Monday 19 March 2018

Being Bowie: separating the man from the myth

Music: David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones, Preface Publishing, hardback, 576 pages, €18.99

The man who changed the world: One contributor to the book says that describing Bowie as a chameleon is false - rather than mingling with the environment, he changed it
The man who changed the world: One contributor to the book says that describing Bowie as a chameleon is false - rather than mingling with the environment, he changed it
David Bowie: A Life

Tony Clayton Lea

A strong sense of authenticity sets this exceptional oral biography of the late singer apart from all the rest.

'I went to Bromley Tech, seven years behind David Bowie… He was this ruling god… A figurehead for us… There was a picture of him in school, and the teachers would say, 'if you don't behave yourself, Kureishi, you'll end up like him'. He liberated all suburban teenagers."

British writer Hanif Kureishi is just one of more than 180 people that Dylan Jones (bestselling author and present editor-in-chief of GQ magazine) interviewed for this exceptional oral biography. Because he actually knew and worked with David Bowie, Kureishi's words ring true.

It is this strong sense of authenticity - rather than the usual kind of overly analysed biography, which outlines a life lived from start to end, with added critical context and no small degree of pretentiousness thrown in for good measure - that sets this book apart from all the rest that have been written about Bowie since the man's death on January 10, 2016.

You would wonder, however, whether the world - or even the most die-hard of Bowie fan - needs yet another biography of one of the most influential pop stars of the past 40 years. Especially one by the person responsible for one of the worst books ever written on the man - 2012's When Ziggy Played Guitar: David Bowie and the Four Minutes that Shook the World.

Thankfully, Jones keeps his own thoughts to a minimum, and looks instead to a vast array of people who grew up with Bowie, who had relationships with him, who worked and collaborated with him, and so on.

There is a modicum of appropriate cut and paste from previously published interviews, which is par for the course for what is essentially an unauthorised biography.

And while Jones has done a fine job in corralling such a spread of people, not even a writer of his standing and reputation (he is a board member of the British Fashion Council; and in 2013, he was awarded an OBE) could persuade Bowie's immediate family members (wife Iman, son Duncan, and daughter Alexandra) and close-known friends (including longtime personal assistant Coco Schwab and actor confidantes Tilda Swinton and Gary Oldman) to be interviewed on the record.

There is, then, a slight sense of empty promise conflicting with the book's back jacket PR acclaim of how it depicts "scene by scene… the movie of Bowie's life" and "lights up every inch of Bowie's extraordinary odyssey."

This noted, it should be made clear that David Bowie: A Life is the most insightful and plainly dressed book about its subject you'll read this or any other year. Even the cover image points not to the totemic, colourful rock star many of us are familiar with, but rather a more subdued and straightforward figure. Ultimately, the book is a wealth of testimony that sees praise and admiration balanced by criticism and caution.

Of the latter, Jones writes of the perception of Bowie's infamous magpie tendencies, and how he would fastidiously construct "his personae and his records like a bomb-squad technician, deciding which colour wire to snip, petrified that a mistake would end his seemingly inexorable righteous passage".

In reality, writes Jones, the performer was merely joining "things up as he went, using bits and pieces he'd collected along the way… Bowie wasn't unaware when he lifted something; he knew." Perhaps more damningly, an unattributed quote from (as Jones timidly reveals) "a very notable person" has them apoplectically ripping apart the performer: "He's always called a magpie, but he's not, he's a fucking thief. The number of times I've heard other musicians, other artists, say that Bowie has stolen something of theirs, or called a producer they had mentioned they were thinking of working with, or a designer, or a songwriter. He just can't be trusted."

Celebration and respect for his work and characteristics are no strangers here. Alan Edwards, whose PR work for Bowie amounted to almost 40 years, offers much understanding of the man's personality. Of his instinctive love of clothes, Edwards says: "He wasn't in any way a fashionista. It was something that came naturally to him, but not something he obsessed about."

Of Bowie's preoccupation with art (he began to buy and collect art seriously in the 1990s - including works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst and David Bomberg), his collection curator, Beth Greenacre, states that he was an observer and historian: "He really looked back at history to understand his current position."

Of Bowie's post-drug years, after which, in 1992, he married Somali-American model Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid, the writer William Boyd says "he wasn't self-absorbed at all. Very open… No sense of an anguished soul or tormented artist".

The book carries on in similar fashion - voices chiming in via the chronological timeline of obscurity, ambition, fame, subversion of rock music strategies, stylistic reinvention and all the way up to ill health, seclusion, a startling comeback in 2013 and an equally surprising death three years later. Jones expertly gathers all of these recollections and opinions with due regard to allowing eyewitness accounts to tell as complete a story as possible.

In only the way it can, the book draws to a sombre, reflective close by way of tributes. BBC Radio 4's John Wilson reckons that describing Bowie as a chameleon is false - rather than mingling with the environment, he changed it. Perhaps the final word, however, should go to Brian Eno, Bowie's touchstone creative partner on some of the most pivotal albums of his career.

"Ideas arrive at such a speed," he said of his friend's rapid stream of thoughts, theories and ideas. "It's like watching a fast-motion film of a flower blossom."

Is Planet Earth still blue? Do the stars still look very different today? Yes to both questions, but this superb book helps to sort out the man from the myth and vice versa, and our understanding of him is all the better for it.

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