Rock and Roll Book Club: Three new Bowie books


Three new books about David Bowie.
Three new books about David Bowie. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"Obviously the Bowie book industry is operating on something of a different scale than it was when he was alive," writes Dylan Jones in the acknowledgements of his new book David Bowie: A Life. "Since his enforced retirement midway through the Noughties the books started to come out on an almost six-monthly basis, but since his death there has been a tsunami."

Among individual musicians of the rock era, only Bob Dylan has inspired as much sustained analysis as David Bowie. Yet, can there ever be enough? Bowie's career was so long and diverse, so influential on so many levels, intersecting so many other lives and times, that it's a bottomless well of fascination. Today, as we mark two years since Bowie's death at age 69, we're taking a look at three books that came out last year: the first full year to pass without Bowie among us.

Jones's is the longest and most comprehensive. David Bowie: A Life is a 521-page oral history, drawing on interviews with Bowie himself as well as 182 friends, relatives, collaborators, fans, and critics. The result is a gratifyingly prismatic tumble through Bowie's life and times, including various opinions about his various albums.

The voices are all united by an appreciation for Bowie's accomplishments, while not pretending to offer any magisterial judgment on his impact or significance. By and large, these were people who knew Bowie well, and while some of them register pain, in no case does it seem to have eclipsed the overwhelmingly positive effects of proximity to genius.

Are there great stories? You know it. We learn from friends about how Bowie was a Springsteen fan — even taking an expedition down the Jersey Shore to see the Boss's landscape for yourself. (Picture David Bowie eating a corndog on the boardwalk, because that absolutely happened.) The two met on occasions including during the Young Americans sessions in Philadelphia. "Keepin' it real," remembers journalist Paul du Noyer, "Bruce wore a dirty leather jacket and arrived by public transport. Bowie, on the other hand, wore a bright-red beret and yapped about UFOs."

We learn that Nicolas Roeg initially played with the idea of casting author Michael Crichton as Thomas in The Man Who Fell to Earth, before landing on Bowie. We also learn that Bowie himself collaborated with the Labyrinth design team on his Goblin King costume, including "entire days" devoted just to the codpiece, remembers a wardrobe assistant. We learn that the "Dancing in the Streets" cover was inspired by an actual nightclub dance-off with Mick Jagger (they were originally considering a cover of Bob Marley's "One Love"), and we learn how Bowie communicated his Let's Dance vision to Nile Rodgers.

"He showed me a picture of Little Richard wearing a red suit getting into a red Cadillac," remembers the producer. "And he said, 'Nile darling, I want the album to sound like this.'"

For those who want specifically to delve further into the Man Who Fell to Earth era, there's a whole book on that classic 1976 film. In Earth Bound, Susan Compo chronicles the genesis, making, and legacy of the ultimate Bowie movie.

Roeg was one of the world's hottest art-cinema directors in the hottest decade for art cinema, and Bowie — always interested in multimedia — jumped at the chance to be a part of a project so manifestly in line with his general orientation toward the world. Everyone Compo talks to agrees: whatever Bowie was doing on camera, it wasn't pure acting. There was a lot of Bowie in Thomas Jerome Newton, a fact Bowie affirmed by creating a piece of musical theater (Lazarus) that's a sequel of sorts to the film.

A subject of particular interest for fans of Bowie's music: what ever happened to the score Bowie created for the film? It's never publicly surfaced, and may no longer exist. Although it was always part of the plan that Bowie would contribute musically to the film (in the original conception, Elton John's "Rocket Man" would also figure), Roeg ultimately decided that Bowie's music was just too spacey. John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas somehow sobered up long enough to write an effective score, and Bowie later sent a copy of his Berlin album Low to Roeg. "This is what I wanted to do for the soundtrack," wrote Bowie, who used an image of himself as Thomas on the album's cover.

That information actually doesn't come from Compo's book: it comes from Pat Gilbert's Bowie: The Illustrated Story. A brief and straightforward biography, Gilbert's book serves as a good introduction for fans making their first serious dive into Bowie-land. More serious fans might want a copy just to leave out on the coffee table: the textured white cover features a riveting illustration Clémence Rolland, highlighting Bowie's differently colored eyes that resulted from a punch he took during a youthful brawl (a fight over a girl, as it happens).

Gilbert's book is stronger on the "story" part than the "illustrated" part: while there's no shortage of great Bowie pics out there, and this volume goes beyond the most familiar images, it's far from a definitive pictorial history. That said, it's a readable and fair telling of Bowie's life, for fans who just need the tip of the iceberg. When you're ready to dive deeper, there's much more below the surface.

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