Friday, September 04, 2015

David Bowie : Starman by Paul Trynka (book review)

I recently picked up a copy of Paul Trynka’s biography, David Bowie : Starman.

It dates back to 2011, but I didn’t buy it at the time having burned out on a couple of biographies of rock stars that you would imagine would be fascinating but were, frankly, crashing bores – mostly the Iggy Pop Open Up and Bleed book also by Trynka), which failed to deliver a portrait of a man raised by wolves in a trailer park, and instead delivered a rather dull middle-class American, as did the Kurt Cobain book and the Eric Clapton book (if you substitute English for American). David Bowie, as a quintessential lower-middle-class southern English war-baby, didn’t seem much more promising. I was wrong.

For many rock stories, these days, I can turn to YouTube and get the history, in a few thousand spoken words, along with sights and sounds of the era and if I’m lucky, and if the producer has paid the royalties, even the songs of the rock star in question. So, given that I’ve watched Five Years (while it was available) and a number of other Bowie documentaries, what is the advantage of a book?

Words, mainly. (But you knew that.) The book must have around 120,000 of them, which is sufficient to explain nuances in relationships and timelines as well as evoke feelings and paint mental pictures. Trynka has done an enormous amount of research, and seems to have tracked down pretty much anyone who spoke to David Bowie throughout his career, and placed their words carefully where they’ll do the most good in the narrative. He’s also taken care to keep mentioning dates and, when a person or event re-enters the scene after an absence, makes sure to recap briefly. This makes the book, unlike so many others, a pleasure to dip into at random, or use as a reference. In a book this long, there’s always a time or two when you flip through the previous few pages in confusion thinking something like, “Wait, have we had the festival yet? Did I miss it?” but his style keeps that to a minimum.

I don’t need to recap the David Bowie story here, so I won’t.  His first hits came as I first started buying records, although the records I bought were by T. Rex. Bowie was a feared rival. Apart from a fallow period recently, he’s continued to have hits since, and the way he’s managed to keep re-inventing himself has always been of some interest. Trynka has a lot to say about his methods, from Oblique Strategies, to putting an unrehearsed, inexperienced band in the studio and demanding they deliver, to obsessively working out details beforehand. It seems he’s used all types of methods, and is vastly well-read in the philosophy and psychology of his art, as well. Surprisingly, neither Bowie nor his biographer seem to think he has much innate talent – they both put it down to obsessive, single-minded hard work.

The story weaves in an out of others that I’ve read – Marc Bolan, Mick Jagger, Lori Mattix (Maddox, Madox), Jimmy Page, Andy Warhol and the aforementioned Iggy Pop, and many that I haven’t, though I probably should – Lou Reed, Freddie Mercury, John Lennon. From a Mod hustling in London to a rather diaphanous character living in indescribably luxury with Iman, probably in a pink castle on a cloud near the Big Rock Candy Mountain, it’s not your average rags to riches tale but it is constantly interesting. 

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