Tuesday 12 December 2017

Review: David Bowie by Marc Spitz

(Aurum, £20)

David Bowie does not have fans. He has believers, acolytes, obsessives. And Marc Spitz, an American rock journalist (not to be confused with the Olympic swimmer), is one of them.

Spitz describes himself as a "Bowie-ist", a condition that seemingly manifests itself in a peculiar mixture of grovelling -- at one point he invites us to treat "the idea of Bowie the man ... with as much reverence as Bowie the god" -- and a curiously hubristic self-identification.

"I was born on October 2, 1969," he writes, "the same day David Bowie performed Space Oddity on Top of the Pops.... a career milestone for any artist; it meant you had arrived. That night, both of us arrived."

One fears this coincidence holds less significance for Bowie than it does for Spitz.

Spitz has not met Bowie for this book, although it seems he did once catch sight of him on a New York street, waiting for a traffic light to change: "What's going on in his head right now, I wondered".

Bowie has always refused to co-operate with any biographer, cannily recognising that much of his fascination lies in keeping his mystique intact. It is for this reason, perhaps, that by far the most interesting and illuminating book, Alias David Bowie, published in 1986, should have been written, not by a music critic, but by the investigative reporting team of Peter and Leni Gillman.

It was the Gillmans who provided the first authoritative account of Bowie's tangled family background -- demystifying his own claims to have been raised on the "tough streets" of Brixton, south London, and relocating him to suburban Bromley instead, and revealing the full story of Bowie's half-brother Terry, who spent much of his life in and out of mental institutions before committing suicide in 1985 by laying his head on a railway track. (Spitz, in one of the countless errors that litter this book has this occurring "in the Littlehampton section of London". It was actually in Coulsdon, Surrey: the train was en route to Littlehampton, a Sussex seaside town.)

The shadow of Terry, and Bowie's fear that he too might have a genetic disposition towards madness, has been long held as a key to his character and music -- not least on the album The Man Who Sold the World and the punning title of Aladdin Sane. Here, though, the New York scene-maker Danny Fields intriguingly suggests that Bowie's real fear was that he wasn't mad enough, speculating that the reason he was drawn to Iggy Pop and Lou Reed in the early Seventies was because he thought their madness indicated they were real artists.

"David was never a madman. I think he felt guilty about not being a madman, because how could you really be a good artist without being a madman?"

Better than anybody, Bowie understood the imperative of change in pop music. He made a career out of an identity crisis. He was "an actor", as he once put it, playing "fragments of myself", creating a series of characters -- Ziggy Stardust, blue-eyed soul boy, the Thin White Duke -- for his audience to identify with.

One of his greatest tricks was to elevate sexual ambiguity to a cri de coeur. He profited from the attentions of the gay managers and impresarios who filled the London music scene in the Sixties and Seventies, and cannily advertised his bisexual experiences at a time when gay liberation was emerging as a significant cultural force.

Spitz suggests Bowie's bisexuality was inclined towards women in a ratio of "95pc to 5pc". And Bowie dropped the pose altogether when it was no longer useful to him. He always knew when to move on. His first wife, Angie, who attempted suicide after a squabble over their divorce settlement, claimed Bowie "always felt guilty and self-loathing is what makes him the great artist that he is".

Spitz followed in Bowie's footsteps in London, Berlin and Los Angeles, and his interviews with secondary characters in Bowie's life add a wealth of incidental detail. The book is also useful in chronicling the past 15 or so years, not least his greatest commercial trick -- the scheme devised by a young Wall Street banker named David Pullman to securitise the future earnings of his songwriting catalogue in "Bowie Bonds".

But save for a fleeting reference to his "almost biological hunger for fame and attention", Bowie's character remains frustratingly elusive. We get little sense of the keen intelligence, ferocious autodidacticism and the enormous breadth of his cultural and musical references that have made Bowie one of the most consistently inventive and interesting characters that pop music has produced. The book also suffers from a lack of understanding of the cultural nuances of English life. Diana Dors is apparently most notable for being "immortalised on the cover sleeve of a Smiths' single collection" -- an example of looking through the wrong end of a telescope matched only by Spitz's claim that Buñuel's surrealist classic Un chien andalou was "immortalised" by the Pixies' song Debaser.

Spitz's autobiographical asides also become grating. The book concludes with him sitting in a Manhattan cafe where somebody has told him Bowie sometimes goes for breakfast, and then he walks up the road to a bookshop where Bowie might -- or might not -- go to browse.

"One day," he muses, "maybe (Bowie will) find this book in the music section downstairs, flip through it and say out loud 'No, no, no. You've got it all wrong'."

Bowie, of course, would be much more distressed if he'd got it right.

Mick Brown is the author of Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: the Rise and Fall of Phil Spector

Buy 'David Bowie' from Eason

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