Notes on Bowie
‘For nearly ten minutes he stood there, motionless, with parted lips, and eyes strangely bright. He was dimly conscious that entirely fresh influences were at work within him. Yet they seemed to have come really from himself.’
— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
‘Get out of my mind, all of you!’
— David Bowie, in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
I’m enthralled and embarrassed by him in ways that are probably possible only when you have loved too much and too soon. Not only am I mystified on discovering that some people my age or a little older are quite indifferent to David Bowie; I also feel much the same ache and anger when I hear him disparaged as I did thirty years ago. While I was taking notes for this essay a friend pointed to a newspaper article: a tedious columnist was claiming that, all brilliance and invention aside, Bowie has never written a song that truly moved anyone, still less consoled them in the wake, let’s say, of a bereavement. Surely this is true, said my friend. Really? You have no idea, I think – none.
And yet: the embarrassment. Not so much at the unengaging records that followed his decade or so of genius and are easily ignored, nor the silliness of this or that image or hubristic acting project. I’m embarrassed instead at a certain brittle grandiloquence, at the inflated thoughts he makes me think. Things like: in or around the summer of 1981, my consciousness changed for good. Or: David Bowie invented me, and he may well have invented you. And the questions he makes me ask, such as this: how much of who you are is still in thrall to images and ideas planted decades ago by someone who was not even sure who or what he wanted to be? Someone whose influence you shared with millions? Exaggerated, sentimental, adolescent questions. Middle-aged ones, too.
David Jones was born in Brixton and grew up mostly in Bromley, Kent. (I find it hard to write simple facts about him. I have at this point read so many awful Bowie biographies that even typing that sentence feels like it might do bad things to my prose.) His mother had been a cinema usherette; his father, having squandered an inheritance of £3,000 in abortive efforts to set himself up as a show-business impresario, had settled into a job organizing fundraising entertainments for Barnardo’s children’s homes. When David was about ten years old his father took him to meet Tommy Steele, the alarmingly toothy all-round entertainer whose passing facial resemblance to Bowie still looks in retrospect like an awful warning as to the sort of artist he might have become. Except: there is more, still, of Tommy Steele and a host of other middle-of-the-road actors and singers, more of the straight entertainer’s eagerness to please, in Bowie’s career and persona than he or I or the curators of a vast Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum have cared to admit.
‘If you could look like anybody in the world?’ Still, thirty and more years after the question first occurred to me – still, no contest.
I’ve been staring at David Bowie’s face now for quite some time. It’s a cliché regarding the ubiquity of certain faces, but I feel as if I know its planes, moods and textures as well as if not better than the faces of people I love. I mean, people I love more than I love David Bowie. I’ve seen this face looking practisedly aloof: it’s the expression you likely picture when you think of David Bowie – if you think of David Bowie. I’ve watched it crack into a repertoire of no less calculated demeanours: a hollow and paranoid cyborg glare beloved of bad Bowie impersonators; a sidelong darting look of surprise that suggests the subject’s jittery mind has been momentarily engaged by an otherwise dull interlocutor; the sort of faintly embarrassing lost-in-music pout that singers of his generation all adopt on stage at the moment the lead guitarist really cuts loose.
There’s an array too of apparently spontaneous grins: a raptorial, triumphant version mid-performance; a naive variant, soon to be controlled, in early publicity photos; the smile that accompanies the slightly panicked charm Bowie deploys in interviews and which conjures, whether he knows it or not, the essence of 1960s showbiz-lad-on-the-make. (Has there ever been an interviewee quite so charming as David Bowie? You’re as likely to spot this smile and the boyish chat that goes with it in interviews from a decade ago as in, say, a late-1970s exchange with Janet Street Porter as he’s about to go on stage – ‘I’ve got a show to do! Coming?’ – or even in the midst of cocaine paranoia.) Also, an awkward sneer that seems almost painfully to distort a face whose habitual tendency, so its owner would have us believe, is towards a properly iconic repose. It’s an expression that makes me think of Kenneth Tynan writing about Noël Coward: a man with a face like ‘an appalled monolith’.
Here is one expression that I have not seen repeated. The film clip is just seconds long, and comes from some time in the late 1970s; it might even have been shot in Berlin, where he had fled after a famously excessive and exhausting period in Los Angeles. Exhausting and excessive personally, that is. There are no ups and downs artistically for Bowie in the 1970s, just astonishing consistency of achievement amid those frequent reinventions, until at decade’s end it all stops, or near enough. But that is to get ahead of ourselves. It’s night and Bowie is out with a small retinue when he is spotted and the crowd gets too close for comfort. A figure that might be a man or a woman lunges forward and kisses him. Bowie grins and staggers a little and seems to go limp, gazes into the middle distance with a docile look and simply lets it all happen. Addressing himself now to the camera he strikes a perfect because entirely passive pose, and his face is the face of any instance of lazy, angelic cool you care to mention: from Bacall, Capote and Brando to the opiated half-presence of Brian Jones or Marianne Faithfull. Bowie, of course, haloed here in black and white, knows all of this and more: he sees us seeing the references. He’s managed in a split second to parlay the moment his charisma cracks into something louche, funny, seductive, self-conscious and consequently (almost touchingly) foolish.
The V&A began trailing its exhibition last year, which only made him seem more remote. And then he was back: back from the near-dead – heart attack, a few guest appearances on other people’s stages, apparent retirement – to sing ‘Walking the Dead’, conjuring the ghosts of his Berlin past, as if we hadn’t heard from him since 1978. (Lyrically, at least; the music was something else, something less.) Then another single, and a video: Bowie playing at suburban dread with his doppelgänger Tilda Swinton – among other things a neat way of reminding us of his ambiguous and covetable looks. And a third single, courting in the video the fury of Catholic PR folk in the mock-priestly company of Gary Oldman.
All of this seemed to me perfectly fine. I began to look forward to the exhibition. But listen to the album? It may yet happen. I’ve dipped in, and discovered him executing, not for the first time, a more than passable imitation of recent Scott Walker: a singer he’s admired, and at some level hoped to be, since the mid 1960s. Walker really is now the singer Bowie could have been – vanished from the mainstream, pursuing sonic and vocal experiments of amazing audacity at the end of his seventh decade, to uniformly glowing reviews – had he only elected to stop and think thirty years ago.
The V&A show opened in March. When I arrived in Kensington one mid-week morning in June, there were at least a hundred people queueing before the show opened. Bowie allowed access, presumably not unfettered, to his personal archive, which turns out to be huge. Ever the enthusiast to the point of unabashed geekiness when it comes to his earliest influences, he has also been collecting assiduously, since the 1960s, the ephemera generated by his own career: felt-tip lyrics, diaries (‘Lots of prospects. Am happy.’), correspondence, set lists, a good-luck telegram from Elvis at the start of a tour in 1976, notes from a suit fitting in 1972 (waist: twenty-six-and-a-half inches), a tissue blotted with his own lipstick, Brian Eno’s analogue synthesizer as deployed on the three Berlin albums, countless pristine costumes hung on mannequins, some of which have Bowie’s face, or rather the face of a life mask made in the mid 1970s, which is also in the show. The exhibition is called David Bowie Is: a faintly embarrassing title that allows the curators and museum marketeers to append various words and phrases: ‘David Bowie is … blowing our minds … gazing a gazely stare … dressed from head to toe … content.’ The one thing it never tells us is the most obvious: David Bowie is a collector.
Though it’s not quite chronological – there are too many examples of futurist projection, knowing self-quotation and frank nostalgia in Bowie’s career for a strict narrative arc to make sense – the exhibition begins with an origin myth of sorts: the London boy exiled early to the suburbs, there to dream of his return to the city via the sounds and images of a borrowed American culture. So here is one of David Jones’s first guitars, the white plastic saxophone his parents bought him, his framed publicity photo of Little Richard. And a few years later: the teenager playing sax with, then fronting, a succession of quite hopeless bands: the Konrads, the King Bees, the Lower Third, the Manish Boys, the Buzz. There are concert tickets and press releases, hints already of the image he wants to project: the teenage reader of Camus, Pinter, Behan, Wilde. But there’s some disparity still between the character and the records. The museum’s brilliantly designed audio guide, which is cued with extreme precision to one’s physical place in the gallery and proximity to specific exhibits, is not playing songs from Bowie’s pre-fame years: songs with overly chirpy vocals and naively aspirant lyrics about drugs and sex and being young in London. Instead my headphones deliver echoey fragments of the achieved performer and persona to come, just around the corner: ‘There’s a starman …’
The first time I cried at the David Bowie exhibition: in the second gallery space there was a large vitrine, and in this vitrine the tight jumpsuit Bowie wore to perform ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops on 5 July 1972, and behind it a more-than-life-size screen on which during that performance Bowie, grinning, draped an arm around his guitarist Mick Ronson, just as they reached the chorus. It’s a moment that Bowie fans who were in their teens at the time recall with extreme fondness: a slow detonation of glamour and sex and strangeness in living rooms across the UK (and parts of Ireland too, I suppose, though likely in black and white). I was three years old, and I didn’t see this footage until I was in my mid teens – such things were rarely repeated or excerpted before then. So why these tears?
I’ve listened to all the 1970s records again, especially those (at least half of them) that I never owned or never heard in their entirety as a child or a teenager. And they are all extraordinary: filled with melodies and textures and small miracles of phrasing – this last always for me, at least in Bowie’s case, more important than lyrical import or even skill – that still surprise, still fascinate. But more frequently I’ve been poring online – such now is the hunt-and-peck modus of middle-aged nostalgia – over certain performances, interesting myself in those moments when Bowie seems on the cusp of one of his celebrated self-inventions, when it appears he has pushed a style as far as it will bear and you can see, or fancy that you can see, how it might be dispensed with. Thus Bowie, six months before his first hit, practising attitudes of Ziggy-like self-awareness in a 1969 promo film for ‘Let Me Sleep Beside You’ – the first of his records to be produced by Tony Visconti, the first of his records to really sound like a David Bowie record. Or in 1973, live on Top of the Pops in Ziggy’s imperial phase, turning ‘The Jean Genie’ into a blaring affront to the Rolling Stones, whom he seemed for a time intent on outstripping. (Though for once not musically: the riff is Muddy Waters via the Yardbirds.) Or pushing ‘Space Oddity’ an octave higher than the original record into even more airless precincts of loneliness and paranoia – this in 1979, on of all things The Kenny Everett Show – as if he knows that the next task is a stark appraisal of the preceding decade and the place it has deposited him. I doubt anybody, even Bowie, had watched all of these performances until the advent of YouTube; before that they survived mostly as daydreams and partial memories.
Some time during my researches word went around among artists I know that Bowie is commissioning new videos to go with his old songs. My heart sank a little at the news – but who would say no to such an invitation? One lesson of the V&A exhibition is that he has not only been a collector, but an assiduous curator of his own career. Not so much in the inevitable repackaging of greatest hits, where he has more than once lost control of sub-par releases and embarrassing juvenilia, but rather in the songs themselves, in inflections of vocal delivery that recall tracks from decades past, or in radically altered performances of old songs that announce a new direction. Perhaps in the last analysis Bowie’s profoundest obsession has been not with reinvention, as his admirers like to say, or with image, as detractors have it, but with time and its passing, with more or less avowed expressions of where he has been and what it might be made to mean now.
But none of this is yet a propos in the matter of Bowie and me. How to reconstruct the moment I fell for his image, then his music, and with them the very idea of Bowie: the sense that just invoking his name was still, in the early 1980s, an act of quite risky self-positioning? For a start, I found him late. I have no memory at all of Bowie in the 1970s, let alone the early glam-rock phase. (One of my first memories is of asking my father one Saturday evening who the shiny hairy person on TV was, and being told ‘Gary Glitter’. I’ve always hoped he was wrong, that it was if not Bowie, who seems unlikely, it was at least Marc Bolan.) By the end of the decade, when I was paying attention, Bowie was an intermittent presence on the kind of television I’d have seen, so that it’s quite possible I simply missed him. The gap has been filled by so much footage since, of which more below, that at times I can cathect as much retrospective wonder and desire into his best performances as any sparkling or hennaed teen of the time.
Here is the moment – my inaugural Bowie moment. It is the last year of national school: a very bad year as I recall for extremes of violence from classmates and teachers. (The summer term will end with my being kicked in the face at the school gates.) So my stomach churns one afternoon when, sitting two seats from the back of the classroom, I’m repeatedly prodded in the ribs by the boy behind me. He carries on hissing my name until finally I turn. For once I’m wrong about his intentions, because now he’s jabbing at his own chest: ‘See that, Dillon?’
I stare at the large badge he’s wearing. ‘Yeah …’
Then a question. ‘Is that a man or a woman?’
This might have been a test: one of those provoking challenges that in a suburban Dublin playground of the usual viciousness had lately progressed to quite gnomic questions. Certain of my classmates were now in the habit, once they had got you against a wall or surrounded on the bus early in the morning, of asking pointedly: ‘Mod or ska?’ Or more mysteriously: ‘Are you a mod or a ska?’ I think I knew even then that the use of the article in the latter case was idiosyncratic at best: ska was surely a type of music and not an identity in itself, even if you could easily spot its adherents in their Harrington jackets, as opposed to parkas. Still, subcultural semantics were not the reason I’d answered the question as I did one morning at the bus stop: ‘Neither – I’m a human being!’ My tormenters could not restrain their hilarity, nor their fists. I’m pretty sure that my smug, taunting answer was not unconsidered; like many a sensitive prepubescent I nursed not only a fear of, but a real fury and contempt towards, the nascent factional allegiances of adolescence. It seemed genuinely pathetic to me to have so defined yourself by something as crude as your taste in pop music (not to mention outerwear) that you’d resort to violence in the face of the wrong answer, or no answer at all. I recall despising the category of the teenager tout court, and resolving never to become one.
‘Is that a man or a woman, Dillon?’ The question was louder now; the teacher must have been out of the room, or the exchange would not have continued like this.
I was sure I was about to be punched, or the rest of the class invited to join in my torment. ‘I don’t know!’
He grinned triumphantly, stopped thrusting the badge in my face. ‘Exactly!’ And why, exactly? ‘Because that’s David Bowie!’
What I’d been looking at all this while was a close portrait shot of a person in a wide-brimmed hat – later I’d learn the word ‘fedora’ – pulled down at one side over a pair of large sunglasses. The photograph was almost half a decade old: an age in Bowie time, and schoolboy time too, though I would not have recognized the vintage. It may well have been a publicity shot from The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which, as the alien Thomas Jerome Newton, Bowie essentially played himself: soft-spoken and badly dislocated, politely paranoid, translucently beautiful. All director Nicolas Roeg had had to do was dress him more soberly; Bowie immediately adopted the look off-screen. Looking now at pictures of him in the mid 1970s, what strikes most people is just how crazily thin he was. It struck journalists at the time too, and there were even rumours about leukemia; or maybe the rumours, repeated in print, were meant to cover what everybody knew too well: that Bowie had found, as he later put it, a ‘soulmate in cocaine’. But to an eleven-year-old he didn’t look ill or addicted, just very strange indeed.
A man or a woman – impossible to tell! I had to find out more about David Bowie. Or rather that is how I’ve told the story for years: assuming that Bowie’s image had snagged my imagination, that his androgyny already seemed a frail heroic affront to the world of the classroom, the playground, my devoutly strictured and emotionally hushed family. Can it be true? It’s as likely I was merely amused: with his hat and his shades Bowie looked at best like a Hollywood starlet and at worst may have reminded me of well known cross-dressers of the time: TV comedians like Dick Emery. I might have been merely repelled, or shunned interest in case the familiar cry of ‘Bender!’ went up and my life was made a misery once more. But something of my interlocutor’s enthusiasm surely took hold, and I now knew the name if little else.
This at least is certain: I spent the summer of 1981 listening to Bowie for the first time. National school was over, I had a black eye that lasted for weeks, and a friend had lent me a cassette of the compilation album Changes One, which once I’d got hold of my own copy was the only thing I owned by Bowie for the next two years. It was enough to be going on with: eleven songs, starting with ‘Space Oddity’, that I still cannot hear individually in other contexts (including their original albums) without predicting the next track from Changes One or imagining it’s time to flip the tape and start again after ‘Golden Years’. I realized only later that the compilation – I’m not sure I even knew it was a compilation – covered a hectically varied span of Bowie’s career up to the mid seventies; I don’t recall noticing any transitions stylistically from space-age orchestral pop through aspirantly decadent rock to Bowie’s ‘plastic soul’ phase. I do remember thinking that ‘Space Oddity’ was the best song, a work of mysterious genius that turned the sci-fi I was obsessed by into something altogether more elusive and spectral. Though I was reading Arthur C. Clarke around that time, and knew all about 2001 despite never having seen it, I had no sense that ‘Space Oddity’ was a ‘novelty’ record: it was just utterly beautiful and horribly sad, because after all a man was lost in space, and the circuit was dead, and how was he ever going to get home to his wife, whom he loved very much?
I would be retrojecting far too much in the way of self-discovery to say that by the time I arrived at secondary school in the autumn I understood much of what was going on in the other ten songs. The gay subtext – it is hardly a subtext – of ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ passed me by completely, though I guessed that the character (a louche amalgam of Jean Genet and Iggy Pop) to whom Bowie delivered the line ‘let yourself go’ in ‘The Jean Genie’ was not exactly being encouraged to give in to some conventional romantic boy–girl scenario. I knew in short that there was something weird about David Bowie, and ‘weird’ was exactly the word – a word with special currency among early-adolescent males – that was flung at me in the schoolyard when I announced excitedly that all summer I’d been listening to Bowie. Weird, and also queer. Somebody who must have known better than I did, a boy with an older sibling who was into Bowie, sneered when I mentioned the name: I’d been listening to a singer who had performed in a see-though jumper, maybe even a blouse. (The garment in question was at the V&A: one of the more sober Ziggy costumes.) I remember being embarrassed by the news that Bowie was a ‘bender’, and I think I kept quiet about him for a while, except to the friend who had lent me the tape in the first place, and to a cousin visiting from Canada, who was two years older and obsessed by the Who. I managed to persuade my parents to buy me a short book about Bowie from Eason’s bookshop – little more than a discography with short accounts of each record’s context – and it was in those pages that I discovered if not the full extent of the weirdness then at least its ambiguous outlines.
It is hard now to fully recover the cultural force that androgyny still possessed at the time I discovered Bowie. Never mind that his declared bisexuality – bruited to Melody Maker in 1972, lived down almost ever since – was largely decadent appliqué on legendarily prolific straight reality: I didn’t know that at the time. What I had divined at the age of fourteen was that the songs I loved were frequently about gay desires or fantasized gay futures – I knew in short that there was a way of being and a culture that had nothing to do with playground taunts or camp acts on television. But Bowie’s version of this, as expressed in his own persona, had more to do with some way of flamboyantly being-between, refusing the poles of gendered reality, than it did with the actuality of being gay; that was obvious even to a clueless teen. (There are people who have not forgiven Bowie for this, for his having it all ways with his adolescent audience in a period when many adults were agitating, in the wake of decriminalization in the UK, for a much greater acceptance of homosexuality than might be conjured by an arm around your guitarist on Top of the Pops.) In a way it is almost beside the point that I had myself, by my mid teens, fallen pathetically and silently in love with my best (male) friend at school, that I self-identified as bisexual till the point, some years later, that it became clear I really wasn’t either. The larger lesson of Bowie’s androgyny, and his avowed if equivocal bisexuality, a lesson I shared I suppose with many in my generation, was that sexual ambiguity was an ethic of sorts – a knight’s move in the face of the fixed options of straight (and possibly also gay) identity.
Let us be clear: I was a Bowie fan and never a Bowie clone or, to use the term current in the 1970s, a casualty. You can see them in the old documentaries, and in the V&A’s catalogue: tyro Ziggys of both sexes with their crudely feathered cuts and inexpertly applied glitter, preening outside concert venues. They had to move fast; a few months later they are sporting exaggerated ‘gouster’ suits and soul-boy dos, then before they know it fedoras and shades and tight little waistcoats: they sneer at the ones who still paint their faces with Aladdin Sane flashes, while Bowie speeds away from Victoria station in his open-topped car. I suspect that no pop star really attracted imitators in quite the same way before Bowie: yes, there had been quiffs and bowl cuts and skinny boys with fat lips and silk scarves, but none had so precisely, so desperately identified with their idol as to attain the status of clone. It is one of the things missing at the exhibition: there are several belated high-fashion retreads of key Bowie looks, but little sense of how far into the fabric of ordinary adolescent life his image had insinuated itself at the time. I arrived at Bowie far too late for all of that, though the back pages of music papers and shops in Dublin with names like Hairy Legs were still selling short powder-blue ‘Bowie jackets’ and prodigiously pleated ‘Bowie trousers’ in the mid 1980s. Who wore them? I never saw a Bowie casualty on the streets of Dublin. And when I say that he altered me forever as an adolescent, you would not have known it to look at me. The V&A insisted on the ways Bowie affected the texture and look of things, but somehow missed what he did to our insides.
The second time I cried at the V&A, I was standing in front of a screen that showed five minutes of Bowie’s appearance on Saturday Night Live in December 1979. He’s introduced by Martin Sheen: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, David Bowie!’ The camera pans to the singer and his band; at left on backing vocals are the performance artist Joey Arias and the mock-operatic New Wave German singer Klaus Nomi: a truly startling figure in tight black body stocking and chalk-white makeup. Bowie is stock still but for his flailing arms inside a gleaming black-and-white-striped funnel of sorts at centre stage: a costume based on Dadaist stage designs of the 1920s by Sonia Delaunay and Hugo Ball. (There are drawings and photos at the V&A, and the 1978 costume on a plinth.) Bowie sings ‘The Man Who Sold the World’: a song that is well known now thanks to Nirvana, but had then languished in relative obscurity, apart from a cover by Lulu in 1975, since he’d recorded it in 1970. I’d watched this clip at least a dozen times over the years. But still there was a moment, two verses in, just after Bowie delivered the line ‘I smiled and shook his hand, and made my way back home’. Nomi and Arias come back with a half-synthesized ‘Home!’ It was that note that did it. I suppose it was the combination of such gleeful eclecticism and presence of mind with Bowie’s frank nostalgia for his own song that set me off.
Everybody speaks of him as a cultural gateway – or is it gatekeeper? For many people, Bowie was, and maybe still is, the conduit towards an array of artistic and literary artefacts that the music, the image, the interviews make visible for the first time. The V&A has made much of the notion of Bowie as cultural switch or relay, though the exhibition stretches credibility in casting in terms of immersive influence his merely fashionable deployment of certain names: Nietzsche, Burroughs, Ballard and so on. This in the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s; later, it seems, Bowie did indeed become a manic autodidact on all kinds of topics. In any case, I can confidently list a good deal I would have either missed entirely or come to much later had it not been for Bowie: the musical stuff of course – Velvet Underground, Iggy, Roxy Music, T. Rex, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno – but also Warhol, Dalí (the books of both as much as the art), Brecht, Genet, Fassbinder, Nicolas Roeg. And yes: Nietzsche, Burroughs, Ballard. A predictable list, for sure; but it meant something to have been exposed to, or even just aware of, those figures aged thirteen instead of fifteen or sixteen, in part because it meant that the constellation of books and films and records that was revealed by those first few reference points was perhaps all the wider, and odder. Perhaps my favourite work of twentieth-century art is Andy Warhol’s two-screen film portrait of Edie Sedgwick, Outer and Inner Space. I doubt Bowie ever saw it in the 1960s or 1970s, but there it was at the V&A, and who knows: I might never have got to it either had it not been for him.
Alongside the avant-garde and pop-cultural citations to follow up, there was the deeper lesson. It’s customary to say that Bowie was the first postmodernist in pop music: that his borrowings from others, his inventions and reinventions of fantastical characters in the early 1970s, his control of his image to the extent that he could make a performance of exile and retreat in the second half of that decade, his ability to get away with being conventional because when he did it he did it with a wink – that all of this is in fact a study in effacing the distinction between surface and depth. It is true of course, and Bowie said as much very early on, announcing that rock music ought to embrace its whorish side. But it is not in the end quite so important as the other general good he preached. Bisexuality and androgyny were just the half of it: Bowie taught us, taught me, about the value of ambiguity. ‘Is that a man or a woman, Dillon?’ The question was as much about the image or the artefact as about the individual himself. A state of hovering, of ravishing indecision, seemed to define what art – music in the first instance, soon everything else – ought to be about, ought to deploy. Ambiguity became the ultimate artistic value for me, and I’m not sure that I have ever found a better, or even a more sophisticated, way of defining what I want from a song or a film or a poem or novel. For a time, as a teenager, when I had this word lodged in my head, I used to look at my father’s bookshelves and the title of William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, and think that I ought one day to read that book, but in the meantime the title was perfect.
His career in the 1980s was an education in cultural disappointment, a set of lessons in how artistic failure and commercial success might go hand in hand, and more importantly in the interior workings of that failure: the way an artist might lose it so comprehensively and remain convinced of his creative momentum, or at least of his legend. A lesson also in how to leave your heroes behind. All of that is familiar, and forgivable. Instead, here is a reminder of everything it was still possible to project on him at the height of his very mainstream return in 1983. A friend in the US emails me with her recollections of Bowie live at the Oakland Coliseum on September 17th that year, when she was fifteen. She keeps everything, and has just unearthed a note regarding her impressions of the concert. It’s a mine of information: Bowie ‘smiled a lot … wore hat later … undid bow tie … took off jacket, rolled up sleeves’. There was a call-and-response interlude during ‘Fame’, a bit of Hamlet business with cape and skull for ‘Cracked Actor’. (The cape and the skull were at the V&A too.) The smile, she says, had obsessed her: the strange disparity between his big bland 1980s suits and the vampiric mouth full of European teeth. There are diary entries too, scribbled in front of the TV around midnight while waiting for him to appear: ‘I have been so involved with Bowie all week … I HAVE TO CALM DOWN.’
Bowie at Live Aid, 13 July 1985. He has gathered a new band, accomplished but more than a little dull. He introduces them and gets a backing singer’s name wrong, he fluffs a dance move and leaves his sax player stranded with her arm out towards him. He is wearing a light blue suit from the mid 1970s, the Young Americans period, specially tailored for the occasion. Chain-smoking on the helicopter on the way to Wembley, he boasts that the waist size is still the same. I know a lot of pointless facts about Bowie’s appearance at Live Aid, but what I remember is this: that he wasn’t very good. He seemed at once slick and stilted, the older songs not helped by airless mid-eighties perkiness. And I remember that I was hoping he would be good, really good, because a few miles away in hospital my mother was drifting in and out of consciousness and I was sure that she would die soon, and if David Bowie could only distract me for a few minutes and remind me why he still, just about, mattered to me, then things might be slightly more bearable.
On my way out of the V&A I bumped into a young journalist I’d met recently: she’d reviewed the exhibition and wondered what I thought. I shrugged and said I hadn’t made up my mind, but then I brandished my bright orange Ziggy Stardust tote bag: it was David Bowie, after all, so how far wrong could the museum have gone? She sent me her review a few days later: ‘It seems we disagree!’ She had objected to what she called the ‘morbidity’ of the show, its treatment of Bowie as if he were already dead and canonized, his presence and his image constellated into a thousand relics. I couldn’t disagree: how else to look at all those costumes in their vitrines, all those scraps of 1970s exercise books with their childish handwriting, the racks of vinyl LPs to be flicked through like rosaries, the faces that are all one face looking down at us sternly or benignly, except with utter veneration? Morbidity was the point, fascination too. At its best, David Bowie Is turned its subject into a saint and a spectre. He must have known that it would.
David Bowie dead: imagine. I would guess that since my mid teens not a year has gone by without my daydreaming about the death of David Bowie. Some of these morbid interludes are easily explained: Bowie turns fifty and a glut of magazine and newspaper profiles ensues; Bowie speaks about the murder of his friend John Lennon; Bowie appears on an album cover, tending to the dead or dying body of his friend David Bowie; Bowie has a heart attack and effectively retires for the best part of a decade; Bowie turns sixty, heads towards seventy, gets photographed by the Daily Mail looking his age; some footage appears on TV of him chain-smoking Gitanes in the 1970s, or Marlboro Lights in the 1990s, and you wonder: how long can he carry on?
Or perhaps I think about the death of Bowie because in some involuted way that I have never described to anyone I have measured out my own life according to proximity or distance from his receding span. (Late 1980, Bowie appears fleetingly on an end-of-year pop awards show; I know who he is by now, but not how old – later I tell a cousin confidently: ‘David Bowie is about fifty.’) I almost never recall the dates of artists or writers I love; or rather, I remember when the likes of Beckett, Nabokov or Barthes died, but not when they were born. Warhol is an exception: born in 1928, like my father. And Bowie: 8 January 1947. I can always tell you how old he is; and so I always wonder, assuming the twenty-two years I have on him are any sort of advantage, what I’ll be doing the day he dies: how I’ll hear the news and what a fitting response might be. I’m ashamed to say that recently I have even wondered which YouTube clip I’d post to Facebook, in among all the links to ‘Heroes’ and ‘Wild Is the Wind’ and (God forbid) ‘Ashes to Ashes’.
A rumour reaches me about Bowie: the sort of thing that has been all over the Internet for years, since his illness in 2004. The kind of rumour that you would think or hope his return might put to bed; but people seem to like this sort of conjecture, and here I am thinking about it despite myself. This time, the story arrives via friends who have friends who move in the kind of circles where people know such things, and where just as likely they invent those things, so as to make it seem as if their circle is fewer circles away from whatever coterie surrounds Bowie. So that while I hope the rumour is untrue, and I wish I had not heard it, I also don’t believe it. But there it sits, an ugly piece of information, between me and the music, between me and all that Bowie has meant and not meant (all those records I ignored; perhaps I should have been paying attention?), in among the costumes and diary pages and video screens at the V&A.
The third time I cried I was standing with a good hundred others in one of the last rooms at the exhibition: a tall dimly lit space hung with huge screens on three sides, on which competing excerpts of concert footage from four decades were projected, and museum-goers stared upwards in the dark in a rather obvious approximation of the live experience, but not quite sure which Bowie they ought to be looking at. I thought, not for the first time, about the curious fate of ‘“Heroes”’: a song that was hardly a hit in 1977, now widely thought his most sublime moment, but which rendered live has always been a shadow of the record. There have been very few cover versions of ‘“Heroes”’: Blondie have performed it live since the 1970s; I have never heard, and hope I never will, the version recorded by X-Factor finalists in aid of injured British soldiers. In concert Bowie sounded as if he was singing a song not his own – as though it’s been eroded out of his reach by overuse, like Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. I turned my back on ‘“Heroes”’ and it died away in my ears. High in a far corner, fading up in the headphones now, was the Bowie of 1974: viciously thin and double-breasted, visored by those big sunglasses, hardly holding himself together. Once again it was the backing vocalists who got to me, buoying him up on the chorus: ‘Boys, boys … it’s a sweet thing, sweet thing.’
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