Reading ‘On Bowie’ and Discovering the Great, Late David Jones
On Bowie is a great love story of our time. Only Rob Sheffield could’ve written a book this wonderful, with such ease about Bowie’s mysticism, his prolific career, and his time on The Blue Planet. Sheffield welcomes every Bowie super fan and sparks intrigue for those of us who have never known where to start within the catalog.
I went to Sheffield’s listening party and reading for On Bowie at WORD Bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (I also went to meet and greet the moderator, Amanda Petrusich, my hero and role model. Note: she is extremely nice.) I listened as the crowd laughed at Bowie jokes over my head. I chuckled a few times and found my lack of Bowie knowledge to be my entry point. Of course I know the hits “Fame” “Golden Years” “Life On Mars?” but “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Sound and Vision”? I was surrounded by people who so clearly knew more than me of The Starman, The Thin White Duke, The Modern Lover, The Blackstar. The household I grew up in wasn’t a Bowie place.
“When an artist as massive as Bowie passes away, I find myself still unsure of where to begin. The same thing happened when Prince died,” I said during the Q&A. “Bowie’s discography is so large, where do I start?”
Sheffield told me to read the book and see which face of Bowie pops up at me. A veteran author certainly knows how to sell his book.
On Bowie is a melting pot of Sheffield’s fandom treasure trove, his collected artifacts over time, and his access to Rolling Stone’s vault of goodies. Every line, every parenthetical aside, and every lyric reference is a piece of the puzzle to Bowie. While taking notes, I jotted down things to look up and songs to listen to. The stories of Sheffield’s experiences as a Bowie fan are like reading his journal. Anecdotes about Bowie’s recording and acting career simply wowed me.
About halfway through On Bowie, I started listening to The Man Who Sold The World, having only been familiar with the title track and the infamous Nirvana unplugged cover. I started piecing together the reach of Bowie’s output and influence—the quiet drone, the flute solos, the high and low timbre of his voice. I realized just how long and how much he had been around.
Sheffield is so full of Bowie stories, that it’s hard to pick even a handful of favorites. Like, in 1975 when Bowie was shooting The Man Who Fell To Earth in New Mexico, he started dating the costume designer Ola Hudson and hanging out with her and her son, Saul. Saul would grow up to be Slash of Guns N’ Roses. Sheffield dug to find Slash’s memories of Bowie from when he saw him live at the L.A. Forum, “[Bowie] had reduced rock stardom to its roots: being a rock star is the intersection of who you are and who you want to be.” Sheffield’s primary sources, and how they all connect to each other, are effortless.
Another side-by-side that struck me was the comparison Sheffield makes between Bowie and Neil Young. Throughout my reading, they popped up again and again. They became center of my favorite Bowie factoids: “Both arrived as solo artists just as the sixties were imploding, a little too late to be Bob Dylan, and they never got it over it. Both built their massive seventies mystique around abrupt stylistic shifts. Both fluked into a Number 1 hit (“Fame” and “Heart of Gold”), but both responded to this success by refusing to repeat it…Both sang their fears of losing their youth when the were still basically kids; both aged mysteriously well. Neither ever did anything remotely sane.”
The deepest I’ve been in Bowie’s records, at least as deep as I consider, is Station To Station. I heard it for the first time the day he died when a colleague put it on. Every time I listen to it now, I’m still sonically discovering it. Then Sheffield steps in to tell me that Bowie wrote it at a time when he was obsessed with the devil, religion, and spirituality—that during the recording process, Bowie hired a white witch to exorcise his swimming pool. Bowie also, apparently, had no memory of making the album due to snorting glorious amounts of cocaine. Bowie is quoted as saying, “I knew it took place in LA because I read it took place there.”
On Bowie acted as my liner notes. Sheffield seemed to be talking to just me. He has that ability in person and on the page—there’s no one there but you, him, and Bowie.
I haven’t read any of Sheffield’s other titles, although they haunt me at every music shelf. I am so glad that I jumped into the deep end: Sheffield’s specialty, something close to him. More proof to my theory that if you spend enough time writing about the same thing, you’ll be the best at it (if it was still live, I’d direct you to Chuck Klosterman’s KISSTORY for the now-defunct Grantland. It is a superb piece of niche music writing). The specificity of this book is simple but it allowed Sheffield to explore Bowie on the page. The idea of Bowie is the idea of identity. Sheffield spells it out in more ways than one and it’s never through a tired metaphor. Throughout his life Bowie was constantly exploring the outer rim of music and all the different ways to present himself. Sheffield tackles it as part professional part buff.
On Bowie is written with intensity, as if he was waiting his whole life to write a book like this. Sheffield told us at his talk that he’s hoarded a VHS tape of Bowie on The Dinah Shore Show that he’s been told doesn’t exist on “The Youtube.” Bowie was a guest along side Henry Winkler where he sang, danced, and was taught Karate. Sheffield tells stories about singing along with strangers in a dive bar far from home when it’s Bowie Tribute Night. He wrote On Bowie in a month, right after Bowie passed. Sheffield had kept his high school journal, with a hand-copied Bowie essay by Mike Freedberg from the now-defunct Boston Phoenix and tells us that he’s typing up his notes from it while its propped open on his lap. It might be the only book on Bowie that matters.
On Bowie is a complete understanding of David Bowie and Sheffield’s processing of a passed hero. While honoring the extraterrestrial superstar, he also writes a human shape around him. And for someone who knows so little of his music, it was like reading about a relative I’ll never have the chance to meet. On Bowie is the kind of book that comes with listening homework, whether you’re listening to “Changes” for the millionth time, or just hearing Low.
As a student of Classic Rock Radio and the child of a Beatles elitist who only ever questions Mick and Keith, I am still trying to discover Bowie and accept him into my musicology. Bowie, to me, is a space ghost—the instrumentation of his records, the fantasy of their narratives—he makes me wonder if I’ll ever truly appreciate his music or only ever listen to it as an outsider.
On Bowie, like Bowie’s purest intention, pushed me outside a boundary. Even if it was just finding out that I’ve actually heard “Modern Love” a thousand times and never knew it was Bowie; or learning about the span of Bowie’s interests and its impact on his music from the Bible to Oscar Wilde. Sheffield is like Bowie’s muse on the page, dipping in and out of his lyrics and exploring prose and rhyme.
The luxury of Sheffield’s writing pushed me as a reader and a listener. I could’ve underlined every sentence and I did regurgitate Bowie facts for days. But it’s small moments Sheffield took on the page that tattooed my mind: “Bowie was all about eroticizing what you don’t know for sure.”
Bowie changed so much he could barely keep up with himself. And because the music changed too, Sheffield explains, he demanded our attention. Learning that that’s the point of Bowie, hearing how hard he rocked and how quietly he crooned, hearing The Man Who Sold The World for the first time, 46 years after its release, it seems, is all Bowie would’ve wanted from me.
Sheffield was right all along. All I needed was to trust him, to look at all the cards of Bowie on the table and to pick one. But like Bowie, I’m not done exploring yet.