Book Review: On Bowie by Rob Sheffield
Published shortly after David Bowie’s death in January 2016, Rob Sheffield’s On Bowie is a self-proclaimed “love letter to Bowie, a celebration of his life and his music” (4). Sheffield traces the development of Bowie’s career and stage persona(s), interspersing the book with his personal responses to Bowie’s music. He places Bowie’s songs within their socio-historical context and chooses anecdotes that capture the artist’s elusive public image. Sheffield’s book is not, nor does it claim to be, an objective biographical account of Bowie’s life. Heavily influenced by Sheffield’s attachment to the artist, On Bowie is clearly a book written by a fan for other fans.
One aspect that Sheffield does well is placing Bowie’s career in its socio-historical context, offering a captivating examination of the way Bowie’s songs both reflected their times and impacted the music industry. An analysis of “Space Oddity,” for instance, intertwines the historical circumstances of the Western society’s fascination with space with the musical influences of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to explain how the piece came to life – and why, according to Sheffield, Bowie’s career “would have been over” if “the astronauts had failed to survive their moon walk” in 1969 (40). Sheffield then goes on to describe how “no rock classic inspired so much fan fiction, from Peter Shilling’s ‘Major Tom (Coming Home)’ to Lou Reed’s ‘Satellite of Love’ to Marvin Gaye’s ‘A Funky Space Reincarnation’” (40), mapping out Bowie’s long-lasting impact on popular culture. Bowie did not create his works in a vacuum, and Sheffield does an excellent job of discussing both the context and the influence of Bowie’s music.
There are other engaging analyses in the book, such as Sheffield’s discussions of Bowie’s gender-bending, androgynous on-stage personas. Sheffield considers the ways in which Bowie “kept toying with gender in outrageous ways” (154). He discusses, for instance, the cover of The Man Who Sold the World (“Bowie poses in a dress (a ‘man’s dress,’ he explained), daringly unbuttoned [. . .] with his blond tresses flowing” (60)), showing how Bowie regularly “threatened” his masculinity on purpose and toyed with the society’s gender-related expectations, seeking controversy, influencing other musicians, and exploring every possible idea for himself. These parts of the book offer fascinating interpretations that might be especially interesting for people who had been following Bowie’s career and have seen Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane on stage.
While his analyses draw on extensive musical knowledge, Sheffield’s depiction of Bowie is clearly influenced by his personal attachment to the artist. His statements about Bowie can sometimes feel exaggerated, tinged with the author’s grief at Bowie’s passing. Sheffield calls Bowie “the greatest rock star who ever fell to this or any other world” (1) or writes: “the way [Bowie] changed the world—changed how we heard it, how we saw it—was written all over the sky” (31). Some chapters, such as “The Night David Bowie Died” (24-31), are mostly personal essays in which the author focuses on his own experiences and emotions. While Bowie’s fans might relate to Sheffield’s emotional essays and agree with his statements about Bowie being “the greatest rock star,” other readers might find these sections overly sentimental.
Sheffield also includes many allusions that are clearly meant to be understood only by people who know Bowie’s music well. Song lyrics become parts of the narrative. When Sheffield writes: “Engines on. Check ignition. And may God’s love be with you. Three. Two. One” (57), or “But the train never gets home. It’s too late” (125), a reader who is not familiar with the songs “Space Oddity” or “Station to Station” might understand these statements as Sheffield’s poetic additions rather than references to the lyrics. While the allusions might aid Sheffield in forming a connection with Bowie’s fans, less obvious references will likely go unnoticed by or confuse those readers who do not know Bowie’s songs by heart.
Rob Sheffield’s On Bowie is a book geared towards a very specific audience. The allusions and personal stories support Sheffield’s intention: he writes his “love letter” as Bowie’s lifelong fan, addressing it to other fans. In an interview with Pitchfork, Sheffield admits that writing On Bowie was meant to be a cathartic experience, and that he wrote it for “a community of fans around the world, people of different generations, different cultures” since “part of being in a community like that is learning to mourn together” (par. 7). For the community of fans, Sheffield’s book is a heartfelt and moving tribute. The more you love Bowie’s music and agree with the author’s opinion that Bowie was “the greatest rock star,” the more likely you are to enjoy this work. Those readers who are simply curious about Bowie and search for a book that might introduce them to his career should probably start elsewhere.
Anderson, Stacey. “How to Mourn an Icon: Rob Sheffield on the Brilliant David Bowie Book He Wrote in a Month.” Pitchfork July 1, 2016. LINK
Sheffield, Rob. On Bowie. Great Britain: Headline Publishing Group, 2016. Print.
A Polish Canadian pursuing an MSc in Publishing at Edinburgh Napier University. Graduated from Queen’s University (Canada) with a degree in English Language and Literature and a certificate in Academic Writing. Loves Inside Llewyn Davis, Peter Gabriel, and flat design.