The longer we mourn David Bowie the more his absence becomes apparent. Nevertheless, in many ways the death of a great rock star nowadays affects only those to whom they were personally close, and makes little difference to most of their fans. Thanks to the heritage industry they no longer fade away: we continue to buy and listen to their records, watch their concerts on screens and read about them as if they were still alive. True, we can’t see them in person any more but, because David Bowie absented himself from public life for over a decade before his death, his actual absence is illusive, like the extinction of an endangered species, regrettable but remote. The obituaries have been written but the books keep on coming.
I thought about this a lot as I read Dylan Jones’ David Bowie: A Life, a book I welcome, albeit with some reservations. Though advertised as a biography, it is in reality an oral history, Jones having interviewed and/or solicited contributions from 182 individuals with connections to Bowie; some – like myself – quite tangential and others – like his garrulous first wife, collaborating musicians and long term associates – with much more to say. Bowie’s story is told through their words, linked by Jones’ lucid and informative passages that set the scene and hurry things along, and the result is both enlightening and far-reaching, the best text-led Bowie book I’ve read since David Buckley’s Strange Fascination. It’s surprisingly pacy too and, with so many opinions to decode, Bowie’s fluid, restless and magpie-like character is fully developed well before fame beckons.
As the present editor of GQ magazine, former editor of a few more and the author of 20 other books, Jones has been awarded the OBE for services to publishing, and his work ethic is clearly Herculean. This book is 556 pages long yet contains no images whatsoever, which is probably a first in the Bowie book industry, and pretty audacious since he remains far and away the most photogenic rock star the UK has ever produced. The format of the book precludes Jones from having to take a view on matters that some fans might find distasteful, thus enabling him to craft a ‘warts and all’ book that manages to avoid the rather prurient sensationalism of several other Bowie biographies I’ve read, yet include the debauchery anyway*. At the same time Bowie’s work is venerated through the opinions of experts: fellow musicians, record producers and prominent persons in the worlds of art and fashion. Some might consider this approach dispassionate but any such charges are mitigated by the scale of the undertaking, not to mention the wealth of information, much of it fresh, that can be gleaned from its pages.
“The lack of subjectivity… should enable the truth to shine through,” Jones asserts in his acknowledgements, which is a nice way of saying that many of his interviewees speak their mind without concern for the feelings of others. There was always an element of bitchiness amongst those who surrounded Bowie, at least in the Mainman era and immediately afterwards, and the book certainly benefits from their candour and, probably, creative imagination. In this regard I would question the reliability of certain interviewees, not least a journalist who states that Bowie visited early manager Kenneth Pitt ‘just before Ken died’. I happen to know that Pitt is alive and well, now 95 and well cared for. This is but one dubious statement I found, not many but enough to create concern, leading me to discern a tendency in Jones to value the impact of a juicy quote over its truthfulness, with the old Fleet Street maxim of ‘don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’ never far away. Bowie himself, of course, was no stranger to this tactic.
Just about everyone is in awe of Bowie, and many of the anecdotes confirm the widely-held view that he could switch on the charm at a moment’s notice, disarm new acquaintances with his knowledge of just about everything under the sun and simultaneously take on the air of a pubbable bloke with whom you’d enjoy exchanging corny jokes over a couple of pints in your local. Most of the women interviewed, and some of the men, seem to have been willing to leap into bed with him in an instant, and Bowie wasn’t one to let such opportunities slip by. No one was immune to his allure, and even those who were cast aside ultimately forgive him and appear delighted if communication is restored. It is clear from the book that he had a profound effect on almost everyone with whom he came into contact and that he was adept at putting people at ease who might otherwise be intimidated simply by his proximity. One of the few dissenting voices was an old man walking his dog who in 1980 interrupted the filming of the ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video on Southend beach. ‘Do you know who this is?’ asked film director David Mallett. ‘Of course I do,’ he replied. ‘It’s some cunt in a clown suit.’ “Sometime later,” Jones writes, “Bowie remembered, ‘That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realise, ‘Yes, I’m just some cunt in a clown suit.’”
Touches like this, and what I believe is a scoop about him singing backup on a Frank Sinatra recording during the Station To Station sessions, animate Jones’ book. Nevertheless, there are some important absentees, the missing voices: Iman Abdulmajid, Bowie’s second wife, granted only a few second-hand quotes; Corinne ‘Coco’ Schwab, his über-efficient personal assistant for upwards of 40 years, always a model of discretion, unafraid to offend A-list celebs who request an audience at the wrong moment; and Tony Defries, Bowie’s artful manager during the Ziggy period who, perhaps characteristically, tried to muscle in on the project and, when that failed, invoiced Jones (more out of hope that expectation) for $360,000 ‘for his contribution’. What was that about a leopard and its spots?
‘Never open a door yourself,’ was Defries’ sly advice to the client he signed in 1971, a bright, personable young man terrified he might become a one-hit wonder after his 1969 single ‘Space Oddity’, just about all he had to show for seven years as a professional musician, peaked at number five. Those seven years and the period before, Bowie’s schooldays, are covered well with family, childhood and teenage friends and early band mates, most of them the usual suspects, chipping in. Troubled stepbrother Terry looms large, clearly a big influence, and a contrast is drawn between supportive father Heyward ‘John’ Jones and his mother Peggy who seems like a very cold fish indeed.
On the outside Bowie is the model of cool but inside a bundle of neuroses and it was probably desperation that led him to throw in his lot with Defries, a wonderful move in the short-term but disastrous a few years down the line. The colourful Mainman staffers have had their say in other books but it’s good to get them all together again to more or less confirm what we all suspected – fabulous presentation but absolute chaos behind the scenes – and many of their stories still raise a smile, especially as I was on nodding terms with most of them. Photographer Brian Duffy (who died in 2010) hits the nail on the head when he says that Defries ‘realised that in order to get the record company really going, you had to get them up to their neck in debt, which was… a masterstroke.’ It was a bit like a pyramid scheme which imploded leaving many investors skint, and that includes just about everyone apart from Defries and, to a lesser extent, Bowie from whose earnings the profligacy was debited.
In the eye of the hurricane, Bowie realised he had to kill Ziggy and in the aftermath his life becomes disordered, as does the book. I was confused by the chronology in the period between the recording of Pin Ups and Station To Station; as if the disarray of Bowie’s daily life between 1974 and ’76, exacerbated by his copious cocaine consumption and the financial fallout of leaving Defries, was reflected in these pages. It’s not as if matters aren’t covered – Diamond Dogs, the ‘theatre tour’, Young Americans, ‘Fame’, the friendship with John Lennon (excellent quotes there), The Man Who Fell To Earth, the ‘Isolar’ tour – just that the sequencing is askew, and not until we reach the recording of Low and subsequent sojourn in Berlin is order restored, just as it was in Bowie's life.
The Berlin period is fascinating, allowing Bowie to reconnect with reality after the horrors of Los Angeles, though I was surprised that more attention was paid to the cover of Lodger than the music it contained and that, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ aside, Scary Monsters was glossed over compared to the dire Just A Gigolo movie and Bowie’s heroic stage performance in The Elephant Man. ‘Heroes’, the song, gets the full treatment but not much else is said about the experimental music he made with Brian Eno. I don’t believe Jones is being deliberately selective here, just that revelations in the book are contingent on who’s willing to be interviewed, with the result that where witnesses are available whatever they witness gets fulsome coverage, and vice-versa when they aren’t accessible.
Thanks mainly to Nile Rodgers no such problems occur with Let’s Dance, Bowie’s best-selling album ever, which for better or worse took him into the mainstream, and plenty of Bowie watchers line up to stick the knife into Tonight, which followed, and also Never Let Me Down. Plenty of associates talk about Absolute Beginners, the movie and the song, which like Jones I love, and he is especially good on Live Aid, which isn’t surprising as his 2014 book The Eighties: One Day, One Decade, focused on just that. Geldof’s charity bash, Bowie’s role in it and its repercussions get an enlightening chapter all to themselves.
‘My biggest mistake during the 80s was to try and anticipate what the audience wanted,’ states Bowie as we move into the doldrums years, followed by the later years when David lived ‘like royalty in exile’, as Jones puts it. Though the 90s were not as interesting as the two previous decades, plenty of people come forward to talk about the less well known music that Bowie recorded in this more settled period of his life, his ongoing need to check out new trends and canny ability to avoid being recognised when he sought anonymity (often by wearing a hat and pretending to read a Greek newspaper), while a few testify to his tetchiness when things did not go precisely according to plan. A surprisingly large number of people met up with Bowie in the period after he abandoned live performance in 2004 to live privately, enjoy his marriage to Iman and raise their daughter, and we learn of projects that were mooted yet not acted upon and how remarkable it was that such secrecy was maintained before the release of The Next Day in 2013. Many interviewees confirm that the rumours concerning Bowie’s poor state of health were ill-founded, at least until the very end, and that he found peace in downtown New York where he could stroll unrecognised into book stores and coffee shops. Almost everyone assumes that his heavy smoking was fatal.
The final chapter is devoted largely to tributes, many of them heartfelt, and the conclusion I reached at the end was that it’s one hell of a shame that a man of Bowie’s talent, wisdom, influence and allure didn’t live to be 100. The comment that struck me most forcibly, however, came earlier in the book, from film-maker Julien Temple: “There have been many people who have liberated us politically, but David liberated us emotionally, sexually,” he says. “Ultimately he wanted to set people free.”
* The claim on page 155 by Lori Mattix that Bowie took her virginity when she was 14, sensationalised earlier this month in The Daily Mail as if it was a scoop, is from such an old interview that I honestly can’t remember where I first read it. It has been available to read on the internet for ages.