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Book Review: Dancing With Demons: Dusty Springfield by Penny Valentine and Vicki Wickham

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Some of the worst biographies are perpetrated by the friends, family members, and business associates who should know their subjects best. Whether due to their inadequacies as writers or the desire to bend history to their interests, these insiders can perpetrate the most incomprehensible biographies. Add Dancing With Demons: The Authorised Biography of Dusty Springfield —  written by Dusty Springfield’s long-time friend, Penny Valentine, and long-term manager, Vicki Wickham — to the list of inside stories that utterly fail to lend any sense of what made their subjects exceptional. While the authors clearly care for their subject and her music, their attempts to interpret Dusty’s eccentricities, along with their hazy sense of chronology, are as much of a disservice to the singer’s legacy as a sleazy tell-all would have been.

Dusty Springfield was a remarkable stylist who crafted an achingly soulful vocal sound from her deep appreciation of rhythm and blues music, not that you’d learn that from this book. The overwhelming impression of Dusty in Dancing With Demons is that she was famous primarily for being an eccentric “personality,” like Zsa Zsa Gabor or Anna Nicole Smith. Throughout the book, Dusty’s musical accomplishments are overshadowed by accounts of her bizarre behavior and unconventional lifestyle. The authors trot out numerous accounts of Dusty throwing dinnerware and cutting herself before revealing that she was diagnosed as manic depressive. Many of these numbingly repetitive episodes serve no purpose other than to support the authors’ pop psychology analysis, that Dusty’s behavior was her way of dealing with “chaotic … psychic pain.”

Dusty’s contributions to pop music are incidental to the story the authors try to tell, which focuses far more extensively on her sexuality than on her accomplishments. It seems likely that anyone who would seek out a biography of Dusty Springfield would be more interested in reading about her singing a duet of “Mockingbird” with Jimi Hendrix (on her BBC TV show), for example, than with the names of the gay clubs she played late in her career. There are some revealing anecdotes, such as the encounter with Buddy Rich that gained her a reputation as a “difficult” performer, but far too few. Late in the book, there are brief references to her “fine” R&B record collection (which she sold to Graham Nash) and to her perfectionism in the studio. These tantalizing glimpses into the singer’s personal and professional life only make the reader more aware of the book’s shortcomings.

There are better books on Dusty Springfield out there, and it’s always possible that one of her confidants will pen a revealing biography that doesn’t lose sight of why the singer is so revered. Despite an author named Valentine, Dancing With Demons is no love letter.

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About James A. Gardner