Alias David Bowie by Peter & Leni Gillman - review by Jasper Rees

Jasper Rees

The Divided Elf

Alias David Bowie


Hodder and Stoughton 512pp £16.95 order from our bookshop

David Bowie is supposed to have said that he does not remember much about the Seventies, for which it is well known that cocaine takes the credit. But the business of Bowie biography does not significantly suffer, because Bowie refuses to talk to his biographers anyway. Judging from Alias David Bowie, by Peter and Leni Gillman, who have expanded to book length the ‘Insight’ exposé featured in the Sunday Times in April last year, it’s not hard to see why Bowie doesn’t spend much time with people who want to tell the story of his life: interviews would become a relentless series of verbal self-mutilations.

The idea behind the book is that Bowie’s lyrics are preoccupied with a ‘family mythology’, which amounts to a euphemism for a history of schizophrenia on the mother’s side of Bowie’s family. The schizophrenia which obsesses Bowie is that of his half-brother, Terry Burns, of whom his parents encouraged him, by example, to be ashamed. In a line from ‘Absolute Beginners’, which the authors contend is as much Bowie’s theme tune as the film’s, he sings, ‘I am absolutely sane’; they persuade themselves that this doubles up as a kind of musical press release denouncing the Terry thesis and the clarion call of Bowie’s entire canon of songs.

If Bowie has yet to talk, a lot of his former associates have broken rank. The result is a work of vintage journalistic patchwork – a collage of reminiscences and impressions to compensate for Bowie’s silence. It figures that Peter Gillman used to work on the ‘Insight’ column, because the

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

OUP Niven

Follow Literary Review on Twitter