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David Bowie: man of words, man of music

13th October 2011 - Jonathan Ruppin


The Man Who Sold the World by Peter DoggettOn Tuesday 25th October, Peter Doggett appears at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, to discuss his new book, The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s. The author of There's a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of 60s Counter-Culture and You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of the Beatles has written a superb track-by-track analysis of Bowie's entire 1970s output, interspersed with deeper reflections on the albums and Bowie's place in the music, culture and political mood of a tumultous decade.


Since Bowie's apparent retirement from the music business, numerous books on him have been published. Our Web Editor looks at the best of them and considers why so many writers have tried to pin down in words one of rock's most mercurial figures.


David Bowie: Reality tourI was too broke to buy a ticket when David Bowie last toured, in 2004. But so prolific had his output been at the time and so genuine his enthusiasm for performing live that I presumed I'd just have to save up till the next round of gigs. Sadly, a heart attack brought the tour to a premature end and Bowie has, it would seem, retired to a well-deserved life of fatherhood and romantic bliss.


We've seen occasional guest appearances - on stage with Arcade Fire, providing backing vocals for Scarlet Johanssen's surprisingly bearable album of Tom Waits covers - and earlier this year came the online leaking of Toy, the unreleased album from 2001 that fell foul of some record label dispute about which nobody seems quite clear.


Various deluxe reissues of classic period albums haven't offered anything new for the dedicated Bowiephile, so those of us not completist enough to set to work tracking down obscure South American vinyl singles with slightly different edits have had to turn to other sources to sate our hunger.


Bowie: A Biography by Marc SpitzFortunately, there have been plenty of books to keep us out of mischief. A new biography is rarely far away and we've seen them both this year and last. Marc Spitz's Bowie: A Biography and Paul Trynka's Starman (of which the hardback is now out of print, with the paperback due next March) and are typical of rock biographies by generalist writers. They're hardly cut n' paste, but both lack a real feeling for what makes Bowie so special to his fans and are largely free of anything not already known. Trynka's book is the more accurate - if such a thing is possible with such a slippery subject - with Spitz frequently adopting a jocular tone that falls flat too often and betrayed by errors such as his musing on how good a Bond villain Bowie might have made had ever had the chance: he famously turned down the role of Max Zorin that Christopher Walken was eventually to play in The Living Daylights. Neither book comes close to displacing David Buckley's Strange Fascination, published in 1996 and revised in 2005, as the standard biography, for fan and casual enquirer alike.


Jeff Hudson's plainly titled David Bowie is simply a collection of photographs, but when your subject is a man whose visual imagination matches that of his extraordinary music, the result can only be spectacular.


Bowie has ranged across so many musical styles - although his dabbling in reggae is best forgotten - that many writers have preferred to focus on just one period of his career.


Bowie in Berlin by Thomas Jerome SeabrookFans of Bowie's acting debut, The Man Who Fell to Earth, will no doubt be sceptical that the author of Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town, Thomas Jerome Seabrook, was named as such by his parents. Despite such Bowie-like dissembling, he has produced rather neat summary of the thoroughly inaccurately named Berlin trilogy (scarcely half was recorded there), Low, "Heroes" and Lodger, in which he and Brian Eno contrived to combine so many musical influences using so many innovative techniques that the result could only be cacophony or genius... fortunately Lou Reed had already delivered the definitive version of the former in 1975, Metal Machine Music, so genius it was, with the added bonus of two fingers up to the record execs who'd been banking on more "plastic soul", as Bowie had summarised Young Americans. Bowie in Berlin delivers a slight imbalance of biography over musical assessment and could do with the occasional pinch of salt to accompany Bowie's stories about his time in the company of Iggy Pop, but it's a thoroughly creditable effort.


The first in that trilogy, Low, is the beneficiary of a volume in Continuum's pocket-sized series of extended essays on classic albums, the 33⅓s. Novelist Hugo Wilcken is your guide to the album that is a required component of any respectable record collection; it's also the album which Bowie has hinted is the one of which he is proudest. It's not definitive, but it's impossible not to stop every other page to play the track under discussion.


Albums such as 1.Outside and Heathen are proof that Bowie was worth listening to long after Scary Monsters. Dave Thompson's Hallo Spaceboy: The Rebirth of David Bowie is hardly an in-depth look at Bowie's self-annihilation through Tin Machine and consequent resurrection as devil-may-care genre dilettante, but for anyone who knows only his 1970s work, it's a reasonable place to start.


The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas PeggBut Bowie fans have their bible: the sixth edition of Nicholas Pegg's The Complete David Bowie was published last month with 35,000 words of added content since the previous printing. Track by track, album by album, tour by tour, Pegg has meticulously compiled all there is to know about Bowie's creative output and describes it in encylopaedic detail, with a dry wit that I imagine David Bowie himself, with his mischievously English sense of humour, has probably allowed himself to enjoy. For example, Pegg notes that 'Fame', revitalised in later tours, has been reclaimed as the "prowling monster" it once was. He characterises one of my favourite 1990s tracks, 'The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty)', as "speeding ambient funk". Revealing that one of Bowie's mid-60s bands performed 'Chim Chim Cheree' from Mary Poppins, he accurately surmises that any extant radio recording would "blow 'The Laughing Gnome' [Bowie's notorious novelty hit] out of the water".


In compiling this edition, Pegg compared notes with Kevin Cann, author of Any Day Now: David Bowie - The London Years: 1967-1974. A painstaking day-by day account of Bowie's life in London before leaving for America, the Continent and rock deity, it may not appeal to the casual reader, but it reveals the irresistible trajectory of a man who knew no boundaries in the studio or elsewhere.


Newest of all is another essential for the Bowie bookshelf, Peter Doggett's The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie the 1970s (which he discusses at a free event at Foyles Charing Cross Road on 25th October). Following the model of Ian MacDonald's seminal guide to the Beatles, Revolution in the Head, Doggett tackles each song as chronologically as history permits, interspersed with short presentations on the albums and other germane topics.


It's unprecedented to read an author so knowledgeable about Bowie, his music and their shifting location in the musical continuum who is prepared to put the most untouchable instances of Bowie's genius under such unwavering scrutiny. Often he gets to the heart of Bowie's missteps: he spots the miscalculations in much of Bowie's album of sixties covers, Pin Ups, he identifies the dichotomous influence of John Lennon's presence on the recording of Young Americans, he exposes the naivety of his toying with fascism.


At times, it seems as if Doggett is frustrated with Bowie for his magpie tendencies, for his playfulness and his effrontery, for his political disengagement, or the impressionistic obscurity of his lyrics. Perhaps this is simply frustration at trying to pin down a chaotic butterfly whose wingbeats sired hurricanes, a melodramatist possessed by music and a man with a wilful propensity for selling a musical dummy. But Doggett's book is a thrilling challenge for any Bowie devotee, glossing over nothing and full of truly original perspectives.


But, of course, what would trump any of these would be an autobiography. I know an editor who has published some of the bestselling books ever whose biggest ambition is to get Bowie to write his lifestory. I know another editor who got as far as discussing a proposal at length with his legendary PA, Coco Schwab, ten years ago. Both were always doomed to disappointment.


Bowie has always had a flair for storytelling, as any decent interviewer has swiftly discovered. One of my favourite recordings is taken from a 1999 US radio show in which he tells a mischievous shaggy dog story about having written a song in prison with Johnny Cash, before launching into a delightful impersonation of the Man in Black singing 'Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)'.


Nat TateHis most successful fiction came in conjunction with William Boyd. Both were on the board of Modern Painters magazine and together they concocted a biography of fictional artist Nat Tate that was so convincing many eminent art critics, in order to avoid looking ignorant, claimed to know his work.


But in the words of Peter Doggett, Bowie's "ability to deliver flagrant inaccuracies within the utterly unreliable context of a promotional interview, and with a poker face, has been a hallmark of his entire career". The nearest we have to genuine autobiography is the 10,000 words of reminiscence he contributed to Mick Rock's photographic documentation of the Ziggy Stardust era, Moonage Daydream (out of print but well worth tracking down). And it's the nearest we'll ever get. Bowie has no interest in demystifying the legend with such trivialities as plain facts.


Perhaps that's fitting. David Bowie may have conjured up numerous masks to wear throughout his career, but Bowie himself is a creation of plain David Jones, the boy born in Brixton the night the clock on the Town Hall struck - so he claims - thirteen.


Click here to book tickets to the event with Peter Doggett on 25th October.

Click here to read our exclusive interview with Nicholas Pegg, author of The Complete David Bowie.


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