You Won't Be Sorry

If I ever had to knock out a book on Neil Young in a month--which I absolutely couldn’t do, but put that aside--I know how the book would end: I’d be lying in a burned-out basement, with the full moon in my eyes, trying to figure out whether, no matter how profoundly a few albums of his entered my life four decades ago, I’d actually be a happier person today if I’d never heard of Neil Young. I think I might be. Rob Sheffield’s On Bowie, which he wrote in a month and is about how profoundly a few albums of his entered Rob’s life almost three decades ago (technically it’s about Bowie’s life and death and music, too, plus Casey Kasem, of course), ends with Rob and his wife at a “Bowie jam session sing-along dance party” in a bar at the edge of the Mojave Desert, where Rob dances and screams and falls in love with everyone in the room. I don’t think there’s a single image that would better sum up Rob’s books (the last three, anyway) better than a Bowie jam session sing-along dance party in a bar at the edge of the Mojave Desert. I mean that in the best way possible. I’ve detailed my own schizophrenic relationship to David Bowie here and elsewhere. The very short version: from a Changesone fan in high school (lasted about...five years), to scorn and ridicule (the next 20), to this really weird place where I’d qualify my antipathy with a footnote about these four or five or eight songs I thought were the greatest thing ever (the last decade). But still very much a non-convert, and genuinely puzzled by the outpour- ing of...feeling when he died earlier this year. So my guess is that, whereas most people familiar with Love Is a Mix Tape and Talking to Girls About Duran and Turn Around Bright Eyes will pick up On Bowie thinking “I’d read Rob on anything, especially David Bowie,” with me it’s more like “I’d read Rob on anything, even David Bowie.” I mean that in the best way possible. I finished On Bowie in a day, which a voracious reader even wouldn’t bother mentioning, but for me that’s something. (Three books I remember devouring at the same speed: the first Bill James Historical Abstract, Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revoultion, and Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On.) It’s a self-proclaimed “love letter to Bowie,” and it is, but it’s not uncritical: the second half of the ‘80s gets a somewhat sympathetic but unam- biguously pointed dismissal (“He was excited about his Web site” is a perfectly dry sum- mation), and there’s a chapter on a couple of mid-‘70s controversies, one real and one manufactured (I have only vague memories of the real one), that’s very fair and far from apologetic. I don’t want to make the book sound more high-minded and less guileless and awestruck than it is...and I mean that in the best way possible. The structure is both chronological and playfully fragmentary--maybe a tribute to Rob’s favourite Bowie (or any other) album, Low--and it’s a great book to read with YouTube close at hand, where you can find all the old clips Rob lovingly details. (Soul Train, 1975: “First there’s an agonizing Q&A with the audience; Bowie mutters at the floor until a worried-looking Don Cornelius says, ‘Okay, David, I think we have to move on’”--I can verify that this is all true, punctuated by Bowie laughing painfully awkwardly at four or five of his own jokes that no one else gets.) On Bowie is also, as it needs to be, a book that completely understands the ‘70s. Another clip, also from 1975, Bowie and Cher rambling through an oldies medley on Cher’s variety show: “They’re trying to sum up rock and roll history, tramping and thieving through the fifties and sixties, yet there’s nothing not seventies about it...” I can verify that this is all true--only in 1975 would two of the world’s three most garish pop stars decide that Three Dog Night and “Song Sung Blue” belonged in an oldies medley alongside the Crystals. So: does On Bowie make me go all bipperty-bopperty and come out the other side as a true believer? That’s a bridge I just can’t cross, but the book certainly makes me wish I could. Rob says that Bowie’s five-LP sequence that begins with Station to Station in 1976 and ends with Scary Monsters in 1980 is “the best five-album run of anyone in the seventies (or since).” No surprise: conceding I only own the first two of those five, and only know a handful of songs from the others, and also that I’m not an album guy by disposition, I’d easily give the nod there to Neil Young from After the Gold Rush to Zuma, which--ignoring Journey Through the Past--encompasses six albums, and can be stretched to seven if you include 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. (Except for “Heroes,” all my favourite Bowie songs date between ’71 and ’74, plus a couple of mid-‘60s singles by the Lower Third.) Not to mention the Beatles, and Bob Dylan, and Husker Du, and countless other people who’ve had five-album sequences that mean more to me. The heroic ability to connect with lost high school misfits that Rob finds in Bowie, again, for me that was Neil. And there’s a 1972 appearance on Top of the Pops, where Bowie performs “Starman” with Mick Ronson at his side and the usual conglomerate of gently swaying British teenagers in the background, that Rob convincingly identifies as the Sun Sessions of Brit-Pop for two or three generations to fol- low. From the quotes that Rob assembles, and the way he's able to conjure up the moment so beautifully (“the bassist with the bleached muttonchops, the befuddled-looking dancing boy in the sweater vest, the Asian fangirl in the pink prom dress...”), it’s obviously an ep- ochal, career-making performance. For me, it’s a pleasant version of a song I’m mostly indifferent to--I did like how it was used in The Martian. Two clips of the same vintage that move me in the same ways that “Starman” moves Rob: Rod Stewart (reading off a lyric sheet) doing “You Wear it Well” on TOTP in 1972 and, also TOTP, Slade romping through “Merry X'mas Everybody” a couple of years later. If I could live inside any video clip ever, those would be my first two picks. They’re all of a piece--Rob’s love for the “Starman” clip brings me back to Slade and Rod Stewart, and that’s worth quite a lot. I’ll finish with my favourite throwaway line in the whole book, from a moment where Rob and one of his grade-eight friends are listening to M’s “Pop Muzik” and searching hard for clues, convinced that it’s Bowie who’s behind this mysterious and seemingly anonymous record: “nobody knew a thing about this M, or as Casey Kasem called him, ‘the man who bills himself as the thirteenth letter of the alphabet.’” To remember something like that, and to understand why, 37 years later, it absolutely has to be quoted--and even if Rob dreamed the whole thing up, it’s still the most Casey Kasem- like remark I’ve ever come across, to a degree that I can hear it in his voice like he’s saying it right now--that’s why I raced through On Bowie in a day.

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