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What did rockstar David Bowie read

John O?Connell | Updated on November 15, 2019 Published on November 15, 2019

Man of letters: When asked what his idea of perfect happiness was, the singer replied, “Reading”   -  REUTERS/LEONHARD FOEGER

A new book delves into the literary life of the rockstar — one that was richly peppered with Albert Camus, Angela Carter and Truman Capote among many others

David Jones was born in Brixton, south London, on 8 January 1947. It’s no surprise, then, if the books he found most significant are products of (or became fashionable in) the sixties and seventies. Like everything else about us, our adult cultural habits are shaped by our childhoods: not just how or where we were brought up, but the spirit of the times. Bowie said on numerous occasions that one of the most significant events of his life was his older half-brother Terry Burns introducing him to Jack Kerouac’s Beat classic On the Road. David was too young for Beat, but by the early sixties the movement had slipped on an Italian suit and mutated into Mod while retaining its core aesthetic — a romantic existentialism that combined, in the words of one Mod, ‘amphetamine, Jean-Paul Sartre and John Lee Hooker’.

Bowie’s Books: The Hundred Literary Heroes Who Changed His Life; John O’Connell; Bloomsbury; Non-fiction; ₹699

 

Today, when we think of Mod, we think of scooters, parkas and the 1979 film version of the Who’s concept album Quadrophenia. But this was a much later, cruder iteration. By the time the Who’s ‘My Generation’ reached Number Two in the UK singles chart in November 1965, Mod as its original adherents would have understood it had already peaked. As David May, a Mod from Plymouth who went on to work for Time Out and ITN, put it in Jonathon Green’s book Days In The Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961–1971:‘Mods were always intellectual. There was always a large gay element in it... We didn’t fight rockers, we were far more interested in some guy’s incredible shoes, or his leather coat. But underneath this,one did read Camus. The Outsider, there it was, it explained an awful lot. A sort of Jean Genet criminal lowlife was also important.’

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What else did Bowie like to read? Stephen King, for starters. ‘I love Stephen King,’ he told Q in 1999. ‘He scares the shite out of me.’ He also liked true-crime books such as Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s bestselling Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, which Tina Brown saw in his hotel room with a half-eaten piece of cheese balanced on the cover when she went to Los Angeles to interview him for the Sunday Times in July 1975. (Brown calls the book Manson Murder Trials and doesn’t name the author, but she probably means Helter Skelter as it won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime book that year.)

In 1978 Bowie told Crawdaddy magazine about the extraordinary effect Kafka’s Metamorphosis had had on him, making him feel as if he was losing his mind: ‘I had vivid nightmares about that — literal translations of what he was writing about: of enormous bugs flying and lying on their backs and other creepy-crawly dreams. I saw myself become something unrecognisable, a monster.’

Then there’s the stuff Bowie read for the lols, for example the book he and his childhood friend Geoff MacCormack amused themselves by reciting chunks from on an Amtrak train from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in September 1974 — a pornographic novel called Yodel in the Canyon. ‘The main characters in this classic piece of literature were Big Rod Randelli and his girlfriend Mona,’ recalls MacCormack. ‘I won’t go into details but, suffice to say, neither Rod nor Mona were shy folk.’

A genre Bowie seems particularly to have loved is the exotic travelogue, represented on the list by David Kidd and Alberto Denti di Piranho. Artist George Underwood, Bowie’s friend since childhood, remembers that in 1989 when he visited Bowie at his house on Mustique the singer was reading a book about theVictorian explorer and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace’s journey around Indonesia — almost certainly Wallace’s own The Malay Archipelago. (Adds Underwood: ‘It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, when I went on Amazon to look it up and maybe buy it, that I noticed Wallace had written another book about whether or not there was life on Mars [this would be Is Mars Habitable?]... I wish I’d asked David whether he’d read that one as well!’)

Bowie also recommended to Underwood Skulduggery, Mark Shand’s account of his and the photojournalist Don McCullin’s journey through Irian Jaya, now West Papua. ‘David had met Mark Shand and was fascinated with Irian Jaya,’ says Underwood. ‘He phoned me after this meeting and wanted me to go with him to this uncharted territory. It would have meant going along the Sepik river in a dugout canoe and meeting up with natives who had never seen white men before. David said this would make men of us and it was something we should do before we died. He was totally serious about this and wanted me to go with him. Of course, it never happened, but for a moment I was considering it. A very short moment!’

Bowie had lots of writer friends and enjoyed literary gossip. His friendship with Hanif Kureishi began when the novelist requested permission to use his songs in the BBC’s adaptation of his novel The Buddha of Suburbia. ‘I thought you’d never ask,’ Bowie replied — then provided an entire bespoke soundtrack.

John O’Connell is the author of Bowie’s Books: The Hundred Literary Heroes Who Changed His Life

Published on November 15, 2019
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