‘There are plenty of books about David Bowie”, writes Paul Morley. “‘Thirty seven!’, I remember Bowie exclaiming in wonder or despair in an interview. That still didn’t put me off. Not enough, I thought.”
Naturally, the ever-increasing pile of Bowie biographies has grown exponentially since the singer's death in January. But whether Morley's The Age of Bowie is the 38th or the 108th, it is a unique and compelling portrait of the shape-shifting renaissance man born David Jones.
There is no slavish devotion to the facts here; no dull adherence to chronology, convention or received wisdom. Instead, Morley draws inspiration from his subject – the man who wrote Space Oddity; the man who made an artwork of his life right until the end – and blasts-off into a new biographical universe to see how Bowie might look from there.
The result is a heartfelt and deliciously idiosyncratic book, one in which raw, sometimes brilliant thought, rather than a protracted dip into the singer’s interview archive, provides much of the meat. “This is my Bowie”, says the author. “It is not true, it is not false. It is not right, it is not wrong.”
Morley is a respected broadcaster, writer and critic who cut his teeth at the UK music weekly the New Musical Express in the '70s and '80s.
A lifelong Bowie obsessive, he saw him play the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1972, when Bowie was first portraying Ziggy Stardust, the brilliantly outlandish rock ‘n’ roll creation who would become his long-overdue passport to fame.
The author recounts, how, some 40 years later, when he received a surprise call from Bowie's business manager Bill Zysblat asking if he could help to curate David Bowie Is, the highly-successful retrospective that launched at London's Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013, he was gobsmacked: "My first reaction was the cheek-reddening shock of a fifteen-year-old [learning] that Bowie had any idea who I was."
Morley’s passion and credentials for a meaningful Bowie biography are never in doubt, then, and even less so when he recalls ignoring the voicemails that accumulate on his phone on the morning of Bowie’s death.
BBC Radio 4 wants his reaction live on air, but why “…give some glib comment to an interviewer who is passing through the death on the way to some other pressing news item, or even only the weather?”, Morley reasons. Instead, he resolves to write a book – this book.
Insights and wild conjectures abound. “Even at his most ordinary-looking there was a tell-trace of the bizarre, the seductively off-centre,” writes Morley, discussing Bowie’s anisocoria, an eye-condition brought about by a punch-up with a schoolmate over a girl.
“[His] unbalanced [different-sized] pupils [were] explicitly the entrance and the exit of his fantastic imagination.”
Elsewhere, even that most-mundane of biographical topics, the subject’s birth, gets a purposeful twist as Morley riffs upon Bowie’s inherent will-to-fame. “I like that he was born at 11.50pm, a mere ten minutes before 9 January 1947, another day, and another life, altogether. Manipulating his circumstances already, he fought to be born the same day as Elvis [Presley] – and Shirley [Bassey].”
There is whirlwind feel to The Age of Bowie, which Morley claims he wrote in 10 weeks. The author often indulges in breathless, list-like sentences as he attempts to describe and/or catalogue Bowie's many different lives and personas.
He’s good on the singer’s consistently chummy, but ultimately evasive manner in interviews, and on what Bowie stole, learned and/or adapted, with great savvy and foresight, from his many influences and co-enablers.
Among them were musical pals such as Iggy Pop and Marc Bolan, pop Svengali Kenneth Pitt, key Bowie producers Tony Visconti and Brian Eno, guitarist and arranger extraordinaire Mick Ronson, and the dancer, choreographer and mime artist Lindsay Kemp, whose motto, Morley asserts, was “get attention through flamboyance”.
The author is also good on how the gaunt, cocaine-addled figure who made 1975's "plastic soul" album Young Americans (this was the period which saw Bowie subsist solely on red peppers and milk for a time) somehow managed to retain an element of family entertainer about him.
Less than two years later he would duet with Bing Crosby on his US TV show Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas; and this, like his cosy introduction to 1982's animated version of Raymond Briggs's The Snowman, or the critically acclaimed trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger, which Bowie made in Berlin between 1977-79, Morley says, was typical of the singer; a man adept at confounding expectations.
If you're going to brainstorm 470 pages on Bowie without conducting a single fresh interview, you'd better have something to say, and Morley most certainly does. Life On Mars, he writes, "is about ideas and dreams and icons that might date, but the record itself does not date, however much we are led to believe that it was released in 1971".
Morley’s contention that buying a record in the pre-Spotify, iTunes and YouTube ‘70s and ‘80s “was more like going on holiday than simply deciding to listen to something and instantly making it so” also rings true.
Pointedly, the author saves some of his best writing for the end of Bowie’s life and career, a period when the singer’s unavailability/invisibility was an act of his own canny design, rather than a tic of a younger, less technologically-advanced record industry.
Morley writes magnificently about Blackstar, the radiant final album in which Bowie managed to make even death seem beautiful, and which only revealed its obvious-with-hindsight secrets two days after its release, when the singer succumbed to liver cancer on January 10.
“He let the world catch up with him, and then finished off his life’s work with an intrepid flourish”, writes Morley.
"He did not want his life to be crushed under the avalanche and build-up to his death, and his private thoughts interrupted by a world preoccupied with his tragic final days." Such are the measured insights that make The Age of Bowie special.
James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.