Tag Archives: book reviews

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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Unfaithful music & Disappearing ink by Elvis Costello

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I still remember my first encounter with Elvis Costello’s music. It was the John Peel show on the radio of course, the song was Less than Zero, and I found it captivating: distinctive voice, catchy melody, and above all words that were evocative, mysterious and vaguely menacing even though I didn’t fully understand them. I snapped up the album My Aim is True when it was released a few months later and have been a fan ever since, following the twists and turns of his career from punk rock to R&B to country to collaborations with jazz, classical and hip-hop musicians.

Costello is an amazing wordsmith and songs pour out of him, such that many of his B sides and outtakes are more than equal to the best work of many others, a characteristic he shares only I think with Bob Dylan – who makes a regular appearance here as they encounter each other and end up performing together on a number of occasions.

Now this is his book, 36 chapters (plus postscript) and approaching 700 pages. It is an excellent read, presuming you have some time for the man or an interest in the music scene of the last forty or so years. Writing in short pithy paragraphs (just as you would expect) Costello tells the story of his life, his bands, his writing, his father Ross MacManus who was also a singer, girls girls girls, and along the way recounts many entertaining and often alcoholic incidents of life on the road.

The rhythm of the book is somewhat staccato and the sequence of events is only loosely chronological – that is, there is more about his earlier years in the first half of the book, and more about his later years in the second, but he constantly jumps back in forth in time making literary counterpoints. His habit of ending an anecdote just when you thought it was getting going can be annoying; but he is never dull.

It would be an interesting exercise to rearrange, or attempt to rearrange, the book into chronological order, but I don’t fancy doing it with my printed copy.

There are black and white photos interspersed throughout the book; they don’t look great partly because they are printed on paper designed for text. In addition they have no captions. A shame.

Costello writes a lot about his father, and in some ways the book is a tribute to him. He writes of his statement a couple of years ago that he would give up making records, which at the time he said was about spending more time with his children. “The real reason was that I needed time to imagine how I could bear to write songs and not be able to play them for my father. Watching him listen to music was irreplaceable to me,” he says. Such passages are where Costello shows most emotion.

One good reason to read the book is for insight into Costello’s songwriting. Some songs are described in detail, often including how they were influenced by or borrow from existing music, and how the words came together. One of my favourite passages (since I am a fan of both) is a conversation with Dylan:

“One night Bob Dylan said to me: ‘U2! How could they do that to you? How could they take your song like that!

“It took me a moment to know what he was talking about, and a moment more to realize that he was putting me on. But then, U2’s ‘Get on your boots’ was probably to ‘Pump it up’ what ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is to Chuck Berry’s ‘Too much monkey business’.”

Costello is a performer and the book is in a way a performance; I wish it were less so, but perhaps if so it would be less entertaining.

There is a sharp side to Costello which occasionally goes too far. He writes of early days with Stiff (the independent record label responsible for his first releases) and the threat of being paired with another singer, “a horrible little git called Eric, who’d stumbled into the office with a single decent song.” Did he have to say that?

One thing which comes over powerfully though is his love of music and absolute belief in its importance. Of music he says, “There is no superior. There is no high and low. The beautiful thing is, you don’t have to choose, you can love it all. Those songs are there to help you when you need them most.”

That in the end is the great thing about Unfaithful Music and disappearing Ink; it will inspire you to go back to the music, both from Costello and from others, and perhaps even to go beyond your comfort zone and explore some artists you may have missed or dismissed. He did.

This is among the most enjoyable music books I have read; recommended.

Review: When computing got personal by Matt Nicholson

This is a book which ends too soon; but it is a good read nevertheless.

Journalist Matt Nicholson here provides a history of personal desktop computing, beginning with machines like the DEC PDP-8 in 1965, which was not a desktop computer but merely the size of a refrigerator so more convenient than a mainframe, and the Canon Pocketronic in 1970 which was an early pocket calculator. The key enabler was the invention of the integrated circuit, which packs thousands (and today, sometimes billions) of semiconductors into a single package.

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Early chapters follow the history of the MITS Altair, IBM’s first portable computers, Apple, Commodore, Atari, Intel and Microsoft. The reasons why IBM adopted Microsoft’s MS-DOS rather than CP/M from Digital Research are explained in detail; it was not merely because Digital’s CEO Gary Kildall was out flying when IBM called. Nicholson goes on to describe the battle of the WIMPs, graphical user interfaces from Apple, Digital Research and Microsoft, the triumph of Windows and the near-death of Apple before the return of Steve Jobs in 1997. The closing chapters look at the history of the Internet and the world wide web, and the rise of open source software and how Microsoft fought it.

I have read numerous books on the history of personal computing and rate this one highly. The research is excellent, backed by a 20 page bibliography. Nicholson also shows his editorial expertise by keeping the writing brisk and compact; the book is only 300 pages long.

That said, the book is stronger on the early years than it is on later developments. The bulk of the material relates to the years up to around 2004, a decade ago. Google hardly gets a mention, and the mobile revolution kicked off by Apple’s iPhone in 2007 has only a couple of paragraphs.

The reason I presume is that Nicholson aims to cover only desktop computers; yet the title of the book refers to personal computing, and a tablet with a Bluetooth keyboard being used for productivity (I am typing this review on one now) is part of the same story.

Nicolson describes how Microsoft turned on a pin in 1992, when Bill Gates authored his Internet Tidal Wave internal memo that marked the beginning of the company’s conversion to the web and its success with Internet Explorer.

It seems to me that this is a parallel with the announcement of Windows 8 in 2011 and Microsoft’s adoption of a touch user interface, though the outcome so far has been less successful; and that the extraordinary rise of Google Android is far enough along that it deserves more than the single mention it gets in this book. Google’s Chrome OS and Chromebook, which is hybrid desktop and internet technology, is another important development.

I would have liked Nicholson to write more about the last ten years then; but that does not take away from the high quality of what is covered here; recommended if you would like to understand how personal computing began.