TLS Review of Paul Trynka’s Starman (The Director’s Cut)
The Times Literary Supplement kindly allowed me to print the unedited (and uncopyedited) version of this review right here. The edited version of the article appears in the TLS of 5/27/11, and can also be seen here:
The edit makes me seem a far better writer, but this longer version has some funny stories.
On June 25th, 2004, David Bowie collapsed backstage at a concert at the Hurricane Festival in Scheessel, Germany. The official statement blamed “continuing pain and discomfort from a trapped/pinched nerve”; the reality was a heart attack and emergency angioplasty surgery for a blocked artery. Bowie, who had until then seemed, if not actually immortal, to be getting younger by the year, has not performed a full concert or released an album since. The latest Flaming Lips single is called “Is David Bowie Dying??” It’s not a flippant question. Bowie “killed himself” on stage once before, doing away with Ziggy Stardust, his first great creation and success, at the Hammersmith Odeon twenty-four years earlier, shocking the crowd, and even some of his own band, with the announcement: “Not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show we’ll ever do,” before the final song, appropriately Rock’n’Roll Suicide. Trevor Bolder, the bass player, mouthed to his band-mates: “He’s fucking sacked us!”
In 1991, Bowie, who was slumming it at the Brixton Academy with his band Tin Machine, asked his driver to take a detour past his childhood home. He cried – when a star cries, a biographer smiles – and remarked: “It’s a miracle. I should have been an accountant. I don’t know how this all happened.” The biographer’s job is to explain how a South London boy, David Jones, after many false starts, became Britain’s most challenging and daring rock star, an innovator in art and business, the first to float his talent on the stock market with ‘Bowie Bonds’ in 1997 (from which he raised $55 million). Seven years later, those same bonds were downgraded to one notch above junk grade, leading BBC “economics guru” Evan Davis to claim that “the global financial meltdown was caused by bankers who took their cue from David Bowie.” Bowie caused the credit crunch? Art has always been Bowie’s business: perhaps he would have done less damage as an accountant.
Into an already crowded market – only eighteen months ago, Mark Spitz published Bowie: A Biography – comes Tony Trynka with Starman. All Bowie books must now be measured against Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, the most recent edition of which was published two months after Spitz. Pegg’s is not a conventional biography but an encyclopedia, dividing Bowie’s career into an alphabetical list of songs, albums, concerts, films. It is not only a pleasure to dip into, but also one of the few reference books that can be read cover to cover, since its author, miraculously, doesn’t repeat himself. Pegg is not without strong opinions but he never grinds an axe (the Achilles heel of most rock biographies, though not of Starman) and his encyclopedic structure mirrors the cut-up, mix-and-match nature of Bowie’s own career to the advantage of both, making one reconsider the very notion of a conventional rock biography.
Starman carries a great title, perhaps the best of any Bowie book (the species has always been extra-terrestrial – Loving The Alien, Moonage Daydream, Stardust, Hallo Spaceboy, etc.). It pinpoints the precise moment Bowie first made his mark: the July 1972 Top of the Pops performance of Starman. As Bowie, playing a blue guitar, skin like china, hair bright carrot, draped his hand over his glam guitarist Mick Ronson’s gold lame shoulder, he seemed on the point of kissing him. This spectacle “transfixed a nation’s youth, and horrified their (sic) parents” as a “fifteen million strong audience struggled to absorb this exotic, pan-sexual creature”. Mick Farren summed it up: “the first craze that had absolutely nothing to do with the sixties.” Gender-bending glam became the new thing. Bowie was the first star, five years after the legalization of homosexuality in Britain, to out himself. Gay News got caught up in the excitement: “One day he’ll become as popular as he deserves to be. And that’ll give Gay Rock a potent spokesman.”
But bisexuality, while part of his lifestyle, was also merely a fad, and Bowie would be no more a spokesman for Gay Rock than Bob Dylan had been a willing poster boy for Protest Music. For Bowie, the pose was also the essence. He would go on to flirt with many other arresting symbols – black magic, fascism – while never seeming to fully embrace, or sometimes even to understand, any of them. Of Enoch Powell’s philosophy, he once said: “whether it’s good or bad is not the point.” “Turn to the left, turn to the right,” he sang in the song Fashion. It’s this refusal to be held accountable for the beliefs attached to the poses (which culminated in Bowie’s controversial Nazi Salute at Victoria Station in 1976, though people are still at odds over what exactly happened – conclusion: it was a very stiff wave) that might have been the inspiration behind Fry and Laurie’s sketch Fascion, which skewers such blithe attitudes by means of a make-believe 1980’s TV style show: “You know, there’s been a lot in the news recently about the rise of fascism. It’s the next big thing, they say, but what exactly is it? What kind of music do fascists listen to? What do they wear? Are there clubs you can go to?… Did [Hitler] have a philosophy, at all? I mean, was he a John Lennon-y kind of guy?”
Bowie has worn his dilettantism proudly and, through his dabblings, created some of the greatest music of the pop era. He is blessed with one of the most versatile voices. His talent for mimicry, coupled with a willingness to adapt his vocal approach to the song at hand, sets him apart from the competition: you could never tell which David Bowie would be singing. He has always been the bravest among his otherwise simply successful contemporaries, and, particularly in collaboration with Brian Eno, took rock music places it had never meant to go. He has namedropped Nietzsche here and there, and his attitude towards self-renewal has always been that of the Ubermensch or the “homo superior”, words he relished singing in Oh! Your Pretty Things on Hunky Dory in 1971. Bowie has always been at his best when he leaves himself open to chance, starting from scratch: his fearless mixing of genre, his willingness to enter the studio with no material (as he did for his masterpiece Station to Station), his constantly reinvented recording techniques (for example, instructing guitar players to play a song without ever having heard it, then keeping their first take), his embrace of Eno’s “oblique strategies” for “The Berlin Trilogy” (Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977), Lodger (1979), only one of which was actually made in Berlin). He fails when his instincts desert him, when he tries to recreate consciously what he does so well unconsciously. Bowie knows all this: it just leaves him in the uncomfortable position of having to endlessly rehearse for unpreparedness. He sometimes reminds one of Forster’s old lady: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”
The pressure to recreate the massive success of Let’s Dance led to a ten year slump, during which, in his journey to rediscover himself, he even went so far as to surrender his identity to that of mere band-member in Tin Machine, a self-abnegation doomed to failure: however much he wanted to be “one of the boys”, it was always Bowie who would carry the can. And yet Tin Machine paid dividends. From the ashes of a career that had lapsed into irrelevance, Bowie emerged with the small, barely noticed The Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack in 1993 and set himself on a path that led to a late high – Heathen, in 2002 – by which time he’d finally distanced himself from Reeves Gabrels, Tin Machine’s lead guitarist and the nemesis of all David Bowie fans. Reality, the follow-up, wasn’t quite as good, though it got better reviews from critics late to Heathen’s party. Since then, almost nothing: a couple of brief guest appearances and cameos. In 2008, he briefly broke his silence in print. The Daily Mail had him choose 12 of his own favourite songs for a giveaway CD, for which he wrote accompanying notes. In the tenth entry, he playfully reveals: “I’m trying to come up with a little-used word for each song entry. I’ve not got one for this song. And this song is not, it may surprise you to know, another ode to little green Martians. Oh, recidivism, that’ll fit.” Reading the notes back, it’s becomes a bit of a parlour game to work out what those little-used words are (cavil? craven? profligate?), but it’s safe to say that some of them have been in his vocabulary for a long time: dystopian, poses plastiques, Weltschmerz, ersatz, cognomen, palimpsest, anomic.
Perhaps the fade-out of Bowie’s career will last as long as its opening grooves. One of the most intriguing aspects of the epic Bowiead is the long gestation period before that moment of Starman stardom: the series of false dawns, from his various earlier bands (The Kon-Rads, The King Bees, The Manish Boys), through the early Deram releases (1967-69), taking in Space Oddity, Bowie’s first great song, which, despite its success, failed to launch his career into orbit. One key issue for any biographer is how soon Ziggy Stardust appears and Trynka is wise to use it as the focus of his preface. However, he doesn’t get to the seminal TV appearance itself until page 162, meaning that just under half of Starman takes us to the beginning of 1973, whereas the remaining 38 years of Bowie’s career has to nestle in the final 200. (Admittedly, there is very little to say about the last seven years, the highlight of which, as Trynka poignantly reminds us, is The Little Fat Man (With the Pug-Nosed Face), a parody written for Ricky Gervais’ comedy Extras). An attendant problem is that the facts of the early years are well known. Starman has the great misfortune to be published at the same time as Any Day Now – The London Years 1947-1974 Kevin Cann’s storming account, lavishly illustrated, of Bowie’s early career. Perhaps more than any other artist, Bowie needs to be seen as well as heard ¬¬– the visual component of the restless ch-ch-ch-changes that accompanied his every release: drag on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World, Ziggy’s psychedelic jumpsuit, Aladdin Sane’s lightning bolt make-up (which now that it’s lost its impact, resembles nothing more than Elvis Presley’s famous “Taking Care of Business” logo), the Thin White Duke’s slicked-back Weimar cool, Scary Monsters’ belated return to his mentor Lindsay Kemp’s Pierrot, and, later and most successfully (though gallingly to those who had staked their cultural analyses on Bowie’s gender-bending) the bleached-blonde heterosexuality of Let’s Dance, which briefly made him the most successful pop star in the world. A single image can be worth, at least, a few sentences.
Bowie’s critics, and indeed his supporters, have always made great play of his thievery. Much has been made of how the vocal leap that announces the chorus of Starman is the same octave as Somewhere Over The Rainbow, the exact same interval he had used (without accompanying critical frenzy) in Life on Mars? the previous year. But Rock Music is a magpie art-form, and Bowie’s methods are no more flagrant than any of his contemporaries and predecessors – he shaped his influences (a lengthy process) into something that was identifiably his own. The difference was that Bowie proudly trumpeted his thievery, a postmodern attitude to image-collage that was as alien as his bisexuality. Even by 1972, he was talking about himself in terms of an artist “playing” the roll of a rock star: merely being a rock star was boring, beneath him. This led to a succession of disguises and masks, not to mention much lazy journalism. Bowie himself became a victim of his own creations: “I hadn’t the courage to face an audience myself,” Bowie told Jean Rook in 1973. “I was the first pop star to invent masks to hide behind. I played at being Ziggy Stardust. That was fine until I became Ziggy, and Ziggy became a monster who nearly destroyed me. Then I played at being The Thin White Duke. Now I think I’ve got rid of him.” Alan Yentob’s remarkable 1974 BBC documentary Cracked Actor finds its subject on tour in America, a shell of a man, an alien perfectly suited to the role of Thomas Jerome Newton in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, seemingly unable to relate to the world around him. Even in 1979, in another Jean Rook interview (both of which are found in the excellent The David Bowie Companion, edited by Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman) he admits to “practicing walking down the street.” Drugs offered an escape. Bowie embraced them and their “heavy scene”, hiding behind a cordon of bodyguards. In fact, if Bowie is a poster boy for anything, it’s drug use. However he managed it, he made some of his best work while out of his head, during sessions he barely remembers attending.
Through it all, Bowie has remained an excellent and adventurous songwriter, something that often goes unmentioned, its importance drowned out by all the cultural analysis of the window-dressing. In his early years, not everyone fell for the guitar-strumming folkie singing Jacques Brel songs in funny clothes, but, as Bowie found his voice, and his lyrics, that particular circular mix of decadence and pending apocalypse, an apocalypse that seemed to excuse and demand further decadence (because if the world is doomed, we might as well have a party), his songs became, ever more clearly the work of a master singer-songwriter. Many know the song Fame, but few sing along to the devastating lyrics: “Fame/Bully for you/Chilly for me/Gotta get a raincheck on pain.” And even though the masks allowed Bowie a certain aloofness from the grimy world of rock, as he fashioned himself into the multi-media artist he had always claimed to be, he compared his songs (in 1972, to Michael Watts of Melody Maker) to “talking to a psychoanalyst. My act is my couch.” The further he strays away from this ruthless self-analysis, however opaque the images, the less successful his work – and it is at those moments, when inspiration is lacking, that he has sometimes chosen to disguise the fact with noise.
Bowie biographers tend to feel it necessary to take a stand on whether Bowie is an arch-manipulator (a thief, a user and discarder, “a flint-hearted rip-off merchant”) or “a natural born genius with some minor character flaws”. To Trynka’s credit, he never comes down on one side or the other, citing a “man-child blend of escapism and hard-nosed careerism”, and presenting compelling evidence that Bowie’s manipulative approach to his musicians has often brought out the very best in them, as many here attest. Trynka’s focus on Bowie’s juvenilia means that he devotes only a few pages to certain of the later albums, and this is a shame. He sometimes seems uninterested in the music itself, particularly keyboard players: Mike Garson gets a lot of real estate, but Roy Bittan and Tony Kaye go unmentioned. Bowie’s failures are not particularly interesting to the author, but the reader deserves to know a little more about films such as The Linguine Incident, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and The Last Temptation of Christ (in which Bowie played Pontius Pilate), none of which appear to be mentioned. Starman, though certainly never less than an acceptable biography, is not without its irritations: to misspell Paul Schrader, Robert Hilburn and Pygmalion is one thing, but to twice mention the British comedian “Peter Cooke” quite another. “Heroes” is always accorded its correct title, but ‘Hours…’, a less interesting album to Trynka, is not. Trynka seems occasionally to lack a certain empathy, referring to Bowie’s “fashionable therapy speak” and “schoolboy saxophone”, but is more than sympathetic to Iggy Pop, whom he muddlingly calls Jimmy and Iggy in the same paragraph, and of whom he has previously written the definite biography. He also seems unsure about Bowie’s famed later sobriety, as though he doesn’t quite understand the notion. Reeves Gabrels tells Trynka: “he couldn’t really go to raves – nor was he inclined to, being, at that point, sober for a long time.” This doesn’t quite jive with Trynka’s claim in the previous sentence that Bowie “rarely drank to excess.” (Bowie himself has told Trynka nothing. The book is unofficial.) He ends with a discography – necessary only in as much as so many of the later albums have been given short shrift – where the albums are pointlessly graded with stars, a nasty magazine habit, as though it’s all a competition.
Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie perhaps demonstrates that David Bowie is best understood in fragments. There is still no definitive biography. Perhaps Bowie will take another leaf out of Bob Dylan’s book and write his autobiography, “little-used words” and all.