Peter Doggett's "The Man Who Sold the World" is not so much a book as it is a project -- meticulously documenting the whole of David Bowie's oeuvre during the 1970s, when his star burned brightest.
Doggett discusses the hits and misses along with the alternate takes, miscellaneous B-sides and a wealth of unreleased material recorded as Bowie transforms himself from a hippy-dippy folk singer into Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke and beyond.
"The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s"By Peter Doggett
HarperCollins, 512 pages, $26.99
Doggett convincingly argues that Bowie was the emblematic performer of the 1970s in much the same way the Beatles and Rolling Stones were emblematic of the 1960s. That Bowie didn't share their universal acclaim is more than made up for, Doggett argues, by his managing to stay relevant even as punk rock and disco relegated the classic rockers to the status of dinosaurs toward the end of the decade.
The book also makes many good points about Bowie's bisexuality and flirtation with fascism, but its fractured structure -- with issues arising in the context of one song only to disappear in the discussion of the next -- makes it hard to consider these things in depth.
There are also explanatory essays and discussions of each album as a cohesive work, but that often means that certain repeated allusions in individual songs will only make sense hundreds of pages into the book.
"The Man Who Sold the World" is meticulously researched and full of obscure details, but while such dogged thoroughness is admirable, it can leave the reader who does not have a lot of time and the entire Bowie catalog close at hand feeling a little lost.
It also helps to have a basic understanding of musical principles otherwise all the descriptions of minor key bass lines descending while the guitars rise over diatonic scales to end in Eb can get a little tedious.
Essentially, this is a book for the Bowie fanatics only, but for them it offers a wonderful opportunity to reconsider rock's great chameleon.