The Complete David Bowie (Revised and Updated 2016 Edition) by Nicholas Pegg | Publisher: Titan Books
It’s been almost a year since the world lost David Bowie, and Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, expanded and rereleased in 2016 in its Seventh Edition, is still considered the most definitive and exhaustive trove of Bowie information available. Updated to a daunting 800 pages, this first third of the encyclopedia is broken down alphabetically by song; the remaining chapters on albums, live performances, and visuals are all organized chronologically. And just in case you can’t quite remember what album was released during the Bowie exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (answer: The Next Day) the timeline at the back of the book cross-references recording releases, stage, and TV/Film appearances by year, month, and date.
These facts, painstakingly organized but seemingly dry, aren’t what makes the book. They’re just the punctuation to the unending pages of insight and understanding of the mind of the artist. Each entry in the A to Z song listing includes the inspiration of the music and the technical details of the instrumentals (if you read the Forward, which you always should, these musical details make far more sense in the context of what Bowie considered the most important). Most are woven together, story-like, with short anecdotes.
Every song is listed, even the B-sides and the unrecorded and probably even what he sang in the shower. It periodically feels like overkill to have to flip through the songs of his high school cover band, but it more than makes up for it when you get to the meat of the most Bowie-esque entries. The most commercially popular songs receive the longest treatment: Heroes gets almost four full pages, and that length allows the story to move beyond backing tracks and rigged mics into David’s “ongoing marital traumas” and revolving addictions that partly fueled the lyrics.
Where the majority of The Songs from A to Z focus on the sound production, The Albums delves into the history and events and music-insider politics of how each album, one by one, came into existence. The story of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, the genesis of Bowie’s persona albums and the tenable roots of glam rock, is every bit as glitter-covered-spaceman-bonkers as you would believe it to be, while the pages on Blackstar, released just two days before his death, somehow manage to be hopeful and exciting even though you know how the story is about to end.
But the music itself was only ever one half of Bowie. The chapters on his visuals— Live Performances and Stage & Screen— are incredibly evocative and paint a lush picture of every flamboyant sequin and set list and overhead light that ever traveled on tour. It physically hurts me that I’ll never get to see Bowie on stage, so picking up a reference book and being transported to each tour, being backstage and onstage and in the audience for each show will be as close as I ever get. The only thing that could have been more satisfying would have been images, because who doesn’t love pictures of Bowie through the ages? But the credit goes to Pegg for writing in such vivid, jarring detail that you don’t even realize they’re lacking. His movie career and painting aspirations aren’t described quite so intensely, but instead provide background insight and color commentary to supplement any good Google image search.
There’s no right way to read the book: start with your favorite song and fall down a Bowie worm-hole, or read up on an album and then go through the track list stories one by one. It’s dense, and while the entries read like a wild collection of short stories, reading it cover to cover makes for a surprisingly intimate glimpse into how and why David Robert Jones became David Bowie. Consider it your bible on all the Bowie you never knew you never knew.