A portrait of Bowie by Brian Hiatt

Somewhere I’ve got a book, “David Bowie in his own words.” Sadly Bowie is no longer with us, and we have to make do with David Bowie in other people’s words. Here are some good ones.

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This book is subtitled “A tribute to Bowie by his artistic collaborators and contemporaries,” which describes it exactly. It’s been put together by Rolling Stone writer Brian Hiatt, who conducted the interviews, and I doff my cap to him: he’s managed to ask the right people the right questions, and assemble the results into a tasteful and compelling portrait.

The first contributor is George Underwood, a schoolfriend who became an a artist and contributed to some of Bowie’s album covers.

Amazingly, George Underwood left a message for Bowie on his answerphone in 1976 or thereabouts, saying “I’m happy, hope your happy too.” The words later turned up on Ashes to Ashes. “But I don’t know if I’m the Action Man,” writes Underwood.

Then there’s Dana Gillespie, an early singer friend for whom Bowie wrote the song Andy Warhol, though it first appeared on Hunky Dory.

And Mike Garson, who is fascinating about the tension of being a classical and jazz pianist and working with a rock musician. “There was a part of me for sure that recognized his genius … but let me tell you for sure, there was another part of me at the time that just thought, this is way below my gift and abilities.”

He later remarks, “I was the longest member in the band, when you put all the hours and tours together.”

Earl Slick writes frankly about his work with Bowie. I was interested in his remarks about recording Station to Station. “He was not as out of control as he was made out to be, in terms of his functionality. When he got his mind into something he could hyper-focus like a _. I don’t care if he was living on milk.”

He also reveals that there was nearly a tour after the Reality tour. “There were about three or four close calls where I did get phone calls, and I was put on hold to tour, but it didn’t happen.”

And later Slick writes, “there were parts of David that you could never get through.”

Carlos Alomar: “The master puppeteer actually did know what he was doing, and not only can you understand that now, but you see it play out constantly on all those albums.”

He also recounts his goodbye. “I saw David at Tony Visconti’s birthday partly last year and he was very very fragile. In hindsight, I can see what was happening … we talked about old times and it was good to talk about things, heal old wounds … now I understand it was that goodbye.”

Artist Derek Bosher tells a story about Bowie being photographed. “As we were chatting the PR person came over and said, David, there’s a photographer here from Paris Match. David, in real life, used to always walk quite slowly and talk quietly, he never shouted, different from the almost narcissistic public persona. … they start shooting and he becomes David Bowie. And then straight after that, he said, “Let’s go sit down again. It was like watching Clark Kent going into the telephone booth and becoming Superman, then turning back.”

And Nile Rodgers, of Chic, says Bowie really did call him up and say, “you do hits, I’d like you to do a record of hits” – it became, of course, Let’s Dance. His account of how it was recorded is incredible, gripping. I won’t spoil it for you by quoting everything.

This isn’t a picture book, but it is illustrated with around 40 photos and artworks most of which I had not seen before. The printing is high quality and this is just a lovely book, you will know Bowie better after reading it.

The only thing I don’t much like is the cover, which looks rather cheap to me, not hinting at the wonders within. And I suppose there are other contributors it would have been nice to see included, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Tony Visconti and more; but you never get everyone in a project like this.

The full list of contributors:

George Underwood
Dana Gillespie
Mike Garson
Toni Basil
Earl Slick
Carlos Alomar
Debbie Harry and Chris Stein
Martyn Ware
Derek Boshier
Nile Rodgers
Stephen Finer
Gail Ann Dorsey
Zachary Alford
Cyndi Lauper
Robyn Hitchcock

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