'David Bowie

Starman' Suggests that Bowie is Definitive Rock 'n' Roll Artist

by Christel Loar

25 September 2011

Paul Trynka attempts to define David Bowie not so much as a musician, but as a cultural force.
cover art

David Bowie: Starman

Paul Trynka

(Little, Brown)
US: Jul 2011

In September 1972, David Bowie performed the song “Starman” on Top of the Pops.  British rock journalist and author Paul Trynka describes:

“... the camera pulls back and David Bowie meets its gaze unflinchingly. His look is lascivious, amused; as an audience of excited teens and outraged parents struggle to take in the quilted multicoloured jumpsuit, the luxuriant carrottop hairdo, the spiky teeth, and those sparkling, mascaraed come-to-bed-eyes, he sings us through an arresting succession of images: radios, aliens, ‘get-it-on” rock ‘n’ roll.’ The audience is still grappling with this bizarre spectacle as a staccato guitar rings out a Morse code warning and then, all too suddenly, we’re into the chorus.

From the disturbingly new, we shift to the reassuringly familiar; as he croons out “There’s a starman,” his voice leaps up an octave. It’s an ancient Tin Pan Alley songwriter’s trick, signaling a release, a climax, and as we hear of the friendly alien waiting in the sky, the audience recognizes a tune, and a message, lifted openly, outrageously, from “Over the Rainbow,” Judy Garland’s escapist, Technicolor wartime anthem.  It’s simple, sing-along, comforting territory and it lasts just four bars before David Bowie makes his bid for immortality less than sixty seconds after his face appeared on Top of the Pops, the BBC’s family-friendly music program. He lifts his slim, elegant hand to the side of his face as the platinum-haired Mick Ronson joins him at the microphone—then casually, elegantly, he places his arm around the guitarist’s neck and pulls him lovingly toward him. There’s the same octave leap as he sings “starman” again—this time, it doesn’t suggest escaping the boundaries of Earth; it symbolizes escaping the bounds of sexuality.”

It was a defining moment. Not only for the millions of young people watching, but for the music and popular culture of the coming decades. It was a defining moment for David Bowie.. That is, it was a defining moment in as much as it has ever been possible to define him. Well…it defined Bowie at that moment, anyway!

Trynka (Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed, Portrait of the Blues) attempts to define Bowie in Starman, not so much as a musician (which might be what’s expected from a biography by a rock critic), but as a shrewd, calculating cultural force. Top of the Pops was hardly the first, and certainly not the last, time Bowie appropriated elements of earlier works to further his career.  Trynka points out—and rightly—that many of Bowie’s other musical successes were not wholly his either, whether he was nicking melodies (“Starman”, “Life On Mars”), stealing riffs (“The Jean Genie” borrows from Muddy Waters’ “I’m A Man”), or just covering songs that become more closely associated with him than with their original composers (“China Girl” and “Tonight” by Iggy Pop, for instance).

Of course, Starman contains standard celebrity biography stuff like rare photos; it relates the basic biographical information, such as birth, youth, familial background, formative events and early, unsuccessful attempts at stardom, and all of that is wonderfully, extensively, complete. However, it’s the exploration of Bowie the artist, Bowie the brand, Bowie the Starman, that makes this bio so compelling above others that have come before it. Page after exhaustively detailed page (Trynka conducted more than 250 interviews for this book), accounts of recordings and touring anecdotes are sifted through, tales of Bowie’s legendary exploits are confirmed or refuted, and his indelible impact on the entirety of pop culture for the last 40 years is demonstrated again and again.

Trynka compares him to a cabaret entertainer, rather than a run-of-the-mill music star. He’s something of an outsider artist, with his deliriously diverse influences and devil-may-care attitudes, but he turned outsider in. Starman suggests that Bowie is the singular, most influential and most enduring artist of the rock ‘n’ roll era, and he probably is, because his influence spreads so far beyond art and music and film and fashion, and all the other things in which he’s been involved in his career.   

Trynka, who has a clever way with turns of phrase that elevates even dry, day-to-day tour itinerary information into delightful reading, devotes more than two thirds of Starman to Bowie’s life and career into his 30s. The last hundred or so pages covers his mid-30s to age 64. It’s a rapid wrap-up, given all the minutiae provided earlier on, and one might think that fewer groundbreaking artistic triumphs in the ‘90s, or Bowie’s absence from the public eye in the last decade contributes to that. Perhaps from Trynka’s point of view, given his thematic statements about Bowie’s varied influences creating his own vast influence, it’s more about reflecting upon the far-reaching effects of the earlier work—letting the children boogie, as it were—and watching as the titular Starman continues to blow our minds.

David Bowie: Starman


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