Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground is dedicated to Jonas Mekas; and the avant-garde permeates the whole film, whether it’s in its use of films by experimental filmmakers (and I recognised snippets of Maya Deren, John Smith, Kenneth Anger, Mekas himself, and others), poetry (Gisnburg), Pop Art (Warhol of course, but also whole array of Factory output is featured), musique concrete, queer cultures from the Kennedy era onwards, and so on. The film develops chronologically but feels synchronic through its use of split screens always playing with and against each other, bringing in other references and contexts, not usually used as mere illustration. It’s narrated but feels polyvocal through its uses of various voices and perspectives, both past and contemporary. A magnificent job of digging up archival footage, and a magnificent job of sculpting a structure through the editing, both of the images and the music, of which the film increased my understanding. David Bowie, Jonathan Richman, Amy Taubin appear to enhance understanding, which is occasionally also an understanding of limitations. The most arresting moment is Reed, looking gorgeous, wearing shiny but dirty metallic nail-polish, chatting to a very tired looking Warhol about painting and who of the Velvets he’s still in touch with. I loved it.
I highly recommend Dylan Jones’ oral biography of David Bowie. I’ve only ever seen the form applied to sweeping historical subjects and was first introduced to it by Studs Terkel’s landmark work, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970). It’s interesting to note how this form, developed to put the personal back into the historical, to give first-hand accounts of vast social changes, evolved into first-hand accounts of one person’s experience of a historical period (for example the Nella Last’s Mass Observation Diaries, turned into books and which Victoria Wood then used as a basis for Housewife, 49.) and latterly, as a form of biography cobbled together from interviews of people who knew the subject at various points in their life (Michael Zuckoff’s excellent Robert Altman: An Oral History, 2010)
Jones’ book has the great advantage of getting dozens of first-hand perspectives on Bowie across a long period of time whilst almost entirely keeping the ‘author’ out of the narrative, which, if you dislike him as much as I do, is a good thing He brags, without a soupćon of irony about bringing Giles Coren, Rod Liddle, Piers Morgan. AA Gill and Boris Johnson to write for GQ. You can imagine all as teenagers, wearing their public school top hats, burning £5 pound notes and throwing rocks at that David Jones with the long hair from Bromley.
What comes across in David Bowie: A Life is a very nice man, unfailingly polite, constantly curious, trying to find form in sound and image to express states and feelings, and seeking to do so with great interest, curiosity and application. Students of film will find his constant process of developing, trying on, marketing and discarding personae so that the changes in personae become the persona itself, particularly fascinating. Fans of Bowie will find an incredible amount of detail on the recording of some of the great pop music of the last century. Those interested in the salacious will also find what they seek in this book.
We’re so lucky now to be able to follow this type of book whilst listening to and seeng all the music and films referred to on you-tube. I was surprised at how familiar I was with all of it, much of which I wouldn’t have recognised by titles alone. In listening and seeing now, I remember what I felt then, but can now name, contextualise and articulate. Great book.