When one looks back at the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s hard to separate out the politics, the social movements and the tumult of the time from the music: Joplin, the Beatles, the Stones, Iggy Pop, and, of course, David Bowie. He was, and is, of the ‘70s, his various personae acting as the personification of the era in all its fragmented glory.
So when Peter Doggett went about writing a book about David Bowie, he chose to leave him in his context. He writes exclusively about the Bowie of the ‘70s—up until and including Scary Monsters—and as he zeroes in on specific albums and songs, he pans out to what was going on in the world and how Bowie found himself moving through it.
Read Bookslut's interview with Mark Z. Danielewski.
The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s is a remarkable book, which is not something one can say about a lot of rock criticism. It’s knowing and philosophical, while also geeky in its fandom. I spoke with Doggett about Bowie at his peak and whether we’ll ever see another artist quite like him.
I live in Berlin where the David Bowie mythology is thick. There's a David Bowie walking tour, and the bars he used to haunt are crowded for that reason alone. You spend some time on his Berlin years, but I'm wondering how exactly he became so associated with Berlin, or how Berlin became so associated with Bowie.
It was definitely an association that Bowie courted. Like many Englishmen, then and now, he had a fascination with the phenomenon of Nazi Germany, and he had studied the links between Hitler's milieu and the occult in some detail when he was in the States in 1976. He was also fascinated by other aspects of German culture, such as 1920s expressionist cinema, Brechtian theatre, Weimar-era cabaret and early 20th-century art. When he needed an escape route from the excesses of his life in Los Angeles, he elected not to return to his hometown of London, presumably because that felt like a step backwards, and chose instead to head for the most glamorous European location he could imagine.
Much of that perceived glamour then attached itself to the ambitious and innovative “Berlin trilogy” of albums (Low, 'Heroes' and Lodger) that he recorded during this period—the irony being that the first of them was actually recorded in Paris, and the third inspired by his travels around the world, rather than his exploits in Germany. But his life and work changed so dramatically between 1977 and 1979 that his sojourn in Berlin naturally assumed great significance in the Bowie legend; he was able to flesh out that sense of romanticism with selective tales of his adventures on the frontier between West and East, under the shadow of the city's Nazi past. Besides his many other talents, Bowie was always a masterful self-publicist.
Your filter for examining Bowie's impact is the tumult of the 1970s, for which Bowie's music seems to be the perfect soundtrack. Certainly there were missteps in his career after that—there was Labyrinth, there were some unfortunate music videos. He did some good work, but no longer seemed so directly tapped into the spirit of the times. How do you think he fell out of sync once the '70s were over?
You could argue a coherent case for saying that it wasn't just Bowie who "fell out of sync once the '70s were over," but the whole of the rock culture to which he belonged. In many ways, he mutated into the perfect early-to-mid '80s artist, preferring style over substance and grand gestures over subtle artistry.
In personal terms, however, he had reached 1980 in a state of exhaustion, artistic and physical. It had become apparent to him—as it rarely does to artists in these situations—that he could no longer exist at the level of intensity to which he had subjected himself for most of the '70s. So it was inevitable that whatever he did in the next decade would be more controlled and less extreme than in the past. If you like, he turned from being a radical artist into a craftsman. Maybe he needed to do that in order to survive, but he knew as well as anyone that his urge towards self-preservation was taking a toll on his work.
As a fan of his music during these years you're writing about, what was the disappointment of the '80s music like? Did it feel like a betrayal by Bowie to his music? And did that change at all when you learned he felt like his commitment to the music was having a deleterious effect?
I don't remember feeling betrayed by anything Bowie did in the '80s, any more than I was by an entire generation of rock icons opting for a decade of Miami Vice chic. I think confusion was closer to the surface, and the feeling, which I also experienced with Mick Jagger, that the Bowie whose music I'd admired had been replaced by a very skilful imposter. Certainly by the end of the decade I found it difficult to imagine that I'd ever taken either man seriously—which was one of the joys of writing this book, as it reminded me that I hadn't been hypnotized during the '70s, and Bowie had actually been a significant (and emblematic) artist.
Looking back from the vantage point of 2012, Bowie's career trajectory makes perfect sense, as there was no way that he could have survived another decade as relentlessly self-taxing as the '70s had been. But that doesn't mean that I find his work from the '80s any more enjoyable. What marked Bowie out from almost all of his peers was that he managed to find a way to tap into his innate creativity from the early '90s onwards, without exacting the same debilitating toll on his body or psyche.
I was surprised at how erudite your book is. It really brings philosophy and politics and sociology to the table, whereas so much writing about rock music stays on the surface, or sticks to the biographical. Tales of drugs and excess, etc...
There's nothing worse than pretentious rock writing—unless, perhaps, it's rock writing that avoids any sense that the music exists in, shapes and is shaped by the outside world. I'm so bored with the sex/drugs fixation of the “classic rock” press; there's nothing attractive about prolonged adolescence.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.