I was a David Bowie fan.
After reading Doggett’s chronicle of the iconoclastic decade of Bowie’s creativity and stardom I have been converted to a David Bowie fanatic. Reading through this account of Bowie’s prolific period spanning 1969-1980 I listened to each of the albums discussed and rediscovered the many voices of Bowie’s artistic imprint. The singles that I’ve loved are now fleshed out in context with their albums and the ground-breaking efforts that motivated Bowie and inspired his would-be followers. Amazingly, during this period Bowie released 13 diverse and influential albums and the progression of the artist to superstar to minimalist is as profound as the many personae he wore to promote his music. The many changes of the faces of Bowie were apparent as he became the glam rock alien Ziggy, the American inspired glam Aladdin, the soul singing Thin White Duke, and the minimalist Bowie of the Berlin period. In constantly recreating himself and in recreating his sound Bowie set the stage that defined super-stardom and remains the icon that defines all of 1970’s music.
Bowie didn’t jump into stardom easily, it was a slow climb for the man who didn’t quite fit in with the ideology of the 1960’s. To provide the back story for Bowie’s prolific 70’s, Doggett’s book starts with a short and informative 52 page biography of the pre-1970’s Bowie. The man who grew up as the boy, David Jones, in South London’s suburbia was a child of fractured family with an influential and troubled older brother who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. David’s brother introduced him to Beat literature and aspirations of stardom, but in the 60’s Bowie struggled with his musical goals and at one time visioned himself as a Coltrane saxophone player. He released singles in Mod and folk styles while working in an advertising agency but few of his works were successful until the breakout of Space Oddity in 1969.
From Space Oddity through Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) Doggett reviews each of the 189 songs penned by Bowie through the “long decade” spanning 1969 to 1980. The song-by-song analysis is often informative regarding the musical instrumentation such as tone and pitch with referential context to popular songs that influenced Bowie. In addition to a song-by-song analysis there are essays that describe each album’s unique sound with respect to the cultural influences of the time in addition to several multi-part essays that provide context to Bowie’s changes in style, rise in stardom, promiscuity and blatant bisexuality, rampant drug use, difficulties with his manager, and retreat from stardom to rediscover himself.
The book reads quickly, especially while listening to the music and as my first in depth read of David Bowie I found The Man Who Sold the World as a thorough and enlightening chronicle. However where the book falters is that Doggett failed to include much lyrical analysis of the songs. This may have been due to a challenges with the rights to publish the lyrics, but I felt that the book would have definitely been strengthened with some printed lyrics and analysis. Doggett does repeatedly acknowledge that in interview Bowie was often cryptic when discussing the meaning of his songs, especially as Bowie changed his explanations from interview to interview. The cryptic nature of the man may have inhibited Doggett from providing the full lyrical analysis that I was looking for. In my reading, my interests were peaked and with a little internet searching I did happen to find here at another wordpress site a thorough song-by-song analysis that nicely complements the book.
I have to mention that another complaint I have for Doggett is that as an expert on the Beatles, Doggett makes far too many references to the Beatles in his analysis of Bowie’s songs. Of course it would be ignorant to acknowledge that the Beatles had a profound influence on Rock and while I’ve listened to Bowie I’ve always smiled at the soulfoul chant of “I heard the news today oh boy,” in Young Americans, but Doggett goes to extremes with reference to Beatles guitar riffs and lyrics in his Bowie analysis. This gets tedious towards the Lodger and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) analyses where Doggett seamed to lazily attribute every Bowie song as an obscure Lennon or Beatles tribute.
Despite the complaints I’ve noted above, I really enjoyed The Man Who Sold the World. I haven’t read too much pop culture or music history and this book was a nice diversion for me. As I noted in my intro, the book has inspired me and I’m now knee deep in a period of Bowie Fanaticism as my wife (a shared Bowie fan) jokingly has complained “It is all Bowie all of the time,” in my house right now. Everyone who loves Bowie loves Ziggy Stardust, but I will close this book review with a thankful acknowledgement that Doggett’s book helped focus my attention on two albums that I’ll proclaim as Bowie’s best: Hunky Dory and Low with Station to Station coming in as a close tie for second (the first two are so different that they can’t be compared as first or second next to each other). The Bowie of the 70’s is a timeless musician, an artist, and a man of otherworldly influence. Any fan should welcome the opportunity to dust off their music collection and rediscover the Bowie that was and forever will be.