Dylan Jones’s engrossing, magisterial biography of David Bowie is unlike any Bowie story ever written. Drawn from over 180 interviews with friends, rivals, lovers, and collaborators, some of whom have never before spoken about their relationship with Bowie, this oral history weaves a hypnotic spell as it unfolds the story of a remarkable rise to stardom and an unparalleled artistic path.
Tracing Bowie’s life from the English suburbs to London to New York to Los Angeles, Berlin, and beyond, its collective voices describe a man profoundly shaped by his relationship with his schizophrenic half-brother Terry; an intuitive artist who could absorb influences through intense relationships and yet drop people cold when they were no longer of use; and a social creature equally comfortable partying with John Lennon and dining with Frank Sinatra.
By turns insightful and deliciously gossipy, David Bowie is as intimate a portrait as may ever be drawn. It sparks with admiration and grievances, lust and envy, as the speakers bring you into studios and bedrooms they shared with Bowie, and onto stages and film sets, opening corners of his mind and experience that transform our understanding of both artist and art. Including illuminating, never-before-seen material from Bowie himself, drawn from a series of Jones’s interviews with him across two decades, David Bowie is an epic, unforgettable cocktail-party conversation about a man whose enigmatic shapeshifting and irrepressible creativity produced one of the most sprawling, fascinating lives of our time.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Living in Lies by the Railway Line
He was a postwar baby, born in London in 1947. He was part of the new world, two years after the end of the old. A London baby. He went to school in Brixton before being cast out to the suburbs. Even when he was young he knew he wanted to be bigger than he was, wanted to be a bigger man. When he started to work in advertising he thought he’d broken through, but he had no idea what was to come. In the beginning, he was feeling his way—he was in the Kon-Rads, the King Bees, the Mannish Boys, David Jones and the Buzz, Davey Jones and the Lower Third, Feathers, the Hype—but he had no idea who he was going to be when he’d finished.
David Jones was born on January 8, 1947, at 40 Stansfield Road, Brixton, the son of a cinema usherette and a promotions officer for Barnardo’s. He lived there until he was six, when his family moved farther out to Bromley in Kent. While his father was middle class, his mother came from a poor, working-class family. David used to say that there was a dark cloud over her side of the family, as it was full of mental instability. When he let his guard down, or when he wanted to amplify that side of his upbringing, he would say that “tragically” two or three of his aunts committed suicide. He would say that this seemed to be something he would hear constantly while growing up: How so-and-so has left us now. He said once, “I guess most of us have battled with reality and something else all of our lives. I think [my elder half-brother] Terry probably gave me the greatest, serviceable education that I ever could have had. He just introduced me to the outside things. The first real major event for me was when he passed Jack Kerouac’s On the Road on to me, which really changed my life. He also introduced me to people like John Coltrane, which was way above my head, but I saw the magic and I caught the enthusiasm for it because of his enthusiasm for it. And I kinda wanted to be like him.” Terry—the savant of cool jazz—would adumbrate his life as a sort of ticking clock of impending, accelerated mortality. As for his mother’s sisters, his aunt Vivienne was diagnosed with schizophrenia, his aunt Una died in her late thirties having experienced periods in a mental institution as well as electric shock treatment, while Aunt Nora actually had a lobotomy because of her “bad nerves.”
David Bowie: I had a very happy childhood, seriously nothing wrong with it. I was lonely but I never really wanted and certainly never went hungry, but I obviously saw people deprived around me and kids going to school with their shoes falling apart and kids looking like urchins. It left an impression on me that I never ever wanted to be hungry, or at the wrong end of society.
Kristina Amadeus (David’s cousin): David’s parents, especially his father, “John” Jones, encouraged him from the time he was a toddler. His mother, Peggy, spoke often of our deceased grandfather, who was a bandmaster in the army and played many wind instruments. David’s first instruments, a plastic saxophone, a tin guitar, and a xylophone, were given to him before he was an adolescent. He also owned a record player when few children had one. When he was eleven we danced like possessed elves to the records of Bill Haley, Fats Domino, and Elvis Presley. David’s father took him to meet singers and other performers preparing for the Royal Variety Performance. I remember one afternoon in the late ’50s when David was introduced to Dave King, Alma Cogan, and Tommy Steele. “My son is going to be an entertainer too,” he said. “Aren’t you, David?” “Yes, Daddy,” David squeaked in his childish high-pitched voice, his face flushed and beaming with pride. Although Uncle John never lived to see David’s huge success, he was convinced it would become a reality.
Wendy Leigh (biographer): David grew up petted and privileged. He wasn’t a working-class hero by any stretch. It was actually quite a suburban life, even though it was in south London, in Brixton. His father was the number-one PR at Dr. Barnardo’s, so David was immersed in the idea of presentation from a very young age. He was taken to all the shows by his father, introduced to celebrities, and he learned how to promote, how to sell himself. No one ever talks about the fact that he was incredibly influenced by his father, who had access to this exciting outside world. Every performer needs to be a great seducer, and David learned that from an early age. His father showed him a lot of love. He showed him how to get on, how to charm, and how to practice the art of being nice.
George Underwood (childhood friend): His dad was lovely, a really nice gentle man. His mum, well, even David didn’t like his mum. She wasn’t an easy person to get on with. She was very cold. Very insular. I think that’s why he liked coming round to my house, because my parents were totally different. “Hello, David, want a cup of tea, David?” My parents were very welcoming, but this wasn’t what would happen round at his house. Mrs. Jones would hardly ever say anything to me. I’m not sure what it was, but she was never happy. She always gave David such a hard time.
Don Arden (manager): I was brought up in Brixton around the same time as David Bowie, and everyone thinks it was a tough place, but it was actually rather nice and full of variety artists. Half the houses were owned by [Trinidadian pianist] Winifred Atwell, who had bought them for investment purposes, and she used to rent them out to music-hall acts and light entertainers. John Major lived a few streets away from me, and his dad was an acrobat and juggler. It later turned into a rougher neighborhood, but at the time we were brought up there it was very arty-crafty. If you were an artist in London, in music hall or variety, or in showbiz of one kind or another, that’s where you lived. So Bowie was surrounded by this extremely artistic community. It was vibrant in that way. He wasn’t just a performer, wasn’t just a singer-songwriter, he was an artist, and he got that because of where he was brought up. I’d go into the arcade in Brixton, under the railway arches, and buy my reggae and jazz records there, and David would do the same thing. We had local people round to dinner all the time, and they were all in the business, people like Dickie Henderson. There were also lots of places to go and see acts too, as the area fed off the people who lived there. So it’s no surprise he turned out the way he did.
Anne Briggs (neighbor): For a time as children we lived at Clapham in South London and were regular visitors to Brixton Market. There were all manner of traders, hawkers, stalls selling anything—Technicolor clothing which only the new residents of Brixton would wear, fruit piled up on shiny green fake grass cloths, vegetables of all kinds, and barrow boys with such constant and witty sales patter that people would gather round to listen and heckle. There were the West Indian traders with their Caribbean vegetables and lilting speech encouraging passersby to try their vegetables and fruit. Then there were buskers, always with their promoters, either providing music or awe-inspiring feats of physical flexibility, juggling or occasionally sword swallowers, all with their constant conversation attracting the crowd. Tanks of writhing eels in slightly murky water alongside stalls shrouded in white selling the little pots of jellied eels—no doubt to emphasize their freshness . . . Cockles, winkles and shrimps were measured in old half pint and pint tankards. Pills and potions offering miracle cures of some sort or another—if we hovered to try and read the packets we were whisked away.
Geoff MacCormack (childhood friend): I first met David when I was seven, at Burnt Ash Primary School, when he moved to Bromley—we had little brown uniforms. I’d already met George Underwood when I was four, at the local church school, St. Mary’s. I was in the cubs with David, in the choir together. We bonded over music, and both loved rock and roll, and as we grew older loved Little Richard. The Britain we grew up in was really quite grubby. There were still rations until the ’50s, and you’d walk to school via bomb sites. The music was bad, there was no decent food, and everything was gray, so when American music came along it completely changed everything. David’s father used to fund-raise with the stars of the day, people like Dickie Henderson and Tommy Steele.
I initially thought David was an only child, as he was only ever the only child in the house. I only found out much later that he had a brother. We never discussed it. I think it was a mutual understanding, as I had a brother who left home early to join the forces. He moved abroad and he wasn’t in my life either. So it was almost a mirror thing. David had a good relationship with his father, and he was always quite generous. He would always buy him records, and he got a lot of records through work. His father used to get American music that we’d never heard before and most of the country have never heard before. Most of the rock and roll we heard in this country was rerecorded by British artists for labels like Embassy that we used to buy in Woolworths. So to hear the real thing was quite rare and a real treat. David had Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” when that came out, “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley. He also had “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, although David’s mother wouldn’t let him play it in the house as she thought it was the devil’s music, which I suppose it was in a way. Our favorite was Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent.” When he did The Next Day, I told him I loved it, and he actually said, “It’s not ‘I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent,’ but it’ll do.” I remember him lending me a couple of records and I left them on the windowsill in the breakfast room at home, and they melted in the sun. It was really upsetting to him when I gave them back to him. About seven years ago I came across a bunch of 78s, including Frankie Lymon and “Hound Dog,” and I had a case made and sent them to him.
We had an upbeat relationship that was based around stupidity and silliness. It was always like that, and that’s what we provided, fun in each other’s lives. So it never occurred to me to ask questions about his family, as it seemed intrusive. And not what we were about. He never asked me about family life either. Everything was at face value. But David was a born performer. That was the drive, the ambition. He wanted to express himself. We drifted apart for a while when we went to different schools. George and David were art school boys, whereas I went to a secondary modern. I was a mod. I would go up to the West End, get some purple hearts, go to the Scene, the Flamingo, Discotheque. Whereas George and David were on the fringes, going to jazz clubs. We always stayed in contact but then reconnected when we were living in the same area around South Kensington in the ’60s. I suppose we were pseudo-French then, trousers with turn-ups, brogues, and bikes with an engine on the front wheel.
David Bowie: My cousin Kristina was a huge Fats Domino fan and had “Blueberry Hill” and I had Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and we did a trade because I preferred the sound of that. What I liked about it was that I couldn’t understand the lyrics and that really made an impression on me—there was some secret information there that I didn’t have. I think that’s been something that’s been important to me ever since. It was [Little Richard’s] sax lineup he had behind him that impressed me more than anything else, because I’d only heard the saxophone through my brother’s records as being a jazz thing and that was too complicated for me. I was always very vain. I always liked clothes a lot, I guess it was my way of confirming I had a personality, not really being sure if I did or didn’t. If you wore clothes of a certain nature you automatically were a personality because clothes maketh men, but going up [to London] on the train there was a guy with makeup on and he was a mod. He wore eye shadow and he looked rather peculiar and I thought he looked rather good. One of my keenest memories of the Marquee club in the mid-’60s is having a permanent erection because there were so many fantastic girls coming over from Europe. All these Swedish girls were flocking to London to come and get an R&B star, so you grew your hair really long and hoped that they recognized you as [the Yardbirds’] Keith Relf—I made a better Keith Relf than Brian Jones. Anyway I hung out with Jonesy a few times and he was too short and fat.
Kristina Amadeus: I don’t remember him being worried about being lower middle class. His father was from a very affluent family who were partners in the Public Benefit Boot Company. He went to a good public school and inherited money when he came of age. David’s grandfather was killed at the end of WWI and his wife died the following year, so John inherited from both his parents and his own grandfather. But David did, like Jagger, adopt an almost Cockney accent for a while because it was trendy.
David Bowie: Elvis had the choreography, he had a way of looking at the world that was totally original, totally naïve, and totally available as a blueprint. Who wouldn’t want to copy Elvis? Elvis had it all. It wasn’t just the music that was interesting, it was everything else. And he had a lot of everything else. (There was once talk between our offices that I should be introduced to Elvis and maybe start working with him in a production-writer capacity, but it never came to pass. I would have loved working with him. God, I would have adored it. He did send me a note once: “All the best and have a great tour.”)
Table of Contents
1 Living in Lies by the Railway Line 1947-1969 5
2 Commencing Countdown Engines on 1969-1970 42
3 So I Turned Myself to Face Me 1970-1972 76
4 Jamming Good with Weird and Gilly 1972-1973 121
5 Battle Cries and Champagne 1973-1974 170
6 Gee My Life's a Funny Thing 1974-1976 194
7 Sit in Back Rows of City Limits 1976-1979 243
8 Put on Your Red Shoes and Dance the Blues 1980-1985 286
9 Who's Gonna Tell You When? 1985 319
10 I've Nothing Much to Offer 1986-1989 334
11 It's Confusing These Days 1990-1999 359
12 As Long as There's You 2000-2015 418
13 For in Front of That Door is You 2016 462
Dramatis Personal 514
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The music of David Bowie is something I've held in mild regard over the decades. I had an 8-track of "Young Americans" back in the seventies and who doesn't love Space Oddity?!! I also remember enjoying the strains of "Modern Love" and "Let's Dance" in the 80's. I own a "Greatest Hits" CD of Bowie and that is the extent of his importance in my life (I'm primarily a major Beatles fan). However, this biography of David Bowie in its oral history format has affected me so much that I am prompted to read his other biographies as well as delve into the treasure trove of his music library. I was skeptical about whether I would like the oral history format of this offering, but this actually connected with me far more than I think the standard biography would. This was a mammoth book of over 500 pages (no pictures) comprised of Bowie memories served up by friends, band members, business colleagues, wives, lovers, etc...to tell the life story of Bowie. Nothing is more genuine than the direct words of the people who knew and loved Bowie. These are just a handful of some of the people who added their recollections to this oral history: Tony Visconti (producer of many of Bowie's albums) Angela Bowie (first wife) Iman (second wife) Bono (U2 singer) Kate Moss (model) Paul McCartney (former Beatle and music legend) Peter Frampton (childhood classmate and fellow musician) I feel like I have been reading and enjoying this for a very long time as because of its oral history format, I felt comfortable bouncing in an out of this book to read other books when needed or desired. It begins with his youth in Bromley, England and transitions to his marriage to Angie and the birth of their son as he cannily transforms into his alter ego of Ziggy Stardust. There were many lovers along the way, but as the book nears its close, he finds perfect love and happiness with his second wife Iman. It was very poignant reading the passages in reaction to Bowie's death, and how he strove to complete his final album "Blackstar" as a parting gift. I came away from this book in awe of Bowie's high intellect, capacity for friendship/kindness, fearless sense of adventure, and strength. He was certainly a multifaceted talent and extraordinary human being. Although I still have all those other Bowie biographies to read, something tells me that I may just have already read the best one! Many thanks to NetGalley for providing an advance reader copy in return for my honest review.
David Bowie: A Life by Dylan Jones is a brand new biography that brings the Life of the well known performer in a whole new light. This non traditional re-telling of Bowie's life is woven together through the voices of those who personally knew him in life. There is no way that anyone in this modern era of social media could have missed that the news that the infamous artist, David Bowie died three days after turning 69. Not only that, he left an intriguing new album released on his birthday- just three days before his death. Without a doubt this music video release was planned to coincide with his imminent death as the artist had been fighting a private battle with cancer. Although I am unfamiliar with most of David Bowie's works, aware of the musician from the sidelines, listening only when others played his songs on the radio during long car trips, I could not help but find myself intrigued and drawn to his newest release by the title of "Lazarus". I could only imagine Bowie's giddy anticipation as he knew he would be leaving the world this complicated, musical tidbit of packed to the brim with symbolism for the fans, critics, religious leaders and psychologists alike, to interpret, discuss and dissect long after his death. To describe this last album as a "parting gift" to his fans seems fitting. This new biography keeps in line with the unexpected and surprising legacy left by Bowie. This book is like another "gift" for Bowie fans everywhere. There are countless chronicles of this musician's life in the bookstore- enough to fill an entire library. What makes Jones' work stand out is that it is a compilation of the voices and perspectives of well known artists, and figures who knew him or interacted with him in real life. Like a quilt woven together, a complete and unique portrait is created. Hundreds of anecdotes make Bowie accessible and real to those who know him from his music, videos and movies. The back features a timeline to enable readers to put it all in perspective. This book is a good tribute to Bowie's life. An original performer deserves a thoughtful, original biography that is as eclectic and unexpected as his musical works. As a blogger I received a copy of this book published by crown publishers for the purpose of writing this review.