Rob Sheffield is the kind of true-blue music nerd who'll pause his latest memoir — one with a subtitle promising a book about "the rituals of love & karaoke" — to address the important topic of Rod Stewart.
Not how much he loves Rod Stewart, exactly, nor which of Stewart's songs is the most fun to sing at karaoke. (Duh: "Love Touch.") Rather, Sheffield's chapter on the singer, called "Hot Legs," examines in great detail Stewart's merry progression from "a rambling rock & roll rogue" to "an L.A. roué trapped in [a] crusty catsuit." And he views that transition as an admirable one: "Some rock stars get tragic as time passes," Sheffield writes. "That would never happen to Rod. He doesn't take any of this nonsense personally."
"Hot Legs" contains other insights into Stewart and his music, not to mention a level-headed takedown of the infamous stomach-pump story that's trailed the singer for decades. (Why would a rich celebrity go to a public hospital instead of calling a fancy doctor?) But then, just as you're reclining into the warm bath of Sheffield's pop-cultural riffology — he's a longtime Rolling Stone columnist who also shows up regularly on VH1 — he demonstrates that Stewart's journey is in fact an allegory for how a man maintains a successful marriage.
"You don't get to be Rod Stewart unless you have an element of the cold-blooded showbiz huckster," Sheffield writes. "But you also don't get to be a husband unless you have some Rod Stewart in you — grinding through the years, getting off on repetition."
Turns out, "Hot Legs" is all about the rituals of love.
This kind of sneak attack on profundity has become, over the course of two previous books, Sheffield's signature move. In 2007's "Love Is a Mix Tape," he used a series of playlists to recount his relationship with his first wife, who died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. "Talking to Girls About Duran Duran," from 2010, refracted his coming of age through the Go-Go's and Big Daddy Kane songs he grew up loving.
Each is a bittersweet joy, a gin-and-juice cocktail of "I know exactly what you mean, man" and "Dude, how did you get through that?" Sheffield writes about music in these books as a salve for troubles both small and cripplingly huge. But music works the same way for his readers; it solves the problem of relatability.
"Turn Around Bright Eyes" — titled, obviously, after the lyric in Bonnie Tyler's early-'80s power ballad "Total Eclipse of the Heart" — functions as a kind of sequel to "Love Is a Mix Tape," picking up with Sheffield's move from Virginia, where he lived with his wife, to New York, where he thought he could escape the constant reminders of loss.
"I pictured myself looking out at the city lights, while the sax solo from 'Walk on the Wild Side' played in the distance," he writes. Unfortunately for Sheffield, the year was 2000, and his new apartment was right under the World Trade Center. The aftermath of 9/11 thrust him, once again, into "a shrine of mourning," a miserable place he describes with haunting beauty.
But that's the easy job. What's more remarkable about Sheffield's new book is how deep he gets writing about how karaoke — bellowing pop songs to the accompaniment of canned backing tracks in front of supportive friends and drunken strangers — lifted him out of his existential gloom.
He examines the healing power of communal singing and wonders why certain songs (most of them by Bon Jovi) work so well in this setting. And, as in the chapter about Stewart, he follows thoughts that start out in some dingy karaoke bar down unexpected paths; there are funny, touching passages here about his parents, his stint at L.A.'s Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp and his eventual courtship of another woman.
Occasionally, all this thinking results in jargon-jammed sentences that only a fellow rock critic could love (or understand). "She was Destiny's Child — I am Density's Child," he writes in reference to the challenges of singing Beyoncé. "But she has that charisma that inspires the rest of us to fake it. I fake it so real, I am Beyoncé." Wham, bam, you catch all that, ma'am?
Yet if Sheffield stands accused of obsessing over music — how it can both propel and frame a life, in good times and maybe especially in bad — he'd never deny it. He gives love a good name.
Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love & Karaoke
It Books, 288 pp.; $25.99