Filmmaker John Landis who worked with David Bowie on Into the Night, in the mid '80s, once recounted seeing the so-called "Chameleon of Rock 'n' Roll" turn his persona on and off in the streets of New York.
Bowie and the director were having a stroll, and Landis, who recalled this anecdote while speaking at the University of Miami during a double feature of his films a few years ago, said he was surprised no one was recognizing Bowie. He asked the rock star how this could be possible, and Bowie said, it's simple, he could turn the pop star image off and on at will. Landis said that with a subtle shift in posture, Bowie began attracting people who would ask for autographs, and then he could disappear again in plain sight.
You see, David Bowie is not a human being. He has always been an ever-shifting amalgam of persona. To know the man behind Bowie is to know David Robert Jones, a person only really known by his family. Most know Bowie for his orange-haired, jumpsuit-clad rock 'n' roll extraterrestrial messiah Ziggy Stardust or even his starkly-dressed Thin White Duke. And who can forget the David Bowie of the early-80s, dominating MTV with hits like "China Girl" and "Let's Dance," and selling out stadiums as a bleached blond, powder-blue suit-clad pop star?
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There are few, if any, rock 'n' roll artists more deserving of a museum exhibit than David Bowie. When the Victoria and Albert Museum, a London museum dedicated to art and design, unveiled its exhibit "David Bowie Is," it broke records. The exhibit is now finally coming to the U.S. in Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. That will be the only U.S. stop for the exhibit, which includes 300 items, from costumes to storyboards for film ideas by Bowie. But a measly basic ticket will cost you $25 and
you will only have 30 minutes in the exhibit before you are shooed out you have to buy them for a specific time, in 30 minute increments. The museum recommends you plan ahead by buying tickets in advance as they expect sell outs. They also expect visitors to spend an hour and 15 minutes at the exhibit.
To mark it's opening, more than 100 U.S. movie theaters will present David Bowie Is a documentary on the exhibit highlighting some of the pieces and commentary from people like Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker and the designer of many of Ziggy Stardust's outfits, Kansai Yamamoto. Only two theaters in Florida will host the film for it's one-night-only national premiere date, on September 23, and both of them happen to be in Miami: Tower Theater and O Cinema Wynwood.
There's no single rock star who can justify such attention, and it's ironic because he is not a real, flesh and blood person. Bowie is vinyl records, face paint, fabric, technology, all presented in a seductive package to allow for interpretation. "You tell me what it means," Bowie once famously said, "and I'll agree."
But Bowie did not have it all figured it from the start. His sights were set on stardom, but his early years were commercial failures. Anthony Newley, Scott Walker, The Who, folk music, and even mime were all early influences, but real success did not come to Bowie until he went out and created a persona relative of the times and the future in 1972: the bisexual alien rock star Ziggy Stardust.
It all began with Davie Jones (his birth name) the dandy mod rocker of the mid-'60s. He released his first single at 17 years of age, a tight little rocker called "Liza Jane." There's no film footage of Bowie performing this music, and there were many failed singles. He actually made his first television appearance as the founder of The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-haired Men on BBC Tonight.
Then came Bowie's folk phase. In 1968 he briefly formed a folk trio he called Feathers with his girlfriend Hermione Farthingale and best friend John Hutchinson. Though Bowie often took the lead vocals and the others sang back-up, a little song called "Ching-A-Ling" featured Farthingale and Hutchinson trading vocal duties. A rarer version of this song has Bowie singing the opening lyrics.
It was also around then that Bowie got into mime. The David Bowie Is documentary highlights the short film below called "The Mask," giving it a rather prophetic quality. Bowie plays a character who shoplifts a mask with special powers from a secondhand store. With it he can become someone else: someone entertaining. He exploits it for fame until it strangles him on stage.
The height of Bowie's identity gaming of popular culture remains the iconic Ziggy Stardust era. But that also proved a dark period for Bowie, who truly felt lost in becoming this messianic figure. Look to the famous album cover of 1973's Aladdin Sane. The title is a play on the phrase "a lad insane" and the image of the lightning bolt across his face spoke to the idea of split personality. The pain of which is captured by his downward gaze, a large tear resting in his clavicle.
It was high-time for reinvention, and he found it for a while in what was called blue-eyed soul, which marked the beginnings of his Thin White Duke era. During this period, he dropped the mullet, makeup, and flashy outfits for suits and naturally blow-dried hair, albeit in the familiar brilliant orange color of the Ziggy era. His musical style was also tremendously different, and he became the first white performer on "Soul Train" (correction: that was Elton John, a few months earlier).
It would be another harsh turn for fans when Bowie would move into a completely different style of music just a couple of years later: the ambient music of Brian Eno and the motoric rock of German avant-garde Krautrock artists such as Cluster, Neu! and Kraftwerk. Here he is on German television noodling with keyboards in the spirit of such artists. With Ziggy and The Thin White Duke behind him, his image is much more down-to-earth, having done away with coloring his hair or wearing costumes. He wanted the music -- much of it bizarre, electronic and none too accessible -- to speak for itself.
During this European-based era for Bowie, he began to show a witty reflection on his past. There were music videos on the more scandalous side, which included one featuring Bowie dressed in drag to form a chorus in "Boys Keep Swinging." There were also self-referential songs like "Ashes To Ashes," which alluded to Major Tom, the hero of his first hit single, 1969's "Space Oddity," who has turned "a junkie." In the music video, which he helped storyboard, Bowie famously dressed as a pierrot, referencing his mime period.
The Let's Dance album came soon after. With bleached blond hair, suits and no hint of such confrontational ideas beyond heterosexuality, Bowie achieved a fame he had never had before. It was hard to top the success of the 1983 album that made him an MTV star. Though his albums after were largely failed attempts to recapture the lighting of Let's Dance, there was a star turn with muppets in the fantasy movie Labyrinth that turned on a whole new generation of Bowie fans. For the stalwart fans, the fact that he wore a mullet, eye makeup and tight pants as the Goblin King Jareth, proved another sly wink to the past.
Desperate for reinvention, Bowie formed a rock quartet in 1989 called Tin Machine. The '90s grunge scene was a huge influence and Bowie famously said they got the music right but the look was wrong (they wore neatly pressed black suits on their self-titled debut). But Bowie scruffed it up, growing a beard on tour of small clubs and theater where the band played none of Bowie's solo music and covered artists that influenced them like the Pixies. Here Bowie takes backing vocals to allow bassist Tony Sales to sing lead vocals on "Debaser."
When Bowie finally returned to making solo records in 1993, he was a little late to New Jack Swing. The suits worked better there, and it was a sort of new version of blue-eyed soul that did not completely leave behind his flourishes of experimentation like backwards recorded music. But R&B was the predominant style and the title track featured guest vocals by Al B. Sure!
Just a few years later, Bowie composed a soundtrack for a BBC television mini-series, The Buddha of Suburbia, with hardly any other musicians. Some songs were instrumentals that harkened back to Bowie's 1977-Krautrock inspired years. In the liner notes, he named Pink Floyd as an influence. He was more anonymous than ever, making hardly any appearances to promote the album, which included some of his best music in decades.
He also took inspiration from Nine Inch Nails around this time, after noticing one quiet song on the industrial outfit's 1994 album, The Downward Spiral sounded uncannily like a B-side from his 1980 album Scary Monsters. Bowie finally adapted to the grunge look better and co-headlined a tour with NIN. He even hired more contemporary music video directors to help him adapt to the alternative rock scene that embraced him once again. The video below was directed by the guy who shot Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
In the mid-to-late '90s, Bowie had grown quite obsessed with the Internet. In 1996, he was the first major recording artist to release a single via the World Wide Web ("Telling Lies"). In 1999, he made music and contributed to the storyline of an adventure game called Omikron: The Nomad Soul, but more importantly, he allowed his likeness to be used as one of the game's characters. It was the ultimate separation of his persona from his flesh. The music continued to sometimes sound industrial-inspired. Here's one song that was never reworked onto an album, as many songs from the game had for 1999's ...hours).
The beginning of the 2000s was really the era when Bowie seemed most comfortable as a man. He wore ties and suits again and began touring extensively. He even tried playing through a heart attack in Europe. Emergency surgery followed and his output creatively and with appearances dwindled. For almost 10 years he was silent and rumors spread that he was just David Robert Jones living with his wife and young daughter in New York City, the persona of Bowie unceremoniously retired.
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But just last year, he released a new album containing vital music and featuring him in several music videos. The jump in age and circumstance revealed him as mortal after all. The best video to leave you with is "Valentine's Day," which indulgently embraces HD's power to focus on his wrinkles and even the tiny blood vessels in his eyes. Finally, it's the human being that is behind the David Bowie persona.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.