When 2016 finally comes to an end, it will forever be remembered as a year marred by the deaths of some of our greatest artists. Alan Vega, Bernie Worrell, Ralph Stanley, Maurice White, Phife Dawg, Blowfly, Prince… even without adding legends outside the realm of music like Muhammad Ali, the list is too long. And of course we began the year by losing David Bowie to cancer just days after he celebrated turning 69 with the release of one of his most memorable albums, Blackstar.
In the days that followed, it seemed impossible for someone not to have been affected by Bowie’s death in at least some small way. People I never thought would be Bowie fans took to social media to express their grief, and I even heard from a high school girlfriend, with whom I saw Bowie in 1990 on the Sound & Vision tour, after more than 20 years of not being in touch. On a personal level, I was struck by how odd it was to be affected so strongly by the death of someone that I had never met.
But why shouldn’t his loss feel personal? Having listened to Bowie’s records countless times for most of my life, it’s hard not to feel like I knew him, as I’m sure is the case for so many people. That Bowie seemingly spoke to and for so many (the so-called “misfits” of the world) is indicative of the transcendent power he possessed. It is this transcendence that fuels Rob Sheffield’s On Bowie (Dey Street Books).
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting Sheffield, his love of music and pop culture is obvious. Rather than the jaded rock critic one might expect someone with his credentials to be, Sheffield is effusive with his zeal for all manners of pop music, and that enthusiasm has come through in past books like Love Is a Mix Tape and Talking to Girls About Duran Duran. As you might gather, he is something of a true believer and a romantic.
Not long after Bowie’s death, Sheffield was asked if he could turn around a book on the Thin White Duke in a month. A lifelong fan, he dove into the project, coming out the other side with On Bowie. Part biography, part critique, and part personal reflection, the book is brimming with Sheffield’s passion for his subject. In many ways, the tight deadline may have worked to Sheffield’s advantage. There is a fervor as he goes through Bowie’s body of work in chronological order to divine meaning and intent, examine Bowie’s development as an artist, and elucidate the brilliance of his own favorite songs. He no doubt brought a lot of accumulated knowledge to the project as he recalls favorite anecdotes which, never captured before the internet age, may have otherwise gone forgotten. Having such tidbits at his fingertips also gives the book a fluidity that more scholarly Bowie bios have lacked.
Indeed, it is Sheffield’s natural familiarity with his subject that breathes life into On Bowie. That Sheffield was up late at night with a Bowie mix already in his tape deck when news of the singer’s passing first surfaced is indicative of the kind of fan he is. He’s the kind who knows the accepted lyrics of some songs may not be what was actually sung. The kind who can pinpont the exact reasons why he likes and dislikes late-period albums. The kind who can make semiotic connections between songs from disparate portions of Bowie’s lengthy discography. The kind who understands the enormity of Bowie’s existence in all its permutations. We may not ever completely get over Bowie’s death, and Sheffield gets that too: On Bowie is a fevered eulogy that contextualizes our universal grief and puts into words why Bowie meant—and will always mean—so much.