‘It seemed like a risk worth taking’, says Paul Morley, remembering the morning in April 2013 he sat down at a desk in the ticket hall of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and began typing. His laptop was hooked up to a large screen hanging in the foyer, so that visitors could read as he wrote – an art installation come to life at the entrance to the V&A’s ‘David Bowie is’ exhibition. Morley’s mission, his audience would have read, was to ‘complete a book in a weekend’.
He didn’t quite pull it off. Still, only seven months on from Bowie’s death, we have The Age of Bowie, a near 500-page-long tribute to the man who brought modernism to the music charts. Even though the book more than once brings to mind Mark Twain’s remark about having to write a long letter because he hadn’t the time to write a short one, it is still an astonishing achievement.
Whether it’s a worthwhile one is rather more moot. The blurb calls Morley’s book a ‘biographical critique’ – which isn’t, it turns out, quite the same thing as a critical biography. Precious little of Bowie’s mammoth oeuvre – 27 studio albums, countless hit singles, 10 major movie roles, a well-received run as the star of a Broadway play – gets any kind of sustained attention, let alone suggestive analysis. But nor is the book the cubist takedown of the biographical form that the arch avant-gardist Bowie needs. Repetitious and rambling though it is – there’s a preface and an introduction and a memoir-heavy first chapter to wade through before you hit page 66 and the information that ‘David Bowie is born as David Robert Jones, on Wednesday, 8 January 1947’ – the book tells Bowie’s story using exactly the kind of chronological structure his cut-up lyric-writing technique was designed to subvert.
Under the postmodern veneer of his prose, Morley, like so many pop writers, is an unreconstructed romantic
The early chapters are the best. Not because Morley has uncovered anything about Bowie’s youth that previous biographers have missed. But having been a small-town boy himself, he’s alive to what life likely seemed like to young Davy Jones – growing up in the ‘drained suburban wasteland’ of the London borough of Bromley in those far-off, postwar, pre-rock’n’roll days. I’m not sure the teenage Davy was quite as scathing about his parents’ humdrum existence as Morley insists. But there can be no doubt that from the get-go he had his eye on wider horizons. Like most boys, Davy was interested in football. Unlike most boys in Fifties Britain, he was interested in American football – and wrote off to the US Embassy to say so. The embassy wrote back, inviting him over for a training session. At 13 he made his first appearance in print – snapped wearing a caged helmet and shoulder-pads under the headline ‘David leads sport revolution’. He’d lead a few more revolutions in years to come.
But before you can break things up you have to know how they’re put together. After leaving school at 16 with a single O-level (art), Bowie endured an extraordinarily long musical apprenticeship. Having joined his first group in 1962, Bowie labored through seven lean years before his first UK success (1969’s moon-landing inspired ‘Space Oddity’). And another three years went by before he hit the real big time with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. In between, he’d learned the rudiments of musical composition, the basics of the saxophone, a few chords on the piano and a few more on the guitar.