Early on in his remarkably well-researched book, “The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie & the 1970s”, Peter Doggett posits that Bowie’s seminal folk-rock song “Changes” is a thesis statement for his entire legend, a sort of musical I Ching wherein all the complexities and possibilities of David Jones the man combined to form David Bowie, the legend. His analysis hinges on two ideas that are central to Bowie’s process: fragmentation and transformation. Throughout the Sevenites, Bowie absorbed and reflected so many aesthetic principles that he became a collage of a man, a mosaic composed of all the disparate artistic disciplines of the twentieth century.
Dogget chose the seventies as the focus for his book because, he argues, it was the period when Bowie was most relevant, painting him as the successor to Dylan’s relentlessly forward-thinking approach. Both artists sought to drag popular music, kicking and screaming, into the post-post-modern world. Certainly he had immeasurable creative momentum during this time. Between 1970 and 1975 he would run the gamut of musical styles, commencing with his folkier records, through the mystical hard rock of his early middle period, eventually emerging with the Cubist proto-punk masterpiece of “Diamond Dogs” and the hyper-stylized soul of “Young Americans”. Viewing this period in one frame is almost too dizzying to comprehend, and so instead of a straightforward biography, Doggett explores the icon in a more granular way via his songwriting. He details the writing and recording of each Bowie composition, in chronological order. In the process, he tracks Bowie’s shifting interests and inspirations, and explores the personal motivations for his creative restlessness. We get to read the real story behind his artistic obsessions, from the occult to sci-fi novels to obscure philosophical concepts.
In his relentless search for new input, and fixation on image, Bowie embodies modern human culture more than almost any other artist in history. He was one of the first rock artists to acknowledge artifice as a device, to show us that things can become more real by being portrayed in a conversely false or heightened manner. He was the king of constructed personas, and in the process he pre-figured the entire idea of the modern pop star. It’s ironic that in our new world, where we are hyper-aware of perception and image, and the entire history of human thought is available for consumption, Bowie has ascended to another plane of existence. With Ziggy Stardust and his other provocative characters, he laid the seeds of the sort of winking conceit that would eventually coalesce into modern celebrity culture.
The other really fascinating thing about this book is the amount of time that is spent on early, pre-Bowie compositions. The young David Jones had almost too many ideas about how to present himself, and as a result he jumped from folk music to mime to musical theatre to cabaret without pausing for a breath. While it could be framed as a craven need for fame, it’s presented more as a mission of self-discovery than self-aggrandizement. We probably all remember people from our youth who seemed to change identities each week. The only difference with Bowie is that he did it all in public, on stage, in front of an audience.
Bowie was such a revolutionary force in rock music that critics are still analyzing his work, and modern bands continue to mine his influence. Like Lou Reed and Dylan, he elevated a simple and somewhat crassly commercial form of expression, fragmenting rock and roll and transforming it into High Art. In “The Man Who Sold The World” Peter Doggett tracks each and every fragment of his music during this era, and helps us to understand the evolution of one of the most compelling rock artists of all time.