One of the many remarkable things about David Bowie’s career is that it came so close to not happening. Bowie seems like an archetype of individual genius – even his most misguided detours have something interesting about them, as Chris O’Leary’s blog (collected in part in this book) patiently shows. But his career had a multiplicity of false starts – even once he’d scored a big hit, five years in, there was no particular sense he’d become a constant presence in pop. Let alone rewrite or dominate it.
The strength of Rebel Rebel, and of O’Leary’s work on Bowie in general, is that he never takes his subject for granted. Writing about a canonised act it’s easy to take their rise and talent as inevitable. But Bowie constantly interrogated and pushed his own abilities, and a good critic follows suit. The contingent nature of Bowie’s career – the almost-failure of him to come into being – is a constant theme in the blog and book, which fills up with parallel Bowies. Not just the familiar cast – Ziggy, Aladdin, the Thin White Duke – but alternate world Bowies whose fame flickered or stalled, doppelgangers and future selves he meets in song, and evanescent personae who he moved on from before they really got their shot. O’Leary loves to find these alternate Bowies under the skin of his songs, and is never happier than when squirreling after some half-thought-out project or other, like the fragmentary rock operas and sci-fi musicals that became Diamond Dogs. In Rebel Rebel, the song that kickstarts the Bowie we know isn’t really “Space Oddity”, it’s “The Man Who Sold The World”, where Bowie meets himself on a staircase and maybe strikes a deal.
Turning a corpus of songs into a blog, entry by entry, week by week, is a punishing task at times, easy to slack off on. A sense of pacing is very much required – which songs get casual overviews, which are the tentpole entries, where you let the readers take up the slack, where you impose yourself on them. On the blog, digressions abounded – O’Leary reminds me a bit of Greil Marcus circa Lipstick Traces, happy to use his subject as a skeleton key to talk about anything else. In Rebel Rebel the side trips feel more reined in, partly because there are fewer illustrative quotes and no pictures to open the story out even more. And some of O’Leary’s tarter judgements have been toned down (“Love You Til Tuesday” is no longer “catchy and rancid”, sadly) though he is happy to roll his eyes at Bowie when the man deserves it. Set against that there’s more emphasis on the music – the bones of the song. Rebel Rebel is stronger on this – and on Bowie’s collaborators and their contributions – than any other similar book about anyone, except possibly Rebel Rebel‘s avowed model, Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head.
Rebel Rebel isn’t just for musicologists, though. O’Leary is perceptive and generous as well as informed, and a lot of the pleasure is in his crisp side observations and similes – Ziggy Stardust, for instance, as a rock’n’roll album where the rock’n’roll “takes place offstage, like naval battles in Shakespeare”. And the pacing remains superb in its balance of short, informative pieces and big critical workouts, critic and artist raising their games in unison – the book’s climax, an extended look at “Station To Station” framed by Bowie’s personal Hollywood apocalypse, is particularly compelling. “Station To Station” also creates an obvious break point between Rebel Rebel and O’Leary’s promised second volume. The two together will be one of the great achievements of single-artist rock criticism.