I love Rob Sheffield’s books. His first, Love Is a Mix Tape, was an explicitly autobiographical memoir, a moving and beautifully written story about his life and subsequent marriage with Renée Crist, who dies unexpectedly. He tells this story by blending in a series of mix tapes, which suggests the direction his next books would go. The second book mentions Duran Duran in the title, the third is about “the rituals of love and karaoke”. It would be hard to find two subjects that interest me less than Duran Duran and karaoke, but I loved both books. I love that they continue his use of memoir to illuminate broader topics, such that by the time I finished the books, I had a much deeper understanding of those things I had thought were uninteresting.
What makes Sheffield’s books work is that while he is a central character, his presence is used to illuminate the world around him. Some writers (myself included) tend to turn everything into a story about myself, but that’s not what Sheffield accomplishes. Instead, he uses his personal connections in the service of his subjects. It’s quite a skill, one I wish I could master.
Sheffield loved David Bowie, and when Bowie died, Sheffield’s heart was broken. He says his latest book, On Bowie, “is a love letter to Bowie ... a thank-you for the beautiful mess he made out of all our lives.” Reading this, I realize that on some level, every book Rob Sheffield has written is a love letter of sorts, and that provides a lovely structure for whatever he is writing about. In one moving passage, he writes about hearing Bowie had died. “I thought about waking up my wife to tell her. But I wanted her to sleep one more night in a world that had Bowie in it.” In those sentences, we feel how important Bowie was in people’s lives, but also how Sheffield’s personal response includes the desire to protect his wife for a few more hours.
Here’s the thing: we learn a lot about Rob Sheffield in On Bowie, just as we have in all of his books. But, more than that, we learn a lot about David Bowie. Sheffield’s critical analysis of Bowie’s work is idiosyncratic ... of course it is, it should be, he’s not trying to put a canon in concrete. By attaching his own life history with Bowie, Sheffield stands in for the fans, and that helps a non-believer like me appreciate how Bowie and his fans fed off of each other. The biggest implication is always there ... substitute your own favorite for Bowie, and you’ll recognize a lot of what Sheffield goes through over the years. But by working with the memoir structure, Sheffield always brings those larger implications back to the specific story of David Bowie.
I recommend every one of Sheffield’s books: Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, and Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love & Karaoke. If you are just starting, read them in order, although if you are a Bowie fan, you’ll want to read that one first. But trust me on this: Rob Sheffield has never written a book that was less than wonderful.
Here are a few of my favorite Bowie songs. I only scratch the surface ... another use for On Bowie is to uncover hidden gems from Bowie’s recorded work. Me, I’m a greatest-hits kind of guy when it comes to Bowie ... well, I also love The Man Who Fell to Earth, one place where Rob and I do disagree. These are in no particular order, probably chronological although I’m not checking. “Stay” would be atop my list.
Bonus track: “I Got You Babe”