“Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs” is a weekly series that celebrates everyone’s favorite part of an author reading: the Q&A. This week, author Julie Klausner interviews Rolling Stone columnist Rob Sheffield about his new memoir, Turn Around Bright Eyes, which examines now music — and specifically karaoke — can bring people together.
Julie Klausner: Do you remember your first karaoke session? Do you remember what you sang? Do you remember if you were nervous?
Rob Sheffield: I was terrified. I was well into my 30s at that point. I thought, “I’m an adult, I know all the things I can do and what I like to do.” That’s a mood that occasionally occurs to adults, that they’ve seen it all — which is very rarely the case. As a terrible singer, for me to actually have that karaoke mic and be in that incredibly welcoming, tolerating, embracing environment that karaoke creates, made me think, “Wow, I can sing these songs, and people will not run for the exits.” Of course, eventually I was proven wrong.
I sang a song that I’ve always loved: Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn.” That is not a hard song to sing and yet, I was still blowing it — and yet, I felt like this is where I am: We’re all here in this room because we love this song, because we love singing, because we love hearing each other. We don’t go to karaoke just to hear ourselves sing, we can do that at home. We sing to our cats, we sing to our plants, we sing to our lunch — I love to sing to my lunch.
Let’s say I’ve been hanging out with someone for a while, and the two of us rent a private room. This is the first time the two of us are doing karaoke together. What would you recommend? Is there a certain part of the catalogue you’d steer someone away from or toward?
Well, there’s a song called INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart.” If you’re not dating when you enter the room, you’ll be dating when you leave. That song is basically a musical makeout session. It has these dramatic pauses: [sings] “And they will never … tear us a … part!” And a saxaphone solo is pretty much first base.
Okay, what about this: You broke up with someone you hated even though the sex was great, and then you go out with your friends to celebrate it/put it to bed.
Is the friend there or not?
Um ... he isn’t at first, but then he shows up later that night.
Are you singing the song knowing he’s there?
First time, no, you’re just singing with your friends. Second time, you know he’s there.
Okay, so you’ve broken up with someone, and the sex was great but you hate him. You’re putting him to bed … you’re burying him … you’re dancing on the grave ... you are Stevie Nicks and you are “Standing Back.” [sings] “I walked on down the line, away from you! Maybe your intention was more than I could do?” I have no idea what that means.
But she does. The great thing about Stevie Nicks is — there’s a lot of great things about Stevie Nicks — that she’s never sung anything she’s never understood. There are a lot of singers who are like, whatever, and she’s not one of them. She will make it real. She will understand it, otherwise it will never go down in that sort of gold-embossed leaf that her voice puts on a track. It’s like a Torah. If you fuck it up, you have to start again.
That is exactly one of the mystical properties of Stevie Nicks. It rubs off on you. Okay, second song: He’s there in the room. Fuck it, you’re “Gold Dust Woman”-ing him. You are again going with the Stevie, but you are cranking her up. [sings] “Take your silver spoon — dig your grave!”
What about this occasion? You’re celebrating a five-year anniversary with somebody. The two of you rent a room. At first it’s private, but then your friends join you later. But it’s intimate.
This is romantic. You’ve got some mileage behind you. You have some songs that have some sentimentality. There’s a song, Elvis’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” Everybody knows that song. I sang it at karaoke for my mom a couple months ago — so maybe that’s wrong. I’m taking that off the list. But I feel like you need a song that is weathered and full of love. One song I really like is “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers. Any kind of ‘70s soul singer who came on as adult men singing about love and loss and endurance, not trying to simulate a kid’s perspective — Bill Withers was just someone who was a genius at that.
Another one I like to do is The Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” That song is too beautiful, so you have to know someone really well to sing it for them. I mean, nobody can sing it except for the great Russell Thompkins Jr. of The Stylistics. I once sang for my wife The Spinners’ “Mighty Love.” That song is so beautiful, and I didn’t realize it was a break-up song. I was like, whoops!
I have one last occasion: I’m invited by someone I have a crush on, and it’s his birthday. So what do I sing?
“Ignition (Remix)” by R. Kelly. It’s a bold statement, but you’re beyond insinuating. Seducing and destroying: That’s all done by the second verse.
I have a question about the process of your books because they are memoirs. Do you tend to organize them chronologically? How much do you decide in advance to say, “I’m going to talk about myself this much. I’m going to talk about karaoke this much. I’m going to tell this story.” How do you organize your storytelling when it comes to big projects?
I write about these things because I want to understand them better. Usually what I’m writing about on a given day is what I’ve been musing about and trying to understand. I love David Bowie. Lots of people love David Bowie — my love for David Bowie, though, spills over into so many different aspects of my life. I feel like David Bowie is involved in my life in terms of my role as a son, brother, friend, all these things. I may have never listened to David Bowie with that person, but I feel like if I can understand David Bowie, I can understand all these different aspects of human emotion better. I realize there’s no finish line for that. But whether I’m writing about Rod Stewart or Neil Diamond or R. Kelly, it’s something where there’s some aspect of human existence I’m trying to identify.
Is this book for your wife?
I write an awful lot about her in this book just because karaoke is a way we communicate. Human beings communicate by sharing music. For Ally and me, karaoke happens to be that way.
I had to put the book down because I was crying over the line, “It was my story, but it became our story.” That was a really important part for you when it came to starting over from scratch. You were really reborn when you met her. Having read your other books, it’s a special gift to give somebody.
The emotional courage that it requires to fall in love when you already know the price and you already know the pain requires a certain amount of steeling yourself. For me, that courage is very much tied up with the courage needed to sing karaoke. The similar fears: the fear of putting yourself out there and exposing yourself to certain pain. When you fall in love, you’re guaranteeing you’ll feel a lot of pain. For me, karaoke is a lot like that, too, but it’s more pain for the listener.
Kate Gavino is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has written for 7STOPS, CMJ and The Prattler, and is currently working on a novel.