One year on from the death of music’s greatest chameleon artist, David Bowie, and fans are still reeling from the hard-hitting news and the cryptically-laced last chapters that lead to it.
On any given day a friend’s random tribute gets dragged from YouTube and lumped onto Facebook (“This is the Bowie track that meant the most to me”); concerts are put on the world over, both spectacular-like (‘Celebrating David Bowie’ across four continents) and humbly produced (mini ‘Bowie Festivals’ even in backwater towns).
There is also a pending avalanche of books to be published about the man – to add to a bibliography already stacked ceiling-high. But the best text to begin with at this one-year-anniversary point since Bowie’s passing is Paul Morley’s brilliantly penned The Age of Bowie.
Morley delivers a very different take on the typical biography, allowing Bowie’s life to spill out like one long poetic pop song; less traditional treatise and more postmodern thesis. Of course, it’s a clever thing he’s done so, since fans have already read just about every bio on Bowie of the traditional kind. With a colourful sort of storytelling rather than the usual (and usually dull) facts-and-statistics narrative, The Age of Bowie makes for a roller coaster of a read. And what artist better warrants a far-out, wham-bam, not-so-linear dissertation than the man whose music possessed so much of all of the above?
There are biographers who’ve written on rock’s greatest icon very well, but ultimately having come across more like well-versed fanclub agents than non-biased bystanders. Paul Trynka and his book Starman spring to mind. But Morley – a true fan himself, yes, but one who treats his subject like a work of art worthy of immense thesis – opts to highlight the pains and despair as much as the gains and glory, insisting on delivering the dark elements and the decadent ones alike with usually vivid / sometimes cryptic prose.
In several paragraphs, for example, when referencing Bowie’s relationship with his father, the writing starts to read like those twisted and trippy conversations between patient and therapist in counselling, turning that part of the story where father influences child (and not necessarily through positive traits but, in this case, several more ‘boring’ ones) to move on and make better with his life. It certainly makes for a far more interesting (albeit Freudianly-fucked-up) read than the usual ‘His Dad was born here / worked there / took him to play around these parts’ tidbits of information.
Morley also steers clear of sounding like a press agent or fanatical devotee. His job, after all, isn’t to sell records or push paraphernalia, but to portray the life of a man for whom art was far more important than commerce. Instead of dishing out retro bios of each and every LP (as if we hadn’t read enough glowing reviews of these in serious music journals already) the songs and album themes creep subtly into each of the chapters that make up Bowie’s chequered and celebrated life. Indeed, he does go into depth about certain albums but referring to these in terms of concept and relativity rather than the more obvious content.
The author has a knack of honing in on major incidents in Bowie’s past then draws back the lens to present the greater picture, picking out something iconographic from latter-day archives and tying this into what happened ‘back then’. It does wonders to help the reader ‘connect the dots’ in realising how Bowie’s every move helped shape his overall legacy, hints of early life incidents weaving their way into his latter-day music and art. For example, when describing the time Bowie’s pal George Underwood punches him in the face (leaving him with an enlarged pupil that made his eyes look differently-hued), Morley throws in phrases like “a permanent romantic wound” that gave Bowie’s “reality a Cubist kick”, instantly bringing to mind artistic references that arrive later down the line in Bowie’s career (read: “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”… the Cubist-style Reality art where a caricature of Bowie shows exaggerated incongruous eyes).
This kaleidoscopic collage style continues with more aesthetic connect-the-dots: Bowie’s fascination with flamboyant fashion and the hit song on the subject whose video featured an odd dance trend that would appear again in Blackstar; his tendency to strike confident poses without fully knowing what he was doing and way before the fame came; his reading of philosophical greats and the ability to weave their intangible concepts into a very visual arc of work – transforming the visceral, if you will, into something more flesh and blood.
In short, Paul Morley’s The Age of Bowie makes any previous biography on the man pale in comparison – still piecing together the commonly known bits but seeing the sum of these result in a kind of beautifully frayed tapestry worthy of hanging in a museum rather than a plain cut-and-paste project.
At the beginning of the book, the author explains how he has become somewhat of a ‘go-to’ guy for when media want an instant quote following the news of the death of a celebrity and how of course in the case of Bowie the hounds were at his door within minutes. He shunned those opportunities to give a just-add-water obituary on this specific occasion. The death of an artist like Bowie was always going to be different to that of your average celebrity. And it’s a good thing Morley gave up those fifteen minutes, for here he gets to extrapolate on every little thing that Bowie means to him and to the rest of us in the form of one brilliantly penned lifestory.
If you want the A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s of David Bowie’s life, read any biography that came before this. But if you prefer to be thrown into the icon’s world as if viewing a shuffling of his greatest music clips, this is the kaleidoscopic read for you. Antonino Tati
‘The Age Of Bowie’ by Paul Morley is published through Simon & Schuster Australia, available in hardback, RRP $45.00.