Saturday, September 3, 2011

SPL Shelf Life [adult]

This review appeared in the Stratford Gazette on September 1st. Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian.

David Bowie: Starman by Paul Trynka

I should preface this review by saying I'm no Bowie superfan. Prior to this biography, I mostly knew of him through his association with Nine Inch Nails in the '90s and his work on the 1997 film Lost Highway's soundtrack. I remember my teenage self thinking “for a guy who seemed so dedicated to spandex in Labyrinth, his music's still pretty fresh.” But, I'm dating myself, and I digress.

What I'm trying to say is, given my fleeting – if appreciative – interest in Bowie, I was surprised I mowed so enthusiastically through a 500 page biography. But I did, and here's why:

Despite it's slightly cheesy title, David Bowie: Starman isn't as starstruck a biography as you'd think. Rather than focus on the glitzy life of a stadium-grade glam rocker, Trynka's done extensive research on the forces shaping Bowie throughout his life and career. He begins in a lower middle class neighbourhood in London, partially debunking the dysfunctional childhood mythology Bowie wove himself in the 70s. He investigates Bowie's social scene to get at the root of the fluid sexual identity that shaped his image. His research is exhaustive, and exhaustively documented.

It pays off, too – Trynka fully engages rumours that Bowie flirted with fascist chic and witchcraft, and camped up his gender bending for his career. He frankly acknowledges these influences, but he also clearly delimits their extent, resisting the urge to sensationalize. Similarly, he doesn't let his fandom blind him to Bowie's musical shortcomings. He openly, hilariously mocks some of the really awful stuff, which makes his praise of the strong work ring more true.

For hardcore music fans, though, real research payoff comes in the descriptions of recording sessions. Trynka spent time with many of the producers and musicians who've worked with Bowie, and he carefully, lovingly documents the many tricks used to achieve different sounds and moods. Some of these tricks are technical, some are psychological (ahem, Eno). All are deeply, deeply cool to a geek. Trynka also mines all Bowie's far-reaching collaborations; fans of the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, U2, Queen and even Jane's Addiction will stumble across previously unknown details on band dynamics and recording.

My one quibble with Starman's format is the relative lack of photos - odd for an artist whose oeuvre was so overwhelmingly tied to his visuals and physical presence. However, this is minor, and compensation is offered in the form of an exhaustive, fascinatingly annotated discography appended for reference.

All in all, this biography is surprisingly strong. It's 500 pages, but doesn't drag. It's flawlessly, tirelessly researched, but it delivers an engaging story with emotional truth. Borne of a deep love of David Bowie, it's just as likely to drub him as praise him when he deserves it. Much like its subject, David Bowie: Starman is a lot of things, most of them contradictory - and yet somehow? Still awesome. 

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