Tuesday, May 2, 2017

'Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie' review

Woody Woodmansey's autobiography is a must-read for David Bowie fans. After all, SPIDER FROM MARS: MY LIFE WITH BOWIE is the only autobio written by one of Bowie's band members — and it's an intriguing read.

I have read many Bowie biographies in my nearly 35 years as a Bowiehead, but Woodmansey's is by far the most intriguing. The drummer isn't out to "dish" on Bowie or share salacious tidbits from being on the road during the Ziggy Stardust phenomenon; SPIDER FROM MARS is as much of a tribute as it is an honest look at a crucial time when Bowie rose to stardom.

As I said, Woodmansey doesn't dish on the late, legendary rocker in a gossip-y tell-all. He doesn't tell the same stories we've heard before in other biographies. This is an autobiography told from the unique perspective of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust-era drummer, a musician who recorded, toured and for a while, lived with him. That means SPIDER FROM MARS is mostly a musician's story.

Woodmansey reveals fascinating, behind-the-scenes insight into recording with Bowie. He lived with DB for about 18 months, so his autobiography includes that perspective, too. Woodmansey was the drummer in a pre-Bowie band with future Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson, to whom he became close. They grew up in Hull, England and lived with Bowie and his then-wife at Haddon Hall.

David Bowie and 2/3 of the Spiders from Mars are pictured in this "Top of the Pops" performance
of "Starman"
Beyond Woodmansey's musical and personal bond with Ronson, he became fast friends with longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti (the bassist for THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD album) as the rhythm section for Bowie's band the Hype and during the Ziggy years, with Trevor Bolder in the Spiders from Mars.

Mick "Woody" Woodmansey
It's interesting to note that despite Woodmansey's intimate relationship with Bowie — his boss, lead singer, friend, former housemate and the man who helped make him famous — he only refers to him by his first name six or so times. And most of that is when Woodmansey is sharing someone else's account of a story. The drummer consistently calls everyone else by their first name, but with Bowie, he calls him "Bowie" throughout his autobiography.

I can't overemphasize Woodmansey's insight into Bowie the person, Bowie the entertainer, Bowie the singer, DB's Ziggy Stardust persona and of course, Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars' rise to fame.

Woodmansey offers a much new information as he often confirms what we fans knew about Bowie — often from what DB said in various interviews.

It's disappointing to know he didn't have "the musical vocabulary" to properly express what needed or didn't want from his band at times. But on the other hand, Woodmansey backs up what other musicians have said — that Bowie had great musical and theatrical instincts. DB allowed his musicians to freely express themselves — and he was sly about getting the Spiders to dress extravagantly and wear makeup (because they'd get more girls, he told them).
David Bowie (standing near the drumset) jams with the Spiders from Mars
during the October 1972 recording of the video for "The Jean Genie."
The Spiders consisted of guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder
and drummer Woody Woodmansey.

What's extremely is fascinating, to the point of being unbelievable, is Woodmansey's assertion that "Bowie would always be proved right" in making judgment calls on the proper take of a certain solo. DB seemed not to being pay attention while Ronson failed to recapture the same spirit of a solo. Bowie knew he nailed it earlier.

The drummer also writes what I knew from the six times I saw Bowie in concert and the countless bootlegs I own — Bowie always brought his A-game to every performance.

SPIDER FROM MARS longs for me to read similar autobiographies from Visconti and two other musicians who worked intimately with Bowie, pianist Mike Garson and guitarist Carlos Alomar.

Fittingly, Woodmansey's autobio covers Bowie's career, but the meat of it covers the nearly four years he was a Spider from Mars. The time in the 1980s when Woodmansey was Art Garfunkel's drummer is not nearly as interesting, but the story picks up again when he forms Woodmansey's Holy Holy (more on that in a bit).

Woodmansey was there when Bowie was a few years into his career, when he was struggling to find his own voice. And Woodmansey became the Hype drummer in 1970, Bowie essentially was a one-hit wonder, banking on the glory of "Space Oddity."

SPIDER FROM MARS ends with the drummer's time performing the entirety of THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD album live — the first LP he recorded with DB, who died on the second U.S. concert of that tour. That made the rest of the tour a tribute to Bowie's music and career. In another fitting bit of irony, THE MAN producer and bassist Visconti called Bowie from the stage on his 69th birthday so the crowd could sing "Happy Birthday" to him. Bowie died two days later — also two days after the release of his last album.

Grade: A-

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