David Bowie’s death led to an explosion of activity around the star’s life and music. Lifelong fan DYLAN JONES explains why he chose to write one more Bowie book
If you had ever doubted that David Bowie would have an afterlife, all you really need to do is go onto Instagram.
Here, in the virtual world of uncopyrighted images, friendly memes and personal reminiscences you’ll find a world that Bowie could never have imagined while he was alive. Sure, he was one of the first rock stars of his generation to understand the power of the internet – and he was obviously so attuned to the dissemination of imagery (especially his own) he probably would have applauded the extraordinary amount of Bowie-related imagery bouncing between phones, desktops and laptops – but I think even he would have been surprised by the sheer amount of it.
It’s everywhere. Not just photographs of him in concert, not just album covers and party pictures, not just formal portraits by the likes of Justin de Villeneuve, Tony McGee and Terry O’Neill, and not just the tsunami of images relating to his final album, Blackstar. No, the most popular image, or motif, on Instagram is the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt, the one originally photographed by Brian Duffy, and a logo that now accessories dogs, cats, lampshades, jackets, garage doors, wardrobes, space rockets, cars, footballs, children, rock stars, cheese, shoes, fruit, furniture, wallpaper, literally anything you can think of. The lightning bolt has become our collective way of allowing David Bowie to take ownership of anything and everything, almost as a benevolent stamp of approval. I myself have been as guilty as anyone else, first by posting Bowie-related images as a way of pledging my allegiance to him as well as showing some affection after he died, but then almost as a way to underscore my relationship with him.
This relationship is something I have just turned into a book, David Bowie: A Life, which is being published by Preface, a division of Penguin, this month. Having already written a Bowie biography (Ziggy Played Guitar), and having read all the other dozens of Bowie-related biographies, I had no interest in writing another one. But when the idea hatched of writing an oral biography, a collection of other people’s voices, I started to take interest. This was something I thought I could do justice to, and so I spent a year interviewing 150 people who all knew Bowie well – friends, musicians, lovers, wives, directors, authors, actors, critics, artists, childhood friends, everyone. Having read all the previous books I knew how high the bar was, so I made sure to interview all the people who really mattered.
The book is made up of all the important voices, and I suppose in hindsight they fall into three very distinct groups. First there are the 50 people you need to speak to in order to be taken seriously as a Bowie biographer – people such as Mick Rock, Tony Visconti, Nile Rodgers and Carlos Alomar; then there are the other 50 people who have just as much to offer in their insights but who perhaps don’t get asked so often to comment on the great man’s life – and here I’m talking about the likes of Tracey Emin, film producer Jeremy Thomas, or the director Julien Temple; and then there are the 50 people who you might never have heard of. ‘Have you talked to Kevin?’ someone might say. And so the next day I went hunting for Kevin. I hope they feel I’ve done them all justice. I spoke to people all over the world, in London, Paris, Milan, Miami, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Arizona, Cardiff, Sussex, Montreal, Essex, Sydney, Brixton, Bromley, Beckenham, Cambridge, Hay-on-Wye, Ipswich, Woodbridge. Everybody talk about, pop music!
Obviously the Bowie book industry is operating on something of a different scale than it was when he was still alive. Since his enforced retirement midway through the noughties the books started to come out on an almost six-monthly basis, but since his death there has been rather a few more. Many of the books written about Bowie are biographies of the metaphor that we have come to know as ‘Bowie’; I wanted to write about the man, the person himself.
Of course there are many who oversee their very own Bowie industries, and many more who have taken the opportunity to tell their stories in long form; and who can blame them? For this book I wanted to cast the net as wide as possible, and as well as focusing on the many tall poppies who knew and worked with David over the years, I also spoke to the raft of people who perhaps previously hadn’t had the opportunity to tell their stories with as much encouragement or fanfare, people who had been involved with him before he was a star, in his pomp, and during the long stretches of post-imperial fame. I’d like to thank them all – the musicians who worked with Bowie, the family friends, professional friends, childhood acquaintances, lovers, actors, producers, directors, stylists, artists, curators, journalists, photographers, promoters, art directors, publishers, publicists, authors, designers, comedians, fans, bold face names, everyone.
As a form of history, the oral biography has the capacity to be more honest than others, and the lack of subjectivity employed by the editor should enable the truth to shine though. But then who ever remembers an event in precisely the same way? As Bertrand Russell said, ‘When a man tells you he knows about anything, you are safe in inferring he is an inexact man.’ Yet the recollections contained here, many of which include minor contradictions, have produced a fascinating prism of whatever the truth actually is.
Almost all of the quotes included from Bowie himself are taken from the seven formal interviews I conducted with him over the years, along with some quotes from an interview commissioned for i-D back in 1987 when I was still the editor (and for which I wrote many of the questions). There are three quotes I used from elsewhere, but I didn’t want a book made up of quotes given to other people; I wanted Bowie’s voice to be the voice I remembered whenever I met him, whenever I interviewed him. After his death, Bowie’s interviews started to take on a new poignancy, something I started to see myself when I looked back through my own interviews with him. Things I skipped over, or took for granted at the time, now seemed strangely loaded, heavy with meaning. They certainly helped me frame this book.
David Bowie never forgot to connect. Having struggled for a decade to make it in an industry which he often thought was collectively conspiring against him, little was left to chance, and the ruthlessness with which he assaulted his audience when he finally did become successful was only matched by the extraordinary quality of the material, and the stagecraft, that he used as ammunition. Whereas in the sixties Bowie was always slightly behind the curve, as the seventies clicked in, he inched ahead of it, peering at the future through a Manichean viewfinder. He showed what he was doing was not a trend, but rather a direction, one that would change on a whim, or indeed with the wind.
He excelled at the art of individualism, rarely tacking towards the centre, and relentlessly moving forward. In this age when there is indiscriminate access to almost everything, it would have been difficult for Bowie to operate so successfully, but back in the seventies he was a divining rod, his own as well as ours. His talent was so immense it was often bewildering. But then he’d learned how to use what ‘little’ talent (his term) he had to its fullest effect. Bowie often said that God’s cruellest gift was bestowing only a modicum of talent on a person, and yet he exploited what he had in a way that was all consuming. He was a fascinating fusion of ambition and craft, coupled with an innate charm, and – after that first unsuccessful decade – an often unerring sense of timing.
He also deployed his curiosity as an analytical torch, repurposing in completely original ways, rarely embarrassed to claim something as his own. In that first, formative decade of his career, Bowie’s work bore a relation to many forebears, and it was only with Space Oddity that he showed that he had a mind of his own, and genuine human purpose. (Having said that, at the time this was considered to be something of a novelty record, and it could have simply been regarded in the years afterwards as nothing more important than Rock Me Amadeus by Falco, for instance, a novelty tie-in from a different era.) There are many who think that Bowie was unrelentingly calculating, carefully building his personae and his records like a bomb-squad technician, deciding which colour wire to snip, petrified that a mistake would end his seemingly inexorable righteous passage. In reality he just mixed things up as he went, using bits and pieces he’d collected along the way. And boy did he collect. The world of pop has always been prey to cryptomnesia, the psychological condition of ‘creating’ something already experienced, the accidental copying of something unknowingly overheard. Bowie wasn’t unaware when he lifted something; he knew.
‘There was always an exchange of information within our friendship,’ said Mick Jagger, after Bowie died. ‘And I suppose there was always an element of competition between us, but it never felt overwhelming. When he would see me, he’d give me a hug, and I could feel him going up behind the collar of my shirt to see what I was wearing. He used to copy me sometimes, but he’d be very honest about it. If he took one of your moves, he’d say, ‘That’s one of yours – I just tried it.’ I didn’t mind sharing things with him, because he would share so much with me – it was a two-way street.’
He had undergone an apotheosis long before he died, but there is still an urgency about Bowie’s music, an urgency that makes it difficult to simply consign that music to the realm of myth and legend. It is unique. As Oliver Sacks wrote, in his beautiful little book Gratitude, ‘There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to his own death.’
Bowie’s ability to connect was something felt by everyone who fell under his spell. It somehow felt he was talking to us all individually, and so we tended to feel extremely protective of him, each of us imagining we were the only person who really ‘got’ him. I was a highly impressionable 12-year-old in the summer of 1972, and I too thought I might be the only person to ‘get’ David Bowie, little knowing Top of the Pops had probably been seen by something like twelve and half million people. Still, my interest was piqued, and in many ways I stayed interested for the rest of his life. The first thing I did – apart from unsuccessfully attempt to ape the Ziggy haircut – was start to collect anything and everything I could that was Bowie-related.
So many people felt they had a personal connection with David Bowie, and this became more than apparent when he died. As soon as he passed away, not only were all the social media channels full of music-related images, eulogies and mini-blogs, but every national newspaper in the world had decided to clear their front pages and carry a version of Brian Duffy’s genuinely iconic Aladdin Sane image. Bowie died during a period when the media was controlled by people who had grown up with him, whether they owned an iPhone 6 or edited a broadsheet. Everyone had a story to tell.
The British fashion designer Pam Hogg whose work often references Bowie, and who would go on to design the outfits worn onstage during the Bowie tribute at the Brits a month later, wrote this on her Instagram feed: ‘…always meet your heroes. Blitz club 1979… I hear all this screaming. I thought it was a fight. A few mins later I literally bumped into someone on the dancefloor… near died when I realised it was David Bowie… we automatically laughed and danced… it was about 30 secs… a memory for a lifetime…’
There would be so many tributes that after a while they ceased to have meaning. As the Guardian said about yet another posthumous fandango, ‘It was almost unsurprising when the Bowie prom was announced, promising Bowie with a twist – but who really wants Bowie with a twist? Bowie was the twist.’
And here he is again, twisting.
Dylan Jones is the Editor-In-Chief of GQ and the author of David Bowie: A Life, published by Preface, £20