The hero worship of David Bowie has obscured the graft behind his song-writingby John Harris / November 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
“He was a shit to his mother, he was a shit to his manager who supported him through thick and thin, and he was a shit to numerous partners, including his first wife, whose contribution he meanly refused to acknowledge even unto death.”
This is the writer Paul Gorman trying to explode the myths around David Bowie, on page 469 of Dylan Jones’s exhaustive new oral history of the musician. Not only that, says Gorman, Bowie “didn’t pay UK taxes for 40 years. He made execrable records during the period from 1984 to 1995, often wore terrible clothes [and] stupid makeup and had rotten haircuts, definitely flirted with rightwing politics, and made silly statements on the subject.”
Pointing this out, Gorman insists, is not to question Bowie’s achievements. Instead, it is to rescue him from a posthumous airbrushing that removes all depth and substance from an artist. When Bowie died from cancer on 10th January 2016, aged 69, the banal praise that followed was best summed up by a tweet from that well-known font of impartial truth, Boris Johnson: “No one in our age has better deserved to be called a genius.” Much the same syndrome was evident in popular beliefs that took root even while Bowie was alive, and then went nuclear after his death: the idea, for example, that the 1977 classic “‘Heroes’” is a hymn to heroism, rather than—as pointed out here by its producer, Tony Visconti—“a song about alcoholics.” The inverted commas around the title were put there for a reason.
If Bowie has been subject to a pop-cultural canonisation, it was surely he himself who prepared the ground. From around 1971 to 1984, he had a sure grasp of how to cultivate his mystique. His rock-star lifestyle fed the idea of a man who somehow existed beyond normal human limits. By the mid-1970s, he was taking so much cocaine that he really was living in a different dimension. He became obsessed with the Nazis and occult mythology, and lived on a diet of milk and peppers. In 1976, he starred in Nic Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell To Earth as a humanoid extra-terrestrial stranded in America, a persona which blurred into perceptions of Bowie himself. Taking its title from a single he released in 1984, one Bowie biography is entitled Loving the Alien. It was no surprise, then, that his death turned his otherness into the stuff of sainthood and that ever since, some people have been talking complete twaddle.
Among Jones’s 182 interviewees is someone called Kim Jones—a “celebrated fashion designer,” apparently—who believes Bowie was “here for a real reason, you know. I’m not at all religious, but some people are here for a reason, aren’t they?” The singer Lady Gaga claims that he had something that was “of another planet.” And the film director Baz Luhrmann gets so far ahead of himself he crash lands somewhere well beyond Pseuds Corner. Bowie, he reckons, “had a natural body intelligence. Mind intelligence, yes, but also a body intelligence. A sensitivity to how he feels, and also how others feel. That you can’t learn. Some giant intellectuals have tremendous computing energy, but no body intelligence at all. For those that have both, they have a sensitivity to the world around them. And that turned into this tremendous cultural engine.”
Jones, the editor of the British men’s monthly GQ, is 57 years old. He and nearly all his contemporaries first glimpsed the object of their devotion in 1972, when his legendary appearance on Top of the Pops—performing the hit single “Starman”—created the impression of someone who had dropped in from another plane. But for those of us who came of age a decade later, Bowie appeared to be much more earthly and accident-prone. Our first regular acquaintance with him involved a run of pretty disastrous music and gauche rock-star behaviour—from his cringe-inducing recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992, through the awful cover of Martha and The Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” he recorded with Mick Jagger for Live Aid, to the reply he gave to an interviewer at the same event who wondered what he was doing next. His answer suggested a hybrid of Alan Partridge and Roger Mellie from Viz: “I’m going to go home and I’m going to have a really good fuck.”
So what did set Bowie apart, and why are some people still in mourning? A lot of the answer is bound up with two things: his undeniable gifts as a performer; and his songwriting, which was on a par with such titans as Lennon and McCartney, and Brian Wilson. His association with experimentation has distracted people from the fact that he was as good a pop composer as any of the supposed greats. If you doubt this, listen to the 1990 best of collection, ChangesBowie, which contains at least eight incredible examples of his craft: “Space Oddity,” “Life On Mars?”, “Young Americans,” the long-overlooked “Golden Years,” “Sound and Vision,” “‘Heroes,’” “Ashes to Ashes” and “Let’s Dance.” Even his supposed lean years had extraordinary moments: Jones rightly hails 1986’s “Absolute Beginners” as “an epic love song to rival ‘Heroes.’” Even if it flickered, his talent endured to the end, as evidenced by the melancholic flashback of his 2013 song “Where Are We Now?” and his valedictory album Blackstar (released two days before his death), both almost as rich with fascination as his supposed peak work.
Bowie’s innate talent drips from all these records—but it wasn’t the only factor at work. Rock stars, especially those with prodigious drug habits, are often regarded as louche, work-shy creatures, who make records almost by accident. But he was—to use a very un-Bowie-like description—a lifelong grafter. Rick Wakeman, who played keyboards on “Space Oddity” and “Hunky Dory,” recalls: “He was always incredibly prepared in the studio… he said to me: ‘Never waste time in the studio. Studio time’s really precious.’” Wakeman continues: “He was always what he called ‘75 per cent prepared.’ You’d go in and he’d get the piece that far, and then the studio would take it that extra 25 percent. He respected the studio.”
Such recollections of his modus operandi don’t have much to do with his “body intelligence,” or the idea that Bowie moved among us thanks to divine provenance—and they ring much more true. A good deal of the Bowie story is about self-discipline, drive and an eye on the clock. In that sense, Wakeman says, he really was “an amazing man.”
As well as toil and dedication, the Bowie story is also about two other earthly attributes: canniness, and an associated talent for manipulating the media. Jones zips through Bowie’s unsuccessful endeavours in the 1960s—which reached their nadir with his 1967 novelty single “The Laughing Gnome”—at speed. He also includes one spot-on quote from the film director Julien Temple: “It was as though his face was pushed up against the glass, and he could see what was going on, but couldn’t join in.” But by 1970, Bowie had finally begun to grasp what he needed to do to become a star: embrace the kind of Machiavellian game-playing that had been introduced into the British music business by such figures as the Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham. One can trace this to Bowie’s formation of a short-lived group which included Visconti, the drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey, and the guitar player and arranger Mick Ronson. They were called The Hype: soon after, with the help of his first wife Angie and his second manager Tony Defries, Bowie began to live up to the name.
As Jones writes, Defries “encouraged his charge to act in a more imperious, almost regal fashion: what Defries did was to encourage Bowie not to open doors for himself, not to pick up anything if he dropped it, and not to offer to help or pass anything.” He cites the recollections of journalist Dai Davies, who was hired in late 1971 as Bowie’s “press secretary,” and commenced his job by dining with him at his home in Beckenham. “After that dinner,” said Davies, “whether he was with a man or a woman, I never saw him open a door for himself again.”
In January 1972, Bowie told the Melody Maker journalist Michael Watts that he was “gay, and always have been” (“I think he did it deliberately—he definitely knew it would make good copy,” says Watts, which must set some kind of record for understatement). He certainly had plenty of gay encounters, but Jones’s interviewees give the impression that they were often traceable to either an all-encompassing urge to try everything, or career advancement. Of Bowie’s trysts with one notable showbiz figure, for example, his biographer Wendy Leigh says: “Of course David was bisexual, but only when he chose to be. He obviously had an affair with [the composer] Lionel Bart, but only because it was expedient to do so… I think he was fully prepared to swap sexual favours for financial advice.”
At the start of the Ziggy Stardust period, while performing to a sold-out crowd at Oxford Town Hall, Bowie dropped to his knees and simulated fellatio by biting at the strings of Mick Ronson’s guitar. He knew that his court photographer Mick Rock was taking pictures, and as soon as he had come off stage, Bowie sprinted up to Rock and frantically enquired: “Did you get it? Did you get it?” Even his most out-there moments may have had a large element of premeditation: when, in the mid-1970s, he allowed himself to be filmed while whacked out on cocaine in Alan Yentob’s documentary Cracked Actor, or gave the audience of Dick Cavett’s US chat show an object lesson in the drug’s effects, was he once again knowingly adding to his legend? In that context, though his biographers’ accounts of his early days in Brixton and Bromley have understandably focused on the mental illness that ran through his mother’s side of the family and led to the suicide of his brother Terry, one often overlooked detail also stands out: his father, Hayward Jones, was the “number one PR” for the children’s charity then known as Dr Barnardo’s.
Bowie’s talent for media manipulation endured, even if it reaped diminishing returns. In 1990, he solemnly declared that he was going on tour to play his biggest hits for the last time. His announcement gave the concerts that followed a remarkable sense of occasion. I went to see him play to 50,000 people in Manchester, and arrived brimming with cynicism—but after hearing him perform “Space Oddity,” “Rebel Rebel” and “Ashes to Ashes,” all my misgivings disappeared. “I want to finish off that old phase and start again,” he claimed then. “By the time I’m in my later forties, I will have built up a whole new repertoire.” But a smattering of the old hits crept back into the sets he began to play in the mid-1990s, and by the time he did Glastonbury in 2000, he was happy to give the crowd what it wanted.
By then his reputation had been sufficiently restored to mean there was little need for grand gestures. He was still fond of them, though. Where Are We Now? premiered with no advance publicity, and Blackstar’s well-timed appearance underlined the fact that even his death had an element of presentation and performance.
One benefit of oral history as opposed to conventional biography is that it leaves room for inconsistencies and contradictions. They also allow the reader to interpret the material as they see fit. Anyone who clings to the Bowie-as-alien myth will get through most of Jones’s book unscathed. But those who lean towards the idea, as I do, that Bowie transcended his circumstances by combining his natural gifts with single-minded application will find plenty of evidence here as well.
I have written about music professionally since I was 19 years old. I am now 47. My bookshelves have long overflowed with books that are often as much about people’s drug habits, sexual preferences and sartorial tastes as their actual work: such accounts have an irresistible allure, and always will. But after finishing Jones’s book—which has the feel of the last word on its subject—I felt sated. Realising that my vinyl copy of Hunky Dory had long been hopelessly scratched, I went down to my local record shop and bought a new one. Back home, the needle went down, and on came “Changes.” Rick Wakeman’s opening piano part, its infectiously mischievous opening riff, and Bowie’s great opening lines, which surely describe his pre-fame travails: “I still don’t know what I was waiting for/And my time was running wild/A million dead-end streets/And every time I thought I’d got it made/It seemed the taste was not so sweet.” A lot of what I just read about Bowie evaporated. What the music communicated was a kind of inexplicable magic.
So it goes. The posthumous hysteria that still lingers will inevitably dwindle. Bowie’s music and the often glorious way he presented it will endure. Such are the products of imagination, ambition, calculation—and an awful lot of hard work.