Arts & Culture

Book examines David Bowie’s life, career

New biography,‘On Bowie,’ documents rare creativity of one of music’s most enduring figures

Contributing Writer
Thursday, October 13, 2016

Rolling Stone contributor Rob Sheffield gives a compelling analysis of the musical evolution of David Bowie following the artist’s death in January.

“The world will always be full of David Bowie.”

In his latest book, Rolling Stone contributor Rob Sheffield chronicles the colorful artistic ventures and personal life of the elusive cultural icon. “On Bowie” is a heartfelt tribute to one of the writer’s personal heroes, extending beyond the realm of traditional autobiography to include personal anecdotes that flavor the interpretation of the man known to many as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke. By chronicling the different stages of Bowie’s career, Sheffield begins to tease out a narrative that has remained enigmatic to many, both in and outside of the music industry.

Sheffield strikes a particularly powerful chord with his individual assessments of various Bowie songs. His descriptions of tracks like “Fame,” “Young Americans” and “Heroes” not only illustrate the stylistic changes that Bowie adopted during different time periods but also map out their influence on popular culture.

Sheffield establishes a connection between the personal and the public, exploring the idea that our interpretations of music transform constantly with time; as we grow older, our visions of the world change, including our perceptions of art and beauty. Sheffield argues that Bowie was not only able to identify this phenomenon, perhaps most notably in the 1977 track  “Sound And Vision,” but also fully embodied and embraced it, “trying on different personalities” to alter his experiences of different environments.

One of the most interesting interpretative moves Sheffield makes is using Bowie’s legacy to deepen our understanding of contemporary music and our appreciation of artists like Kanye West and Lana Del Rey. This is a worthy perspective, but it reveals some of the flaws in the writer’s argument — Bowie is certainly not the only musical teacher that future generations can learn from. Both here and at other points in the book, Sheffield tends to make oversimplified and dramatic exaggerations regarding Bowie’s influence, which seem to be slightly over-reaching attempts to justify his personal sadness at the artist’s passing. In this way, “On Bowie,” while vivid and entertaining, can appear to be too much of a writer’s cathartic struggle to mourn a lost hero.

The book’s short chapter format complements Bowie’s shifts in musical phase and aesthetic and lends itself to a fast rhythm. But this can sometimes compromise the level of detail and explanation that is offered and contributes to a generally rushed feeling. For example, Sheffield only touches upon Bowie’s relationship with his former wife Angie and fails to explore how this may have influenced his creative output. This typically works to Sheffield’s advantage due to the sheer familiarity of a great deal of information about Bowie. The lesser known facts and stories, such as his friendship with the guitarist Slash’s mother, deserve further exploration.

Ultimately, “On Bowie” is a fitting personal tribute to one of the world’s most enduring and influential artists. Sheffield radiates a gentle warmth in his writing, treating Bowie with a compassion that seeks to understand his few points of contact with the world as it is known to the listeners, observers and admirers of the musician. By documenting and exploring the shifts in Bowie’s career, Sheffield begins to personalize the theme of constant change, helping to make sense of Bowie’s slippery nature and what it teaches us about our own lives.

He best captures Bowie’s puzzling charm by describing a conversation with the Daily Express in 1976. When asked about his opinions on his quiet former persona David Jones, Bowie simply stated, “I still like him if I could only get in touch with him. We’ve been apart for a long time.”