If David Bowie’s non-stop mutations taught the children of rock-and-roll to crave variety, it only makes sense that the breadth of Bowie scholarship continues to grow. For now, I have my favorites. To track Bowie’s transforming image, I flip through the photo-heavy “David Bowie Black Book,” first published in the early 1980s. For pithy thought-bubbles about Bowie’s spiritual significance, I keep going back to philosopher Simon Critchley’s “Bowie” (2014). And for a breathless, big-hearted eulogy, I like Rob Sheffield’s “On Bowie,” rushed to the printer shortly after Bowie’s death last year .
Now here comes Rolling Stone magazine’s Brian Hiatt, who seems to have smooshed all three of those titles together to form “A Portrait of David Bowie,” a coffee-table tome of portraits, ponderings and remembrances by Bowie’s admirers, collaborators and friends. Like most smooshings, it’s kinda fun, kinda messy.
The photographic portraits themselves are, fittingly, all over the place: outtakes from album cover shoots, assorted magazine leftovers and whatever else could be scrounged up: Bowie chomping a sandwich in 1969, Bowie brandishing a pair of scissors in 1974, Bowie lounging half-naked with a saxophone in 1992. All together, these images will make you wonder if the man ever appeared anything less than beautiful. “David knew what he looked like from every angle, from the back of his head even,” says the painter Derek Boshier, whose 1980 impasto portrait of the singer appears here. “He knew every part.”
Between the pictures, those close to Bowie take turns dredging up memories, many fond, some odd. Bowie’s childhood pal, George Underwood, remembers seeing a light-bulb appear atop his friend’s head at a Little Richard gig where the screaming rock-and-roll superhero faked his death onstage, then brought himself back to life in time to sing “Tutti Frutti.” Toni Basil — of “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine” fame — glowingly recounts how she got her start in popland by choreographing Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” tour in 1974. More ominously, keyboardist Mike Garson claims that Bowie took a fortune-teller’s warning that he would die at age 69 very much to heart.
It’s wild to hear how so many of these folks just stumbled into Bowie’s godly aura, as if by accident. (Human League’s Martyn Ware describes an unannounced backstage visitation from Bowie like so: “It was like Jesus stepping out of a medieval painting and walking into your front room.”) And while entering the singer’s orbit was effortless for some, it wasn’t easy for all. Carlos Alomar, Bowie’s musical director for many years, says, “If you’re a dud, or dull, or got bad personal hygiene, you’re not going anywhere!”
Alomar is the first of two contributors who make this book worth cracking open. Musically, he’s the guy who helped Bowie successfully scratch his itch for funk music, and he seems to have developed a special awareness to his boss’s personal vulnerabilities, too. “Part of what made David so special was that he was a listener and he was curious,” Alomar explains. “People like that, I think that they never outgrow their childhood. A child is fearless in that he wants to know what’s around the corner, he wants to touch that hot stove.”
The book’s other hot-spot is the testimony of Nile Rodgers, founder of Chic and producer of Bowie’s 1983 smash album, “Let’s Dance.” According to Rodgers, when Bowie first reached out to collaborate, he handed Rodgers a snapshot of Little Richard and told him that he wanted his next album to sound like the photograph. Somehow, that picture opened up a telepathic pathway, and everything started to flow.
Rodgers dashes through his studio tales as if he and Bowie cut the album last week, and for a moment, you can almost hear the music getting made. As the two finessed the album’s title track, Rodgers insisted on placing the chorus at the very beginning of the song — a trick that he had used in Chic’s signature hit, “Freak Out.” But Bowie demurred.
Rodgers recalls their conversation: “So I said, ‘David, I want the first words out of your mouth to be Let’s Dance.’ ‘Ah, really? Usually I would build up. . . .’ ‘Ah, no, man, the first words. Like first words go Freak Out. The first words go, We Are Family. The first words are Let’s Dance’.”
Now, more than three decades later, who could imagine “Let’s Dance” sounding any other way?
Unfortunately, it’s at this point in the book that the words and the pictures finally slide too far out of synch. Rodgers is talking about jamming with Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1982 on one page, Bowie is smoking a cigarette in 2002 on the next. Huh? In a book overflowing with admiration for its subject’s fastidious attention to detail, the chronological slippage feels careless.
And yes, expecting every book about David Bowie to be as eloquent, artful and refined as David Bowie is expecting a bit too much. But it’s important to remember that we’re all custodians of his image now. And like the man taught us, image is everything.
Chris Richards is the pop music critic of The Washington Post.
By Brian Hiatt
Cassell. 224 pp. $34.99