The Rolling Stone columnist and bestselling author speaks about 99 Luftballoons, Bowery Ballroom, and spa-raoke
Writer Rob Sheffield explains that karaoke is the only American pastime that rewards you for subpar performance – but that’s what makes it so fun. In his new book, Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke, which got its name from the first duet he sang with his wife, he vividly describes the karaoke scene in New York City. “New York is a place where people are used to people making a spectacle of themselves,” the 47 –year-old said. He proves that this makes our city a perfect venue for the art that is karaoke. The book gives you the urge to round up a group of your friends – or total strangers – and head to the closest karaoke bar. Once inside, you can belt out your favorite Britney, Beyonce, on Bon Jovi song, certain that the crowd will treat you like a rockstar, even if just for the night.
How was your book launch at The powerHouse Arena?
Oh my God, that was so fun. They set up a karaoke machine at the bookstore and I was like, “Wow this seems like it could be a logistical challenge.” They had it where people just signed up to sing and I thought they would be shy in that environment and need a little nudge. Obviously, I was totally wrong. I sang “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It brings out dangerous and depraved things in me. [Laughs]
Explain the concept of karaoke bars in New York.
Karaoke is a beautiful things because it allows anybody to participate in music, even those of us with no talent whatsoever. The fact that New York is a city that’s just crawling with different kinds of karaoke experiences makes it a great place to explore. New York is full of music everywhere you go – a big open space with a lot of strangers singing together, or a dingy, little private room where it’s just you and your friends destroying each others’ favorite songs.
Your favorite karaoke venues are mostly downtown, right?
Yeah. I love Sing Sing. It’s a place where there’s a big red awning with a microphone with the ying and yang symbol in it. They have this songbook with all sorts of stuff. I love to see ordinary people turn into stars before your eyes. You see these total strangers you’ve never seen before and you’re never gonna see again. I was in Sing Sing a couple weeks ago and there was this kid who got way into Madonna’s “Borderline.” It was a young kid and he might have been from Sweden or Denmark. This kid probably grew up dreaming of being in New York and singing that song. You just had this sense that there had been this huge cosmic journey in his life to be there, actually in downtown New York in a dingy karaoke place, singing “Borderline.” It was really beautiful.
You moved to New York in 2000 a few years after you lost your first wife, and you said people here went out of their way to be nice to you.
Yeah, it was really funny how everyone was super nice in New York. I always found that if you’re just polite, people take that seriously. Something I noticed is that if I ordered a drink at a bar and said, “please,” they would actually listen to my drink order. [Laughs] That’s something about New York that’s always blown me away, how people come here because they’re curious. And there’s a kindness that comes with curiosity. Soon after I came here, I went to a record store, Rockit Scientist, and I bought a Television live bootleg called This Case is Closed and the guy looked it and said, “I’m not gonna charge you for this ‘cause it’s scratched.” I took it home and played it all night, and it played fine, so I went back the next day and said, “I want to pay you for it ‘cause it played fine.” He said, “Keep it as your ‘welcome to New York present.’ You’re new in town, right? I could kind of tell.”
Describe your first karaoke experience.
The first time I ever did karaoke was in New York. It was funny because I went out with some friends and said, “I’m gonna sit here and watch and clap, and that will be fun. No way am I getting up and singing.” Of course it didn’t take long for me to try one. I sang Neil Diamond and there’s something about the unshakable Brooklyn-bred confidence of Mr. Neil Diamond; I wanted some of that to rub off on me. I sang the song “I Am.” I’m someone who has always loved music and written about it and tried to spread the word about music. But I could never actually sing or play an instrument. It blew my mind how it finally led me to the one thing that I wanted to do all my life but never could.
The first song you sang with your wife, Ally, was “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
A friend of ours was having a loft party in Chinatown with karaoke as part of the party. I gotta admit the party was kind of druggy, which probably had to do with the fact that people were singing. She hadn’t moved to town yet and didn’t know many people here. I was like, “This girl is fearless. She will get up in front of a room of people in New York she never met.”
You speak about singing karaoke a few weeks after September 11th and what that felt like.
I was living on John Street, which was closed off with tanks and everything, so it was the first time that I’d gone out of the house. A friend had a karaoke party in the East Village for his birthday and, for almost all of us there, it was the first time we’d been out in a public place with a lot of other people in a long time. It was emotionally cathartic. At the end of the night, somebody sang “99 Luftballoons” and it was like, “Oh wow, someone’s really going there.” And we were all singing along and just crying openly. It’s really strange the emotional intensities that you can have when you’re completely destroying a German new-wave song at two in the morning.
How did your job at Rolling Stone come about?
I’ve been writing about music since the ‘80s. I wrote for SPIN, Village Voice, Boston Phoenix. I wrote a music column for Details for a couple of years. I started writing for Rolling Stone in 1997. The first issue I ever wrote for, to give you a sense of where it was placed historically, had Tori Spelling on the cover. I wrote about Bob Dylan. Writing about Bob Dylan in Rolling Stone was jumping into the deep end.
What are your favorite concert venues in New York?
Whether you want a hall-in-the-wall, sweaty punk-rock club or the glitzy stadium show, New York City really has it all. Bowery Ballroom is in a class by itself. That was the best part about living downtown. I would walk up Bowery and in 15 minutes I’d be there. And that’s when all these amazing new bands were popping up all over the city – The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Liars.
You even did spa-raoke in the city.
That was the best. Somewhere in the East 30s. My friend Jenny had her birthday party there. You’re just sitting in the chair and someone’s getting a pedicure and singing Stevie Nicks. Someone did Beyonce while getting her hair blown out. It was combining two of my wife’s favorite things into one!
Follow Rob on Twitter: @robsheff
Rob will be at Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side on August 22nd
Happy Ending Lounge on September 25th www.howilearnedseries.com
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