Reviewed by Angela Marie
Ziggy played guitar.
And then he stopped.
And the music world bowed its collective head in grief and shock. A bright and shining star extinguished.
The royal chameleon of rock transformed and taken away too soon. His creative spark still exploding in Black Star, his final offering.
It is not the purpose of A Portrait of Bowie, curated by Brian Hiatt, to ponder on how many musicians Bowie influenced, though he did indeed. Or how he shaped theatrical possibilities in fashion, food and art, though his influence in these areas spawned cult in popular culture. Examine the index. It is a veritable who’s who of musicians, artists and designers. And music, art and design.
This tome is a heart-felt reflection by those who knew the man, not The Man Who Fell to Earth or The Thin White Duke or Ziggy Stardust or Major Tom or Jareth the Goblin King as wondrous as those personae were. And even to those close, Bowie remained an enigma. Drummer Zack Alford, who toured and recorded extensively with Bowie, shared, “…he was just fine in his life. But that was just the part I saw…He was non-stop, so you feel like the David you knew was just the little piece of David he showed you.”
A Portrait of Bowie is abundant with tales of the dualities of Bowie. Superstar producer and musician Nile Rodgers recalls waiting in a bar for an arranged meeting with Bowie where neither recognised the other. They were dressed appropriately for the venue and quite differently to their meeting a scant week or so before. “”So I walked over to the only Bowie-looking-like kinda guy there and it was David and he recognized it was me, and we started cracking up… it was beautiful because it showed his character, this was the real human being that was inside that flesh.”
A Portrait of Bowie is more than a collection of dialogues. There is no sugar coating, although the intensity of feeling towards and commitment to this man makes powerful reading. To state that there was respect, awe, amazement, and gratitude towards him underplays the relationships that David shared and maintained with others. And this was not a one-way street. He was generous in collaborating and acknowledging. Consider his mission to reignite the career of Iggy Pop. The 2016 Carnegie Hall tribute to Bowie had been long in the planning without awareness of Bowie’s failing health and was announced mere hours before he passed.
Appropriately the first interview is with George Underwood. As nine-year-olds, they met whilst enrolling in Cub Scouts. The conversation steered straight to their shared love of skiffle, a somewhat precursor of punk. They formed and infiltrated numerous bands. Although it was George who gave the then-named David Jones his unusual eye appearance courtesy of an angry punch, their friendship endured. A continuous link. Some sixty years later they traded emails and reflected on ageing.
A Portrait of Bowie continues in a chronological fashion, some names immediately identifiable, some familiar and some, to this reader, unknown. The beauty of the format is that, for the Bowie fan, accounts and comments are first hand or second, and paint vivid pictures. In her role as choreographer, Toni Basil recollects the opening night of a tour where half the audience dressed as Ziggy. The surprise was that Bowie had reinvented himself which would become stock standard. On musing of a Bowie show, Debbie Harry relates, “It was a big event for everyone in the downtown music scene…It was more than just music, there was a social aspect. People came together around him, I think.” This is an oft-repeated message. Established artists recalled their contemporaries expressing disappointment to them for working with the unproved Bowie. We see the tangled web and hierarchy of the music scene.
The book is rich. With intimate recollections that span the Atlantic. Musicians Carlos Alomar, Mike Garson and Earl Slick. Artists Derek Boshier and Stephen Finer. And more. Cyndi Lauper regretting the times she could have told Bowie the impact he had on her life but didn’t.
What stories could John Lennon, Freddie Mercury and Marc Bolan have told? Rich with photographs; some iconic, some promotional and some home snaps. And portraiture revealing the many sides of the man. The photographs show a person comfortable in his own skin and confident in disguise.
A Portrait of Bowie is a book on the enduring legacies of friendship, collaboration and mutual respect. It is also a lesson on life for the reader and a reminder on life’s changes and impermanence. There is a common thread throughout the book. A private man, David Bowie did not share his illness with many outside of his family. After his passing, time and again, his friends realised that the emails and notes he sent were saying goodbye. As Bowie sang, “Time may change me, But I can’t trace time.”
It would take many more volumes to reflect on the artistry and the demons of David Bowie and A Portrait of Bowie can only touch on that. He was a modern poet, the beat poet of his generation. He grabbed idioms, adages, phrases and children’s chants and interspersed these with prophetic observation and eloquent language. He took simple messages from casual conversations and refashioned these into songs that challenged us to think about life, love and others. “I’m happy. Hope you’re happy too.” He played with words in a serious way. We read that his persona Aladdin Sane was a nod, a lad insane, to his brother who suffered from schizophrenia. We read and our fascination in the man continues to grow.
Zack Alford frames an observation made by many. “He was so damn smart… this guy…could walk into any college and give a lecture on a number of subjects – art history, Eastern European politics, or whatever…He (Bowie)said, “I was never a rock star.” He just wanted to use rock as a medium to communicate.”
The bard asked shall I compare thee?
My answer. There is no comparison. Ziggy played HIS guitar. Excellent reading.
Brian Hiatt is a New York-based senior writer at Rolling Stone, having written over fifty cover stories for the magazine. In addition he hosts the Rolling Stone Music Now radio show and podcast. His extensive knowledge, connections and understanding of the music industry has given him the credentials to deliver a powerful and lasting salute to the genius of David Bowie. A Portrait of Bowie is both an interesting coffee table book and an historical journey.
A Portrait of Bowie
A Tribute to Bowie by his Artistic Collaborators & Contemporaries
By Brian Hiatt