by David Buckley
Written by the only biographer to get his Ph.D. with a thesis on David Bowie, Strange Fascination is an exhaustive chronicle of Bowie's career as one of rock's most influential stars. In a combination of interviews, exclusive photographic material and academic analysis, Buckley examines Bowie's life and music with an unparalleled level of detail.
Published September 23, 1999 by Virgin Publishing
Hardback: 400 pages
Revised and enhanced paperback version, June 8, 2000
Paperback: 608 pages
Dara O'Kearney is a long time Teenage Wildlife contributor and well known Bowie Internet fan/historian. He wrote this review exclusively for Teenage Wildlife.
I've actually been waiting for this book for years. When I first heard that some rum sort called David Buckley had taken Bowie fandom to a whole new level and actually based his doctoral thesis on the Main Man, it tickled my fancy immensely (almost as much as the idea that somewhere there was a university sufficiently alternative to the one I attended that it would go along with such a proposition). When I later heard this same individual was preparing a major biography, I knew that after years of unsatisfactory snacking on the numerous but inconsequential books chronicling Bowie tidbits, a satisfying meal was close at hand. Though not that close. This book took a lot longer to complete than I, and I suspect Dr. Buckley, expected. When you've waited for something as eagerly as I've waited for Doctor Dave to complete his chronicle of the moving target that is Rocker Dave, it's very hard not to be disappointed in the consummation. So perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay this blessed book is that not only does it not disappoint, it meets and often exceeds my highest expectations.
As the blurb on this book points out, despite being the most important post-Woodstock rock figure, Bowie has never been the subject of a major biography. Although there is no shortage of "Bowie books", Bowie and his fans have been poorly served by the ones that have appeared to date. Some are clear "get it out fast" cash-in jobs that tell us little, some claim to expose "the real David Bowie" and end up just recycling the same tired, oft-repeated stories and lies and stuff they made up to paint a picture of an inconsequential figure more charlatan than chameleon. The others are just useless.
The core of the problem is that Bowie divides people down the middle. While no other living rock star can boast a fan base as devoted and fanatical (and only Elvis among the dead rockers is competition), no other rock star has been as vilified (his detractors would have you believe that Bowie is a talentless cipher, a cheat, a fraud, a tax criminal, a sexual tourist, a money-obsessed control freak and God knows what else). To understand the appeal of Bowie, it seems you have to be a Bowie fan. This is what gives Strange Facination its main edge - it's a book written by an unapologetic fan.
Of course, other major figures such as Lennon and Dylan have any number of fan-written books, all of them quite dreadful by and large. "Fans with typewriters" tend to pose two problems - first, they rarely write very well, and second, their fandom prevents any pretence of objectivity, so you end up with badly-written, fawning drivel. Thankfully, Buckley side-steps these two problems with ease. As a professional writer with the acclaimed biography of The Stranglers already under his belt, Buckley is a better writer than any of those to have tackled Bowie to date. While never attempting to hide his natural enthusiasm for Bowie and his music, Buckley is not afraid to include the evidence for the prosecution though, unlike other less sympathetic writers, he avoids hopping into the witness box and joining the detractors.
It's an obvious truth which by some bizarre cosmic joke has gone largely unheeded among Bowie biographers (particularly the more recent ones) that any book about a major musical figure should be based on a solid appreciation of the music itself. Literary biographers just aren't allowed to get away with writing about writers they don't appreciate or at least understand, yet in the world of the rock biography it seems that anything goes. When I read, for example, Chris Sandford's biography of Bowie, I was struck by how little time he seemed to have for Bowie's music. It seemed to me he had listened to the albums a few times at most, hadn't really got it or understood why it was generally perceived as being so important, had maybe asked around and got a few general pointers, and went with that. All the writing on the music itself came across as hurried with the sort of brevity that indicates you want to say as little as possible for fear your ignorance might start to show. The general lack of any semblance of enthusiasm leaves one thinking "If I'd never heard the music being described here, I'd never want to." By contrast, when Buckley writes about the music, the pages come alive, and I feel compelled to drop everything, run to my CD cabinet for the album in question, and play the exact song he's writing about. The effect is like having suffered in solitary appreciation of Bowie through years of living with people who can't stand him, then suddenly finding your new roommate is not only a bigger Bowie fan than you are, but can talk forever about the songs and give you brand new perspectives on it all.
Buckley's book is unashamedly founded on the music, but there's much more to it than that. Around the music, he seamlessly weaves the pattern of Bowie's life and times. The past is a strange country where the people talk funny, look weird and act incomprehensibly at times. Buckley's grasp of sociology exceeds that of any other Bowie writer, and the fact that he lived through most of the times in the place where it all started for Bowie means he's better equipped to explain this strange country and its funny customs to us, to put it all in cultural context, to tell us what is more important, what matters less, and what makes little difference one way or the other. Simply put, this book drips with authority. Where other writers have been happy to grab at whatever influences were most convenient to them (Lou and Iggy if they were American, Anthony Newley and Marc Bolan and Mick Ronson if they were Brits) and come up with glib simplifications such as "Ziggy was Iggy with added Z", the wealth and breadth of Buckley's knowledge allows him to sift through them all and present us with a coherent authoritative context. You might not agree with the fine detail of every nuance, but you'll find it hard to attack the whole edifice he constructs, and you'll enjoy the arguments provoked. He's not afraid to be brutally honest either - unlike the day-tripper biographers only too happy to accept, for example, the view of Ronson fans that he was the real reason for Bowie's success and a man cruelly shafted. Buckley's not afraid to put forward the assessment most of us feel deep down but are often afraid to even whisper - that Ronno's importance tends to be understandably overstated by his friends and fans since his tragic death, and that as important as he was to the whole Ziggy thing, eventually "his strengths - his virtuosity, his melodic gift, his arranging skills, his admiration for the late 60s power-pop of Cream and Jeff Beck - would root Bowie's music in a too traditionalist stance and become a constraining factor." Bowie has never adequately expressed this as the reason he eventually had to move on from Ronson, perhaps from an admirable sense of loyalty and not wishing to speak the slightest ill of his great collaborator, or his limitations. Previous biographers have lacked the depth of knowledge to come up with such an explanation, so this, like so many other decisions central to Bowie's life, has always remained just one of the many unexplained mysteries to be exploited ruthlessly by Bowie's detractors.
Until now. Buckley, the sage old judge who has heard all the evidence and has the mental equipment to weigh it all up and give a balanced assessment, exposes other Bowie biographers as the shallow, superficial, sensationalist, tabloid headline writers they so often were. Whereas other biographies have been blinded by the surface layer of sensationalist tactics and often bewildering gimmicks Bowie has employed to amuse and confuse throughout his long career, here at last we have a book with insight into the brilliant strategist that underpinned it all.
Another area where Buckley scores big is in his assignment of greater space than is normally afforded to Bowie's late 70s, 80s and 90s. It's understandable that any Bowie biography will afford more space to 70s Bowie, but not to the degree that most have done. For example, Tremlett's most recent biography breaks down approximately 30 percent 60s, 40 percent early 70s, 10 percent late 70s, 15 percent 80s and 5 percent 90s. You'll note here the heavy weighting in favour of pre-75, when there are any number of unemployed minor figures ready to dish the dirt, and the inverse lack of attention to the post-Mainman years. Buckley comes up with a much healthier mix - 15 percent 60s, 30 percent early 70s, 15 percent late 70s, 15 percent 80s and 25 percent 90s.
The 90s, a particularly neglected era by Bowie bios to date, benefits from a full rich treatment. Buckley has spoken to key individuals - Gabrels, Plati, Garson, Alomar - that other biographers to date have proven unwilling, or unable, to draw out. A similar thoroughness is applied to other eras with input from the likes of Ken Scott (who turns up many interesting Ziggy era insights and facts, including the self-penned song Bowie originally wanted to include on Pin Ups), Adrian Belew, Gus Dudgeon, Hugh Padgham, Nile Rodgers, Earl Slick and Gary Numan. Numan in particular turns out to be an unexpected mine of information on everything from the infamous Victoria Station alleged Nazi salute (which he witnessed), what it was like to be a Bowie fanatic in the mid 70s (he led a cavalry charge of fans at the stage at one of Bowie's 76 concerts), his side of the "feud" between himself and Bowie circa 1980, and his views on Bowie's recent material.
Some of the most interesting material comes from Bowie superfans like Patti Brett, who Buckley also interviewed, and countless other fans who filled in questionnaires. The fact that Buckley has managed to talk to so many central figures that have not spoken out before, rather than relying on ax-grinding, bit-part players long since discarded, ensures not only that a fuller picture of Bowie emerges, but also a much warmer one. This is a kinder, gentler, more human Bowie than the manipulative megalomaniac that seems to haunt the pages of other biographies. Those works generally leave the reader with just one question: How could someone this shallow, this dumb, this unoriginal, have done all that Bowie did?
The picture of Bowie presented here is much more balanced (and therefore more convincing), with Bowie's closest friends and collaborators willing to point to both his strengths (Carlos Alomar memorably calls him "a singing fool") and his weaknesses (Carlos again, telling us that Bowie is a pseudo intellectual), while fans like Patti Brett paint a very human picture of a superstar not above worrying whether the fans stationed in the cold outside the Sigma Studios were warm enough and had enough food.
Carlos Alomar turns out to be a gem by not pulling his punches, calling Defries "a nigger" and saying "there was no doubt he was a total fuck." Among other things, Alomar offers valuable new insight into his rivalry with Earl Slick, and the recording of the Station to Station, an album many consider Bowie's masterpiece (recorded during a period Bowie is particularly at a loss to remember).
Although Buckley's academic credentials are impeccable (he is literally a Doctor in Bowie), don't make the mistake of thinking this is some dull "pseudo intellectual" doctoral thesis that serves as a nice cure for insomnia. Although the book has an intellectual depth that others can only aspire to, Buckley has a gift for making it all sound so simple, explaining it in a way that it all makes immediate sense. The book is also a gripping read. I started reading this with my work schedule at its craziest, and decided in advance that by devoting every available spare moment to reading it (yes, people, lavatory breaks were involved), I'd get through it in two weeks. In fact, I ended up reading the whole thing in two days and one sleepless night, because I couldn't put it down.
This is the Bowie book nobody with even a passing interest in reading about Bowie can afford not to read. If you read only one Bowie book ever, this should be it. If you read every Bowie book that ever was or ever will be published, then I think you'll end up agreeing that this is the giant in the land of the little-minded men.
Strange Fascination is the Bowie book that makes the others look like dead end streets.
Bowienet members (or subscribers to Bonster's excellent free For The Lazy And Web-Impaired fan newsletter) may have noticed that Bowie himself has responded, rather astoundingly, in public to this book on Bowienet on September 10th in a remarkable diatribe that combines Internet shouting with the bitter word to complain of factual inaccuracies in the book and false claims in a press release from the publishers (as well, most amusingly, of spelling mistakes in the press release, while perversely including a spelling mistake or two of his own in his statement). I say astoundingly because Bowie's stock reaction down the years has been to express total indifference to books about him and say he never reads them. Maybe it's not so astounding that even Bowie himself couldn't restrain himself from reading this most eagerly anticipated of books. Staggeringly however, he complains of factual inaccuracies? Eh? Pardon me Dave? Did you just say "factual inaccuracies"? Since when did you ever get all hot under the collar over a few factual inaccuracies? Are you becoming a train-spotter all of a sudden?
While it does raise the not unappealing prospect of an angry red-faced Dave calling round my house some day to complain that the figures I have for Latvia in my latest Chartwatch are factually inaccurate, it is rather remarkable that on this unique occasion, Bowie seems upset by a few factual inaccuracies. While I have no doubt that there must indeed be a few factual inaccuracies lurking within the 500 plus pages of Strange Fascination, perhaps even relating to the exact minute of the birth of David Robert Jones and so on, does this mean that since he has never complained till now, we can assume that all other books on our Hero are all impeccably accurate, including Angie's lurid "tell alls" and Tremlett's "I met someone who knew him for 5 minutes twenty years ago - that's a chapter" and Sandford's "never met the chap, don't like his music, but a quick witty rehash of the 'facts' from other bios is just the ticket" efforts? Hell, even the US liner notes specially commissioned for "Best Of 69/74" probably contained more factual inaccuracies in seven short pages than Strange Facination does in 500 long ones, yet this somehow escaped the attention of Bowie, Isolar and Virgin until it was widely commented on by fans (at which point the offending liner notes were ignominiously whisked from the compilation).
It seems bizarre to say the least that a man who freely admits that whole portions of his life are no longer available to his memory, who has delighted in subverting the facts and creating modern mythology around himself and who has always feigned indifference and been above the petty concerns of trainspotters should suddenly take umbrage at a few factual inaccuracies (and if this is the core problem, then wouldn't Bowie have been better off correcting these politely before publication, in light of the fact that he proudly tells us that while "I have been sent this blessed book at least four times in different stages over the last few years. I have at no time commented, replied to Buckley or his publisher").
Since Bowie apparently has no interest in writing an autobiography, nor in an authorised biography written with Bowie's full cooperation and help by someone of Buckley's calibre, Strange Fascination is not just the best we've got to date - it's the best Bowie book we're ever likely to get.
When you have a subject that resolutely refuses to stick to the facts on grounds of principle, that prefers an interesting fiction to a dull fact, that routinely presents multiple versions of every event, recollection and memory, that hides behind a screen of affability, good humour and witty one liners in interviews, a subject that refuses to cooperate on any level with any biographer and leaves the biographer therefore to make do with third party recollections and impressions, then the task for a biographer to produce a major biography free of factual inaccuracies is virtually impossible
I can only presume that Bowie's discomfort on this occasion has less to do with the few factual inaccuracies and more to do with his general unease with the whole idea of having his life reduced to a phrase, a page or even 500 pages, coupled with the fact that Strange Fascination gets closer to the point than any book before. This IS the definitive Bowie biography, and it's natural that Bowie should feel a little discomfort at having his life defined.
While it may make him itchy in his skin for a little while, hopefully Bowie will come to realise that this is not a book which limits him or ties down his life's work, but one which celebrates all that he has already done and achieved, one that chronicles the profound and positive impact he has had on millions of people, and even more so, one than enriches his fans. Strange Fascination is not the sum of his life, only the summary so far - the best summary we'll ever get. It's a book that does Bowie and his fans great service, and one that explains to others what it is we see in this most remarkable of men and the incomparable music his genius has enriched all our lives with.
This review covers the revised 2000 paperback edition.
David Buckley's cultural biography of Bowie is now available in a new extended version on paperback. My overall view on the book has not changed since I wrote my original review, so I'll try not to repeat what I already said there. In the absence of an autobiography by the man himself (or a biography authorised by him), this is easily the best Bowie biography currently in existence, the one that should be the one you buy if you buy only one.
For those who already have the hardback, I suppose the question that matters most is "Do the bonus tracks make it worth buying all over again?". Happily the new material is well worth the price of admission on its own. Rather than merely tacking on a few extra pages to cover the period since the hardback was completed, Buckley has with characteristic vigour done the rounds again and received new input from the major collaborators, most notably Reeves Gabrels, Mark Plati and Mike Garson. The last chapter has been extensively reworked and extended to 70 pages to cover the events of the last 2 years. The most notable of these are the recording and release of Hours, and the departure of Reeves Gabrels. These two events are seen to be interlinked, as Reeves explains the artistic differences that had been building and came to a head on Hours that prompted his decision that it was time to move on. He and Mark Plati shed much light on the recording of Hours. Among other things, it is revealed that Bowie originally wanted TLC to sing on Thursday's Child, but Reeves wasn't into this idea at all. Buckley has been lucky (and capitalised on that luck) that although the amount of time that has passed since the hardback is not great, one event of seismic importance happened during it, and Reeves' departure has apparently freed him up to talk more frankly about his years with Bowie and why they came to an end.
Buckley has also written a new preface, and the appendices and index have been updated to ensure that the paperback seamlessly comes right up to date. Included in the wealth of new material are some trademark well thought out Buckley opinions, communicated with characteristic persuasiveness.
The only real flaw I can point to in the book is one it shares with all Bowie biographies and one which despite Buckley's best efforts he can do nothing about - this is just one side of the story. Once again, Bowie has refused to cooperate, so while his collaborators are happy to give their side of the story, we don't hear from Bowie himself (other than what he has already revealed in interviews). Thus, the nagging doubts that creep in as you listen to yet another ex-sideman explaining how he actually wrote this or that and you try to tally it up with their lacklustre non-Bowie work are left hanging there, unanswered by the one man who could definitively answer them. While I have no doubt that many of Bowie's past collaborators played a vital part in their collaborations, in most cases you have only to listen to their largely undistinguished solo work (or non-Bowie work with others) to see whose contributions were the most vital.
In conclusion, this book is a very welcome update on the hardback version bringing us bang up to date that also whets the appetite for future updates from the good Doctor. Buckley writes at one point "Bowie is now not only parodying himself, but he's pastiching the artistes who parody his work! Some critics would call this post-modern, others would say it bespeaks a muse in need of new stimulation, or a man bewitched by his own past endeavours. The next decade of Bowie's career will reveal which of these assessments is true." As ever with Bowie, the man behind the artist remains elusive, and the jury is out. Hopefully, David Buckley will be there to update this book and tell us how, why and where it went.