Salvador Dali is alleged to have proclaimed, when asked if he took drugs, “I am drugs!” And so, for some of us in the mid-1970s, David Bowie was music.
Bowie was a glamorous break with a music scene that had become dominated by the ponderous dinosaurs of rock music. The uniform of long hair and double denim had become stale and the music had become overblown, no longer reflecting the life of kids on the street.
Growing up in the concrete new town of Cumbernauld in central Scotland, we were already living in the future, but a future crippled by its present reality. The promise of the 1960s was not being realised; the blue-skied prospect was literally not happening in our rain-sodden town. Machismo ruled in school along with a stern, tweedy, belt-wielding Catholicism. For sensitive souls it was a bleak nightmare.
Bowie gave us a vision of a better future, that there were other, shinier, more joyous worlds. Not that it was going to be easy — the opening track from the Ziggy Stardust album, “Five Years”, suggested that there were apocalyptic possibilities too.
Bowie’s musical influences became ours and he shaped a regeneration in the entire music scene. He brought us the energy of Iggy Pop in the Raw Power album and the dark swagger of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground — whose connection to Andy Warhol and the New York art scene opened up whole other dimensions. Later Bowie would connect us to the avant garde music of German godfathers of electro, Kraftwerk, and musical collective Can. His talent was to synthesise radical ideas in a popular way, making it possible to like Stravinsky and Iggy Pop.
His work was significant also in that it connected visuals to the performed music, creating a complete aesthetic.
Bowie introduced us to CULTURE, my friends and I stealing a copy of Jean Genet’s play The Maids from our local bookshop. I learned too about German socialist playwright Bertolt Brecht and American beat writer William Burroughs.
Bowie told us that there was this thing called ART, with which we could break down the walls holding us back; that it was possible for the outsider, the dispossessed, to kick over the statues.
Jazz musician George Melly in 1970 said, “British pop music is teetering on the edge of becoming art.” Bowie claimed to be not merely a pop star but an artist working in the medium of popular music. As the critic Nancy Erlich wrote in the New York Times in 1971, “David Bowie is the most intellectually brilliant man yet to choose the long-playing album as his medium of expression.”
His cut and paste approach to song writing — “planned accidents”, he claimed — was a mark of this wider creativity. It starts from direct intention but moves on to look for wider resonances in the culture. “All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author”, Bowie said, crucially recognising the democratic role of the audience in the creation of art.
Brecht wrote that art was not a mirror held up to the world but a hammer with which to shape it. Bowie’s work has elements of both, capturing the moment but taking it on to a new place.
His personal journey from suburbia to Soho and on to LA and Berlin, through drug addiction and the alienation of the rarefied life of the popular artist, was ever present in his song writing. It was recorded in a glorious set of albums from 1969 to 1980.
The 1976 flirtation with the aesthetic of fascism can be seen as having its roots in his exploration of alienation and his own alienated state, but so cuts across the grain of his artistic influences and methodology as to remain a puzzle. Fortunately Berlin friends argued successfully with him and the creation of Rock Against Racism may have had an influence on him too.
In the 2013 V&A exhibition of costumes, manuscripts and artefacts, David Bowie Is, his archive was exhibited as art-as-process, going beyond the satin and tat of the stage performer.
What the exhibition clarified was that there is both change and continuity in Bowie’s work, moving from outrageous theatricality, breaking the boundaries of gender identity, to a more sombre and perhaps more sustainable manifesto in the Berlin albums.
Joy, death and alienation are consistent themes and would continue in his later work. These themes are also present in his acting work both in film and in the theatre. Bowie takes the role of the outsider, from Brecht’s Baal through to the play The Elephant Man that he performed in the US in 1980.
The role of Thomas Jerome Newton in the 1976 Nic Roeg film The Man Who Fell to Earth is a classic portrayal of alienation that perhaps could only have been performed by Bowie.
But Bowie has died. We are left with the harrowing single “Lazarus”, the story of a man who rises from the dead, and the startling album Blackstar. It contains neither transcendence nor resolution. Bowie is dead but Bowie is not dead.