'Starman' Tracks David Bowie's Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes David Bowie might just be rock's most famous chameleon. He's been a folk singer, a soul singer, a rock star and a pop icon — and now he's the subject of a new biography.
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'Starman' Tracks David Bowie's Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

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'Starman' Tracks David Bowie's Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

'Starman' Tracks David Bowie's Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

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GUY RAZ, host: Pop stars from Lady Gaga to Madonna to U2 have cited David Bowie as a main influence - a genius, even. But in a new biography about the life of one of pop music's most innovative stars, Paul Trynka writes about how David Bowie carefully cultivated that image. In fact, Bowie never believed he had much talent at all. Trynka spent years interviewing hundreds of people who have known David Bowie. The story of his life begins in the hardscrabble London neighborhood of Brixton, a part of the city that was still in ruins after the end of the Second World War.

PAUL TRYNKA: He's got a favorite word; it's called dystopian. And from today's perspective, it's kind of quiet science fiction - his upbringing. So you've got a lot of showbiz - you've got vaudeville entertainers who used to live there - but at the same time, you've got these little rows of Victorian houses and just razed fields. And that's where the kids used to play. So it was a very specific upbringing in tiny space.

RAZ: He was in a series of - sort of pop bands and almost boy bands, really, from the age of 15 onward. He sort of breaks out in 1969. He's only 22 years old and he has this song, "Space Oddity."


DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Ground control to Major Tom. Ground control to Major Tom...

RAZ: He claimed that it was supposedly inspired by the actual Apollo 11 moon landing. Is that true?

TRYNKA: The song was really inspired, more than anything, by going to see Kubrick's movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey." And also, it was typical of many elements of his career. It's a mix of - kind of inspiration and marketing 'cause he came across this song and then realized, straight on, that with a moonshot coming up, that it wraps into a terrific marketing opportunity. And he used it to basically speed up and to market the single, in the hope that that would be his breakthrough.

RAZ: Two years later, he puts out another record. Again, it's regarded as a seminal Bowie work, "Hunky Dory." Lyrically, it's impossible to believe that this was written by a man just 24 years old.


BOWIE: (Singing) I'm closer to the golden dawn immersed in Crowley's uniform of imagery. I'm living in a silent film, portraying Himmler's sacred realm of dream reality.

RAZ: This album, and this song, is filled with references to Aleister Crowley and Nietzsche and German fascism, and all these very complex ideas. Where was he getting them from? Because he finished high school, but David Bowie was not an educated man. I mean, at this point, he was writing about some pretty big ideas.

TRYNKA: He always engaged with the big ideas. It has to be said that early on, he was probably more adept to dropping names than of developing very deep philosophies. In many respects, a lot of what we hear on "Hunky Dory" is quite conventional, and it's a real testament to how human beings can transform themselves. You know, as a child and as a beat-blue(ph) musician, he wasn't a particularly good musician. He was a fairly dreadful songwriter early on. And then by having this self-belief and this way of converting admirers to his cause, in the end, he'd actually become the genius that he'd convinced people he already was. He wasn't like Elvis, who just seemed to pop out the room that way. And so I do believe this story is a great one of transcending the limitations with which you're born.


BOWIE: (Singing) Should I get the viper's fang or herald loud the death of man. I'm sinking in the quicksand of my thought.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Paul Trynka. He's the author of a new biography of David Bowie, and it's called "Starman." Paul, he kind of adopts this persona, this kind of androgynous persona, and it becomes his shtick. I mean, it becomes part of who he wants to be - getting to the point where he basically proclaims that he's gay.

TRYNKA: Yes. He basically tells Melody Maker: I'm gay, and I always have been, even when I was David Jones.

RAZ: And at that point, he was married, we should say. He had married Angela Barnett.

TRYNKA: Absolutely. And so again, you know, what we're seeing here is somebody with a very sophisticated understanding of the power of press. He knew exactly the power of those words. He was also pretty sincere. And in some ways, he was championing a lifestyle. So it operated on every level. It fitted in with the music. It was linked to an amazing aesthetic. He was dressed like somebody from Mars. He had these jumpsuits that he'd commissioned from a gay fellow who lived in the house with him. He cut his hair short, just signaling that the '60s are over and something new is about to start.


BOWIE: (Singing) Ziggy played guitar, jammin' good with Weird and Gilly and the spiders from Mars, he played it...

RAZ: David Bowie's character, Ziggy Stardust, this persona he adopts, who was Ziggy Stardust? Where did he come from?

TRYNKA: Ziggy was this magnificent creation. He combined the '50s and Eddie Cochran. He was heavily influenced by Iggy Pop - Iggy, Ziggy. So he was a kind of assemblage. And via this persona, Ziggy, he could become this lost, flamboyant hero.


BOWIE: (Singing) Making love with his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind...

RAZ: What's amazing to me, Paul, about David Bowie is this period of 1969 to - really, to 1982. It's such a fruitful period. He produces so many incredible pieces of music. And for a lot of that time, he's strung out. I mean, he is a cocaine addict.

TRYNKA: The period of serious cocaine addiction, really, it centers on the album "Station to Station," for which he ...

RAZ: Which some critics consider his greatest.

TRYNKA: Well, it was certainly his most intense album. And you can see that in many ways, the cocaine improved his work. So the kind of damage he did to his brain, and the extreme experiences, were a big part of his art.

RAZ: He spent some time during the late '70s in Berlin. That is where he teams up with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop. And of course, the "Berlin Trilogy" comes out of this period. But "Heroes" is the song that becomes his best known-song from that period.


BOWIE: (Singing) I, I wish you could swim like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim...

TRYNKA: On "Heroes," he could express himself incredibly simply. He was actually improvising the lyrics, using a technique he'd seen his friend Iggy - or Jimmy, as he called him - used, where he'd just write the words or improvise them, and then sing them just a few seconds later. So when those words, you know, ring out across a huge recording studio in Hanford just near the Berlin Wall, that's the first time they've actually filtered into his brain. And there's a wonderful freshness there.


BOWIE: (Singing) We can be heroes, just for one day...

RAZ: Six years after "Heroes," Bowie releases "Let's Dance."


RAZ: This is a song that a lot of Bowie fans did not like. A lot of critics just thought it was a one-off thing, but this is the only song David Bowie ever sang that reached number one both in the U.S. and in Britain.

TRYNKA: "Let's Dance" gets a lot of guilt by association, which is the music that came after it was really quite derivative and uninspired. But "Let's Dance" as an album even stands up today 'cause sonically, it's so unique. It's very minimal. It has a fantastic beat to it.


BOWIE: (Singing) ...on the radio. Let's sway while colors lights up your face...

RAZ: Basically, for the last 15 years of his life, he hasn't produced any really notable music. Do you think that will affect the way people remember him?

TRYNKA: There was a certain drop in quality over a certain period. But at the same time, in terms of how he's refashioned the sound of today, his impact's bigger than most other people. I would say it's probably bigger than Hendrix. It's bigger than rock bands like Led Zeppelin, 'cause he's had incredible influence on every level, in terms of what we demand of our artists - that they do change; they progress from album to album. And certainly, anytime you listen to music that's got synthesizers and a funky beat, when you listen to Blur or Arcade Fire or Mercury Rev, there's an entire aesthetic that he's invented. So I think as time goes on, his contribution will be more and more valued.

RAZ: I know Bowie fans will be disappointed that we've just scratched the surface, but what a fascinating book. That's Paul Trynka. He's author of the new biography "David Bowie: Starman." He joined us from London. Paul Trynka, thank you very much.

TRYNKA: Thank you, Guy. Absolute pleasure.


BOWIE: (Singing) Your grace should fall, let's dance for fear tonight is all. Let's sway, you could look into my eyes. Let's sway under the moonlight, this serious moonlight. And if you say run...

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our podcast. Subscribe or listen at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode every Sunday night. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening, and have a great night.

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