Starman: David Bowie by Paul Trynka and The Man Who Sold the World by Peter Doggett review

by Fiona Rae / 04 February, 2012
One of two new books about David Bowie contends that he was pop culture's most reliable guide to the fever of the 70s.
It is nearly a decade since David Bowie released a new recording, and almost as long since he performed a full concert. Appearances have dwindled to rare brief cameos, such as serenading Ricky Gervais in a 2006 episode of Extras with The Little Fat Man with the Pug-nosed Face. It is classic British musical humour, but still, it makes the glam heights of Ziggy Stardust seem a very long time ago. Although Bowie has never officially declared it, all indications are he has retired.

As the likelihood of his artistic re-emergence recedes, it becomes tempting to survey Bowie’s body of work as a complete and finite entity, which is essentially what the authors of two new books have done.

Former Mojo editor Paul Trynka has solid musical credentials. Starman, his Bowie biography, is structurally conventional, is soberly written and offers probably the most reliable overview anywhere of the man’s career. While his interviews with such key players as Angie Bowie and former manager Tony Defries offer no head-spinning new insights or major historical revisions, he scrupulously clears up details. If, for example, you were concerned about whether Fame really resulted from Bowie mishearing John Lennon singing the disco hit Shame Shame Shame, this book will set you straight.

Peter Doggett’s The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s takes a more creative approach, but it is a borrowed one. The template comes from the late Ian MacDonald, whose 1994 Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties combined rigorous musicology with cultural commentary in a track-by-track analysis, resulting in an unlikely item: a Beatles book that tells you something you didn’t already know.

Whereas MacDonald, in focusing on the 60s, could survey the Beatles’ entire oeuvre, Doggett confines himself to Bowie’s 70s recordings (stretching the parameters to include 1969’s Space Oddity and 1980’s Scary Monsters), contending that “like the Beatles in the decade before him, Bowie was popular culture’s most reliable guide to the fever of the 70s”. Bowie’s challenging of sexual mores, his dystopian visions, his exploration of assorted ideologies from Buddhism to fascism, not to mention his iconic statements in music and fashion, all lend weight to Doggett’s argument.

But Doggett is neither as astute a musicologist nor perceptive a cultural historian as MacDonald. While he touches on the impact Bowie’s bisexuality had on a generation of young males, it is confined to little more than a sidebar. As for his unpacking of Bowie’s music, he is good at locating sources and identifying references, but has trouble deciding what it all means. Compare his defeated entry on Station to Station with McDonald’s dizzying, definitive explication of I Am the Walrus.

Curiously, although the focus of Doggett’s book is on a single decade, some of his most convincing writing involves Bowie’s later years. In the afterword, he argues that 90s albums such as Outside and Earthling stand up artistically against his more celebrated works. What they lack is the sense they are shaping the culture around them or engaging in dialogue with other artists.

For an artist who has played a part in profound cultural upheavals, the realisation that one’s pop moment has past must be difficult to accept. Yet it may also come as a relief. One thing both Trynka and Doggett show is the intense degree of self-obsession required to achieve both the output and success of Bowie in his prime, which at times led the artist close to psychosis.

I have been listening lately to Reality, Bowie’s most recent album, now nine years old. It sounds remarkably fresh and remains the rare rock record that justifies the term “mature”. Among its gems is a gentle, heartfelt song called Days, in which Bowie sings – perhaps to his wife, his newborn daughter or conceivably some higher being – “All I’ve done, I’ve done for me/All you gave, you gave for free/I gave nothing in return, and there’s little left of me/All the days of my life/I owe you.” The starman sounds human. Retirement speeches are seldom more dignified.

STARMAN: DAVID BOWIE – THE DEFINITIVE BIOGRAPHY, by Paul Trynka (Sphere, $39.99); THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD: DAVID BOWIE AND THE 1970s, by Peter Doggett (The Bodley Head, $39.99).

Click here for more reviews by Nick Bollinger; here for The Sampler on Radio New Zealand National.

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