David Bowie's death a year ago was a shock. It came out of leftfield, stunning everyone but his family and close friends, who knew he had been ill for a long time.
His critically acclaimed album Blackstar, released just days before, was a fitting epitaph, but the imagination and energy it contained made his loss almost unbearable, leaving a public hungry for more.
In a new book, David Bowie: the Golden Years, Australian author Roger Griffin doesn't so much bring Bowie back to life, as transport the reader back in time to be with him. It chronicles Bowie's life in his own words, and those of his friends and colleagues, beginning on January 4, 1970, and ending on December 15, 1980 (an epilogue tidies up some loose ends).
It begins in the aftermath of Space Oddity's success, when Bowie seemed on the verge of becoming a one-hit wonder, and ends with him an international star, waiting out financially suffocating contracts, before embarking on the most commercially successful phase of his career.
As Griffin wryly notes in the brief foreword: "Bowie made his money after 1980, but in the 70s he made his art."
The Golden Years chronicles arguably the most creative decade of Bowie's life, and certainly the most prolific.
It takes the reader into recording studios and rehearsal rooms, on tour and behind the scenes; to New York, London, Berlin, Switzerland and Sydney. There are numbers for nerds – record release dates and chart positions – but there are also parties, photo shoots and red carpets.
There are pages and pages of rarely seen photographs of Bowie at work and play; in elaborate costumes and kimonos, and everything in between (and sometimes not much at all).
Griffin says he deliberately avoided going into Bowie's personal life, but anything that played out in the public arena – or anything anyone was happy to talk about – is included: the disintegration of his marriage to Angie and the fate of their son Zowie (Duncan Jones); the financial troubles with his manager Tony DeFries and his label RCA; his acknowledged issues with drugs; his grief at the untimely death of his dear friend Marc Bolan.
"It's told by the people that are there. It puts you in the room," says Griffin, who read hundreds of books and magazine and newspaper articles and transcribed hours of video for the project.
"I wanted people's perspective from the time. Like the interview with Bianca Jagger from 1977 in Paris when they've been dating. As opposed to trying to get Bianca to remember something from 40 years ago, 'Oh yes I think we dated once or twice. I can't remember a thing about it'. It's very fly on the wall."
Bowie spent years on the road in the 70s, and these sections are full of quotes from the stars who attended his shows, went backstage and partied with him afterwards. It's a peek into the glitzy world of the rich and famous and also a testament to the awe Bowie inspired among his peers.
Griffin has laid out the book in a diary format, not just chronologically, but in bite-size chunks, making it a delight to dip into.
On September 16, 1975, Elizabeth Taylor, Elton John and Desi Arnez went to see Bowie perform.
"Elizabeth Taylor went backstage and swept into the dressing room," writes Griffin. It was the beginning of a brief, intense friendship.
Taylor hung out with Bowie as he and the band rehearsed. She tried to convince him to star in a film called The Blue Bird with her; but the relationship cooled when he knocked her back. "That was a rotten film … and a rotten part," he says. "It's being directed by a wonderful director but the whole film stinks and I turned it down."
Bowie was famous for teaming up with other musicians but when they are all collected together into one 448-page book, the roll call of famous people he met, inspired or collaborated with is simply astonishing: John Lennon, Paul and Linda McCartney, Marc Bolan, Rick Wakeman, William Burroughs, Frank Zappa, Iggy Pop, Andy Warhol, Bing Crosby, Cher, Lulu, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Brian Eno, Bette Midler, Luther Vandross, Bob Dylan …
After Diana Ross took the Jackson 5 to a concert on the Diamond Dogs tour in September, 1974, Michael Jackson invited Bowie to the Jackson home for dinner afterwards.
"Michael spent much of the evening asking me about the production and how we built the [$400,000 Hunger City] set and where the ideas came from for the visuals," says Bowie.
"I was taught a 'backwards walk' by Toni Basil who choreographed The Lockers, one of the first black street-dance troupes … It's entirely possible that he copped the walk fourth hand, so to speak."
While Bowie's own concerts are star-studded affairs, the gigs he goes to are clear signposts to the kinds of sounds that will show up in his music: a Philip Glass show also attended by Eno (though not together) in December 1970; a Jackson 5 and Ohio Players double bill in July of 1974.
At a Stevie Wonder after-show party in 73, he meets guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist Emir Kassan and singer Ava Cherry, who would all go on to play with him.
Griffin has been a fan of Bowie since he first heard Starman as a child, but it seems that it's Bowie's collaborative nature, perhaps even more than his music, that drew him to this project.
"He sought people out. He had an unerring instinct for the right people to work with. Where did he meet all these people? [I wanted to know] how all these careers interlocked. It was intriguing for me and quite an addictive process."
Griffin, a graphic designer, began the Bowie Golden Years website in 2000 when he wanted to get into web design to show prospective clients what he could do.
He needed a subject for his online project and thought, "What do I know a lot about? Well I know a lot about David Bowie." He had an archive of material to draw from, and as no one else had created a Bowie site that laid out his life and work chronologically, he set to work.
It took Griffin about three years, with a full-time job and small children to see to at the same time, to cover the years from 1974 to 1980. As he worked, other people would contact him and contribute obscure interviews. In 2010, The Guardian named it website of the week, then Omnibus asked whether he'd like to turn it into a book.
Bowie is the central character, but he touched so many lives that the book becomes not just a chronicle of his life, but of the times. The entry for December 6, 1980, quotes John Lennon discussing Bowie's performance in the Broadway production of The Elephant Man. Two days later he was shot dead by Mark Chapman.
Lennon and Ono were supposed to have attended The Elephant Man the following evening; and Bowie said he was next on Chapman's list. "Chapman had a front-row ticket to The Elephant Man the next night … The night after John was killed there were three empty seats in the front row. I can't tell you how difficult that was to go on."
Now Bowie, too, is gone. How did Griffin feel when he heard the news?
"Everyone was texting me and going 'Are you OK'? But my mum was already dying that week so … it was strange … it was bad enough that I was losing my mum. It seemed cruelly ironic that he survived the destructive 70s and 80s and then, whack! But I kind of wasn't surprised in a way. Ever since the heart attack in 2004 it was like, yeah, four packs of cigarettes a day for decades has got to catch up with you some time, even if you've chucked 'em in."
The book took five years for Griffin to put together – eight if you count the years spent working on the website. Is he finished with Bowie after this tremendous labour of love?
"I’m hoping to do another book on him on a different aspect. Something a lot simpler," he says with a laugh.
Written by Gabriel Wilder. First appeared on Stuff.co.nz. Image: Michael Ochs Archives