New David Bowie biography written by lifelong fan explores star’s life in and out of spotlight,
Early in the morning of Jan. 10, 2016, after news broke that David Bowie had died of cancer, Dylan Jones, the longtime editor of British GQ, started receiving requests to write his obituary.
Jones spent the rest of that terrible day at Men’s Fashion Week, where many tears were shed over the loss of the enigmatic rock star, who just the week prior, had released his final album, Blackstar.
Jones first met Bowie in 1982 on the set of the sexy vampire flick The Hunger, where he played an extra during the iconic opening nightclub scene set to the droning sounds of Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Bowie, one of the film’s stars, asked Jones — already an obsessive fan — for a light for his Marlboro.
“I knew him, not as a friend, but I knew him for a very long time,” says Jones, who would go on to interview Bowie seven times and write a book about the rise of his Ziggy Stardust persona.
But Jones’s most meaningful tribute to his childhood hero came after his death.
For a year, “it was a race” to interview more than 150 people around the world for his new book, David Bowie: A Life, a definitive oral biography that focuses on the man behind the alien — his motivations and creative process, alongside plenty of dishy details on Bowie’s relationships and sexual appetite, friendships and drugged-out party days.
He spoke to Bowie collaborators such as Brian Eno, and his former wife, Angie, celebrity fans such as Lady Gaga, Bono and Kate Moss, and those who were influenced by his music, such as Canadian musician and Arcade Fire collaborator Owen Pallett. To fill in the gaps, Jones drew from archives to include voices like Ziggy Stardust lead guitarist Mick Ronson, who died in 1993, and Bowie’s wife and love, Iman.
Beyond the list of usual A-list suspects are interviews with those who knew Bowie before he was Bowie, including childhood friends and neighbours, some of whom shed light on the musician’s complicated relationship with his stepbrother Terry, who suffered from schizophrenia and eventually committed suicide in 1985.
“It was really important to me to speak to a lot of the ancillary characters,” Jones says. “It makes it very egalitarian. The oral biography encourages people to be contradictory in their recollections of what happened, and that in itself provides many different flashpoints.”
Although Jones has studied Bowie for decades, writing the book provided more insight into the artist’s single-minded ambition.
Some stories are less than flattering, painting him as a user in both his artistic inspirations and as a friend.
“He had this amazing ability to dismiss people from his life,” says Jones, who recalls the story of Bowie’s former landlady and early collaborator, Mary Finnigan, who was literally and metaphorically shown the door at a concert after-party.
“Some people feel like they were used, but most don’t. Most people thought, ‘Well, I had my experience and it’s time to move on.’ You could say he was callous, but he was also honest and quite efficient.”
Despite the fact that his list of sources is exhaustive, Jones still feels there is one omission.
He interviewed British artist Clare Shenstone, who had a long-standing relationship with Bowie and was the inspiration behind “Heroes,” one of his most iconic songs.
“I spent a lot of time with her, but in the end, she decided she didn’t want her testimony to be used,” Jones says.
“I completely respected it because she felt being grouped together with a lot of other people would somehow undermine her own experience. That’s the only real regret.” Sue Carter is the editor of Quill and Quire.