Book review: On Bowie by Rob Sheffield

On Bowie byRob Sheffield
On Bowie byRob Sheffield
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That Rob Sheffield was – and always will be – a fan of the star(man) he writes so sincerely about  is beyond doubt from the very first sentence of this established rock music critic’s latest offering.

‘Planet Earth is a lot bluer without David Bowie,’ he pines. ‘The greatest rock star who ever fell to this or any other world.’

But this is not just an outpouring of grief from yet another faithful follower. No, in those few words he has already cleverly referenced lyrics from Bowie’s late 1960s breakthrough hit single

Space Oddity and The Man Who Fell To Earth, the unfathomable British sci-fi movie starring Bowie as a humanoid alien which landed on the silver screen to mixed reviews the following decade.

But then the whole book is peppered with snippets from lyrics which are woven into Sheffield’s easy-to read-narrative, turning it into something of a love letter from a lifelong follower.

Subtle, or not? Well, that depends on how big a Bowie fan the reader is. Some will find themselves playing their own mind games, remembering which songs are being plundered, while the more casual page turner might not even realise this obsessive, yet friendly, plagiarism is going on, assuming instead that Sheffield just has a quirky turn of phrase or two.

The best-selling American author’s name should be a familiar one to regular UK readers of Rolling Stone magazine where, as a contributing editor, he has been writing and sharing his thoughts about music, TV and pop culture for just a few months short of 20 years.

Apparently Sheffield’s next book is on The Beatles, but On Bowie, with its eye-catching Aladdin Sane-era lightning bolt cover, became an unanticipated and immediate work in progress when he was commissioned by phone the morning after his idol died back in January.

And while he bemoans that he never got to meet and interview the superstar himself, Sheffield does admit he has relied on – among many other sources from Melody Maker to Playboy magazine – his own Rolling Stone interviews over the years with the likes of Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and Stevie Nicks. Was it just a coincidence that the subject of Bowie’s music, lifestyle or cultural impact cropped up time and time again in his line of questioning?

The author was obviously not stuck for choice, wherever he sought his material, because the 22 chapters, concise and penetrating as they are, namecheck many celebrities from the music scene and beyond, each with their own observations either as Bowie collaborators or fans and, in many cases, as both.

As Sheffield suggests: ‘Whichever Bowie you loved best – the glam starman, the wispy balladeer, the Berlin archduke – he made you feel braver and freer, which is why the world felt different after you had heard Bowie. This man’s spaceship always knew which way to go.’

(Headline, hardback, £14.99)