbell were obsessed with it in 2004. And I was obsessed with Jason Isbell in 2008. So then Rod, and a totally different spin on one of my all-time favorite songs, “Reason To Believe”, one I’d somehow never heard him sing before — I know it from the Dillards’ bluegrass version, from when I was a kid. It was a love song for me then, almost to myself, while I was coming out of another kind of haze of being Not-Me. I listened to that song a lot in 2008. Jason Isbell eventually broke my heart, and I eventually forgave him, but I still love “Reason To Believe”, and listening to it still makes me feel confident and like I can do anything.

Rod, man. Everybody’s growing up to be Rod, you know?

And then Sheffield got back to the love story, the part where he meets Ally, and they start to build a life together, and she — she puts the Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” on a tape for him, a Depeche Mode tape, and I lost my shit completely. Like, rolled over in bed, slopped the Kindle to the floor, and had one of those weeps where it’s just huge heaving inhuman sobs, because “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” is an Ur-song for me. It is, along with R.E.M.’s “So Awake Volunteer” and the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man”, one of those love songs that shaped me from far far too early on. It was put on a mix tape for me by the first boy, who is now a man named Tim Catts, who’s married and lives in Jersey, and who I hope occasionally Googles himself, because I would genuinely like to know how he’s doing, and someday I hope he’ll email me.

So “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. It undid me. It’s inscribed inside a Stoppard anthology I still own, and re-read. It was a light bulb, terribly metaphorically, going on inside my head.

I am depressed, I am a depressive, and I take medications that are, slowly, like taffy, drawing me out of this worst bout yet, and that is the worst bout over twenty long years of fighting blackness. I am anxious, so anxious that even with medication I am prone to panic attacks that lead to me vomiting on North Carolina highways. (I am a pro at panic attack vomiting on North Carolina highways.) I am an alcoholic, and I will always be one, and I am a drunk, and I am trying, working, very hard, right now, not to be a drunk. I read Love Is A Mix Tape six months before I fell in love with the Cowboy and got my heart all smashed to bits. The Cowboy and I can’t even really be friends these days, and that’s my fault, because something about seeing him makes me want to go on a three day bender and then break some things, and those are things I’m trying not to do. The things I’m not doing. So I can’t see him, even as friends, and so I miss him. If you read this, babe, I miss you. Not like you’re thinking, maybe, but just the comfort of any kind of similar freakazoid mind in my life, like Sheffield says, and if the Cowboy and I could not be in love, and we couldn’t, we were at the heart freakazoids of the same kind.

I read Turn Around Bright Eyes now, when I am trying to put a life back together. The pieces aren’t as strewn as I thought they would be, though parts of it are hard. But this book, moreso than Duran Duran and nothing against that one, this book tilted my world view back into an orbit that I understand. I am not meant to be a girlfriend; I do not have the temperament for it. I may be meant to be a wife, I don’t know. I may be meant to be alone — or to be myself.

But how Rob Sheffield knew to write a brilliant book about second chances, and where we find them, just when I needed it, well. I read his first one just when I needed it as well, so maybe he’s magic.

All I know is that Rob Sheffield is at his best, his true best writing, his genius writing, when he is writing about music and love, marriage love, the kind of partnership that is permanent. And again, no offense to Duran Duran, but Bright Eyes was the book I wanted after Mix Tape. I have broken so many things. I want to know how to fix them. This book tells me how to start. Or at least it tells me how Sheffield started, and that’s a place enough for me to start.

You look up at the sky, and you sing your life.

And that’s why Turn Around Bright Eyes is a great book, not just a good one.

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4 responses to “book review: turn around bright eyes — rob sheffield

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