Why Bowie Matters (2019) – Will Brooker

Title:Why Bowie Matters
Author:Will Brooker
Date published:2019
Publisher:William Collins
Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer: Jonathan Ball Publishers South Africa sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

What was the first Bowie song you ever heard? What was the first music video of his that you remember seeing? Where were you when he passed on, and who was the person to tell you? Why does David Bowie matter?

As I started reading Brooker’s ode to the man we all knew as David Bowie there were several occasions where I felt an imposter. How could I possibly answer those questions posed to the readers of a book that I initially believed was written for super fans? I am a fan, but I am also not a fan who can claim anything other than a general love and an admiration, and indeed a fascination for the man who was born David Robert Jones on 8 January 1947 and died 10 January 2016. That of course was my initial fear when I started reading a book written by a man who had spent a year of his own life attempting to become the many aspects of Bowie over his lifetime – that I wasn’t ‘enough’ of a fan. The truth is that Will Brooker is very much a super fan, and sometimes (if you are an amateur like me) you will feel as though you are floundering along in a sea of Bowie, but do not despair dear reader because Brooker will carry you safely to shore. As he navigates the intricacies of a man whose work both musically and on-screen were fraught with their own share of difficulties, he will also teach you about a man who was also just a mortal, and not the god he was often made out to be. For this and for so many other reasons you will slowly begin to love him (Bowie, and Brooker for that matter) even more.

It is perhaps relevant to add that as I read this fascinating book my soundtrack was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). I occasionally dabbled in Diamond Dogs (1974), Hunky Dory (1971) and Space Oddity (1969), but Ziggy was my constant and true companion. Something I wasn’t as aware of as I am now is how often Bowie’s lyrics are held under so much scrutiny. Brooker attempts to unpack his music that was so clearly influenced by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, Elvis Presley and even the Beatles, and mentions how his songs were so often seen as meta texts, and used as examples of literary theory. His music made references to elements of popular culture, science fiction and the literary world on more than one occasion, but were oddly never autobiographical. If we as casual readers, Bowie scholars and fans of the music see him as the great storyteller he clearly was it makes for a far more fascinating adventure into not only his mind, but also allows us the freedom to delve into the many roles Bowie played over the years. He not only told the stories, but he was very often several of the main characters all at once.

“I’m the last one to understand most of the material I write” ~ (Bowie, David)

Brooker details Bowie’s rather slow rise to fame, his relationship with his astonishingly supportive father, his suburban working class back-story, and his ever-changing relationship with his sexuality and the media’s response to this. In the midst of writing about Bowie’s many faces that included Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke, Brooker goes into enormous detail discussing the late singer’s fascination with George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and unpacks his videos for his last two albums, Lazarus and Blackstar in which he believes Bowie’s own sense of mortality is the major theme. At the time of his death and the weeks preceding it the theories regarding his origin often made him out to be an extra-terrestrial type who had simply returned to his home planet. His common ‘space theme’ and the character of ‘Major Tom’ made it perhaps easier for those in grief to imagine him as a sort of ‘intergalactic messiah’. Sometimes its easier to believe someone is simply away for a little while, and not gone forever.

Brooker importantly details his time emulating Bowie in the most extreme ways. For a year he transformed himself several times over by dressing as Bowie would, reading the books he read, walking his streets and visiting the bars he frequented. He even spent a bit of time in Berlin as Bowie had, wearing the clothes and hairstyles that represented each era in Bowie’s life. Who better to answer the question in the title? Who better to tell the world the reason we should allow Bowie into our lives and his ways of seeing the world?

“Nobody can become Bowie, but we can all become a little more Bowie; we can all incorporate a bit of Bowie into our lives. Draw on your own wonder-house of experiences to dream up a version of yourself – perhaps more colorful, more creative, more confident – and then inhabit it, and see what happens. It worked for him. It worked for me.”

In an ever-changing world, Bowie was an ever-changing performer whose music transcended the mundane. In so many ways the question as to why Bowie matters is really up to you – the reader, the listener, the music-lover, the person who saw Bowie as someone who encompassed their own cautious feelings for a world that is not particularly tolerant towards the unique and the more subversive among us. In a world where image is everything Bowie gave us the freedom to embrace the image that resonated within our individual hearts, and I believe that is something worth making Bowie matter.

“While he was publicly challenging gender conventions… his behavior in private seemed to hark backwards to a reactionary past, rather than into the progressive future. It’s a useful reminder that while we can still aspire to be more like Bowie, we can also, in some respects, try to be better”

After reading this beautiful ode and somewhat critique you will find yourself figuring out all on your own why Bowie matters, why he did then and why he does now. Will Brooker will guide you along the path, but soon you’ll be in Oz and you’ll have to figure out which road to take all on your own. And that’s alright. You”ll get there soon enough.

“His music… it’s all about memories. You remember the first time you heard one song. You remember that you were on holiday, and the good times you had. You remember specific moments that were important to you. And those moments… were Bowie’s songs”

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