David Bowie: The Man Who Fell to Melbourne
(originally published Trouble isn 128, October 2015)
“We keep talking about Bowie, and actually we’re talking about ‘the myth of Bowie’. I’m not sure he even knows who he is anymore, rather like some actors … because they’ve played the same parts so often, we confuse them with the person they are playing. Bowie has played lots of parts, but we always talk about him as if they exist. I don’t know what lies behind those parts. All I know about is the myth, because that is what we are presented with.”
– Professor Sir Christopher Frayling.1
Making its only stop in the Southern hemisphere, David Bowie is … (until 1 November, 2015), has been one of the most anticipated exhibitions to be held at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). Curators Geoffrey Marsh, Director of the Department of Theatre and Performance at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and his colleague Victoria Broackes were granted permission to trawl through Bowie’s beautifully maintained archive in New York.
“I think the important thing to stress is that it’s about David Bowie, it’s not about David Jones. So the real person, the person born in London in 1947 is David Jones, the archive is about David Bowie who is a creation of David Jones, performer, artist … So there’s nothing in the archive about David Jones”, says Marsh. “What he’s collected, or recorded, is the story, the history, of himself as a performer. What’s extraordinary about it is that he’s kept so much stuff, and from quite an early age, and because it’s not very rock ‘n roll! I mean most rock stars tend to just move on to the next thing, or give away their clothes for charity dos … There are very, very few major stars who have archives like this, but David kept it all”.
Of his and Broackes’ six visits to Aladdin (Sane)’s Cave, the epicentre of Bowie fan nirvana (the location of which he will not reveal), Marsh was struck by the sheer detail and complexity of Bowie’s nascent concepts. “The thing that is most interesting, for me at least, in David’s archive is the sketches and things, the videos, the film ideas he had for set designs. I mean there are proto set designs in the exhibition that he did when he was fifteen or sixteen, I think he says in [one of] the film clips, ‘Most kids, boys are just happy at sixteen to get a gig’. Whereas David was designing the back-drop and the costumes and everything, so right from day one he was interested in all that sort of stuff. So that was, I think, the prime motivator in the approach we brought to [the exhibition]”.
The ever-evolving performance art project that is David Bowie spans over fifty years: from the period where ‘Davie’ Jones first tested the musical waters with his band the Kon-rads in 1962, to the surprise announcement (on his sixty-sixth birthday) of The Next Day (2013), Bowie’s twenty-fourth studio album, and his first in a decade. How to mount a credible exhibition about a performer whose principal output is music-related was of paramount concern to the curators. “The extraordinary thing is when we started on the exhibition , David had disappeared for nearly a decade. And [now] because he’s on such a high at the moment … it’s a very different kind of environment”, Marsh observes. “Some people at museums said, ‘oh you know, no one’s interested in David Bowie any longer, he’s from years and years ago’, and all that sort of stuff!”. (And if you want to know what planet these arbiters of museum and gallery programming are on, good luck with that. Planet earth still seems to be blue, however).
Marsh used to be the Director for the London office of AEA Consulting, a museum design company, and has considerable experience in the field. “Sound, whether it’s music or any other sound, has been pretty poorly treated in museum exhibitions generally. It’s a question of expectation I think, and secondly of technology and cost. But I think it also comes back to the hierarchy about how art is valued … in many ways, museums don’t even collect sound”, he contends. “It’s an immersive exhibition. From the start, sound is as important as the objects, secondly, this is about a very high quality sound. We wanted a sound system whereby you didn’t have to press buttons – the ‘and this is exhibit 100’ approach – but one that just flowed with you”.
Enter the Sennheiser Group, a German sound company whose participation as a sponsor for the exhibition allowed the curators to realise their vision. Viewers are issued with a location-sensitive guidePORT system that automatically provides the audio component of the show – whether it be music, interviews, filmic dialogue, or specially mixed soundtrack – when they approach the exhibits and screens. This technology seamlessly integrates all sound material, including numerous audio-visual displays, into the tour wherever in the space the viewer moves. Gregor Zielinsky, Sennheiser’s International Recording Applications Manager, created an upmix algorithm to enable both stereo and mono material to be played as a 3D reproduction. “We had some really old mono material, not exactly recorded under the best of circumstances! With the algorithm and some fine-tuning in the studio we ensured that this rare material can be enjoyed in an astonishingly new form”, Zielinsky explains. “Working with Sennheiser on audio delivery has been a fantastic opportunity” Marsh acknowledges. “Sennheiser has pushed the boundaries as to how sound can evoke, provoke and inspire visitors, creating a genuinely multi-media museum experience, which has been a challenging objective but one we are delighted to have achieved with its support and expertise”.
This sonically integrated ‘sound landscape’ approach adopted for the exhibition in many ways typifies the way Bowie has leveraged various media throughout his career, particularly television and the video medium. Integral to his success as a performing artist of tremendous range has been Bowie’s innate understanding of presentation and costuming. The exhibition includes many of Bowie’s most memorable ensembles, “Obviously they’re stage costumes, they’re not costumes that you’re meant to see up close like kind of high fashion”, Marsh notes. “So, that’s quite a challenge because we wanted to have them on open display. I think costumes always look terrible in glass cases, but performance costumes just look ridiculous … you know, like kind of caged animals! So that required [extra] spacing so people could look at them”. There are, however, some ‘caged’ costumes that represent some of the more outrageous moments in Bowie’s performance history; the infamous Cobweb bodysuit and the Angel of Death red vinyl costume with feathers and paillettes (both 1973) that he wore for The 1980 Floor Show (1973) on NBC in America.
Bowie has worked with bespoke costumers like Freddie Burretti (1951-2001), Natasha Korniloff (d. 2008), and Ola J. Hudson (1946-2009), whose son Saul would achieve global stardom as Guns ‘n’ Roses’ formidable guitarist Slash. As the demands of Bowie’s touring schedule and promotional requirements became more complex he turned to opera and theatre designer Peter John Hall (1926-2010) on the Serious Moonlight tour (1983), and Olivier Award-winning production, set and costume designer Alison Chitty, OBE for the short film Jazzin’ For Blue Jean (Julien Temple, 1984). Bowie has consistently engaged with the world of contemporary fashion by seeking out the leading designers of the day to realise the desired look for albums, and to set the visual tenor for tours. From the daring and futuristic designs supplied by Kansai Yamamoto for the Aladdin Sane tour (1973), to restrained monotone Giorgio Armani for the Sound + Vision tour (1990), Thierry Mugler (1991) during the Tin Machine period, (Lee) Alexander McQueen, CBE (1969-2010) for the I.Outside tour (1995) and Earthling (1997), and Hedi Slimane (then creative director for Dior Homme) on the Heathen tour (2002).
Bowie’s assiduous courting of publicity was evident from his earliest public forays, particularly his valuable contribution as the spokesman for the Society For the Protection of Long-Haired Men (1964). Bowie has adopted many personæ over the course of his career of a sexually ambiguous nature, reinforced by the various ‘provocative’ statements he has made in the press. Declarations that he was gay (1972), bisexual (1976), and later, “I think I was always a closet heterosexual. I didn’t ever feel that I was a real bisexual” (1993), demonstrated both his fearless (and occasionally reckless) attitude to the media, and his understanding of the dramatic impact such pronouncements would have.2 He has long since transcended both the incessant background chatter that has accompanied his every move, and the limitations of the published discourse concerning it – estimated at over 100 books and innumerable print interviews. Nonetheless, Bowie’s wider influence on identity politics and notions of sexuality cannot be over-stated. Educationalist and popular culture theorist Sir Christopher Frayling recently made the point that, “one of the things that Bowie did at that time was change the debate from class to gender”.3
The many controversies that have clung to Bowie served to only deepen his appeal and pervasive influence. “Generally speaking he’s avoided making political comments. I know that’s slightly different in Australia because of [the video for] Let’s Dance [David Mallet, 1983] … but if you think over fifty years given how most pop stars get lent on for one thing or another he has not made a huge amount of political or social comment … He’s never gone out to try to outrage by swearing [on television], or that sort of thing, or even taking obvious pokes at iconic figures”, Marsh maintains. “What he’s actually done is much deeper, which is pressing the buttons which really, really worry ‘authorities’, for want of a better way of looking at it. At the bottom of that is this issue about individuality because all states find that kind of troublesome. In a way it’s deeper than that, it is ‘You owe it to Yourself to be Yourself’, that is the definition of being a true human being, and within that is a sub-set which is be what you want to be sexually … and that is obviously, incredibly subversive, particularly in the early ‘70s”.
This is evident in the video clip for Boys Keep Swinging (David Mallet, 1979), which perpetuated the song’s theme of satirising homosocial privilege and self-interest: “Heaven loves ya/The clouds part for ya/Nothing stands in your way/When you’re a boy”. Bowie’s rendition of the song as a stereotypical 1960s rock ‘n’ roll singer clad in a dark suit is uproariously undermined by his appearance in drag as his own female backing vocalists. RCA, Bowie’s then record label, decided against releasing the single in the American market because of, “fears about the video’s unpalatable transvestism”.4 Interviewed by his wife Iman in 2000, Bowie commented, “The glory in that song was ironic. I do not feel that there is anything remotely glorious about being either male or female. I was merely playing on the idea of the colonisation of a gender”.5 Bowie has continued to use this medium to reinforce his philosophical views, “The idea that the individual should determine their future as long as it doesn’t hurt other people, which is obviously very different from other parts of the world. That’s why I think he’s so relevant to today because, if you look at his videos he’s just produced over the last couple of years, you couldn’t show them on a lot a lot of television stations in the world, because they challenge the idea that actually people are just sort of slaves to the state”, Marsh stresses. “They’re about being yourself which is, you know, one of the great challenges of the 21st Century. Who’s in power, individuals or the state?”
The parallels between Bowie’s career and that of Pop artist, filmmaker, and the co-founder (in 1969) of Interview magazine, Andy Warhol (1928-87), are alluded to within the exhibition. After he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Pictorial Design) in 1949, Warhol moved from Pittsburgh determined to try his luck in New York. He quickly found work in advertising, magazine illustration, and later designed album covers for, you guessed it, RCA Records. Unlike many artists who make the transition from commercial work to ‘fine art’, Warhol never down-played his earlier career, saying, “I loved working when I worked at commercial art and they told you what to do, and how to do it, and all you had to do was correct it and they said yes or no”.6
Bowie wrote the song Andy Warhol, which appeared on Hunky Dory (1971), and contained the chorus, “Andy Warhol looks a scream/Hang him on my wall/Andy Warhol, Silver Screen/Can’t tell them apart at all”. Warhol was said to have taken offence at the lyrics, and the two cultural titans reportedly met only once.7 However, Warhol was also reported to be in the audience for Bowie’s Broadway début in The Elephant Man (Jack Hoffiss, 1980-81), and it is hard to believe he was not invited back-stage. Warhol’s career as an underground filmmaker and actor (1963-76) achieved both considerable notoriety and some renown for his daring, often innovative approach. Fourteen minutes of footage of Bowie performing mime, and looking distinctly uncomfortable at being filmed, is included in the Factory Diary for 14 September, 1971.
After a failed career as entertainment impresario, and then running a short-lived piano bar, Bowie’s father, Haywood Stenton ‘John’ Jones was appointed head of public relations at Dr. Bernardo’s Children’s Homes in 1956. Jones then used his industry contacts to induce some of the leading British entertainers of the day to help promote the charity. With the example of his father’s PR skills, the young David began developing his precocious talent for marketing and promotion. He left Bromley Technical High School when he was sixteen, and where his third year form master and art teacher was Owen Frampton (father of singer and guitarist Peter). Bowie pursued a similar path to Warhol: he spent twelve months working in advertising, first as a Junior Visualiser (or paste-up artist), and later joined the London office of Nevin D. Hurst Advertising.
“David’s first job was in advertising and he’s always [in interviews] very dismissive about it, which I suspect is because it had quite a big impact on him, but he doesn’t want to admit it”, Marsh remarks. “It was this critical moment in advertising, the sort of Mad Men era, everyone was getting into the ‘science’ of marketing, brain washing and all that stuff that came out. People in the late 1950s like Vance Packard [1914-96], and how to influence people. When you look at Bowie’s career, you think ‘where did he get it all from?’, and clearly he plugged into that. The fact that these two superstars of the late 20th century, Warhol and Bowie, are rooted in advertising, marketing, and PR I don’t think is any accident”. In what might be viewed as a sly nod to his past, Bowie went on to portray the slick advertising guru Vendice Partners in Absolute Beginners (Julien Temple, 1986). Partners, who seems to speak in CAPITALS, tells Colin, the central protagonist, “we don’t sell things, we sell dreams”. He then serenades the hapless young photographer with a song unambiguously titled Selling Out, before his main number That’s Motivation (a Bowie composition), tap-dancing atop a giant typewriter.
The art dealer Bruno Bischofberger had a long association with Warhol, and with American Pop artists more generally. He suggested that Warhol collaborate with the emerging artists Francesco Clemente and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) for a series of fifteen paintings in the Spring of 1984. Warhol and Basquiat struck up a friendship and worked on another series of paintings shown at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1985. In an inspired move, when artist Julian Schnabel decided to make a film about Basquiat’s life (1996), he cast Bowie as Warhol. Basquiat also had a strong interest in music, as a member of the ‘noise rock’ band Test Pattern, which later became Gray; it was in this context that Bowie met Basquiat in 1982. Wearing one of Warhol’s own platinum wigs, his glasses, and various other personal items loaned for the film, Bowie’s subdued and nuanced performance deftly captures the interplay between the two artists as they worked in Warhol’s studio. As Bischofberger reflected, “Such collaborations are an intricate and beautiful duet involving two of the greatest artists of their time. Earnest but filled with humour and a kind of jibing affection, the paintings document the mutual admiration and respect that the artists had for each other’s work, ideas, and distinct personalities. Just a few years later, of course, both Warhol and Basquiat would be dead, leaving these collaborations as a rare monument to a dialogue that spanned generations, cultures, and even races”.8
The British writer and broadcaster Philip Hoare (Patrick Moore) has stated, “Bowie was Warhol’s Frankenstein’s creature. Without Warhol, Bowie couldn’t have existed. He was the product of that new attitude to commodification and to art, where Bowie, a musician, could be an artist; a fine artist. That’s where the notion of him being in films, films that aren’t completely under his control, which aren’t an extension of his unreal personality, almost don’t work for me”.9 Bowie’s trajectory as an actor, both on stage and in film, is eclectic to say the least. The exhibition includes memorabilia and excerpts from several of Bowie’s best known acting roles, as well as his first appearance in the black and white short film The Image (Michael Armstrong, 1967). “One of the things we wanted to focus on was how he learned to be an actor in the late ‘60s, which hardly gets a mention in any book [on Bowie], but actually is fundamental because what you realise is that, although he’s a very famous writer, famous performer, he’s actually an actor”, Marsh believes.
Bowie’s feature film début in The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976) was well received, as was his stand-out performance in the otherwise rather muddled Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983). In an interview with Rolling Stone conducted while in Australia, Bowie said of his role as the troubled New Zealand POW Major Jack Celliers, “I think it’s the most credible performance I’ve done in a film”.10 Bowie has proved he has the ability to be a serious actor, but his choice of filmic roles over the years has been somewhat baffling. “I have to say I find his film career, not a mystery, but it’s something I find quite difficult to come up with any simple explanation for … given that he is a great actor, and he’s only ever appeared on stage once [The Elephant Man], where he was clearly successful … You sort of get the feeling with that as soon as he’d done it, he kind of thought, ‘oh well, you know, I’ve done that, no need to do it again’”, Marsh muses.
Bowie’s next leading film role was in the much-panned Just A Gigolo (David Hemmings, 1978) as the Prussian officer Lt. Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski. He returns from World War I a hero, only to find his social position and prospects drastically altered: as a consequence, he drifts into work as a male escort. The film suffered as much from the meandering and inconsistent script as it did from being considerably cut after its initial release. The exhibition preserves a letter, dated 2 March, 1978, that Bowie received from his (not quite) co-star, the celebrated film actress and cabaret star Marlene Dietrich (1901-92). In her final screen role, Dietrich played von Przygodski’s madam, Baroness von Semering, but her scenes were filmed in Paris where she lived, intercut with his filmed in Berlin. “I am sorry not to be able to visit you today as we discussed. Lots of problems with fittings etc. for your film. Hope to see you in America. Starting a tour in May. Please let me know where to reach one of your agents so we can keep in touch”. It is doubtful whether the two actually ever met.
Bowie’s disappointment with Just A Gigolo was palpable in his blunt assessment to the New Musical Express that, “the film was a cack, a real cack … I think the great failure on my part for becoming involved in that particular venture was my acceptance of the director as a person rather than actually bothering to consider what the script consisted of – or rather didn’t consist of, since it contained absolutely nothing – and also what experience the guy had had as a director … my thirty-two Elvis Presley movies rolled into one”.11 Elvis, with whom Bowie shares a birthday, is a ghostly presence throughout the exhibition. There is even a 1976 telefax from ‘the King’ to Bowie that reads, “Wishing you the best on your current [Station To Station] concert tour. Sincerely, Elvis and the Colonel”.
After the failure of ‘Gigolo’, Bowie largely confined himself to supporting parts, with varying levels of success. A cello-playing vampire in the achingly stylish The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983); an ageing gangster in the Mancunian crime drama Everybody Loves Sunshine (aka. B.U.S.T.E.D, Andrew Goth, 1999); the Serbian engineer, inventor and futurist Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) in The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006). In the immensely controversial and overblown The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988), Bowie plays Pontius Pilate as a sort of world-weary headmaster scolding a student sent for detention, telling Jesus (Willem Dafoe):
You know it’s one thing to want to change the way that people live, but you want to change how they think and how they feel. Either way, it’s dangerous. It’s against Rome, it’s against the way the world is and, killing or loving, it’s all the same. It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things – we don’t want them changed.
In just under four minutes of screen time he brings a certain gravity to the part, something demonstrably lacking in the rest of the film. Bowie then co-starred in surely one of the most excruciatingly un-funny and dreary comedies around, The Linguini Incident (Richard Shepard, 1991), as the disreputable barman, Monte.
Other wink-wink-look-it’s-me cameos in films like Into the Night (John Landis, 1985) where he played the Band Aid-sporting henchman Colin Morris; in Zoolander (Ben Stiller, 2001) where he judges the ‘walk-off’ between the titular male model Derek Zoolander and his rival Hansel McDonald; and his brief role as corporate raider Cyrus Ogilvie in the immensely tedious Josh Hartnett vehicle August (Austin Chick, 2008) did little to allay Bowie’s reputation as a filmic dabbler. Bowie’s fleeting part as the incoherent FBI agent Phillip Jeffries, who has been trapped in the Red Room for almost two years, has only recently been reappraised, owing to the fact that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992) was editorially mangled before its cinematic release.
Bowie’s appearance at the conclusion of Bandslam (Todd Graff, 2009) was telegraphed virtually from the beginning, given that the lead character Will Burton (Gaelan Connell) writes a series of diary-like missives to Bowie that punctuate the film. In an exchange that might resonate with many a despondent young fan, Burton’s mother Karen (Lisa Kudrow) asks, “Are you writing another letter to David Bowie? Doesn’t it bother you that he never writes back?”, to which Will replies, “He knows that would only intimidate me”. Her son’s determination to conceal his disappointment leads her to ponder, “See, why can’t I process rejection like that?”
Interviewed in 1999 during the production of Exhuming Mr. Rice, a cheery title later altered in favour of the less morbid Mr. Rice’s Secret (Nicholas Kendall, 2000), Bowie discussed his motivation in selecting film projects. “I really don’t have the commitment to be an actor. I mean I think it’s wonderful to see Billy [Bill Switzer] for instance, who’s starring in this film, is so committed to the idea of being an actor. I really envy him his commitment, although I shouldn’t say that because I have it in another area, as a musician and as a painter. So I think I’m not really looking for anything, they [film roles] kind of find me”. Bowie’s rather obtuse choice of projects is perhaps explained by his emotive selection criteria, “Every now and again a film will come along that actually really quite touches me for some reason or another, or there will be somebody attached to it that I’ve always wanted to get to know better, or to see how they work. So I tend to find myself in films because of those conditions, not really because I’m looking for anything at all”.
Marsh points to Bowie’s greater success in portraying historical figures, however thinly drawn. “These are all very strong, incredibly strong characters … if you say [Nikola] Tesla and Andy Warhol I mean, they’re about as extreme as you can get within their character-types, and I think that’s what appeals to him about them. I mean, he’s not made many films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, where’s he’s got a proper ‘leading man’ role. Clearly, at that level, filmmaking doesn’t interest him, and also, as you know, filmmaking is incredibly time-consuming, so I think he obviously prefers these kind of highly focused things. But, even so, given that he’s inundated with offers, I do find it quite strange actually … I get a sense that filmmaking per se is not something that he finds terribly interesting as a process, compared to music-making”.
For an artist with such a refined sense of aesthetics, and one accustomed to fulfilling his own very specific creative vision, perhaps film represents both an enticing and potentially problematic platform for Bowie. An actor’s lot is usually concerned with realising the director’s vision. Acting is, in any number of ways, the antithesis of self, whereby the performer is expected to project, or inhabit, a character. “Exactly, and that’s what I think he likes about those particular [biographical] roles because, in a sense, the director of a film about Andy Warhol … you can’t bend Andy Warhol out of shape, I mean Andy Warhol’s Andy Warhol. Therefore, I think it prevents [Bowie] just becoming a tool of somebody else, if I can put it that way”, Marsh concurs.
And then there is Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986). Of all Bowie’s films it is undoubtedly the most widely seen, and the one that unabashedly worships at the altar of his incredible allure. A letter from Jim Henson courting Bowie for the part reads, “This is the present shape of the script [by Terry Jones], it is still rough and needs quite a bit of polishing, but you can see where we’re going. I’m looking forward to hearing your reaction. You would be wonderful in this film”. As Jareth, the imperious and petulant Goblin King, Bowie glowers, preens, and faux menaces a self-absorbed teenage girl, Sarah (future Academy Award winner Jennifer Connolly). Holding dominion over several wind machines, inexhaustible stores of glitter, and a shifting array of puppet vassals, Jareth stalks moodily around his castle in a spiky blonde wig and eye make-up no New Romantics act could ever have pulled off.
Clad in an array of extravagant costumes so incredibly camp that they flutter, twinkle and billow at every opportunity, it might be supposed that Bowie’s otherwise too-tight jodhpurs were a visual ploy to reaffirm the character’s masculinity. The producers needn’t have worried. Before the term ‘sexed up’ was even coined, Bowie imbued Jareth with an unsettling, magnetic, disproportionately torrid quality that was decidedly not G-rated. Against his expectations, Sarah finally reaches Jareth’s castle beyond the labyrinth to reclaim her half-brother Toby. Jareth once more offers her a crystal ball, with the new caveat, “Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave”. Alrighty then.
Although Absolute Beginners the same year yielded one of Bowie’s most resplendent singles, it was Labyrinth that most closely merged his abilities as a song-writer and performer within a filmic role. He contributed five original songs to the film’s soundtrack, and performed all but one. (It remains something of a travesty that Bowie has received so little industry acknowledgement for his soundtrack work). Storyboards from the film join Jareth’s ornamental staff, and one of the famous crystal balls he toys with throughout the film (actually manipulated by performer Michael Moschen, crouched behind Bowie). A commercial failure upon its release, and a bitter disappointment to its creator Jim Henson, Labyrinth was another film to achieve a cult following, initially via VHS, and subsequent DVD re-issue.
“Although the character [Bowie] plays is a sort of created character, it’s such a strong character. He plays the Goblin King … he’s not playing someone lifted from The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, he owns it totally. And I think that’s why he did it”, Marsh suggests. “I mean when you look at it, to all the Bowie fans who grew up in the ‘70s, it seems utterly bizarre, but I don’t think it is, and it’s why it still works as a film. I think it shows actually what a really good actor he is …” For an entire generation, Labyrinth was their most indelible experience of Bowie: a star who had already been a figure of fantasy, illusion, ambiguity, permissiveness, mischief, and wish-fulfilment for so many decades.
Australian Bowie enthusiast Bruce Butler has loaned items from his extensive personal collection of memorabilia, which will only be seen during this leg of the show. “As a Bowie fan of forty years I was very excited when I heard the V&A had been given exclusive access to Bowie’s vast personal archive. When the ACMI first acquired the exhibition for Melbourne in September, 2014 they contacted the local fan group Bowie Down Under; group head Adam Dean and myself went in to talk with the ACMI team about how we could contribute. From the beginning we were involved in promotion and marketing events and in developing special exclusive fan events”, he relates. Butler held positions as a Promotions Manager for CBS Records, at Virgin Records Australia, and worked on the ABC television program The Factory (1987-89). He was at the forefront of the music industry in Australia for many years, and has met Bowie several times, both in his professional capacity, and at various concerts.
“Apart from a few Australian release album covers that ACMI requested, I concentrated on Bowie’s first Australian tour in 1978. I loaned a few photos, including one I took at the first Australian show in Adelaide on 11 November, and signed by Bowie a week later, a number of photos from the famous MCG concert, and my copy of the Australian tour program”, says Butler. “The first time I saw this material of mine mounted in the exhibition case with the description cards, my own words and with my name on the items, I was quite emotional, as it was a great honour to be a part of an exhibition that is so personal to Bowie featuring 300 of his items. It felt like a validation for my forty years of devotion to David Bowie as an artist”. The exhibition has given Butler the opportunity to reflect on his own career in the music industry, and how Bowie’s work has impacted on him over the years. “Through numerous interviews, articles I’ve written, public and private talks I have come to realise how many of my attitudes to and tastes in literature, art, film, theatre, philosophy and of course music have been influenced by my admiration of David Bowie as an artist. He is without doubt the single most influential musician of the 20th century and is still having an enormous effect to this day”, Butler declares emphatically.
Having absorbed the variety, diversity, and scope of Bowie’s influences throughout the exhibition, the viewer can peruse these various strands delineated and organised into a work by British artist Paul Robertson. Commissioned by the V&A Museum, The Periodic Table of Bowie (2013), continues Robertson’s interest in creating false (but nonetheless pertinent) taxonomic systems for individual subjects or genres. A trained psychologist, Robertson works as an artist, curator, critic, writer and collector of avant garde material. “All these aspects of my life … then all relate to my belief that all of science, culture and history are intertwined and cannot be understood in isolation … Most of my artworks related to science and pseudo-science and the periodic tables are one aspect of that”, he explains.
“When I create a periodic table it is not just a random jumble of names. The ten families (based on similar properties) in the original chemical periodic table are used by me to organise wider themes (here with poetic titles in the colour key) and I structured the overall work in that way. For instance, the four corners of the table have four very significant names for Bowie in [Oscar] Wilde, Warhol, Basquiat, Iman (not all of whom were obvious), and the main central block of names are all direct musical influences on Bowie. If you imagine him on a spot right in the middle of the table, then the Spiders From Mars are all around him, but nearby are Little Richard (a key musical influence in style and sexuality), Elvis and others. The names are not randomly placed either: there are other subtle relationships between names. If you look hard at the work then these become obvious after a while”.
Robertson credits Bowie with expanding his horizons during his formative years, “… there was a definite identification with his more intellectual side and his fay persona and look was enticing. Importantly, he was not just another of the cynically produced groups that were played on the radio and had been put together by cunning Svengali-managers”, he recalls. “Aladdin Sane  was eagerly devoured when it was released (I bought it the same day), and it delivered. I must have played it twenty times in a single week in my bedroom while I stared at the gatefold cover. I remember the thick silver paint on the photograph in particular. The jazz piano and arrangements of Mike Garson on that album was perhaps my first introduction to a more avant garde music, and while I was also listening to progressive rock at that time, Bowie was definitely a hero. [He] was a significant reason I started to read more philosophical books, and tried to see less mainstream films, A Clockwork Orange [Stanley Kubrick, 1971] being one film recommended by Bowie I was able to sneak in to see at age thirteen!”
The seismic event that was Bowie’s third appearance on the British television show Top of the Pops, performing Starman (6 July, 1972), is a central feature of the exhibition. Freddie Burretti’s Quilted two-piece suit (1972), designed for the Ziggy Stardust tour, is displayed in front of a loop of the performance. BBC radio DJ and rock critic Marc Riley has described it thus, “… I was transfixed by a bloke in a quilted jumpsuit and red leather wrestler’s boots! There’s no doubt that Bowie’s appearance … was a pivotal moment in British musical history … his performance lit the touchpaper for thousands of kids who up ‘til then had struggled to find a catalyst for their lives. … Bowie encouraged you to have a broader interest in pop culture, not that it was called that back then”.12
Robertson also remembers the broadcast distinctly, “The phenomenon that was Top of The Pops cannot be understated. It was the only pop programme one could watch on television and when Bowie performed Starman there was a country-wide cultural change in the offing. I was one of many, many thousands who recognised that this was somehow different from other acts on the show. The performance itself felt fresh, the costumes somehow seemed more interesting than the usual glam rock tat and the interaction between Bowie and [guitarist Mick] Ronson, when the latter suddenly found Ziggy’s arm draped over his shoulder, looked so languid, relaxed and friendly. It seemed authentic”. Or, as Marsh puts it, “You didn’t just watch prime time television in the UK and there’d be two men kind of with their arms around each other, it just didn’t happen. So something now, which doesn’t look that strange, was just completely outrageous”.
Bowie’s evolution as an artist continued to influence Robertson, “Lyrically, songs like Drive-In Saturday  were educational, a song in which for the first time I had heard mention of [Carl] Jung … Interviews would throw up names like Warhol, Brecht, Dalí, Crowley or Burroughs and, as a result, I would also seek out books or artworks by them. I doubt if I would have been quite as interested in modern and contemporary art if I had not had Bowie’s early enthusiasm for the subject”, he concedes. “Bowie’s own artwork exhibited in the V&A show is very interesting. When one looks at the detail in his stage designs and drawings for record covers then one gets a sense of how all-encompassing his vision is/was. Not many pop stars have the depth he displays. The mooted opera based on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four  would have been interesting to see had it actually been completed. It is wrong to say Bowie is a chameleon, as often lazily described by some journalists … such a description ignores the fact that Bowie was usually the first to initiate popular change. A better way of describing his influence is that he was the first true avant garde pop star”.
So the question lingers, who is … David Bowie? His own magnificently diverse and evolving creation; a brilliant self-mythologiser who has drawn us into a web being constantly and enticingly re-spun; a canvas upon which countless viewers and listeners have projected their own aspirations and desires; a brilliant cultural medium who both anticipates and interprets the times. “Somebody asked me, who do you see as being comparable to Bowie? I mean the fact is, he’s a one off. It’s not like there’s another one! If you look at his career, there’s no one who’s tracked anything like it, and, at the moment, I can’t really see anyone coming along and occupying that space, just because the nature of performance has utterly changed”, Marsh believes. “There was a quote about William Blake [1757-1827], by someone [writer and critic William Michael Rossetti,1829-1919] that said he was, “… a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors”,13 and I thought that was a bit like Bowie, he sort of springs … almost from nowhere”.
Bowie’s creative antennae is so acutely attuned that he has been one of the truly influential figures of his time. “One of the key things is that, although he’s incredibly original, I don’t think he’s very interested in being original. I know that’s a complete contradiction; he’s fascinated by the world, what’s going on, he’s always been interested by new technology, and using computers when they turned up, and all that sort of stuff … I don’t think he’s interested in making single statements. I think he’s genuinely interested in trying to intrigue other people in what’s going on”, Marsh attests. What appeared to be merely a desire for change or artistic restlessness always had a focus, however initially obscure to Bowie’s audience, as though he was a perpetual chrysalis whose ideas always emerged far in advance.
David Bowie is … confounding, perplexing and utterly enthralling. He is someone who desperately yearns, who is compelled to explore and to create, and understands the need in all of us for the same. The man who would seem to have so assiduously crafted his own image, and all its many permutations has, in the last decade, withdrawn from the rigours of public life. His A Reality Tour (2003-04) was cut short after Bowie suffered a blocked coronary artery, and he has not performed live since 2006. He may not crave our attention as he used to, but our compulsion to look remains undimmed.
David Bowie is … Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Federation Square, Melbourne (VIC), until 1 November 2015 – acmi.net.au The exhibition continues to the Groninger Museum (11 December, 2015-13 March, 2016), The Netherlands – groningermuseum.nl Official site – davidbowie.com
With thanks to Bruce Butler and Paul Robertson for their kind cooperation.The Periodic Table of Bowie (2013) is available from the ACMI store, and in various sizes from the artist’s website – paulrobertsonart.com
ENDNOTES: 1 Victoria Broackes & Geoffrey Marsh (Eds), David Bowie is, V&A Publishing, London, 2013, p.293. 2 Michael Watts, “Oh You Pretty Thing”, Melody Maker, 22 January, 1972, reprinted in Sean Egan (Ed.), Bowie On Bowie: Interviews and Encounters, Souvenir Press, London, 2015, p.9. Cameron Crowe, “Candid Conversation”, Playboy, September, 1976. David Sinclair, “Station To Station”, Rolling Stone (US), Issue 658, 10 June, 1993, reprinted in Sean Egan (Ed.), op cit, p.246. 3 Victoria Broackes & Geoffrey Marsh (Eds), op cit, p.283. 4 Ibid, p.80. 5 Iman [Abdulmajid], “Watch That Man”, Bust, Fall, 2000. 6 Steven Bluttal (Ed.), Andy Warhol “Giant” Size, Phaidon, London, 2006, p.14, 59. 7 Victoria Broackes & Geoffrey Marsh (Eds), op cit, p.86. 8 Bruno Bischofberger, “Last Call”, in Steven Bluttal (Ed.), Andy Warhol “Giant” Size, Phaidon, London, 2006, p.550. 9 Victoria Broackes & Geoffrey Marsh (Eds), op cit, p.293. 10 Kurt Loder, “David Bowie: Straight Time”, Rolling Stone (US), Issue 395, 12 May, 1983. 11 Angus MacKinnon, “The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be”, NME (New Musical Express), 13 September, 1980, reprinted in Sean Egan (Ed.), op cit, p. 114, 131. 12 Dylan Jones, When Ziggy Played Guitar: David Bowie and Four Minutes That Shook the World, Random House, London, 2012, p.90. 13 William Michael Rossetti (Ed.), The Poetical Works of William Blake: Lyrical and Miscellaneous, George Bell & Sons, 1890, p. xiii.
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.