Marc Spitz - Bowie: A Biography [book] (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Marc Spitz

Bowie: A Biography 📕 (2009)


Folks, I've been on a big Bowie kick for the last month or so. It was revived thanks to Hugo Wilcken's entry on Low for the 33 1/3 series, which got me listening to the "Berlin Trilogy"...and then Iggy Pop's The Idiot and Lust for Life albums, which Bowie had a hand in around the same time...and then Aladdin Sane just 'cause I like that album. The next book I picked up, to my delight, was Marc Spitz's Bowie, a biography/love letter to one David Robert Jones. Turns out he's been on a Bowie kick too, only his has lasted since 1978 or so, when he heard "Space Oddity" for the first time at age nine. He writes:

"I would look up at the sky and wonder what it would be like to be Major Tom, trapped way up there in outer space, floating in a tin can forever. Was it technically living? ...Bowie made me consider existentialism before I even knew what it meant to be alive (and before I ever really thought about my death). It was much easier to reckon with the "Grease" soundtrack and put off the inevitable, but I already knew even then that Bowie's music had permanently damaged me." [p. 24]

See, Spitz interweaves his own personal interaction with Bowie's music (loves it, needs it) and the man himself (visits his favorite New York spots, sees him once on the street and then loses his nerve) into the narrative. It doesn't overwhelm the story of the main subject's life like, say, Jon Krakauer's insistence on injecting his camping trips into the more interesting life and death of Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild. If anything, I would have been OK with more Spitz-bits, but then, I generally dig his writing (his work with Spin and with Brendan Mullen for We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk is essential music reading). The anecdotes remind us that Spitz is a fan, and that this book is a labor of love, although the writing style alone indicates that.

Spitz covers as much territory as he can without actually having to interview his idol. He gets most of the key players -- ex-wife Angie Bowie, guitarist Carlos Alomar, a ton of former managers and more -- to cover the story, and utilizes a deep bibliography to fill in the missing storytellers, like the late Mick Ronson and Bowie himself. The result is a bio that hits all the needed plot points -- his birth, his troubled family history, "The Laughing Gnome," "Space Oddity," glam rock, Brian Eno, conquering the '80s, fading into obscurity in the '80s, Tin Machine and more.

Given his self-admitted fandom, Spitz occasionally runs the risk of gushing too much:
"Ziggy [Stardust] is the space-race anticlimax, Manson and Altamont and Nixon's reelection and the breakup of the Beatles made sexy. Rock ‘n' roll ecdysis [sic] is a crucial element of his appeal. Ziggy says to all those in pain, 'You have failed as human beings, but it's all right. We will succeed as slinky, jiving space insects. Let all the children boogie!'" [p. 178]

But here's the thing. Spitz's loving passages come from a place of deep-seated devotion. He's not peddling bunk here. And he's also not afraid to call his idol on his own bunk. Labyrinth gets a knock (sounds like somebody needs a love injection). Some critically derided albums get elevated (Diamond Dogs, Let's Dance), while others get dropped (Tonight, Never Let Me Down and even Space Oddity, which I happen to think is an underrated psych/folk/rock album). Sure, Spitz softballs Bowie's sexual indiscretions and, uh, that time he got super coked out and spent the late '70s advocating Nazism and fascism, but it's not like he digs to justify every little thing he did. For comparison's sake, check out Philip Norman's John Lennon: The Life, in which the author spends an entire chapter not only validating his subject's proclivity for masturbation, but elevating it to some sort of artistic expression on par with John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

Bowie hits a sweet spot of being informative, passionate and as honest as possible. Spitz even talked me into expanding my already pretty big Bowie collection (I've got Starting Point, a collection of Bowie's early, kind of terrible, '60s novelty singles, through the Labyrinth soundtrack from 1986. Dare I try on Earthling or Heathen?). The ending is somewhat lacking -- Bowie is still alive after all -- but given that his last studio album, Reality, came out in 2003, Spitz has as good a conclusion as he could hope for currently. Super fans should it a gander, although the book is easy enough to follow that even novices looking for someone to guide them through Bowie's dense discography might be interested in it as well. After all, if you like folk, punk, post-punk, R&B, glam rock, funk, industrial, goth, so-bad-it's-good-rap (à la Labyrinth's "Chilly Down") or any of the fashions associated with those genres, Bowie might have a song or two to hook you in as well.