Bowie: A Biography

January 01, 1970

 

(Crown Publishers; 402pp)

 

www.crownpublishing.com

 

BY RICK ALLEN

 

Marc Spitz’ wordy biography of the Thin White Duke is
written in the first person, a telling fact, one that should function as a
caveat. There is a lot of Spitz in this book; opinion, conjecture and some
occasionally unwelcome comparison of author to subject. Had the book been
written by another musician or creative artist it might that might have been a
more effective approach than it is here.

 

Not that writers – Spitz has written a couple of novels as
well – aren’t creative artists. But conjectures coming from a writer with a
larger public persona, one with whom a reader might be more familiar, would
elicit more interest. Depending on the details, too much self-revelation on the
part of a biographer can be negatively prejudicial; how does one take seriously
the musical opinions of someone who, as Spitz does, reveals even a pre-teen
affection for the vomitous, superficial anti-rock and roll of the Grease soundtrack?

 

Even more disconcerting is Spitz casual unapologetic use of
the racially offensive term “Jap” as though he and his audience were still
mired in World War II era xenophobia. The use of such terms makes it tempting to
wonder what to infer regarding Spitz’ statements about the characteristics of
blonde, blue-eyed people earlier in the book. Spitz’ writing is often slipshod;
referring to the legal risks of gay life in England as extant “as early” as
1966 rather than “late” and making a non-sequitur reference to William Shatner
by only his last name and no explanation of why the reference is relevant; not
exactly writing for the ages, the faults help to confine the appeal of the book
to those interested in Bowie and pop music in specific rather than those
interested and open to a good read regardless of subject.

 

Some of Spitz’ “facts” are questionable too. In discussing
David Robert Jones’ transition to “David Bowie” he likens it to Robert
Zimmerman’s becoming Bob Dylan in homage to poet Dylan Thomas. While that
explanation for Dylan’s name change cannot be entirely ruled out, more than one
Dylan biographer has said that it is at least equally likely that the source of
Dylan’s new surname was actually TV cowboy Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke though he took the cooler spelling from the Welsh poet.
The notion has weight when it’s considered that Dylan comes from a TV mad
generation for whom the cowboy was as glamorous and iconic a figure and object
of hero worship as spies, astronauts and pop stars would later become. While
the idea that Dylan took his name from Thomas is equally plausible, the
resistance to the alternate theory is based in the same kind of intellectual snobbery
that rules out the possibility that Bowie chose his name for similar reasons
and/or just because it’s a cool name. In an anecdote about Marc Bolan, Spitz
also shows that he is unclear as to what actually constitutes a double
entendre.

 

There’s no solid reason why the admittedly plentiful details
of Bowie’s early life and about his family provided should be called into
question – there is enough material provided by recollections from people like
Bowie’s childhood friend, artist/musician George Underwood (the Pete Shotten to
his John Lennon), and others close to him during adolescence to give them believability.
But there is a carelessness about Spitz’ writing that makes some assertions
slightly suspect. Spitz even describes Jim Bowie’s famous knife as short-bladed
when in fact the distinguishing characteristic of its blade is its uniquely
long length. And there is so much theorizing and intrusive opinionating from
Spitz that one spends a great deal of the time – especially through the first
chapters — wishing that Spitz would just get on with it; enough about you already.

 

Nevertheless, Bowie
is one of rock and pop’s more interesting characters and a worthy subject for a
detailed, intimate biography. Has Spitz provided that? Not really. No recent
info from Bowie
appears in the book. There are few pictures, none of Bowie’s parents or sibling, none of his
children, none of either his ex-wife Angie or present wife Iman and no recent
pictures of the subject himself. He gets some interesting, sometimes revealing,
information from Jones family members and Bowie
friends and lovers – though not always first-hand; contributions from Angie
come mostly from her memoir – and there is a good amount of suitably juicy
gossip and the settling of certain rumors to varying degrees of satisfaction.

 

Spitz does a give some interesting, but not necessarily
trustworthy, details about people and places pertinent to Bowie’s past and
development that will help readers unfamiliar with them understand – or guess –
how and why they affected his life, personality and music. Some may lead curious
readers down other, interesting paths; the Bowie story is full of interesting characters.

 

A good biography gives a sense of times of the arc of its
subject’s life and Spitz does score on that aspect. Tidbits of information
surface: like the fact that young David was a Cub Scout who followed American
football and whose interest in American rock ‘n’ roll was encouraged instead of
opposed by his parents; the man who wondered why people looked askance when he
paraded about in a dress as an adult started out as a Real Boy. And for young
David Jones, “pulling birds” was as important as sports and rock and roll. Like
other artistic types Bowie
was constitutionally incapable of holding down a straight job; he’d spend hours
hanging out at record stores but couldn’t keep it together for more than a few
weeks working in one. The book tells how Bowie’s intellectual side was also nurtured
by his troubled older half-brother, Terry, who introduced him to and distilled
Buddhist philosophy and the works of the Beats, which led to an interest in the
“cool jazz” of John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery and his taking saxophone
lessons from British Baritone sax player Ronnie Ross. The sentimental side of Bowie is also revealed: At
the height of his popularity he called on Ross to play the extended saxophone
solo at the end of Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” produced by Bowie and
Mick Ronson.

 

Early in the book, the telling fact is revealed that Bowie’s
first musical hero was not a jazzman like Coltrane or the smooth cool word-centric
Chuck Berry but the explosive primal R&B-rooted Little Richard; the
interest originating not in Bowie identifying with Richard’s glitz and
androgyny, but from listening to the copy of “Tutti Frutti” given to a ten year
old David by his father. At root Bowie is not a performance artist, lightweight
pop star or art rocker; not a rock musician
but a rock ‘n’ roll musician which puts him on a level with contemporaries and
near contemporaries like Velvet Underground era Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and even
Marc Bolan rather than circus acts like Kiss or the style-heavy, substance-lacking
haircut bands of the 1970s. 

 

Spitz’ book – not always a page turner – may get as close to
the heart of the enigmatic Bowie
as possible. If so, he does it by showing that heart, more than libido or even
intellect, is what’s at the core of his work.

 

Even so, Bowie’s
story deserves to be told better than it is here. 

 

 

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