Reviewed by Annabel
When the world woke up on January 10th to hear that David Bowie had died just two days after Blackstar was released, we all mourned. I still can’t believe that he’s gone. More than any other pop star coming out of the 1960s, Bowie was a true creative genius. I grew up with him – I replaced the David Cassidy posters on my bedroom walls with Bowie and Bolan in the early 1970s when I became a teenager. I’ve followed him ever since, buying every album, always interested in what he was doing, which part he was then playing. Bowie, and later Tom Waits, was the real musical touchstone in my life, not the Rolling Stones; however much I love their brand of blues’n’rock’n’roll, they’re not theatrical, musical innovators, men of mystery in the same way as Bowie.
Ever since his death we have been obsessed by him. The next boxed set re-release of his albums will feature tracks from The Gouster, his unreleased album that morphed into Young Americans. The Proms featured an amazing evening of Bowie performed by the incredible musicians of the s t a r g a z e ensemble and friends. Lazarus, the musical Bowie wrote as a sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth is coming to London from New York – appropriately in a South London theatre nearer Bowie’s birthplace rather than the glitzy West End. The shelves are groaning with tributes too, and Paul Morley’s book is one of them.
As a Bowie obsessive from the earliest days (Morley is three years older than me) and one of our foremost UK pop writers and artistic advisor to the V&A Bowie retrospective of earlier last year, he is one of the best placed to review his life. This is no normal biography though – it’s Morley’s own outpouring, an account of his life with Bowie as much as it is a history of the man and his many faces and influences. It’s an appreciation too, Morley’s vision of Bowie’s ever-changing mind rather than sticking purely to the facts – something that many readers posting their ratings on a certain website don’t quite get. Morley is completely upfront about this:
This is my Bowie. It is not true, it is not false. It is not right, it is not wrong. Some things he did are more interesting to me than others. The 1970s surrounded me, all those departures in style, so there will be a lot of that, but there are the years before, the years after, the twenty-first-century aftermath, and what comes next, as his life becomes something else again and again, and is remembered in constantly surprising and inventive ways. (p59)
Morley tells each of the decades in a different style, but in the introduction he starts with the moment that Bowie first came into his life when Morley was thirteen through to the day after he died and Morley was besieged by producers wanting a talking head or comment. Morley declined.
We move to the 1960s and meet David ‘Davie’ Jones, who shares his birthday on the 8th of January with Elvis and Shirley Bassey – surely the stars were looking down on him in 1947. David Jones even then is a bit of a butterfly – flitting from band to band, project to project and early success is elusive, but he is always curious and his sophisticated tastes encompass more than just rock’n’roll – jazz legend Charles Mingus is as much of an influence as Little Richard.
This self-consciousness and willingness to be so protean when it came to his style and sound would be the act of a devious opportunist on the make, but also of a sharp, hungry, unstoppably skittish mind. (p72)
Punctuating the decades are shorter sections full of statements: ‘David Bowie is…’ This was the mantra coined by Morley for the exhibition at the V&A Museum in London in 2013, which has since travelled the world.
Reaching 1970, Morley changes style again, presenting Bowie’s 1970s in 140 scenes – each a vignette set over one day, some just a single line, like the 93rd one from 1976:
He is told that rock and roll has been good to him. ‘Well, I’ve been good for rock and roll.’ (p316)
The 1980s onwards are covered in just 100 pages, although Blackstar featured large in the opening sections, and Morley already said he’d be concentrating on the earlier years. Interestingly, Bowie himself was a sleeping partner in the V&A retrospective, but made his own archives available – and he’d kept everything.
Bowie was also a book lover, and towards the end of the book, Morley includes his list of his 100 favourite books, which Bowie produced in 2013. It’s surprising and wide-ranging, giving another completely fascinating insight into his mind.
You can’t deny that Morley knows his subject backwards and is a true fan, but his writing style may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s wordy, highly literate and full of references; the sentences can be long and rambling, multi-claused, causing you to forget where they started, but they can also be evocative and beguiling in their way. This book was written in around ten weeks, although some sections are based around previous work. There is some repetition and it could have been edited and proof-read a little better in places – no doubt, commercial pressures reduced the publishing timeline.
That said, I very much enjoyed Morley’s book and it has whetted my appetite to read more by Morley, and definitely more about Bowie – I have Sean Egan’s 2015 anthology of interviews, Bowie on Bowie, and most frequent collaborator Tony Visconti’s autobiography Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy lined up. I’ll finish with one more quote from Morley:
Will I attempt to do the impossible, and summarise him in one sentence; all you had to do was ask him a question, and he turned on. (p61)
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Paul Morley, The Age of Bowie, (Simon & Schuster, 2016) ISBN: 9781471148088, Hardback, 496 pages.
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