Editor’s Note: As we continue to celebrate the life and art of David Bowie, we revisit an article written by Sasha Geffen just a few days before Bowie’s passing. Keep checking back all week for more new and reshared content about our favorite Starman. And, if you’ve missed anything, you can experience it all again here.
Invisible beside a television camera in the early 1970s, a reporter asks David Bowie a question. “I just wonder if you get tired of being outrageous,” he says.
Bowie smarts. “I don’t think I’m outrageous at all,” he retorts.
“Do you describe yourself as ordinary? What adjective would you use?”
Bowie babbles for a second or two before replying: “David Bowie.”
That exchange opens Cracked Actor, the 53-minute documentary about what might have been the end of David Bowie’s career. Filmed in 1974 during the Diamond Dogs tour, the segment ran on BBC1 in January of 1975, months before “Fame” would drag Bowie to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in his career. He appears coked up and scrawny, half in front of the camera, half in another world. Director Alan Yentob probes the narrative of Bowie’s breakthrough record The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, honing in especially on the inevitable fall. He asks Bowie if he is Ziggy, if the record prophesies his fate, if he foresees his own rock ’n’ roll suicide. Images of the recently deceased Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin flash across the screen, as if to say: Bowie’s next, and here’s the last you’ll see of him.
That was 41 years ago. Tomorrow, Bowie will release his 25th studio album, ★, and turn 69 while he’s at it. Since his self-titled 1967 debut, he’s released new records continuously — at least once every three years — except for the decade after 2003’s Reality, when he seemed to fade noiselessly into the background. Some speculated he’d retired. Then he returned, without warning or explanation, with 2013’s The Next Day, an art-rock jaunt as solidly Bowie as they come. His career takes up half a century; his legacy grows as steadily as his mystery.
“He was so important to my generation: people who were born in the ’60s and the ’50s and the early ‘70s,” says David Buckley, author of the Bowie biography Strange Fascination and one of the few people on earth who has written a PhD thesis on the rock star. “He represented a portal, a gateway out of everyday life to all sorts of different areas that I would never have been introduced to as a working-class boy from Liverpool. It’s through David Bowie that I learned about Brecht, that I learned about Anthony Newley, that I learned about Kabuki theater, about sexual politics and art and different groups that I’d never heard of. Paul Morley referred to him as my generation’s Google. That’s exactly what he was.”
Buckley’s Skyping in from his home in Munich on his birthday, which falls two days before Bowie’s. He’s wearing a T-shirt with the cover of Low on it, and a vinyl copy of “Heroes” can be seen on a shelf in the background next to an inflatable Tardis. “I’ve been a Bowie fan since I was nine,” he says. “I bought my first Bowie album on my birthday in 1974 at the age of nine — well before you were born. Forty-two years later, I’m still as excited about a Bowie album.”
Four and a half decades ago, Bowie began to rewrite the rules of pop. After a string of failed bands and a stunted solo career (many considered “Space Oddity” to be a one-hit wonder, a stray artifact tethered to the 1969 moon landing), he landed a slot on Top of the Pops in 1972. He performed “Starman” with the Spiders from Mars, and in a moment of casual homoeroticism, threw his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson as they harmonized at the chorus — right after the line, “He’d like to come and meet us/ But he thinks he’d blow our minds.”
“For thousands of teenagers, there was no hesitation; those 90 seconds on a sunny early evening in September 1972 would change the course of their lives,” wrote author Paul Trynka in his biography David Bowie: Starman. “Up to this point, pop music had been mainly about belonging, about identification with their peers. This music, carefully choreographed in a dank basement under a South London escort agency, was a spectacle of not-belonging. For scattered isolated kids around the UK, and soon on the American East Coast, and then on the West Coast, this was their day. The day of the outsider.”
Science fiction, spectacle, and queerness landed intertwined in pop culture in that moment; Bowie had “come out” to Melody Maker earlier that year, but nothing would cement him as the figurehead of the glitter movement quite like that “Starman” display. “He did know when something was approaching a tipping point,” Trynka tells me over the phone. “He’d do stuff with such commitment that he could actually shift the parameters. There was a lot of queer culture in Britain before Bowie, but he was really the most visible person to say, ‘Here I am. I’m transcending the bounds of sexuality.’ He just had the genius of knowing how to do it in a very overt, brave, and yet commercial kind of way. When he put his arm around Mick Ronson, that was a very simple symbolism that a lot of people would get. Yet, it was an important leap forward. It was an important moment in the history of popular culture. That act was one that did outrage people. It did really help define today’s cultural landscape.”
Part of Bowie’s enduring legacy owes not just to the fact that he was willing to break waves and break rules, but that he could do so from a position just slightly outside the boundaries of the real. Teenagers in 1972 didn’t just see a man flirting with another man on Top of the Pops; they saw a spaceman, an alien, a messiah from above — the same kind of figure he was singing about and would keep singing about for decades. “Bowie gave me a hope that there was something else,” Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan told biographer Marc Spitz in Bowie: A Biography. “I just thought he wasn’t of this earth.” In his 2009 memoir, radio DJ Mark Radcliffe remembered believing that Bowie had “arrived from another planet where men flirted with each other, made exhilarating music, and wore Lurex knee socks. I had no idea where this planet was, and wasn’t sure I wanted to flirt with men, but it certainly seemed like a world that was worth visiting.”
“He was lucky that he imprinted himself on our consciousness at a time when people were looking for new models of how to live,” says Trynka. “That yearning is a quasi-religious one. In the past, people would wait for the messiah to come and take us all away and somehow give meaning to all of these random events that make up our lives. [Bowie] is really a modern reworking of that. We all do want to know if somebody is out there. That as a force, as a philosophy, isn’t going to diminish, because we all need a contrast to everyday life — rampant commercialism or the nine to five. Humanity will always need something beyond that, and he definitely taps into it.”
Since his earliest recordings, Bowie has looked to the skies and seen himself reflected. “Don’t be afraid of the man in the moon/ Because it’s only me,” he sings on “Love You Till Tuesday” from his 1967 self-titled debut. He’d christen himself Major Tom, then Ziggy, then Aladdin Sane; in 1976, he’d make his film debut in The Man Who Fell to Earth as alien mogul Thomas Newton, a character he’s recently reprised with the off-Broadway stage show Lazarus. Late last year, he announced ★ with a 10-minute video where alien women with tails perform an occult ritual with the bejeweled skull of a dead astronaut they find on their planet. Bowie himself appears in “★” as a blindfolded prophet with buttons for eyes, then a preacher spreading gospel from a book marked only with a black star on the cover.
Although it’s easy to parse visual echoes from Bowie’s history — he was photographed blindfolded for the insert to 1995’s Outside, and spacemen and occult rituals dot his entire back catalog — “★” director Johan Renck made no conscious effort to sample the past. “I’m not a reference guy,” he says over the phone from New York. Bowie would send him drawings and Renck would incorporate them into the film; he dismisses the idea that there’s a hidden meaning to “★” beyond what can readily be seen.
“He’s a true artist,” Renck says of Bowie. “Everything he does is as complex and intricate as a real artist in all its incarnations. There’s no point, really, to try to break it down into something completely comprehensible. It’s coherent because he’s brilliant and makes great stuff, but I’m not trying to translate. I’m not trying to second-guess him in what I do. All I’m doing is trying to put some images to the music and the lyrics. I don’t go in and ask, ‘What does this mean?’ I take it as face value and embrace it as something that makes sense to me.”
Renck sees Bowie’s career not strictly as an infatuation with science fiction or mysticism, but as an exploration of non-belonging. “‘Space Oddity’ to me is about outsidership and nothing else,” he says. “I imagine when you are an artist of that stature and that level of creativity, you start to look at the world differently. If you’re a very intelligent and very artistic person, of course you would like to push your writing, your poetry, your art into figmented realities. It becomes relevant to try it out there. Maybe he is an escapist to some extent. I am. Maybe there is something that escapism reveals with imagery and thoughts that are removed from kitchen-counter reality.”
In a 2003 interview with Sound on Sound, Bowie himself seemed to agree. “I invariably deal with the same senses of isolation and lack of communication and all these kinds of negatives, and I’ll probably deal with them to the end of my life,” he said. “There’ll be certain spiritual questionings and all that, and it won’t change very much, because it never has, it appears, from ‘Major Tom’ to Heathen. It really is all about the same thing.”
That was one of the last interviews Bowie ever did. Since his 2013 return, he’s spoken to the public exclusively through his work and his collaborators — no appearances and no performances, at least not in the flesh. “He has these representatives. It makes him even more mystical. It’s a bit like having prophets speaking about your cause,” says Trynka. “Meanwhile, he stays behind the scenes like the Wizard of Oz.” His longtime producer Tony Visconti has answered questions about his last two albums, and for the 2013 opening of the David Bowie Is exhibit, his lookalike, Tilda Swinton, showed up to give a speech in his stead. Last month, he performed ★ cut “Lazarus” on Colbert in a brand-new body belonging to Michael C. Hall, who plays Newton in the Lazarus stage show. “Mr. Bowie, an international star since the early 1970s, has always come across as his own spectral avatar, in a series of beguilingly designed alter egos who are both there and not there,” wrote Ben Brantley in his review of Lazarus for the New York Times. “Much of Mr. Bowie’s extraordinary longevity as a rock god has to do with the feeling that he has never really been with us ‘in the flesh.’” More than any other pop star, Bowie has mastered the art of being everywhere and nowhere at the same time — a little like an alien, a little like God.
The void between Bowie the artist and Bowie the person arrives at the end of a long-growing schism. For decades he’s toyed with interviewers, making statements and then contradicting them, or simply reaching as “far out” as possible in conversation. “I should like to replace all parts of my body with plastic equivalents,” he told Music Scene in 1973. “Then I couldn’t grow old. I could just sit inside and watch it all function perfectly.” When asked by Music Now! in 1969 if commercialism worried him, he replied, “Not really; it makes a considerable amount of money.” In 1983, he claimed to Rolling Stone that he had little recollection of filming The Man Who Fell to Earth, which could maybe have been resigned to a career footnote had he not used stills from the film on the covers of Low and Station to Station. Across all the hundreds of interviews he’s done, he’s revealed little more of himself than a dry sense of humor and a detached fatalism (from NME, 1973: “Do you think reality has much of a future?” “No.”). Bowie would speak in tautology or paradox, or in details so ordinary they could have come from anyone, until he stopped speaking altogether.
“A lot of people think that the ‘real’ David Bowie is this regular-ass guy who just created this myth around himself,” says Hether Fortune, leader of the band Wax Idols. “I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s who he really is. Through his youth, he was just struggling to find the best way to show himself without giving too much away. In the ’70s, he was really out there, really embracing the spectacle of pop culture. But I think he used it as a tool and then was like, ‘Okay, I did that. That’s it. I’m not giving anyone anything other than my work.’ That’s why you can’t get to him. That’s why it’s impossible to speak with him or find out the ‘truth’ about David Bowie. He’s made it impossible, an impenetrable wall where the only truth we have available to us is the work that he presents to the world. And that has to be taken as fact.”
The idea that the truth of something lies on its surface is a Brechtian one and one that’s informed many of pop culture’s biggest names of the past hundred years, though none so much as Bowie. The vacancy he leaves where his “real” personality should be allows fans to crawl deeper into his work from the outside, searching for authenticity only to discover they’ve been surrounded by it the whole time. “He is building up this central, very powerful mystique, the idea of him being unreachable,” says Trynka. “That in itself is a potent reaction to what’s happening in the mass media. In the mass media, music is ever-present. It’s on tap. It’s streaming out all the time, so it becomes less precious. And then of course you have the notion of celebrity, which is omnipresent, with people always tweeting pictures of themselves. The whole mystique of glamour has been diminished. This is a masterful reaction where the music is very measured. It comes out in these little packets, which are precious. In the meantime, he’s reacted to the ominipresence of celebrity by just disappearing, which gives him far more glamour than if he were doing photoshoot after photoshoot.”
If the entirety of David Bowie rests on the surface of David Bowie — the music, the imagery, the personality that is now instantly accessible by anyone with an Internet connection — the essence of David Bowie becomes increasingly less dependent on David Jones, the aspiring songwriter born on January 8, 1947, who at some point in the ‘70s exploded into an entity larger than himself. “I have a lot of theories about him: He’s had a long-term plan since he was young, a vision for himself as a character as a way to survive through time and space,” says Fortune. “Even throughout all of his very human foibles, like being a drug addict and the ups and downs of fame, he’s always stayed on this one path.”
“Have you seen Velvet Goldmine?” she asks, meaning the 1998 Todd Haynes film, a semi-fictionalized David Bowie biopic in all but name. In it, glam rock star Brian Slade (a stand-in for Bowie, who declined to have his name or music attached to the project) receives an extraterrestrial gift, an emerald pin passed down to him from Oscar Wilde, who was himself dropped off on Earth by a UFO flying over Dublin. Slade reaches the height of his fame, then fakes his own death, only to return years later with a different name and a different face, a whole new celebrity.
“[Velvet Goldmine] basically recreated David Bowie using the same exact tools that he used to create himself,” says Fortune. “What they’re insinuating is this person is an entity that moves through different lives and can come back through any vessel of its choosing. That it’s not really Bowie; it’s this other entity. What I think he’s doing with Michael C. Hall and with Lazarus is, I think he has actually found a way to do what Velvet Goldmine suggests: to make it so that after his physical body is gone, anyone can perform as David Bowie. He’s immortalizing himself. It’s insane. It’s fucking brilliant.
“Obviously that’s the whole idea of theater,” Fortune adds. “Anyone can become a role and keep a character alive. That’s the beauty of theater, and we know that Bowie is an avid theater person. It’s an obvious fit, but to take those old world theater ideas of eternal life through art and apply it in a pop way, as a pop icon — that’s never been done before.”
“I like the idea of Bowie being an idea,” remarks Buckley. “A few years ago, I wrote a book about Kraftwerk, and there’s only one of the original members now in the lineup. I think it was designer Peter Saville who said, ‘They could be the first group to last 200 years.’ The idea of Kraftwerk, you could have anybody in it, really: The Man Machine. There might be somebody who might inhabit the creation. I quite like the idea of that. When Bowie’s gone, there could be other … not clones, but ghosts of Bowie.”
“There’s never been anybody else who’s been able to be the new Bowie, because you can’t replace something that isn’t gone,” says Fortune. “That’s his greatest power. That’s what he’s doing in the biggest possible way with Lazarus and ★. He’s finalizing once and for all, I will never be replaceable. I will always be present. Always, forever. No one can be me again — except for anybody, but only if they actually want to be me.”
Who will Bowie be when he’s no longer Bowie — when “Bowie” refers not to David Jones, born January 8th, 1947, in Brixton, England, but to a fluid and transmittable idea?
A little over halfway through The Man Who Fell to Earth, Newton reveals his alien form to his human lover, Mary Lou. She recoils in horror, then warms to him. “What are your children like?” she asks once she’s recovered. He responds with the warmest and most memorable line of the film. “They’re like children,” he says. “Exactly like children.”
In the 2013 video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, Bowie looks over a picture of himself as Newton’s alien form on the cover of a tabloid. He goes home arm in arm with Swinton, who plays his wife in a satirical vision of English suburbia. Young Bowies stalk their home; one, played by a woman with Ziggy Stardust’s copper hair, sings Bowie’s lyrics into a microphone. “We will never be rid of these stars, but I hope they live forever.”
In 2011, toward the end of Bowie’s hiatus, Radio Soulwax released Dave, an ecstatic, hour-long medley of Bowie’s songs and images. It darts in and out of chronology; its protagonist, a young woman styled in Bowie’s likeness, chases his career through its most emblematic moments. For the whole hour, the music never stops. The continuity and variety of his catalog are displayed to full effect, and so is the fluidity of his poses. Bowie stares down Bowie, his likeness fractured across a filmic kaleidoscope, replicating his icons one by one. He becomes Ziggy, Tom, Jareth the Goblin King, The Thin White Duke, all the while remaining Dave.
“Something happened on the day he died/ His spirit rose a meter and stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place and bravely cried, ‘I’m a black star,’” Bowie sings on “★”, his voice multiplied and filtered for the line’s last four words. “I’m not a pop star/ I’m a black star.” For what it’s worth: “Black star,” in physics, can refer to a black hole or a white dwarf that’s cooled down to the point that it stops emitting radiation. Both objects are theoretical.
“Sometimes I don’t feel as if I’m a person at all,” said Bowie to Ingenue Magazine in 1973. “Sometimes I’m just a collection of other people’s ideas.” That was more than 40 years ago, but one line on “★” carries a similar idea: “At the center of it all/ Your eyes,” repeats Bowie with particular menace. Like his best lyrics, it could mean anything, but it reverberates in a particular way against the backdrop of his disappearance, his continued enigma, his withdrawal from everywhere but the distant planet he now finds himself. The core of Bowie — or of everything — is not what he is, but how he’s seen. Or really, the two are one and the same. There is no David Bowie except the one you imagine, and it is always possible to imagine him.
“There is a singular energy that moves throughout each person, but it’s all fluid. It’s transmittable. It’s like a disease. You can give it to somebody,” says Fortune. “It doesn’t have to begin and end with your birth and death. It’s something that can be moved through time and space, if you can separate your individual essence from your intellectual ego and allow it to become this broader thing that can be shared and passed along. Reincarnation, occult practices, interdimensional travel, eternal life — all of these funny ideas that humanity has played with forever that Bowie has tapped into throughout the arc of his career, I think it all comes down to this one basic concept. This is me, this is mine. I manifested this. But you can have it too. It’s not singular unto me. It’s singular in the sense that I have carried it to this point, and now you can take it, too. That’s what I think he’s all about.”