University of Texas Press, 168 pages, $21.95
Right at the start of this delightful little tome by authors María Hesse and Fran Ruiz, it’s clear that it’s not a biography of British rocker David Bowie, although it is a chronological retelling of his life. And although it’s written in the first person, it’s not an autobiography, because Bowie didn’t actually write it.
Bowie: An Illustrated Life is more along the lines of a fictionalized memoir, told through pithy anecdotes and augmented by a plethora of provocative drawings (one on nearly every page). It’s rooted in fact but heavily embellished. It isn’t likely, for instance, that Bowie grew up next door to an alien named Z, who is described by the authors’ eponymous hero as “the first talisman that protected me from the existential void.” Also suspect is the idea that Bowie’s left pupil became permanently dilated in 1962 because he was hit by a meteor. In the book’s explanation of the real-life condition (Bowie’s pupil was indeed permanently dilated), a young Bowie — still known by his birth name, David Jones — was perched on the roof of his house with his friend George Underwood one night, looking up at the stars, when a star came down and struck him in the eye. “We made up a silly story about him punching me for having stolen his girlfriend,” Bowie says in the book, expecting that the “truth” would not be believed. Here is an instance where the authors reject a factual circumstance without abandoning it entirely. A jealous Underwood, the real-life Bowie said, actually did punch him in the face, the end result of which was his curiously mismatched eyes. So what exactly are these authors up to, turning facts into fictions and fictions into facts? The truth is there, but so is fancy, blended into a frothy mixture of things that really happened and things that didn’t but that we have no trouble accepting — maybe because we want to believe them and thereby keep Bowie’s mythic image alive.
“Bowie was a master of artifice and of masking,” Hesse and Ruiz write in their introduction, in recognition of the musician’s many public personas, including the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust. “To tell this story, we decided to use the same lens.” If you’re going to suspend your disbelief and entertain the notion that a starman named Z served as benefactor to anyone, Bowie — with his sci-fi-infused rock and pretense of an alien nature — seems a likely candidate.
The book starts with a brief timeline, written in the authors’ version of the singer’s own words. “I arrive on planet Earth in 1947,” they write. “The Joneses, a cold and formal family, welcome me into their arms and raise me on the outskirts of London.”
The timeline covers the major events in Bowie’s life, such as his 1970 marriage to Angie Barnett (with whom he had an open relationship and sometimes shared lovers), their divorce in 1980, the release of Let’s Dance in 1983 (which became his best-selling album up to that point), the suicide of his schizophrenic half-brother Terry Burns in 1985, his marriage to Somali-American fashion model Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid in 1992, and more. The rest of the book fills in all the gaps between these events, engaging the reader, here and there, with Bowie’s necessarily speculative self-evaluations.
It’s a struggle to hear the words in the voice of the real Bowie. Something about the frankness of his confessions here, and the easy manner in which he tells his story, seems antithetical to the real-life figure, who always struck this reviewer as shy and reticent when it came to matters of a personal nature. Few knew that he was dying in the midst of recording his final album Blackstar, for instance. The album was released two days before his death on Jan. 10, 2016. His longtime producer, Tony Visconti, revealed afterward that Bowie, knowing his condition was terminal, produced the album as his swan song, as a parting gift for fans, and the timing of its release was meant to coincide with his death. That he was suffering from late-stage cancer when he recorded it, was a closely guarded secret. The persona created for him in Bowie: An Illustrated Life, on the other hand, states his feelings about his impending death plainly, and for anyone to read: “The dark haze was no longer hidden; it was everywhere. In spite of the fear and sadness that overtook me, I would face this last test looking forward.” The real Bowie, by contrast, was more likely to pour such feelings into an enigmatic song.
But in its more fantastical passages, which are the product of Hesse’s and Ruiz’s imaginations, it pulls in elements straight out of the realms of science fiction and fantasy.
Take one passage that describes what happened on the eve of his attention-grabbing statement that he was gay “and always have been,” which he made during an interview with Melody Maker magazine in 1972. The authors write that he had this dream in which a thin, red-haired figure with a penetrating gaze and catlike movements said to him, “I have come so that your people can understand their place in the cosmos. You’re nothing but repressed prudes. Your feelings and desires frighten you, like everyone of your species, but I’m going to change that forever. I haven’t come to make you good people or pure people, my lad, I have come to blow your minds. And you will be my emissary.”
This is a rather fanciful origin story for the birth of the first persona to launch Bowie into international stardom. At some point, we can surmise, the real Bowie must have come face-to-face with the outer-space alter ego he became onstage — the one who spoke to the outsiders, the “rock ’n’ roll suicides,” in the guise of cosmic sex personified.
“David Bowie stopped mattering,” the character says in An Illustrated Life, “as I became the receptacle of that beautiful bisexual alien, Ziggy Stardust.” It probably didn’t really happen in the way described, but does that really matter? It happened.
The illustrations are cutesy, like something you’d find in a children’s book, but they’re aimed at an adult audience. Some of them are racy, like the one showing him performing oral sex on Mick Ronson, guitarist for his band, The Spiders From Mars. They’re crude drawings, not highly detailed, capturing the rudiments of human figures’ features in a bare minimum style. Many of them are recognizable because they’re based on well-known photographs, like the “poor Yorick” moment that took place on Bowie’s 1974 Diamond Dogs tour. He’s onstage, bedecked in sunglasses, a cape draped over his shoulders, holding a human skull in one hand and his mic in the other, singing to the skull. Others are even more iconic, such as Bowie wearing his famous lightning-bolt makeup for the cover of the 1973 album Aladdin Sane; the profile used for the cover of the 1976 album Low; and Bowie outside K. West, a furrier’s shop on London’s Heddon Street, on the cover of 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Even the album covers, listed in a discography, are rendered in the quirky, cartoonish style that fills the rest of the book.
Several drawings depict Bowie with a gaping wound in his chest, revealing his heart, with branching vines reaching in or out, seeking someone to connect to. These are a nice visual analog to the story of a man whose lyrics often professed a deep, abiding love for humanity, even for those on the fringe — the cruisers looking for a quick hookup, the addicts looking for a quick fix. He used to sing:
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody
I never thought I’d need so many people...
Bowie: An Illustrated Life is not the first word on Bowie, and it’s doubtful that it will be the last. At 168 pages, much of that taken up by its 129 color illustrations, it’s easy to devour in a single sitting, making it more a creative introduction than an authoritative, essential work. That doesn’t stop it from being pleasurable.