Book review: Age of Bowie by Paul Morley

Morley eschews sources or supporting quotes in favour of an impressionistic style. Picture: Robert Perry
Morley eschews sources or supporting quotes in favour of an impressionistic style. Picture: Robert Perry
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Morley eschews sources or supporting quotes in favour of an impressionistic style

Age Of Bowie: How David Bowie Made A World Of Difference by Paul Morley | Simon & Schuster, £20

The unexpected death of David Bowie on 10 January this year dominated the news agenda. No-one, except for his family and close friends, knew he was ill. He had released Blackstar, his 25th studio album, just three days earlier to ecstatic reviews. There were rumours he had been planning his first live tour since 2004.

The sudden nature of his passing shocked fans and cultural commentators alike. Paul Morley, a music journalist who cut his teeth at the NME during its late 1970s golden age, admits as much in The Age Of Bowie: How David Bowie Made A World Of Difference.

Even the most casual of music fans is likely to recognise Morley, even if they have never read his distinctive prose. In one of the most insightful parts of the book, he describes the regular phone calls from harassed television and radio researchers looking for an expert to pay tribute to the latest pop star to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Morley has been a fan of Bowie since his school days, and his description of processing the news of the star’s death while simultaneously being expected to pass comment on his career is touching.

But this is a purposefully unconventional biography. Those seeking a thoroughly researched account of Bowie’s life and work should look elsewhere.

Morley claims to have written this 450-page volume in just ten weeks – a self-imposed deadline designed to ensure its spontaneity. There’s no arguing he achieves his aim of producing a strikingly different book to the average pop star biography, or that his command of the subject is impressive.

Yet it’s reasonable to ask who this title is for. Its intensely personal style may put off younger Bowie fans who didn’t live through his 1970s peak, who are more likely to have heard Starman on a Spotify playlist than recall the famous Top Of The Pops performance. Serious aficionados, meanwhile, will balk at Morley’s decision to ditch sources or supporting quotes in favour of an impressionistic style.

The author admits his Bowie is his alone – “Everyone has their own Bowie” – but pop stars are universal. Some reinvent their stage image more than others, or take inspiration from a broader range of musical styles, yet the end product is what fans really care about. This is ultimately a book more about Paul Morley than the songwriter so many millions still miss.

• Paul Morley, Edinburgh International Book Festival, 29 August