Being a Bowie fan is one thing; being a fan of Bowie books can be an altogether separate fetish. There’s such a wide variety of tomes about the wispy art-rocker from Brixton—and so much to talk about, from the music itself to its art-world significance to his real-and-imagined sexual escapades and how he played the media to build a modern rock-star myth. No wonder so many rock critics and Bowie-sphere hangers-on have written their versions of his history.
Bowie: A Biography, authored by former Spin writer Marc Spitz, is the latest. Spitz’s narrative voice takes that of an uber-fan, with italicized first-person interludes interspersed throughout the book explaining Bowie’s influence on him as a writer.
It has its moments, tying together Bowie’s network of musicians and collaborators like only a diehard fan can—and as even casual fans know, he’s worked with some of the same cast of characters like Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, and Carlos Alomar at several pivotal points in his career. Spitz goes way deeper, connecting interpersonal dots from his technical-school days up to the present.
The superfan inside Spitz, charmingly, also can’t resist detailing every lyrical shout-out Bowie drops his songs, many of which I didn’t know about (and I have somehow acquired the “Bowie book” fetish outlined above without being an uber-fan). A perhaps obvious example: When he sings “The papers what to know whose shirts you wear,” in “Space Oddity,” he’s referring to what soccer team Major Tom’s rooting for—all this time, I was thinking they were inquiring about which department store he frequented or perhaps which designer to name-check. He also drops in all kinds of factoids not encountered in the other books I’ve read—for instance, I knew guitarist Mick Ronson had a knack for arranging the lush strings that appeared on several Bowie albums, but I was unaware that he wrote them on the dumper until I read this book. Apparently, that’s where it was the most quiet at Haddon Hall, the Bowies’ residence during the Ziggy period.
Spitz tries hard to wear the reporter’s objectivity hat despite his lifelong devotion to Bowie, and for the most part does a good job. He does let Bowie off easy for his 1960s pre-Hunky Dory output, most which sounds quite derivative and lame to the average rock fan—which totally explains his utter lack of stardom until Ziggy Stardust bum-rushed America. He also gives Bowie plaudits for his post-Let’s Dance output, which (wait for this—my fellow Popdosers may lob brickbats in the comments below) like his 1960s output, sounds mostly lame and derivative, with the exception of the gratingly awesome Tin Machine.
He also, I think, nails Bowie’s givingly collaborative side. Bowie’s a master impresario, understanding that he can create something good that can be made great with a little help. But Bowie also gives as good as he gets. Other Bowie books—my faves are Tony Zanetta’s Stardust and Angie Bowie’s Backstage Passes, two enetertainingly one-sided affairs perfect for this era of reality TV and tabloid journalism, books my Popdose colleague Ed Murray charitably and correctly refers to as “historical fiction”—like to downplay Bowie’s artistic generosity to serve their own agendas of tearing down (or at least re-humanizing) Bowie. But you can’t just shove aside Bowie’s mothering of Iggy Pop at certain crucial points in the Detroiter’s up-and-down life, or penning “All the Young Dudes” for Mott the Hoople because he liked that band and understood that if they didn’t get a hit, pronto, they would break up. You just can’t!
Bowie’s genius lies in his fearlessness. He gets that you can’t reach great heights if you don’t walk out on a couple edges and experiment. He was unafraid to hook up with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed and Brian Eno and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Luther Vandross and Trent Reznor and Arcade Fire and on and on and on, despite those being less-than-obvious choices at the time.
With such experimentation comes inevitable failure, too. But fans like to discount the downside, the lame experiments that don’t work. Take the “Berlin albums” Low, Heroes, and Lodger, which were part rock, part proto-new-wave genius innovation, and part complete waste of time. What Bowie-philes don’t like or can’t understand, they somehow file under “art” and proclaim as excellent or “perfect in a different way.” Lame! Call a spade a spade and just admit you’ve never listened to side 2 of Low in its entirety. And I mean really listened to it to figure out WTF. And if you have, don’t tell us you found anything because there’s nothing to find, OK? (I am ducking brickbats again, but I am a poor liar and cannot finesse or B.S. this point.)
But, with Bowie: A Biography, there’s more good than bad, despite the occasional rose-colored fan filter. For one thing, it updates what’s been going on with Bowie, post-Let’s Dance. Believe it or not, most of the good Bowie books end there, because that’s when most publishing houses pretty much quit accepting author outlines for them—because in popular opinion, that’s when he was last worth following. Backstage Passes, technically, came out in the early 1990s, but that story effectively ends pre-Let’s Dance, when Angie and David called it quits.
Spitz is a smooth pro; he isn’t a stodgy writer or an amateur story teller, issues that plague several other Bowie books. He’s a hip guy who knows about things like Arcade Fire and can put that Canadian collective into context of the Bowie myth. And he developed his chops writing for cool pubs before attempting to take on the monolithic topic of Bowie’s lifetime of risings and fallings. The fan interludes get a little old: Spitz won me over at first when he apologized in advance for them in the intro, but sadly his own recollections are far less substantive than when he relates others’ fan experiences, such as when Siouxie Sioux heard Ziggy Stardust for the first time while she was hospitalized with colitis, a surreal experience considering her environment.
Yet, as an avid consumer of Bowie books, I will say that if minor things like that is all I got to whine about, I think it’s pretty good overall. And you probably will, too—even if you don’t like Bowie. He’s made a life of timing his projects well, incorporating strange looks that worked, and manipulating the media to create one incredibly weird, complex myth that sold boatloads of records.
As such, it’s kind of fun to turn and face the strangeness that is Bowie. He’s a lot more interesting than the average rocker and lived so much more than the average cliché rockstar life. He was never perfect, and neither is Bowie: A Biography. But it’s a very nice read, just the same. If you know a Bowie-phile looking for a holiday gift, you could do a lot worse than Marc Spitz’s book, that’s for sure.