The Man Who Sold the World:
David Bowie and the 1970s
Peter Doggett (Harper 2012, Hardcover) 499 pages, indexed $26.99 cover price
It was always a tough go being a fan of David Bowie as you never quite knew who you were a fan of. Was it the glam rock ultra of Ziggy Stardust, the would-be Stax-Volt soul man of Young Americans, maybe The Thin White Duke or that depressed German fellow who recorded Low?
This was actually rather vicious stuff to deal with. The 1970s began my history as a music collector and me and my friends bought every $6.99 LP album Bowie put out knowing that our expectations stood perfectly equal chances of being met, surpassed or disappointed. As soon as one of Bowie’s personae was established and loved it would be dumped on a roughly annual basis and the process of discovery, contemplation and judgment would have to begin all over again. It was one one level tiring. So much simpler to be a fan of Journey, Foreigner, McDonald’s hamburgers, Kiss. No challenge with those - just burpy satisfaction.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Bowie invented re-invention. If one was introduced to The Beatles first with Please Please me and then the next song played was Here Comes the Sun King one would scarcely believe that the two numbers were recorded by the same band. Similarly, Frank Zappa and various line-ups of The Mothers of Invention changed styles the way most men change shirts...tossing them on the floor then stomping on them.
Still. For a solo artist to go from The Laughing Gnome pop singer bustier and micro hot-pantsed Ziggy was a bigger shift than most tectonic plates achieve in a millenium. And if there was risk involved, the reward was in longevity. From a personal standpoint, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars occupies a permanent place in my Top ten albums of all-time, with favourable placings also accorded to Heros, Young Americans, and StationtoStation. The others of that decade? Meh. Some good songs, and otherwise a lot of filler. Your mileage may - nay! will - vary.
Bowie’s genius, or put another way his shrewdness was to keep changing in such rapid-fire yet predictable manner. A persona that might be a turn-off to the equally loyal yet fickle audience was never pushed long enough to result in permanent damage. In a very real sense he ran his career like the classic vaudeville or music hall comics who, if a joke fell flat, would say ‘If you didn’t like that one there’s another one coming soon!’
If longevity is a goal for the popular music artist, it is damnably hard to achieve. Rock acts are like professional golfers, they tend to get all their wins in relatively narrow time frames. From Love Me Do, to Get Back, The Beatles had seven years. The Who died with Keith Moon although they still exist as a self-formed tribute act, and if you can name one song The Rolling Stones have recorded in the last twenty years that stands with anything they recorded in their first ten...well...I just don’t know you any more.
Indeed, if Bowie was the working model for anyone it is Madonna. I would love to ask her (and so provoked I think I’ll contact her people) is if she consciously followed the path Bowie scouted. Regardless, here we are 43 years after Space Oddity, shrewdly released just after Neil Armstrong’s small step for man, still talking about David Bowie as an artist worth investigating rather than a cut-out bin bargain.
Peter Doggett, who has previously done similar work on The Beatles’ post-Beatles careers goes through each and every one of the nearly 250 songs Bowie recorded between 1969 and 1980 and aupplies commentary for each. In the process and so providing the true value of the book, he dissects the post-1960s hangover and the social beliefs that made the English-speaking public open to acceptance of the first rock star to announce, ‘I’m gay!’
The only quibbles I have are two. One, I rather wish that the asterisks in the text had been made larger. You read an interesting footnote and wish to find the reference point in the main text. That should be easy - here it is spotting leprechauns in a field of clover. Also, the historical references are occasionally victim to breezy editing. For example, ‘watching Robert Redford glide effortlessly through the depression-free gardens of The Great Gatsby.’ Well, they would be wouldn’t they given that Gatsby was published a full four years before the 1029 market crash.
Still, for those wishing to understand how a rock artist breeds his songs, and obviously for the Bowie completist, this is an invaluable resource.
Be seeing you.