A lengthy critical tribute to David Bowie’s pop-cultural legacy, with a particular emphasis on his epochal 1970s work.
This book by British musician and longtime pop-music writer Morley (Earthbound, 2013, etc.) is a deliberately disorganized affair. The author opens with long, often shapeless encomiums to the singer’s shape-shifting persona along with first-person gassing about his response to Bowie’s death in early 2016; he’s nearly 80 pages in before he begins delivering conventional biographical information about Bowie’s birth and upbringing. “I blame Bowie,” he writes. “He made me think this way. He made me write this way.” Morley knows his subject well, though, and once he’s settled into a narrative groove, he delivers thoughtful treatments of the earliest stages of Bowie’s career, and he has a knack for finding a rational thread for each of Bowie’s peculiar shifts in the 1960s and ’70s. An early novelty tune, “The Laughing Gnome,” is “Bowie testing all sorts of tolerances”; with his breakthrough 1971 album, “Hunky Dory,” he’s “transcending the fraught categories of male and female”; 1973's “Aladdin Sane” is “the rock album the Rolling Stones would make if they were into Brecht, Brel, Burroughs, and Ballard.” Morley foregrounds Bowie’s art over his biography: he’s less interested in why, for instance, in the ’90s, Bowie sold bonds backed by future royalties or took a role in the cult film Labyrinth than in how such moves fit with a persona afraid to ever look redundant. Morley is too often reflexively approving of everything Bowie did, and sometimes his prose slackens into nonsense (“another centre in a story filled with centres, but one that can be placed at the very centre of those centres”), but his year-by-year race through his subject’s work is often inspired, matching a grasp of history with keen critical assessment.
Bowie still deserves a full-dress serious biography, which would benefit from a touch of this book’s reckless spirit.