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Read an Excerpt From Rob Sheffield's 'Turn Around Bright Eyes'

How karaoke helped a widowed pop-culture addict find true love again

August 22, 2013 1:45 PM ET
Turn Around Bright Eyes by Rob Sheffield
'Turn Around Bright Eyes' by Rob Sheffield
Courtesy of Harper Collins

Turn Around Bright Eyes is Rob Sheffield's new memoir about "the rituals of love and karaoke" – a tale of how belting out shaky versions of "Total Eclipse of the Heart," "Say My Name" and countless other songs helped a widowed pop-culture addict find true love again. Like much of the book, this exclusive excerpt is a mix of personal history and great rock criticism, and it manages – no small feat – to say something fresh about the Beatles. For Sheffield, a longtime Rolling Stone contributing editor, picking a favorite Beatles song is a matter of supreme importance; that song is also subject to change at any moment, depending where you are in life. And as Sheffield traces his journey from a "She Loves You" guy to a "Strawberry Fields Forever" guy, he realizes that, for John Lennon and Paul McCartney it was shared sorrow that helped shape some of the greatest songs ever.

"She Loves You" and 99 More of the Beatles' Best Songs

1983: You are seventeen years old, and you have collected many theories about the universe. But there's one thing you know for a fact. You are certain, as you will never be certain of anything else, that the greatest song in the history of the world is "She Loves You." By the Beatles. Obviously.

If anyone asks your favorite song, you will instantly answer, "She Loves You," and explain why in detail (which might help explain why nobody asks). Because you're a sullen teen boy, and this song is the sullenest, teenest, boyest song imaginable. Those drums. Those guitars. The wild mood swings in the vocals. You're the boy in this song, you think to yourself. This is you.

At some point in your early twenties, you're startled to realize that "She Loves You" isn't your favorite song anymore. You have switched allegiance to "I Want to Hold Your Hand." You are now certain, as you will never be certain of anything else, that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is your favorite song of all time, in case anyone asks. (Some people do ask – by now you have made friends who also like to talk about this stuff. One of them is the girl you hold hands with.)

You're not sure how "I Want to Hold Your Hand" took over from "She Loves You." The change happened gradually, without you noticing, and you're vaguely pissed. It's like finding out your right and left lungs traded sides – it might have no visible impact on your day-to-day life, but it still feels like a major decision you should have been consulted about. It's a big deal.

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1963: John Lennon and Paul McCartney are in a hotel room in Newcastle, England. In a few hours, they'll be playing a concert with their band, the Beatles. Right now, they're sitting on their bed (the Beatles are still sharing hotel rooms on the road). They hold acoustic guitars, writing "She Loves You." Tomorrow they finish it up at Paul's dad's house, while Mr. McCartney sits in the next room watching the telly. Paul's dad thinks the song is corny. He asks them if "yeah, yeah, yeah" shouldn't really go "yes, yes, yes." They tell him no, no, no.

They take it into Abbey Road the next week. Their producer, George Martin, has his doubts. He asks, "Isn't this a bit unhip, laddies?" Paul insists, "It's great!" So they knock it off in one afternoon session, and it becomes their biggest hit, the best-selling single in the history of England. (It holds the record until 1977, when Paul tops it with one of his solo hits.) "She Loves You" becomes their introduction to America on The Ed Sullivan Show. The "yeah, yeah, yeah" chant turns into their trademark. The Beatles become the four most beloved human beings on the planet and remain that way forever.

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1975: The first Beatles record you own, a birthday present from your parents, is a Dutch anthology called Beatles Greatest. You spend hours listening to it, sitting on the living room floor next to the ancient record player. Although you don't realize it yet, only one of the speakers works, so you're only hearing half the music, but it doesn't matter. The best song on it is "She Loves You."

"She Loves You" is a song everybody knows, a song everybody has heard a million times. So it's easy to overlook how bizarre it is. It's easily the weirdest song the Beatles ever wrote.

The plot: There are two boys talking, a Beatle boy (John and Paul blending their voices) and a mean boy. The Beatle boy has a friend, who happens to be the girl in love with the mean boy. The Beatle boy was hanging out with her yesterday, listening to her talk about her broken heart. So the Beatle boy steps in as a messenger of love. He tells the mean boy to apologize and rejoice in her love. John and Paul sound so bitchy, as if they can't be- lieve what an idiot this other guy is. But they love singing about the girl. When they switch the subject back to her, that's where they brighten up and turn into a "yeah, yeah, yeah" machine. That's why the song makes you feel happy, even though every- body at the end is alone and frustrated and bitter.

You have to admit: Teenage boys do not have conversations like this very often. If you overheard this conversation on a bus, it would be the weirdest thing that happened to you all day. You would get to work and tell everyone, "Guess what I heard? Two teenage boys were talking about their love lives and one told the other to apologize to a girl. Kids today – they are so free and open with their feelings!"
But the generosity of this song is overwhelming. There's no hint that the Beatle boy covets this girl for himself. (That would be a different song – it would be "You're Gonna Lose That Girl.") For that matter, there's no hint that he wants the boy. (Then it would be Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl.") The Beatles just root for the girl to get what she wants.

All the pain flies away in the "yeah, yeah, yeahs" and "ooohs," as if they're trying to sing like flirty girls and seduce this boy into surrendering to love. The Beatle boy tries to translate girl language into boy language, repeating what the girl told him to say, yet making it irresistible to the boy who's listening. To bring these tormented lovers together, they have to become superhu- manly pretty. Liverpool love ninjas, to the rescue.

There's a lot of misery in this song, but there's also fun, and the Beatle boy is having most of it.

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1991: You are in your early twenties. You are young and in love and you spend a lot of time listening to "I Want to Hold Your Hand" – partly because of the Al Green version, partly because you're young and in love so you finally have ears to hear all the joy in the Beatles' version. The girl-crazy howls and drum crashes, the brash confidence of it, the way the boy is on fire and will explode if the girl doesn't touch him right this second – this seems more complex to you, more urgent than any other song you can think of.

One day you're drinking tea with your mom and she asks why you want to marry your girlfriend. (You're just twenty-four – too young.) You're a rock geek, so you give a really arcane answer comparing your girlfriend to the Beatles. You quote a line that the critic Greil Marcus wrote about the Beatles, calling them "a rock and roll group that combined elements of the music that you were used to hearing only in pieces." This sums up your relationship. Needless to say, your mom thinks you're ducking the question.
If you ever told your girlfriend about this conversation (you never did – it just never came up) she would have gotten it. She's also a rock geek, the kind who also can quote Greil Marcus lines from memory. She'd love being compared to the Beatles, with a quote from one of her writer heroes. Maybe you should have told her.

Your mom loves the Beatles, too, but she isn't a rock geek, so she thinks you're chickening out of giving her a straight answer. You think you gave her the most honest answer possible. But you and your mom can both agree: You've just demonstrated why you're lucky you got someone to marry you.

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