A snap-shot of Dylan Jones's Instagram Page
Award-winning writer and editor, Dylan Jones OBE has probably spent more time in the company of David Bowie than any other culture journalist. He has met ‘David’, as he calls him, tens of times and interviewed the ‘Starman’ nearly as many; and when Penguin decided to commission a book about the artist’s life, following Bowie’s death in 2016, Jones couldn’t bear for anyone else to do it. Consequently the oral history he compiled, David Bowie: A Life, is mind-blowingly comprehensive – a neatly narrated and curated collection of 180 interviews with friends, collaborators, and lovers, running to 510 pages. Jones’ 23rd book is a revelatory account, and one which takes you as close to the true nature of Bowie’s character as you are ever going to get.
Even though he had published a work on Bowie’s early ‘Ziggy’ years, When Ziggy Played Guitar: David Bowie and Four Minutes that Shook the World, back in 2012, the GQ Editor was apprehensive about this more biographical project. He worried that the research process might stifle his love for the man he had spent much of his life in awe of. ‘If you spend a long time building a profile of someone, you can often end up liking the person less because you know their foibles and warts,’ he says. But fortunately for Jones (and Bowie) the process had the reverse effect.
The GQ editor uses familiar words like ‘curious’, ‘upbeat’ and ‘intelligent’ to praise the Brit from Brixton when we speak to him, but he also alludes to an unusually intimate understanding of the star. ‘He was incredibly, kind, smart, loving, and strategic,’ he says, ‘he was a very good friend to those that had known him since childhood and was a pretty decent human being.’ It’s quite the glowing report.
But wasn’t Bowie a ruthlessly ambitious showman, prepared to step over anyone to achieve success? Well yes, and that’s where Jones’s use of the word ‘strategic’ comes in. The book includes many accounts of Bowie dropping people, including an anecdote from the artist’s former lover and landlady Mary Finnegan (‘he wasn’t above being expedient’, says Jones). During a two-year relationship, the pair organised a festival and even started the Beckenham Arts Club together. Then, at a Ziggy concert after party in 1972, Bowie literally (and metaphorically) shut the door on their relationship, saying the words ‘Mary Finnegan, it has been fantastic knowing you,’ as he left her outside on the street. Jones admits to hearing many similar accounts but suggests that people didn’t mind being dumped by Bowie, as the chance to know him at all was enough.
‘He was an arch manipulator,’ admits Jones. ‘He sucked the best out of people – he was vampiric in that sense, but actually I see him like a great football manager. He surrounded himself with really great people for certain projects then moved on.’ Jones doesn’t see Bowie’s manipulative side as problematic. In fact, Bowie’s maneuvering impresses his biographer, as it demonstrates the artist’s admirable ability for survival through reinvention.
‘The relentless way he [Bowie] pursued fame was fascinating,’ says Jones, who goes on to outline how Bowie struggled for ten years to become famous, before finding a winning formula. His Ziggy Stardust persona then catapulting him into the limelight. But, regardless of this success, Bowie decided to keep evolving, to keep pushing the envelope. He took risks. And it is this creative confidence that makes Bowie exceptional in Jones’s eyes: he was always striving to be something different.
‘He is one of the few people who has been involved in the music industry over the last 70 years who can be called a genius,’ declares Jones. It’s a big statement. The world has benefited from a huge pool of musical talent, since the advent of popular music in the 1950s. The Journal wonders where Jones would place Bowie’s contemporaries such as Brian Eno, Prince or Quincey Jones in the genius stakes? And what about his scene changing predecessors: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, the Beatles or even Bruce Stringsteen? ‘There are better song writers, performers, front men, rock groups, producers,’ says Jones, ‘but I don’t think there was anyone who had such a range of abilities, that manifested themselves in such an idiosyncratic way.’ It’s a fair point – the man had a heroic range.
Bowie’s evolving personas – from Ziggy Stardust, through to Major Tom and the Thin White Duke – epitomise both the artist’s idiosyncratic approach and his inventive energy. And his capacity for change altered the trajectory of British pop culture, according to Jones. ‘He was influential to his peers, but he was also influential to my generation who saw him on Top of the Pops in 1972, we were the people who would become photographers, journalists, launch bands and become involved in the broader “Art” scene.’ The message that was reaching this wide range of influencers was that creativity and freedom were achievable. ‘Media was different 45 years ago’, says Jones, ‘all of us who watched Top of the Pops on that summer’s day in 1972 thought David Bowie was pointing at us, when he pointed at the TV screen. It was very powerful.’ It is worth remembering that in 1972 Top of the Pops was watched by 15 million people every week – 25% of the UK population. That’s a lot of impact.
And in person, what was he like? ‘He would size you up, work out what type of person you were, what you wanted to hear, how he could flatter you and best come across and then he would engage you under those guidelines,’ say Jones of his Bowie interviews. ‘He would go out of his way to be entertaining, tell stories,’ – this seems a perfect example of the charm that took Bowie to the top.
It is of course, hard to talk about Bowie the showman without a mention of style and, more specifically, costume. So what of Bowie the fashion icon? ‘He wasn’t a clothes horse or a fashionable person,’ explains Jones of the exhibitionist. ‘He understood the power of fashion, the power of clothes in exactly the same way he understood the power of music, choreography, lighting, stage craft, album and theatrics.’ And each of these aspects came together to present, what Jones stresses, were very, very carefully crafted persona-led performances. It hardly needs saying that the sartorial creations were spectacular; and that many of Bowie’s looks became truly iconic.
Jones is convinced that his interviews have painted an accurate portrait of one of Britain’s greatest pop heroes. ‘The oral history is such an interesting process,’ he concludes, ‘because if you speak to 180 people, and ask them similar questions to build up a portrait of that person, the portrait that appears is largely true.’ The more people Jones interviewed, the more the picture of Bowie’s personality was reinforced. So, if you want to get as close as possible to knowing who this Great British Hero really was, the Journal suggests you add David Bowie: A Life to your library as soon as possible.
‘David Bowie: A Life by Dylan Jones is published in paperback by Windmill. Out 7th June, priced £9.99’