How Bowie Changed My Personal Image
When I first heard the word Bowie I was sitting on the big steps at the back of the school assembly hall evesdropping on the cool girls - Sadie and Kate. I was sitting in the shadow of their long stockinged legs and short, badly hemmed grey skirts with the smell of hair gel and nicotine wafting over me.
Not concentrating on choir practice, they we having a conversation in the most surreal and poetic language imaginable.
One of them would start:
'Blue blue electric blue
That's the colour of my mind where I will live,'
and the other responded languidly as if agreeing about her shared attitude to girls private school:
'For here am I
Sitting in a tin can
Far above the world'.
Or something to that effect.
I was baffled and awestruck at the same time. 'What are you talking about I whispered?' 'Bowie' they said in reverent terms that implied I was a nobody and an ignoramus. 'He is a God'.
What a wannabe I felt! I yearned to be mature, sexy and sophisticated like them. They were intellectuals speaking the poetry of the gods of cool. I was the uninitiated looser whose mum wouldn't even let me take my skirt up an inch above the knee! They were haves and I was definitely a have-not.
I spent most of my teens feeling this - like I was the only one left out of something important. Bowie signified that for me. No evenings for me spent smoking dope in the cool girls' bedrooms, interpreting the deep and meaningful nature of lyrics and absorbing the unique tones and rifts of his instrumentation. At that point I could muster were the lyrics of 'Making Your Mind Up' and 'Gimme Gimme Gimme'. The fact that I also knew who John Coltraine, Charlie Parker and Bill Evens were didn't seem relevant at that point.
I got initiated later and in a different way: at art college and endless hours in art galleries and libraries. So while I don't have that nostalgic gut-grabbing sense of Bowie's formative importance in my life I now recognise the comic irony of my teenage sense of being an outsider. And I do also recognise his influence as embedded in my being - but rather differently, because back then I was never an authentic fan...
After Bowie died an artist/poet friend of mine posted some of the densest most incomprehensible of all Bowie's lyrics on his Facebook page: 'The Bewlay Brothers' . Bowie once claimed he wrote the song specifically for the U.S. market because they were always looking for hidden meaning where there was none. Odd then how beautifully articulate the words seem....
And the Goodmen of Tomorrow
Had their feet in the wallow
And their heads of Brawn were nicer shorn
And how they bought their position
With saccharin and trust
And the world was asleep
To our latent fuss
In the 70s and early 80s Bowie was influenced by the early 20th century avant-garde movements, like Dada, Surrealism and the Bauhaus. All these aimed to trash the old aesthetic and social order through creative resistance and to invent a new radical visual and literary language. There is something of this aspiration in all Bowie's work and the suggestion of the battle of a loner and outsider to find full free self-expression. The songs are more than 'latent fuss'. Bowie aimed loudly heard against conservative oppressive power and rigid, bland conformity.
Poetic non-sense and trippy fantasy was one way Bowie found of achieving this, but the most obvious and effective way Bowie made himself heard was through his 'look(s)' or rather his multiple stage personas. Even now trying to choose images for this blog I am overwhelmed by the thousands of versions of Bowie. Almost every pose before the camera , is an new incarnation. The only consistent element is the drama and intelligence of his unmatched eyes.
So while I have come to dearly love the surrealist poetry and and evocative lyricism of the Bewlay Brothers, as I do so many of Bowie's songs, if I have to choose a song which carries this idea of individualism and difference versus conformity most effectively for me it's 'Fashion'. It has a far cruder chant and almost gratingly aggressive instrumentation. And in some ways it's a bit naff and poppy in comparison. But it's a song which resonates with the atmosphere of the 80s and my teens in general.
Turn to the left
Turn to the right
We are the goon squad and we're coming to town
'Fashion' is about tribes and social divisions established through rules about what to wear, how to act, how to speak and how to dance. Despite the fact that it has been used so many times by the Fashion Industry to promote itself, it actually lambasts empty-headed conformity and the way the economics and behaviours of fashion tends to create haves and have-nots, insiders and outsiders. The 'Goon Squad' is essentially a fascist instrument of force driving through the rebellious masses, brutally imposing it's own order like soldiers in a jeep ... 'Beep Beep'.
When I was a teenager fashion offered me a sort of freedom of creativity and self-invention but on the other hand slipped into the competitive desire for the latest trendy stuff. Fashion so often felt and acted like a war of attrition with those I perceived to be the cool girls in a way that is sadly so typical of adolescence.
Bowie was never a victim of Fashion; he had a unique sense of what was new and exciting and a brilliance at sampling re-interpreting and reinventing it in his own terms. He remained in this sense avant-garde when others did not (even taking into account his obvious commercially cynical moments!).
The most succinct interpretation of the meaning of Bowie I have heard came from a man I met at Bowiefest, a Bowie celebration and film festival at the ICA in London three years ago an event at which I stretched my comfort zone to its limits and sang a humiliatingly dreadful Karioke version of 'Rebel Rebel' . (Oh boy did I feel my slide into bourgeois conformity that night!)
He told me that he was:
'...brought up in the fifties at a time when gender was very proscribed. How you looked, how you behaved, who you fancied, all had to be very unambiguous. It was quite oppressive.'
He was a Mod when he first saw Bowie on stage as Ziggy Startdust and he told me that.. it transformed everything I thought I knew about identity.' 'It was the most liberated I had ever felt before'.
Even though Bowie has claimed never to enjoy performing he actually was post-modern performativity incarnate. Long before such a term was in common usage, Bowie gave young men and women permission to be free and inventive, ambiguous and flamboyant in both their appearance and to be open and challenging of orthodoxy in what they thought and how they acted. The surreal narratives of the songs Bowie wrote were writ large in the wildly rich visually seductive appearance and performance. Through his various stage identities Bowie both hid behind and articulated a richer persona than David Jones could ever be.
Just as I longed to transcend my own teenage ordinariness Bowie actually did.
Everything that happened in the late 70s and early 80s from the New Romantics onwards: the Blitz, Steve Strange, Spandau Ballet, Boy George, and for me most influentially in the stage incarnations of women artists like Toya, Siouxsie Sioux, Hazel O'Conner, Chrissie Hynde, Lene Lovich, happened in large part because of Bowie (punk rock is another blog entry!) But Bowie was the thin-white, elegant, cross-dressing, inventor of a new poetics of personal image.
So now that the 'god is dead' (so sadly) I understand that my whole persona was informed by an attitude towards identity that he initiated and fuelled. A belief that the self could be performed through image and appearance in liberating and poetically meaningful ways that were not limited by wealth, class, race, gender or sexual orientation.
This is something incredibly powerful and significant especially now at a moment when we seem to have allowed ourselves to slip back into a worrying era of fear and conformity in popular music, appearance and social relations with no immediately obvious 'daeity' and no obvious poetry of resistance.