Taking aim at our preconceptions

David Bowie in archer mode on his Station to Station tour in 1976, during his Thin White Duke phase. Picture: John Robert Rowlands

David Bowie fan Suzanne Harrington was blown away by a sneak preview of the incredible new exhibition dedicated to him at the V&A Museum in London

I AM standing in front of a screen of a gigantic David Bowie performing the night he killed off Ziggy Stardust in 1973. Tears are pouring down my face as I listen to ‘Rock‘n’Roll Suicide’ and its eternal emotion: “You’re wonderful / Give me your hands.” I can’t even blame nostalgia — I was five in 1973.

It’s a bit embarrassing, weeping, because this is the busiest press preview I have ever been to, but at least it’s dark inside London’s V&A museum. There are camera crews, hacks, photographers, broadcasters and presenters tripping over each other filming, interviewing, recording, snapping. All around us are images, costumes, projections, memorabilia, against a backdrop of Bowie’s music. It is utterly overwhelming. I am not alone in my adoration; David Bowie Is is the V&A’s most successful show ever — it has already sold 47,000 advance tickets.

Calling Bowie — pronounced bow as in bow-tie, rather than bow as in bow down — ‘a singer’ is like calling a Ferrari made of diamonds ‘a car’. Happily for us, as well as being a one-man cultural revolution, he also appears to be an inveterate hoarder. He seems to have never thrown anything out, and here it all is, in glass cases — pearlescent turquoise platforms, books, iconic stage costumes, bits of paper. It’s quite something to stand in front the scrawled handwritten lyrics, casual as a shopping list, of songs which have shaped your life.

It’s tricky to write anything about Bowie that doesn’t sound gushing and hyperbolic, or that hasn’t been written a million times before. Probably the most consistent thing about him is his ability to surprise, even now, 50 years into his career. Not even the V&A curators knew about The Next Day, his 27th album which he released on Mar 8, two months after his 66th birthday. The album is Bowie’s return to form after a long absence: or as music critic Alexis Petridis put it recently in the Guardian, the 1980s was “a decade in which Bowie appeared to lose interest in music, but, alas, failed to see that as a reason to stop making records”.

Incredibly, he kept the new album secret — quite an achievement in our digital age of hyper-share. Its release made the front pages of all the papers. There are even rumours of a tour.

We know the basics of Bowie’s life — modest beginnings, burning ambition, volcanic talent, different personas, London, LA, Berlin, then finally New York to what everyone assumed was mellow retirement with his Somali wife Iman and their now 12-year-old daughter, Alexandria. But that could be any old rock star — Bowie is more your cultural phenomenon. He was what writer JG Ballard called an “astronaut of inner space”; he blew minds, confounded expectations, shifted cultural boundaries.

His friend and collaborator Iggy Pop spoke of Bowie’s “psychic stamina” — how he never ran out of steam, no matter how hard he burned creatively and hedonistically, no matter how many late nights he had. So intense was his creative life, his constant reinvention, it’s hard to know where to start. He not just ingested culture, but reinvented it; his influence has been everywhere for decades, from the catwalk to the recording studio to the night club to the theatre. We don’t even realise it anymore. It just is.

Born David Jones in Brixton, south London in 1947, he adored his father Haywood Jones, an interesting, sensitive and creative character, but not so much his mother Peggy Burns, who was “cold”, and whose side of the family was riven with serious mental illness.

“This history inspired the theory that David Jones was forced to construct alter egos to distance himself from the madness within,” writes his biographer Paul Trynka, in Starman. Bowie’s older half brother Terry suffered terrifyingly from schizophrenia and committed suicide in 1985, but was a crucial early influence, introducing David to jazz and the Beat writers.

WHEN he was 16, he changed his name to David Bowie, choosing the knife reference because he wanted to “cut through the lies”. He was already massively ambitious. “I was ambitious,” recalls teenage friend and early bandmate George Underwood, who accidentally gave Bowie his different coloured eyes during a schoolyard fight. “But not like he was.”

After a succession of schoolboy bands in the 1960s, Bowie tried a variety of styles, musical and visual, including studying mime under the artist Lindsay Kemp; he made a short, almost premonitionary, mime film in 1969 called The Mask about someone whose mask of fame becomes stuck to his face and suffocates him. He tried the hippy look — long hair, flowing robes — and released the Space Oddity album in 1969, but it was a July 1972 appearance on Top of the Pops performing ‘Starman’ that spun the audience off its axis. Dylan Jones, editor of GQ, wrote an entire book about this cultural moment — When Ziggy Played Guitar: David Bowie & Four Minutes That Shook The World. “This is the performance that turned Bowie into a star, embedding his Ziggy Stardust persona into the national consciousness,” he wrote.

“I’m going to be huge,” Bowie told The Melody Maker, long before he was. “And it’s quite frightening in a way.” Then he told them he was gay. “He was building a brand before that language had even been invented,” recalls his then press officer Dai Davies. “Bowie’s ambiguous sexuality was one of his shrewdest marketing ploys,” agrees Dylan Jones. “Everything he did was premeditated.”

Telling the music press — or anyone — that you were gay in 1972 was quite something. It connected him to a million ordinary kids searching for identity — kids who grew up to be people like Steve Strange and Boy George. He liberated them all. He was also married to Angie Barnett at the time, mother of their son Zowie; but being gay was a marketing ploy that backfired in conservative America.

Not that it mattered. “Thank God for David Bowie, who lifted us from the drabness of suburbia and showed us glittering possibilities,” says singer Annie Lennox. He one of the biggest musical influences of the 20th century, far exceeding Elvis; from the New Romantics, Joy Division, the Smiths and the Cure to Grace Jones, Suede, Radiohead, Lady Gaga — his imprint is everywhere. And that’s just the music.

“It has to be three dimensional,” Bowie said in 1974. “I’m not content just writing songs.” So as well as the music, it was fashion and theatre — the influences were scattergun, erudite, mixed up with absolute originality. Mime, kabuki, samurai, geisha, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin, Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey and Clockwork Orange, the cut-up technique of Beat writers William Burroughs and Brion Gyson&, sculptural costume designer Kansai Yamamoto&, even a space-age take on the Pierrot figure in 1980’s Ashes To Ashes video. For those born later than Dylan Jones and Boy George, this video was the moment David Bowie entered our consciousness. I remember, aged 12, staring open-mouthed at Top of the Pops, and suddenly realising that there was another world out there.

Bowie’s ’70s stardom went stratospheric. He ended up with a massive cocaine addiction, but instead of going mad or going to rehab, he went to Berlin. There he reconnected with his creativity by painting portraits of Iggy Pop, with whom he shared a flat (his old address in Berlin is referenced in his new single ‘The Next Day’, tinged with melancholic affection).

In 14 short months in Berlin he made three albums — Low and Heroes in 1977, Lodger in 1979 — eschewing the colour of his Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane personas for monochrome in what became known as the Black & White Years. This had stemmed from 1976 with his Thin White Duke character for the Station To Station album. When Kate Moss modelled one of his suits from that era, it had to be let out for her. Cocaine had made Bowie bone-thin, but his creative energy was unstoppable. The Berlin albums were hailed as genius.

Bowie made one more remarkable album — 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) — and then did something he had never done before. He went properly commercial. ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘China Girl’ were worldwide hits, deservedly so, but what followed was a period most Bowie fans tend to gloss over. Like the Tin Machine band, which seemed like some kind of terrible mid life crisis, followed by a string of not-great output. Oh well, we thought. Nobody can keep going forever. Everyone runs out of juice eventually. Except, this being Bowie, we were wrong. He’s surprised us again. For Bowie fans, the V&A show is not just an exhibition, but a pilgrimage.

Bowie and his most dramatic alter egos

Ziggy Stardust — July 6 1972: David Bowie appeared on Top of the Pops in a multi-coloured jumpsuit designed by Freddie Burretti, carrying a brand new blue acoustic guitar. He performed ‘Starman’. A nation gasped.

Aladdin Sane: The iconic much-copied lightning flash created for the cover of his 1973 album of the same name, created by make up artist Pierre La Roche and photographer Brian Duffy.

Diamond Dogs: The famous 1974 image by Terry O’Neill of Bowie in a Cordoba hat, elegantly sprawled, a book on the floor, and a gigantic dog leaping upright. Bowie remains unperturbed.

The Thin White Duke: Black and white, stick-thin, reminiscent of 1920s Berlin, this was Bowie’s incarnation on 1976’s Station to Station tour.

Scary Monsters: Bowie took his look from the New Romantic scene he had influenced, appearing on the cover of 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) in a Natasha Korniloff Pierrot-style creation.

Bowie & acting

As well as writing music, performing, painting and being a cultural icon, David Bowie has also appeared in a string of films and plays. And yes, he can act. Here are some highlights:

1976 The Man Who Fell To Earth (director: Nicolas Roeg)
1980 The Elephant Man (on Broadway)
1983 Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence
1983 The Hunger (with Catherine Deneuve)
1986 Absolute Beginners (director: Julian Temple)
1986 Labyrinth (director: Jim Henson)
1988 Last Temptation of Christ (director: Martin Scorsese)
1996 Basquiat (director: Julian Schnabel)
2006 Prestige (director: Christopher Nolan)

DAVID BOWIE IS at the V&A, South Kensington, Mar 23 to Aug 11; £14.


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