I have made a conscious decision this year to try and avoid writing about any posthumous David Bowie releases, or other associated Bowie material – his death affected me so profoundly and emotionally that it clouded my judgement to a point where almost anything with a Bowie image or reference to the great man was impossible to assess objectively.
Woody Woodmansey’s memoir, then, is the eighteenth Bowie related book I have accumulated in this year of illogical and undiscerning Bowie ‘smash and grab’, and the one to snap me out of my self-indulgent grieving period and force me to accept this bleakish post-Bowie era as the new reality, and to take a more discerning detached view of the plethora of individual tomes that have crashed into our bookstores in a publication avalanche throughout 2016.
Having come to the Bowie universe in the same manner so many others did – through a life-changing first exposure to Starman in 1972 – I can still feel the panic I felt when Bowie announced the Spiders From Mars were no longer a functional entity. Those three musicians – Woodmansey on drums, guitarist Mick Ronson, and the silver sideburned Trevor Bolder on bass – had become such an integral part of the concept and mystique of Ziggy Stardust that to imagine Bowie as a separate being, set apart from his loyal space lieutenants, was nigh on impossible at the time.
Neither Ronson nor Bolder committed their memories of the tumultuous three and a half years of Ziggymania to paper in their all too short lifetimes. Bowie never published a memoir of any sort either, so Woodmansey is the only one with first hand experience of how it felt to actually be on the stages of the world as Ziggy went from playing to forty disinterested punters at the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham to playing to thousands of fans across the UK, US and Japan within a few brief years. As such, Woodmansey’s account can be seen as an important addition to the Bowie-related literary canon, even if his book is very light on moments of significant epiphany.
To be fair, whilst the man has every right to feel bitter about the way he was sacked from the band by Tony DeFries, he remains calm, and even though it makes for less fascinating reading, he generally resists the urge to do too much overt mud-slinging. In a shocking piece of insensitivity, the news of his sacking from the Spiders was delivered by an impersonal Tony DeFries phone call to Woodmansey at his wedding reception just after Woody had tied the knot with his high school sweetheart, and Spiders’ wardrobe mistress, June – surely reason enough to let fly and release any pent-up anger and frustration that must have naturally followed such an experience? But no, the decision is looked at so rationally here it seems like Woodmansey has had some sort of emotional lobotomy in the years since. Or at least some intensive emotional counselling that has taught him more passive aggressive ways to exorcise his residual demons.
With the benefit of hindsight, and the healing power of time, Woodmansey attributes the cold and callous treatment he received back then to Bowie’s distorted view of reality due to his all consuming seventies cocaine habit. That, and the fact DeFries’ costly strategy of spending lavishly to create an impression that the band were already superstars when they were just starting out, which had left Bowie and the band deep in debt to the record company. So he asserts now that his dismissal was simply collateral damage after he had asked for wage parity with the back-up singers and additional musicians who were receiving significantly more than the members of the Spiders whilst on the touring payroll. He does, however, make sure his reportage of these events includes some of Bowie’s more nasty and personally hurtful comments to him and the band which indicate more clearly how he really feels about his extraction from the Bowie universe.
The saddest thing about this book, is that apart from the heady days of the Ziggy years, Woodmansey never really had anything else of career significance happen in his life. His post-Bowie bands (The Spiders From Mars, Woody Woodmansey’s U-Boat) were one album wonders, and apart from a shortish stint touring with Art Garfunkel, not much else has happened in the ensuing years. A happy marriage, a stable home, and rearing three solid, morally straight kids, unfortunately are not the stuff of best-selling autobiographies. Therefore, the ‘life story’ we get here overly relies upon ‘revelations’ in the book being of the ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ variety.
For instance, he was asked to audition for Wings but didn’t take up the opportunity; Bowie apparently floated the possibility of a Spiders reunion in 1978, but that didn’t eventuate; he was approached by Meatloaf, at the height of his Bat Out Of Hell fame, to play in his band, but didn’t jump on board there either. He did play on one song on a Dexy’s Midnight Runners album, and played a short stint with Edgar Winter – but neither developed into any long-standing association.
So no ground-breaking cache of titillating tidbits here, however, compared to most of the other memoirs by those close to Bowie at various times in his career, it must be said this book is slightly more engaging and whilst a bit pedestrian in its prose, is written more competently than many.
Bowie’s former Haddon Hall landlady, and one-time lover, Mary Finnigan’s Psychedelic Suburbia: David Bowie And The Beckenham Arts Lab (Jorvik Press) from earlier in the year is one such early association cash-in that offered Bowie acolytes very little of interest at all – apart from a brief voyeuristic account of their momentary affair – although it was significantly better than the embarrassingly desperate account of the Bowie connection offered up by one-time Feathers guitarist, John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson in his 2014 shocker Bowie & Hutch (Lodge Books) – the worst Bowie book I have read yet – which stretched out a miniscule amount of information and some tenuous recollections, that could easily have been covered in a short magazine article, to a laborious 373 pages.
Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie strips away some of the romantic notions long-term Bowie fans may still be clinging on to. The Spiders were not overly worldly – let alone other-worldly – and their touring exploits were pretty mundane and their pranks and high-jinks really lame. In some ways, this gives a more grounded view of the time, but it can also be seen to depressingly demythologize this magical time in rock music history and in the lives of seventies glam-rock starchildren nostalgically holding onto a consciously positively skewed mental image of that golden era in this age of Trump and terror.
And in the year in which the world lost David Bowie for good, and when people are still feeling the pain of that loss, do people really want to read opportunistic passive aggressive carping about the singer’s selfishness and the damaging narcissism he was allegedly guilty of forty plus years ago? Especially from a man who is now currently touring the world, and enjoying another chance at being in the spotlight, playing to huge mourning post-Bowie’s death crowds, in an all-star (and actually quite excellent) Bowie tribute band?
Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie by Woody Woodmansey is out now, published by Sidgwick & Jackson