My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Paul Trynka’s biography of David Bowie is pretty good, and at 544 pages, not overly long as far as rock bios go. It still took me a long time to get through it, though, because I’m reading six other books at the same time. Slow going.
This book has a lot of detail — sometimes too much — while also leaving out a lot of detail on things. I found it interesting to see what the author chose to focus on and what he chose to virtually ignore. There’s the requisite growing up period of the young Davy Jones and all of the years he spends trying to become a rock star, spending some 12 years in the business before Ziggy happened for him. There’s a lot of detail in this period, but it gives you some good background info into what made Bowie Bowie. There’s a good bit to Ziggy, but less so to the Diamond Dogs era and his sudden change to Philly soul mid-way through his tour. There’s a LOT of focus on his enormous coke use during the ’70s. It’s sad to realize he doesn’t even remember doing some of the records he’s most famous for. There’s some mention of Angie, but a great deal less than in another bio I read last year (which was a terrible hatchet job which hurt my opinion of Bowie, and I resented the authors for it). When she finally seeks a divorce from Bowie, not much more is mentioned of her. There’s a great deal about David’s son, Zowie, and how he tries to raise him as a single parent who’s a traveling rock star. That must have been hard on the kid. It’s good to see he made it. (He’s now a film director.) There’s a lot of information on Bowie’s years in Germany and I learned a lot I hadn’t previously known. There’s a lot of information on Bowie’s acting, both stage and film, and I enjoyed reading about The Man Who Fell To Earth, one of my favorite cult classics, but there’s virtually nothing written about 1986’s Labyrinth, which was largely crucified by critics but still became a hit anyway, thanks in part to Jim Henson (of Muppets fame). There’s also nothing mentioned about Bowie’s role as Andy Warhol in Basquiat, which I thought was an excellent job of acting on his part. Never mentioned. But lots on stage performances. Odd.
As mentioned, a lot of attention is paid to the ’70s and the excellent records to appear during that decade, culminating with 1980’s Scary Monsters, which some would argue is Bowie’s last great record. (I think Let’s Dance is, but it doesn’t get good treatment in this book.) Trynka doesn’t hold back, though, when he needs to, as he pans Tonight and most of the other post-Let’s Dance albums. He does wax enthusiastic about some individual songs on these albums, and seems especially sad that 2003’s Reality is Bowie’s last album before dropping out of sight. (I wonder what he would think about the brand new Bowie album. He must be overjoyed.)
One of the things that bothered me about this book, though, is that the author could have gotten deeper into some of Bowie’s influences and friendships and relationships, but instead you get every single detail of his recording process, the music business in general, and his collaborators. There’s also too much attention paid to Iggy Pop, probably because the author wrote a book on him and is trying to plug it. Too much Iggy Pop, sorry. As one Goodreads reviewer noted, “If you’re wondering how to intersect Jacques Brel, Aleister Crowley, William Burroughs, Little Richard, Kansai Yamamoto, Jean Genet and the Weimar Republic — don’t spend too much time with Trynka’s book. Because he’s more interested in business contacts and contract signings, the mechanical levers to fame.” Trynka mentions influences throughout the book, but instead focuses too much on the business end of things, to my distraction.
There were some other problems with the book. As I’ve already mentioned, there’s nothing written about some of his films, while too much is mentioned about some of his other acting gigs. What about the infamous, ground-breaking 1980 video for “Ashes To Ashes”? Not mentioned. Other videos are mentioned, but perhaps his most important one is not. What about the collaborations with Pat Metheny and Nine Inch Nails? Not mentioned. Queen, yes, but not Nine Inch Nails. Why? And this is one complaint I always have with rock bios — why is the album art never covered??? The controversial Diamond Dogs cover art should have been discussed, but was never broached. Virtually nothing was said about his album covers. That’s a shame.
Still, at the end of the book, there’s a fantastic discography section where every album is reviewed with some detail. The book is worth it for that alone, but also for the pictures, which really made it for me. I saw some photos that were just classic. Awesome.
Is this a five star book? I don’t think so. Too much is left unsaid. Too many other things are covered in excess. But I think it’s a solid four star book. It’s a pretty good rock bio, and I recommend it for Bowie fans and for music and biography fans in general.
About Scott C. Holstad
Scott Holstad is the poetry editor for Ray’s Road Review.