Correction to This Article
This review of Marc Spitz's book "Bowie: A Biography" incorrectly grouped the 1980s British alternative rock band the Smiths with Depeche Mode and Moby, describing them as synth and electro-pop acts. The Smiths were a guitar-based band.

Louis Bayard reviews 'Bowie' by Marc Spitz

By Louis Bayard
Sunday, January 3, 2010


A Biography

By Marc Spitz

Crown. 429 pp. $26.99

A life of David Bowie, fine, but which life? Or, more pressingly, which hair? The long tresses of his psychedelic folk days or Ziggy Stardust's Red Hot Red mullet? The Thin White Duke's lounge-lizard updraft or the peroxide squiff of "Let's Dance" or the Satanic pompadour of Tin Machine? Or the chastened chestnut of recent years?

A million or so hairstyles, all told, with as many men attached, and it's up to music writer Marc Spitz to sort through them all. He begins with the youngest incarnation: a boy named David Jones, born in 1947 to a tight-lipped family in a drab London suburb called Brixton. At age 3, David puts on makeup for the first time. His mother points out that makeup isn't for little boys. This just makes him want to grow up faster.

His first and only office job comes right out of high school with an ad agency, but he soon chucks it to pursue the highly promising career of rock-and-roll legend. And why not? He's talented, he's mad with ambition, he's roughly the same age as the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who. But somehow it takes him six years to reach escape velocity, during which he logs three flop albums and nearly a dozen flop singles.

He finds salvation as Ziggy Stardust, a brazenly theatrical creation -- imagine the Little Prince refracted through Quentin Crisp -- that provides the ideal home for his oracular baritone and polysexual prankishness. On the strength of songs like "Space Oddity," "Starman" and "Changes," the androgyne-faun becomes a cult figure on both sides of the Atlantic, the first rock star "to evolve a coherent vision of life after hippie."

It's off to America, where else? Bowie holes up in Los Angeles, where he subsists on "coffee, Marlboros, red and green peppers and whole milk from the carton." And cocaine. A million nostrils' worth. He hallucinates around the clock. His weight drops to 85 pounds. He makes a strange sci-fi movie. Then he runs off to Germany, where he hunkers down with kindred soul Brian Eno and records a trilogy of albums that anticipates new wave and industrial music and pretty much everything that rises from punk rock's ashes. It isn't until 1983, though, that he achieves the monster crossover success he has hungered for. The aptly titled "Let's Dance" spawns three number-one singles, endless MTV rotation and global arena saturation.

David Bowie has arrived, which means he is now free to . . . go away. That at least is his fate in this biography, which devotes a scant 75 pages to the last 25 years of his career. And those pages must perforce include the infamous Glass Spider tour, which featured, yes, a very large spider and Peter Frampton and dancers working hard for the money. These days, Bowie is, by most accounts, happily married to African supermodel Iman and comfortable in his pop statesman status and having a good time with the Internet and hence not nearly as interesting as that itchy young Casanova who ran out on every musical genre the moment he had coaxed it into bed.

He spread his seed wide, though. We see his likeness in the cyclical (and cynical) re-inventions of Madonna; in the synth and electro-pop of the Smiths, Depeche Mode and Moby; in the gender-blurring tropes of Duran Duran and Boy George (and, most recently, "American Idol" finalist Adam Lambert); in the careers Bowie personally nurtured: Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople, Luther Vandross.

One way or another, a lot of artists -- and music critics -- have fallen under Bowie's spell. Spitz is one of them. "Hunky Dory," he opines, is "an album that puts you into a panic attack because you cannot immediately put your ears on it." The album "Young Americans" "can still make me break down and cry." "It's no stretch to say that 'Life on Mars?' is one of the best pop songs ever written." Well, I think that is a stretch, but then I'm not particularly stirred by " 'Heroes,' " either. "Space Oddity" is a more original and arresting concept than the song it obviously influenced -- "Rocket Man" -- but Elton John's melodic gift leaves Bowie on the far side of Saturn. As music critic Robert Christgau notes, Bowie has "no special gift for convincing emotions or good tunes. . . . What makes [him] a worthy entertainer is his pretensions, his masks, the way he simulates meaning."

This is also what makes Bowie a dicey proposition for analysis. Spitz has interviewed dozens of his friends and colleagues and has engaged passionately with each album. ("Drums crash like steam shooting from a vent pipe; the bass burbles lightly like a toxic substance in a glass beaker purified over a Bunsen burner. The guitars come in cold and impossibly mellow.") But he is up against biographical antimatter. The more you try to explain David Bowie -- reduce him, say, to "a shy, suburban kid" -- the less you explain. Because, in the end, how many shy suburban kids pose for an album cover in a Chinese silk velour dress?

The issue here is not complexity but vacancy. A shape that shifts as readily as Bowie's may well be suspected of having no center. Give scientists time, and they might even find a way to recreate Bowie as a computer app, combining bits of Oscar Wilde and Little Richard and Anthony Newley and the Velvet Underground and "A Clockwork Orange" and even Dale Carnegie. What the program will leave out, of course, is that errant spark of pop divinity. Which is the one thing no biographer can capture, either.

Louis Bayard is a reviewer and novelist whose most recent book is "The Black Tower."

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