If you love long, languorous, and luxurious cocktail parties during which everyone in attendance has time to regale you with every last detail of their curious encounters with a famous figure, chances are good you will consume Dylan Jones’s David Bowie:A Life with gusto.
At more than 500 pages, and with 182 figures interviewed by writer and magazine editor Dylan Jones, this tome is sure to tickle the tummies of fans and readers with an ear for gossip, one-liners, and the conversational milieu of an era that settles firmly in the 1970s, when Bowie was at the height of his artistic powers. True to its title of A Life, however, the book also contains plenty of family backstory before the person born David Robert Jones (no relation to the author) would record his first break-through hit of 1969, “A Space Oddity.” With the heyday years over, Jones dutifully hunts down sources close to Bowie’s mass-commercial success with the 1983 LP Let’s Dance, his cringe-worthy stretch of stagnancy soon afterward, right up to the rock star’s 2016 death of January 9. Authentic as Jones’s “in the moment” interviews with people who shared Bowie’s last days are, it is curious how they fail to capture, five years later, the tumult of a passing that still provokes bitter introspection.
Adorning the line-up of sources is material from seven formal interviews with Bowie himself, drawn from Jones’s various stints over the years as editor of UK publications including the Observer, Sunday Times, and The Face.
From Bowie’s cousin to his childhood friends, his managers, musical collaborators, girlfriends, writers such as novelist Hanif Kureishi, and extraneous celebrities including Paul McCartney and Nina Simone, to the last word of the midwife present at Bowie’s birth, A Life leaves almost no stone unturned, no corner empty, and no speculation left unsaid.
More of a collection of marginally edited transcripts of people talking about Bowie, or recollecting certain events in hindsight, this is not a book you read as a book. It is a fishing net cast into the ocean of a public life and career to see what might be caught. As such, it is best to read it in batches, or a series of gulps.
Jones, more the compiler than the author of the book, explains his method in the preface: “As a form of history, the oral biography has the capacity to be more honest than others, and the lack of subjectivity employed by the editor should enable the truth to shine through.”
More of a collection of marginally edited transcripts of people talking about Bowie, or recollecting certain events in hindsight, this is not a book you read as a book. It is a fishing net cast into the ocean of a public life and career to see what might be caught.
The “truth” of Jones’s utilitarian approach to biography, i.e., that the best picture of a person can be derived from the testimony of the widest number of people who knew or encountered that person first hand, is certainly admirable. It is also exhausting. Too many of Jones’s chosen subjects drone on, and the syntax of the book’s conversational tone wears so thin that at times you strain to bring topics back into focus. Too many sources embark on remembrance of a certain past event, leading into a description of Bowie’s personality or behavioral affect, dissolving into a rote summary of how the cultural environment of the 1970s was “like that back then.”
Kickers, surprises, and ribald humorous jokes exist among this multitude of chaff, but do not expect to find them without staying alert through long stretches of boring accounts of various speculations from Jones’s sources about how Bowie must have been feeling or reacting to events at the time.
The form of oral accounts made into books—of which Studs Terkel will likely remain the reigning master, even posthumously—works well when the subject is a broad topic (e.g., Working) or historical era (Hard Times). To spread this same format over a subject as circumscribed as one life, famous though it may be, is stuffing too many passengers into one car. The narrative drive becomes slower due to sheer weight, even as the destination becomes less clear. There is no doubt Jones has a talent for coaxing stories out of his subjects, or at least letting them talk. Less clear is whether he can spot tiresome repetitions, or at least fix occasional non sequiturs and run-on sentences. By the umpteenth mention of Bowie as “a true English gentleman,” or the defining trope of his career as “a cultural magpie” even hard-core fans might feel tempted to hurl their copy of Jones’s book toward the nearest wall.
Those seeking analysis and insight into who David Bowie—born 1947 in south London’s Brixton district—was as arguably the most influential figure in popular music and culture between The Beatles and hip-hop are best served by other books, most notably Paul Trynka’s Starman (2010, Sphere). While not quite as rich in anecdote as Jones’s book, it at least focuses far more on Bowie’s music. The most Jones tells his reader about Bowie’s techniques of composition, second-hand at that from biographer Wendy Leigh, is that he favored chord changes of surprise modeled on such unlikely sources of inspiration as Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow” and “As Long as He Needs Me,” drawn from the Oliver! soundtrack of 1968. (110)
Although Bowie relied on his older half-brother Terry to reveal the beauty of music to him through jazz figures such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, it was Little Richard who proved to be the most enduring template of influence.
A Life is not without pleasures, though. Taken one account at a time, the book finds its own pace. There are flashes of insight, especially regarding Bowie’s early years and family life. Plus, after hundreds of pages of people singing the man’s praises, Jones lets others more critical of Bowie have their say as well, even in the context of the rock star’s death.
All that said, A Life remains the sort of book propelled by the energy of hidden nuggets readers mine as they prospect. Among the best:
- Although Bowie relied on his older half-brother Terry to reveal the beauty of music to him through jazz figures such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, it was Little Richard who proved to be the most enduring template of influence. “When Little Richard was performing, we thought he’d had a heart attack,” says childhood friend, George Underwood, the same friend who altered Bowie’s left eye in a fistfight over a girl. “David loved oddities.” (12)
- Bowie seems to have been primed for show-biz thanks to his father, who worked in a high-profile UK public relations firm. “David was immersed in the idea of presentation from a very young age,” says biographer Wendy Leigh. “Every performer needs to be a great seducer.” (7)
- Tony Zanetta, president of the record label “Main Man,” took Bowie to meet Andy Warhol at The Factory in the early 1970s. Bowie gave Warhol a copy of his Hunky Dory LP and played the song “Andy Warhol” for him. Warhol did not care for it. At all. (101)
- During the U.S. Ziggy Stardust tour, fans in Philadelphia raided a mortuary to offer Bowie a “warm, dead body” for purposes of necrophilia. “That was the perception of Ziggy, and that’s how crazy that tour was, that’s how decadent it was. David was completely horrified,” says Josette Caruso, a fan who followed the tour. “It took him a while to calm down, but once it was over he just moved right past it.” (142)
- On the same Ziggy tour, but in Memphis, a tour promotor was so relaxed about Bowie’s purported bisexuality/homosexuality that he offered up a whole troupe of rent-boy escorts to Bowie as part of a hospitality suite package deal, along with police escort to the hotel where the escorts waited for him in the hotel lounge.
- Bowie was one of the first White musicians to record at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. Bowie also stole the vocal arrangement riff for the song “Fascination,” later included on the Young Americans LP, from Luther Vandross, who originally titled it “Funky Music.” “He said he didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to say ‘funky music,’ since he was a rock artist,” Vandross remembers. “He said, ‘Do you mind?’ And I said, ‘You’re David Bowie, I live at home with my mother, you can do what you like.’” (215)
- Between the albums Young Americans, Station to Station, and on into Low, or roughly the years 1974 to 1977, Bowie was ingesting so much cocaine, talking so many blue streaks, and eating so little food that he weighed no more than 95 pounds. The quantities of cocaine were so vast, in fact, that rock journalist Nick Kent, coined a new verb for Bowie’s condition. “He [Bowie] had been ‘cocained.’” (204)
- Bowie’s mother felt so alienated and ignored by her world-famous son that she once phoned the UK music paper NME to complain that he never talked to her. The story ran with the headline “A Mother’s Anguish.” (241)
- According to Nick Kent the reason for the second side, or second half, of Low being entirely instrumental was that collaborator Brian Eno rose early to be working in Berlin’s Hansa studio by 6 am. Bowie, by contrast, rolled into the studio at 6 pm. “The problem was that Eno liked to work during the day, and Bowie liked to work at night,” says Nick Kent. “Those instrumentals are on the records because Bowie was asleep. Brian Eno is someone who uses opportunities to their maximum effect.” (249)
- Bowie’s status as a fashion barometer was so fixed that a minor scandal erupted when he was photographed wearing a mustache. (256)
- Every track on the Heroes LP, according to Brian Eno, is a first take. “I mean, we did second takes but they were not really as good. … Bowie was pretty much living at the edge of his nervous system … ” (246)
- In 1984, when Bowie began to find himself in the unusual position of struggling for relevance and creative energy, he went with Mick Jagger to see the Prince movie Purple Rain. This was his first realization that the crown of reigning pop culture relevance had been passed to someone else. “David was actually quite irritated that the film was so good,” says film director Julien Temple. “Mick and David were both so competitive, but they’d both been beaten to the punch.”
- During a dinner party for British novelist Hanif Kureishi, Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid, a Somalian Muslim and fashion model soon to be Bowie’s wife, grew contentious with Salman Rushdie for having written Satanic Verses. “I thought, well she’s a Muslim from Somalia, but she’s also with a pop star who is one of the most liberated people you could imagine. So why would she have a go at someone for writing Satanic Verses?” Kureishi recalls. (360)
If the anecdotes and accounts above seem disjointed, or connected only by the passage of time that, too, is the overall impression of Jones’s book. As a catalog of impressions by those who knew him well, or even casually, Bowie: A Life is unsurpassed. Sadly, though, and perhaps because the book was something of a rush-job to meet the publishing market soon after the pop icon’s death in early 2016, neither Jones nor his publishers bothered with an index. Are you dying to know what director Martin Scorsese had to say about the experience of auditioning and casting Bowie as Pontius Pilate for his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ? Start reading on page 347. Insanely, not even the paperback reprint edition of 2018 corrects the grievous omission of an index. The chance of alighting on one sought-after name among this book’s cast of 182 “Dramatis Personae” relies on the guiding principle of its chronology. Even then, the phenomenon of concurrent events or simple zeitgeist is no guarantee of finding what you want. Rather than let the book’s most famous sources speak to a specific time in Bowie’s career, Jones sometimes jams them all together. If listening to Ricky Gervais opine on knowing Bowie (462) before Paul McCartney does the same (464), with Madonna not far behind (491) induces whiplash then consider yourself warned.
In the main, and meanwhile, those who know the trajectory of Bowie’s career do not really need an 80-page stretch in which far too many unfamiliar voices—e.g. Rory MacLean, a travel writer and expert on Berlin—weigh in on how Bowie felt during these years of creative doldrums, or why the music of his ill-fated band Tin Machine was so bad. True to the stasis of Bowie’s life, during which fans rarely heard from him, these extended accounts are as boring as you would expect.
Rather than let the book’s most famous sources speak to a specific time in Bowie’s career, Jones sometimes jams them all together. If listening to Ricky Gervais opine on knowing Bowie before Paul McCartney does the same, with Madonna not far behind induces whiplash then consider yourself warned.
More interesting by far is the appearance in bold of a famous figure who has something vital to say. Perhaps the most interesting, and also the briefest comes from Nina Simone when she says simply, in recalling their July 1974 meeting in New York City, “He [had] more sense than anybody I’ve ever known. It’s not human—David [wasn’t] from here.” (177)
The book’s excesses of hagiography are leavened by two intriguing accounts of Bowie’s possible willingness to advance his career by having sex with powerful figures in the British music business, notably Simon Napier-Bell, who says he blanched at the offer, and, according to Bowie biographer Wendy Liegh, a financier named Lionel Bart.
Most disturbing is the account, and later analysis, of Bowie having had sex with 14-year-old groupie Lori Mattix. This criminal behavior is alternately high-lighted, but then also excused, by Mattix herself. “I had probably killed boys by that point, but I wasn’t ready for David Bowie,” she says. “You need to understand that I didn’t think of myself as underage. I was a model. That time of my life was so much fun.” (156)
Rising and falling throughout the book’s accounts and many voices is the force of family as an influence, namely Bowie’s older half-brother Terry, who struggled with schizophrenia before committing suicide by walking in front of a train.
After hundreds of pages of letting this sordid account hang out to dry, Jones brings in Erin Keane, culture editor at Salon, for the attack. “When you’re young it’s easy to believe that experience is the one currency you’re allowed to hoard and never pay out,” Keane says. “I believe Mattix when she says the sex with her rock-star partners was consensual on her behalf, and I also believe, for good reason, David Bowie and others committed acts that are exploitative and illegal.” (471)
Enough said, along with the added proviso that most legacies are ethically and morally complicated, if not compromised outright.
Rising and falling throughout the book’s accounts and many voices is the force of family as an influence, namely Bowie’s older half-brother Terry, who struggled with schizophrenia before committing suicide by walking in front of a train. Film director Baz Luhrmann, in perhaps the book’s most fascinating attempts at armchair psychoanalysis of the deceased Bowie, insists in no uncertain terms that childhood fears, including the ill fates of siblings, fuel a large portion of creative energy.
Bowie, in one of the few comments from the subject that aligns with a source, agrees:
“One puts oneself through such psychological damage trying to avoid the threat of insanity, you start to approach the very thing that you’re scared of. Because of the tragedy inflicted, especially on my mother’s side of the family, there were too many suicides for my liking—that was something I was terribly fearful of. I felt I was the lucky one because I was an artist and it would never happen to me because I could put all my psychological excesses into music and then I could always be throwing it off.” (26)
By the time Jones reaches the January 2016 death of his subject, A Life has less to impart regarding what made David Bowie so fascinating as a musical talent. This oral biography is, in many ways, a set of mirrors staring back and reflected on other mirrors. But in a curious moment when the book’s form seems to turn back in on itself, and from no less than Bowie himself, this may not be too much of a fault:
“I must admit I like reading about myself, and I even read my ex-wife’s book. It’s terrifying! The first time I ever read one [The David Bowie Story by George Tremlett (1974)] I didn’t know whether to be angry or mystified, as there were so many inaccuracies. But as subsequent books kept coming out with all their own interpretations, I thought I’d quite like to put one out which incorporates all the inaccuracies, making this kind of truly fantastic creation. It could be my autobiography.” (433)
It would be uncharitable to characterize Jones’s book as a chronicle of inaccuracies, as he has clearly gone the distance in tracking down so many sources. However, documenting so many people with too much to say, and in attempts to get the biggest possible picture, sometimes results in an overall effect that, in the end, can seem surprisingly small. Jones’s book undoubtedly reaches for something approaching a grand summary of David Bowie’s life. It is the strength of any grasp that seems lacking. When a book of this sort darts out in so many directions at once, a narrative center cannot take hold.