To coincide with his retrospective at the V&A in 2013, David Bowie drew up a personal canon of 100 books. It was made up of the “most important and influential” works for the musician, rather than his favourites: biographies of artists,
20th-century fiction, books that touched on dadaism and surrealism, two histories of soul music… There were plenty of titles that suggested a curator who had come of age in the early 60s (On the Road, Billy Liar, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider), though with the inclusion of every issue of Viz, Private Eye and the Beano alongside Dante and Homer, the list was democratic, and clearly intended to give pointers on how to live a good life as much as signal an iconoclastic education.
In Bowie’s Books, John O’Connell investigates the list through 100 short essays, seeing it not as autobiography but more “a look at the tools he used to navigate his life”. Seemingly in no particular order, the list provided literary and geographical snapshots of Bowie’s life and, tellingly, worlds in which he was only ever on the fringes. A prime example is Nik Cohn’s 1969 masterpiece, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, a celebration of the 60s pop scene that the teenage Bowie had so desperately wanted to be a part of. Cohn was a columnist for Queen magazine and gave pocket histories and quickfire appraisals of all rock’s main players (he adores Phil Spector’s “beautiful noise” and finds Pink Floyd “boring almost beyond belief”). O’Connell notes that Bowie not only would have “read it the second it came out, but also studied it as a manual”. Likewise, though he was based in Los Angeles and Berlin for most of the 70s, the singer was obsessed with New York, home of Warhol’s Factory and long-term heroes the Velvet Underground. On his list was Fran Lebowitz’s Metropolitan Life (1978), a collection of pieces for Mademoiselle and Interview that captures the insularity of New York’s Studio 54 era. From a distance, Bowie adhered to Lebowitz’s line that “you’re only as good as your last haircut”.
O’Connell is gently witty, and clearly enjoys riffing on Bowie’s own playfulness – discussing Wyndham Lewis, he writes that he “dropped his first name, Percy, as you would”. A neat idea is O’Connell’s suggested listening, just one track per book, like a wine tasting: a biography of David Bomberg, an artist largely ignored in his lifetime who was rehabilitated almost as soon as he died, should be accompanied by Up the Hill Backwards from 1980’s Scary Monsters; John Braine’s furiously dated Room at the Top goes with Bowie’s very 1967 confection Love You Till Tuesday; Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies is matched with the decadent, strung-out title track from Aladdin Sane.
Bowie may have been a selfish artist, comfortable in borrowing other people’s talents before swiftly discarding them (his early bands, Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar), but he was always generous with the threads he left for his fans to pull on. Even in his earliest work there are allusions to an unlikely mixture of the writer Keith Waterhouse, The Quatermass Experiment, Tibetan Buddhism and actor Anthony Newley. What Bowie called his “questing, Orientalist side” is explored in books by David Kidd and Bruce Chatwin. His mid-70s fascination with the occult, however, is ignored, possibly because books on the subject reminded him of a miserable period in his life or, O’Connell suggests, because the books he read at the time were “mostly dumb”. Titles such as Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defence and Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn – both of which Bowie is known to have read – were dropped from his literary list.
Following Bowie was always an education, and Bowie’s Books is a handy, amusing and, thankfully, light-touch precis, tracking the musician’s high modernist influences while remaining aware of his flightiness and fondness for self-editing. “I love Stephen King,” he told Q magazine in 1999. “He scares the shite out of me.” But you won’t find King in this list.
Will Brooker is both an obsessive Bowie fan and an academic. His own epiphany was the leaden, rather clumsy Let’s Dance album track Ricochet, which he heard aged 13 in 1983. Why Bowie Matters (surely we already know? In 2019, it would be far harder to write a book called Why Elvis Matters?) is based on a year in Brooker’s life in which he dressed like the star, dyed his hair orange and travelled to Bowie haunts in Europe and America while reading the singer’s favourite books and listening to records he loved, such as the O’Jays’ Back Stabbers. Given the seemingly definitive title, there’s a lot of Brooker in this book.
He boasts of being interviewed by the journalist Eamonn Holmes. I don’t think Bowie would have mentioned Holmes in a memoir. He quotes Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, and while he worries he is elevating Bowie’s work “to some loftier academic plane”, he doesn’t let that stop him. Brooker’s mixture of academic rigour and enthusiastic subjectivity is a challenge, and sometimes misapplied. Considering Bowie’s callow years on the Deram label, Brooker thinks his singles could have been hits in “the lacklustre music market of summer 1967”. I can’t recall anyone ever considering the summer of love’s music to be lacklustre, and I’d be intrigued to know why he does.
With his academic hat on, Brooker frequently quotes Chris O’Leary, whose superior books Rebel Rebel and Ashes to Ashes provide definitive Bowie analysis and are a tough comparison for anyone attempting a book called Why Bowie Matters. Brooker talks about “celebrating our inner Bowie” as if he was a straightforward man to understand. With the exception of Bob Dylan, no one in pop has played their own mythology and held their mystique so completely. I can see aspects of his life as something to aspire to, but not because of the specifics, not because I want to walk to the Co-op with an Aladdin Sane lightning bolt painted on my face.
The struggling mid-60s Bowie – dealt with briefly but well by Brooker – is maybe the most relatable: the boy from the suburbs trying to make sense of London. Where Bowie differed from every other starry-eyed suburbanite (like Brooker, like me) is that he transcended this journey altogether. In 1977, he told the NME: “I don’t live anywhere.” Beyond this, he somehow managed to maintain an openness to myriad new things while being acutely aware of his own legacy. Like Beau Brummel, but very few others, he made his entire life an inspirational art work. That is why Bowie matters.
Bob Stanley is a writer and member of the pop group Saint Etienne.
• Bowie’s Books: The Hundred Literary Heroes Who Changed His Life by John O’Connell is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
• Why Bowie Matters by Will Brooker is published by William Collins (£12.99) To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99