Author David Buckley has spent years chronicling the life and work of David Bowie, in academia and in books such as Strange Fascination: David Bowie, The Definitive Story and The Complete Guide To The Music Of David Bowie. A month on from Bowie’s death, he reflects on his own relationship with the artist, and the outpouring of grief that has consumed fans.
The death of David Bowie, broken to the world on Monday 11 January, was for me and so many others a moment that has defined us culturally. In many an obit, Bowie was dubbed a ‘rock star’, a reductive and insulting epithet because he was much more than that. He was singer, writer, musician, producer, designer, actor, painter, video artist, performer and entrepreneur. He was a friend both to those close to him and to his millions of admirers for whom he represented freedom, adventure and release from convention. It was through him and him alone that I learnt about William Burroughs, Iggy Pop, Kabuki theatre, Nic Roeg, Arcade Fire, Tony Newley and Neu!, just a fraction of the cultural shopping list Bowie gave us. Before the internet, as writer Paul Morley commented, Bowie was a one-man Google search engine.
Bowie always had the cleverest and brightest fans (if you don’t believe me, look at a recent a YouGov survey). Bowie fans always felt special, theirs the biggest cult within popular culture. And with tribute after tribute from journalists, musicians, politicians, and even an astronaut, you might reasonably have thought that Bowie had always been revered. Not so…
Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s I was a PHD student at Liverpool University. Several people looked askance, or just thought I was taking the piss, when I told them I was writing my doctoral dissertation on David Bowie. I was met with sceptical, quizzing looks when I claimed that my main-man was in fact the biggest influence on my (then) young life outside of my family. Taking popular music seriously was largely ridiculed, especially within academia. Using Bowie seemed, to many, implausible. Wasn’t he just a silly shock-mongering poseur, a musical thief with no central emotional core, a charlatan? And, in any case, he was finished wasn’t he?
By the early ’90s Bowie was openly ridiculed. Melody Maker not so much reviewed Tin Machine’s live album, ‘Oy Vey Baby’ as obliterated it and its co-maker: “This is the moment where finally, categorically and, let’s face it, lumpily, he ceases to exist as an artist of any worth whatsoever… It’s not just dying, it’s ensuring that posterity will never know he existed.”
During the course of trying to turn my theses into a book (a task that took the best part of five years), my manuscript was rejected by 19 publishers. Of course, there were various reasons given, and perhaps the writing wasn’t commercial or polished enough, but the background noise was that the real reason was Bowie himself. “I have no interest whatsoever in Bowie,” wrote one editor. “I would have to wait until Bowie himself does something more interesting than he has done in the past five years before I could become suitably enthusiastic,” wrote another.
But by now I had immersed myself in Bowie’s world and there was no way I was going to stop, even though I did feel, at times, a bit like a punch bag. Many of Bowie’s past colleagues (although not all) received my requests for an interview with friendly co-operation. Bowie’s producer in the early Seventies, Ken Scott, and his pianist, Mike Garson, gave me huge chunks of their time and I began piecing together a rather different picture of Bowie than the media had constructed. Garson called Bowie ‘a genius’, while Ken Scott told tales of incredible studio craft where Bowie would sing note-perfect vocals first take. Then there were academic friends and colleagues from across the arts who helped construct the idea of Bowie as a cultural soothsayer, someone whose predictive nous was unrivalled within popular music.
I asked Bowie for an interview. Although none was forthcoming, I knew I was on his radar, even more so after I had been asked to write a consumer’s guide to his work by Chris Charlesworth, the editor at Omnibus Press. I received a call from his UK PR to say Bowie had liked the book. The Complete Guide To The Music Of David Bowie was then updated, twice, as a promotional record label tool to promote ‘Earthling’ and ‘Hours…’. The broadcaster Marc Riley later gave me a copy signed by Bowie himself. I was a very happy space-boy.
By 1998, Virgin Books had secured the rights to my biography, Strange Fascination. Over the Christmas holidays in 1998, David Bowie gave access for me to interview his producer Tony Visconti. Tony and I corresponded at great length via email. It was obvious that both Tony and Bowie were incredibly proud of their legacy, a body of work on which they would later build, and it was the albums ‘Low’ and ‘”Heroes”‘ which emerged as the strongest points for debate. Up until this point, many believed that Bowie was defined by the albums ‘Hunky Dory’ and ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ or, later, ‘Station To Station’, but I could tell that this consensus was being broken down and that it would be that astonishing burst of creativity in France and in Berlin that was moving the locus of Bowie’s defining music.
However, the Bowie World is not altogether a comfortable place to stay for too long. Along with adulation and gratitude came disappointment and resentment, often within the course of one interview. There were tales of monetary disagreements, artistic frustration and interpersonal problems from certain ex-musicians and friends, tales from the inner circle that I felt obliged to report faithfully. Having read the manuscript Bowie offered to replace such sections of the book with bespoke sections, something I agreed to. He also agreed to give the book mentions and plugs in interviews. However, a messy and unsatisfactory period of negotiations ensued and Bowie dropped out. It was one of the biggest disappointments in my life. For at least two years I basically stopped playing David Bowie records.
Some part of me was in shock that this opportunity had been thrown away. I later worked on four sets of sleeve notes for David and wrote the press notes for his ‘Best Of Bowie’ and, through various writing commissions from Mojo, I kept in touch with many of his colleagues: Mark Plati, Reeves Gabrels, Carlos Alomar, Paul Buckmaster, Mike Garson, Earl Slick and several more. Andy Morris, a 16-year-old tape-op in in 1973, told me of how Bowie created ‘Diamond Dogs’, and also how Bowie gave him lodgings which included a riotous Christmas party chez Bowie with the Starman himself going round kissing everyone under the mistletoe – girls and boys. When David stopped making music for an entire decade, the world started to seriously wake up to what they had lost. That he came back, briefly, with two brilliant albums, ‘The Next Day’ and ‘Blackstar’, and then disappeared for good, has made his sudden absence almost unbearable.
News of David’s death was brought to me via phone from my nephew Peter. So many of my friends and family were Bowie fans and without their support, and those hundreds of fans I know online, I know I personally would have been even more deeply affected. My editor at Omnibus Press, Chris Charlesworth, called me the Sunday after his death just to chat. He had been Bowie’s press officer at RCA, had published several Bowie books in addition to my own, and was the first British journalist to be interviewed about his death. The tone of his voice that Monday morning echoed how we all felt; grief and shock at his passing, but also wonder at the astonishing contribution Bowie had made. Jeremy Vine quoted a line from Strange Fascination (unattributed) on a BBC tribute, whilst the Independent (again without attribution) quoted another line from my biography on the first page of their coverage: ‘He has permeated and altered more lives than any comparable figure.’ I turned down all interviews the week of his death. I felt it was like being asked to give an interview to the media about the death of a brother. With a neat, if macabre, symmetry, David had died on the second anniversary of the twin funeral of my parents. January 10th is certainly a day that should never be forgotten. Public Bank Holiday anyone? January 10th should always be ‘Bowie Day.’