Few things bring us together like the loss of a cultural icon, the ones whose impact is immeasurable by human standards. When David Bowie died, we all felt gravity pulling us back to Earth, our heads yanked from the clouds, our hearts a little heavier.
Like every Bowie fan, music critic Rob Sheffield had a personal connection to the Thin White Duke, one deeper than the communal mourning and the mass media histrionics.
In his new book, On Bowie, Sheffield reminisces about the version of Bowie he kept for himself, the one closest to his heart, examining in real time the moment the world united to grieve the icon that made it cool to be weird. If you’ve read any of his books, you know that the The Man Who Fell to Earth has always had a presence in Sheffield’s writing, and the longtime Rolling Stone writer and contributing editor does his legend justice.
The Observer caught up with Rob Sheffield recently over lunch in Greenpoint to discuss what it was like writing a book about the mortality of your hero, his favorite David Bowie song and why people connected with the star that lives on through his sprawling influential body of work.
“I couldn’t concentrate on anything else but Bowie. No one else could, either.”
How long were you working on this book?
I did it really, really fast. It was so weird how it happened, him releasing this new album on his birthday, and we had a couple of days to be like, “Wow, the album was released on his birthday.” That was Friday and then on Sunday there was the terrible news that he passed. There was a lot more going on there.
My editor called me the next morning and said, “You have to do a Bowie book. You always put a Bowie chapter in every book you write.” We figured we could get it out this summer. She was right: I couldn’t concentrate on anything else but Bowie. No one else could, either. That Wednesday night I went out with a couple of friends for a Bowie memorial dinner and eventually the bartender put on this other music that wasn’t Bowie and he put on other music and everyone was like, “Nooo.”
What was the hardest part of writing the book?
The hardest part was going through the emotional process of saying goodbye to this musician who has been a part of your life forever. Doing that while writing about him at the same time was the ongoing challenge of the book because it was so much to wrap the head around given his diagnosis and the physical and emotional pain he was going through, what he chose to do with his last year was work: to make this music that was really astonishing.
The record isn’t even a summary of great things he’s done before. It’s a totally new album for me. It’s kind of humbling to think of how he was able to spend his time that way.
It was interesting for me, also, to learn from my friends that everyone has their own Bowie. I kept finding out how everyone had different iterations of Bowie in their heads. My Bowie is so different than everyone else’s. My fashion friends have a totally different Bowie than I have. It’s really funny that all of his fashion mutations made him an icon to my fashion friends. My theater friends look to a different Bowie.
Everyone really had their own idea of which version of Bowie they connected with the most.
It was really funny to learn that for many of my friends that their first Bowie experience was Labyrinth, and that meant a lot to them. He was such a presence in people’s secret lives as well as their public lives. You would hear a song on the radio that everyone knows like “Heroes” or “Space Oddity,” and then you have the private hits.
Who do you think wrote the best David Bowie tribute?
There were so many beautiful comments after Bowie passed, but I think there was something Mick Jagger said that whenever he hung out with David Bowie they would try to read the labels off of each other’s clothing out of the corner of their eyes. They were always stealing things from each other. Jagger famously said something in the ’70s like, “Never wear a new pair of shoes around David or next time you see him he’ll be wearing the same pair of shoes.”
They were always stealing great ideas from each other. I thought that was a really beautiful thing for Mick Jagger to say as someone who defined the art of rock ‘n’ roll thievery.
If you had to sum up your life with one David Bowie song, what would it be?
That’s a tough question. What would it be for you?
Maybe “Heroes.” It’s a hard question, but that’s why I’m asking.
It’s the kind of thing where if you ask me 10 times I’ll give you 10 different answers. Today it’s “Always Crashing In The Same Car” on Low. I love that whole album because he’s turning 30 and going through a breakdown. He goes to Berlin and makes this different-sounding record than anyone has made before. He brings it to the record label, and they beg him not to release it. He sings this meditation in the music of looking back on a pivotal point in your life and see how you’ve made a mess of your life and how you’ll probably do it again.
It’s funny, when I thought I was young I thought I knew what it was about, but now that I’m older, it’s a completely different song than when I was 30 or 17. I’ve been haunted by it for so long that I hear all of these mutations of my own of it. It’s funny because Bowie has a great story about how he wrote it. He was doing a drug deal in an underground parking garage and the dealer didn’t quite give him as much as he promised so Bowie was chasing him with his car. It was one of the moments where he began to realize he had a problem.
So what will your next book look like? What are you working on?
It’s funny. The Beatles book is one that I’ve been working on since last year. I was working on it when Bowie died and my editor from the Beatles book said to focus on Bowie. It’s coming out this fall. It’s called Dreaming The Beatles.
The Beatles are another artist who everyone has a personal relationship with. Although they’re globally recognized, people are always like, “Only I recognize what this song is about.”
It’s funny that the relatively small body of their own work where you can listen to the same song your entire life and it sounds different every time you hear it. I used to love “Julia” as a child.