According to this book’s author Dylan Jones, for people of a certain age, gender and disposition, David Bowie’s appearance on Top of the Pops on July 6th, 1972, singing Starman, was “a tectonic shift in pop culture.”
Of course, if you’re of a different age, gender and disposition, a book such as this – and what it posits – will be meaningless, but if you’ve ever been profoundly touched by a work of art, pop cultural or otherwise, and what it can do to radically alter your worldview, then you’ll have an idea of what Dylan Jones is attempting to point out. This, and the fact that the book (published by Preface) is beautifully produced throughout (and which cover bears one of the most striking portrait shots of Bowie ever taken, by Masayoshi Sukita) is the good news.
The not-so good news is that Jones has decided to ‘memoirize’ the “four minutes that shook the world”. So as well as cogently documenting and contextualizing Bowie’s sense of ambition for world domination, we are also on the receiving end of the author’s often condescending, sniffy writing on his suburban life and his transference from small south-coastal Deal (which smelled like “brine, wafting across the town like cheap cologne”), located 80 miles from London, to the heady heights of an admittedly admirable journalistic career editing the likes of The Face, Arena and GQ magazines.
The other, perhaps crucial flaw here is that the core narrative of the cultural significance of Bowie’s TOTP appearance is stretched to snapping point throughout by repetitive exposition, unnecessary social commentary, and Jones’ unwieldy attempts at constructing a Nick Hornbyesque trawl through his backpages. If there was ever a 30,000-plus-word book that would have read better as a 5,000-word magazine article then this is it.
Such imbalance, however, is arighted towards the end of When Ziggy Played Guitar…, wherein Jones efficiently ties up some loose ends, and correctly concludes thus: “It’s often said that David Bowie encouraged people to be different; he didn’t, he simply allowed them to think they were.”
(This review first appeared in The Irish Times/Books September 2012.)