DAVID BOWIE IS
BROOKLYN MUSEUM | MARCH 2 – JULY 15, 2018
Crepuscule with Bowie, I thought, not quite groping my way through the perpetual twilight of David Bowie is at the Brooklyn Museum. The 400 artifacts in this blockbuster show—costumes (stage and offstage, because when wasn’t Bowie onstage?), handwritten lyrics, record-cover art, stage-set designs and maquettes, personal effects (including, fabulously, the Great Man’s coke spoon from the dissolute mid-seventies)—are displayed in vitrines or mounted on stagelike platforms and spotlit. The encroaching shadows give the exhibition a sepulchral feel. Taking it all in, I had an inkling of what Howard Carter must’ve felt as he got his first look, by flickering candlelight, at Tutankhamun’s tomb.
In a sense, that’s what this is: a burial chamber for a rock god, replete with everything he’ll need for the afterlife, from the bright red wrestler’s boots he wore when he sang “Starman” on Top of the Pops in ’72 (a slyly swishy performance that blew the locks off gay closets all over Britain) to the dour mug shot taken by the Rochester Police Department after his marijuana bust in ’76 to the riding crop he brandished as the Goblin King in Labyrinth (1986), fodder for the overheated fantasies of generations of teen girls, to the feathered breastplate and red-vinyl hot pants he shimmied around in on the 1980 Floor Show (1973), a made-for-TV cabaret, to the striped metallic catsuit—the one with the Ming the Merciless shoulder pads—that he wore in his last appearance as Ziggy Stardust on July 3rd, 1973, when he announced to an agonized chorus of Nooooooo’s that Ziggy was retiring.
That skin-tight spacesuit meant a lot to me in those days, when I was thirteen and recently converted to Bowiemania. Designed by his friend and costumier Freddie Burretti, it turned up the sizzle on Ziggy’s drag queen-from-Ganymede sex appeal while tapping into the future shock of A Clockwork Orange (1971). Yet, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which had its theatrical premiere a month before Bowie killed Ziggy), it had campy fun with the sci-fi iconography of ‘50s B-movies, echoing the Pop-Art knowingness of Bowie’s Flash Gordon imagery: “Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe/ Put your ray gun to my head” (“Moonage Daydream,” Ziggy Stardust). In tune with the decade’s tongue-in-cheek love affair with retro—Sha Na Na, Grease, American Graffiti, Happy Days, The Last Picture Show—Burretti’s bodysuit looked back to the naïve Tomorrowland optimism of the postwar period and forward to the no-future cynicism that would be punk’s hallmark, and which was already carving the ’60s’ epitaph: “We never got it off on that revolution stuff/ What a drag, too many snags,” Bowie sang in his glam-rock anthem “All the Young Dudes.” It was the perfect costume for a character who placed the concept “teen idol” in ironic quotes. A rock star playing a rock star, Bowie pioneered the postmodern take on celebrity. Ziggy was the first Pop-Art pop star, a character Bowie played onstage and off, rebooting the Wildean notion of life as art and dropping the coffin-lid on the ‘60s faith in the importance of being earnest.
On fire with the zealotry of the born again, I begged my long-suffering mom to make me a copy of the Ziggy suit out of glittery fabric, based on a Simplicity pattern. I wore it to see Bowie, in 1976, on the Station to Station tour—only to discover, to my mortification (and that of every other mullet-haired Ziggy clone in the crowd) that he’d molted. Here he came, the Thin White Duke, sauntering onstage in the same white shirt, black vest, and impeccably draped slacks modeled by a mannequin in David Bowie is, hair slicked back in a ’30s cut, a time traveler from the Weimar Germany of Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.
Each tour, each album cover, each Mick Rock photo shoot debuted a new persona: the self as stylistic statement, with a shelf life of fifteen minutes—Warhol’s idea of Wildean Aestheticism. The faithful were hard put to keep up. Pictures helped, which made perfect sense, since Bowie concocted his image from images. In a section called “Cultural Influences,” David Bowie is reveals the direct inspirations for the Ziggy look: a photo of a model from a 1971 issue of Vogue Paris, her spiky, short-cropped hair dyed maraschino red; fashion spreads, from the same year, of the Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto’s traffic-stopping collision of sci-fi, kabuki, and “Tokyo pop.”
In that lost world before the Web, record covers and rock magazines were key vectors in the transmission of pop-culture cool. Album jackets were too precious to desecrate, but photos and pull-out posters of Bowie in all his incarnations—Major Tom, Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack (of Diamond Dogs fame), the “plastic soul” singer of his Young Americans phase, the Thin White Duke—begged to be snipped out of Circus, Creem, and Hit Parader and pushpinned all over my bedroom wall. Icons in the religious as well as the pop sense, they served as a glammier version of those garish chromos of saints you see in botanicas.
The imitation of Christ has been a pillar of Christian piety for centuries, from Thomas à Kempis to the What Would Jesus Do? bracelets of the 1990s, and Bowie fandom had all the makings of a cult, if not a religion, from its earliest days. “Fan,” remember, is short for “fanatic.” The archetypal fan, as the Online Etymology Dictionary notes, is the true believer whose “excessive enthusiasm” for the object of his devotions crosses the line from faith into mania. “Fanatic“ has its roots in the Latin fanaticus, “mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god,” which derives, in turn, from fanum, meaning “temple,” in this context the pre-Christian kind, the site of “orgiastic rites.” (On that note, there’s an apocryphal story of a spontaneous orgy breaking out at Ziggy’s retirement concert. “Everyone just took their clothes off,” a fan claimed in Fred Vermorel’s Starlust: The Secret Fantasies of Fans. “A lot of fluid was flying about.”)
Simon Frith, in his essay “The Art of Posing,” captures the religious zealotry of Bowie fans. “When I first came to Coventry, in 1972, I used to see them at the bus stop: the boys with green hair, the Bowie Boys, their style shifting with the record sleeves,” he writes. “Bowieism was a way of life—style as meaning—and no other idol has had such an intense influence on his fans as David Bowie.” That way of life is Aestheticism, known in the days of Ruskin, Pater, and Wilde as the religion of beauty. Bowie “expressed semi-detached bedroom fantasies...arty dreams,” says Frith. He embodied “youth culture not as collective hedonism,” as in the ’60s, “but as an individual grace that showed everyone else up as clods.”
Bowiephilia is the bedroom religion of the too-smart, sensitive loner alone at home while everyone else is at the prom—an alienated adolescent’s dream of an aesthetic rapture, out of the soul-killing suburbs (like Bromley, where Bowie lived and languished as a teen), into a world where weirdos are exalted, not stuffed into gym lockers while the jocks guffaw. Unsurprisingly, Bowie was that kid. “I felt often, ever since I was a teenager, so adrift and so not part of everyone else...so on the outside of everything,” he says, in Geoffrey Marsh’s essay “Astronaut of Inner Spaces” (in the exhibition catalogue). “I wanted to be a fantastic artist, see the colors, hear the music, and they just wanted me turned down. ... I had to retreat into my room; so you get in the room and you carry that ruddy”—British for “damned”—“room around with you for the rest of your life.”
How many of the visitors to David Bowie is were that kid, too? How many of us still carry that room around with us, a lifetime later? As a teen, I lived in mine. A bookish, brooding outsider, I hung on every word of potted biographies like George Tremlett’s The David Bowie Story and took solace in Bowie lyrics like, “Tod Browning’s freak you was...” (“Diamond Dogs,” Diamond Dogs). To a teen oddity starved for intellectual oxygen in the San Diego of the ’70s, Bowie’s tastes were an aesthetic catechism: Camus, Pinter, John Rechy, Jean Genet, “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde (“a Bowie favorite,” said Tremlett), “late Victorian literature, the prints of Arthur Rackham, the influences of Aubrey Beardsley,” Art Nouveau, Erté, Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Vaughan Williams, The Velvet Underground, Jacques Brel. “Following Bowie closely led you to all sorts of other things, to Burroughs and Lou Reed and Iggy Pop,” says Steven Severin, bassist for Siouxsie and the Banshees, in Jon Savage’s catalogue essay. “There was a whole world behind it, rather than just someone else with a band.”
David Bowie is includes one of the flight cases he used to take his “traveling library” of more than 400 books with him to New Mexico, in 1976, for the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s crammed full of books: The Divided Self by R. D. Laing, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, and many more. Bowie made intelligence cool—a radical statement in ’70s Southern California, where mainstream culture had a cretinizing effect, subtly enforcing an apolitical, anti-intellectual self-absorption. For the middlebrow bourgeoisie, culture meant puka-shell necklaces and Hang Ten T-shirts, Eagles and Peter Frampton, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Love Story; for the lowbrow proles, Foghat and Lynyrd Skynyrd, beer bongs and bubble-window vans. Either way, the result was a compulsory mellowness that left nothing but summer breeze blowing through the jasmine in your mind.
Bowie offered escape from all that, an intergalactic wormhole out of tract-home purgatory. Even more radically, he rolled a heavily shadowed eye at conventional masculinity, revealing it not only as a drag—a bore and a bringdown—but also as drag, a role so clichéd it was forever flirting with self-parody, though it was too humorless to know it. Gay teens heard his dog whistle loud and clear, but he gave heart to straight boys, too—disaffected oddballs who refused to man up, mostly because being a man wasn’t central to their sense of who they were, partly because they associated it with the fag-bashing bullies who were their natural enemies.
Bowie will always be remembered as a trailblazing gendernaut—a bi-curious (though mostly straight) pop star who by playing a polysexual androgyne gave countless gay, trans, and genderqueer kids the courage to come out of the closet. But he also pushed the envelope of straight masculinity: for every teen who would later claim, “David Bowie made me gay,” there were legions of nominally hetero fans like myself who squared the circle of their confusing response to Bowie’s heart-stopping beauty (those cheekbones! those alabaster thighs!) by queering their straightness—making room, in their sense of themselves as straight guys, for a frankly homoerotic appreciation of male beauty and the admission that, while you might not want to sleep with guys, you’d wham-bam Ziggy in a heartbeat.
It’s a pity Bowie is isn’t longer on that sort of fan ethnography and shorter on hagiography. After all, it’s the fans who make (or unmake) a messiah, teasing out the complexities and contradictions in his life and art through their microscopic scrutiny of every move he makes—the hermeneutics of obsession. Fans are close readers, wringing deep meaning out of pop texts the rest of us dismiss as disposable. They complicate matters, and this viewer, at least, found himself craving a little complication as he exited through the gift shop. Why didn’t the curators recruit Bowieologists like Chris O’Leary, whose Rebel Rebel (2015) is a Talmudic exegesis of every Bowie song from ’64 through ’76? Or Simon Critchley, the Heideggerian philosopher whose brilliant mix of philosophy and fanboy confessionalism, Bowie (2014), makes the case for D.B. as “the most important artist tout court of the past six decades”? If Bowie’s body of work is serious enough to merit the museum treatment, doesn’t it deserve serious scrutiny, and not just in the exhibition catalogue but in the exhibition itself?
A wall text mentions “the weightier philosophies and writers—from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to the occultist Aleister Crowley—who are thought to have influenced” Bowie’s song “Oh! You Pretty Things” (Hunky Dory) but tells us zilch about those ideas, or why they mattered to Bowie. And they did matter: his copies of Thus Spake Zarathustra (1891) and Beyond Good and Evil (1886) were well-thumbed, as The Man Who Sold the World (1970) evidences. That record owes much of its portentous, apocalyptic mood to the philosopher, especially “The Supermen,” which crosses dystopian sci-fi imagery with Nietzsche’s vision of a coming “overman” destined to strike off the shackles of Christianity’s “slave morality.” Over three decades later, Bowie was still thinking about Nietzsche: sitting on a bookshelf in the CD booklet to Heathen (2002) is The Gay Science (1882), beside two other mind bombs that blew away the certitudes of the 19th century, Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and The General Theory (1916) and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899).
Bowie is skimps on psychobiographical insights, too. There are only a few fleeting mentions of Bowie’s half-brother Terry, whose descent into schizophrenia—a harrowing struggle that ended only when he lay down in front of an oncoming train—scarred Bowie for life. (Terry haunts “All the Madmen” on The Man Who Sold the World.) And we learn virtually nothing about Bowie’s relationship with his parents, even though a quote in Marsh’s catalogue essay (“I think there’s an awful lot of emotional, spiritual mutilation goes on in my family”) begs us to lift the trapdoor in the basement of his psyche. There’s no in-depth exploration of his lifelong fascination with African-American culture, which might have been fruitfully juxtaposed with his cocaine-addled flirtations, in the Thin White Duke era, with Nazi occultism, and with Britain’s resurgent right wing. And what about his light-fingered appropriation of “everything but the burden” of being gay (to borrow Greg Tate’s useful phrase)? He outraged his gay fans when he told Rolling Stone in 1983, after one too many cans of Foster’s Lager, “The biggest mistake I ever made was telling that Melody Maker writer that I was bisexual.”
Because the exhibition is structured chronologically, tracing his artistic evolution, name-checking his influences, X-raying his creative process, it misses the opportunity to read Bowie’s oeuvre thematically. That neglect is felt most keenly when it comes to religion and spirituality, which were central to his work, far more so than the genderplay and bi-curiosity that were catnip to the media. A seeker from adolescence on, he delved, with varying degrees of seriousness, into Tibetan Buddhism, the hermetic magick of Aleister Crowley, the Kabbalah, Theosophy, Gnosticism, even—heaven forfend—Christianity. “Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing,” he said, in 2003. “Always. It’s because I’m not quite an atheist and it worries me. There’s that little bit that holds on: ‘Well, I’m almost an atheist. Give me a couple of months.’ [Laughs]”
“Bowie was, in his odd way, a religious songwriter,” O’Leary contends. Belief—and its philosophical flipside, unbelief—is, in fact, the skeleton key to his art. Once you start looking for them, references to religion are everywhere in Bowie’s work: “Soul love, the priest that tastes the word and/ Told of love, and how my God on high is/ All love, though reaching up my loneliness evolves/ By the blindness that surrounds him” (“Soul Love,” Ziggy Stardust); “Lord, I kneel and offer you/ My word on a wing/ And I’m trying hard to fit among/ Your scheme of things” (“Word on a Wing,” Station to Station); “The Gods forgot they’ve made me/ So I forgot them too/ I listen to the shadows/ I play among their graves” (“Seven,” Hours); “How many times does an angel fall?/ How many people lie instead of talking tall?/ He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd/ (I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar)” (“Blackstar,” Blackstar).
“Till there was rock, you only had god,” Bowie sings in the Ziggy outtake “Sweet Head.” Messiahs were the first rock stars, he’s implying, a trope he may have lifted from Jesus Christ Superstar, the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that appeared, in 1970, as a concept album. In Ziggy, Bowie stood that metaphor on its head, reimagining the rock star as Christlike savior from the stars; a doomed “leper messiah” torn to shreds, in the end, by the fanatical mob, every one of whom wanted a piece of him (a shock-rock parody, perhaps, of holy communion). “I wanted to define the archetype of ‘messiah/rock star’—that’s all I wanted to do,” he said in a 1977 interview, adding in ’78 that most of his stage characters were “messiah figures,” whether “light or dark.”
Turning a corner in the exhibition, I find myself face to face, after all these years, with the starman’s vestment. There it is, Ziggy’s striped spacesuit, bathed in otherworldly blue light. Standing there, communing with the object of a million wish-fulfillment fantasies from my glam-rock teens, I realize that, more than a pharaonic tomb, this is a Saint Peter’s Basilica for Bowiephiles, complete with reliquaries. Devout fans will leave it with a vague but unmistakable yearning that even the 55-dollar David Bowie Is Deluxe Hardcover Catalog can’t assuage. As in all cathedrals, the Presence is everywhere, but God isn’t home.
Mark Dery is a cultural critic and essayist, based in New York. His latest book is the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams. Born To Be Posthumous, his biography of the artist and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey, will be published by Little, Brown in November 2018.