Though many of us were moved to type a few words when we learned that David Bowie had died, Rob Sheffield went the distance.
The Rolling Stone journalist started writing on January 10, the night the dreadful news arrived, and didn't stop until he had written a book. On Bowie, published late last month, isn't an exhaustive biography, nor a discography, nor an exegesis. It's a book about how and why the correct response to Bowie was, and will remain, obsessive love. It's about what it is like to spend your whole life thinking intensely about Bowie's decisions, vicissitudes, triumphs, and failures as if they were integral facets of your own psyche. And now, half a year later, it's also about missing him, still missing him, even after all that love and intense thought.
Sheffield's first book, Love Is a Mixtape, was a monument to love and loss; it leans at the intersection of pop culture and the inner life like a white-painted bicycle frame installed lovingly at a tragic stop sign. No surprise, then, that he found a way to fill the resounding Bowie bereavement hollow with meaningful wit and analysis.
We spoke on the phone. It began as an actual interview, then devolved into just talking about Bowie records, a devolution I will always welcome.
Only about six months have elapsed since David Bowie's death. Had any of the material in this book been published before, or did you just go?
I just went. It started the night he died. I was up late that night. I was writing about the Golden Globe Awards, which seems really weird. It seemed weird then. I was planning on being up late. I was planning on writing a bunch of Empire jokes. I had a bunch of friends over, and they were watching the show and eating pizza. Then, I got a text at quarter of two with the sad news. I stayed up all night. I was writing a tribute for Rolling Stone, and kept writing after that. By the time I talked to my editor that morning, who'd just woken up to the news, she said, "What if you just wrote a book in a month?" I said I could because I've been at my desk just typing continuously about Bowie this entire time. A lot of it is music I've written about before. Probably ideas that I've irritated my friends intensely by blathering about in bars over the years.
Who among us hasn't irritated their friends with drunken grand organizing theories about David Bowie?
Some artists you obsess about your whole life. Then, you learn all these things about them that you didn't know. That, for me, was a big aspect of Bowie dying. Finding out that he lived with this diagnosis for 18 months and didn't tell anybody. He responded to this crisis by making music, music that was so powerful and beautiful and unlike anything he'd done before. Can you imagine finding out you had a year to live and thinking, "I think I'll spend it at work"?
And working incredibly hard, apparently. Obviously, studio days are long anyway. But from what I've read, these were 12—14 hour days, routinely. With complex, taxing music being written, played, figured out, all while beset by cancer treatments. I guess he tuned out the death anxiety by channeling it into work.
Absolutely. I feel like I kept learning so much about him since then. A lot of it was just talking to friends in the days after he died. It was funny how I didn't know... I can imagine it was probably the same in Seattle, where everywhere you went, there was Bowie playing. Just talking about him.
Everywhere. For weeks. Almost until Prince died months later, it seems like.
I was blown away by how much I kept learning about the different aspects of David Bowie that meant so much to people. Things that, to them, were like what Bowie was. Whether it was the theater work, the painting, the movies, the mime. Aspects of David Bowie's career that I thought of as just footnotes that were huge for people. I kept cracking up because after loving David Bowie all these years, I'm learning all this stuff about him now. I don't know why it seems to be a surprise, but it's beautiful for me.
What struck me most, aside from my personal sense of loss, was the collective response. Maybe this is overstated, but this year is riddled with the death of significant people. Does it force you to think about what it means to lose people you don't know?
Yes, and to ask what it means to mourn with a fan community. The idea that Bowie was an artist who, whether consciously or not, created a community of people around the world—different generations, different cultures, different personality types, who heard aspects of themselves in David Bowie and felt very communal about that. That was something that he was aware of, and something that he seemed to be aware of in an album like Blackstar, where he's basically writing songs knowing that they will be used by a community to help them grieve.
Which was and is such a gift. But also such a perfect artistic calculation.
It's just astonishing on every level. As we've seen with Prince and with Merle Haggard, even with Muhammad Ali, these are public figures who are part of our lives, and something we do as fans is grieve as a community.
Something I thought about really intensely in the months after Bowie died, and it became even more pronounced when Prince died, was the idea that we live in a time when there isn't exactly a mass audience anymore. This fan community you're talking about, part of what makes that exist is that these guys, Bowie and Prince, were huge artists. Even if they weren't everyone's favorite, everyone knew who they were. That kind of fame just isn't available to musicians the way it used to be. You still have a handful of pop stars, but even that seems like a different proposition.
And the way Bowie treated that kind of fame, as an instrument to play and play with—he was really decades ahead of his time with that. I think we're in a time where pop stars think of that as the main perk of the job. For Bowie, it was an aspect that he used for himself. It's funny, I think about artists like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, who are consciously seeing themselves as doing something new every record. They're not going to do what they did last year. They're going to do something different, and it's going to be a big party statement that will reflect another step of their growth, and end up there. They see themselves as changing. They see that as part of their job. To me, it seems like David Bowie was way ahead of the rest of the pop-star community, in terms of seeing that as a creative opportunity.
I often wonder if people like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift have to change now, because time moves so much faster now. If they don't, if they repeat themselves in any way, they're just screwed.
When Taylor Swift put out her last album, 1989, which had all these big pop songs on it... It's funny that I thought so much of my niece, who is a hardcore teenage Taylor Swift fan who plays acoustic guitar because of Taylor Swift, and started writing songs because of her because she was so into the "girl alone with her guitar" aspect of Taylor Swift, it's funny that while I was listening to 1989, I kept wondering whether she was going to lose my niece. I wonder if she's going to say, "This isn't my Taylor Swift." The album came out, and I'm texting with my niece, and she's like, "What are you talking about? This is the greatest album ever." This is a bold statement to make. She didn't want Taylor Swift to make the same album again. It was startling for me that Taylor Swift had made a completely different album the fourth time in a row. Yet, for my niece, that was something that she would have felt left out if Taylor hadn't done that.
Those can be read by your niece as just part of what she expects from her favorite artist. But the differences between Bowie's albums Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, Young Americans, Station to Station were not just sonic or image-based, but structural. Not just, well, you might not like this as much as you liked the last one. More like: Here's an almost totally different language you didn't even know rock 'n' roll could speak. Which was incredibly risky to do at that time. Do you think that risk was what he was prized for?
I think so. It's really weird to think of how consistently he refused to repeat proven successes that he had. All the sure shots he could have done to get a virtually guaranteed hit, yet he consistently opted not to do that. Over the course of five years, six years, 20 years. It's astonishing to me. I would have been delighted if he had made Station to Station 20 times over the next 20 years...
Right, yes! But also, it's not like he was trying not to have hits by throwing all these stylistic curveballs. He was performing the role of a rock star, and a rock star is one who makes hits. So he made them. It was a complete reversal of the way it's understood to work. The mass-ness of the audience was the touch that really made it art.
One of the perceived aspects of Bowie that has been interesting to write about, and to strip away, is that his radical records weren't commercial hits. The mystique that's collected around an album like Low is: commercial suicide. It was a huge hit, on both sides of the ocean. It was a massive commercial success. Station to Station was a massive, massive success in the US and the UK. These were what we think of as crazy risks, but you can't accuse him of not taking care of that aspect of it. But I think you're right. It was: "Whatever I do, it'll be a hit."
[A (much) longer version of this interview can be found at thestranger.com/music]
It's amazing how long he kept that up. It requires a very open mind, or possibly just being a generation or two later to appreciate the similarities between all his different phases. That's why a book like yours is so useful—it's about the artist that unified so many disparate impulses. Do you think you would have written a book about him eventually had he not died?
It's funny because it's someone I've already written about so many times, the most times, along with the Beatles and Bob Dylan. When I was first talking about this book with my editor, the morning after he died, she was like, "You do squeeze a Bowie chapter into any book you write, no matter what your topic is." I'm like, "Guilty as charged." Just because of that level of obsession, he's always sounding different to me. I'm always hearing different things in him. It's informed by his death because of the public aspect—because I kept learning so much that I thought I already knew. I thought I knew which of my friends were Bowie freaks. I thought I knew which things they worshipped about him. Nope! I was stunned, day after day, to find out that for somebody it's all about that stage, or that fashion statement... I don't know about you, but I never gave a fuck about Labyrinth! I was a teenager when that movie came out. I barely registered it even happened. I was like "Okay, there's a Muppet movie with David Bowie."
I saw it at the Westlake Theater the day it came out and multiple times afterward. I had the soundtrack on vinyl. I had the poster. Still have them. I also saw the Glass Spider tour. I didn't ask to be born!
Wow, I think you may be the only person I know who saw the Glass Spider tour! I saw the video, like the rest of us; the video was...
I think you could safely argue it wasn't his finest hour. That whole period really, from Tonight through, maybe Black Tie White Noise or something, was pretty rough. There were some good songs along the way, but all his calculations just seemed to misfire. Maybe he was playing on too big a stage?
I wonder what it was. It's a terra incognita that's never really been explained, but it's obviously a lot of really bad stuff going on, in his personal life, misfiring, making such uncharacteristic mistakes. While writing this book, I said, "You know what? I'm going to go back in time and rediscover what was going on with Tin Machine. I'm going to have a hot take that Tin Machine was pretty good! I'm going to find the buried treasure in that WWII battlefield."
It was really surprising to go back to those records, like, wow! These are exactly as bad as we all thought they were at the time. I was originally going to have a Tin Machine chapter, just two sentences: "Tin Machine happened. They weren't very good." But I just couldn't. It might be just one sentence in the book. It's really weird how, at the time, that was such a debacle. Like a lot of stuff from that 10-year period that you cited, his failures really were received bitterly by people. People were angry about those in a way that I don't think people get angry about music now. I don't even think it's an option.
It's hard to feel betrayed by people who aren't as significant to so many people. Artists always matter to the people they matter to, but I think collective significance is harder for musicians to achieve now. No one's going to be screaming Judas when, like, Bon Iver goes electric or whatever. They'll just click on another link. It is interesting, though, the way Bowie's missteps, musically and culturally, didn't really happen until he was at the top of the mountain. You can't get that much bigger than "Let's Dance" and "Modern Love" were at that time. Or even "Blue Jean," which I will always love.
Great song, I love it.
But just not anything else on that record, really, right? Maybe "Loving the Alien." There were always moments. But all of a sudden, after a decade of being infallible, he was just... wrong. He wasn't there. How connected were you to his '90s stuff? Have you lived with those records all along? Or did you have to go back to them?
Earthling is one. That was a big change for me. The '90s records, there was that whole period that you marked out, from Tonight to White Tie Black Noise which seemed like, every time he's putting out a new record, it was an irritation to the way we wanted to like David Bowie. Lots of my friends love Buddha of Suburbia, and I just don't like that record at all. I still don't. I wonder if it's just a London thing. People usually have a hot take, like "his unsung masterpiece from the early '90s!" It just sounds like a bad experiment to me. But I still remember the day I put on the tape of Earthling. I completely loved that album even though I was snickering the first time through at how bad the production was, and how it was trying so hard to be something that it... should have optimally happened eight or 10 months earlier. The songs really came through, and there was clearly unmistakable passion, unmistakable turmoil. He was trying for something. It wasn't like floundering about looking for something that would stick. The songs were actually there. Like "Dead Man Walking."
My favorite, by far.
Oh, man. This is always something I would pontificate about to my friends in bars, and they would drift away until I stopped, for years, during his sort of quiet late years, especially until he made The Next Day: Why doesn't he just go in with the band, just for a week, and redo the songs just from those two albums? Earthling and Hours. Those are full of good songs, and you kinda can't tell people to listen to them. Even at the time, it was really weird to tell people, "No, this new David Bowie record is really good, I'm not kidding this time." Especially because, at that point, everybody was used to every new David Bowie album being marketed as "He's back!" He's working with Eno again! Or he's working with a filmmaker! He's working with Nile Rogers again! There was always this level of hype that people instinctively guarded against, because they've been burned too many times. When Earthling and Hours were so good—it's crazy, in retrospect, what commercial bombs they were, when consumer desire to buy physical copies of rock albums was at a staggering historical peak. People were willing to buy all sorts of albums. David Bowie, who was so incredibly famous, could not convince people to pay for these albums that were genuinely doing something.
Meanwhile, they/we had no hesitation to buy reissues of his classic albums.
Totally, totally. Probably more than ever. Station to Station probably sold more copies in 1999 than it had in many years. I didn't realize that Hours was such a bomb until I went back and looked at the charts. I guess, you know, he was a musical guest on Saturday Night Live, so somebody must have been paying attention. Wow! You didn't even make the top 40 with this album, which is his lowest-charting album since his pre–"Space Oddity" tapes. This is an album that should have sounded commercial.
It's funny. There was a tribute here at a DIY spot, Silent Barn, in Bushwick. There were 10 bands, and each one got up and did a different song from the Labyrinth soundtrack. And they did the soundtrack in order. (A) I'm sorry that you weren't there, but (b) this is a corner of David Bowie's career that could not be more obscure to me, but it's funny that this was a corner of David Bowie's career that was momentous for aspects of his audience that I overlap with. That there's still so much unearthing and reclaiming to do, despite that we've all been doing so much of it for six months.
Such a body of work. I'm attracted to the idea that the knowledge that he was dying allowed him to return to the state of having something to fight for, something to prove, artistically. The last several years of his life—happy, normal, rich, heterosexual, wearing a suit—it's not that surprising that he might not have had to dig too deep. The artistic impulses were removed from outsiderness. Meanwhile, with Blackstar, he knows it's the last thing he's ever going to say, if he even gets the chance to finish it! And he really did make a record that was necessary. It feels meaningful, it feels important. It feels like a David Bowie record for real. And you can't imagine it having gone another way. You can't imagine anyone else pulling it off.
The word you said, "necessary," I think that really hits it on the head. This wasn't one anybody had been talking about, or listening to. I'm jealous you got a week. I didn't get the advance. I got it the day it came out, and we're lucky we got it a few days when it was just this incredible new David Bowie record. It was his 69th birthday record, which was the narrative we had all kind of erected around it, for kicks, for two-and-a-half days. I remember talking with my wife that day, we were listening to the Blackstar song that we had been listening to for months at that point, and she was like, "This is a top-five Bowie album, and the title song, 'Blackstar'? This is a top-three Bowie Song." I was like, "That's a really bold statement."
...and yet it was like: This is very special. I went that night, it was his 69th birthday. I mention this in the book that we went to see Tony Visconti's tribute band, Holy Holy with Woody from the Spiders from Mars, and they were doing The Man Who Sold the World all the way through. It was Friday night, it was bitterly cold, it was a very bitter, wintery New York night, it was the kind of thing where we bought tickets that day. It wasn't sold out. It was funny that we were the younger people there. Which is sort of a rare experience for me at a music event. It was mostly people who had been on the case since this album, The Man Who Sold the World, people who had been fans since the '70s. The setup: We're all standing in the floor at the Highland Ballroom with all these strangers, and everybody's talking about Blackstar, which had just come out that day. All these conversations like "Aw, did you get to that song about like, 'Where the fuck did Monday go?'"
I remember thinking: Isn't it amazing that David Bowie has created this kind of community where I feel so lucky to be standing in a room full of strangers I've never seen before and will never see again, that are here mostly because they love this one album he made nearly 50 years ago, and they're here to celebrate music they loved in the '70s and '80s. We're about to have this experience with Tony Visconti and the singer from Heaven 17, and yet we are all talking about this album that he made, that we all heard for the first time today. It's a record that is so challenging and is so radically different. At that point, none of us knew it was his last album, but it was such an electric buzz of excitement to be in that room full of strangers who were clearly all there because of a very long-term Bowie love.
Although everybody knew all the words to all the songs on The Man Who Sold the World, it was amazing beforehand to have all these conversations about the new album, and it was funny how many conversations, and texts, and social media interactions I had over the weekend with friends who I think of in the category of "music friends who don't listen to new music anymore." It was funny how many people were like, "Yeah, I bought this album this weekend." And it was a friend of mine in London who I've known since freshman year of college—a fellow Bowie freak I go back to my teens with—and he was like, "I had this CD sitting there on my table when I got the news. It's been a while since I've actually bought a physical CD." The experience of sharing this music as a celebration of Bowie's life.
Tony Visconti had us sing—well everyone was not-so-secretly hoping that Bowie might show up; it's his 69th birthday, and it was his friend Tony Visconti, and he'd just made an album with this guy that was released that day, and it was in New York. Allie kept saying, "Even if there's a .1 percent chance he might show up, we have to go because we'll feel like idiots if we don't." It was funny, he just had to mention a couple of times that David was not going to be at this event. When he had us sing "Happy Birthday" into his phone, and he texted it to David Bowie, I was up close enough that I was looking intently at the screen of his phone and he hit the little button, and the little cloud moved up, and I was like "Okay. He really did it. He wasn't lying." It seemed like too much of a showbiz thing to do, but he sent on something and I saw that little cloud move up; I knew he was not lying!
Of course you couldn't listen to anyone else for a while after he died, but I actually found myself going to Blackstar way more than going back to Hunky Dory, or even Lodger, the ones that were my real favorites. Blackstar is so dense with mystery, but also it's comforting to hear him addressing the very thing that you're concerned about, death. It may be that the way he achieved being contemporary again, obviously inadvertently, was by dying, and making a record about it. Even the packaging is in keeping with the theme. It's just a total masterpiece, if he had died and his last record had been The Next Day, where you're more happy that it exists than you are invested in the record itself, it would have made the loss more acute. But Blackstar is Bowie at his absolute artistic peak. It just makes it all the more beautiful. The good kind of heartbreaking.
I don't mean to put it this way, but he was capable of emotional warmth and generosity beyond what even the most hardcore fans would have fantasized. Listening to that album after he died, it's hard not to think he was thinking of us while he was going through this unbelievably, I'm sure physically and emotionally devastating year, he was making music for us, and thinking about what we were going to go through, and thinking of us. That, to me, is just kind of astonishing just because, a very typical thing for Bowie Freaks, we feel a personal connection. Oh, he really gets us. There's that kind of personal connection, and to have such a tangible proof that fantasy was so much realer than even the most delusional of us would have fantasized... Really, that he had a year left to live and was making music that feels very much like that his community was who he made it for.
When you consider how he could have dealt with the knowledge he was dying, the way he could have gone confessional or autobiographical, or like, peeling away any of the private, enigmatic layers that he leaves absolutely intact. It's so true to his voice. Wherever his aesthetic went over the decades, the one thing he never did was fully lower the mask. It's not like "I'm scared of death, I have cancer, I don't know how long it's going to be, please don't abandon me, whatever." It was a much bigger metaphysical project.
Like you said, it's so dense, and so playful and funny. It doesn't feel compressed. The Next Day, yeah, things are packed in. "Yeah, this is what I had in me, 12 short songs with like verses and choruses." You know, I love The Next Day, I listen to it more than—a lot of my Bowie friends, maybe like six months after it came out were like, "Yeah. That wasn't very good. It wasn't as good as it should have been." I was a little grumpy about that. I think it's absolutely true what you said, overall, whether you loved the album, or you liked it or didn't: Isn't it great that he was still doing something?
With Blackstar there's none of that, and it's impossible to impose that narrative onto it. Going back and wanting to listen to that one—not the one I loved when I was 15, or the one I loved when I was 19, or the one I loved when I was 35. I want to hear the one he made for me, and that he made for us and that he made for us at this particular point. We wanted to listen to the new album before we knew it was the last album. Even before we knew it was the last album, we wanted to listen to it. It was strange and surprising after the fact, but it was the new one that we wanted to listen to.