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To Major Tom: The Bowie Letters

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Sanctuary, London, 2002
368 pages; price: £7.99

The blurb on the back:

Since his angst ridden adolescent years in ‘Colditz’, through to life as a greying father of two, Gary has been writing to his idol, David Bowie.
Through 30 years of one way correspondence we no look back over a team in which both men have overcome life’s obstacles. From Ziggy Stardust to Glass Spiders; and a nervous, naïve teenager to unfulfilled adult. Through it all, Gary has shared his most intimate thoughts with his hero. Bowie’s songs serve as succour, offering inspiration in his moments of bitterness, confusion, anxiety, and finally, liberation.
Compulsive and captivating
To Major Tom proves that we may all have to grow up, but we don’t have to lose our heroes.

opening lines:
My name's Gary and I write letters to pop stars.

Just to be clear from the outset, this is wonderful: an epistolary novel that retells David Bowie’s career from Ziggy Stardust through three decades of triumph, disappointment and redemption.

Gary Weightman is 12-years-old when he first encounters Bowie singing ‘Starman’ on Lift Off With Ayesha and is hooked in the way that so many of us were. So he begins writing to the great man, a one-sided correspondence that continues through his teen years, into adulthood and middle-age. The fervour of the ‘70s fades into the familiarity of perpetual presence, but the love remains (however sorely tested) and bursts into renewed enthusiasm with the arrival of the first Tin Machine album and Outside. Throughout it all, he is a hardcore fan, and one of the central themes of the book is an exploration of what being a fan entails. ‘Trust is what sets a fan aside from a mere consumer,’ he reflects in his mature years. ‘A lot of people buy David Bowie’s records. But how many buy the records that David Bowie buys? Or read the books he reads, watch the films he sees…’ (pp.7-8)

Beyond that, it’s also the best biography of Bowie I’ve read. The man’s career is such a wonderful celebration of artifice and masquerade that a scholarly, orthodox biography could never hope to do him justice; like Oscar Wilde, he’s much better approached through the medium of fiction. I’ve read enough of those Bowie biogs – from the wretched George Tremlett onwards – to know that none of them present a very credible picture of what makes the man tick. Nor do I particularly care. He’s a pop star, for God’s sake. I want to know about the star, not the man. It’s a point Thompson addresses, with the emergence of Suede:

People believed you, they believed in you and, so far, Suede are maintaining that same illusion. Behind closed doors, they may be transformed into the most uninteresting dullards on earth, a whole group of David Jones from Beckenhams. But nobody knows and, so far, nobody cares. (p.320)

Precisely. Despite the great Charlie Rich, I really don’t give a damn what goes on behind closed doors. I want to know about the pretend Bowie, the one to whom those diary columns in Mirabelle were attributed (the ones that were actually written by Cherry Vanilla). Despite speculations here into the motivation of various key events in Bowie’s career, this makes no pretence to get inside his head – instead it recognizes that such a thing is both impossible and undesirable. There’s way too much fun to be had with the public personae to worry about the private man.

And a large part of that fun is in the plethora of here-today-gone-tomorrow rumours that filled up so many of the music ‘papers in the glory days of Mainman, all lovingly recorded here. As are Mr Thompson’s own tastes beyond Bowie, which provide hours of entertaining material for argument – absolutely right to celebrate the Doctors of Madness and Dog Man Star, completely wrong to miss out on the twisted pop genius of Adam & The Ants.

The only weakness is that the early letters, written allegedly by a young schoolboy, display a vocabulary and grasp of syntax that I don’t believe we were capable of producing at that stage of British educational history. But then it might have been a bit coy in a cod-Jennings way to have tried to capture the authentic incompetence of childhood letter-writing. And anyway, it’s only a minor quibble. Mostly the level of intelligence and analysis of the star-fan relationship is so sharp that it would be churlish to complain.

It may sound a little like yet another rock Fever Pitch, but it transcends any such thing. One of the few truly great rock novels.


my thanks to Ms Michelle Coomber
for lending me this book

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