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EXCLUSIVE Interview: Bowie author Chris O’Leary

One of the truly wonderful aspects of this project for me is that I’ve been able to interact with authors I’ve been reading, sometimes for years. Chris O’Leary is such an author. Chris is the Bowie writer who other Bowie writers go to as a source. His two books, which discuss every Bowie song, Rebel Rebel and Ashes to Ashes, are fascinating and invaluable resources. But what Chris O’Leary does better than anyone on the planet is — and I say this as someone who blogs daily about David Bowie— is blog about David Bowie. His blog, Pushing Ahead of the Dame (click to link) is the absolute gold standard. I’m a little concerned that by drawing attention to it, you’ll stop reading mine! (Though I consciously try to avoid writing the type of thing Chris does). Anyway, I’m especially excited this week to share with you this interview.

But before we get to it— if you’re interested in buying either of Chris’s books, there are links on the main page of his blog that take you to sites in both England and the U.S. Rather than recreate those links here, just skip over to his, or better yet, ask for the books at your local bookstore.

And now, Chris O’Leary…
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Q. A blog is a much longer commitment than even a book. What inspired you to start writing about Bowie and what about Bowie keeps you interested?

A. It was a pretty flip idea, without much thought to it. I’d stalled out on writing an earlier blog, so—this was in 2009, midsummer—I started casting about for ideas for some other project. I thought about going through an artist’s catalog song-by-song, starting with the first single and onward. This seemed like a straightforward and easy thing to write (my earlier blog was a strange beast that roamed all over the place), and for a while it was a breeze to do: I got through all of Bowie’s 1960s songs in 5 months or so, when few people were reading the thing.

Deciding on who to write about was something I narrowed down quickly. Some candidates, like Neil Young, had too sprawling a catalog and no signs of it ever ending—I mean, even after Neil dies, you know there’s still going to be like 50 more records in the pipeline. Pete Townshend, with the Who and solo, was an early contender, but I realized that basically his story ends in the early ’90s—I wanted to do someone who began in the 60s or 70s but was still somewhat contemporary. So that pretty much left Bowie. I had no interest in Dylan or the Beatles—there was just too much of a critical apparatus already, and Ian MacDonald and Clinton Heylin had already done the song-by-song-in-order thing for them. And I realized I was interested in Bowie, whose music I liked but whom I hadn’t thought about in years.

Q. How do you approach the process of dissecting and analyzing Bowie’s extensive catalog for your blog?

A. Doing it chronologically, song by song, helped as an organizing strategy! I’m glad I didn’t go with some cloudier idea like grouping songs together by themes or something. I think I did briefly consider doing songs alphabetically, which might have been fun.

The research process was never too formulaic: it entailed trying to find references to the song in various articles, bios, radio interviews, etc., then digging into the song itself—which meant, among other things, learning to read music and play (very modestly) guitar and bass, which I did over the past 15 years. Finding out what makes a song work, aided by me asking musicians “what’s going on here?” at times. And listening to what DB was listening to at the time, listening to other records made by his producers or musicians: all of that context helped.

Nicholas Pegg’s Complete David Bowie was an essential guide—what Nicholas is so good at is compressing five decades’ worth of information into like four paragraphs, so in a minute’s read you get a sense of when the song was made, what critics said about it at the time, when he played it live, who covered it, etc. Early on, I realized I was writing this rather strange marginal commentary to Pegg’s work, trying to stay out of his way, which eventually led me to do stuff like write fictional parallel lives of Bowie or devote much of a song entry to writers like Ray Gosling or George Steiner.

From the start, I didn’t want to do that much lyrical analysis, though of course I did a heap of it over the course of the blog. But I felt then, and still do, that lyrics can take up too much room in music criticism—which is understandable! It’s harder to describe in words how, say, a guitar part works than it is to note how someone’s using rhyme, for instance. It helped that Bowie often wrote very abstruse lyrics, sometimes quite literally random-assembled lines, which made it more difficult to say what song was allegedly “about.” I don’t think he knew sometimes!

I know this could frustrate some readers, who were looking for an explanation of, say, what’s going on in the “it’s Monday” bit in “Joe the Lion,” and I still honestly have no idea, apart from it’s Bowie improvising a series of unusual, brilliant phrasings and using words that fit well.

Q. At one point I attempted to convert some of my blog posts into a book and found the process to be more challenging than I first thought— I eventually gave up. You wrote two books based off your blog— what was that process like for you?

A. Very hard. The first book in particular. There were a few times in 2012-2013 when I nearly gave up on it, as I felt like I didn’t know what in hell I was doing and thought it was a waste of time, a real folly. Also I was still doing the blog on a weekly or biweekly basis then, so I had this “bicameral mind” experience in which I was revising entries on Man Who Sold the World at the exact same time I was writing new ones on Earthling and Hours…

In retrospect, I should have just put the blog on hiatus for nine months or something while I got the core of the book edits done, but I was younger and more foolhardy then. So I have few fond memories of the Rebel Rebel period—I was honestly quite miserable much of the time, for a number of reasons.

Turning something that I wrote in dribs and drabs over a set of years into a coherent book was a slog. It really helped that a few people read the ongoing manuscript—their thoughts and encouragement got me through it. The songwriter Momus was a savior when I was bogged down in Diamond Dogs, I recall. Also, the commenters on the original blog entries were a great means by which to see which essays had bombed, which hit, which had faulty arguments, which seemed slipshod and needed reworking.

The second book was easier to put together, in part because the blog was a much more diminished presence in the 2016-2018 period when I wrote Ashes to Ashes. The challenge for this one was that I suddenly had to write a book about an artist who had just died, and so having to make things more posthumous in tone without changing the original pieces too much. It still was exhausting to get that book done, but a much more focused and generally enjoyable time. There were a few stretches where things went very smoothly—I recall when I finally got all the Outside narrative in place, that the rest of that chapter just flew by.

Again, having other people read it was a godsend. The author Mairead Case saved me from an awkward last line—I’d originally written that Bowie was still “pushing ahead of the dames,” and she correctly pointed out that it didn’t really work, that it made for a very jarring end, you know? So I cut it to just “pushing ahead,” which felt like what the line was always meant to be.

Q. Bowie’s music — both the music itself and his lyrics— seem to lend themselves to analysis and contemplation. It’s like we’re never going to run out of things to write about Bowie. What’s special about Bowie in this regard? Could you have just as easily decided to create an extensive blog about Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or is Bowie unique?

A. It’s tough to say. I think Bowie could be as enigmatic as Dylan but he also often came off, especially post-1980, as a more “relatable”—an awful word, but no substitute for it here—figure. In that Bowie was always a great interview—he was funny and sharp, and while he was always crafting whatever narrative he was pushing at the time, he also could be fairly open about his work, what went into it, what he was reading or where he was living. So you have this combination of a grand, mysterious artistic figure and this incredibly charming public entertainer—that combination is I think what drew many people to him.

All of his stylistic moves have helped to keep his music fresh. So when one era seems a bit stale, like the glam period or the 80s pop excursion, another will seem alluring and ahead of its time, and hook a younger generation. For instance the “Berlin” records, which didn’t sell well at the time and, at least in the US, weren’t played on radio, seemed in sync with some of what was going on in the 1990s. I saw that Outside, which got its share of mockery in the press as a failed rock opera, was making some inroads a few years ago. Who knows, maybe Tin Machine’s time will come one day.

And of course, DB gave us a fantastic ending with Blackstar—the end of his life was an artistic triumph, which you don’t often get for a (relatively) long-lived creator, and especially in rock music. It will help Bowie’s longevity that many people’s last image of him is of someone who was still making fresh,adventurous new music—he wasn’t on Jimmy Fallon promoting some Ziggy Stardust Broadway musical, though of course he’d been considering such a thing at one point.

Q. After years of study and reflection, what would you say are Bowie’s overall themes? Does the totality of his music carry with it a coherent message? If so, what is it?

A. He’d say, in later interviews, that he realized he was always writing about the same subjects: isolation, identity, loneliness, fear, the hope of transformation and so forth. You can hear that it’s the same person who’s singing “Cygnet Committee” and “Blackstar”; it’s the same artistic persona. He had a middle-class suburban weirdo’s POV, which I share a bit of—a feeling of something like “how did I wind up in this life? This wasn’t the one I was supposed to have.” The through-line of Bowie’s love of eccentrics, from Ken Nordine to Biff Rose to Uncle Floyd. Though he had a half-brother, Bowie also really feels like he has an only child’s perspective, which again I can relate to. A life spent living too much in one’s head and forever trying to find ways to connect with others. The line “you’re not alone!” in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” like so many Bowie lines, is in part a hope for himself.

Q. Since his death, Bowie seems to have transcended from being a rock star to a cultural phenomenon. Why did this happen? Would we be thinking of him differently had he died suddenly in, say 1990?

A. As I said, his timing in death was perfect. If he’d fully stopped touring and making records in 2004, and had drifted off into serene retirement, seen here and there in paparazzi photos but otherwise living a private life, and then you woke up one morning in 2016 and saw that he was gone–yes, it still would have been a big shock, of course, and it still would have felt like the end of an era in the way it will when, say, McCartney goes.

But I don’t think it would have hit as hard as it did, when he was coming off 3 comeback years in which he’d been a ball of energy—new albums, a play, new videos, the museum exhibit. He was really “back” in a way he hadn’t been in 15 years, so his sudden death (seeming so at the time—obviously in retrospect there were plenty of signs he was ill), literally days after his greatest album in decades came out, was shocking. It left so many of us reeling. And of course, it now seems like a grim omen of things to come.

Q. Along those lines, why do you think that people only casually familiar with Bowie are most familiar with his music from the period from “Space Oddity” to the mid-80s. Yet he created an enormous amount of quality music since. Why do you think songs like, say, “Where Are We Now?” or “Hallo Spaceboy” are rarities in Bowie cover shows (which, by the way have become prolific)?

A. Much of this still comes down to the legacy of the “monoculture” era of the West, in which there were only a handful of TV stations, radio stations, music publications etc. So many people still only know the songs they heard on broadcast then. American rock radio in the ’80s and ’90s had a very strict definition of Bowie’s music, which was the tracklist of the ChangesOne album and a couple of 80s singles. Even “Heroes” didn’t get played that much. It was different in the UK, as stuff like “Drive in Saturday” and “Boys Keep Swinging” had been top 10 hits, so the catalog was a bit more diverse, but even then the general idea of “David Bowie” was confined to, say, 15 of his most popular songs and a few of his movie roles, etc.

I imagine it’s changing now, loosening up some, as younger generations now first encounter Bowie by skipping around his catalog on streaming services or seeing a kid showing you how to play the “Ziggy Stardust” riff on a YouTube instruction video. There’s less of a settled Bowie “canon.” But again, if you’re listening to some Best of Bowie mix on Spotify, the algorithms will still likely serve you up “Jean Genie” far more than they will “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction” or “Bring Me the Disco King.”

Still, all it will take is some hip director or someone on TikTok to use something like “Heathen (The Rays)” and then, whoosh, you’ve got a new “major” Bowie song. Recall how the Nirvana “Man Who Sold the World” had reclaimed that song—which really had been an obscurity in 1993, in the US: few people there knew what it was (MTV included). And after that it became a Bowie standard—fans wanted to hear it on tour as much as “Modern Love.” I imagine unexpected things like that will keep happening as we go on through the years.

Q. I have to ask this one— what’s your favorite Bowie song and album?

A. “Queen Bitch” and Low are my stock answers, and still pretty much true.

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I want to thank Chris for participating in this interview. And if you want more of Chris, there’s a whole lot on his blog, and don’t worry— I’ll keep quoting him in mine!

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