David Bowie: A Life
by Dylan Jones
Penguin Random House £20
If there was one constant in the life of David Bowie it was change. He was Chameleon, Corinthian, Comedian and Caricature. He was a visionary, a drug addict, a snaggle-toothed freak. Mercury poured into a one-legged catsuit. No wonder then that Dylan Jones’ exhaustive oral history of a man whose entire life seemed to be a monstrous ‘faction’ has more than a whiff of necromancy about it. The raising of Lazarus through the recollections of those who worked with him, slept with him, or simply happened across him during one incarnation or another.
The index alone provides a breathtaking sweep through the icons of recent popular culture, and on finding Jones’ exhaustive book on my table, many visitors to my house have quite naturally begun a cursory read at the end, rather than the beginning, picking out the contributors whose names mean the most to them. It’s one way to read this book but would mean missing out on the most unexpected, and therefore, most satisfactory anecdotes that combine to tell a remarkable story.
From Bowie’s often overlooked middle-class beginnings in ‘a huge old red brick house’ in Beckenham, we hear from schoolfriend Mary Lovett (who married rock star Pete Frampton whose father Owen, was Bowie’s art teacher) and Hanif Kureishi. ‘Bowie was a ruling god. There was a picture of him in school and teachers would say. ‘If you don’t behave … you’ll end up like him. He liberated all suburban teenagers’. Fellow suburbanite (and Bowie devotee) Boy George simply recalls Angie Bowie ‘opening a window and telling us to “just fuck off”. We we’re delighted. It was an acknowledgement of sorts.’
Angie Bowie (often disparaged as little more than a troublesome provocation by previous biographers) is recast here as key to Bowie’s success. At least by some. ‘He would not have made it without Angie. In essence David was quite shy and retiring. It was Angie who was the pushy one. She had the vision,’ recalls designer Paul Reeves. Journalist Nick Kent adheres to the more traditional line that ‘Angie was the original Nancy Spungen… she didn’t so much light up a room as detonate it.’ Either way, Angie was more than happy to accommodate Bowie’s monstrous appetites for both cocaine and sex.
‘They would often pick up tricks and bring them back for all sorts of carrying on,’ says Jayne County. Factory actress Cherry Vanilla is less oblique. ‘I was a nymphomaniac. I suppose Bowie was a sex addict … we didn’t go to gyms so dancing and sex were our exercise. You could fuck your fat off.’ Bowie didn’t just have sex with women. ‘Of course David was bisexual. He had an affair with Lionel Bart, but only because it was expedient to do so … he was fully prepared to swap sexual favours for financial advice.’ Given the entrepreneurial nous that culminated with the issue of the hugely lucrative ‘Bowie Bonds’ in the 90s I can only assume he was one hell of a lay.
Much of the more sensationalist content in Jones’ book has circulated for years, but hearing it (this is an oral history and as such reading it is like eavesdropping at the greatest party ever) is a delicious reminder, if one were needed, that what happens behinds closed doors, doesn’t necessarily stay there, and once earned, a reputation can be hard to shake off, as groupie Josette Caruso remembers of one night in Philadelphia.”David went off and came back a few minutes later white as a sheet. He was visibly shocked. Someone had just turned up and offered him a warm dead body to have sex with … that was the perception of Ziggy, and how crazy that tour was … It took him a while to calm down but once it was over (Bowie) just moved right past it.’ And on to Berlin, the city in which Bowie enjoyed one of his most musically satisfying periods, although anyone who has ever struggled to make it into the office after a night on the beers might find it difficult to credit Bowie’s astonishing studio output given his eyewatering consumption of drugs in the ‘smack capital of Europe’.
It has always been impossible to seperate Bowie, the man, from Bowie, the artist. As such there can be no real linearity to any serious examination of Bowie. Although told in chronological order studio anecodtes, or those recalled from the dressing room are compounded with those from the bedroom or the boardroom, which makes the whole as unpredictable as Bowie himself. And as surprising to dip into to.
Gossipy, revelatory and often howlingly inappropriate, Jones’ book sets a new benchmark in rock biography, and is a fitting epitaph to a man who inspired devotion and loyalty to such a degree that this book could not have been written during his lifetime, which was ended by liver cancer two days after the release of his 25th studio album, Blackstar, which coincided with his 69th birthday. Not even his collaborators knew he was ill.
‘Enigma is not usually a renewable resource. Once you lose it it’s gone forever,’ says critic Dorian Lynskey. ‘In that respect, as in so many others, David Bowie is the exception.’ His final gift to himself, as well as to us, was to allow this brilliant album to be received on its own merits, undistorted by a sense of finality and the sentimentality that comes with it.
Probably no two Bowie fans recall the same relationship with their hero, but perhaps Lady Gaga, no slouch herself when it comes to projecting otherwordliness comes closest to identifying what made Bowie unique from a fans’ point of view: ‘You meet or see a musician that has something that is of another planet, of another time, and it changes you forever. I believe everyone has that, don’t you? The one thing you saw as a kid that made you go, “Oh, OK. Now I know who I am”.’
Throughout David Bowie: A Life, Jones acts as ringmaster to Bowie’s Barnum, setting the stage and illuminating the darker recesses with fizzing incandescence. Remarkably I realise how little I, a lifelong Bowie fan, actually knew about the man who strode the world’s stage, often in heels, for half a century, until I read this book. Once I’ve got my breath back. I shall start again. From a different place. As Bowie himself did too many times to count.