Q&A: Author Rob Sheffield on His New Book, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran
"Oh my God, you're a Nick Rhodes girl," says Rob Sheffield, referring to Duran Duran's keyboardist. Earlier in the evening, we'd wrapped an interview about Sheffield's new book, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut, the follow-up to his 2007 bestseller Love Is A Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time; hours later, we'd moved to the Woods in Williamsburg, where Sheffield began talking to two female friends he'd run into. About Duran Duran. "Loving Duran Duran has been one of the constants in my life," Sheffield writes in his new book's introduction, "but I have no idea what they would sound like if the women in my life stopped loving them. I guess I'll never know." Each of Talking to Girls's 25 chapters tackles a song from the '80s, from Haysi Fantayzee's "Shiny Shiny" and Paul McCartney's "No More Lonely Nights" to Madonna's "Crazy for You" and the Replacements' "Left of the Dial." Sheffield riffs on each, summoning up humorous tales of teenage crushes and growing up with three sisters, along with intimate accounts of caring for his 90-year-old grandfather and feeling out his first serious relationship. Like the bombastic, sugary tunes that inspired it, Sheffield's book rarely hits a dull note. Neither do his conversations.
"Wow, Kenny Rogers was always right!" Photo by Deborah Suchman Zeolia
What made you decide to write a book about the '80s?
Just listening to a lot of that stuff. At that time, everything seemed very temporary. It's funny how many of those records I still hear all over the place. I was at a wedding the weekend before last. I didn't know whether it would rain or not, whether it would be inside or outside, or whether it would be depressing or fun, but I did know I would hear "Livin' on a Prayer" and "Don't Stop Believin'." And the DJ actually played them back-to-back. I thought, "Wow, playing both is no longer enough. Now you have to play them back-to-back!"
At the time, these songs sounded like really chipper and cheesy artifacts of our moment in time, but now they have some sort of permanent but undefined place in pop culture. I was curious about what that place is and why it exists. I don't think I understand it any better that I did when I started writing the book, but it's definitely a thing that doesn't get a lot of attention on a personal level. Usually when people talk about the '80s it's in the first-person plural, "What were we thinking?" kind of way. It was really weird to try to go back and connect the emotions of actually being there and growing up without any idea that this stuff was going to be remembered in six months, let alone 16 years later.
How did you go about recalling and connecting those memories and emotions? Did you just throw on a song and see where it took you?
Pretty much. I let the songs talk to me about what the story was. Some parts are really focused on what the song meant to me and what it sounds like. Other times it was just an emotional departure point leading into a whole other thing. Music affects you in unpredictable ways. Sometimes you listen to a song and it reminds you specifically of a week when you were 15, but a lot of times you hear a song and remember an old neighborhood or an apartment or a fight with a roommate. I'd be writing and realize that I had left the song behind a long time ago. But I went with that, because that's how music works. You hear a Bobby Brown song and you're in awe, admiring what a masterpiece it is, and an hour later you're thinking about some girl that it reminds you of.
In a lot of cases you only remember the neighborhood or girl because of the song. I took a walk a couple of days ago and listened to an unlabeled mix tape that I made in 2000. Sleater-Kinney's "Leave You Behind" came on and it reminded me of a night in Charlottesville, [Virginia] when I came home and the power was out. I didn't want to sit around in the dark, so I got in the car and took this tape. I kept driving because I just needed motion and music and light. I would stop at pay phones and call my apartment to see if my answering machine was working, because then I would know the power was back on. I was driving around for a long time listening to this tape over and over. I wouldn't have remembered that night if not for that song. I keep journals and diaries and souvenirs, but it's really the songs that remind me of that stuff. So I was walking along Kent Avenue looking at a beautiful sunset, and suddenly I'm traveling back in time ten years and I'm in this really shitty car in the middle of a thunderstorm not wanting to go back to a dark apartment.
And with music you also don't get as much of the cringing that comes with looking over old journals or diaries.
Yeah, I was in Boston last week looking through my parent's attic and I found a box that had all of the letters that I wrote the summer after my freshman year of college. I had made Xeroxed copies of my letters and the letters that my friends sent me. While I was looking at them I thought, "Why am I doing this? This sucks!" And then I listened to the songs that were big that summer, like "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)" by Dead or Alive. That's another one of those songs--how fucking weird is it that 25 years later everybody in the English-speaking world knows it? That is not something that you would have predicted in the summer of '85. It's just this scratchy electro-disco drag queen song that I happen to love. But listening to it I can relive that summer in a way that is actually positive. Reading those letters wasn't telling me anything except that I had been really needy and had all of these needy friends writing 30-page handwritten letters to each other and saving Xeroxed copies for reference.
It's funny that music does a much better job of storing those memories, both at a personal and a collective cultural level. If you want to get a flavor of what 1985 was like, you can't go back to the TV or the movies or the bestselling books. Nobody says, "Oh man, what were the Oscar-winning movies of the mid-'80s? Kiss of the Spider Woman, Children of a Lesser God, Out of Africa, I'm going to check those out." Those movies were forgotten a few years later, but everybody still knows "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)," even people who weren't born when it came out.
The chapter about Prince's "Purple Rain" describes the summer you drove an ice cream truck 18 hours a day, gorging on your supplies. Did that ruin ice cream for you?
It actually made me love ice cream more. Last weekend I was with my brother-in-law who is like 16 and works at a KFC. He said it's hard to eat chicken now, because he smells it all day at work. So I guess I've been lucky that most of my employment experiences have been in music or ice cream, things that, if you get exposed to them 24 hours a day, it doesn't effect your personal enjoyment of them.
It makes me think of how love and relationships are like driving an ice cream truck, like making that long-term commitment to ice cream. You're trusting that the relationship is not going to burn out after a few weeks, that the more you get the more you want. Some relationships are like KFCs, where you never want to touch chicken again, and others are like ice cream trucks, where you just keep wanting more. Music is like that too, because I didn't burn out on it either. I was listening to the radio 18 hours a day and probably every single song that I heard in that ice cream truck I would still love if I heard it today.
There isn't anything from that period that you can't stand?
You think there'd be more, right? At the time everybody seemed to like everything, especially after Thriller. If you were an indie rocker you also liked hip-hop. If you were a hip-hopper you also liked r&b. If you were a metal head you also liked disco. There was a sort of eclecticism that was taken for granted, and a factionalism that was dying away. Thriller was a record that everybody thought was made for them. 1999 was the same way. I bought that and I thought, "Wow, Prince knew what I would like." It was a big breakthrough record that everybody thought of as their own personal freaky cult experience.
Do you feel like MTV was a factor in that crosspollination?
Yeah. At the beginning MTV was playing all of this weird stuff at the same time, because there just weren't that many videos and they had 24 hours to fill. They probably would have much rather been playing the classic AOR playlist of 1982, but they couldn't because those people didn't make videos. So they had to play Grandmaster Flash, New Order, Culture Club, Scorpions. When you watched MTV to see the music that you liked, you also saw all of this other nutso shit that you had no idea existed. That kind of blew my mind.
Do you have a favorite video from that period?
It changes every time, so I'll go with the last one, which was "Church of the Poison Mind" by Culture Club. Last night I got back to the apartment and for some reason I watched this video ten times in a row. It sums up so much of what we loved about the '80s--that it really was a culture club. That song has Motown, bits of new wave, bits of '70s pop, bits of reggae, bits of the Clash. On top of that, it's a pop record that, at the time, Bob Dylan said was one of his favorites. That was a fucking universal song.
What made you decide to frame the book around Duran Duran?
They really opened people up. They always said that they wanted to combine Chic with the Sex Pistols. In 1982 that was a really crazy and daring thing for a rock group to say. A couple of years earlier Queen came out with "Another One Bites The Dust," which is a blatant Chic tribute. That's just the bass line from "Good Times." But Queen didn't say they were trying to do a Nile Rodgers-Bernard Edwards kind of record. That might not have been a commercial disaster, but they would have been sticking their necks out. So rock stations would play "Another One Bites The Dust" but not "Good Times." Then Duran Duran came out in 1982 and they were like, "Fuck no, we're not into 'Another One Bites The Dust.' We're into 'Good Times.'" And for the Duran Duran listener, if you were a new wave kid and you wanted to get into what had inspired them, you had to listen to that stuff. That was the year that Nile Rodgers' solo record Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove came out, and like so many Duran Duran fans, I bought it. They really opened people up musically in a lot of ways. On the other side, they got disco people into stuff like Roxy Music, David Bowie, and Kraftwerk.
The chapter on Chaka Khan's "I Feel for You" opens by saying that "Karaoke and the '80s are basically the same thing." Do you do karaoke often?
I hate to admit that it's a fairy consistent vice. With karaoke you're really sticking yourself out there. People are going to watch you and stare. It forces you to confront that fear, and I think it has really made me a lot less shy. It's almost like yoga or meditation. It's a way. A path.
It's strange how much of the book was written in a drunken stupor in karaoke bars in my little pocket notebook at three in the morning, when I would think, "Oh my God, Sheena Easton is a fucking genius!" I'd go back and read my notebook the next day and think, "Well, I guess I may have been a little drunk, but maybe I was on to something." Insights come to you, like, "Wow, Kenny Rogers was always right! He never had a song telling you to do something that was wrong." That's the kind of thought that occurs to you at a karaoke bar. God knows it doesn't occur to you anywhere else. It's almost a mystical thing.
Talking to Girls About Duran Duran is out July 15 on Dutton. Sheffield will be reading and discussing the book at Powerhouse Arena in DUMBO on Thursday, July 15; the Columbus Circle Borders in Manhattan on Tuesday, July 20; and the Barnes & Noble in Park Slope on Wednesday, July 21.