When Paul Trynka was finishing his last book—a thick, detailed bio of Iggy Pop—his son asked him if the punk legend liked kids. “I told him no,” the former Mojo editor says. “So my son said to me, ‘Why are you spending so much time with him?’ I promised him my next book would be about a good dad.”
Of course, it wasn’t David Bowie’s parenting skills that really fascinated Trynka. It was how the rock icon had continually reinvented himself even long before he donned the Ziggy Stardust makeup. It’s the main theme of David Bowie: Starman. As Trynka trekked around England, talking to over 200 of Bowie’s former bandmates and associates, what he discovered was both a complex and intelligent man and a purposeful blank slate, both of which were essential in making Bowie perhaps the greatest solo pop star in history.
Read the last Popdose column at Kirkus on the 7 Celebrity AutoBio Must-Reads.
In many ways this book seems like a natural progression from Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed.
It was a very natural progression from Iggy. As I was writing the Iggy book there were a lot of intriguing things on how [Iggy Pop’s 1977 Bowie-produced album] The Idiot was made and how [Bowie’s 1977 record] Low was made. I read a lot of the Bowie books while doing Iggy, and for someone as curious as me there just wasn’t enough there.
And I grew up with Bowie. My sisters saw him on Top of the Pops in 1972. I always saw him as a part of the establishment, while Iggy was an outsider, but my opinion of him overturned as I did Iggy. I think Bowie was misjudged. Biographers either say that everything Bowie does is wonderful, or that he’s a manipulator. And they’re both or wrong.
You really seem to be painting a picture of a man who is more motivated than talented, smarter than he is creative.
That’s absolutely the case. His genius is for charming and manipulating people. The intuitiveness of his ambition is bigger than his talent. When he’s in one of his first bands he meets a promoter in a club who asks which way he swings. He knows instinctively to say he likes boys. That’s amazing that he can be that insightful and manipulative at 18. And we see with him how that ambition helps him become more.
So is that why Bowie was successful when some of his friends weren’t?
I think that’s part of the reason. What gave him longevity is that he had to create himself as an artist. Bowie wasn’t instinctively creative. He admits that. But he figured out how to make himself into a creative person, and once he’d done it once then he knew he could continue to do it. He could build on his talents, and change as he wanted to. He learned how to write on guitar around the time of Space Oddity and then abandoned it all for writing on piano for Hunky Dory. Bowie has done that three or four times, changing as he wanted to.
Was his career really a force of will them? You’ve argued that he’s the greatest solo artist of all time. That’s got to be part of it.
It is what makes his one of the great lives. If we talk about him as a solo artist, that’s an argument that can keep you going in the pub until late at night. Look where Elvis took his influences—they came from all the same places. Dylan took his from two or three places.
Bowie showed us you could take your influences for so many different places. And that’s what he did. He sampled for everything. And it takes great discipline to be open to all those influences. How many of us are rootless enough to throw everything out and start over again?
Is Bowie the greatest decline of all time, too?
I’d say no, with the proviso that it’s very easy to get so into his work that you lose all objectivity. And while he made a lot of bad albums, his last albums Reality and Heathen—I would honestly say that those albums far surpass anything that Paul McCartney, maybe even Dylan put out, in recent years.
Of course, the albums of the ’70s changed the history of pop music…The whole thing about Bowie was that he was instinctive in the ’70s, and then in ’80s and ’90s he was just trying so hard. But not all of it was awful.
Do you consider yourself part historian now? You’re definitely trying to present history as you find it?
I would actually say, and it sounds like hubris, that yeah, I’ve put stuff on the record in a way that it wasn’t there before, and found a lot of new facts and given people a more complete picture. I know this sounds a bit cringe-worthy, but when you do this you have to do it for history. For Bowie, there are a lot of people who passed away since I interviewed them. And these are important stories, and I hope I’ve done them—and him— justice.