The first and only time I ever saw David Bowie was in the early 1970s at a gay disco on Kensington High Street called Yours and Mine, on the ground floor of El Sombrero, a Mexican restaurant. There was Bowie, not yet world-famous, his dyed hair flopping, dancing away keenly on his long skinny legs. He was such a weird presence that the image stayed with me, even though there was nothing especially remarkable about the occasion. In 1972, Bowie gave an interview to the British pop magazine Melody Maker. The interviewer, Michael Watts, wrote:
David’s present image is to come on like a swishy queen, a gorgeously effeminate boy. He’s as camp as a row of tents, with his limp hand and trolling vocabulary. “I’m gay,” he says, “and always have been, even when I was David Jones.” But there’s a sly jollity about how he says it, a secret smile at the corners of his mouth.
Watts was on to something. The high camp, too, was part of an act, a pose, as was Bowie pretending to fellate the instrument of his very straight guitarist, Mick Ronson, in a concert during that same year. It was certainly a bold statement to make for a rock star, since rock still was by and large a pretty straight business. Bowie was one of the first, but it soon became quite the fashion, especially in England, for young men to affect the mannerisms of a gay style that was—post-Stonewall—quickly becoming distinctly unfashionable in the actual gay world. British rock in the 1970s, with the New Romantics, and such stars as Bryan Ferry or Brian Eno, the latter in full makeup and sporting a feather boa, became very camp indeed, even though few of these men seem to have had any sexual interest in other men.
Bowie, as we know, was a little more ambiguous. But however contrived to attract attention, Bowie’s statement was seen as a coming-out that encouraged and inspired many confused young men at the time. The freakish isolated man from another planet became a model, a kind of cult leader. In the latest issue of the gay magazine Out, various people tell their personal stories about Bowie’s influence. Here is the singer Stephin Merritt:
I didn’t grow up with a father at all; I didn’t have a father figure telling me how to approach gender, so I thought David Bowie was a perfectly good model of how to approach gender. And I still think so.
And here the perfomer Ann Magnuson:
He was the Pied Piper who took us suburban American kids to Disneyland, reimagined as an oversexed, sequined, space-age pleasure dome.
Or the British novelist Jake Arnott:
You know, the ’70s were quite a gloomy time. But Bowie looked fabulous, and I think there was a feeling of that’s what you could become yourself. That’s what brought me to him.
Bowie wanted fame. But it happened so quickly that it almost killed him. He described it in Cracked Actor, a fascinating documentary film made in 1974 for the BBC. Bowie, pale, emaciated, his nose twitching from excessive ingestions of cocaine, tells Alan Yentob, his interviewer, about the terrors of fame. It was like being “in the car when someone’s accelerating very, very fast, and you’re not driving…and you’re not sure whether you like it or not…that’s what success was like.”
At the height of his success, Bowie created his most famous role, Ziggy Stardust, as a kind of alter ego. In Bowie’s show, Ziggy was a rock-and-roll messiah from outer space who is torn apart in the end by his fans in a brilliant song entitled “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.” The story, which is typically Bowie-esque, is a paranoid druggy science-fiction fantasy. Rolling Stone magazine published a hilarious conversation with William Burroughs in which Bowie tries to explain: “The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage,” et cetera. The music and the show, however, are among the best things ever done in rock and roll; theater brought back to its ritual origins: the sacrifice of the king.
The problem is that Bowie got carried away a little too far into his private outer space. He began to think he was Ziggy. Quite wisely, he tried to kill him off on stage in London in the summer of 1973, when he announced that there would be no more Ziggy Stardust, and his band, the Spiders from Mars, would be terminated. But Bowie remained haunted by the character: “That fucker would not leave me alone for years.”
It must be a disconcerting experience for a young man from Bromley, say, or Dartford, or Heston, or for that matter Duluth, Minnesota, to be a rock messiah. Some—Keith Richards, David Bowie—seek refuge in drugs. Some—Jimmy Page, from Heston—dabble in black magic. Some are made of tougher stuff, like Mick Jagger, and view their rock business in the way a CEO sees his corporation. And some just try to escape into obscurity, as Bob Dylan did for a time, and Bowie attempted to do as well.
More reflective, perhaps, than most rock musicians, Bowie gave his fame a lot of dark thought. Ziggy, he once said, was the typical prophet-like rocker who had all the success and didn’t know what to do with it. In a fine song, entitled “Fame” (1975), Bowie sang: “Fame makes a man take things over/Fame lets him loose, hard to swallow/Fame puts you there where things are hollow.” Bowie started quoting Nietzsche in interviews, about the death of God. Phrases like homo superior popped up in his songs. But he never quite lost his sense of humor. In the Burroughs interview, Bowie compares Ziggy’s rock-and-roll suicide to Burroughs’s apocalyptic novel Nova Express, and says: “Maybe we are the Rodgers and Hammerstein of the seventies, Bill!” Still, the combination of drugs and rock-star isolation also led to some very half-baked notions about Adolf Hitler being “one of the first rock stars” and how Britain needed a fascist leader.
Bowie needed to calm down, away from the temptations of superstardom. And he calmed down, more or less, in of all places Berlin. Attracted by the allure of Weimar-period decadence, Expressionist art (Bowie was always an art lover), and its geographical isolation, Bowie lived in Berlin for several years after 1975 in relative obscurity. Helped by Brian Eno, he created some of his best music there, albums now known as Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy: Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger. His voice deepened into a slightly eerie crooning style, redolent of the 1930s, or the chansons of Jacques Brel. The lyrics darkened into an edgy melancholy. The music, influenced by German technopop, had the alienating thrum of industrial noise. And sharp double-breasted suits began to replace the bodysuits and kimonos. Bowie had reinvented himself as a depressive Romantic. The moves became less histrionic, the act more suave.
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talking ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talking ’bout my generation)
—The Who, “My Generation,” 1965
How does a rock star get old? Most fade away. Some get stuck in a role, and keep going on and on: the Stones still throbbing, in a rickety kind of way, with teenage lust. Some play the old songbook: Eric Clapton as a classical musician of the blues, or Bryan Ferry as a kind of Rat Pack lounge lizard.
In 2004, it looked as if David Bowie had taken his final bows and made a graceful exit. He had suffered a heart attack backstage after a concert. And that seemed to be that. He had been married for a decade to the Somali model Iman. They had a child. They lived in New York. Bowie was a family man, working on his painting, helping his daughter with her homework, enjoying trips to Florence to see his favorite Renaissance painters, browsing in bookstores.
The rock messiah, it appeared, had finally been laid to rest.
And then he pulled a stunt. Without anybody noticing, Bowie had made another album. It was announced in January this year on his sixty-sixth birthday. A video of one of the songs, entitled “Where Are We Now?,” popped up on his website. And the album, The Next Day, could be downloaded for free online for a limited period. So did Bowie reinvent himself yet again? Is he playing yet another role?
Does he even need to? Bowie not only reinvented himself over and over, inspiring other musicians, as well as countless fans. But he did more. Over his long career, Bowie invented a new kind of musical theater, whose props are on display at the V&A Museum. His influence on the art of performance has been inestimable, and will linger long after he has gone. Meanwhile, we have the music, which still has the power to astonish and delight. Is the new album a completely new departure?
Well, yes and no. The music on The Next Day, with its hard, almost relentless beat, sounds like something that could have been made in the 1980s. To his credit, Bowie does not even try to sound like a young man. The tone is melancholy, filled with memories. “Where Are We Now?” is an introspective look back at Bowie’s Berlin days: “A man lost in time/Near KaDeWe/Just walking the dead…” In the video, Bowie’s face appears once more looking into a mirror, but there is no trace of makeup. It is the face of a well-preserved, still-handsome man in his sixties, the wrinkles and sagging skin undisguised.
It is a highly professional album, with some haunting tunes. Here is the work of a man who seems to be well settled. There is no more posing. This is dignified, mature. But is it rock and roll? Does it even matter? Perhaps Bowie has taken the form as far as it can go, and rock is becoming like jazz, the raw energies of its youth exhausted, now entering a venerable old age.