It is a bit disturbing and incomprehensible to consider the fact that, among the many rockers who for a while now have been trying their rather variable luck at writing more-or-less dishonest autobiographies or more-or-less honest works of fiction, it is only David Bowie who never jumped on the bandwagon. Because Bowie was the obvious candidate to do so. Not only was it known that Bowie had always been an enthusiastic reader (the urban legend claims that he went through up to eight books a day, and one of the rooms in the David Bowie is mega-exhibition is dedicated to a distillation of his book collection, and his obituary is known to have included, as a sidebar, a list of his 100 favorite books), but he was also known to be a consummate and highly appreciated “composer” of great characters and personae. With transparent masks such as, among others, Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust, and his self-reflexive Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, and Thin White Duke, he was a sort of MTV Gatsby who would become Nathan Adler under the serious moonlight with Let’s Dance, and eventually even the almost posthumous man who fell to earth again in Lazarus. But with all of this it must also be remembered that, in reality and before anything else, David Bowie had been the first original product of a guy named David Robert Jones.
Few other than himself, and remembering that Bowie also spent years withdrawn from the public eye with plenty of free time, could have told the story of the curves of his work and the straight lines of his existence with such talent and flair. I wonder whether in this voluntary abstention there was something of the shyness of not wanting to put himself up on the bookshelf along with his idols, or more of the arrogance of someone who thought he was above and beyond one of those exhibitionist dalliances produced in exchange for a million-dollar publishing deal. It was probably a bit of both, to which we can surely add a perfect, airtight alibi: Bowie wrote everything he wanted to write in his songs, as perfect stories or albums of fantastic alienation veering towards vintage romanticism, to arrive at even the most experimental and cryptic but without ever departing from the simple, but never frivolous, restlessness of the most immediate, catchiest pop music. Few artists, whether in verse or in prose, have known how to understand and capture the euphoria of discovering love and falling in love (in “Modern Love” or in “Absolute Beginners”), or the intimate but nevertheless historic epic (“Heroes”), or loneliness redeemed by visionary consolation and the good company of the reference-obsessed, or the nostalgia of knowing that one is near the end in the question-marked “Life on Mars?” or in “Where Are We Now?”, where “Walking the Dead” can heard as the great metaphor for trying to remember before resting in peace.
But moreover, and for me, above all else, what makes Bowie a great narrator who transcends the genres are those perfect moments when he interrupts what he is saying, where he enters and leaves and then enters again. These are precious instants where Bowie – with that voice of Bowie and as if he were the most extraterrestrial of the 19th-century greats, explains to the listeners/readers what is happening and what is going to happen.My favorite? Without a doubt, in “Ashes to Ashes ”, when Bowie, self-referential, breaks the narration of a new chapter in his cosmo-yankee saga to give us some sort of warning about “Sordid details following”.
And furthermore, they were, and are, and will continue to be, cool details.
Of all of the Proust Questionnaires that have been published on the last page of Vanity Fair magazine month after month, David Bowie is the only one (writers and intellectuals included) who responds to the question “What is your idea of perfect happiness?” with the simple answer “To read”. Later, asked about the quality he desires the most in a man or a woman, Bowie doesn’t hesitate: “That they give back the books I loaned them”.
Writter and professor of the Master in Literary Creation