Skip to main content

David Bowie: A Life


David Bowie: A Life

On January 10, 2016, the world lost an icon --- a man who was held in such esteem by so many people from so many different groups and genres that it is impossible to recount the impact he made on the world and those who loved him. I can attest that I have cried only two times in my life upon hearing about the death of a famous person. Yes, tears may have came when thinking about someone who was gone when I heard a song or saw a movie or TV show, but I have always been far too introspective to have shown any instant emotion.

The first was John Belushi, who I idolized in my youth and was taken far too soon. The other was David Bowie. At about the same time Belushi passed, I was fortunate to have seen Bowie on Broadway starring in "The Elephant Man." I could not get over the fact that someone who had already conquered the music world could just as easily transform himself into a masterful actor. It is this moment that I can safely look back upon as the defining instant when I decided I wanted to be an actor.

The man who was born David Jones --- he had to change it to Bowie so as not to be confused with the Monkees’ Davy Jones --- is the subject of this terrific biography put together by Dylan Jones. No relation to David, Jones is the editor of British GQ who tirelessly pored through thousands of interviews, videos and personal recounting that has resulted in DAVID BOWIE: A Life. He penned a prior work on Bowie, WHEN ZIGGY PLAYED GUITAR, as well as books covering both Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley.

There are many great and insightful stories about Bowie in this biography, and I will highlight a handful of them. Jones recounts how he will always remember where he was when Bowie died. He admits that his death affected him and his generation even more than John Lennon's. He recollects first seeing Bowie on “Top of the Pops” in the summer of 1972 singing his hit song, "Starman," and how he was instantly hooked. It is ironic that Bowie passed mere days after the release of his final album, "Blackstar," and we learn about all the songs from that collection that dealt with Bowie coming to terms with his own mortality and battle with the cancer to which he eventually succumbed. His life was summed up as one of “myth, legend and invention.”

"Dylan Jones has accomplished the wondrous achievement of piecing together all the many recollections from friends, family and fellow musicians.... At over 500 pages, DAVID BOWIE has something for everyone."

David Jones was born to lower-middle-class parents in London in 1947, two years after the “old world” and the start of the “new world” that arose in the aftermath of World War II. He grew up with music, immediately taking to artists like Little Richard, Buddy Holly, the aforementioned Elvis, Screaming Jay Hawkins, and (a personal favorite) Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. He also preferred Tony Bennett to Frank Sinatra. Childhood friend and fellow rock star Peter Frampton remembers when Bowie taught him how to play "C'mon Everybody" by Eddie Cochrane.

Acting and performing were always in his blood. Even when Bowie and the many groups he played with as a teen covered a popular song, he always sought to make the performance his own. He took classes in mime and actually got his first big gig as a mime act opening up for Marc Bolan and T-Rex. Bolan was one of those artists at the front of the glam rock movement, and this is when he officially took on the Bowie persona. He claimed it was not to separate himself from Davy Jones; he heard Mick Jagger being referred to as Jagger Dagger and felt he could adopt a knife name as well…as in the Bowie knife! It was just a matter of time before he even splintered off into another character, one that would stay with him the rest of his life --- the legendary Ziggy Stardust.

Bowie was always a fan of science fiction, and that brought about not only songs like "Starman" but also the classic "Space Oddity." He really came into his own in the early 1970s with his recordings, as well as producing the classic "All the Young Dudes" for Mott the Hoople. It was in 1976 that he starred in the cult classic film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie showed the world that he was much more than a rock star --- he was a phenomenon. He would continue to act for the rest of his life and frequently gained rave reviews. Most recently, his character was computer-generated for the David Lynch cable series "Twin Peaks: The Return," reprising the role he played in Lynch's film, Fire Walk With Me. It blew me away to see Bowie back on the small screen, and it was a memorable moment for his legion of fans.

There are references to Bowie's sexuality and relationships. Although there are many who proclaimed him to be bisexual, he was twice married --- for 10 years to Angie, followed by his long-lasting marriage to former model Iman, who he was with from 1992 until his death. Ironically, Jagger penned the Rolling Stones #1 hit song "Angie," which was about Angie Bowie. One of Bowie's sons, Duncan Jones, became a popular director, helming such critical hits as Moon, Source Code and Warcraft. Duncan was very close with his father, and that comes through here.

Bowie's fame crossed genres and generations. One of the most famous collaborations was his appearance on the final Bing Crosby Christmas special, where the two sang "Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth.” It actually charted in the UK in 1982 and hit #3 on Christmas Day. Today it remains a Christmas carol standard throughout the holiday season. I will always remember watching that special as a child and being mesmerized by the young man with the different colored eyes who could easily transform himself from Ziggy Stardust to the respectably dressed professional who was standing next to the great Bing Crosby.

Bowie was a perfectionist, and many fellow musicians and producers recall his tireless work to get his sound just right on songs like "The Man Who Sold the World" --- which was done decades later by both Midge Ure and Nirvana. However, he never lost sight of family, and his ex-wife, Angie, recalls how close he was with half-brother Terry. His glam style of the 1970s opened the door for acts like Roxy Music, Lou Reed and, much later, Duran Duran. It was fun to watch Bowie reinvent himself once again in the early 1980s with the release of "Let's Dance" and the huge Serious Moonlight tour that followed. Many ’80s musicians who grew up on his earlier stuff now were his colleagues in collaborations like Band-Aid, Live Aid and the US Festival.

You can easily get lost inside DAVID BOWIE. Dylan Jones has accomplished the wondrous achievement of piecing together all the many recollections from friends, family and fellow musicians. To hear Bowie described by his peers like John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop is a treat for any music fan. As far as readers go, you have a friend in David Bowie. A few days after his passing, I downloaded and printed out a list someone shared of his Top 100 novels. There you can find everything from THE LORD OF THE RINGS to Shakespeare to works on ancient history and science.

At over 500 pages, DAVID BOWIE has something for everyone. He is referred to as an observer, a historian. He was an artist who could live inside himself just as easily as being a humanitarian concerned about the planet and the human race. There is rarely a bad thing mentioned about him in this biography, and that is a testament to the man he was. The book ends with a curious recollection from the midwife who was there when Bowie entered the world in 1947. She was quoted as saying: “This child has been on this earth before.” Maybe this was just a random odd thought, but I like to think it somehow defined a man who lived his life with an eye towards the past, present and future, and left his mark on all who were fortunate to experience his talent.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on September 15, 2017

David Bowie: A Life
by Dylan Jones

  • Publication Date: September 12, 2017
  • Genres: Biography, Music, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Crown Archetype
  • ISBN-10: 045149783X
  • ISBN-13: 9780451497833