LOOKING FOR DAVID
As a form history, the oral biography has the capacity to be more honest than others, and the lack of subjectivity employed by the editor should enable the truth to shine through. But then, who ever remembers an event in precisely the same way?
Five hundred or so pages to try and outline a life – the existence of David Robert Jones. A desperate attempt to begin with, perhaps, as the individual in question has too odd, complex and stratified a personality – are we talking about the artist, the performer, the rockstar, or David Bowie the human being? Dylan Jones is just 12 years old in 1972 when he, gazing at the alien on his black and white TV screen, is struck by the broadcasting of Starman on TOTP. The British journalist and editor, despite having had the privilege to cross paths, professionally and otherwise, with the object of his obsession, for this biography takes a step back and produces an oral biography. At the centre of it are 182 direct testimonies in the words of relatives, friends, collaborators, colleagues, producers, directors, lovers, promoters, fans, journalists, writers, photographers, designers… from 1947 to 2016, bound together only by a few lines that the author intersperses here and there, and by the very words of our ‘action man’, drawn from at least seven interviews carried out by Dylan Jones personally. Jones’s writing is both brilliant and acute. It is sincere while at the same time trying to remain as objective and rigorous as possible. Shame, though, that one can only read more extensive passages peened directly by him in the preface and introduction, where Jones recounts his deep passion as a fan which then ends up blending in with his career as someone in the business. An example? The tale of his participation to the opening of Bowie/Collector at Sotheby’s, when at the Gala dinner he, like all other 99 ultra-specially selected guests, is regaled with one of the hundred books on Bowie’s must-read list. A last joke of David’s? Jones mentions that one could feel David’s presence in the objects from his personal collection that were hanging on the walls: Like he never left. The whole life is here. A LIFE is a precious collection of witnesses, some in part already known and published, but accompanied by a significant number of previously unpublished contributions and offered exclusively by the author. He is fully conscious of the limitations of this publication. He knows full well that it is impossible to verify declarations made by figures such as come John Lennon, Tony Scott, Mick Ronson, Luther Vandross…, who are no longer with us, and that it is near nigh impossible to make pronouncements on the objectivity of so high a number of people. Each and every time, a different, multi-faceted David emerges, as prismatic as our very own reality can be. For example, different long term collaborators happen to give virtually opposite accounts. And yet, everyone agrees on his talent, his uniqueness, and the charm of a man who wanted, above being a singer, to be an artist – a person who, in the arc of a highly unusual life – and one not devoid of mistakes, weaknesses and inconsistencies at that – undertook innumerable artistic journeys with great curiosity and passion.
In these 13 chapters there is no dearth of anecdotes, amusing tales and thought-provoking accounts, all the more so from unexpected sources (Paul Mc Cartney, Martin Scorsese, Francis Whately, Baz Luhrmann…).
Referring to his hero, the word Dylan Jones most frequently uses is fascinating – this might well be the best term to summarise the contributors’ collective opinion on Bowie and his work, despite a few discordant voices and others which simply also highlight our man’s weakest output. This biography is inevitably based towards the 70s, which take up over half of the book, but the scandalous aspects that some press have recently attributed to it are almost entirely absent. In the first 150 pages, perhaps, we do find the odd reference to the disinhibited behaviour of the young rocker, but it is, in any case, always fully contextualised. What I personally found most intriguing (despite the few omissions) was the second part of the singer’s career. There are numerous, engaging accounts: the experimentation of the 90s, something about what happened in media silence period, the enthusiasm for his return, a few secrets about David Bowie Is… , the intensity of the final masterpiece, the moving tributes about his loss… Like I said, it impossible to comprehend an artist like David Bowie fully, and even more so to capture the essence of a man who hid behind masks and his public persona. After fascinating, therefore, the keyword is mysterious. Each one of the interviewers has seen and witnessed their very own David Bowie, and keeps a memory that is totally, utterly personal and partial within – much like the view that we, the fans, have of Bowie the artist. The cover photo of A LIFE, therefore, is perfect. It is perfect because it symbolises what we can, at most, aspire to know about the real David. Turned slightly to one side, a 3/4 profile, his face partly out of view, he gazes into our eyes with an enigmatic expression. A sphynx, perpetuating his riddles through time.
Matteo Tonolli (translation by Sara Captain)