David Bowie’s Biographer on How to Cover an Icon

David Bowie, 2003/Photo © JStone/Shutterstock

In setting out to write a book about David Bowie, I faced one predominant issue: coming up with different reasons for the reader to read the book. If one is a Bowie aficionado, then one knows how high the bar is, one knows where the bodies are buried. So why should someone read another Bowie book? In order to involve the reader, I had to widen the net.

Which is exactly what I did.

There are too many Bowie books out there written by people who simply have an opinion about him; what was lacking was a book that was the result of many, many voices.

I figured that a Bowie book of this size and ambition needed to have at least 150 voices in it. The first fifty are those people you include in order to be taken seriously as a Bowie biographer; see: Nile Rodgers, Mick Rock, Terry O’Neill, Rick Wakeman, etc. The next fifty are the people who think they just have as much right as anyone else to bestow on the reader the pearls of wisdom they learnt at Bowie’s knee. See: Tracey Emin, Blondie, Bono, a Streatham mini cab driver. The final fifty are the other people, the unknowns. These were the ones called Kevin, or Keith, the ones who were almost mentioned in passing. “Have you spoken to Kevin?” “Kevin? No. Should I?” In the end I spoke to people all over the world, in London, Paris, Milan, Miami, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Arizona, Cardiff, Sussex, Montreal, Essex, Sydney, Brixton, Bromley, Beckenham, Cambridge, Hay-on-Wye, Ipswich, even in parts of darkest Detroit.

Since his enforced retirement midway through the Noughties the books started to come out on an almost six-monthly basis; since his death there has been a tsunami of Bowie books. Many of the books written about Bowie are biographies of the metaphor that we have come to know as “Bowie”; I wanted to write about the man, the person himself.  For this book, I focused on the many tall poppies who knew and worked with David over the years. I also spoke to the raft of people who perhaps previously hadn’t had the opportunity to tell their stories with as much encouragement or fanfare, people who had been involved with him before he was a star, in his pomp, and during the long stretches of post-imperial fame. I’d like to thank them all – the musicians who worked with Bowie, the family friends, professional friends, childhood acquaintances, lovers, actors, producers, directors, stylists, artists, curators, journalists, photographers, promoters, art directors, publishers, publicists, authors, designers, comedians, fans, bold face names, everyone. As a form of history, the oral biography has the capacity to be more honest than others, and the lack of subjectivity employed by the editor should enable the truth to shine though. But then who ever remembers an event in precisely the same way? As Bertrand Russell said, “When a man tells you that he knows the exact truth about anything you are safe in inferring that he is an inexact man.” Yet the recollections contained here, many of which include minor contradictions, have produced a fascinating prism of whatever the truth actually is.

Want more on writing nonfiction? Check out Signature’s Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction.

I was also adamant that I’d use only firsthand quotes. All of the quotes included  are from David Bowie himself, taken from the seven formal interviews I conducted with him over the years, along with some quotes from an interview commissioned for i-D back in 1987 when I was still the editor (and for which I wrote many of the questions), used with the kind permission of Tricia Jones (who conducted the interview), plus one quote from a BBC radio series, Bowie Verbatim, another from a speech Bowie gave to the Berklee College of Music in 1999, and one from Hugh Thomson’s interview with him for Five Years. After his death, Bowie’s interviews started to take on a new poignancy, something I started to see myself when I looked back through my own interviews with him. Things I skipped over, or took for granted at the time, now seemed strangely loaded, heavy with meaning. They certainly helped me frame this book.

David Bowie never forgot to connect. Having struggled for a decade to make it in an industry which he often thought was collectively conspiring against him, little was left to chance, and the ruthlessness with which he assaulted his audience when he finally did become successful was only matched by the extraordinary quality of the material – and the stagecraft – that he used as ammunition. Whereas in the ’60s Bowie was always slightly behind the curve, as the ‘70s clicked in, he inched ahead of it, peering at the future through a Manichean viewfinder. He showed that what he was doing was not a trend, but rather a direction, one that would change on a whim, or indeed with the wind. He excelled at the art of individualism, rarely tacking toward the center, and relentlessly moving forward.

In this age when there is indiscriminate access to almost everything, it would have been difficult for Bowie to operate so successfully, but back in the ’70s he was a divining rod, his own as well as ours. His immense talent was often bewildering. But then he’d learned how to use what “little” talent (his term) he had to its fullest effect. Bowie often said that God’s cruelest gift was bestowing only a modicum of talent on a person, and yet he exploited what he had in a way that was all consuming. He was a fascinating fusion of ambition and craft, coupled with an innate charm, and – after that first unsuccessful decade – an often unerring sense of timing.

Bowie also deployed his curiosity as an analytical torch, repurposing in completely original ways, rarely embarrassed to claim something as his own. In that first, formative decade of his career, Bowie’s work bore a relation to many forebears, and it was only with “Space Oddity” that he showed that he had a mind of his own, and genuine human purpose. (Having said that, at the time this was considered to be something of a novelty record, and it could have simply been regarded in the years afterward as nothing more important than “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco, for instance, a novelty tie-in from a different era.)

There are many who think that Bowie was unrelentingly calculating, carefully building his personae and his records like a bomb-squad technician, deciding which color wire to snip, petrified that a mistake would end his seemingly inexorable righteous passage. In reality he just mixed things up as he went, using bits and pieces he’d collected along the way. I hope this book goes some way to describing exactly how he did this, with his art, his music, and with the people he collected around him, some of whom he kept for life.