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June 1, 2015

Book Notes - Sean Egan "Bowie on Bowie"

Bowie on Bowie

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Bowie on Bowie's collection of unedited interviews serves as a surprising and insightful portrait of David Bowie in his own words.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"[T]his is a fascinating journey through the mind of a musician many people claim to "know" but who proves time and again that his own essence is often foreign to himself. An asset for Bowie fans."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Sean Egan's Book Notes music playlist for the book he edited, Bowie on Bowie: Interviews and Encounters with David Bowie:


In a Bowie on Bowie chapter containing a 1978 Melody Maker interview, Bowie speaks of his production work for other artists. "I guess it’s because there is still a lot of fan in me," he says. "I would love to be responsible for helping somebody. I think that’s great for my ego."

When he and Mick Ronson began producing artists they admired with the object of advancing those artists' careers, Bowie was mildly famous and had been since his 1969 hit 'Space Oddity'. However, it was still slightly prior to Bowie's breakout with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars. As he proceeded to become the biggest star in Britain, recipients of Bowie's production services like Reed, Iggy Pop and Mott the Hoople were carried along in his glittering slipstream. In another interview in the book, Bowie agrees with the proposition, "Lou Reed was to you as Chuck Berry was to the Stones." It therefore seems safe to conclude that Bowie took the greatest satisfaction from "helping somebody" from the success of the Lou Reed album Transformer (1972).

Lou Reed's second album didn't mean much to many Americans until Reed's death propelled Morrissey's cover of its track 'Satellite of Love' to the top of the US charts in 2014, but it was a significant entry in early-Seventies UK pop culture.

Although artistically uneven, Transformer made Reed a star where endless classic Velvet Underground records had failed to. It bequeathed a top-ten single in 'Walk on the Wild Side'. Despite the BBC's traditional stuffiness (just a decade hence they would instruct their DJs to refer to Marvin Gaye's single '(Sexual) Healing' only by its second word), with the Reed single they allowed over their decorous airwaves a record which explicitly mentioned "giving head." This was down to another BBC tradition: lack of cool. Nobody in its upper echelons knew what "giving head" meant.

A quarter-century after Transformer's release came a mass various-artists rendition of 'Perfect Day', its beautiful paean to love or heroin (depending on which story you believe). Already made famous by its use in movie Trainspotting, it soared to number one in the UK.

Another legacy of the album was the name Sid Vicious. The Sex Pistol bassist was thus anointed because his mates – including Johnny Rotten – thought him a "weed" who reminded them of the line from Transformer's opening track, "Vicious, you hit me with a flower…"

"The Jean Genie"

When the current writer was at school, on the last day of a term, kids were allowed to take in discs to play on the school record player. Neil Bannister brought 'The Jean Genie', Bowie's hit from several years previously. As its pounding rhythm and staccato chorus played, one boy remarked in distaste "He's a bisexual, isn't he?" "Oh, you're quick," said another in contempt.

The moment was symptomatic of the undermining of prejudices and assumptions engendered by an interview given by Bowie to Melody Maker in early 1972, which forms Bowie on Bowie's second chapter. "I’m gay," he told journalist Michael Watts, "and always have been…" Record-buying youth initially responded with the same revulsion as their parents, then performed a somersault when they gleefully realised that being a fan of Bowie was something with which they could shock their elders, ever the wont of the young. Kids and young people who had no problem denouncing "queers" didn't let Bowie's proclamation get in the way of idolising him.

Homosexuality had only been decriminalised in the UK five years before Bowie's announcement, but he was helping fashion a new libertarian era – literally changing the world. That he seems to have exaggerated the extent of his alternative sexual leanings doesn't detract too much from either his gesture or achievement.

"The Laughing Gnome"

In several places in Bowie on Bowie, interviewers bring up Bowie's 1967 debut single 'The Laughing Gnome'. "I’d have written ten Laughing Gnomes, not just one," Bowie laughingly replies to one journalist when asked what would have happened to him if any of his early singles had been huge hits. To another, he reveals that his visits to Greenwich Village record store Bleecker Bob’s result in the staff trying to embarrass him by playing 'The Laughing Gnome'. To another he quips, "I really could have produced a new sensibility for the garden gnome in Britain."

'The Laughing Gnome' was a whimsical song about being stalked by one of the little people, complete with helium-gas vocal effects. It had long become a piece of embarrassing juvenilia when a re-release in 1973 sent it to number six in the UK charts. Bowie, though, could afford to be a good sport about it. In 1973, 'Life on Mars', Bowie's epic, orchestrated cry of despair at human folly from his 1971 album Hunky Dory, also became a belated UK hit, going three places higher than 'The Laughing Gnome'. The reason the UK charts were filling up with blasts from Bowie's past, both sublime and ridiculous, was simply because, in the wake of Ziggy Stardust, he was the pop phenomenon of the age.

The pattern of belated hits continued in 1975 when – apropos of nothing – 'Space Oddity' was reissued and got to number one, four places higher than it had managed in 1969, when its use on the BBC's coverage of the moon landings gave it the type of exposure money can't buy.

"Ashes to Ashes"

"Consider the more positive aspects of post-modernism. I hope we get bored with the ironic stance it continually takes, because one of the better things about it is that it seems so willing to embrace ALL styles and attitudes . . .”

Bowie is talking about painting in a 1995 interview (chapter 20). Some might raise an eyebrow at his words. Bowie has always exulted in irony, his records and – particularly – image tipping the consumer a wink that he and they both understand they are playing pre-assigned roles. No more so than with 'Ashes to Ashes'.

When the lead-off single to Bowie's Scary Monsters album topped the UK chart in 1980, Bowie had been a superstar for more than a decade. It's astonishing, then, to realise that – the re-released 'Space Oddity' aside – it was his first number one in his home country. 'Ashes to Ashes' took his post-modernism to the nth degree. Firstly, this sequel to 'Space Oddity' disassembled the character introduced in that record, startlingly revealing that spaceman Major Tom was a junkie. The single's video included a bevy of characters from the Blitz/New Romantic scene, which happened to owe almost its entire dandyish/androgynous stripe to Bowie's various public personas. Capping all this archness was the hilarious moment in the record's vocal where Bowie deadpanned a "whoa-oh-oh-ah" in a call-and-response with himself.

"It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City"

One of the most surprising sections of Bowie on Bowie is an eyewitness recounting by journalist Mike McGrath of a 1974 recording session involving Bowie and Bruce Springsteen. That's right: the chameleon king of artifice and flash once collaborated with the artist defined by his authenticity and grunginess. The occasion was Bowie's recording of Springsteen's composition 'It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City', a song that had been a highlight of The Boss' debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973).

Bowie's version of Springsteen's lamentation on the exigencies of urban life would not be released until 1989, but the choice of cover does rather demonstrate that Bowie is not the otherworldly figure so often assumed. In another of the book's interviews, he becries his "middle-classness", although many would dispute even that self-deprecating acknowledgment of an unremarkable hinterland. His father was a promotions officer for the children’s charity Dr. Barnardo’s and his mother a cinema usherette – hardly a quintessentially bourgeois vista. He attended a state school alongside the children of the unskilled. Moreover, his Estuary English (or "cockney" as it's more widely, if inaccurately, termed) has remained miraculously intact despite his steadily developing intellect and cultural sophistication. Whisper it lightly, but David Bowie is no less a working-class hero than Bruce Springsteen.

Sean Egan and Bowie on Bowie: Interviews and Encounters with David Bowie links:

the book's page at the publisher

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
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Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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