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Exclusive Interview: Sean Egan

For all the music, movies, painting and other art Bowie created in his life, one thing he never got around to doing is writing an autobiography. Quite possibly the nearest thing to that is Bowie on Bowie, a curated collection of interviews edited by writer and journalist Sean Egan (I’m not the first to make that observation). I read the book a couple of years ago and blogged about the thoughts it inspired for me at the time. Once I started including interviews, I was eager to reach out to Egan to ask him about the book, Bowie and his broader work.

When it comes to the writing, there’s not much Sean Egan hasn’t done. A freelance journalist, author, and editor, Sean specializes in writing about arts and entertainment, delving into music, film, TV, comics, and literature, as well as social history from the 20th and 21st centuries, and sports, particularly soccer and tennis history. Notable works include books on iconic figures such as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Clash, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tarzan, Manchester United and James Bond (see my Free Form Friday post from last week). His byline has graced numerous magazines, including Ace, Acoustic, Billboard, Classic Pop, Classic Rock, The Guardian, Uncut, and many others. He has also contributed to various websites such as BBC.co.uk, Billboard.com, and RollingStone.com, and has provided liner notes for a variety of major labels. Whew!

Before I get to the interview, you can link HERE to Sean’s website, HERE if you want to order Bowie on Bowie on Amazon (but really, order it from your local bookstore) and HERE for my recent recap of what I was writing about, or more accurately, inspired by the book at the time I was reading it.

And with that, here’s the interview:

Q. It seems like your job is to write about everything I like. Spending a career reading, listening to, watching and then writing about Bowie, the Stones, Paul McCartney, James Bond and everything else you’ve covered seems like a fantasy. Please tell me it’s as fun as it seems!

A. Up to a point. It’s hard work in the sense of endless research and endless re-reading of manuscripts, whether it be the original or the copy editor’s amended manuscript and then the proof-read manuscript. It’s also not that financially rewarding, which is why I have to write so many books. However, as you indicate it does mean I get to write about stuff that I love and I get to interview my heroes and people who knew my heroes.

Q. In compiling and editing a collection of interviews, as you did with “Bowie on Bowie,” how do you choose which interviews to include and what to leave out?

A. Some of it is not in my hands in the sense that to a very large part it’s a matter of what you can actually license: some people and companies set the licensing fee too high so I have to reluctantly not include good articles. Aside from that, you try to create a balance to represent every facet of an artist’s career, both in terms of output and the variety of their interests. I remember I had to belatedly add an article relating to Diamond Dogs because that was the one album that hadn’t really been addressed properly by what I’d licensed. The fact that Diamond Dogs is not that stellar an entry in Bowie’s canon is neither here nor there – you still need to examine that chapter in his career properly in order to get the full context of the career. In terms of leaving out stuff it’s no good licensing interviews where he’s not really saying match or giving much away, and it’s no good licensing very short items because sometimes you only have one chapter in order to address an album.

Q. In reviewing all those interviews did you feel like you were doing research for a different type of project? If you used what you got from all that you read to form the thesis of an original book about Bowie, what would it be?

A. I didn’t feel like I was doing research for a different project except in the sense that sometimes reading so many articles does throw up a pattern. The most chilling one was the number of times an interviewer mentioned Bowie lighting up a Marlboro Light. Of course, the ciggies are what did for him in the end. My thesis for a Bowie book would be the obvious one: that he would endlessly reinvent himself as an artist, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. Some listeners love artists because they make the same album over and over again or at least produce slight variations on a template.


Q. Bowie seemed to contradict himself from interview to interview— for instance, at one point he called
Young Americans unlistenable, while in another interview he said it was the only album of his back catalogue that he still liked. What do you think was going on there?

A. Well, some of Bowie’s proclamations were made when he was off his box on drugs, so you always have that issue to deal with when trying to decide how seriously to take him. There again, people grow and develop and they do change their mind about things.


Q. It seemed like he never liked his past works during the interviews he gave while younger, but then reached a point where he was more respectful about his past (which I think coincided with his newer songs becoming more reflective and self-referential). What do you think accounted for the change in self-assessment?

A. I remember being struck by one of his later interviews where he was looking back on his body of recorded work and saying how happy he was that he’d managed to sustain a high quality. If you read some of these quotes from the early interviews where he’s putting down his records or saying he hasn’t made many great ones, that’s partly young-man’s bravado. I do think he was able in his later years to take stock and stop posing as the tortured artist and just relax and appreciate what good stuff he’d consistently done.

Q. Do you think Bowie tended to tell the interviewer what he thought the interviewer wanted to hear? If so, any idea why?

A. I have heard that claim, and in the interview in the book from The Face magazine, it’s actually brought up although not to Bowie’s face. It shouldn’t be forgotten that David was a very polite and civilized guy. He might have wanted to challenge society’s norms, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into being stroppy or confrontational when someone is sitting in front of you with a tape recorder.

Q. Did you get the sense that he was often seeking affirmation from whoever was interviewing him?

A. I don’t get that impression. He wasn’t that insecure. He knew what he wanted and what he was about and the only time I get the impression that he was ever uncertain about himself and his place in music was that grisly period encompassing Nile Rodgers and Tin Machine where he seemed a little bit lost. Didn’t last long, though.


Q. Forgive me for the long wind up for this one: The way I found
Bowie on Bowie was in a coffee shop that, in addition to coffee sold a handful of books including yours. The shop had several copies, I bought one and asked the manager how the arrangement came to be. It turned out that the shop’s owner was a big Bowie fan, so we ended up having an interesting conversation. It seems to me that some of these artists, like Bowie, or McCartney or the Stones, have been experienced by people across the world and across vast expanses of time and kind of bring us together where there are sometimes few other points of commonality. In the case of Bowie, this is almost ironic considering his subject matter often returned to the theme of isolation. So that’s a lot of words that don’t amount to a question, but broadly, what do you think of all that?

A. It’s an age-old issue. When an artist sends his work out into the world, he has no control over how it’s perceived and received and disseminated. The interesting thing about Bowie is that he tends to be liked by the same kind of people who like Roxy Music or Brian Eno or Todd Rundgren, by which I mean, people who you wouldn’t describe as true believers in rock ‘n’ roll. They’re all artists who almost viewed rock as something to analyze and play with and be ironic about. Some people don’t like that, of course, because they think that implies a lack of respect for the music, but like it or not Bowie was very often arch and playful and using music as a means to an end for fame and riches and his various postmodern ideas. The ironic thing is that it didn’t stop him making some of the greatest albums of all time.

Q. What’s your next project?

A. A biography of the Small Faces, which is published by Equinox Publishing this September. David Bowie crops up in it because he was a big fan of the band and used to follow them from gig to gig when he was still David Jones the folk singer. Kenney Jones, the Small Faces drummer – no relation, I should point out – actually went so far as to tell me that he thought David would have been asked to join the Small Faces were it not for the fact that he was primarily a vocalist and songwriter, rather than an instrumentalist. Interesting alternative reality you have there.

Q. What’s your favorite Bowie song and album?

A. I’m one of these boring people who mainly loves his pop trilogy, by which of course I mean Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. Mick Ronson was a brilliant collaborator with him on those albums and also the albums for other artists they produced together, and he should always be mentioned in any discussion of that period in Bowie’s career. I think Ronson was a brilliant artist verging on genius in his range of talents. I love bits and pieces of the rest of Bowie’s catalogue but can generally take it or leave it.

It’s impossible to name one favorite song, but I do love “Life on Mars,” “Quicksand,” “Lady Grinning Soul,” and “Ziggy Stardust.”


I’d like to thank Sean Egan for participating in this interview and for all the great writing. I have begun reading his Bond book (its teriffic) and look forward to more form him in the future.

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