Off to the Victoria and Albert Museum, to wander through the mind and wardrobe of David Bowie, at the David Bowie Is exhibition. If you have even a passing interest in Bowie's career it's well worth a visit. I spent a good three hours surrounded by Bowie's mind and wardrobe - they're indivisible, really, I should just say mindrobe - and I only had to leave because the museum was about to close. If you can get hold of a ticket, do so, and
A David Bowie Museum, now there's a thing. When he dies they could mummify him and include him as the star exhibit. But in a way isn't the whole Earth a David Bowie museum? His influence is so pervasive that essentially all of human life post-1972 is part of Bowie's legacy.
After revising and tarting up this article I have come to the conclusion that it is more entertaining if you read it from the bottom up. It takes a while for my juices to get going and the opening few paragraphs are herky-jerky and go all over the place. Later on my mind starts to flow.
There are shameful gaps in my Bowie. I'm only familiar with a portion of his work, so after visiting the exhibition I took the opportunity to brush up my knowledge. The standard Bowie narrative is that he started out as a has-been, and then had a novelty hit with "Space Oddity", and then after a few false starts his career went Ziggy Stardust - cocaine paranoia - Berlin - The 1980s - earnest attempts to channel Nine Inch Nails and Ministry and latterly Goldie - distinguished elder statesman.
But this ignores big chunks of his career (wither Diamond Dogs?) and is very simplistic. The "Berlin period" albums were mostly recorded in France and Switzerland, the naff 1980s also includes Scary Monsters, which isn't naff at all, and some of his post-Earthling work is actually pretty good. My opinion is that Bowie is a great interpreter who can take ideas and coat them with Bowie-dust and produce something more than the sum of its parts, but left to his own devices he has a very small stock of ideas. He has no real grasp of narrative, no dominating artistic vision, and ultimately he doesn't have a message beyond the concept of a consciously theatrical approach to rock music.
But this isn't really a valid criticism of Bowie, because he's not a prophet, he's an actor. Laurence Olivier was not known for his original screenplays, but he is still a legend. Like all actors Bowie needs a good script and a sympathetic director, or alternatively a harsh, hard director who knows his onions. A setting and some clothes.
At his best, Bowie has a knack for picking a great project and turning it into something extraordinary. At his worst, Bowie turns up on time, does two takes, and then goes off to sign autographs
I'm not actually a David Bowie fan at all, although I appreciate a lot of his work. For people my age - born in the 1970s, childhood memories of the 1980s, formative years in the early 1990s - Bowie has always been there, in the background, like the sun, or parents. There was a time when it took a certain amount of guts to be a Bowie fan, but in the 1980s millions of people had David Bowie tapes in the gloveboxes of their cars, and he was no longer special. It wasn't until I was older that I realised Bowie had been someone, once.
Perverted by Shoes
Kids tend to uncritically accept things. Partially because they're stupid, and partially because they haven't learned to modulate their opinions in order to fit in with society. I remember playing ET on a friend's Atari 2600 and thinking it was a pretty fun game once I had figured it out. It wasn't until I got hold of the internet that I learned that ET was the worst game ever, a notorious disaster that nearly bankrupted Atari. It's no River Raid or Haunted House, but it's much better than the 2600's other dismal failure, Pac-Man - it's more colourful, at any rate - and for that matter it wipes the floor with Raiders of the Lost Ark, which had a similar concept but was too complicated for its own good. Raiders made the player interact with a bunch of abstract shapes in a non-intuitive way and, judging by the walkthrough I have just seen on Youtube, it ends with Indiana Jones making a tricky parachute jump into a hole in a cliff just like the films.
I mean, it shouldn't have been too hard to make an Indiana Jones game for the 2600. A clone of Spy Hunter with brown grass instead of green grass. Or a rewrite of Pitfall, with the web-swinging routine from Spider-Man. Put in some Nazis, have Indy collect bits of the Ark, use the whip to swing over chasms, paf! Instead, Howard Scott Warshaw decided to make a complex multi-room graphic adventure that required two joysticks in order to play it - one of them moved Indy, the second scrolled through his inventory - and could only be completed with masses of trial and error. Without a walkthrough it was nigh-on impossible, and bear in mind that kids circa 1982 couldn't pop onto the internet and look that kind of stuff up. Not unless their dad was a high-ranking officer in the Pentagon. And he would have refused to ask all the other officers for help with Raiders of the Lost Ark because it would have hurt his career.
David Bowie, eh? As time goes on you become more sophisticated, and by the 1990s I was aware of the standard critical narrative, which held that Bowie's work in the late 1980s had been terrible, and that his subsequent stint in a band called Tin Machine had been a baffling blunder. As a kid in the 1980s I didn't know any of this. I remember thinking that the video for "Let's Dance" was sad - the people had been perverted by shoes - and that "Dancing in the Street" was a fun song. I was probably introduced to David Bowie by his videos, because I was of a generation that got its culture from television. In fact the video for "Let's Dance" is one of my earliest memories of any kind, because television is more vivid than real life. Suffice it to say that, as a kid, Bowie was always there, and then in the late 1980s he seemed to vanish. I had no idea that he had been popular before I was born.
Fast forward to 1993, and I'm old enough to perceive the world with a critical eye. According to the people on television, Bowie's new album Black Tie White Noise is a return to form, which makes me wonder what form he had-had. Lead single "Jump They Say" is pretty good. Judging by the comment thread at this fascinating blog I was part of a small generation of British kids whose first adult exposure to David Bowie came via the late lamented pop video showcase The Chart Show, which played back-to-back music videos linked with primitive CGI. In 1993 MTV was only available on satellite television, which was by no means ubiquitous in the UK, and so The Chart Show was the only way to see an hour of music videos on terrestrial telly. "Jump They Say" didn't seem out of place alongside the other singles in the chart at the time, and I still have a soft spot for the song today. The stylish video hasn't aged at all. It borrows visual cues from 2001, La Jetee, and Robert Wiles' famous photo of suicide jumper Evelyn McHale, who landed on a parked car, crushing it, coming to rest in a pose that looked as if she was asleep.
The song's unusually personal subject matter - the sad, lonely death of Bowie's estranged half-brother Terry - gives it a raw, emotional quality buried in most of Bowie's other work. Early in David Bowie Is there's a short audio clip of a young Bowie talking about his family's battle with mental illness. My first thought was that this was the kind of self-aggrandising nonsense that people come up with in interviews to make themselves sound more interesting, but it seems that he was telling the truth after all. Unfortunately the rest of Black Tie White Noise is pretty dull, although it has its defenders. A defender.
Famously Black Tie knocked Suede's debut album off the top spot of the charts. This was portrayed in the media as a giant "serves you right" at that time, because Suede's Brett Anderson seemed to be modelling himself too closely on Bowie's 70s persona, but in retrospect Suede was the better record. Bowie himself didn't seem to hold a grudge - the NME ran a fascinating interview with Bowie and Anderson a few weeks before their albums were due to come out, and they seemed to get on. Bowie comes across as an arrogant but not unlikeable poser while Anderson seems a bit dull, but they didn't fight each other.
"Compare Black Tie White Noise to, say, Bryan Ferry’s new LP, Taxi", says the NME's interview host, "which is just an old crooner doing cover versions, and it’s obvious that it’s important to you to matter. That your artistic pride won’t let you rely on your reputation." It's a particularly poignant observation given that Ferry's first album of cover versions, These Foolish Things, had been a genuinely clever set of post-modern deconstructions of pop hits from the recent past. It came out in 1973, on the same day as David Bowie's own covers album, Pin Ups, which was uninventive and not very good. For that one brief moment Bryan Ferry was on top of the game, albeit that Ferry gave the impression he didn't particularly respect the songs he covered, as if he was making a big joke, whereas Pin-Ups seemed sincere on a fundamental level.
Bowie has always struck me as a sincere man, insofar as it is possible to be sincerely superficial. If he is all surface, then at least he really does care about the surface. The "plastic soul" label he used during the Young Americans and Station to Station years was just self-depreciation, because he was a genuinely excellent funk performer who treated the music with respect. If Frank Zappa had recorded a plastic soul album it would have been a sneering joke. If Paul McCartney had done the same, he would have approached it as if funk was a novelty that only he - a major musical talent - could legitimise. Even during the 1980s Bowie seemed to be making a sincere attempt to become a stadium rock star, rather than becoming a stadium rock star whilst pretending to be an everyday guy.
The NME's interview has a melancholic air to it. It presents Brett Anderson as the heir-in-waiting to Bowie's vacant pop throne, which was feasible for a few weeks in 1993, although nowadays it seems ridiculous. Whatever his merits, Brett Anderson simply wasn't star material. He was never larger-than-life, and the more I read about him the smaller he becomes. He spent some time addicted to crack, not because he was trying to block out the anguish of some deep psychological problem, but because he liked crack a lot and could afford it.
There was originally a large block of text here in which I drew parallels between Morrissey and David Bowie, but there's no comparison. Morrissey drew from a small set of influences and has barely evolved since the 1980s, either as a musician or as a person. He comes across as the kind of man for whom human experience is theory, whereas Bowie has lived a life. Bowie wants to entertain us, Morrissey wants to entertain himself, and he will leave very little behind when he goes.
A few months after Black Tie White Noise topped the charts, U2 did the same with Zooropa, which comes across as a sonic template for Bowie's subsequent records. Far more than Black Tie itself. Zooropa was produced by Brian Eno, who had worked on some of Bowie's best records of the 1970s before going on to become an unlikely star producer of multi-million-selling records. He established himself as the go-to man for bands that wanted to progress beyond the mortal plane. In the 1980s he helped birth Talking Heads' Remain in Light, which was released right at the beginning of the decade and was still startling ten years later. A few years later he was behind the desk for U2's The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, which sold oodles.
Eno is the Steve Jobs of record production, in the sense that it's easy to mock him - what does he do? - but he undeniably gets results. U2 with Eno was interesting, U2 without Eno (on Rattle and Hum) was boring, and U2 with Eno again (Achtung Baby and Zooropa) was interesting again, so there's that. Talking Heads had a solid catalogue before Remain in Light and a few high spots thereafter, but they are a great band because of that album. And Eno's solo albums have always sounded fantastic even if he only had a small stock of musical ideas. There are not many electronic albums from the 1970s that have dated as well as Discreet Music and Music for Airports.
My teenage musical taste was shaped by electronic dance music, and from there I sought out the electronic sounds of the 1970s, which led me to the post-punk end of New Wave, and David Bowie's Berlin albums, which are amongst a select band of records made during the very early heyday of punk that sound like post-punk. Bowie's Berlin records were much less raw than The Modern Dance and its peers - he has always been limited by the need to sell lots of records, or at least reach a wide audience - but Low sounds like the kind of album a really good early post-punk band might have released if they had had access to some top session musicians and lots of money, and Tony Visconti. It's easy to forget that Tony Visconti actually produced the Berlin albums, with Eno as a kind of consultant; judging by this article about the making of "Heroes", Visconti was no less a creative force than Eno.
In my opinion Low isn't as consistent as his previous album Station to Station, but it would be remembered now as one of the best records of 1977 even if it had been recorded by a complete unknown.
Such a wonderful person / but you've got problems / I'll never touch you
By the early 1990s house and techno had evolved rapidly, and the ambient records of The Orb and Future Sound of London were becoming unlikely chart hits, which led me to Brian Eno and Bowie's Berlin albums again, 'cause they had post-punk songs on side one and ambient tracks on side two. I generally ignored Bowie's glam rock stuff. David Bowie Is makes a good case for his glam period but I feel that the image and the times are too old-fashioned for me to appreciate them fully. By the time I was young glam rock either meant Gary Glitter or Warrant, so perhaps you can understand my aversion to it.
Bowie's influence has become diluted over the years, to such an extent that it's hard to appreciate. But in the late 1970s, early 1980s it seemed as if everybody was copping ideas from Bowie. My very earliest childhood pop memories are of Gary Numan, Adam Ant, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran etc, all of whom owed something to Bowie, although the extent varied greatly. Duran Duran and the rest of the New Romantics clearly idolised him. Gary Numan was a sci-fi take on the Thin White Duke period, with bits of T Rex and Kraftwerk thrown in. To his credit Numan openly admitted all of this, but in interviews it became apparent that he was a very shallow man albeit powerfully focused. His occasional stabs at sexual ambiguity were entirely cynical.
The same was mostly true of the New Romantics, but Numan predated them by a couple of years and seemed to absorb all the Bowie-imitator mockery, like some kind of icebreaking dredger / fly-paper / air filter. Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush had their own ideas, but there was still a little bit of Bowie in their theatrical presentation and elaborate stage shows. The punks and post-punks and New Wave and Cold Wave and Goth stars either pretended to ignore him or grudgingly tipped their hats to him, and I am convinced that the renaissance of shirt-wearing pop stars in the late 1970s was a delayed reaction to Bowie's Station to Station image.
Incidentally, I learn from this interview in Mojo magazine that Kate Bush first heard David Bowie's music - in this case "Starman" - whilst sitting in a bath, submerged in bubbles. At the age of 14. Let's ponder that mental image. Together, you and I. Let's ponder it together. To be honest I've never really thought of Kate Bush in a sexual sense, she's too girly. (long pause) David Bowie Is divides Bowie's career (cough) into two basic phases, separated by his appearance on Top of the Pops on 06 July 1972 to promote "Starman", his new single. I hope Kate Bush doesn't read this. Before that point he wasn't exactly an unknown - "Space Oddity" had been a huge novelty hit in 1969, and he had released The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, which would have sold lots if they had been released after the success of Ziggy Stardust, breathe in - but the Top of the Pops appearance made him a star and from then on he finally had the audience he craved.
I learn from David Bowie Is that Bowie was trying to evoke something of A Clockwork Orange and the bleak futurism of J G Ballard with his Ziggy Stardust persona, using colourful clothing instead of the monochrome boiler suits and black boots of Alex and his droogs. I'm not sure he pulled it off very well. Malcolm McDowell was a little shit in Orange whereas Bowie did not look like a bruiser. Instead he was poofy, fey, openly gay, or at least bisexual, gay-ish. Famously, in the Top of the Pops clip he put his arm around another man, which was shocking in 1972 because the only time that men were supposed to touch each other in those days was when they were boxing or playing football. Mick Ronson (the other man) didn't look gay, in fact he looked slightly silly dressed up in a spacesuit.
To my eyes Bowie circa 1972 looks, well, odd. His hair is clearly a mullet, which is unfortunate. And his brand of sci-fi futurism belongs to a bygone age, the pre-Alien, pre-Star Wars age, a time when The Future was going to look like Barbarella or The Final Programme. My generation's vision of the future was of people dressed in drab smocks running through a malfunctioning smelting plant. In this respect I can't relate to the Ziggy Stardust era because it draws on a vision that I did not share. In drawing inspiration from cutting-edge Japanese styles it's as if Bowie picked the right country, but the wrong decade. Bowie had a cloak that was embroidered with Kanji characters that spelled out "he who spits fire in a majestic and intimidating manner", which is fantastic. In contrast, The Thin White Duke and Bowie's late-70s look has aged well because it's so minimalist, essentially shirts and slacks and a razor-sharp jawline.
Just like Ted Bundy, Bowie has one of those faces that does not have a definitive form. Sometimes he has wonky teeth and looks like a scrawny kid, at other times he resembles a classical movie idol, sometimes he looks like a woman, sometimes he looks like a man. David Bowie Is generally avoids making sociopolitical statements and as a hetereosexual man who wasn't even alive in 1973 I can't comment on the impact Bowie's gayness had. I suspect his gay fans were terrifically ambiguous about his 1980s career, which on the one hand encompassed the gayness of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Bowie's performance as Jareth in Labyrinth, which as far as I can tell is an accurate depiction of gay life circa 1985, but on the other hand his pop persona was utterly heterosexual and of course Jareth was trying to woo Jennifer Connelly, a woman. Who was 16 when Labyrinth was released. Thank you, Jim Henson, for giving the world 16-year-old Jennifer Connelly. Never has a film made me want to be a motorised rocking horse more than Career Opportunities. Jeans.
Also, Bowie's teeth were always wonky, in a British way, but sometimes it worked - the teeth made his face look even more drawn and ghoulish and when he smiled he looked cheeky and/or vampiric. Nowadays he has American teeth. Legend has it that the cocaine he took in the 1970s did nothing for his teeth, and they started to fall out, so he had them done. On the subject of cocaine, this Rolling Stone interview from 1976 (by Cameron Crowe, no less) positively reeks of the stuff. It's the famous interview in which he argues that Britain needs a dictator, and it might as well be him.
"I have this dream. I’d like to host a satellite television show and invite all the biggest bands onto one stage. Then I'd come out with a great big wheelbarrow of machine guns and ask them, 'Now how many of you are gonna do anything? How many are going to pick up a gun and how many of you are gonna cling to your guitars?'" Before he can pick up the thread again one feels the need to question Bowie on the seriousness of his tirades. He answers with an impatient huff that seems to ask, how much longer will it take you silly mortals to understand? "I have to carry through with my conviction that the artist is also the medium. The only way that I can be this abrasive as a person is to be this confoundedly arrogant and forthright with my point of view. I can only do that by believing in my point of view with sincerity. And I do. I honestly believe everything that I’ve said. I believe that rock and roll is dangerous. It could well bring about a very evil feeling in the West. I do want to rule the world."
Would David Bowie have been a great dictator? No, not a chance. At best he would have been turned into a Howard Hughes-style figurehead, but why would a regime choose David Bowie as its figurehead? His soldiers who have had fantastic uniforms, but dictators need to give the impression that they are the only people strong and ruthless enough to solve the nation's problems, whereas Bowie circa 1976 was a wisp of a man in the grip of drug-induced paranoia. The same is true of Hitler circa 1945, but he was no longer a great dictator then.
Stalin was paranoid, too, but that was merely one part of his personality. He was also a charismatic, street-smart politician who knew enough about socialism to give the impression that he believed in it, and who was utterly focused on being top dog. As a child he had a hard life and was beaten by his drunken father, so I suppose he realised quite early on that you can't trust anyone, not even your own family; and that human relations are based on force, and if you don't put the fear of God into someone first they will do the same to you, it's only a matter of time. Bowie was a lightweight in comparison. There is something of Bowie in Mussolini, but Mussolini sold himself as a barrel-chested man of the people, something Bowie could never have done.
Was he a Nazi? In the sense of literally being a member of Hitler's politicial party, obviously not. He appears to have never said a bad thing about Jewish people or Russians, and whatever thoughts he had on German-Austrian unification he kept to himself. On a racial level Bowie appears to have been a Bowie Supremacist, in the sense that he believed he was better than other people not because he was white, but because he was David Bowie. It is my opinion that this manifest itself not as hatred for other people, but merely as a belief that the world needed him. It would be easy to waffle on about fascism of the self and the innate fascism of the rock spectacle, suffice it to say that Bowie is no more a fascist or a Nazi than you or I.
And of course he married and loves Iman, who is black, so presumably he's not racist. Or at least his cock isn't racist. Cocks aren't racist, are they? I know mine isn't, anyway.
In a way I was lucky to miss the 1980s, because I didn't have to endure Bowie's decline. Side two of Let's Dance and all of Tonight, Never Let me Down and the Tin Machine project had all been written off as boring rubbish by the time I became interested in pop, and having listened to a selection of tracks from his 1980s career on YouTube I'm unconvinced that this period benefits from a reappraisal. Tin Machine has its fans but I think they're just being contrary for the sake of it. "Blue Jean", "Time Will Crawl", "Day-In, Day-Out", "Heaven's in Here" etc are just dull and plodding. Bowie looked great in Tin Machine and made beards fashionable again, and the band could play, but he simply wasn't credible as a hard rock frontman.
His records of the 1980s were well-produced, with a sound that hasn't aged too badly, but the only thing that separates 80s Bowie from Tina Turner - or Rod Stewart, solo Mick Jagger - are the lyrics, which strive for a kind of Dylan-esque evocative profundity but are just rubbish. "I got a bad migraine / that lasted three long years / and the pills that I took / made my fingers disappear". It seems that Bowie had signed a huge record deal with EMI after years of being on RCA, and wanted to put out a hit record in order to cement the deal. Let's Dance sold over ten million copies and was indeed a huge hit, at which point Bowie found himself in the same position as NASA just after Apollo 11 had returned safely to Earth. He had knocked it out of the park on his first attempt, but what next? For the first time in his life Bowie was healthy, wealthy, and at least a little bit wise. The problem is that healthy, wealthy artists tend to produce boring art*. but Bowie was distracted by acting and touring and the music became a secondary concern.
* I'm thinking here of George Harrison, who achieved peace and a life-changing amount of wealth quite early on in his career. After his mammoth debut album All Things Must Pass his music quickly took second-fiddle to film producing and gardening, and some of his later albums (Gone Troppo, 33.333333) were released as afterthoughts and sold in tiny numbers. And on a musical level they are just throwaways, contractual obligations. Harrison said what he wanted to say with All Things and Living in the Material World, and had just enough ideas left for Dark Horse, and that was his lot.
And yet in 1987 he had a massive commercial comeback with Cloud Nine, which sold millions and had a chart-topping single. It's a surprisingly good album when judged as a well-written collection of pop-rock songs. Nothing much had changed in Harrison's personal life since the late 1970s, it seems the difference is that Harrison simply worked very very hard at his songwriting craft, like a great painter messing around with paints on a silly day. Although it was ultimately a soulless record, it was nonetheless a polished, professional product, and it is possible to enjoy great craft even when it is not great art.
I didn't need to bother with the asterisk, did I? I could have simply moved on to the next paragraph without it. I'll take it out.
Inked Ravens of Despair Claw Holes in the Arse of the World's Mind
I picture the early 1970s as a very bleak, colourless period, a horrible let-down after the colourful 1960s of The Italian Job and Our Man Flint, which is probably unfair. Hendrix was dead and the Beatles had split up, but there was some fantastic music at the time. The Rolling Stones were chucking out masterpieces as if they had sold their souls to the devil, Led Zeppelin were only just starting to run out of steam having sold their souls to the devil, Black Sabbath had released Master of Reality etc devil etc, and in retrospect was there ever a period of rock music history more in league with Satan than the early 1970s? I imagine that old people must have thought that youth culture had gone bad.
Still, Bowie was a flamboyant presence who was both alluring and utterly unattainable. The kids watching him on television in 1972 knew they were never going to be as thin or good-looking as him, and nowadays it's unlikely that you will ever be as rich as him or, if you are as rich as him, it's unlikely you will ever be worshipped by a generation of teenagers. We know now that Bowie's off-stage life in the 1970s was pretty bleak. He never had any money, and his day-to-day existence involved moving from hotel to limo to hotel to gig to hotel whilst trying to raise a kid and placate his wife. He stayed in rental accommodation and became increasingly dependent on drugs until he became too sick to function as a person. Everything he had was borrowed. As far as the fans were concerned he led a glamorous life that involved hanging out with other rock stars, holidaying in Monaco, partying with the stars, flying through space etc, but this was just as unreal as Ziggy Stardust. Bowie was two levels removed from reality.
Like a lot of musicians who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s Bowie didn't really start to make serious money until the 1980s, and just like Mick Jagger he has made sure to pay close attention to money matters ever since then (unusually, original manager Tony DeFries seems to have been fairly benign). In the 1990s he famously hit upon the idea of selling "Bowie Bonds", giving investors a chance to get their hands on his future record royalties in exchange for an up-front sum. Apparently he did better out of the deal than the people who bought the bonds - album sales on the whole declined during the years that the bonds ran - but that's the nature of investing, it's risky. Bowie used the money to buy back the rights to his music. Shortly afterwards he launched Bowienet, an ambitious project that was created by a pair of internet startups. It was originally concieved as an archive of Bowie's work, curated and managed by the man himself, and a dial-up ISP(!), but like so many internet projects from the dot.com boom the dream died and nowadays davidbowie.com is no different from any other single-artist website. If you want a @bowie.net email address, you're out of luck.
I attribute Bowie's return to relevance not to Black Tie White Noise but to Q magazine, which launched in the UK in 1986. It's still published today, although it's much thinner than it used to be. Q was unusual when it began, in that it was published monthly and had a very wide brief. It wrote about the past and was generally non-judgemental about music. Unlike The Face (for example) it was driven by a desire to reflect rather than define. Until that point the pop music press in the UK had been weekly, and there was very little sense of history and very little reverence for the past. The magazines existed for the moment, but by the late 1980s the pop audience had grown up, and all of a sudden it became fashionable to read about days gone by. Thus in the 1990s I read about David Bowie and his adventures with cocaine and paranoia in the 1970s, and my generation finally had a chance to appreciate him. I could identify with the synthesiser experiments of his Berlin period. The success of the CD format led to a wave of back catalogue reissues, which made his music accessible again, albeit expensive if you wanted to buy the original albums rather than e.g. ChangesBowie, a popular compilation that came out in 1990.
Q isn't single-handedly responsible for reviving rock's past - Record Collector predated it by several years, and was even more diverse, and later on Mojo managed to find a happy medium between the two - but if it didn't start the fire, it at least provided lots of paper to keep the fire burning. Because it was quite thick, see. Lots of pages.
I ask you, readers, before Q, how were young people supposed to learn about rock music of the past? There was no internet to learn from, and actual old people were too boring to talk to. What else? Television occasionally ran documentaries about the 1960s - I have fond memories of The Rock'n'Roll Years - but there was no way you could hear all of Low or Station to Station on television, besides which television is shallow.
And so I ventured into David Bowie Is not as a fan but as a man intrigued by the subject, drawn to Bowie's work via electronic music - krautrock - the Berlin Trilogy - Station to Station - The Man who Fell to Earth, spiralling outwards from there. You have to book in advance because it's very popular and it finishes on 13 August, except that it's sold out so you can't go. I've been! Somewhere in the world there's a passionate David Bowie fan who is staring at the V and A's website, crying because he can't get a ticket, but I've been! And I'm not even a fan! I could have sold you my ticket. It cost me £14, which is nothing. That's what happens when you're the early bird, see.
You know what would have been funny? If I'd bought hundreds of tickets and just walked quickly through the exhibition wearing a blindfold, ignoring the exhibits and then just walking out. There are wheelchair-bound David Bowie fans waiting on kidney transplants oh I'll stop now. The exhibition actually continues beyond the V and A, so there's hope if you missed it. Next stop Toronto, and then Sao Paulo, and probably other cities that end in -o, such as New York and perhaps Paris. I mean, it has to go to Berlin, 'cause of you know, and New York 'cause of Andy Warhol. Not sure about Paris, though. For such a stylish performer David Bowie has never struck me as particularly French-o-phile.
The only David Bowie album I paid money for when it was new in the shops was 1. Outside. The shop was playing "Hallo Spaceboy" on the tannoy, and the ferocious beat appealed to me. "Spaceboy" was eventually released as a single but instead of putting out the album track the record label decided to ask the Pet Shop Boys to rework it. The result was popular but lost the original production's aggressive edge.
It's been a long time since I've listened to 1. Outside, do I still have it? (checks) No. "Hearts Filthy Lesson" was the standout track, and it has aged well. Beyond the fact that the title track was the other good song, I can barely remember the rest of the album, except that it came in a cardboard sleeve. The last track was "Strangers When we Meet", a boring throwback to the 80s. Three good tracks equals two more good tracks than Black Tie White Noise, so that's progress I suppose. For his next album, Earthling, Bowie decided to experiment with drum'n'bass, which put me off because drum'n'bass had been beaten into a cliché by 1997. Lead single "Little Wonder" was a generic David Bowie song, almost a parody of a Bowie song, with skittery breakbeat interjections that didn't gel into a coherent whole. There was a sense that Bowie thought, in his mind, that he had mastered electronic music, but he came across as a bit of a wally. He was no Squarepusher. In my opinion Paul McCartney's work as The Fireman was a much more successful attempt by an older artist to capture the modern electronic sound.
But McCartney doesn't have a V and A exhibition, or if he does it will be as part of The Beatles. I can understand this. He is a better musical technician than Bowie, but it's hard to turn music into a museum exhibit and on a personal level McCartney is much like you or I. He lived a happy life with his wife until she died, at which point he felt the grief everybody feels when they lose a loved one. Even in the most psychedelic part of his career McCartney was one of us - a boring white hetereosexual man - whereas Bowie was not one of us, he was the opposite of us. He was an interesting black gay person of ambiguous gender.
Still, of Bowie's post-Outside work - Hours, Heathen, Reality - I have no idea, I went into David Bowie Is cold, because his later albums were never played on the radio. Bear in mind that Youtube didn't launch until 2005, and although Audiogalaxy and Napster coexisted with Bowie's later career, they weren't much fun on dial-up and of course I wasn't a Bowie fan. The one exception is "Thursday's Child", which was a top twenty hit in 1999 and sounded utterly contemporary at the time and even had some mainstream radio airplay. Listening to it now it's still gorgeous. Didn't make me want to buy Hours, though. Flicking throuh his catalogue, "Everyone Says Hi" is a late gem, surprisingly touching and human for Bowie - it could almost have been a Pet Shop Boys song - and "New Killer Star" has grown on me. It's like something from Scary Monsters.
Following the release of Reality, in 2003, Bowie toured, but after feeling unwell during a concert in Germany he needed heart surgery to fix a blocked artery, and after that he seemed to retire. As a non-fan I was unaware of this, and didn't really notice that he had vanished until the surprise release, in early 2013, of "Where Are We Now", a single he had been working on in secret. It's a slow dancing song made poignant by Bowie's weak, quavery voice. I learn from the exhibition that the odd Siamese puppet in the video had actually been created back in 1997 for Bowie's 50th birthday celebrations, and that the song makes lots of references to real places in Berlin.
There is a Last Chance to See quality to him now. At the age of 66 David Bowie has done far more with his life than you or I. He is happily married to a woman he loves and he wants for nothing. His son, Duncan Jones, is a successful indie filmmaker who seems poised for much bigger things. What does he have left to look forward to?
The exhibition has some of Bowie's early designs for his stage shows, and shows us his doomed attempts to mould a succession of no-hope 60s beat bands into glamorous television idols. Once he began selling records in anger Bowie demanded an epic canvas, and preparations for the elaborate Diamond Dogs tour are covered in great detail, which feels a bit odd because Diamond Dogs itself isn't highly thought of today. It gets sandwiched between his glam period and Young Americans, which itself is overshadowed by Bowie's Berlin period. Young Americans isn't covered in any detail by the exhibition. The outtakes are more interesting than the album itself, which tends to bury Bowie's voice under layers of horns.
Diamond Dogs was very important to Bowie at the time, and the frustrating thing is that almost no footage was shot of the tour itself. The exhibition ends with some shaky amateur footage but it's a shadow of the pre-production material. The final room, by the way, is great fun. Most of the exhibition has a low ceiling, but the final room is very tall and has a giant video wall, with a second wall that has some of Bowie's costumes displayed in alcoves off the ground.
Dogs is part of my Bowie blank spot, and having just listened to the album for the first time I'm not sure what to think of it. I can hear the cocaine, but there's a Lou Reed aspect to it as well, and Bowie's voice is, if anything, bigger and more confident than it was a couple of years later. The Young Americans image grew during the latter part of the Diamond Dogs tour, and "1984" - which is a disco track, a few years before disco hit the mainstream - reminds me a bit of the "drink, drink, drain your glass, raise your glass high" section of "Station to Station". The album is one of two attempts by Bowie to tell a coherent story, and like 1. Outside it's a total failure as a narrative. On a musical level the songs tend to drag, and overall it feels surprisingly un-Bowie like. If he had continued to mine the same furrow he would have turned into a kind of big band rock star, I suppose, like Van der Graaf Generator or Alice Cooper. I think of it as Bowie's Animals. Like Pink Floyd's album it's listenable, it has a concept, it even has a similar sound, but ultimately it's just good. Okay. Not great.
The Diamond Dogs part of his career put me in mind of Gary Numan again, whose songs were miniature sci-fi dystopias, and who had spent his formative years drawing up sketches of the concert production he wanted to do when he was a big star. The difference between them career-wise was that Bowie took almost ten years to finally establish himself, whereas Numan went from school to a short-lived punk career to chart-topping stardom in about eighteen months. The stage show he eventually managed to mount was undeniably brilliant - and for a brief moment he was a bigger star than Bowie, at least in the UK - but it was his last good idea for a very long time.
Numan's problem is that, as David Bowie Is makes clear, David Bowie absorbed lots of influences from a wide range of sources, and for every idea that filtered through to his music and live shows there were plenty that never saw the light of day, which nonetheless added their own flavour to the sauce. Rather like the layers of backing vocals and guitars that Phil Spector insisted on recording for All Things Must Pass. Even though they were inaudible, their influence was felt rather than heard.
In contrast Numan and the other Bowie imitators never had Bowie's breadth of influence - their main inspiration was Bowie himself - and so although they could imitate the form of Bowie, they didn't have access to his pool of influences and therefore were unable to generate their own ideas. They were rather like the creature from The Human Centipede, with Bowie at the head and them at the bottom, feeding on his waste. The few fellow travellers who did do their homework, such as John Foxx (for example) quickly diverged from Bowie's path, because they had enough mental ammunition to load... their... own... mind guns?
David Bowie Is not cheap. PROTIP: The official book is essential and sells for £25 at the venue or slightly less if you buy it from a popular online retailer whose name rhymes with Dam-a-son Dotcoe Dotyoukay.
Still, back to the exhibition. It combines some of the V and A's existing collection - including footage of Gilbert and George and piles of J G Ballard books - with articles from David Bowie's personal archives, although Bowie himself apparently had nothing to do with it. Shortly before David Bowie Is opened he released a new studio album - his first for ten years - but the exhibition doesn't go out of its way to promote it and it's not given undue prominence. The most recent artefact is the video for "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)", the second single from the new album.
According to this interview the idea of a single-artist exhibition was devised in early 2011, and was originally going to be about "another music star", but copyright issues sunk the deal. You have to wonder who they were originally going to feature. Bob Dylan? But what kind of artefacts has Bob Dylan left behind? Not a great deal. Brian Eno perhaps, although the show would have been on a much smaller scale. Kate Bush produced a mass of iconography, but it became more infrequent as her career progressed, and in the end a Kate Bush retrospective would be dominated visually by her late-70s work. Given that this would involve a twenty-foot-high photograph of Kate Bush wearing a leotard this would not necessarily be a bad thing.
Madonna has plenty of iconography, and she has undeniably been successful and influential, but she seems an odd fit for the V and A's image. I float her name in all seriousness; she is as much a reflection of the hopes and dreams of her age than any artist alive today, except that her time was the cold hard 1980s. She was the Mike Tyson to Bowie's Muhammed Ali. A charmless but brutally efficient punching machine who got results and was undeniably performant. And yet Mike Tyson cared deeply for his pigeons; what did Madonna care for? We may never know unless someone is prepared to strap on some potholing gear and descend into her mind.
The Pet Shop Boys would fit perfectly into the V and A, and perhaps they will have a show of their own one day. It would be easy to present The Pet Shop Boys' influences, but it would be hard to present their legacy. They are a successful band with a rich back catalogue, but did they inspire a generation to emulate them? To stand motionless on-stage singing poignant songs of life in urban Britain? The Streets? I have always thought of PSB as being apart from mainstream pop, even though they dominated it for a short while. They certainly have inspired some artists, it's just that... well, my thesis is that the kind of impact Bowie had in 1972 and 1977 and 1980 was no longer possible by 1987, because pop music had fragmented so much, and there were many more television channels. Nowadays pop has transformed from a few homogeneous mass cultures into a mass of micro-cultures, and The Pet Shop Boys were always doomed to be one bright star in a gigantic galaxy. I like to think that their lasting contribution to pop has been a kind of frankness, an intelligent pragmatism, and the realisation that a song about wanting to buy a dog can say something quite profound about people, and can be touching too. They made it seem absurd for British pop stars to emulate Americans; they made it acceptable to use semi-colons in song lyrics.
The decision to pick Bowie might possibly have been influened by Bowie: Object, a book project that was first touted in 2010. It was intended as a trawl through Bowie's archives - he really does have an archive, apparently stored in a warehouse in New York - with the book presented as a kind of illustrated memoir. It was supposed to be published by Penguin in 2012 but seems to have been put back or abandoned.
The exhibition has a rough thesis, with the opening room trying to place Bowie in the context of contemporary art, although it doesn't do so very well, and I wasn't sure if it was part of the exhibition or not. It's dominated by one of Bowie's outfits, which I see was held together with poppers. Room two shows Bowie as a child of the baby boom era trying to carve his own identity, and "Space Oddity" is presented in its own little cubby hole alongside some footage of Bowie awkwardly meeting Andy Warhol. The 1972 Top of the Pops broadcast of "Starman" serves as a gateway to the 1970s and megastardom, which has a large room to itself.
I haven't mentioned it yet, but the exhibition is presented with headphones (the show is co-sponsored by Gucci and Sennheiser) that play snippets of audio as you approach the exhibits. It must be odd for the security guards, who have to sit and watch as people mill around in silence. The headphones become redundant in the main room, which plays a mash-up of some of Bowie's 70s songs, and then come to life again towards the end.
The Berlin period is tucked away in a small room to itself, dominated by an EMS AKS, donated by Brian Eno to David Bowie in the 1990s. Alas it wasn't plugged in, and it seems that original examples now sell for over £10,000, which is a shame. If I had my way every school in the land would have a patchable module sound sythesiser, preferably a modern update with sampling and a small sequencer. The kids would goof off, and twenty years from now Britain would dominate the world of music even more than it does already.
Bowie seems to have spent most of 1976 and 1977 in recording studios - Low and Heroes were released in January and October of that year, with Iggy Pop's The Idiot and Lust for Life coming out in March and August - and perhaps he was too busy, his lifestyle too frugal to leave much behind from that period. The Berlin albums were, for the most part, not actually recorded in Berlin (Low and The Idiot were made in France, Lodger in Switzerland) and Bowie's stage shows from the period were modest affairs. Judging by the video for "Where Are We Now" he still recalls those years fondly, and perhaps if he had arranged the exhibition himself they might have featured more prominently.
In retrospect the thought of Iggy Pop and David Bowie becoming great mates in Cold War Berlin is like something from a strange dream. It would make for a fascinating film. I imagine the pair of them teaming up to fight the evil Lou Reed and the villainous Patti Smith... in fact it could be a rerun of Superman II but with slight alteration. Lou Reed as General Zod, Patti Smith as the mean superwoman lady... I'm digressing. Lou Reed was still alive when I wrote this paragraph.
Iggy Pop was raised in a trailer park in Michigan and seems to have approached music and life from an instinctive, animalistic direction, whereas Bowie was born into relatively sedate surroundings in London and has never been accused of spontaneity. Perhaps that is what drew them together. They were two halves of the same person. The Idiot and Lust for Life are great David Bowie records, and are presumably what Bowie would have released if he hadn't been sidetracked by the possibilities of electronic music. The four albums Bowie contributed to during 1977 represent an incredible run of sustained creativity, and if he declined from then on it was from a great height.
"Let's Dance" - the song - appears on a clever video wall, but the chronology skips straight from Scary Monsters - represented by a huge reproduction of the artwork, or perhaps the original artwork really was six feet wide - to 1. Outside and thence Earthling. Of his 80s work there is the video for "Blue Jean", with its striking makeup, but nothing else of substance. The video wall is arranged as a grid, with a chess-board of squares on the floor in front of it, and by standing in the squares you can hear different songs. When I was there everybody vacated the square for "Let's Dance" and tried to awkardly fit into the other squares, and it would be interesting to see timelapse footage of the guests moving from square to square. You could use that data to pick the track listing for a forthcoming David Bowie greatest hits compilation. There's money to be made in watching people.
There is a separate room devoted to his acting career. It has some of the balls from Labyrinth - David Bowie's balls were justly famous in that film - and there is footage of Bowie's make-up-free performance as John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Critical wisdom holds that Bowie worked well in The Man Who Fell to Earth but was more of a special effect than an actor, to be deployed with great care. I have to agree. Based on the footage I have seen on Youtube of Baal and Labyrinth and Basquiat and, yes, The Prestige he is always David Bowie, mimicking the style of an actor rather than actually acting. Neither Cher nor Mark Wahlberg will ever have an exhibition about them at the V and A, but they are much better musicians-turned-actors than David Bowie. Presumably Bowie either didn't have the time or simply didn't have the natural talent to become an effective screen actor and as a presence there were few roles that worked for him. On a technical level he's not very good in The Prestige, with an unconvincing accent, but he works in the role because a reading of Nikolai Tesla as Thomas Jerome Newton rings true.
What did I learn of David Bowie, the man? Beyond the facts of his birth in 1947, his pre-fame upbringing, not much. He got on well with his mum when he was young but lost touch with her, although she never forgot him. She lived to see him get married and settle down and have kids. The exhibition is firmly about his work rather than him, and I came away knowing very little about Bowie as a human being. I still don't have a mental picture of him. Is he a good man, a bad man? I have no idea. From what I have read he is nowadays essentially a retired musician-businessman in the mould of Bono or Bob Geldof. Unlike either of those two people Bowie has never tried to position himself as a humanitarian; Bowie has simply kept himself to himself. I surmise he spends most of his time dealing with his accounts.
The exhibition ends with a room that exhibits some of the artists who have been inspired by Bowie. This could have been a grasping-at-straws exercise, but the examples are well-chosen and the exhibition doesn't over-egg this aspect, although it does give the impression that Bowie's lasting influence will be a kind of visual style and attitude rather than anything more substantial. He will become a seasoning rather than a main course. I admit that I skipped past this room so I can't discuss it in detail (there were some magazine covers featuring Kate Moss, plus Lady Gaga, and... (waves hands) probably some bands or something). A few months after writing this, Bowie won a Brit Award, and sent Kate Moss to pick it up wearing one of the very same costumes (scroll down) that appeared in David Bowie Is. Presumably the actual very self-same actual physical thing. Kate Moss wore tights; David Bowie didn't, make of that what you will.
Bowie is often criticised for being a shallow poseur, a dilletante, a sponger, a parasite who used other people's ideas to advance his own career without caring much for the people or the ideas. A hollow empty shell of a man with nothing much to say, whose art existed not to illustrate a universal truth or convey a passionate belief but simply to show off. A vain, exasperating man. A loathsome musical vampire. The obvious counter-argument is that Bowie was a rock star, and all rock stars are like that, especially British rock stars. As a British person I am used to rock stars dressing up and pretending to be supermen. The American variety - denim-clad, honest working men, pretending to love their audience - feels wrong and forced. I expect rock stars to despise their audience and feel ashamed and sicked by fame, it feels strange when rock stars smile and pretend to be regular guys. Perhaps it's because America is a democracy, and everybody over there is equal. This is not the case in Europe, where there is still an elite, and we are supposed to look up to them (or down at their feet). Bowie's whole persona is elitist, we are supposed to look up at him, or down at his feet, so that we can admire his superior taste in footwear.
Bowie is not Benjamin Britten or Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in protest at the South Vietnamese government. He is an entertainment. He communicates with short rhyming stanzas, dazzling outfits, and dense sonic textures, and his message is pure theatrical spectacle. The storyboards for the Diamond Dogs stage musical look absolutely awful, and his concept albums simply don't hold together. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Etc has the merest wisp of a storyline, Dogs feels like a set of vignettes, I am sceptical that 1. Outside (a "non-linear Gothic drama hyper-cycle") had been thought through. It was originally supposed to be the first in a trilogy, but Bowie gave up because his mind was distracted and he couldn't be bothered to release volumes two and three. Everybody else calls it just Ouside but, for heaven's sake, it says 1. Outside on the front cover, right there.
(at this point I find my copy of 1.Outside, on CD, in a card case. It's just as I remembered - three good songs, but it doesn't amount to anything, and it's very bland. It has the kind of fussy early-Pro Tools-era production that was fashionable until producers realised that making every sample sound pristine and clear was sonically boring.)
What made Bowie want to be a star? The exhibition takes this for granted. He doesn't seem to have grown up in crushing poverty. He idolised the Gen One rockers, Little Richard in particular, but so did lots of other people. Perhaps he simply liked looking at himself in the mirror, and wanted to share this with the world. I have to admit that if I looked like David Bowie I would probably look at myself in the mirror as well.
On an artistic level his career is paradoxical. He was willing, eager to sell out during the 1960s, but there were no takers. By the 1970s he seems to have been sincerely driven by the magnificent power of rock spectacle, and latterly by a genuine fascination with American pop culture and European art music. Although he went out of his way to promote Heroes, none of his Berlin-period records sold in great numbers, and it is hard to believe that they were intended to be chart smashes. He seems to have believed that Tangerine Dream and Neu! were the future, but not that they were a gateway to massive record sales. If Bowie had simply been a cynical opportunist, Low would have been a disco record, Scary Monsters would have had a mixture of punk and reggae tracks, Young Americans would have been full of mellow, Eagles-esque country ballads, Never Let Me Down would have been wall-to-wall house music, Earthling would have sounded like Parklife-era Blur, all fake cockney accents and songs about cockney gangsters.
At the very least, if Bowie had a choice between being fashionable and looking good or selling records, he chose to be fashionable and look good. It just so happened that for a good few years he tapped a deep well of public longing and sold tonnes of records as well. In the 1990s he was mocked by the press for adopting a drum'n'bass sound on Earthling, but it's easy to forget that drum'n'bass was not a major chart force at the time. It was fashionable and interesting and had made some inroads into the charts, but did not have a broad base. In this respect Bowie is the inverse of Rod Stewart, who aspired to credibility at the start of his career but quickly gave up on that notion and instead decided to embrace the mainstream wholeheartedly. Perhaps Rod Stewart did this because he was extremely self-confident, and didn't care what people thought about him. Which suggests that Bowie was driven by a well of uncertainty and self-doubt. In my experience genuinely self-confident people - mountaineers, race car drivers, airline pilots and the like - tend not to dress up as space aliens and worry about being seen to be old-hat.
Ultimately, if Bowie came across as an irritating, shallow dilettante at the time, he works well in a retrospective setting, because he covered a lot of ground. He was never being boring; never holding back, frightened that time etc.
Time is coming to an end for David Bowie - if you pop open the BBC's homepage and DAVID BOWIE is near the top, your first reaction is to think "oh no!", even if the story is actually DAVID BOWIE IS STILL ALIVE - but he's still making music, still driven.
Somewhere in the universe there's a David Bowie Museum running a show called Victoria and Albert Are, which attempts to draw parallels between the careers of Victoria Beckham and Albert Einstein. Einstein's career might even have benefitted from some smart clothes. And imagine what Victoria Beckham could have achieved if she had been able to combine fashion design with cutting-edge theoretical physics. I'm talking comfortable pyjamas that turn into formal business attire when someone observes them and thus decomposes their quantum state, but which are comfortable pyjamas when you are alone; I'm talking suits that look like a baggy mess unless they are accelerated to a significant fraction of the speed of light. Miniskirts that are only one micron long but weigh more than Saturn. Etc.
Alas, that universe is closed to us. We are stuck here, with ourselves. And with David Bowie. Or is it that he's stuck here with us?