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BOOK REVIEW

Biographer explores universe in which Bowie still shines

David Bowie, here performing at the Fleet Center in 2004, is described in detail by music critic/biographer Paul Trynka. David Bowie, here performing at the Fleet Center in 2004, is described in detail by music critic/biographer Paul Trynka. (Robert E. Klein/AP/File)
By Liz Raftery
Globe Correspondent / July 22, 2011

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Paul Trynka’s meticulously researched, comprehensive biography “David Bowie: Starman’’ will probably establish itself as the definitive text on the rock legend, an exhaustive examination of Bowie’s life from his childhood in England to the present day. But the intensity of readers’ admiration for the singer will probably determine whether this level of detail produces fascination or fatigue.

While “Starman’’ will be a must-read for Bowie obsessives, casual fans might balk, for instance, at the prospect of having to slog through nearly 200 pages before Bowie’s breakthrough alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, is born - and at that point, we are only in 1971. It does not help matters that, for such a flamboyant subject, Trynka’s writing is remarkably textbook dry. (He also has an irritating habit of ending nearly every chapter with a James Patterson-esque sense of foreboding.)

While acknowledging Bowie’s creative genius, Trynka (whose credits include “Iggy Pop: Open Up & Bleed,’’ in 2008, and editorial positions at Mojo and Q magazines) maintains an almost scientific aura of objectivity throughout the book, offering dissections of Bowie’s relationships, both personal and professional. By no means is this a fawning portrait. In fact, the most frequently recurring theme of “Starman’’ is Bowie’s capacity to use those around him for personal gain, and doing so in such a way that “[s]ometimes . . . the objects of his attention would experience that giddy, tingly feeling you get when you’re in love.’’ It’s debatable, according to Trynka, whether this was malicious in nature, but less disputed is that Bowie’s “talent for identifying people who could help him was as finely honed as his songwriting skills.’’

As a music critic first and foremost, Trynka’s unwavering focus throughout “Starman’’ is on Bowie’s art. He explores in extraordinary, entertaining depth the crafting of such hits as “China Girl’’ and “Heroes,’’ and consistently presents Bowie’s endeavors in their proper musical context. Descriptions of rock ’n’ roll excesses, while by no means ignored, are presented with less braggadocio than, say, Steven Tyler’s anecdotes in his recent autobiography. Even the section on Bowie’s “coke [not cola] and milk diet’’ period, when he nursed an obsession with flamboyant English mystic Aleister Crowley and began having drug-induced hallucinations, is presented in relation to the musical material it spawned.

Though not explicitly stated, the most astonishing aspect of “Starman’’ is the scope of Bowie’s longevity (he is 64). Over his career, his peers range from Little Richard to Lady Gaga, and his collaboration and friendship with Iggy Pop features prominently in the second half of the book.

“Starman’’ features input from every significant figure in Bowie’s life, as well as minor players (shades of his magnetic personality apparently began to come through as early as elementary school, we learn from former classmates). But too rarely do we hear from the man himself, and many of the direct Bowie quotes are taken from previous interviews.

Some myths are dispelled along the way, including the rumored Bowie-Mick Jagger sexual liaison, but the central characterization that emerges is Bowie’s chameleon-like adaptation of his persona (and, most famously, his sexuality) to get what he wanted or needed from those around him.

“[W]as David Bowie truly an outsider, or was he a showbiz pro exploiting outsiders, like a psychic vampire?’’ Trynka muses in the book’s prologue. An argument can be (and is) made for each position, though 500 pages later, Trynka doesn’t reach a definitive conclusion about how calculated Bowie’s actions were - or whether he was even conscious that they could be viewed as exploitative. “Starman’’ does little to penetrate the enigma that is David Bowie, but perhaps it is that very mystery surrounding him that is his quintessential character trait.

Liz Raftery, a freelance writer based in New York, can be reached at elizabeth.raftery@gmail.com.

DAVID BOWIE: Starman

By Paul Trynka

Little, Brown, 530 pp.,

illustrated, $25.99