by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
I once met David Bowie in London in 1972. He was wearing a pastel-pink, wide-brimmed, floppy, very girly hat. His face was lightly dusted with powder, his lips shone with a touch of gloss, his eyes sported pale blue eyeliner.
He was beautiful, ethereal, and otherworldly. Also friendly: an amused smile on his face, probably amused at my stuttering admiration. He seemed a creature from another dimension, a sprite, a ghost, an elf, a race unto himself. A presence more than a person. I felt I needed an unknown language to communicate with him. English would not be enough.
His smile appeared to appreciate me from a distance. He neither indulged nor disdained my admiration, simply took it. A gracious fellow. A gentleman. In fact, he was grace personified. Elegance emblemized.
Let's face it, the man had style. Like no other. He looked great, whether he was glammed out as Ziggy Stardust, or suited as the Thin White Duke.
I've related to Bowie — more than to Dylan and Lennon, my other pop heroes — because he kept changing. He showed us there is more than one way to be in the world. He made being an outsider OK. He made art out of alienation. Gender, music, identity — all was very fluid to him. I found him more congenial as a fellow creature than other stars, because he was so different, so original, and so various.
And his songwriting was pretty weird on top of being utterly wonderful — think of straight pop songs like Starman and Let's Dance, and then of really weird songs like Is There Life On Mars? and Space Oddity and Cygnet Committee.
Bowie was a freak. Who else was as freakily different and original as Bowie? And who has had such an influence on his fellow practitioners? One could not imagine Madonna without him, or Lady Gaga.
More than anything, it was the otherworldliness of Bowie's freakiness that fascinated. Here is how philosopher Simon Critchley (who wrote a book about Bowie) put it in a NY Times op-ed: “Bowie spoke most eloquently to the disaffected, to those who didn't feel right in their skin, the socially awkward, the alienated. He spoke to the weirdos, the freaks, the outsiders and drew us in to an extraordinary intimacy, although we knew this was total fantasy. But make no mistake, this was a love story. A love story that, in my case, has lasted about 44 years.”
Yet the one who really nailed Bowie's appeal was Tilda Swinton, herself a rather ethereal alien-type, and a bit of a persona switcher too. She gave an introductory speech last year in London at the opening of the V and A museum exhibition devoted to David Bowie, and she addressed herself to the absent Bowie as follows:
“I think the thing I'm loving the most about the last few weeks is how clear it now is — how undeniable — that the freak becomes the great unifier. The alien is the best company after all … When I think of what it used to feel like once, to be a freak who liked you, to feel like a freak like you — a freak who even looked a little like you. And then I think of the countless people of every size and feather who are going to walk through this trace of your journey here and pick up the breadcrumbs … And how familiar and stamped you are into ALL of our our collective DNA … And you brought us out of the wainscotting like so many freaky old bastards … Like so many loners and pretty things and dandies and dudes and dukes and duckies and testicular types. And pulled us together … you, Dave Jones, every alien's favourite cousin.”
I'm with Tilda on this.
Bowie was also deeply dark. Doom-laden lyrics. He had his problems with cocaine. He lived in Berlin, a city of dark undercurrents, for two years, doing the Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger with Brian Eno, a formidably dark and Teutonic set of songs.
He was a generous man. He produced Lou Reed's Transformer, Reed's best album, containing the deathless Walk On The Wild Side, and Iggy Pop's first two albums.
Bowie was also one of the few pop stars — Lou Reed and Peter Gabriel spring to
When he listed his 100 favorite books, they ranged from classics like The Great Gatsby and Madame Bovary and Lolita to funny books like Vile Bodies and A Confederacy of Dunces and Puckoon to interesting stuff like Interviews with Francis Bacon and Journey Into The Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg, about her years in Stalin's prison camps.
Bowie is the only pop star who has had a major museum exhibition devoted to him, which is still traveling around from its inception at the V and A. There hasn't ever been a rock 'n roller worthy of a museum exhibit, except for Bowie. His influence ranged beyond music into fashion and culture. The man had become eminently intellectually respectable. And why is he so museum-appropriate? Because of his chameleon personas, and the way his personas venture forth from strictly music to engage fashion and other trends.
The popstar as persona. The mask as public figure. Before him, public figures worked at creating an enduring single persona. Even actors did it — John Wayne as avuncular cowboy; Clara Bow as vamp; Cary Grant as the ideal gentleman date; Humphrey Bogart's cynical tough guy covering up a morally upright soft heart (when he started off as an upperclass white-tie fop on Broadway). But Bowie said, nope, I'll create a new self every now and then. In his public personas, Bowie exemplifies the psychological theory which says we consist of various self-states, who need to make peace with one another. Except his self-states are so various, there's no way they could be integrated. To enumerate some Bowie self-states:
1. He burst upon the scene as some kind of cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich clone — a drag queen esthetic lies behind The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory. Little Richard, with his camp behavior, and wild makeup, was Bowie's predecessor in this area.
2. His big break-through album, Ziggy Stardust, featured his first character, a bizarro sci-fi alien. This was the introduction of Glam Rock, later taken to its nadir by the LA Hair Metal bands. Before Bowie, there had been no such thing as a popstar changing characters, an act that has only been exploited by Madonna since. Almost more important, Bowie was the first rocker to resonate with up-all-night club kids — that interesting melange of gender-fluid drug-sodden dressing-up fly-your-freak-flag mixed-up teen misfits as a tribe, who later flocked around Madonna, and who were totally emblemized by Boy George, and who these days are the “little monsters” who form the core of the Lady Gaga cult. Bowie could be said to have discovered this demographic; maybe he even created it. He was also one of the first art school-type rockers — along with Glam Rock folks like Roxy Music. He also bent gender in a way more upfront manner than the androgynous figure introduced by Mick Jagger. At the time, Bowie said flat out that he was bisexual, when it was still a shocking thing to admit; at that point only French actor Alain Delon had made that daring claim. Later on, Bowie demurred that this was a big mistake, and that he'd always been “a closeted heterosexual” — a statement which kept alive the whimsical, teasing way in which he played with
3. Then there was “plastic soul,” introduced by his Young Americans album. He went from Brit art-rock to a sort of artificial American soul funk dandy thingummy.
4. Then there is the Thin White Duke, who came about with the Station to Station album. Variously described as “a hollow man who sang of romance with agonized intensity while feeling nothing,” “ice masquerading as fire,” “a mad aristocrat,” “an amoral zombie,” and “an emotionless Aryan superman” (and by Bowie himself as “a nasty character indeed” and “an ogre for me”), he was a man stripped of all previous artifice, of all feeling whatsoever, a numbed-out creature of cocaine (which was true — Bowie was doing drugs by the bucket then). In fact, the chilly distance of the Thin White Duke really nails the wall behind which Bowie has always shielded himself from us in his personas. Around this time he also starred in the mind-bending sci-fi classic The Man Who Fell To Earth, surely the most brilliant casting decision ever.
5. Then Bowie became the reclusive Berlin Krautrock expat, a creator of rigid art, saying nay to any vestige of commercialism, produced with the avant-garde pop avatar himself, Brian Eno. Low, the first album in the trilogy, dominated by no-vocal instrumentals, inspired Philip Glass to use its themes for his first symphony.
6. Next a return back to earlier days with the album Scary Monsters, when Bowie recalled Major Tom from Space Oddity in his Ashes to Ashes song, also an extremely influential video, for which he gathered as actors a number of folks from the new Romantic Brit pop movement. Scary Monsters was quite widely hailed, so much so that every subsequent album has been called “his greatest album since Scary Monsters.” Around this time he also did a three-month stint in the title role of The Elephant Man on Broadway — as far as personas go, pretty extreme.
7. Then he came out with maybe his lousiest album, Let's Dance, as some kind of disco sophisticate person, an album which was ironically his biggest personal success, because amidst the forgettable dross, it had three big hits on it, the mega Let's Dance produced with Nile Rodgers, and the charming China Girl and Modern Love.
After that, there were a number of albums, including one as Tin Machine, when he tried to bury himself in a band, a persona too small for him. Good albums, but not great, except for Outside, another Brian Eno collaboration. If you liked Bowie in the beginning, but lost touch after Young Americans, there are two albums to take another listen to: Lodger, the third of the Berlin trilogy, and Outside.
Outside is Bowie's most ambitious album, with a big concept and a dizzying refraction into many personas. Having been frustrated that the Orwell estate did not allow him to use 1984 as a basis for a musical extravaganza (stupid mater fornicators), which left him with the shards for his Diamond Dogs album, Bowie now went all-out with his own concept of a dystopian future in which a detective investigates art murder, where pieces of human beings are displayed as art. Subtitled The Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A Non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle, the album incorporates a few straight songs with a melange of avant-garde noise outings, and many gorgeous piano pointillisms by Mike Garson. Not even Radiohead goes this deep into sheer art for art's sake. It may be Bowie's masterpiece.
Here's Bowie holding forth about the album:
“Overall, a long-term ambition is to make it a series of albums extending to 1999 — to try to capture, using this device, what the last five years of this millennium feel like. It's a diary within the diary. The narrative and the stories are not the content — the content is the spaces in between the linear bits. The queasy, strange, textures … Oh, I've got the fondest hopes for the fin de siecle. I see it as a symbolic sacrificial rite. I see it as a deviance, a pagan wish to appease gods, so we can move on. There's a real spiritual starvation out there being filled by these mutations of what are barely remembered rites and rituals. To take the place of the void left by a non-authoritative church. We have this panic button telling us it's gonna be a colossal
“Perhaps the one through-line between some of the stuff in Outside and the coming millennium is this new Pagan worship, this whole search for a new spiritual life that's going on. Because of the way we've demolished the idea of God with that triumvirate at the beginning of the century, Nietzsche, Einstein and Freud. They really demolished everything we believed. 'Time bends, God is dead, the inner-self is made of many personalities'… wow, where the fuck are we? … I wonder if we have realized that the only thing we could create as 'God' was the hydrogen bomb and that the fall-out from the realization that as gods we can only seem to produce disaster is people trying to find some spiritual bonding and universality with a real nurtured inner-life. But there is also this positivism that you find now which really wasn't there at the end of the last century. Then, the general catch phrase among the artistic and literary community was that it was the end of the world. They really felt that in 1899 there was nothing else, that only complete disaster could follow. It isn't like that now. We may be a little wary or jittery about what's around the corner, but there's no feeling of everything's going to end in the year 2000. Instead, there's almost a celebratory feeling of 'right, at least we can get cracking and really pull it all together.”
As a side-note, it's kind of interesting that all of Bowie's personas were seriously non-macho. Bowie is the perfect metrosexual. Ain't got a butch bone anywhere in his sylph-like bod.
And then he came back with The Next Day, which consisted of two great ballads — Where Are We Now? and You're So Lonely You Could Die — and some good rockers, Not a great album on first listen, but certainly a good one. Who knows, maybe his best album since Scary Monsters.
Then there were his movies, The Man Who Fell To Earth, casting as perfect as Sean Connery as Bond and Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. The Hunger, a vampire lover. Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, in a prison camp. The Goblin King in Labyrinth. Andy Warhol in Basquiat. Nicolas Tesla in The Prestige. And Wall Street hatchet man Cyrus Ogilvie in August, never mentioned in obits, but surely an
And finally, the musical play Lazarus, now on in New York, a second act to The Man Who Fell To Earth, with some old and new Bowie songs sung by the cast, and his final musical legacy, the album Blackstar, an album reeking of mortality, as well as a jazz-driven experiment.
Of course, an experiment. That was what Bowie was: a continuing experiment — with music, movies, culture, fashion, style and self. He was Dada brought back to life, a surreal creature, the outsider who beckons you inside.
That is where you live when you live Bowie. On the outside looking in. A place where so many of us feel at home.
RIP David Bowie. Your multiplicity enlarged and multiplied us all.