Despite the massive outpouring of grief upon his death, Bowie (and glam rock) was always a bit of a third rail for Seventies music. When and where I grew up, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Mott the Hoople and the New York Dolls were tickets to constant teasing and harassment, if not the occasional threat of an ass-beating after school. In Rob Sheffield’s new book On Bowie, apparently everyone is or was a Bowie fan. I suppose in a world where Iggy Pop now provides the Yuppie soundtrack for cruise vacations and Audi sports sedans that should not come as a surprise (it still does). One need not look further for the ultimate irony of mass acceptance than in jocks pumping their fists and shouting along “Hey Ho, Let’s Go” from The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop” in sports arenas across America (it's just wrong).
Sheffield is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and the author of several books, most of them as confessional as this one. Titles like Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, Turn Around Bright Eyes: A Karaoke Journey of Starting Over, Falling in Love, and Finding Your Voice and Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut should give you an idea of where Sheffield’s writing takes him — and ultimately you — and this book is no different. He is a major fan-boy and and an emotional one at at that, and he makes no bones about that.
Beginning with the night the author learned of Bowie’s death, the book works chronologically through the artist’s major albums and stylistic periods. What Sheffield does well is find quotes and related background stories to shape each period. My favorite chapter of the book is “The Plastic Soul Brother,” where Sheffield compares Bowie’s TV appearances from that period. On Soul Train, after an “agonizing Q&A with the audience,” Don Cornelius cuts him off with “I think we have to move on” and Bowie “lurches” into ‘Fame’. He gets less applause than expected but “fortunately, he’s not awake enough to notice (and) Cornelius does not ask him to talk again.” On The Dick Cavett Show, an “absurdly wasted Bowie sits for a chat, sniffling, twirling his cane and mumbling incoherent coke babble at his terrified host.” That’s good stuff. Oh, and apparently, Bowie was at his best on The Dinah Shore Show. Yes, you read that right. Dinah Shore. With Fonzie. Who knew? If you know Bowie and this period, these vignettes paint a pretty complete portrait of where he was — and wasn’t at — during the time. Either way, you’ll be hitting YouTube hard.
“Cracked Actor” and “The Thin White Duke” offer up equally tantalizing stories. Perhaps it’s because these were my favorite Bowie periods musically, but also because it was undeniably the height of his drug use and incredibly strange behavior. Sheffield unearths some more great quotes and scenarios to form another high point of the book. However, I found the post-Let’s Dance chapters as boring as those records were (until The Next Day). Perhaps it’s true artists — and writers — are only as good as their muses.
Like all fans, Sheffield has a lot of emotional goo invested in Bowie and his songs. “Space Oddity” and the concept of Major Tom for example, receives an extended analysis; too much, in fact. Great song, but trying to connect it to HAL 9000, C3PO, Walt Whitman, Lana Del Rey and Patti Smith was a stretch for me. Likewise, I never thought “Five Years” was a “sly parody” of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I still don’t. But that’s what fans do — find hidden and/or personal meaning in songs — and one could sense Sheffield would eventually head down those roads.
But Sheffield’s inane need to work in a song title or lyric in seemingly every other paragraph was an annoyance from the start. I counted a dozen in the first six sentences of the introduction and, almost every major lyric fragment known to Bowie fans seems to appear somewhere in the book. If that’s not enough, I also found a contextual Cher (!) and Grateful Dead (!!) lyric lurking in the text; no doubt there are others I missed. Some readers might enjoy looking for and finding the snippets (it’s not hard) and identifying the song (not hard either). The thing is, the book didn’t need it. I found it tedious and thought it shortchanged the good parts of the book, which are many. Just know that this little habit doesn’t go away as you work your way through the book.
On Bowie is described on the flap as Sheffield’s “love letter to the artist who touched so many lives.” Sheffield connects a lot of small dots in very interesting, unique and personal ways. People not wanting a full-length bio and looking for a way to reconnect with their thoughts on Bowie and his music will likely love this book. Unfortunately, like a lot of love letters, it can also be sort of embarrassing to read. And sometimes you end up rolling your eyes because maybe the guy's just trying a little too hard.
Follow me on Twitter: @stevejreviews