Sometimes it’s difficult to pull yourself away from Bowie’s visage in order to read Pat Gilbert’s biography.
“Next time you see me I’ll be totally different,” declares a young David Bowie on the cusp of Ziggy pop stardom. Change was simply a matter of fact for Bowie, his chameleonic tendencies giving him the power to mask his shyness with an array of dazzling personas. Pictures of his startling transformations—from Bromley lad to Ziggy and from The Thin White Duke to clean- cut MTV star—could easily tell a story without any words. Bowie always cut a transfixing pose, even in his early days as a young Mod saxophone player in The Kon-rads, and sometimes it’s difficult to pull yourself away from his visage in order to read Pat Gilbert’s biography.
Gilbert’s writing is neither flashy nor dry. In fact, it reads very much like the Mojo magazine that he edited for over twenty years. While every well-known major Bowie milestone is presented in the appropriate amount of detail, this is merely a cursory glance at his storied career. Those looking for a more in-depth analysis of Bowie’s day-to-day should look elsewhere, though some surprises await: Jimmy Page pops up as a studio musician imparting brief yet lasting advice in the form of a chord change and Elvis is briefly distracted by Bowie’s entourage claiming their front row seats to his show at Madison Square Garden. These little asides add a sprinkle of spice to an otherwise straightforward biography.
Of course, the more well-known players are here: key collaborators Mick Ronson and Brian Eno are heavily featured as well as fellow conspirators Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. The latter is featured in a blurry on-stage picture with Bowie in 1972. That being said, there are a few missed opportunities as well, including some rather obvious ones. While Ronson played an undeniable role in elevating Bowie’s music with his slashing riffs (and is rewarded a full page expose as a result), Carlos Alomar is rarely featured despite his equally important role in shaping Bowie’s legacy. Considering Alomar worked with Bowie over the span of three decades, he deserves much better photographic representation. Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, Queen and Trent Reznor all feature much later.
Additionally, a handful of iconic moments, including Ziggy’s debut on “Top of the Pops” and the elaborate stage design dreamed up for the Glass Spider tour, are described rather than shown. Some of these were perhaps deemed too obvious, though they are important Bowie touchstones for a reason. It drives home the point that Gilbert is, perhaps, unsure of who this book is aimed towards: the Bowie faithful or the casual fan? I suppose it depends on your interest in his late ‘70s creative peak.
The latter half of the ‘70s is the most heavily documented of any era in Bowie: The Illustrated Story. No doubt encouraged by Bowie fully embracing his status as a cultural icon, there is an abundance of spectacular photos from this era’s defining moments: the Isolar I and II tours, Berlin with Brian Eno, recording and performing with Iggy Pop on both Lust for Life and The Idiot, his first and only musical spot on “SNL,” televised performances with T-Rex and Bing Crosby and Bowie as a stick-thin waif at the 1975 Grammys along with John Lennon, a very pregnant Yoko Ono and Roberta Flack.
A striking photo of the Isolar II tour, Bowie flanked by a powerhouse band illuminated by streaks of light in the background, is simplistic yet immediately attention-grabbing—much like Bowie himself during this era. Along the way, Bowie’s pale and sickly Thin White Duke emerged as a refined and well-dressed Bowie, fully embracing himself without the aid of an alternative persona. Instead, he would throw himself into character by appearing in a number of Hollywood films and Broadway plays throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, most famously The Elephant Man. A period of Bowie’s life that is frequently forgotten, Gilbert makes a point by providing promotional material for each film including a beautiful still of Bowie in the 1983 Japanese/British film, Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence.
Bowie’s early ‘80s MTV heyday, as well as his ‘90s comeback, is dutifully presented, though in increasingly less detail as the book moves closer to the present. While the early ‘00s saw a handful of albums from Bowie, we’re obviously left in the dark for any of the years past 2004. With a singular chapter that spans 1985 to 2016, the last picture of Bowie alive is traced back to a 2009 Tribeca Film Festival appearance with his son Duncan. The book’s last image is a mural painted in Brixton the day after his death.
Bowie: The Illustrated Story is a labor of love, though it could do with a few more indulgences for the hardcore fan. Gilbert certainly knows his material and his photo selections are solid despite some of the aforementioned omissions. For those looking for an excuse to live in Bowie’s world for just a small amount of time, there is little doubt to this book’s appeal.