One extreme to the other
With David Bowie: A Life, author Dylan Jones sheds light on the man behind the rock star
LONDON — It’s a book that releases a flood of remarkable memories — all in the service of bringing David Bowie and his life into bold and sometimes controversial relief. There are glimpses of him at work in the recording studio — always the consummate and disciplined professional, always the questing spirit behind the creation of such enduring classics as Space
Oddity and Let’s Dance. There’s also the notorious bad boy of the 1970s — the bisexual seducer of adoring teenage groupies, the drug- addled freak teetering on self- destruction.
We read of the night he went berserk, racing his car around an underground Berlin car park at 70 miles an hour and screaming that he wanted to end it all by driving into a concrete wall.
The car ran out of fuel before that happened and it climaxed an evening that had earlier seen Bowie, fellow performer Iggy Pop at his side, ramming their car repeatedly into the side of a drug dealer’s vehicle.
But then, two pages later, we encounter another David Bowie — the Bowie who would take a break from a performance in order to watch an episode of Coronation
Street on his VCR. This latter image particularly delights author Dylan Jones, whose new book — David
Bowie: A Life — has become an instant bestseller in the U. K.
“It’s a lovely vignette,” Jones says.
“During a performance on one of his most intense tours, a performance requiring a lot of physical and emotional stamina, he was still able during the interval to zone out and watch a soap opera.”
Jones was constantly seeking this kind of intimate revelation for his book, published in Canada by Doubleday.
And if the result is a shifting, ever- changing kaleidoscope, there is good reason.
It’s an oral biography — the product of nearly 200 interviews with friends, rivals, lovers and profes- sional colleagues of a one- of- a- kind rock legend who died of cancer at the age of 69 in January 2016, two days after the release of his final album, Blackstar.
For Jones, a veteran rock historian, it’s a way of extracting the whole person out of a complex and often elusive human being.
In his introduction to this 520- page volume, he lays out the challenge of dealing with someone whose “entire professional career was one of myth, legend and invention.”
In fact, when he was working on an earlier Bowie book, his subject cheerfully told him he should simply “print the myth.”
Jones has been a fan since, as an entranced 12- year- old, he saw Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona perform Starman on British television’s Top of the Pops — an episode that attracted one- quarter of the British population on July 6, 1972. “The world didn’t need another
How I Love David Bowie book,” Jones says during an interview at the Mayfair headquarters of the British edition of GQ Magazine, which he edits.
“Lots of people had written one of those — I had written one of those.”
But this was something different — an oral biography.
“It took me zero seconds to realize that I didn’t want anyone else to do the book but me.”
Jones knew he would need professional opinions of Bowie’s contribution to music — “but I mainly wanted people who had proper relationships with him to try and paint a picture of what he was actu- ally like as a man, not just as a rock star.”
So his first wife, the sexually candid Angie, is on hand to rat- tle on about the orgies in their Beckenham house.
But also present is Bowie’s second wife, Iman, who brought serenity to his later years.
We also hear from his backup musicians, the film directors who made his limited acting talents work on the screen, the teenagers he bedded during the crazy period and a host of professional colleagues — Peter Frampton, Boy George, Marianne Faithfull and Lady Gaga, to name only a few.
Elton John makes his own unique contribution:
“David and I were not the best of friends towards the end ... He once called me ‘ rock ’ n’ roll’s token queen’ in an interview, which I thought was a bit snooty.
“He wasn’t my cup of tea ... but the way he handled his death — it was classy.”
Jones includes excerpts from his own Bowie interviews over the years — interviews revealing a thoughtful, articulate, intellectually curious human being.
“This was genuine and one of the things that propelled him and caused him to experiment so much,” Jones says.
“He didn’t have a very good education and was ready to consume everything.”
A sanitized life of Bowie was out of the question. Jones knew that in order to give a full picture, the years of notoriety had to be there as well.
So we get the drug addict whose nose was so eaten away by cocaine that it had to be repaired with cartilage from elsewhere in his body; the sex addict who publicly announced he was gay but who would indulge in bisexual orgies and sleep with 15- yearold girls; the chronic smoker who frequently weighed no more than 95 pounds.
Jones worried early on that tabloids like The Daily Mail would pounce on this sort of stuff — and they did.
“But context is very important,” he says.
“Of course there are flashpoints in the book that allude to his drugaddled excesses, but these are a very small part of his life.
“The Daily Mails of this world will always have their own agenda, but anyone who reads this book will know that’s not the real story. However, you can’t deny the fact that for a couple of years in the early 1970s, he was an intensely flamboyant rock star who had the appetite and tastes of most rock stars in the early 1970s.”
But with Bowie, the serious artist keeps taking centre stage.
“He was a master technician. Not only was he a tremendous songwriter, but he had the ability to go into a studio and construct something out of nothing,” Jones says.
David Bowie led a complicated life filled with early archetypal rock- star behaviour and excess that eventually gave way to a more nuanced and mature man and musician.