Wednesday, October 31, 2018

[Book] David Bowie: A Life by Dylan Jones

Book sleeve cover
The author of this book took a huge amount of time to collect together statements and interviews from a vast array of people who knew or in some cases even briefly met David Bowie.  Jarringly, there are places where David Bowie's own statements are included.  All of these vignettes are presented each in whole, collected into chapters into an approximate order as to when the main point of each vignette happened.  Each vignette starts with a name followed by a parenthetical as to what this person is in relation to Bowie.  Very sparingly, there will be fully italic paragraphs where the author actually writes some narrative framework.  Pointing out things that are important, but not illustrated in the vignettes.  It took me until chapter 3 until I realized that this is what the italic sections were for.

The first chapter of vignettes was very difficult to read.  Of course, the youngest part of anybody's life is the hardest to keep interesting.  "Nick Kent (journalist)", who hadn't met Bowie, but saw him on TV at 17 representing, The Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men, said "...I remember thinking, Now, this fellow we'll probably be seeing again."  At this, it was really hard to keep my eyes from rolling out the back of my head.  There were even vignettes that simply talked about a neighborhood where he was living, without any direct connection to Bowie himself.  Nothing much here but color commentary.

Starting in the second chapter, there are more vignettes from musicians who actually worked with Bowie, and those start to get interesting.  Rick Wakeman, of Yes fame, is a stand-out for good short stories, and though his stories start in Chapter 1, they don't get good until Chapter 2, when he's talking about things that he was part of.

Another thing that goes on through these vignettes that overlap in time is that often two or three recollections of a person or event in Bowie's life will contradict each-other.  Where this happens, there is no narrative interlude to give more information, just the confusion that we don't really know.

Bowie's first wife, Angie, was either "a snotty bitch" and "her own worst enemy" or "... if he hadn't met Angie, David might have continued as a sort of Bob Dylan type..." and "part angel" who "did more than her share of domestic chores".  All I can get from this is that she rubbed some people the wrong way, and - more likely - people who liked her then came to dislike her after the divorce.  Ultimately, I found the Angie bashing to be distracting more than enlightening, and it is just one early example of narrative contradictions.

Because the vignettes overlap in time, and often contradict each other in detail, the book is very hard to follow in a narrative sense.  This is actually worse than the eyE Marty autobiography; that was also out-of-time order, but at least it was a single voice and viewpoint.  This book left me with a mess of details, and I'd bet that two people could read this book at the same time, and come away to tell their own version of the story of Bowie in multiple ways, depending on which vignettes resonated with each reader.

I tried to force myself through this book, but have put it down several times to read other things that have a straight forward narrative.  This book forces you to pay attention, and I wouldn't call it a good summer read (that is, I actually started this book in mid-July).  I got about half-way through this book before deciding I'd read enough of it to publish this review.

Skip it even if you are seeking a narrative walk-through of Bowie's life.  Read this if you are obsessed with all things David Bowie, and really want to get a very in-depth view from a lot of different voices.

My mother is a David Bowie fan, which means that I grew up with David Bowie albums being played.  I am an admirer of Bowie's music, and made a habit of pointing out Bowie songs in public spaces to my wife, who once said that she didn't know any Bowie songs - now she knows that she'd always heard them.  She bought me this book as a gift, and I feel bad that I don't love it. 

Note: the paperback and Kindle edition of this book is subtitled An Oral History, but it is the same book.

David Bowie: A Life
Biography
Crown Archetype imprint of Penguin Random House
Released: 12 September 2017
Hardcover, 544 pages

1 comment:

  1. Since writing this review (I wrote it about a month ago), I found that most of the positive review that exist for this book can be summed up by that last line of my review: obsessed with all things David Bowie... That is most positive reviews talk about having read multiple other biographies, and loving this one because it has those perspectives that other writers threw out.

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