David Bowie, master of ch-ch-ch-changes

 

MUSIC: KEVIN COURTNEYreviews Starman: David Bowie – The Definitive BiographyBy Paul Trynka Sphere, 440pp. £20

A STRANGE THING happens as you read this engrossing biography of the most colourful, glamtastic, out-there star of the 1970s. As one chapter of David Bowie’s life gives way to another you get the disconcerting feeling that you’re reading about several people who share the same name but are utterly different in appearance, character and personality. The changes detailed here extend far beyond such stage personas as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke.

As the Bromley lad moved from young wannabe rhythm-and-blues hipster through glam-rock alien, cracked actor, white soul rebel and Krautrock experimentalist to his smoothly-coiffed commercial pop pinnacle in the 1980s, the changes wrought on and by him ran deep. Like Dr Who, Bowie seemed able to dissolve his former incarnation and reconstitute as a different entity altogether. His journey through time and headspace is altogether more fascinating – and peopled by stranger, scarier creatures.

Paul Trynka opens his story not in the Jones family home at 40 Stansfield Road in Brixton, where David was born, but in the living rooms of five million homes – including this writer’s – where Bowie burst into the consciousness of a generation of teenage space cadets, their outraged parents tut-tutting behind their knitting and evening papers at this pale, skinny figure in a lurid bodysuit with his shock of red hair and knowing, lascivious grin.

Bowie’s seminal appearance on Top of the Popsin July 1972 was that decade’s equivalent of Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show:an era-defining moment that drew a clear mascara line between the old guard and the pretty new things.

Brixton after the war, with its music halls, theatres and lingering vaudvillean atmosphere, was a perfect breeding ground for a young London boy who aspired to showbiz fame. After fighting in the war David’s dad, Haywood, became a charity worker for Barnardo’s. But there was a darkness on David’s mother Peggy’s side of the family; her son from an earlier union, David’s half-brother, Terry, had schizophrenia, and this inspired many of Bowie’s songs.

The family moved to the suburb of Bromley, home of HG Wells; his eureka moment in music came when he witnessed the flamboyant Little Richard performing Tutti Frutti. “I always wanted to be Little Richard,” says Bowie.

His early musical career consisted of him trying out different roles: sax player, sidekick, bandleader and even Dylanesque folkie. At Bromley Tech he formed his first band, The Kon-Rads, with his best mate, George Underwood. Then came The King Bees, then The Manish Boys – all doomed to miss out on the musical waves that washed over the 1960s. He had his first taste of glory as the frontman of The Lower Third, recording his first memorable pop song, Can’t Help Thinking About Me, and changing his surname to Bowie, after the character of Jim Bowie in the movie The Alamo.

What he lacked in talent he more than made up for in ambition, and though he would don and discard images like old clothes his ultimate goal never changed: he wanted to be centre stage, and he would do whatever it took to get there, even if it meant dumping friends, lovers, bandmates and managers. His ambition, coupled with a cocaine habit, would eventually see him become isolated and disconnected from the world around him, truly an alien being fallen to earth.

The young David Jones had a seductive charm that he learned to use on both men and women. He bedded women with the ease and confidence of a rake, engendered a platonic crush in males who entered his orbit, and played the gay card whenever he thought it might further his career. Although he declared himself bisexual in an interview around the release of his 1971 album Hunky Dory, and said his marriage to Angie Barnett, with whom he had a son, Zowie, was an open relationship, this book demonstrates that, for Bowie, sexuality was just another weapon to be wielded in the battle for number one. When he realised that his claim to be gay was damaging his career in the US, he quickly retracted it.

He also enjoyed a robust rivalry with many of his closest musical friends, which in a couple of instances led to blows. He got into a fight with Underwood over a girl, and suffered permanent damage to one eye, which left him with his signature alien gaze. His rivalry with his mate Mark Feld (later to become the pop superstar Marc Bolan) saw the two trying to outglam each other on TV and knock each other’s records off the top spot.

But though Bowie comes across as a ruthless player, out to win at all costs, he still displayed generosity of artistic spirit, giving his time, his creativity and some of his best songs to help other artists’ careers. All the Young Dudescatapulted Mott the Hoople to fame, and his writing and production work on Lou Reed’s Transformerand Iggy Pop’s The Idiotand Lust for Lifealbums were instrumental in launching their solo careers.

Bowie soon learned that he worked better as a solo act than as a band member, but he still needed a foil to bring out his ideas. He found the perfect musical match in the guitarist Mick Ronson, whose huge contribution to Bowie’s breakthrough has, says Trynka, been cruelly overlooked. It was Ronson’s hard work behind the scenes, along with the producer Tony Visconti, which made The Man Who Sold the Worldsuch a compelling record, and Ronson’s pivotal role in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardustand the Spiders from Marscannot be overstated.

But it worked both ways: Bowie brought out the best in all his musicians, and he was a master at distilling his influences to create potent pop music. As Trynka notes, genius steals, and Bowie’s thievery was pure genius. My Wayis remodelled into Life on Mars?, and Somewhere Over the Rainbowis reimagined as Starman.

Bowie soon tired of being Ziggy Stardust, and when he announced his retirement at his Hammersmith Odeon gig in 1973 it was, says Trynka, merely a smokescreen to allow Bowie to get rid of his band and start afresh. “He’s f***in’ sacked us!” Trevor Bolder, Bowie’s bassist, told his stunned bandmates seconds after Bowie dropped the bombshell.

When Ziggy gave way to the Thin White Duke, Bowie set about conquering the US, and threw himself headlong into cocaine addiction, becoming so wraith-like that he was a perfect fit for the role of the stranded alien in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. But while he was floating off in space his management company, MainMan, was crashing and burning, and the split with his cigar-chomping manager, Tony DeFries, would lead to years of legal wrangling. A move to Berlin with Iggy Pop brought him back to earth, and brought out some of his best work.

Between 1970 and 1980 Bowie had a near-unbroken run of classic albums, and Trynka puts each of these pop artifacts into context with spot-on accuracy. By the mid 1980s Bowie was one of the biggest stars in pop, commanding a high billing at Live Aid, but without such studio sparring partners as Ronson, Visconti and Brian Eno his albums were becoming increasingly anodyne. His disastrous stint as a member of Tin Machine, and his dalliances with drum’n’ bass, further diminished his standing. As more bands and artists flaunted their Bowie influences, however, the appetite for his back catalogue increased.

He embarked on a greatest-hits tour, and issued so-called Bowie Bonds, raising $55 million that he used to buy back his past work.

His 2003 world tour, which was to include a headlining slot at Oxegen in Punchestown, was cut short when the 58-year-old had a heart attack. Bowie is now retired, living in New York with his wife, the Somalian former model Iman, and their daughter, Lexi. We are left with the tantalising revelation that hundreds of unreleased Bowie songs may sit in the vaults. If any of them are half as good as Space Oddity, Changes, Starman, Heroesor Famethe world will have a lot of catching up to do.


Kevin Courtney is an Irish Timesjournalist