The Age of Bowie: How David Bowie Made a World of Difference by Paul Morley. Simon & Schuster
David Bowie (1947 – 2016) was the ultimate music/style icon. He was right up there in the top 10 of the greatest rock musicians of all time. His unexpected death at the beginning of 2016 created a very genuine sense of loss amongst music lovers everywhere. Author Paul Morley (b.1957) has worked as a music journalist, promoter and TV presenter and is a lifelong Bowie fan. The idea of Paul writing a biography of David must have seemed like a good idea, given the renewed interest in Bowie with the success of his posthumous No.1 album Blackstar (2016). The result though is not a hastily written cut and paste cash-in biography or even an uncritical hagiography, which seems to be the two main genres of rock writing. What we have instead is a strange, perplexing attempt to produce a literary biography which at times reads like a challenging modernist novel.
The books starts in 1970 when the young Morley discovers Bowie’s music and then after moving forward into the 1970’s takes a jump back into Bowie’s early life and frustrations as he attempts to become a pop star. His wilderness years end, finally, with the success of the single ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969 but he is unable to capitalise on this success until 1972 when he creates The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars. The 1970’s saw Bowie become an international star with a string of best-selling albums such as: Ziggy Stardust, Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, Pinups, Diamond Dogs, Low and so on.
Although Morley adopts a chronological approach to his subject matter after the early 1970’s, he approaches his topic in a very obtuse manner. Why do so many of the paragraphs of this book comprise of just one very long sentence? He is not James Joyce. What are we to make of the several short chapters of this book which comprise numerous one liner aphorisms about Bowie? e.g. “Bowie is a dada dandy” (p 52). Why does the author keep introducing paragraphs with “He” as if he were Bowie’s closest confidant? The overall impression gained is that this is not a complete book but rather “work in progress”. The lengthy sentences could be edited to improve comprehension and the aphorisms fleshed out to give the book a bit more content. One does not doubt Morley’s enthusiasm for the subject but he needs to put some distance between himself and Bowie. The book is aimed at a general audience rather than hardcore Bowie fans.
Morley is quite perceptive in recognising the various people who were influential in shaping Bowie such as Lou Reed, Lindsay Kemp (mime artist) Chogyam Trungpa (Buddist guru), Andy Warhol and Miles Davis. What made Bowie unique amongst rock musicians was his ability to keep re-inventing himself by creating new personas. Morley does look at the various phases of Bowie’s career: Thin White Duke, Berlin/Iggy Pop, New Romantic, Tin Machine, Electronic artist, etc. He also includes some reference to his films such as Man Who Fell to Earth, Just a Gigolo, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Labyrinth which exposed Bowie to a new generation of fans.
Morley acted as a consultant to the V & A museum when they put together the David Bowie is exhibition in 2013, a point which he reiterates several times in the book. I do not doubt Morley’s expertise on the subject matter but why could he not taken a bit longer and written a readable, informative biography instead of this frustrating, largely incomprehensible statement of his admiration for Bowie?