Ch-ch-changes, just gonna have to be a different man
Pablo Picasso once described to a friend how he had noticed a handlebar and bicycle seat in the corner of his studio, lying in such a way as to look like a bull’s head.
“I put them together so that nobody could possibly fail to realize that this seat and this handlebar from a bike were really a bull’s head. Suppose one day,” Picasso mused, “my head of a bull were thrown on a junk heap. Maybe a little boy would come along and notice and say to himself, ‘Now there’s something I could use as a handlebar for my bike.’” The artist pulls back the curtain and gifts us a glimpse into the creative process.
We live our lives to the soundtrack of popular music. A beloved song, perhaps more than any other vessel of the arts, can immediately transport us to another place and time. Our fascination with the creators of song is insatiable—how else to explain the burgeoning rock bio trade? Beyond our innate voyeuristic curiosity into the lurid loves and lives of our pop idols, what’s truly fascinating is sneaking that stolen peak behind the curtain, to glimpse the really juicy stuff: the creative process that sculpted these gems, that sculpted our very lives.
Few musicians have been as versatile, yet so massively popular, as David Bowie. Through multiple stylistic changes across almost five decades, hel’s produced consistently top-quality and uncompromising pop music. He’s moved a lot of units, almost 200 million at last count, of more than 30 or so studio albums. The breadth of his influence on pop music—indeed, on all pop culture—cannot be overestimated. Without Bowie, no Madonna, no Prince, no Lady Gaga. No Iggy, no U2, no Nirvana, no Radiohead. In the Pantheon of the Rock Gods, David Bowie stands as Jupiter. And the god’s music and influence are everywhere.
Paul Trynka’s new book, Bowie: Starman, is a deeply researched and closely observed accounting of Bowie’s life and career. Sure, there’s plenty of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll anecdotes. But Trynka takes us well beyond all that rock-star stuff and digs deeply into those peculiar confluences of gifted musical personnel and roiling creative juices that have produced Bowie’s oeuvre.
Talent borrows, genius steals, Picasso said, and Bowie may also be the Jupiter of thieves. Copping the futuristic design aesthetic of A Clockwork Orange, Bowie shape-shifts into Ziggy Stardust (the name referencing Hoagy Carmichael’s greatest song, as Trynka astutely observes). Adopting a crisp, formal Weimar severity, the Thin White Duke is born. The sources of this thievery are sometimes obvious and inspired—try singing the chorus of “Starman” over the chorus of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”—and sometimes arcane and elusive: virtually all the lyrical content of “Diamond Dogs” and several albums to follow were created using the cut-up method of generating poetry pioneered by Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs.
Trynka looks closely at the role of collaboration, concluding that the best of Bowie’s work typically involves a rushed studio environment, complemented with top-flight musicians. The list is long—Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, Mike Garson, Robert Fripp, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Nile Rodgers. While some have observed that with his musicians, Bowie was simply a curator and not a creator, Trynka argues that he has “an almost mystical ability to inspire them to create something entirely new.”
“Heroes,” perhaps his most popular song, riffs off a basic two-chord, three-note melody lifted from an Iggy Pop song, “Success.” Robert Fripp’s transcendent guitar line was teased out and pieced together from three quick takes in the studio, and is virtually unplayable as edited. (Bowie neglected to tell Adrian Belew, Trynka notes, who learned the line from the record and played it back note for note when he joined the band some years later.)
The arc of Bowie’s ascension and reign is interesting stuff, and Trynka maps it in close detail, painting an unvarnished canvas of our hero as a ruthless charmer with a laser focus on the pursuit of fame, popularity and massive success. Ever wondered about that business of Mick and David in bed, as Angie Bowie proclaimed? “The suggestion perhaps helped sell her book,” Trynka opines, “but it is ludicrous to anyone who saw the two together.” Trinka infers the rivalry between the pair was simply too strong for this possibility.
Or ever notice that David’s left eye looks, shall we say, strange? Credit a damaged iris from a teenage fight with a mate over a fetching young bird. And there’s no flinching in Trynka’s descriptions of the coke-fueled, sex-addicted depravities of Bowie’s mid-career—none of which, it must be noted, appears to have impaired Bowie’s creativity, as “Diamond Dogs,” “Young Americans” and “Station to Station” were released over this period.
This being a biography, we of course miss the subject’s direct elucidations, his insights, his voice. Nature of the beast, though, and Trynka has filled in the gaps admirably, talking to most of the significant players who have spun in and out of Jupiter’s orbit. From the inauspicious beginnings as a Dylan wannabe to outsider mega-superstardom, Bowie’s shameless plundering ultimately yielded treasure far beyond the mere sum of its parts. Trynka’s shrewd perceptions of Bowie’s creative thievery helps us place the hero in the company of great artists.
“The truth is, since Dr. Faustus sold his soul, since Robert Johnson found himself at the crossroads,” Trynka observes, “artists and musicians have struggled to transcend the talents they were born with. David Bowie, a youth with ambition and more charm than talent, seemed to achieve that magic alchemy: he transformed himself and his destiny.”
Mark Baker lives in Atlanta in the company of his two Dachshunds, Carly and Max.