When Rob Sheffield is on deadline, he follows a strict routine: He wakes up at 5 a.m., hits “play” on a cassette mixtape he’s loaded the night before into his 1989 boombox (Rob has hundreds of cassette mixtapes stacked on shelves in his Brooklyn apartment), and makes a grilled-cheese sandwich on his George Foreman. Next, he wraps his hands and arms in black tape (“I hope it prevents injury,” he says, “but it’s probably just superstitious”) and sits down to write. “The internet hasn’t started that early in the morning,” he says. “You can have solitude.”
This routine has helped Rob produce thousands of brilliant reviews, columns, profiles, and other pieces (not to mention five exceptional nonfiction books) in the years since he joined Rolling Stone, in 1997, the same year I started here. I’d been familiar with Rob’s writing long before that, always astounded by the depth of his knowledge, the exuberance of his prose, and his far-ranging love for all kinds of music (except, weirdly, Tom Petty, which I could never understand). Once I got to know Rob, it dawned on me that the things I loved about his writing were equally true about him — he’s one of the most radiant, joyous, thoughtful, and hilarious people I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with.
In this issue, Rob profiles Harry Styles, a singer he’s admired since his days in One Direction, when most rock critics dismissed the group as one more soulless boy band. “Even back in his One Direction days, Harry had this freakish enthusiasm that reminded me of people like Paul McCartney or David Bowie,” says Rob. “He was the rock star of the group.”
After reading Rob’s book Love Is a Mixtape, Styles sent Sheffield a text, and they struck up a friendship, built around their deep music fandom. “He texts all the time about music,” says Rob. “In one of our first conversations, he told me he was listening to Don McLean’s American Pie record and was like, ‘There are other good songs on here nobody knows!’ ”
Rob spent more than a week trailing Styles, from Malibu health-food shops to dive bars in L.A., then on to London, where they went to pubs and to a Fleetwood Mac concert. “People used to think he was just a celebrity and that he’d eventually leave music and start making romantic comedies,” says Rob. “But he’s a real music geek.”
It’s no wonder that Styles was drawn to Sheffield, who has bizarrely near-perfect recall when it comes to pop culture. “If you give me pretty much the month of any year, I can tell you what the popular music was that month,” he says. “If there’s an audio equivalent of photographic memory, I have it. I don’t know why my brain is like this. Sometimes I feel like it’s a curse as much as a blessing. But it comes in handy a lot, too.”