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Authors: Marc Spitz

Bowie: A Biography

BOOK: Bowie: A Biography
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A
LSO BY
M
ARC
S
PITZ
 

NONFICTION

We Got the Neutron Bomb:

The Untold Story of L.A. Punk

(with Brendan Mullen)

Nobody Likes You:

Inside the Turbulent Life, Times
,

and Music of Green Day

FICTION

How Soon Is Never?

Too Much, Too Late

For everyone whose heart still jumps with the first beat of “Five Years.” And for Rob Sheffield, who cares about this stuff as much as I do.

Introduction
 

T
he idea was not even mine. I had just visited with my agent at the famous and now shuttered Cedar Tavern on University Place, where painters and composers and writers once ate and drank. We discussed what my next book should be. I’d lived a rock ’n’ roll life and written a lot about rock ’n’ roll in my twenties, and by the time I was in my late thirties, I wanted to understand what it all meant a bit better. I needed the next project to really stand for something. It was spring 2006 and I’d just completed a very difficult biography on the Bay Area punk trio Green Day
. Spin
magazine, where I was a senior writer, fired me that March, after almost nine years following the sale of the publication and an attendant staff bloodbath. I’d never had a career before rock journalism so I’d never stood at a professional crossroad before
.

In truth, I was not thinking about the next book as much as leaving New York City, moving up to southern Vermont, or maybe out to New Mexico, and looking for work in an indie record store or a shake shack. I suppose that my agent knew that there was interest in a Bowie book. There’s
always
interest in a Bowie book, which is why there are three or four dozen of them, of varying levels of greatness both in and out of print. Too many, perhaps, which was one reason for my initial reluctance. A few of them are excellent, such as David Buckley’s 2001 release
Strange Fascination.
I have had several e-mail conversations with Buckley, who was very gracious and encouraging. There is the stand-alone work
Alias David Bowie,
written by Peter and Leni Gillman. It is the most meticulously researched and fastidiously rendered Bowie book ever written; it is invaluable to any Bowie-ist and certainly anyone hoping to write
a book on the subject themselves—even if, unlike Buckley’s, it has not been updated since its publication in 1986. Later, I also communicated with the Gillmans, and they too shared advice, empathy and sometimes sympathy. Their book and the vintage oral history
In Other Words … David Bowie,
culled from a series of Capital Radio interviews by Kerry Juby, provided invaluable source material when it came to subjects who are now deceased, unwilling to speak or otherwise untraceable. Bowie’s autobiography, purportedly entitled
The Return of the Thin White Duke
(after the opening lyric to the 1976 song “Station to Station”) has been rumored for years as well, but either the asking price is too high or it’s a bluff; or it’s really in the works, and like Bob Dylan’s
Chronicles
volume one, it will arrive when it’s the right time. Whichever the case may be, it is not here, and short of the text that accompanies Mick Rock’s captivating but exclusively glitter-focused
Moonage Daydream
photo book, David Bowie has not written about or authorized anybody else writing about his own life and work. Despite this, they keep coming. There are books about Bowie and bisexuality; books about Bowie and fashion; there is a 33 ⅓ series book about the 1977 album
Low
; a book strictly about Bowie’s brief stay in Berlin with Iggy Pop; there are guitar tablature books; there are encyclopedias like Nicholas Pegg’s
The Complete David Bowie
; there is
David Bowie: A Chronology,
which informs those concerned of exactly where Bowie was and what he was doing on November 19, 1971, or February 12, 1983 (in case you needed to know; in time, I needed to know). At least those were useful in a practical way. Less so were some of the artifacts available on eBay, dog-eared but, with the cruelty of passing time, newly hilarious. Vivian Claire’s 1977 publication
David Bowie: The King of Glitter Rock,
for example: “Bowie is a phenomenon, not only by virtue of what he produces, but how he lives. Take a typical afternoon. Bowie’s probably sitting in his 45,000-book library in his Geneva, California mansion where he’s knocking out another screenplay (he’s done nine already) in a couple of hours; then he’ll switch for a break to write two new songs (which will take him less than an hour), sketch, do some painting before he comes downstairs for a two hour interview, all this after twenty hours in the recording studio. He won’t have slept for two nights, nor is he the least bit interested in sleep. If someone comes up with a cure for sleep, it will probably be Bowie.” Never once does Ms. Claire mention the unholy amount of really good West Coast blow being delivered by open-collared
hustlers and nostril-horked around the clock by her prolific and, at the time, very sick and paranoid subject. Bowie actually claims to have forgotten most of this period: the recording of
Station to Station
at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles; the filming of
The Man Who Fell to Earth
in New Mexico; the White Light world tour, on which he introduced his “Thin White Duke” persona, reconnected with his pal Iggy Pop and partnered up with Brian Eno with an eye toward inventing New Wave. A lot to slip the mind
.

I have not even listed the “my life with Bowie” tell-alls. It seems like everyone who grew up with, lived with, worked with, slept with, wanted to sleep with, produced, managed or wanted to manage Bowie had cleared some real estate for themselves on those congested “search results” pages. Ex-wife Angie Bowie has written two excellent books
, Free Spirit
and
Backstage Passes.
The former is much more obscure, and I had to resort to eBay UK to track it down. The latter, first published about fifteen years ago, is a bit more well known, as she promoted it with typical savvy, suggesting to talk show hosts (Joan Rivers and Howard Stern) that she
may
have caught her ex post-tryst with Mick Jagger. This highly marketable suggestion was also indirectly responsible for one of the best cheap St. Mark’s Place tourist T-shirts ever, one that I do own and am currently trying to make soft and vintage-looking enough to actually wear: a grainy black and white shot of Bowie, circa 1982 or so, with
I FUCKED MICK JAGGER
emblazoned on it. Bowie’s former manager, Kenneth Pitt, published a book in the early eighties entitled
David Bowie: The Pitt Report,
in which he draws from what could only be his own diaries and logs. As with Angie, I interviewed Mr. Pitt for
this
book, but only via snail mail (at his insistence). He actually sent me typewritten corrections to his spelling and language weeks after our old-school exchange was complete. Very charming man, now in his eighties
.

Anthony Zanetta, former vice president of Bowie and his manager Tony Defries’s ill-fated entertainment conglomerate MainMan, published
Stardust,
also in the early eighties, when Bowie was enjoying his greatest commercial success. Bowie wasn’t a fan of the book. “David particularly is very, very protective of his image,” Zanetta told me, “and he was very upset that I did that book even before one word was written.”

Given all these memoirs and biographies, I was concerned that writing my own Bowie book would make me seem a bit like a carpetbagger, or worse, a looky-loo. I will never be able to escape the fact that I was not there
or mask my obvious fan-boy awe. The Gillmans informed me via e-mail that they were
not
fans of Bowie’s music before they began their book and at first were able to view him as a subject, nothing more. I, on the other hand, have been e-mailed by Tony Visconti, a man I once, before taking this up, sat adjacent to in the West Village diner Le Bonbonniere and watched eat a pile of toast. Nobody else recognized him. I could only think, “That man eating wheat toast produced ‘Heroes,’ not to mention T. Rex’s ‘Baby Boomerang.’” I have had cocktails with people like Danny Fields, who introduced Bowie and Iggy Pop; coffee with Leee Black Childers, the “advance man,” for Bowie’s management company and babysitter for the strung-out Stooges of 1973; and more drinks with Angie Bowie and Jayne County, each of them an icon and crucial figure in the larger Bowie myth. I have also interviewed Lou Reed and Iggy Pop for
Uncut
and
Harp
magazines respectively during this period. Lou was far scarier. Iggy, surprisingly punctual. In the collective mind of the myth-aware Bowie-ist, these characters have remained glitter dusted, young, horny alley cat revolutionaries, wearing silver and stomping on some eternal disco floor to a perfect soul soundtrack like “Band of Gold” by Freda Payne or “Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd. They exist in a perpetual seventies mural. I was apprehensive and sure enough, meeting them all between 2006 and 2009, speaking with them, interviewing them, drinking coffee or liquor with them, e-mailing with them was very strange. They are older now. Some are bitter. Many are simply tired of recounting the same stories. “When I meet people and it’s all ‘David, David, David,’ I do overreact and say I don’t want to talk about David,” Childers complained to me. “He is not that much of my life. He was literally, really, two and a half, three years of my life. It was one hundred percent David at that time, and God knows I gained a lot of experience and had a lot of great times, but that’s not what I want to be known for.” They are easier to find for a biographer in the info age. Many are on MySpace and Facebook. But they are much harder to establish trust with and crack open and convince that there are new ideas when it comes to a book on Bowie. I’ve done my best, and I hope mine is worthy of the trust they placed in me
.

I suspected it would be a challenge to hold on to my objectivity during the research phase. I, like others who have taken on the Bowie story before, am a massive and lifelong fan. When an interview subject criticized Bowie, as many did, I knew that I would have to check my urge to defend him
.

Ultimately, I happened on a device to help maintain a workable harmony between the disciplined journalist that I have become and the fat kid who once dyed his hair orange in hope that it would somehow make him more Bowie-like, svelte and handsome (it did not). I have included at various points in this book that kid’s memories. Call them interludes, palate cleansers, whatever you want: they are here, along with the hard reporting. They are a necessity and, I hope, a bit of useful levity
.

Finally, the idea of beginning a Bowie book during the largest period of silence in his career seemed strange. As I write this, David Bowie has not released a new album since 2003. He has not toured since undergoing emergency heart surgery the following year. Before this, Bowie had been as prolific as Woody Allen, Tyler Perry, Ryan Adams or Prince—one of those artists who don’t let a year pass without offering something to their public. Popular culture is more Bowie informed than ever as it moves from idea to idea in a Twitter age designed for rapid self-reinvention, hype and spin (Bowie once claimed to have “the attention span of a grasshopper”). Both his scarcity and his importance have been so profound in the second half of this decade that I initially worried that to address a book on Bowie from a pop perspective would be akin to railing at a silent God—one who created everything then split. I actually considered calling this book “God and Man” (a sort of glib nod to the lyrics of his 1983 hit “Modern Love”). I certainly fretted to my agent that day over our beers about all of these things and more
.

After the meeting at the Cedar Tavern, my agent and I had a smoke, then shook hands and parted. I remained unconvinced that I should take on a Bowie biography but agreed to think about it. Soon I found myself on the southwest corner of Broadway and Tenth Street, waiting for the traffic light to change. Behind me was a Chase branch. On the other side of the street there stood a prewar apartment building and the Modern Gourmet market. Kitty-corner was the nail salon that my then-girlfriend frequented for her manicure/ pedicures. On the other side of that was the old Grace Church. In the middle of the road, cars, cabs, trucks, bicycles, Vespas, panhandlers and cops. And immediately to my right, about two feet away, standing in front of a mailbox with his arm raised: David Bowie
.

I did what any New Yorker, orthodox Bowie-ist or not, would have done under the circumstances of encountering
anyone
famous. I said to myself, calmly, almost cavalierly, “Okay, that guy really looks a lot like
David Bowie.” Initial reactions are calm by code especially if there is no alcohol immediately available. We have to forget what these people may or may not have meant to us. We shift mechanically into cool mode and must never, ever let on that we give a damn. We are unflappable New Yorkers after all. The voice in my head was deliberate, like a rabbi’s or a math teacher’s: “But it could not possibly be David Bowie. Was I not just talking about David Bowie? It is David Bowie. My, my. David Bowie. How … something.”

I’d heard one rumor that he’d grown a long beard and skulked around downtown anonymously since his illness. Some people even said that he donned elaborate disguises like the late Michael Jackson reportedly did. The hunched Asian woman walking the little white dog down Second Avenue? David Bowie. Maybe. The paunchy Hispanic traffic cop writing up your Suburban for an expired meter? Bowie
.

My next thought was, “He looks well.” I had been, like many Bowie-ists, worried about what a post–heart surgery David Bowie would mean, as if detecting something odd in his eternally sharp, vivid and handsome facial features, a sag or a puff, would surely have been a source of internal crisis for us as well. I felt the same way after David Letterman’s surgery and eventual return to late-night television
.

David Bowie wore a cream-colored sport jacket and a gray shirt. Nobody else on the street seemed to recognize him. Maybe if he was a few blocks up in Chelsea, or down in Soho. But East Tenth Street is pretty neutral, especially during a weekday afternoon
.

“What’s going on in his head? Right now?” I wondered as I retreated a few paces and allowed myself a shred of fan-boy excitement after realizing I could safely observe him. Nobody was watching me watch David Bowie. “What is he thinking? That man, who wrote ‘Quicksand.’ That person right there who screamed, ‘I—I will be king! And you—you will be queeeen!’ at the climax of ‘Heroes,’ which has given me gooseflesh for decades without fail, despite its being used in advertisements and covered by the Wallflowers? Well, I know what he’s thinking, don’t I? He’s thinking, ‘Cab. I need a cab. Why won’t any of these cabs stop for me?’” So unlikely was it that someone as super-famous as David Bowie would be there on the corner of Tenth Street on a Tuesday afternoon, even the taxi drivers were passing him
.

BOOK: Bowie: A Biography
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