Everyone Gets a Voice in the Oral History David Bowie: A Life

Books Reviews David Bowie
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Everyone Gets a Voice in the Oral History <i>David Bowie: A Life</i>

As it’s only been 19 months since David Bowie’s death, the wave of remembrances, hastily-written appreciations, and cash grab books has yet to subside. Just as it is with Prince—another iconoclastic, chameleonic artist who recently passed away—it’s a reasonable response, acceding to market demand. And there’s still plenty to explore within the 25 studio albums, film roles, and personae that the Thin White Duke brought to life during his 69 years on the planet.

That’s precisely what makes David Bowie: A Life, the latest entry into the biographical hit parade, such an engrossing read. Journalist Dylan Jones (no relation to Bowie, who was born David Robert Jones) decides to avoid another critical exegesis into his subject’s life. Instead, he uses the oral history format, letting Bowie and the many people that moved in and out of his world tell the story from their singular perspectives.

As Jones explains in the book’s acknowledgements, “I wanted to cast the net as wide as possible…[speaking] to the raft of people who perhaps previously hadn’t had the opportunity to tell their stories…who had been involved with him before he was a star, in his pomp, and during the long stretches of post-imperial fame.” That means words from neighbors, bloggers and fans are given equal weight to those of the world-class musicians that backed Bowie up through the years, his ex-wife Angie, and even Martin Scorsese (who cast Bowie as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ).

The beauty of this method is that fans get the best of both worlds: a quick and dirty recap of the well-covered ground that is his life story, and anecdotes that only amplify what a rare and special creature Bowie was. It’s not a complete portrait by any means, more like highly detailed storyboards that could eventually transform into a Technicolor epic.

This wide net approach does come with its downsides; Jones desperately needed a stronger editorial hand at the wheel of this book. There are many of repetitive comments, some of which use almost the exact same language, as if people were given talking points before each interview. Jones also cedes great swathes of space to certain speakers and quotes that could have easily been pared down or broken up.

The most distracting element is that there’s no attempt to identify the sources for all of the direct quotes from Bowie—or any of the other folks who posthumously lent their voices to the book. Jones does mention that he culled content from the many interviews he conducted with Bowie over the years, and he also thanks several journalists who agreed to let their work be excerpted. But clarity about when certain quotes were recorded would have been instructive, helping us understand whether the insight of Trevor Bolder or Mick Ronson or the Starman himself was coming from the heat of their Ziggy Stardust moment or years later.

The book’s flow is also interrupted by Jones’ decision to pull from reviews and stories about Bowie as well as email interviews. Again, those can work within the framework of an oral history, but proper annotation is necessary. The book proves to be a rough journey, moving from a direct quote’s conversational tone to a piece of text’s more stilted phrasing, not to mention the whizbang voice that marked some of the cultural criticism of the ‘70s.

What saves David Bowie: A Life is knowing that, even with its faults, it’s peppered with entertaining lines and anecdotes. Suffering through artist Tony Oursler’s attempt to analyze Bowie’s move to the U.S. as a “reaction against the class system of the UK” and a further reiteration that Bowie’s “work truly functions as a refuge for outsiders” is easier to stomach when, on the next page, Owen Pallett recounts how Bowie was kind enough to check on an Arcade Fire crewmember who had to miss a show they played together. Jones’ delivers a feast of material for longtime fans, and his book is a great jumping-off point for anyone just now exploring Bowie’s life and work. Just be prepared to pick some bones out of your mouth with each bite.