Since David Bowie made his first mark on the world -- and beyond -- with 1969's "Space Oddity," decoding his music has been a prime pastime for his fans. It's also been a cottage industry for music journalists, most of whom have been content to simply rearrange the pieces in the Bowie puzzle. In essence, Peter Doggett does the same thing in The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s. Only he makes a brilliant step beyond mere analysis: He applies Bowie's method and aesthetic to the artist's own life and work.
Granted, the idea isn't Doggett's. The Man Who Sold the World -- a song-by-song breakdown of Bowie's output during "the long '70s" of 1969-80 -- was originally slated to be written by the late Ian MacDonald, who first used this approach in his dissection of the Beatles' songbook, Revolution in the Head. As exhaustive as Revolution is, though, The Man Who Sold the World better utilizes that fragmented format. Bowie, after all, is a man made of fragments, and his catalogue lends itself to loving deconstruction.
Wisely, Doggett gets it. Better yet, he wrings riches from it. From the elegiac, epoch-defining "Space Oddity" to the cynicism of its 1980 sequel, "Ashes to Ashes," Bowie's convoluted creative arc throughout the '70s is disassembled and laid bare, with lingering detail paid to influences, innovations, studio techniques, music theory, biographical anecdotes, and collaborators from Iggy Pop to Brian Eno. As they aggregate, they form a narrative of Bowie's life -- external and internal -- that far transcends its parts. It's not all perfect; sometimes Doggett gets sucked into a vortex of trivia, and the entries wind up resembling Wikipedia rabbit holes rather than truth-finding missions. But even then, his breathlessness is contagious.
As dizzying and densely layered as his song-by-song analysis is, Doggett doesn't stop there. Also included is a lengthy biographical essay, "The Making of David Bowie," that beautifully condenses the oft-told tale of the young David Robert Jones: his troubled family life, his scattershot ambition, his failed attempts at stardom throughout the '60s, the way his shortcomings and failures became the fuel for his success. More than being a great piece of writing in and of itself, it provides cement for the splintered mosaic that follows.
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Similarly, Doggett's introduction to the book is a penetrating, interdisciplinary probing of Bowie's place in the broader cultural context, echolocating his position via parallel developments in art, music, sociology, history and mysticism. Bowie's amorphous nature makes that even tougher than it would normally be -- but Doggett cannily avoids the clichéd dismissal of Bowie as a mere chameleon and digs deeper into how his mutability resonates on a psychological, cultural and existential level.
It's not a breezy read. Then again, Bowie's '70s work is rarely a breezy listen. It's Doggett's empathy with his subject -- a personal passion that's kept, for the most part, distanced and disciplined -- that helps make The Man Who Sold the World so focused, regardless of its sprawl. Adding structure and ballast to his chronological study are short essays dwelling on related tangents: Nietzsche, occultism, Expressionism, minimalism, and most tellingly, an incisive piece titled "The Art of Fragmentation" that falls exactly in the middle of the book, and around which it pivots.
Speaking about Bowie's transition out of the '70s, Doggett asserts, "It would take the following decade for Bowie [...] to assimilate everything that he had achieved." At times, Doggett himself struggles with that assimilation. Among a handful of biases employed in the name of conceptual tidiness, he fails to even entertain the idea that Bowie's supposed sellout in the '80s may have been the logical denouement of what he did the decade before.
That, of course, would render Doggett's "long decade" even longer, to the point of invalidating the book's subtitle altogether. Despite its restrictions, The Man Who Sold the World manages to reveal more about the sum and substance of Bowie's career than any conventional bio. With unequalled breadth and depth, Doggett winds up delivering a triumph: the closest thing to a definitive Bowie chronicle yet written.
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