Saturday, January 20, 2018

BOOKS: David Bowie: A Life

There's a great story in David Bowie A Life, Dylan Jones' recent 500-plus page oral history, where Bowie is on a beach filming the video for "Ashes to Ashes." When a cranky old man  wandered into the shot, the producer of the video went raging after him. "Don't you know who that is?" he said, pointing to Bowie. The old man shrugged. "Some cunt in a clown suit." Bowie heard about this and loved it. "That's me," Bowie said. "A cunt in a clown suit." This, I think, would've been a great title for Jones' book. In the past year alone we've had Nixon: The Life, Sam Shepard, A Life, Muhammad Ali, A Life, Lou Reed, A Life, and I'm sure dozens of others with similar titles. Bowie: A Cunt in a Clown Suit would certainly stand out.

Jones tackles the Bowie saga with gusto, interviewing hundreds of people, but there's a problem in the telling. First, Jones is clearly a doe-eyed Bowie fanatic, and second, it seems everybody is basically telling the same story over and over. Yes, I get it. Bowie borrowed or stole bits of this and that from others to create his own sound and image, he had a voracious, galloping intellect, and though he was a drugged out jerk in his younger days, he was a much nicer fellow when he got older. We read much from well-meaning idolaters who describe Bowie as a "tremendous cultural engine," and compare his death to "a hole in the sky." Unfortunately, the people who might have some insights worth hearing - Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Mick Ronson - have long since croaked.

Bowie came from a family of suicides and schizophrenics, wanted to be a rocker from the first time he heard Little Richard, and learned how to schmooze from his father, a public relations man with a prominent British firm. Bowie's mother was aloof, unpredictable; she'd later send letters to newspapers saying how disappointed she was in her son. When Bowie was born, the midwife who delivered him said, "This child has been on Earth before."

In the 1960s Bowie tried on various guises - the jazz guy, the blues geek, the mod, the hippie, the sax player, the mime, the folkie - and existed on the fringes of the London music scene. People suspected he was talented and charismatic, but it took him several years before he had a minor hit with "Space Oddity," and another few years again before the U.K. was swept up in Bowie mania. A 1972 appearance on Britain's Top of the Pops where Bowie sang "Starman"  was a galvanizing event for British teens, akin to when us yanks saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. By then, Bowie had morphed into his Ziggy Stardust persona, a gimmick that solidified him as one of the era's leading rock idols. 

He appeared in movies, changed his image with almost every album, snorted cocaine until there were holes in his brain, took part in drug-fueled orgies, dabbled in occultism, had some memorable radio hits, and maintained his reputation as an ever-evolving outre performance artist. He made headlines by saying he was bisexual, which no celebrities would cop to in the 1970s, but 20 years later settled down to a fairly normal family life with fashion model Iman. He lived anonymously in New York, and liked it that way. When health problems slowed him in the 2000s, he became a kind of gentleman recluse, spending more time in art galleries than on the rock 'n roll stage. He managed his affairs, accumulated a fortune even as his cachet waned, and endured a series of nasty biographies that depicted him as a cold-hearted, manipulative type trying to outrun a family history of madness. When he died of cancer in 2016, the reaction was astounding, with fans around the world using social media as a kind of wailing wall, giving the impression that a prize was waiting for the person who grieved the most. Perhaps it was guilt over having ignored him for so long.

Jones, an award-winning editor of British GQ magazine and an unabashed Bowie fan, gives us a lot to mull over. There was the time Bowie told Lou Reed to clean up his act, and Reed responded by beating Bowie senseless. There was Angie, Bowie's first wife, who is considered by some to be the villain of the piece, and there was Bowie's old manager, Tony Defries, who reluctantly participated in the book, and then sent Jones a bill for $360,000. There were the musicians Bowie screwed over,  and the ones who accepted his shortcomings and were simply glad to know him, put best by guitarist Earl Slick who told Jones, "He wasn't a saint, but I'll miss him a lot."

Then there was the monumental commercial triumph of Let's Dance in 1983,  an album Bowie manufactured specifically to be a hit, to get him on MTV, to make up for the money he'd missed out on in previous years. He welcomed the success, wore it rather well for a short time, but the phenomenon seemed to knock him off the rails. He was never the same.  Yet, Bowie maintained his status as an icon, as a kind of Internet prophet, and as a performer who inspired people to enjoy a more fluid sexuality, one who mingled rock music with literature, fashion, theater, and art. Martin Scorsese cast him as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ; Nirvana covered "The Man Who Sold The World." There were projects that never came off, like the Ziggy Stardust musical, or an album of Elvis Presley tunes sung by Iggy Pop. There was even talk that Bowie might play the lead in a movie about Fred Astaire. (Fred liked the idea!)

Jones deserves credit for putting his love for Bowie on hold long enough to explore some of the nastier items on the ledger,  particularly Bowie's deflowering of a 14-year-old virgin - criminal behavior in the guise of rock debauchery - and Jones doesn't let Bowie slide. Journalist Paul Gorman lambasts those who put Bowie on a pedestal. "This absurd elevation (after his death) needs puncturing," Gorman tells Jones. "He wasn't my cup of tea," Elton John says, describing Bowie as "snooty." The darker aspects of Bowie 's life don't go on for more than a page or two, then it's back to how Bowie, you know, changed the universe by being a sharp dresser.

The book is full of interesting details but there are huge gaps in it, as if Jones ignored anything that wasn't mentioned by the subjects he interviewed. And despite Chris Stein, Courtney Love, and others gushing about how much they love Bowie's music, they don't offer much insight as to why Bowie was so great or ahead of his time.

Jones occasionally stops the narrative to chuck in tidbits about his own encounters with Bowie, which aren't especially revealing or entertaining. Jones gets some good mileage out of Bowie's friendship with John Lennon, but he spends too many pages on Bowie's art collection, his fashionista pals, and the massive Live Aid concert, where Bowie had the misfortune to follow Queen. In the end, David Bowie A Life is uneven, and overlong, but in a good way. 

It's interesting how everyone tiptoes around the subject of Bowie's anemic later albums. Jones rightly describes most of them as weak, but in reading this book I came up with my own theory as to why Bowie lost his touch. Pay attention: The first half of the book is filled with reminiscences by Bowie's old chums, musicians, ex-girlfriends, schoolmates, and mentors. It was from this grit that the pearl emerged. The second half of the book is all Kate Moss, Ricky Gervais, Bono, Baz Lurhmann, and museum curators, a decidedly un-gritty bunch who provided Bowie with a lot of celebrity arse-licking. You don't create something like Station to Station while hanging with Tommy Hilfiger.

In a way, I wish the book had been 500 pages of Bowie quotes. He's far more interesting than those whom Jones interviews, especially when knocking out bon mots like, "The rich know how much money they've got, and the wealthy don't."

One's interest in Bowie is usually in direct relation to how boring your life was when you first heard him. I recall vividly how Bowie's music practically lifted me out of my teen doldrums, where the only entertainment in my Massachusetts suburb was church league basketball and listening to my father complain about gas prices. Bowie made me feel smarter, and while Jones is wrong when he declares Bowie was as important as The Beatles - certainly not in my neighborhood - I could hear a bit of myself in some of the people he interviews, one after another saying Bowie had provided them with an escape route from their lives. Did Bowie mean any more to me than Lou Reed or Woody Allen or  Jack Nicholson? I'm not sure.

But I'll tell you what. Reading Dylan Jones' book, as bloated and unwieldy as it may be, made me think so.

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