The task of philosophy is to teach the individual to become autonomous: not to ask, what is Being? but rather, what do I think about being, justice, physics, etc.
– John David Ebert
Strange fascination, fascinating me.
– David Bowie
One thing that must be said about David Bowie that never changed, despite his manic, almost schizophrenic ambition to do so both musically and physically throughout his almost five-decade career; his performance art never moved fashion, started trends or signified rebellious solidarity. Bowie’s trip was just the opposite; solitary, introspective, antithetical. While Elvis Presley obliterated the past and introduced a new youth paradigm in the 1950s, followed by The Beatles’ transformation of an entire culture in the 1960s, and skipping to Madonna’s anti-fashion, campy reimagining of a woman as the saint/sinner in the 1980s, Bowie was our perpetual outsider—zigging when the rest of the thing zagged. Thus, by not transforming anything but himself, constantly and without bearing, he became the pop culture, rock symbol of the 1970s.
“He spoke to skinny backgroundish guys everywhere who, while in the midst of fighting to find it, questioned the very reason behind having a place (at all) in any current society. It wasn’t a gay thing, but an idea that a person could reinvent themselves into any entity that broke the norm,” my friend Peter Saveskie elegantly wrote to me this week.
Bowie was a creature of the 1970s, an era I’d immersed myself in for over three years while researching my new book, Shout It Out Loud—The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon, in which Bowie is famously quoted as saying that “Rock must prostitute itself. If you’re going to work in a whorehouse, you’d better be the best whore in it.” In the same interview Bowie is quite adamant that anything that emerged out of the wildly experimental 1970s had to have a sense of humor in it. Humor, of course, being perhaps the most subjective and private of reactions to the great social order, something never lost on David Bowie’s best work.
The 1970s was the first time, specifically in America, where assimilation reigned for nearly two centuries, that individuality exploded from every social corner; race, gender, sexual affiliation, musical and artistic branding, even the origin of nationality. Until the ‘70s, there was none of this African-American, Italian-American stuff, or the identity politics that still rages along today. It was the beginning of societal edges careening into the mainstream, something often erroneously tied to the 1960s, when, in fact, there was a counter-cultural gathering to the rebel nature of youth. The following decade all of that fractured into segments of society creating a space to express; on a lesser note in music, where rock transformed from a movement to disparate interests, which led to several groundbreaking inventions, glam, prog, punk, disco, rap and hip-hop.
David Bowie swam these currents with little interest in latching on to anything. Perhaps for the first time in the genre we have an artist that lives and breathes as a reflection of our worst fears; that change is inevitable and with it comes a breakdown in togetherness. Bowie disturbed the notion of youth culture by making it a non-culture; his most famous character, of which there were dozens, Ziggy Stardust, (“Oh don’t lean on me man, ’cause you can’t afford the ticket”) was a complex vision of doom and hope in the ostracized, the shunned, the queer, the bizarre, the unwanted, the rejected. His Aladdin Sane (“Sits like a man but he smiles like a reptile”) was an urban myth eulogized in the underbelly of cults that seemed to pop up every 40 seconds throughout the decade. This is what it comes to, when we realize we are not of our time or place but of our own identity, says Bowie in his dark Berlin trilogy.
Bowie’s family history is of very real schizophrenia, his half-brother Terry suffered deeply from it and disintegrated in front of his eyes, after he had introduced him to the wonders of rock and roll as an expressive tool to escape the horrors of what might indeed be his own illness. Bowie ran from it his whole life, sure that he was afflicted with madness. He wrote about it constantly with spectacular success; “Rock And Roll Suicide,” “Scary Monsters And (Super Creeps),” “An Occasional Dream,” All The Madmen,” “Quicksand” to name a very few.
Bowie dabbled in androgyny like no one outside of the subculture of homosexuality, especially in England where it had always been hidden in plain sight in the realm of theatrics, both professional and cultural, simply because it rejects identity. He dabbled even in the idea of humanity, its bigotry and pettiness, transforming himself into an alien appearance—made ever more eerie with his two different colored eyes and one perpetually dilated because of a beating he took as a youth in school. He embraced the black experience, not like The Rolling Stones, who had expressed its holy ritual as a pop machine, but its fusion of jazz and funk and street jive. His appearance on the popular Soul Train, the first such musical television show that did not collect kids like a mass marketing ploy, but set strict parameters on black music for its brilliance, its blood and soul, was historic. Ten years later he recorded what would turn out to be his most popular album, Let’s Dance, with Nile Rogers and spat on MTV’s ignoring of black music at its own peril.
If I may, I wish to add a bit of my own experience discovering Bowie in the 1970s and beyond. My favorite Bowie album without question is Hunky Dory, because pound for pound it has his best songwriting, a skill for which he is stunningly underrated. It would also, I would come to find out, specifically from Peter Doggett’s wonderful The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s and my friend, Ken Sharp’s Kooks, Queen Bitches and Andy Warhol; The Making of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory mark the first time Bowie forged a new identify, that of the “screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo”—the quirky phrasing and the William Burroughs cut-up lyrics that hinted at Fascism and bisexuality and sophism and the indefinable charm of hiding; “Ch-ch-ch-changes…”
When Bowie escaped America in the late 1970s barely hanging onto any of his contrasting identities, strung out on cocaine and running wild through the pitched dangers of Hollywood, he mused about his seduction with suicide as an artistic statement, wiping out his persona so as to not have to face the inevitable fade into banality, and then he created his finest work with Brian Eno and finished up the decade awash in myth.
I leave this piece in the hands of another friend, Doctor Slater, whose screeds on all-things at all hours of the day and night hit me in the special places every time. He wrote to me last night of Bowie: “The particular brand of poison I’m partial to has left me agog as to this Mr. David Robert Jones. Davy Jones, that’s probably a contemporary I would want to distance myself from, product of the TV scene. What name do I choose? A big fucking threatening knife, yes, that is to be my new last name. Bowie. He sold himself as a bond. He’s featured on money, and alternative currency called the Brixton Pound. Like Benjamin Franklin. And from the 80s’ comes the reinvented Duke. Asking us to get along, long before the cops beat the shit out of Rodney King. From the Spiders of Mars to Getting me To Church on Time, the man knew how to surf. He predicted the collapse of the music industry. Fuck that puff dicking around with the Yanks in the California sand, I’ll show the world what a proper English lad can do. Mind your manners young ones.”
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey,” “Fear No Art,” “Trailing Jesus,” “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y”. and his new book, “Shout It Out Loud—The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon”.