Rob Sheffield is a columnist for Rolling Stone, where he writes on everything from M.I.A. to — yes — the Rolling Stones. For the past two decades his exuberant, ecumenical taste in the world’s wealth of rock and pop music — in both its timeless and disposable forms — has made his work the antithesis of hipster-er-than-thou rock criticism, and made reading him a source of both laughter and insight.
In 2007, Sheffield’s memoir Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time used the heady music scene of the ’90s to frame the bitterwseet story of his courtship, marriage, and sudden confrontation with grief when his wife, Renee, died of a pulmonary embolism. The book wove together a meditation on love’s fragility with the story of two young people as besotted with music as they were with one another.
Now, in his just-released Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, Sheffield once again makes the past sing — and sometimes play guitar solos on a dry-ice-befogged stage — with a memoir that traces his awkward teenage years, yearning toward grace and girls, through the era that still haunts karaoke bars across the land. In a series of comic and touching vignettes, Flock of Seagulls, Hall & Oates, The Human League and even Haysi Fantaysee appear as the collective Virgil who guide a nervous Boston Irish boy through the Inferno of adolescence.
In an email conversation about his book and the music that inspired it, Rob Sheffield spoke with us about British teeth and Nabokov’s America, girls who want to have fun and boys who want to mix it up. (And because this was the era of the music video, we’ve included some helpful links to refresh your memory.) —Bill Tipper
Barnes and Noble Review: Let’s begin with the title of the book. First –and I say this as someone whose teenage past includes a longstanding fascination with the Fab Five- I want to ask you a challenging question, in the manner of Raymond Carver: What ARE we talking about when we are talking to girls about Duran Duran? Specifically with reference to “Rio.”
Are we talking about the hair? The boats? The paint? What about that paint? Did the girls who scream for this band want Simon Le Bon to put polka dots on their ankles? And is the mysterious transformation you note in your book – that alchemy by which “Age of Bogus” became the “Apex of Awesome” –illuminated by “Rio”?
Or do we have to go with the band into more narratively cohesive fantasy of “Hungry Like the Wolf”?
Rob Sheffield: You’re right that “Hungry Like the Wolf” is more narratively cohesive. And what dubious table manners!
“Rio” is an unusually elusive muse for this most proudly non-elusive of bands. I mean, she’s a river, but she dances on the sand. That means mud, yet there’s nothing muddy about this song, which sounds so bright and punchy and direct in a way that makes me always near-delirious to hear it in a public place, where it feels like a swarm of personal emotions (some of them mine) bouncing off the walls (if there happen to be walls nearby.) Recently heard it on the muzak while changing terminals at the Atlanta airport and I was never so happy to run into that sax solo (influenced by Haircut 100?) (and how avant was it to be influenced by Haircut 100 already in 1982?) and those lyrics about the beach.
The sand is on the beach, but it’s also in the desert, “from mountains in the North down to the Rio Grande.” A lot of English rock stars have their “we went to California and beheld the mystical girl passion of our fans and we saw that it was good” song, like Led Zeppelin (“Misty Mountain Hop” or “Going to California”) or Elton John (“Tiny Dancer”) or David Bowie (“Young Americans”). But “Rio” is incredibly non-coy and non-neurotic about their relationship to the American girl fan. They really like these California girls who are (at this point, before this album made them megastars) their only American fans. (And at this point, there was no reason to believe they’d ever have any other American audience.) They don’t have that European, Nabokovian angst of “how can my old-world mojo survive when it’s faced with the vitality of American thighs?” thing that makes these songs often so funny as well as dippy. “Rio” is an amazingly affectionate and awestruck tribute to the girl fan.
And how excellent is that scene in the video where one of them (Nick? John? Simon?) is trying to pour the older, wiser, impossibly serene muse a glass of champagne, and he gets so nervous he’s pouring it all over his hands…and she shoots him a look that’s like, “oh puh-leaze.”
BNR: That is indeed a vital “oh puh-leaze” moment — the clumsy enthusiasm of the fan is picked up and transposed onto the band itself. Nothing like this in “Hungry Like the Wolf” that I can recall. Unless we’re supposed to take Simon rising out of the river a la Martin Sheen as hilariously deflationary self-mockery. Which, perhaps, we were indeed meant to.
RS: “The clumsy enthusiasm of the fan is picked up and transposed onto the band itself.” That might totally sum up what we talk about when we talk about Duran Duran.
“Hungry Like the Wolf” is quite similar though. Simon’s psychosexual initiation leaves him with bloody stripes etched onto his face. And that hilarious nervous look when the woman makes eye contact with him at that posh society gathering, and he’s so intimidated he looks away. What an amazing face for a rock star to make.
Also, what a Twilight-worthy image of psychosexual initiation: those bloody stripes carved onto your face, as you sit in a cafe, and all the people who were your friends just a few hours earlier are driving all over town (way to run around in a white blazer, Japanese headband and pointy nipples, John Taylor!) to find you because they’re worried they’ve lost you for good, and they fear you’ve totally vanished from their world, but they don’t know that you are totally lost in a sexual labyrinth of confusing and unmappable vegetation, and when your friends and loved ones see you again they’re like “dude, what’s up with the scars all over you? You look in a mirror lately?”
BNR: So “Hungry Like the Wolf” is as much about your friends trying — perhaps in vain — to look out for you, as it is about sexual obsession?
RS: Definitely. Simon’s out there, lost in the wilderness of desire, while the other lads in the band run around town looking for him, showing people pictures of him and saying “have you seen our friend? He’s disappeared!” then at the end, they find him in the cafe, in a postcoital stupor, with claw marks on his throat, and they gather around him to ask “Simon, where have you been?” But what can he tell them? He’s in a different world now.
BNR: Like the friend you “lose” when you’re both fourteen and they go over the edge for someone in a grown-up way. They’ve crossed the muddy river to a place your jeep can’t go.
RS: Yeah, exactly. Simon used to be one of the boys and now he’s got girl germs.
BNR: And now, before we go any further with Duran Duran, I have to ask — who are the bands of Nabokovian angst, who tremble at the vision of America and its thighs?
RS: Well, the aforementioned Led Zeppelin, Elton John, David Bowie, the grand tradition of the English rock star who grows up with rain and moss and hedgerows and fruit rationing, then comes to America and realizes all his previous standards of sexual vitality are impossibly quaint and lame. Mott the Hoople’s “All the Way From Memphis” might be the finest and bluntest song in this mode. Or anything the Stones recorded between 1968 and 1976.
It comes up in Nabokov’s marvelous maps of America, all those cheap motels and comic books and radio stations and amusement parks, and how they make the European romantic-aesthete Byronic hero feel like he’s suddenly turned into a lame joke.
BNR: A lot of your book is about the place where the music and videos of the 80s are both goofy and scary. Which is to say, the experience of adolescent emotional life.
And which brings us to David Bowie. In the book, you talk about seeing him perform “Space Oddity” live on Dick Clark’s “Salute to the Seventies” and running upstairs to hide as a result.
Online video of that appearance has eluded me — but here’s the equally scary video for “Ashes to Ashes”
As you point out in the book, this is a very acclaimed video — but it’s also pretty silly (and, yes, scary).
RS: David Bowie: another English boy transformed by contact with California girls. London birthed him but LA made him a megastar and LA made him Bowie (and Ziggy) (and Aladdin) (and a quivering coke-addled cracktor so it’s for the best he hustled the hell out of there.) If he stayed in London he would have become, I dunno, Steve Harley or Scott Walker or somebody? But his LA girl fans turned him into Bowie, the way they turned so many other arty English boys into rock stars.
Ah, the bond between English boys and California girls. For those of us who aren’t either, it’s a bond that fascinates and mystifies. So much of the world’s favorite music comes out of that relationship.
“Ashes to Ashes” is a vision of London, and maybe a vision of what Bowie felt he would have turned into if he stayed in London. Certainly it’s the least Californian, and most London, record and video he ever made. No sun in this video, just a lavender digital blotch in the sky over the most depressing looking beach I’ve ever seen in a rock video.
Maybe “Ashes to Ashes” is so scary because it’s a vision of what Bowie’s life would be without California girls?
My friend Joe Gross has a brilliant point about this video, that the real star is Bowie’s teeth. He plays a different character in each scene — from a different planet — but every time he opens his mouth, there’s no doubt what country he comes from. His whole identity might be cracking up in every other way, but his choppers keep singing “there’ll always be an England.”
BNR: That split between sunny California and Old Blighty leads us to another great new wave video moment, “Don’t You Want Me” — a song originally conceived of in homage to “A Star is Born”, but which exports a sense of a permanently overcast sky with its tale of love, power, and betrayal. And in which Phil Oakey’s dental history is also on display.
RS: I remember when MTV had this in their “100 Greatest Videos” of all time and guest host LL Cool J explained that the video was an homage to Truffaut’s “Day for Night.” LL can make anything sound cool.
Another note on the strange romance of English boys and California girls–the Go-Go’s.
That’s “Our Lips Are Sealed”–a song Jane Wiedlin wrote based on a poem that her Brit rock-star boyfriend (Terry Hall of the Specials) enclosed to her in a letter from England.
Just as Bowie, Zeppelin, etc. became rock stars by remaking themselves in the image of the California girls, the Go-Gos became rock stars by pretending to be the Buzzcocks and the Sex Pistols. Jane Wiedlin always said her biggest influence was growing up in LA as a Bowie girl. She (and girl fans like her) definitely invented Bowie, but they also reinvented themselves based on what they saw in the Bowie mirror.
In fact, as we speak, the number one song in the country is “California Gurls,” by Katy Perry, a California girl (or gurl) whose fiancee is Russell Brand, an English comedian who plays English rock stars in his movies–just as Katy Perry plays an old-school Hollywood vamp on her records. (When I interviewed her she told me her biggest influence was Jane Russell! You don’t hear many people under 80 say that, right?)
BNR: It strikes me that one thing the Go-Go’s did — both in their sound and in their videos — was embody a sense of innocence; despite their somewhat punk DNA, they’re harking back to a more optimistic era. Yet they don’t seem to take part in the puffed-up 1980s mood of American triumphalism.
In fact, a lot of the bands you talk about in Talking to Girls about Duran Duran seem to vibrate with a similar innocence; the partying of the Duran Duran boys in the “Rio” video, for example, is a teenage imitation of decadence. There’s no real vibe of rock-star excess there.
RS: True that. I’m not sure their innocence or enthusiasm is from a bygone era–I think it’s something new. It definitely isn’t part of 1980s American triumphalism–or 1950s American triumphalism either. But it’s not jaded or decadent.
Cyndi Lauper is a perfect example– “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” can mean any number of things, sexual, political, satorial, aerobic, etc, but it can also just stand for any elemental level of fun-having. This song has to be the best instance of the word “Everybody!” in any pop song, ever. There are two 17-second interludes where Cyndi gives the same incantation (“When the working, when the working day is done, oh, when the working day is done, oh girls, girls just wanna have fun…Everybody! Hoo, hoo!”) But neither time feels contrived, even hearing it done twice verbatim in the same song, or hearing the song more or less constantly since the week it came out. Cyndi sounds completely un-exhausted by fun, un-bored by fun, un-daunted by fun.
Somebody once wrote brilliantly about the Beach Boys’ song “California Girls” and how the singer sounds like a debauched roué who has been totally drained of all desires. (Which doesn’t mean I don’t love “California Girls”–the David Lee Roth version is great too.) But “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” makes fun sound like a source of constant regeneration, and the heavy repetition just replenishes the fun instead of depleting it. The more fun Cyndi has, the more fun she is.
BNR: Then, two years later, Madonna defines fun for girls a little differently, but with the same infectious bop.
RS: Totally! This is really an 8-year-old girl’s idea of what Madonna-style stardom looks like — it’s her version of “Disney Princesses on Ice.”
BNR: “Material Girl”, as a matter of fact, doesn’t figure into your chapter on Madonna, although you do have a long list of songs of hers that mean a lot to you — and in an interesting parallel to your response to David Bowie, you note “Madonna entered my life with the ‘Burning Up’ video, which was so sexy it made me mad.” Arguably, this pretty much sums up a big part of her career strategy.
RS: It’s true. And “Burning Up” is in so many ways a traditional guitar-rock song. It certainly pays a lot more homage to the boy-rock guitar-hero sound than “Material Girl,” an outrageously girlie-sounding record, where maleness only intrudes as parody robot background voices.
Madonna was so flamboyant in terms of her look, her style, her public pronouncements, her religious taboo-smashing. (The “Jersey Shore” generation would probably be stunned to learn that nobody tried wearing rosary beads as jewelry until Madonna did it. It was unbelievably shocking and offensive. Now it’s a sign of how devout you are!) But the most revolutionary (and influential) thing about her was the way she HEARD music. On her boombox, she heard rock guitar, disco electronics, street-level beatbox hip-hop, R&B ballads and bat mitzvah girlie pop as all the same thing. She turned the radio into (as Boy George would say) a culture club.
Boy George was breaking a lot of the same taboos, mixing up all different subcultures with no commitment to any of them, just a commitment to the song for the 2 minutes and 36 seconds it lasts. “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” has to be one of the most ridiculous hit singles that any international superstars have given the world. No way did they spend more than 10 minutes writing, recording, or videoizing this song. (Are those overalls? In a Culture Club video?) But it sums up everything frivolous, meaningful and excellent about Culture Club, right?
BNR: Hmm…Duran Duran to Bowie, Bowie to The Go-Go’s — and then the knowing transgressions of Madonna to the blithe glee of Boy George and company. It sounds like you’re mapping the 1980s as a transatlantic musical reenactment of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience”!
And perhaps this brings us full circle – can it be an accident that on Duran Duran’s third album was a track titled “Tiger Tiger?”
(No video was made for that song that I know of, so here’s “Union of the Snake” from the same album as “Tiger Tiger”)
RS: You know, if the “Union of the Snake” was on the climb in 1983, wouldn’t the snakes have taken over conclusively by now? Perhaps the snakes, like so many of us in the ’80s, fell prey to disunity.
Blake once wrote that “the Tygers of Wrath are wiser than the Horses of Instruction,” and that definitely applies to the 80s. The music at the time attempting to be sensible, authentic, or (egads) “rootsy” sounds ridiculously quaint and phony now… but it’s the garish excess of Duran Duran that is still burning bright.
-July 14, 2010