Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Or so David Bowie seemed to believe.
His appetites for sex and cocaine were so insatiable that he was considered addicted to both – and the two addictions fed each other.
Remarkably, he recorded one of his finest albums, Station to Station (1976), while in that delirium. “It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine,” he sings in the title track, introducing his Thin White Duke persona, the successor to Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and others.
“I’m thinking that it must be love.” When you’re addicted, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. With his capacity for excess, Bowie might have appreciated this overstuffed oral history by Dylan Jones.
In David Bowie: A Life, so many people have so much to say about Bowie that, as a biography, it never settles on an overarching interpretation of the man. Oh, there are revelations and confirmations, like all the testimony about sex and drugs.
There’s one instance – probably included just so it would be cited – about someone calling Bowie’s room in New York with an offer of a still-warm corpse.
“The town had never seen anything like David before,” says one-time groupie Josette Caruso.
“He obviously looked like such a freak some sick people thought he might be into necrophilia.” (He wasn’t.)
So, yes, the salacious parts are there, but so is exhaustive testimony about what it was like to grow up near Bowie, go to school with him, go on tour with him, shoot photos of him, design clothes or stage sets for him, fetch cigarettes for him or lose your virginity to him.
Jones, the editor of British GQ and a veteran cultural journalist, interviewed more than 180 sources, in order, he writes “to cast the net as wide as possible”.
Like others included here, Jones maintains that Bowie changed the world, that he was to the 1970s what the Beatles were to the 1960s, and that his ability to combine artistic daring with commercial success is pretty much unparalleled.
Here is where some distinctions blur. It’s difficult to write about Bowie’s artistic legacy as separate from his flamboyant sexuality. It’s equally difficult to separate the marketing from the art because Bowie was the greatest creation of David Bowie (or David Jones, as he was previously known).
Like Bob Dylan, a formative influence, Bowie assumed and shed so many skins that change seemed his only constant. And, for a while at least, every one of his changes seemed to alter the cutting edge of popular music.
Jones’s biography takes a while to generate momentum, mirroring Bowie’s early career, but it offers the discerning reader clues as to how all the pieces fit together, how the Starman eventually morphed into the whiter-than-white soul man of Young Americans and anticipated his own death as Lazarus.
Whatever Bowie you want is here, from genius to opportunist. If your Bowie is a visionary artist, you’ll find him.
If your Bowie is a magpie, a plagiarist, a vampire sucking the creative blood of others, he’s here as well. So is the saintly Bowie, the one who resurrected the careers of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Mott the Hoople. And the Cracked Actor, haunted by his brother’s schizophrenia.
The hermit, the club hopper, the aristocratic art collector – they’re all here.
Martin Scorsese compares him with Gershwin and Astaire (and says the latter saw in him a kindred spirit). It helps if the reader has a comprehensive recall of Bowie’s recorded output.
Much of his music since his commercial peak with Let’s Dance (1983) has been little heard and long forgotten. Until the climactic last act, the highlights of Bowie’s final decades (and the book’s second half) are pretty much limited to kicking his habits and marrying the love of his life, the model Iman. His skyrocket trajectory found him burning through crucial collaborators.
The book’s unsung musical hero is guitarist Mick Ronson, a genuinely nice man who had the sound to match Ziggy’s vision. Jones also illuminates the key role played by first wife Angie Bowie.
In their open marriage of convenience and calculation, she was the “brash” American who could offset Bowie’s British reserve and push him towards notoriety. Bowie’s final piece of performance art returned him to centre stage.
In 2016, Blackstar, made with a jazzier band, sounded like nothing he had done before and was stronger than anything he had released in years. It received rave reviews, in confirmation that Bowie was back. But, two days after its release, he was gone. He knew he was dying as he was recording it.
Every song needed to be reinterpreted as an intimation of mortality. Elton John, with whom he’d once had a falling out, said, “Bowie couldn’t have staged a better death. It was classy.”
* Don McLeese is a journalism professor at the University of Iowa and a critic of music, books and popular culture.