The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: Rob Sheffield's 'On Bowie'

Mary Lucia reads 'On Bowie'
Mary Lucia reads 'On Bowie' in The Current studio (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Here's an assignment. Your favorite crap-your-pants musician of all time has just died. Please crank out a book on his fascinating life, career, and gut-wrenching surprise passing.

Oh — and you have only a month to do it.

This is exactly what Rob Sheffield tackled, in under 200 pages, in his recent book On Bowie. It reads like a glorious love letter to an artist who shaped who we would become as music fans, bartenders, dropouts, writers, DJs, actors, musicians, misfits, plumbers, cab drivers, and strippers. At his best, Bowie helped us imagine who we could become.

It starts with the January night those who were still awake learned that the man who had just celebrated his 69th birthday two days earlier, and on the same day released an epic album (Blackstar) that we were all still feverishly listening to, had left this earth.

Sheffield poignantly describes his concern for breaking this awful news to his sleeping wife. Kindly, he justified not waking her by deciding he would instead let her sleep one more night in a world that had Bowie in it.

Mind blown. I can't tell you how many of my friends expressed this same sentiment to me, not wanting to blow up my phone with this kind of unthinkable personal news. As Bowie freaks for life, yes, we all did take this one very personally.

While devouring On Bowie it was most compelling to discover how the author would navigate trying to cover a life so colorful and dark in so short a time. Authors writing such books normally spend years of their lives to covering a subject top to bottom.

It's clear that Sheffield is a devout Bowie fan (we can spot our own kind a mile away) — so it's not hard to imagine him, under different circumstances and deadlines, spending years to write the definitive opus. Maybe, in a way, that's what makes this read so enjoyable: the speed with which it was written took some of the pressure off of us as readers, and off of Sheffield: Don't agonize about writing the perfect summation, just let it rip from your own feelings and experiences as a lifelong fan.

What Sheffield did do in 192 pages was to weave lyrics from Bowie's songs into his story, tying everything up in a perfect "I'll never hear that song the same way" kind of glittery bow.

Naturally after an artist passes away it's easy to look back at their body of work and see how prophetic it all seems now. A huge takeaway for me is that Bowie never thought of himself as an innovator or shape-shifter, as all observers have been known to describe him. Rather, he pointed out that he nicked things from every artist he ever loved. Admitting being a thief makes him more relatable somehow. It also remains clear that whatever he stole, he put his own mojo on it.

Even while hustling to be a well-known star outside of the UK, Bowie always championed other artists he personally loved, either by writing for them or producing them. (Lou Reed, Iggy Pop; in later years, TV On The Radio and Arcade Fire.)

Highlighting his gender-bending admission of meeting his first wife, Angela, when they were shagging the same dude seems charming and comical now. To think that he came out as a gay (bisexual, he later clarified) man only five years after being an admitted homosexual stopped being a criminal offense in England seems all the more remarkable. He used his own power and ideas of desire to draw an audience of like-minded kids struggling for their own gender identities.

The snippy competition between Bowie and Marc Bolan which saw Bowie opening for T. Rex not as a musician but as a mime is interesting dish. They eventually got over their peacock rivalry and became friends.

Sheffield revisits the public train-wreck phases Bowie went through, his blow-fueled daytime TV chat show appearances, his subsisting-on-nothing-but-milk-and-hot-peppers period, his movie career (which he doesn't always remember participating in). Kicking drugs with Iggy in Berlin. His awkward appearances on Soul Train and Cher's variety show. Bing Crosby! Dinah Shore! Don Cornelius! Dick Cavett! You will be YouTubing all of these, I promise.

We're reminded all of the different David Bowie incarnations: the London Boy, the Queen Bitch Who Sold the World, Major Tom, DJ, the Starman, the Thin White Duke, the Cracked Actor, the ones we loved and the ones we wanted to love but just couldn't latch onto. Finally, the book returns to Bowie's original creation, David Jones. The man who finally found true love with Iman, had a family and, unimaginably, managed to gracefully fly under the radar.

Ultimately, Bowie kept the greatest secret of all to a small group of loved ones. He knew he was leaving us. Whether consciously or not, Bowie taught us all how to hear his old records in a new way. In what was perhaps his greatest parting gift, he managed to teach us how to live in a world without him.

"Give me your hand, I'll help you with the pain, you're not alone, cuz you're wonderful."

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