Every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test
—David Bowie, “Changes,” Hunky Dory, 1971
David Bowie: “My trousers changed the world.” A fashionable man in dark glasses: “I think it was more the shoes.” Bowie: “It was the shoes.”* He laughed. It was a joke. Up to a point.
There is no question that Bowie changed the way many people looked, in the 1970s, 1980s, even 1990s. He set styles. Fashion designers—Alexander McQueen, Yamamoto Kansai, Dries van Noten, Jean Paul Gaultier, et al.—were inspired by him. Bowie’s extraordinary stage costumes, from Kabuki-like bodysuits to Weimar-era drag, are legendary. Young people all over the world tried to dress like him, look like him, move like him—alas, with rather variable results.
So it is entirely fitting that the Victoria and Albert Museum should stage a huge exhibition of Bowie’s stage clothes, as well as music videos, handwritten song lyrics, film clips, artworks, scripts, storyboards, and other Bowieana from his personal archive. Apart from everything else, Bowie’s art is about style, high and low, and style is a serious business for a museum of art and design.
One of the characteristics of rock music is that so much of it involves posing, or “role-playing,” as they say in the sex manuals. Rock is above all a theatrical form. English rockers have been particularly good at this, partly because many of them, including Bowie himself, have drawn inspiration from the rich tradition of music hall theater. If Chuck Berry was a godfather of British rock, so was the vaudevillian Max Miller, the “cheeky chappie,” in his daisy-patterned suits. But there is another reason: rock and roll being American in origin, English musicians often started off mimicking Americans. More than that, in the 1960s especially, white English boys imitated black Americans. Then there was the matter of class: working-class English kids posing as aristocratic fops, and solidly middle-class young men affecting Cockney accents. And the gender-bending: Mick Jagger wriggling his hips like Tina Turner, Ray Davies of the Kinks camping it up like a pantomime dame, David Bowie dressing like Marlene Dietrich and shrieking like Little Richard. And none of them was gay, at least not most of the time. Rock, English rock especially, has often seemed like a huge, anarchic dressing-up party.
No one took this further, with more imagination and daring, than David Bowie. At a time when American groups would often dress down—affluent suburban kids disguised as Appalachian farmers or Canadian lumberjacks—Bowie quite deliberately dressed up. In his words: “I can’t stand the premise of going out [on stage] in jeans…and looking as real as you can in front of 18,000 people. I mean, it’s not normal!” Also in his words: “My whole professional life is an act…I slip from one guise to another very easily.”
The costumes of Bowie’s rock theater are all on display at the V&A. And many are outrageously beautiful. The red-and-blue quilted suit and red plastic boots designed by Freddie Burretti for Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character in 1972. Yamamoto Kansai’s kimono-like cape splashed with Bowie’s name in Chinese characters for Aladdin Sane in 1973. Natasha Korniloff’s surrealistic cobweb bodysuit with false black-nail-polished hands tickling the nipples for the 1980 Floor Show. Ola Hudson’s black pants and waistcoat for Bowie’s incarnation as the Thin White Duke in 1976, which look as though they were designed for a male impersonator. And Alexander McQueen’s exquisitely “distressed” Union Jack frock coat from 1997 (also exhibited in the 2006 “Anglomania” show at the Metropolitan Museum). Then there is the perverse nautical gear, and the “Tokyo pop” black vinyl bodysuit, the matador cape, the blue turquoise boots, and so on and on.
Bowie’s image was as carefully contrived for album covers as for the actual musical performances: Sukita Masayoshi’s black-and-white photograph of Bowie posing like a mannequin doll on the cover of “Heroes” (1977), or Bowie stretched out on a blue velvet sofa like a Pre-Raphaelite pinup in a long satin dress designed by Mr. Fish for The Man Who Sold the World (1971), or Guy Peellaert’s lurid drawing of Bowie as a 1920s carnival freak for Diamond Dogs (1974).
All these images were created by Bowie himself, in collaboration with other artists. He drew his inspiration from anything that happened to catch his fancy: Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin of the 1930s, Hollywood divas of the 1940s, Kabuki theater, William Burroughs, English mummers, Jean Cocteau, Andy Warhol, French chansons, Buñuel’s surrealism, and Stanley Kubrick’s movies, especially A Clockwork Orange, whose mixture of high culture, science fiction, and lurking menace suited Bowie to the ground. Artists and filmmakers have often created interesting results by refining popular culture into high art. Bowie did the opposite: he would, as he once explained in an interview, plunder high art and take it down to the street; that was his brand of rock-and-roll theater.
What has been truly unusual about Bowie, in comparison to other rock acts, is the lightning speed of his costume changes, as it were. His musical changes reflected this, from the throbbing rhythm of the early Velvet Underground to the harsh dissonances of Kurt Weill, to the disco beat of 1970s Philadelphia. The range of his singing voice, aching in some songs, full of bravura in others, but always haunted by a sense of danger, helped him straddle many genres. To get the excitement of Bowie’s best live performances, one would have had to be there, but the artful videos, made by Bowie with various talented filmmakers, some of which are displayed to great effect at the V&A show, still give a flavor of his theatrical appeal.
Two of the most famous videos are “Ashes to Ashes” (1980) and “Boys Keep Swinging” (1979), both directed by David Mallet. Bowie plays three roles in “Ashes to Ashes”: an astronaut, a man curled up in a padded cell, and a tragic Pierrot tormented by his mother. In “Boys Keep Swinging,” Bowie appears as a late 1950s rock and roller, and plays all three backup singers in Hollywood diva drag: two end up whipping their wigs off in a kind of fury; one turns into a rather menacing maternal figure. A common feature in Bowie’s videos, as well as his stage shows, is an obsession with masks and mirrors, sometimes several mirrors at the same time: his characters watch themselves being watched. In his earlier interviews, Bowie spoke often about schizophrenia. Stage roles would spill out into his personal life. As he put it: “I couldn’t decide whether I was writing characters or whether the characters were writing me.”
So who is David Bowie? He was born in 1947 as David Jones in Brixton, South London, but grew up mostly in Bromley, a relatively genteel and deeply dreary suburb. Many rockers, including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, grew up in such places, which the novelist J.G. Ballard, who lived for most of his adult life in Twickenham, described as
far more sinister places than most city dwellers imagine. Their very blandness forces the imagination into new areas. I mean, one’s got to get up in the morning thinking of a deviant act, merely to make certain of one’s freedom.
Like Jagger and Richards, the young David Jones was roused from suburban torpor by the sounds of American rock and roll. He recalled that he “wanted to be a white Little Richard at eight or at least his sax player.”
David’s family background was not strictly conventional. His father, “John” Jones, was a failed music impresario and piano bar operator (the Boop-a-Doop in Charlotte Street, Soho) who lost his money promoting the career of his first wife, Chérie, “the Viennese Nightingale.” David’s mother, “Peggy” Burns, was a cinema usherette. Still, Bromley was Bromley. The bright lights beckoned.
For much of the 1960s, Bowie’s pop career, varied but unsuccessful, did not yet point to the theatrical sensation he was to become. He always looked sharp, but not yet extraordinary. There were false starts: an ice-cream commercial, a jokey song entitled “The Laughing Gnome.” He changed his name to Bowie, after the Bowie knife, because another Davy Jones had becomes famous as one of the Monkees. Then, in the late 1960s, he met two people who would change his life: the English dancer and mime artist Lindsay Kemp, with whom Bowie had an affair, and Angela Barnett, an American model whom he soon married. I saw Lindsay Kemp dance once in London, around about 1971, in a solo piece based on Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, I believe. He was an extraordinary presence on stage, in whiteface, wide-eyed, delicate, flitting about, a little like Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Kemp taught Bowie how to use his body, how to dance, pose, mime. And it was Kemp who introduced Bowie to Kabuki. Kemp was fascinated by the onnagata tradition of male actors playing female roles. Kabuki is oddly fitting to Bowie, a theater of extravagant, stylized gestures. At climactic moments the actors freeze, as though in a photograph, while striking a particularly dramatic pose. Bowie never became a great actor, but he did become a great poseur, in the best sense of the word; he always moves with peculiar grace. Without the influence of Kemp, he might not have made the next step in his career, merging rock music with theater, film, and dance. They put on a show together called Pierrot in Turquoise. Bowie learned how to use costumes and lighting to the best effect. Sets would become ever more elaborate, featuring images from Buñuel movies or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
But the main thing he got from Kemp was his taste for turning life itself into a performance, another Kabuki-like influence. In the old days onnagata actors were encouraged to dress up as women in real life too. Bowie said about Kemp: “His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I’d ever seen, ever. Everything I thought Bohemia probably was, he was living.”
While living the Bohemian life, he and Angela had a son, whom they named Zowie (in the rock-star fashion for giving their children bizarre names), now thankfully called Duncan Jones, a well-regarded film director. It was an adventurous marriage, a kind of polymorphous perverse performance in its own right, open to all sexes. Both were keen promoters of the young rock star’s image. Angela encouraged her spouse’s dandyism. They must have been quite a pair when they turned up in 1971 at Andy Warhol’s studio in New York, the husband in shoulder-length blond hair, Mary Jane shoes, a floppy hat, and absurdly wide Oxford bags, and the shorter-cropped wife looking tougher, more boyish, in comparison. Bowie sang his tribute song to Andy Warhol: “Andy Warhol looks a scream/Hang him on my wall/Andy Warhol, Silver Screen/Can’t tell them apart at all…a-all…a-all.” Warhol was apparently polite to his guest, but not entirely pleased by the wording of the tribute. Later he became a Bowie fan, and some of his actors joined the pop star’s entourage.
Androgyny was central to Bowie’s rising appeal—neither quite straight nor really gay, but something in between that cannot even be adequately described as bisexual (although in real life Bowie was apparently sexually active in every which way). Yamamoto, the Japanese designer, said he liked to make clothes for Bowie because he was “neither man nor woman.” The image cultivated by Bowie, as he became more famous, was as a complete oddity, an isolated alien, a pop deity, utterly enigmatic, freakish, alienated, but dangerously alluring. Japanese culture, he once said, attracted him as “the alien culture because I couldn’t conceive a Martian culture.” Bowie’s first big hit was “Space Oddity” (1969), about a fictional astronaut: “This is Major Tom to ground control/I’m stepping through the door/And I’m floating in a most peculiar way…”
Filmmakers used Bowie’s alien androgynous quality for their own purposes and enhanced his reputation for strangeness. Bowie’s best-known film is Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). In this science-fiction story, Bowie plays a man from another planet who lands in the United States to become first very rich and then an alienated alcoholic obsessed by television and imprisoned by government agents in a luxury apartment. What Roeg exploits is not Bowie’s acting ability, which is ordinary at best, but his image and his body language, his genius for posing.
Oshima Nagisa did something similar in his movie Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), based on a Laurens van der Post novella about the experience of a British army officer in a Japanese POW camp during the Pacific war. One way—the banal way—of doing this would have been to make it into a manly story of rugged endurance. Oshima’s idea was to cast Bowie as the officer and the Japanese pop/rock musician Sakamoto Ryuichi as the cruel camp commandant. Both pop icons are equally androgynous in their own ways—Sakamoto wears makeup. In the climactic scene of the film the British officer tries to disarm his enemy by planting a kiss on his lips, an act for which the blond hero then has to undergo some ghastly tortures. Again the acting is only so-so, but the posing, the “look,” is brilliant.
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.