David Bowie: A Life by Dylan Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In the wake of Bowie’s death, I bought a bunch of biographies of the man, wanting to know more. Hell, I guess we all did, ’round then – after all, how do you account for a single version of the life of one guy who lived so many variants, and was held close by so many for such a multiplicity of reasons? I figured I’d get around to ’em all in time, and then the idea of there being no more David Bowie caused me to chuck the brakes on the whole read-the-biog thing.
Until now. David Bowie: A Life, the most recent Bowie biog to surface, takes a conversational approach over the standard facts-times-sawdust take on the format, and works winningly well, though not without caveats.
A common problem with biographies is that they often seek to skewer the subject with precision, only to end up with a formalin-filled version of the person in question. (See this biog of Howard Hughes for a great example). Here, Jones has stitched together a chronological sequence of lyric-cribbing chapter headings, and told Bowie’s story in the words of others, with occasional italicised interruptions to keep us on the straight and narrow.
And man, did he talk to everyone, or so it seemed. The usual suspects – Angie! Tony Visconti! Carlos Alomar! Iggy! – turn up throughout, as do childhood friends, lovers, groupies, celeb hangers-on, label wonks, fashion designers and pretty much anyone else with a salutary word. (Including DB himself, often.) Over 180 interviewees have proffered their thoughts, with some – Baz Luhrmann?! – proving surprisingly deep. There’s some notable exceptions, addressed in the preface – neither Iman nor Coco Schwab were able to be pinned down with a dictaphone – but there’s an array of commentary here that proves this is more than just a series of quotes from the NME‘s article morgue.
Part of me applauds this approach: it seems to sit well with how Bowie curated his appearance, how he left so much open to interpretation. What we have is not a bloodless, dry version of the guy, but the ephemeral recollections, affected by time and (often) drugs. Bill Pullman’s character in Lost Highway (which Bowie helped soundtrack) says:
“I like to remember things my own way – the way I remember them – not necessarily the way they happened.”
…something I think is very applicable here.
This permeability of record rigour isn’t a concern for me. There’s other things that’re more niggling, though they weren’t enough to stop me reading. While there is a (faintly snarky) dramatis personae to help explain who’s who, and a copious index, there’s no footnoting or provenance of quotes. I assume they’re all from the interviews Jones collected, but there’s no indicator if they’re the same sessions, or in what order. Consequently, there’s moments that may have followed each other in the interview that might appear chapters apart. It’s not a big thing, and I understand it’s done to better create a sense of drive through the story, or to apply le mot juste to part of Bowie’s life, but it did rankle a little.
Throughout, Bowie is cast in a fairly glowing light, which makes the complaints about his behaviour (apart from his ability to drop people he no longer had a use for) seem like outliers. The relationship with his mother is mentioned by one source as being a real area of criticism, but it’s not really reflected in the book. I don’t know that this is a case of pulling punches, but perhaps is merely an offshoot of there being less in the way of willing sources. Additionally, there’s little mention made of the underage sex issue during the peak of his fame. That’s not to say that should overshadow the rest of the work, and it is mentioned, but it seemed to be introduced and brushed off relatively quickly.
However, any organisational qualms I might have were a small price to play. There’s an anecdote on every page that’s worth hearing, from coke-induced nasal reconstruction to massive piles of coke to generosity to being offered sex with corpses to studio gossip to more coke to pretty much anything else you’d like to hear about in a book about the guy. The music is important, and the gossip’s a close second – but it all has the ring of authenticity that makes it worth the journey.
Bowie, obviously, was important to me. Not as important, maybe, as others have gone on about. But he meant a lot to me in my own, silly way. (There’s more of that here, and here, if you’re interested.) What this book brought home was – though I’m aware there’s a lot of postmortem elevation of opinion with regards any biographical portrait – that the guy was special to everyone in their own way. And this book captures that: a man deeply loved by a lot of people, each in their own way.
It’s not perfect, no, but this collection of gossip, of long-held secrets and outright worship and bitching is a fine memorial tapestry. If you’re a fan, you’ll love it.
And you’ll miss him even more.