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28 July 2016

Let all the children boogie: how a new Bowie biography took me back to teenage subversion

Thank God Paul Morley’s The Age of Bowie doesn't try to be an objective, sensible biography.

By Deborah Levy

The starman stepped into my imagination and history – via Top of the Pops – when I was 13, and never left the building. It seemed right that when I was 50, Bowie asked the question I was asking myself, too: where are we now? I can’t think of a contemporary writer whom I have followed from teenage to middle age, and so, with all the humility, desire and delusion of being a fan, I am not going to take well to any biographer who claims to have a purchase on the “real” Bowie. I don’t want real. Nor do I need the enigma of Bowie’s various personae (beguiling and baffling in equal measure) to be nailed to Earth. And just to confirm how hard I am to get in this respect, I am also not that interested in personal anecdotes from people who knew him. No, I’m with the teenagers of my generation who had Saturday jobs at Dolcis and C&A so we could buy his albums. We did not have trust funds to put together an outfit, but we did make an effort to sparkle for the starman – just in case he landed somewhere that wasn’t inside our heads.

Fortunately, Paul Morley is a veteran rock journalist (I’m sure he can show you the scars) and has not attempted to write a calmly objective, sensible biography that manages to shatter the delusion and give us the man. His stream-of-consciousness critique of Bowie’s posthumous legacy from cradle to Blackstar is respectfully mournful, and slightly rhapsodic in tone. He understands that Bowie lifted many of his now orphaned fans “from suburbia to bohemia” (sort of) and opened up an imaginative space that was inside us anyway. If the writing can’t resist sliding into the sentimental, it’s also a bit mental, which is perfect.

Morley rightly points out how “those of us becoming teenagers in the early Seventies needed something of our own, having been too young to catch the Sixties. We’d missed the Beatles, we’d missed the Stones – as something that belonged and spoke directly to us.” At times he does that slightly creepy thing of speaking Bowie’s inner thoughts as a way of moving through the various decades, but it is tricky to pull this story through 1947 to 2016. Here is 1972: “. . . he is saying, the starman is saying, because he looks exactly like a starman, sexy but sexless, friend but alien: let everyone lost in a world of confusion and imminent devastation have a party.”

I was probably too young to think about the “devastation” (apart from Dad throwing away my silver platform boots) but the “party” was definitely an invitation to ­subvert the rigid femininities and masculinities that so pinned us boys and girls down in the early Seventies.

My male teenage friends wore blue eyeshadow at a time when the male characters in contemporary British novels, no matter how satirical, were mostly very dusty in their gender politics. We could not find ourselves in these books, preferring Bowie’s instruction to “turn and face the strange”, one of the best lines from “Changes”, on his fourth album, Hunky Dory.

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In this sense, Morley brilliantly describes Bowie’s intelligent, bent, arty provocation as nothing less than an “electrifying Morse code vibrating into the psyche”. The English Romantic poets of the early 19th century seemed to be more daring than most mainstream fiction at the time. Morley boldly asserts that Bowie in the Seventies was “enacting what Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed as visionary powers of would-be poets to become ‘the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present’”. All the same, I, for one, did not experience the starman as “a cosmic ejaculation”, as Morley did, and if it’s true, as he conjectures, that girl fans centred their sole attention on Bowie’s “glowing groin”, I can tell him for certain that boys let their eyes roam, too. It was obvious to us that the super-cool soundtrack for the TV dramatisation of Hanif Kureishi’s zeitgeist novel The Buddha of Suburbia, set in south ­London in the Seventies, could only have been written by Bowie, who in the early days bought his shirts and shoes in Lewisham.

Morley makes interesting points about the starman’s journey to superstardom and superstar money, reminding us that Oscar Wilde’s advice – “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken” – might just pay off. It’s true that when David Robert Jones changed his name and artfully stepped into many experimental art selves, we fans “found our shape-shifting and empowering champion in a star with the waist of a soup can”.

Inspired by John Coltrane, the Velvet Underground and John Cage, Bowie was also going to channel Anthony Newley, Florence Foster Jenkins, Johnnie Ray, Julie London, Édith Piaf and Shirley Bassey. “Music, he discovered, was a great game of ‘what if’. What happens if you combined Brecht/Weill musical drama with rhythm and blues. Will Little Richard lie comfortably with Schoenberg?” The result of this, for Morley, was “the mixing and merging of the strange with the familiar, mortal grossness with the airy spirit”; there were not many other pop stars “so drawn to both the offbeat and the ostentatious”.

Perhaps the persona who wore the most mascara was Ziggy Stardust. Morley offers astute insights into why Bowie had to “retire” Ziggy – he did not want to end up an “eternal alien”. He tells us how Bowie was at ease with “exhibiting his mind and body in the public glare so fantastically, and if you had cracked the code, he was dramatically splitting reality wide open, and penetrating time itself. The perfect role model for a teenager.” Yes, OK, including (cough) female teenagers, though I did not know much about penetrating time
until I became a writer and had to learn how to structure a novel.

This is not, however, a biography of Walter Benjamin (though Burroughs, Warhol and Eno are all present), and so I’m pleased to learn that Bowie got most of his make-up in the Aladdin Sane years from “a little shop in Rome which imports fantastic intensely coloured powders and creams from India”. I’ll never be above being fascinated that he used “white rice powder from the Tokyo equivalent to our Woolworths”.

As Morley moves nearer to the final year of Bowie’s life, he reflects on the ways in which most rock musicians in the early Sixties and onwards never regained the urgency of their early work. Unlike Bowie – of course – who was an innovator right to the end, completing the melancholy and haunting album Blackstar, released days before his death in January this year. Morley reckons that to make this “genre-liquefying work” it was necessary for Bowie to keep “listening, looking, absorbing, stealing, adapting, right to the very end, fighting ultimately for the sake of it to achieve some kind of harmony with the universe and his place in it, to make his last artistic statement as vivid and powerful as any he had made during his so-called golden age”.

There is a great deal of cultural history to enjoy in this personal, engaged and slyly scholarly biography. Morley’s triumph is to know there is no such thing as the definitive story: new generations of fans will continue to make it up as they go along.

Deborah Levy’s latest novel, “Hot Milk”, is published by Hamish Hamilton

The Age of Bowie: How David Bowie Made a World of Difference by Paul Morley is published by Simon & Schuster (484pp, £20)

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue