BOWIE GOLDEN YEARS

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Rock's space oddity, David Bowie falls to earth and finds his feet in film

Fred Hauptfuhrer | People | 6 September 1976

 

No role could have suited David Bowie better in his first major movie than that of an inscrutable interplanetary traveler outfitted with human skin, sex organs, Ronald Reagan hair and humanoid pupils to slip in over his horizontal, mismatched feline slits. Bowie's perfect evocation of "The Man Who Fell to Earth" surprised only reviewers unaware of his past. After all, it's a part he's been creating, recreating and refining for the last 11 years through his shifting, ever-improving brand of rock 'n' roll space drama.

If there is a counterpart in pop music for "the perfect crime," the British-born Bowie has committed it. He has emerged as one of the most bizarre and eclectic figures in rock not by simply selling his soul to the image manufacturers of the industry - he's too classily independent for that - but by temporarily leasing it. No other performer of this decade has so cannily perceived and exploited the recurring susceptibility of the media to calculated outrage and extremes of manipulative self-dramatization. Or pulled it off with such creature-from-another planet insouciance. What other earthling would proclaim his imminent retirement any time he felt like it (he's 29) and christen his son Zowie plus publicly profess to be a bisexual himself and married to one?

"I am an actor," he elaborates. "My whole professional life is an act. I slip from one guise to another very easily. One guise plays into another, and the extreme comments force it into another direction." Or alternatively he reflects, fixated on a mirror: "Could that physical look possibly support a sane mind?" In short, Alice Cooper is road company - David Bowie's the real macabre.

One of his best incarnations, back in 1972, was his alter-ego rock star, Ziggy Stardust, who, in his hilariously caricatured androgyny, was instantly crowned the once and neuter king of glitter. Then Bowie unplugged Ziggy and rechristened himself Major Tom on his "Space Oddity" LP and sang of "Sitting in a tin can / far above the world." When Major Tom landed, he toured U.S. cities like Seattle, Detroit and New York, wrote songs about them and, for a 1973 album, renamed himself Aladdin Sane - just for pun (A Lad lnsane - get it?).

By 1974 Bowie was something else. Depicted on the cover of his LP "Diamond Dogs" as grotesque half-man, half-dog, he brought to the U.S. a lurid and elaborate stage show (lighting alone set him back $200,000) dramatizing nothing less than the demise of urban civilization.

Then, "flat broke" from production excesses and "other persons' greed," he uncovered the lucrative core of his present metamorphosis - the commercial disco music that he calls his "plastic soul." Backed by a largely black rhythm-and-blues section, he enjoyed two major U.S. hits, "Fame" and "Young Americans," and his fifth gold LP, "Station to Station." The album cover of "Station" catches the new David Bowie as he appeared on most of this year's tour of the U.S. and Europe - shorn, slicked-back locks, starkly lit in black-and-white tails and sans expensive props.

Professionally and personally, Bowie abhors consistency. Contradictions inflame his every movement and pronouncement. Not long after becoming the first rock bisexual to come out of the closet ("I'm proud that I've never tried to hide that") he declared: "Bisexuality was just a lie. They gave me that image so I stuck to it pretty well." Similarly, Bowie recently announced he'd be "the only alternative for premier in England, and Britain would benefit from a fascist leader." Later he stormed, "Wasn't a word of truth in it. A bunch of reporters asked a lot of ridiculous political questions and I gave them ridiculous answers. IÕm astounded anyone can believe that."

Bowie's contradictions are like Houdini's underwater cages, self-set traps from which he executes miraculous escapes that work as well as the illusions they create. In fact, Bowie itself is a stage name, adopted 11 years ago by David Jones because it was "the ultimate American knife." Bowie, he says, "is the medium for a conglomerate of statements and illusions. I have no confidence in David Jones as a public figure." "The thin white duke" - as depicted in his latest LP - "that's as close to David Jones as Bowie is ever likely to be onstage," says Bowie. "Jones has become a real shell. He's given it all to Bowie."

Vast expanses of space - inner and outer - have always lured Bowie away from more confining realities. When David was a boy, his father, a publicist for Dr. Bernardo's orphanages (among others) near their two-bedroom working-class row house in south London, would take David to visit. "I played with their things, read their books. I had a number of stepbrothers and stepsisters." He suggests that some of them were, as the British say, "mental." "I wanted my freedom quickly and looked for a profession that would let me be eccentric and express all my idiocies." Schoolteachers tried and failed to correct his lefthandedness. "That cemented into me the idea that IÕd have to invent my own world to be fulfilled."

By 13 a gaunt, leggy long-distance runner with deceptive stamina, he owned a leaky plastic sax, played jazz and had discovered painting - and boredom - at school. He left at 16 and worked as an ad designer for six months when told he'd never make it as an artist. Though of Anglican-Catholic-Jewish origin, he contemplated joining a Tibetan Mahayana monastery, then fell under the tutelage of renowned mime Lindsay Kemp, who helped Bowie plumb the realms of illusion and reality. BowieÕs apparent conclusion: they are indistinguishable.

Much of that studied mystery rubs off on wife Angela, his onetime road manager whom he met, supposedly, through a mutual boyfriend. Along with curious sex lives, David and Angela share enormous powers of self-dramatization. "The most amazing thing," says David, "is that we are still together. We should have broken up years ago, but we still love each other, and we love our son, Zowie. I can't imagine life without either of them."

"We are changing, slowing down," says Angela, 26, daughter of a mining engineer, who was born in Cyprus, schooled in Switzerland and kicked out of Connecticut College for "being a lesbian - what did they expect us to do, fool around across the street at the Coast Guard Academy?" She stayed home during his year's tour to fix up their new home in Geneva, and saw David only one week in four. On the road Bowie's most constant companion is majordomo Corinne ("Coco") Schwab, an attractive 30ish French-American who speaks four languages, reminds him to eat, worshipfully shields him from intrusions and shares his hotel suites and the back seat of his chauffeured limousine. But Angela has said she's "not worried that Bo will fall in love with someone else while we're apart. He's incapable of loving anything except his work. I'm his security - anyone else is just a one-night stand."

David and Angela lived in New York for three years but felt confined by the city, loathed L.A. even more, and recently moved to a seven-bedroom manse in the hills above Geneva. "It's my first home," says David. "I was always short on possessions." But, uniquely linear for a rock artist, he has a library of 4,500 books and also paints and experiments in sculpture.

Curiously, David's legal name remains Jones. "Bowie was never meant to be," says David. "He's like a Lego kit. I'm convinced I wouldn't like him, because he's too vacuous and undisciplined." The final word from the conjurer himself: "There is no definitive David Bowie."


1974  1975  1976  1977  1978  1979  1980 

DAVID LIVE  |  YOUNG AMERICANS  |  STATION TO STATION  |  LOW  |  HEROES  |  LODGER  |  SCARY MONSTERS

CRACKED ACTOR  |  THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH  |  JUST A GIGOLO  |  THE ELEPHANT MAN

ARTICLES  |  TV APPEARANCES