9:33 am Jul. 12, 20101
In November, 2003, I was fortunate enough to get to meet the members of Duran Duran, backstage, after a concert they’d given at the China Club in Manhattan. The set list that night, part of what was billed as their “25th Anniversary Tour,” saw these five great men (the law firm of Taylor, Taylor, Taylor, Rhodes, and le Bon) reach stoically into their best-known songs and pluck for us lucky listeners lowest-hanging fruit: “Planet Earth,” “Hungry like the Wolf,” “Come Undone,” “What Happens Tomorrow,” “Anyone Out There?,” “Beautiful Colours,” “Save A Prayer,” “Notorious,” “Wild Boys, “Careless Memories,” “Rio,” “White Lines,” and “Girls On Film.” They could hardly be said to have taxed the crowd with too much new material. That said, they were terrific live—they reminded me of a rock band, rather than a bunch of coiffed New Romantics—and later, when I met them, I was delighted to find they were, almost to a man, charming and down-to-planet-earth.
I grew up near Birmingham, just as most of the band did, and there we were in New York, bonding over which bits of the second biggest city in England they were from (“ooh, Acock’s Green,” one of them said, referring to a south-eastern suburb and not an STD); others mentioned Moseley; Castle Bromwich, where they make all the cars, and, most comically, Hollywood, which really is a suburb of what we called Brum. Turning to the greatest of them all, lead singer Simon le Bon, I innocently asked, “And are you from Birmingham too, Simon?”
“Birmingham?” he sniffed. “No. I’m a Hugenot.”
In retrospect I only wish I’d had the charming Rob Sheffield at my side, and not just because I gather he’s taller than le Bon. Mr. Sheffield’s new book, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, reveals him to be one of the funniest, and—let’s say it—sweetest narrators around, and I can imagine that faced with the pretentious Mr. Hugenot, he would have punctured the self-regard (not to mention the non sequitur) with something memorable, like this line from the book:
[You look like] a blond coat hanger with a dead rock star hanging from it.
Even though this zinger is re: David Bowie, it would surely have served us both perfectly backstage at the China Club—I could have masked my retching with laughter, and hopefully Mr. “the Good” would have been so flummoxed as to not notice me laughing, nor challenge Mr. Sheffield to wrestle. (Elsewhere Sheffield writes, “he has always claimed Simon le Bon is his real name.")
Wrestling features in one terrific early chapter of Talking to Girls About Duran Duran. Despite his size, Mr. Sheffield sadly admits, “my wrestling career record was 0-14.” This may have something to do with his adolescent physique, which he describes as “very tall, bony, stretched out like a sweatsock that had just been used as a gorilla condom. . . . I was below featherweight, bantamweight, chickenweight—somewhere near a shameweight.” It may also have been to do with his sweetness, as said before; you can’t escape it; everywhere you read in Talking to Girls About Duran Duran you smack up against a man who comes off as the nicest, most self-effacing guy you’ll ever meet, even if you don’t agree with his general point that the one of the only ways to bridge the gender gap is to speak the same musical language as women, or his later, specific point, that, like Madonna, women can be “needy . . . and pushy.”
Despite such very rare bum notes, this is a man you could only wish was your friend. His first memoir, Love is a Mix Tape, snuck up on most of us when it was published in 2006—heck, I even worked at the publishing house that sent it out into the world, and to my shame I didn’t read it when it first came out. That since remedied, I can easily see why it has gathered such a fervent following, as evidenced by a stint on The New York Times bestseller list. Mr. Sheffield never tries to do much more than tell a good short story well; he’s not one for the artificially melodramatic, nor even the long-winded. And it’s not as if he doesn’t have material, sadly.
In Love is a Mix Tape, he tells us up front that Renee, the woman to whom he was married for nearly six years beginning in their 20s, and with whom he shared a love of music so profound that they “depended on it to keep them together,” well, Renee falls victim to a heartbreaking fate. Not for Rob Sheffield, though, the big, three-quarter point reveal; that’s too much like artifice, and as a result there isn’t a trace of maudlin on any one of its 220 pages.
Instead, Rob tells us as early as page 14 of Love is a Mix Tape exactly what happened to Renee, and with that unbearably bare paragraph in our back pockets, he frees us to laugh and weep all we like through his paean to the centerpiece of the music lover’s life, that of the mix tape of the title.
And he frees us to relate, too. In both books you want to be his pal because you already feel like his pal; or maybe that’s just me. Mr. Sheffield and I are about the same age, if my math is correct; we’re both Catholics, both now living in Brooklyn; both grew up listening to '80s pop; both had dominant sisters; both both both. The key difference (apart from the fact that I'm 5'9'' on a good day) is that I grew up in the country, nay the town, from where a lot of the musical material in Talking to Girls About Duran Duran comes. It’s fun to watch an American obsess on what was just my ordinary childhood; fun, too, to try to remember if Birmingham, described here by Mr. Sheffield as "a grim industrial steel town," was ever actually known as a steel town. (It’s certainly grim, and industrial. But the answer is no—the steel town he’s thinking of is that of his namesake, Sheffield, which produced the other dominant band in this book, The Human League, about whom he writes wonderfully.)
So what’s different here, half a decade after Love is a Mix Tape? Both books belong to the genus "thinly related, collected pieces" rather than being fully through-written narratives (think concept album versus Mahler’s Fifth). Each chapter in the new book riffs on a single band, or song by said band (in the previous book the organizing principle was a particular mix tape), and ties the music to something light-ish from Mr. Sheffield’s life as an adolescent and young adult in the 1980s, be it his attempts to make money as an ice cream truck driver, or his first experiences living away from his family home, or his grappling with his Catholic faith. Reduced to a hint, though, is the sad weight of Renee; now, Rob Sheffield seems himself freed to look back at a time before her, to the Epoch of Bogus, as he calls the 1980s, and thereby he's also freed to up the gag quotient, making Talking to Girls About Duran Duran a lighter book, closer to bantamweight than heavy—in short, more like the 1980s themselves than our post 9-11 world of Homeland Security and this third Great Depression. That’s no bad thing—I stopped keeping track of the laugh-out-loud one liners the new book slung at me. Anyone who describes Prince as “the Joe Strummer of orgasms,” or the kid in high school who forces the wrestling team to listen to Yes as "killing time till Frisbee season" gets my vote.
The one truly cruiserweight section comes late in the book when Mr. Sheffield describes the late years of his grandfather, an Irishman with whom he lived for a while, and who, like so many others of his country (according to Mr. Sheffield), “can’t ask for a goddamn thing . . . Asking for help, or accepting it, we just can’t handle it, can we? What the hell is wrong with us?” What’s wrong with Mr. Sheffield’s grandfather specifically is that he needs his toenails to be cut, but such an effort always causes the old man's feet to bleed, leading to the best bit of writing in the whole book:
Late at night, kneeling on my grandfather’s kitchen floor, I cut into his skin again and felt him flinch. My hands were bloody. On my knees, on the floor, doing the bloody work of love. Learning, over and over. The work of love will make you bloody and it will make you lonely.
One should probably never wish a book to be something that it doesn’t try or want to be, and yet when Mr. Sheffield reaches for heights like this, he seldom misses. For all the gags, and all the (sometimes frustratingly circular) pop culture references ("[Duran Duran] are like the musical version of the sensei that Uma Thurman goes to study martial arts with in ‘Kill Bill’" doesn’t really say much about Duran Duran, Kill Bill, nor even Uma Thurman), I still sometimes found myself wanting an entire book about granddad, or his sisters, who are a fabulous chorus here, or a book with a generally grander scheme. This is a writer who can clearly entertain and delight; part of me wanted him to tell one deep story, start to finish, and see how it ends up. So not a mix tape, but a symphony; bring it, I’d listen.
But that’s for the future, we hope—to paraphrase Stephen Morrissey, what we have now is about 15 minutes with you, and I wouldn’t say no.