Dylan Jones is the Editor-of-Chief of GQ and has written for Face, The Observer, the Sunday Times and The Mail on Sunday. He also happens to have known David Bowie for 30 years. “We weren’t friends, exactly”, he clarified at tonight’s Funzing talk, “but I knew him well and we always exchanged Christmas cards.”
Jones’s new book is called ‘David Bowie: A Life’ and is, he informed us, a labour of love; he’s a lifelong Bowie fan. Having been approached by Penguin to write a memoir just weeks after Bowie’s death, Jones set about interviewing 150 people who’d been close to the singer. This process lasted a full year, while Jones gathered anecdotes based around dinner parties, interviews, recording studios and art galleries.
His intention, Jones says, was to focus on David Bowie the man – not his career. He found writing it “a weird process”, needing to construct a timeline of school, adolescence, Bowie’s early career and his friends & acquaintances. In doing so, he spent a lot of time in Bromley (my old stomping ground!), Beckenham and Brixton, talking to the people who knew David Bowie when he was growing up.
One of the stand-out elements of the book is that it features interviews with people who have never previously talked about their relationship with David Bowie. Only half a dozen or so of the individuals Jones approached refused to speak to him and, in general, his interviewees were generous with their time: Baz Luhrmann, for example, spent three hours on the ‘phone to him.
I was interested to hear that Jones interviewed Angie Bowie, known for her love-hate relationship with the press, who have “demonised” her over the years. Unsurprisingly, she insisted on being paid for her time, but once she and Jones had reached agreement over her remuneration “it was worth it” and Jones ended up liking her, as well as appreciating her “invaluable contribution”.
Many of Jones’s interviewees had amusing stories to share, including Luther Vandross, who sang backing vocals on ‘Young Americans’. During a break from recording, Bowie overheard Vandross singing one of his own compositions and asked him if he could take the song and adapt it. “I told him: You’re David Bowie. I live at home with my mother. You can do whatever you want!”
Only two of the interviewees changed their minds about featuring in the book, one of whom was Tony Defries, a Svengali-like figure widely believed to have ripped Bowie off. Needless to say, Defries refutes this allegation and denies that his relationship with Bowie ended badly. As an interviewee, Jones found him “fascinating”, but never warmed to him – possibly due to Defries’ demand for £240,000 to “co-promote” the book.
During the interview process Jones was struck by how often people forget that Bowie spent over a decade struggling for success. How brave of the singer, then, to dispense of Ziggy Stardust after just 18 months: an early indication of Bowie’s chameleon qualities. He possessed a “genuine creative impulse”, believes Jones – but unlike, say, Madonna or Lady Gaga, his was not calculated.
Each of the musicians and producers with whom Jones spoke had an extraordinary amount of respect for Bowie’s musicianship and how “analytical” he was in the studio, Rick Wakeman commenting that he’s never worked with a better musician. He could be ruthless – yet no one held a grudge against him. Jones describes Bowie as like a “great football manager” who brings in the best possible team to make the best possible record. Never was he callous, although he could be ruthless; rather, he was “focused”.
Likewise, even though Bowie slept with a “phenomenal” number of women during his first flush of fame, to this day none have a bad way to say about him.
I was taken aback by Jones’s assertion that Bowie was not interested in fashion. The performer did, apparently, understand clothes and how important they were, but his private persona tended to be far worse dressed than his public one. Jones remembers him as very casual and not particularly stylish, even less so after he moved to New York.
Was David Bowie a good actor? Even Jones, his most ardent fan, has some doubts on this score, commenting that (like Mick Jagger and Madonna) Bowie was only good in one film, the iconic ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. For his part, Bowie looked upon making movies as a holiday, during which all he had to do was turn up and ask the director “What would you like me to do?”
‘The David Bowie that No One Knew’ was published last summer and was immediately “filleted by the Daily Mail into a kiss ‘n’ tell. This caused huge ructions between Jones and David Bowie’s estate, which threatened to sue him; worse, Jones received a “shitty” email from Bowie’s cousin, who he’d interviewed for the hardback and who was wounded by the critics’ assertion that there was a ‘madness’ gene present within Bowie’s family, (triggered by the fact that his stepbrother committed suicide).
Whilst Jones disagrees with the majority of the critics, he believes that Bowie did, from time to time, ”exploit” the insanity references. That was one of the most interesting things about the talk; whilst Jones is a self-confessed David Bowie “fan boy”, he spoke of him as a human being as flawed as the rest of us who was quite prepared to play the publicity game, rather than some kind of saintly genius.
I shall definitely read this book. Dylan Jones was very clever in that, whilst sharing lots of interesting snippets, he gave away very little of substance – hence my curiosity to find out more. I still can’t believe that I never got to see one of my musical icons perform live – or, indeed, that Bowie is no longer with us. Life is deceptively short, isn’t it?