Sound & Vision

29th March 2013

David Bowie, one of the most influential performers of the modern
era, is the subject of a new and rather lavish exhibition at the V&A.
Jack Watkins is suitably impressed…

It’s a contention of mine that the fawning adulation bestowed on rock, pop and acting celebrities is slightly more palatable than that accorded to the royals. At least the former have had to earn the worship in some way, rather than simply being born or marrying into the right family. But whichever sector this obsessive interest is applied to, people don’t half get carried away…

When the news broke recently that David Bowie was about to release his first album in years, catching everyone (including those who thought they were close associates) completely by surprise, even normally sensible newspapers reacted as if Planet Earth had just received a message from God. And walking round this grandly staged exhibition, with its towering wall projections of Bowie’s image, and clipped, teasing statements which divide the various sections – ‘David Bowie is this…’ and ‘David Bowie is saying that…’ you can’t help but feel there is something of a deity about the guy.

David Bowie and William Burroughs; Photograph by Terry O'Neill; Hand colouring by David Bowie, 1974. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive 2012. Image © V&A Images

He’d be the first to scorn such ideas, of course (‘David Bowie is not sure if he is Max Miller or Elvis Presley’). The real Bowie, the human chameleon, has always remained unknowable, out of reach, and unlike many a big star, he’s never been into preaching to anyone. His one message might be that the only rule is that there are no rules. But, boy, this is a fascinating and meticulously crafted exhibition. The V& A was apparently granted unprecedented access to the ‘David Bowie Archive’ to curate an international retrospective of his career, and they certainly haven’t blown the privilege.

You can enjoy the visit on various levels, according to your individual taste. Most eye-catchingly, this is a costume show. The V&A have done this sort of thing before with pop figures-cum-fashion leaders – notably The Supremes, Kylie Minogue and Annie Lennox – but this time the boat has been pushed out that bit further. Here, for example, is the Starman bodysuit worn by Bowie for his performance of the single from the Ziggy Stardust album in 1972; over there is the outfit designed by Kansai Yamamoto for his Aladdin Sane tour in1973. In a video clip, the Japanese designer says that the inspired costume fusion arising from their collaboration drew its force from a head-to-head clash between Bowie’s Western and Yamamoto’s Eastern aesthetics.

Then there’s art, too, and Andy Warhol makes an inevitable appearance in some grainy footage of the pair in the early 70s. Bowie, who is often described as Warhol’s linear descendent, was apparently unhappy about being filmed, but the sequence that features him mimicking a graceful bird in flight is fascinating. There’s also film. Bowie’s mid-1970s phase owed something to Fritz Lang, German Expressionism and even the androgynously appealing Marlene Dietrich. And while Bowie was one of the new breed of pin-ups who effectively replaced film stars on the bedroom walls of teenage kids in the 1970s, he was also one of the very few rock stars to make a convincing stab at screen acting, notably in The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1976.

For music fans, however, the exhibition is just an invigorating stroll through British, and ultimately international, rock history.

It’s easy to forget just how long Bowie has been around, but he was born in 1947. If he were living in Britain today, he’d be an OAP. He doesn’t, though. He lives a somewhat reclusive, non-aeroplane flying existence in New York, though in a moment which one envious friend has never let me forget, I once saw him in a street off Savile Row in the mid-90s, when he would have been in his late forties, and still with the slender build of twenty year-old. Recent images would suggest that, despite uncertainties about his health, he hasn’t changed much.

‘I’m from the same planet as you, man, and it ain’t Earth,’ fans who felt a special connection with Bowie and his unusual looks used to write to him, but he hadn’t always seemed destined to be a man apart. “I had a very reserved childhood,” he explains of his early years growing up with his parents in Brixton and then, from nine, in the unremarkable suburb of Bromley. “Nothing ever happened to me that one would consider freaky.”

With his fair looks and his quiff, he started out like just another Billy Fury or Adam Faith, and the sight of his twelve-string guitar – actually the one he played on Space Oddity – is a reminder that he was within touching distance of that transitional period in the early 60s when sophisticated jazz got elbowed out of the way by its more raucous bedfellow, R&B. And it’s the little personal mementoes of Bowie’s that at times make you suddenly feel quite close to this elusive man, such as the photo of the great 50s rocker Little Richard – whose flamboyant stage act struck a particular chord – and which, in its ageing frame, Bowie ‘has treasured ever since’.

David Bowie was Davie Jones back then – the name change happening in1965 to distinguish himself from Davy Jones of The Monkees – and he had a tough time fitting into the swinging sixties scene. The show makes the important point that 60s rock was about authenticity, whereas for Bowie, the future of music – as it indeed it would be in the glammed-up 70s – was about acting and play, masks and make-up. He was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, exponents of the look of pop, using make-up and physical theatre in a way that had never been done before.

His references were wide, too. A PR blurb from the Decca record label when he was nineteen carefully explains how he was listening to Stravinsky, ‘admired Elgar and Holst’, and numbered the big band sounds of Glenn Miller and Stan Kenton in his record collection. Additionally, he was reading Wilde, Camus, and Pinter. He was well on the way to being the Renaissance man of rock.

He might have remained just a talented outsider, though, had it not been for a stroke of luck with the release of Space Oddity. He’d been working on the project for some six months before the Apollo moon landing, but the fortuitous timing of this work also locked him forever in the public consciousness as somehow slightly alien, always interesting, inhabiting an ever-changing parade of personas, from Major Tom to Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane to The Thin White Duke. “I could never consider putting something on the stage that doesn’t owe something to the theatre,” he once said, and he always attracted record audiences as a result.
These days he’s content to ‘put on a show’ through the virtual world of cyberspace, and Bowienet made him the first musician also to be an internet service provider. His creative heyday may really have been back in the 70s, but this terrifically enjoyable and stimulating exhibition – with its storyboards, handwritten sets lists, diary entries and musical scores – reinforces the fact that his creativity has long since defied easy definition. With luck there are more surprises to come. Yes, here’s one celebrity who is definitely worth getting excited about.

David Bowie is
continues at the V&A
until 11 August
for opening times, ticket prices and further

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