Ever since undergoing heart surgery in 2004, one-time workaholic David Bowie has made very few appearances, recordings or new artistic statements. In recent years, however, interest in the enigmatic star has not waned as evidenced by two new books, and one updated/revised one, published so far this year.
With his latest biography, “David Bowie: Starman” (Little, Brown and Company) former Mojo Magazine editor Paul Trynka digs deep, mining both previously published material on the man and also conducting over 250 new interviews, with friends, collaborators, lovers and associates who were there when it all happened. This could prove to be the closest thing to a definitive biography unless Bowie decides to spill the beans himself. And one has to wonder, given Bowie’s manner of manipulating the media, if even that would surpass this as an honest assessment of his life and career.
In keeping with the title “Starman,” a large part of Trynka’s text focuses on Bowie’s obsession with, and rise to fame, and the people who helped get him there. Combining the artist’s own genius with those of musicians (Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Brian Eno, etc.), producers (Tony Visconti, Ken Scott, Nile Rodgers, etc.) and people he emulated and admired (Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Andy Warhol, etc.), these working relationships brought out the best in him, and in turn, Bowie went from a mid-level pop artist to a bonafide rock star to a mega conglomerate of music, computer games and iTunes apps. The book deals with where Bowie found and borrowed inspiration from (“Starman” = “Over the Rainbow,” “Queen Bitch” = Velvet Underground) and some of the works that owe so much debt to his collaborators.
One example being “The Man That Sold the World” album, in which Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson labored over in the studio, helping to turn David from a light-weight pop singer to a hard rockin’ super-nova, in turn touching off arguably his best run of albums.
The details of his early life are brought into sharp focus, perhaps more so than any other bio on him, as Trynka goes back and interviews some of his earliest, closest friends and bandmates. There are plenty of sex, drug and rock & roll stories for those who dig hearing about debauchery. Bowie’s very dark cocaine period is chronicled, along with his exile to Germany with Iggy (see also Trynka’s definitive Iggy bio “Open Up and Bleed”). Some well known tales are written off as fiction including; Angie Bowie’s claim that she found Bowie and Mick Jagger in bed together. It’s cited here as something Angie made up to sell her own book and that neither of the two star’s huge egos would have allowed it. The book seems to be an honest portrayal analyzing his artistic genius, sometimes gentle soul and at times his darker, cold persona.All of the music is explored here from his humble R&B and pop beginnings, to his defining albums – “Hunky Dory,” “Ziggy Stardust” and “Station to Station” – to the commercially successful, yet perhaps artistic decline of his ’80s catalog – “Let’s Dance”, “Tonight,” etc.) and beyond. What this biography succeeds at is encouraging the reader go back and listen to the albums while reading the text, in the process gaining a better understanding and appreciation of his back catalog while re-examining many of his works. A couple of sections of photos and a fairly complete discography help complete the picture. This one is for those who want to understand where the chameleon came from, where he has been and where he is is now. Highly recommended!
If you are a fan of Bowie’s Mick Ronson-era work (“TMWSTW” thru “Pinups”… and, yes, that would be me), along with a little before and a little after, then “David Bowie: Any Day Now, The London Years: 1947-1974” by Kevin Cann and Kenneth Pitt (Adelita) is the shit! A full-blown, illustrated account of his activities from birth, through 1974 on the “Diamond Dogs” tour, is presented here in glorious fashion.
Month-by-month, week-by-week and in many cases day-by-day accounts of everything he did. A nice large coffee table book, “Any Day Now” is bursting from the binding with rare photos, posters, trade-ads, memorabilia and complete album sessionographies. Beautifully laid out, this book is perfect to just pick up, open to a page and be amazed at the stunning collection of graphics and information included here that details the the rise of Bowie. Many sidebars feature key players (Mick Ronson, Marc Bolan, etc.) and just a plethora of cover shots, out-takes and other rare eye-candy fill this volume cover-to-cover. Essential!This is where it gets really geeky… “The Complete David Bowie” by Nicholas Pegg (Titan Books), completely updated and revised this year with 35,000 new words (!?!), has no photos inside but is 736 pages of mind-boggling information on everything Bowie. Every album from 1967 to the present day has detailed production histories and insights to the making of and release of each long-player. Every song – and not just those recorded, but also the unreleased, played live, produced, involved in, played once, etc. – is detailed with facts and anecdotes pertaining to each entry. Every tour complete with set-lists and histories, every one-off live performance, every movie, play and TV show he was involved in.
Still not enough? How about all the videos, BBC sessions, his paintings, his internet activity, again, all dissected in-depth? And just in case that doesn’t do it… a complete dateline where you can easily look up all his work on the stage, in the studio and on the screen. Whew… exhaustive.. but it is all here. From from the 11-year-old’s skiffle performance at summer camp to his cameo on “Spongebob Squarepants”! Again, a good one to just pick up, open to a page and dive in.
All three of these books are enjoyable reads and not one of them trumps the others as far as being definitive, as each offers a different take on the subject. And your preference may depend on:
A: If you care to learn about the artist known as Bowie.
B: To what extent.
To learn of his life, it is “Starman”. To enjoy a fantastic, detailed, visual trip during a specific place and time, it is “Any Day,” and if you just need to know more, more and more… then “The Complete David Bowie” may be your bag. But you can’t go wrong with any, as each is an insightful look at the “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud”.
Review by Tim Livingston