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David Bowie: the boy who never gave up

Will Brooker, a professor of film and cultural studies, explains why Bowie matters — as an inspirational example of an ordinary boy who kept on keeping on

11 January 2020

9:00 AM

11 January 2020

9:00 AM

Why Bowie Matters Will Brooker

William Collins, pp.308, £12.99

Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie Chris O’Leary

Repeater, pp.705, £20

Bowie’s Books: The Hundred Literary Heroes Who Changed His Life John O’Connell

Bloomsbury, pp.263, £16.99

A few years ago Will Brooker spent 12 months pretending to be David Bowie. For several weeks he dressed up as Ziggy Stardust (gold bindi, maroon mullet, jumpsuit run up from old curtains), then as Aladdin Sane (blue and red lightning slash daubed across face), then as the Thin White Duke (black waistcoat, black eyeliner, slicked-back hair). And so on, right through every satin-and-tat get-up of Bowie’s long career. What larks!

And yet. I don’t know whether Brooker had his mother in a whirl, but he certainly had some of us wondering what was going on in the groves of academe. Did I mention that these wardrobe antics were part of a research project? That Brooker is professor of film and cultural studies at Kingston University? That he has also written books on Batman and Blade Runner and Star Wars?

But don’t reach for the black cap just yet. Wide-ranging and closely argued, this book is one of the best Bowie has yet had. Brooker may lard his prose with post-structuralist name-drops — Jameson, Deleuze, Guattari, the gang’s all here; so too are Joyce, Yeats and even Philip Larkin (what would he have made of Blackstar’s ‘cobra-coaxing cacophonies’?) — but not once do they seem pressed into service. To be sure, Brooker occasionally overstates his case. When he remarks of Bowie’s death that ‘he stepped aside so we could take his place and bravely cry’, the Biblical parallels are ludicrous. But in the main he has the measure of his man.

He starts, as the young Davy Jones did, in the suburbs. Bowie always called himself a Brixton boy, but though he was born in the inner city his parents were off to leafier Bromley as soon as they could afford it. It is good to be reminded that a mere ten years before Ziggy shocked your mum and dad by draping a limp wrist on Mick Ronson’s shoulder on Top of the Pops Bowie had been just another schoolboy with a ‘wonky grin and a neat haircut’.


Indeed, Brooker argues, there was nothing special about the lad. If he had ambition, so did many of the similarly rock ’n’ roll-addled kids he hung around with. If he had starry fantasies, there were other boys at school who could actually play an instrument. Yet it was Bowie who made it. How come?

Simple, says Brooker. He never gave up. Despite all the setbacks and failures he endured through the1960s — Bowie’s ’prentice years were pretty much a ’prentice decade — he kept on keeping on. He showed us, Brooker says, ‘what an ordinary person can become with enough tenacity and self-belief’.

Well, up to a point. I don’t doubt that sense of purpose, but Brooker of all people ought to know that Bowie’s face was his fortune. He might have tried his best to dress like Bowie, but he was never going to look like him. Bowie, on the other hand, was a preternaturally beautiful young man — ‘The Prettiest Star’, as one of his song titles has it. Little wonder one manager after another eagerly took him, ahem, in hand.

And then there was his talent. Untrained he might have been, but Bowie was an eerily wonderful songsmith. True, he could be portentous. But when he relaxed, his lyrics made modernist fracture — ‘Like to take a cement fix’; ‘And in the death’; ‘Time takes a cigarette’ — masses-friendly. As with words, so with music. You don’t have five number ones and another 20 top ten hits without being able to craft a tune.

But what really counts about Bowie is his harmonies. His chord changes would have startled Bach. Alas, Brooker is so hung up on facepaint and glad rags he has precious little to say about the songs. But if an ‘arpeggiated diminished C# passing chord’ is your thing, do check out Chris O’Leary’s Ashes to Ashes, the second and final volume in a dauntingly learned musicological analysis of the Bowie oeuvre.

Talking of learned, the young Davy Jones left school with a single O level (art). Yet a couple of years before he died the man who once quipped he was ‘responsible for starting a whole new school of pretension’ gave us a list of the 100 books he believed had done most to shape his life. It was a mixed bag, with everything from the predictable — A Clockwork Orange was a big influence on the Ziggy look — to the outré — Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. And on to the absurd: Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, a book nobody has taken seriously since about three weeks after its publication.

In Bowie’s Books, John O’Connell takes us on a tour of this list while fatuously recommending putatively appropriate tracks from the Bowie catalogue. For myself, I can’t see how anyone can read and listen at the same time. Still, were I forced to push my eyes through this book again I think ‘We are the Dead’ might fit the bill.


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