He released milestones of pop music, and fought against racism and homophobia. Now David Bowie has died at the age of 69. An obituary by Phil Butland
David Bowie is dead. I can’t think of any other artist who produced such a variety of excellent music, or a body of work approaching the 12 original albums that Bowie released between 1969 and 1980. Every single album from this period is a serious candidate for any list of the best records of all time.
It is even more impressive that these records were so diverse. Let’s start with “David Bowie (Space Oddity)” from 1969. Most people know the title track, a song about the alienation of an astronaut. The BBC used it as the soundtrack of the coverage of the moon landing. Yet the whole album from the then 22-year old contains a series of impressive beautifully written short stories performed in a folky style.
This was rapidly followed by albums of pop, glam rock, soul, alienated electronica and the first New Romantic record “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”. There’s not the space here to describe them in sufficient detail. It’s better to listen to them yourselves.
Bowie spoke openly about his bisexuality
Bowie was not just a musical innovator – he was the voice of the outsider, and particularly of LGBT people. On the sleeve of “The Man Who Sold The World” album he was photographed wearing a dress; on “Top of The Pops”, then one of the most popular television shows, he wore a leotard and make-up, and his stage performances with guitarist Mick Ronson were clearly homoerotic.
In interviews he spoke openly about his bisexuality – at a time when homosexuality was still considered scandalous. In “Rebel, Rebel” he hailed the rebels of indeterminate sex (“not sure if you‘re a boy or a girl”). The gay musician Tom Robinson tweeted following Bowie’s death about the importance of his performances for young gays and lesbians of this era.
Bowie’s half-brother was schizophrenic
Bowie’s lyrics covered other socially excluded groups. The artist Grayson Perry wrote that “he was a megastar, but his power came from the fact he was the champion of the outcast in the bedroom. The loner, the misfit.”
Bowie was particularly concerned with mental illness. His half-brother Terry was schizophrenic and committed suicide in 1985. Bowie wrote several songs about Terry, including “All The Madmen”, and “Aladdin Sane” (A lad insane).
Another recurring metaphor in Bowie’s lyrics is of space travel – an area that is as far away from the “real” socially acceptable world as you can get. Major Tom, the hero of “Space Oddity returned twice – in “Ashes to Ashes” and “Hello Spaceboy”. Other early song titles included “Starman”, “Life on Mars” and “The Prettiest Star”.
Alienation from reality
This metaphor is partly a wordplay on the word “star” (which can be both an astrological and a cultural phenomenon), showing the increasing distance from reality that accompanied Bowie’s growing celebrity. This is also the subject of the song “Fame” that Bowie wrote and recorded with John Lennon in 1975.
It would be wrong, though, to see Bowie’s alienation as being purely the product of his fame. Already on his first “proper” record in 1969, you can see it on the song “Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed”. Here Bowie presents himself to a beautiful rich woman:
“I’m the Cream / Of the Great Utopia Dream / And you’re the gleam / In the depths of your banker’s spleen / I’m a phallus in pigtails / And there’s blood on my nose / And my tissue is rotting / Where the rats chew my bones / And my eye sockets empty / See nothing but pain / I keep having this brainstorm / About twelve times a day.”
This song – deeply poetic and careering between arrogance and self-hatred – shows a lot about Bowie. It also helps us understand one of his darker phases. Because this really needs an explanation.
Bowie gives a Hitler salute
In an interview with the magazine “Playboy”, Bowie said the following: “I’d love to enter politics. I will one day. I’d adore to be Prime Minister. And, yes, I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air at the moment is to speed up the progress of a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over as fast as possible. People have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership. A liberal wastes time saying, “Well, now, what ideas have you got?” Show them what to do, for God’s sake. If you don’t, nothing will get done. I can’t stand people just hanging about. Television is the most successful fascist, needless to say. Rock stars are fascists, too. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.”
Rosemarie Nünning and I have already written about the consequences of this statement in our article about Rock Against Racism in the Winter 2015 edition of marx21 magazine. I won’t repeat the story here, except to reiterate that Bowie gave the interview in 1976, when the British Nazis of the National Front were gaining an alarming amount of support. Earlier in the same year, Bowie had also apparently made a Hitler salute at London’s Victoria station.
How could it be that someone who had stood up for gay rights and for the rights of the mentally ill was suddenly making fascist statements? Some people blame the copious amounts of drugs that Bowie was taking at the time. They may indeed have made a contribution, but I find this explanation insufficient.
Bowie’s rebellion was always individualistic. He was highly gifted and felt intellectually constrained. In the song “Quicksand”, he called himself a “mortal with the potential of a superman” who was “sinking in the quicksand of my thought”, terminology that he took from Nietzsche.
Preoccupation with Nietzsche
Bowie had shown significant interest in Nietzsche’s philosophy. In 1970, he wrote a song called “The Supermen”, and the last line of his 1971 hit “Oh You Pretty Things” states “You gotta make way for the Homo Superior”. Although Nietzsche himself was not a fascist, the Nazis adopted many of his ideas, including the terms “Homo Superior” and “Superman”, or, as they preferred to call it, the “Übermensch”.
At a time which was experiencing a degree of class struggle, Bowie came neither from the proletariat nor from the ruling class. His father was a teacher and head of the art department, and his mother had been an active member of the British Union of Fascists as a teenager. They lived in Bromley, part of the Commuter Belt around London, home to many middle managers. Bowie came from precisely that class of society which is open to both progressive and fascist ideas.
Notwithstanding his mistakes in the 1970s, Bowie was eventually won over for progressive ideas. After his racist comments, his acquaintances from the radical Berlin scene had words with him. Later, he would not just have black friends (like his musical collaborator Nile Rodgers and his wife Iman), but he also clearly spoke out against racism.
Both Rock Against Racism, and later the Anti Nazi League (ANL) were formed as a direct response to Bowie’s remarks. In 1994, with a renewed fascist threat, the ANL reformed and organised a festival in London. Bowie sent a cheque for £1,500. Attached was a note with a single word. “Sorry”.
Fight against racism
Bowie did not just fight against racism in the UK. He said the following about Australia, where he briefly lived: “As much as I love this country it’s probably one of the most racially intolerant in the world, well in line with South Africa.” He made a clear stand for Aboriginal rights. When “Let’s Dance” was released in Australia, its video clearly depicted racism against Aboriginal people. Since Bowie’s death, one of the most shared videos is of his appearance on MTV, where he attacks the US- based media giant, where he attacks for allowing little space for black musicians.
I have written little here about Bowie’s music after 1980. In the past 36 years, he has released 12 more solo albums, plus 2 records by his band Tin Machine. Nearly every one has been hailed as a “return to form”, and some have been very good indeed.
Yet for me, Bowie’s greatest musical contributions comes from the 12 records that he released in and around the 1970s, and from the albums by other artists in that decade on which he was a producer (at least 3 of these are also candidates for a list of best albums of all time – Lou Reed’s “Transformer” and Iggy Pop’s “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life”).
By 1980, Bowie was finding other interests – including as a painter an actor. He was impressive in films like “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence” and “The Hunger”, and on television as Berthold Brecht’s “Baal”. He may not always have maintained the quality of his early epic work, but he still developed a tremendous quality and range – in all genres from drum and bass to heavy metal.
A few days before his death, Bowie released his last album “Black Star”. It was – once again – hailed as a return to form. Experience has taught me that we should wait a little before we make our final judgement. But I hope that “Black Star” will affect us every bit as much as Bowie’s earlier works.
With David Bowie’s death, one of the greats has left us.
This obituary was originally published in German on the marx21 Website: