By Pete Paphides
He saw the future just that bit sooner than everyone else, and because he did so, he was able to plant himself firmly in the centre of it. For David Bowie, the 60s were the prelude to the main event. The testing ground. Under the auspices of his first manager Kenneth Pitt, he prefigured the rise of pop video by filming a seven-song showcase which infamously featured him enacting his songs through the medium of mime, white face and all. It was easy to laugh, but he really wasn’t so far off the mark, even at this point. Early songs such as We Are The Hungry Men portended themes that Bowie would further explore with Ziggy Stardust – the quasi-messiah who casts himself as the answer to all of society’s ills. “I’m determined to be an entertainer,” he said in 1968. “A lot is said about the musical snobbery with the fans, but I think the groups are just as bad. For some reason even the words entertainer and cabaret make them shudder.” Bowie realised that the pop-cultural revolution would be televised if it was to happen at all. He just needed to find the song that would give him the necessary purchase on the attention of the millions of teenagers, waiting in their front rooms for, well… something, anything but their present suburban torpor.
When his time finally came, the coming of glam was the expedient by which Ziggy’s fin de siecle cabaret finally took Bowie overground. “For the likes of Roxy Music and myself, mascara was merely the conveyance by which great globs of non-rock flotsam and jetsam were to be delivered,” he would later explain. “Japanese kabuki, Dada, Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl, Piaf and futurism and, above all, ‘elegant gloom.’” The young mod. The flower-folk troubadour. The sci-fi space-cadet. The performance artist. The aspiring actor. The camp provocateur. The David Bowie who changed everything at a stroke with his performance of Starman on Top Of The Pops wasn’t an antidote to his previous incarnations. He was the sum total of them. He was the product of meticulous first-hand research. Not a second was wasted: the effeminate draping of an arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulder; the gaze into the camera on the word “you” in the line, “I had to phone someone so I picked on you/Hey, that’s far out so you heard him too!/Switch on the TV/We may pick him up on channel two.”
He had cracked the code and he knew it. In the immediate aftermath of punk, almost every musician in every British band that mattered – Adam Ant, Soft Cell, Duran Duran, The Human League, Spandau Ballet, Japan, Culture Club, Frankie Goes To Hollywood – cited this moment as the wake-up call. Bowie’s unearthly alter-ago landed into 15 million front rooms on the evening of 6 July 1972. Marc Almond, recalled the battle lines drawn by those three minutes: “Next day, all hell broke loose in the playground. Bowie was a queer, and if you liked him, you must be queer too.”
American film director John Cameron Mitchell remembered seeing David Bowie in 1973, aged 10, whilst in a Scottish Benedictine boys boarding school: “Short trousers year-round, no radios or records. [One night], in a rare gesture of goodwill, the monks decided that we were allowed to watch Top Of The Pops on telly… I see David Bowie and he scares the shit out of me. He’s pale and he’s painted, he’s butch and he’s femme, smiles like a reptile and lives on his back, snuck off to the city, loves to be loved, Jean Genie, let yourself [ital] goooo… Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I catch Father John watching me and I blush.”
Successes of that scale usually give rise to a sort of conservatism in their creators. It’s easy to be brave when you have nothing to lose, but when you’re on top of the world, you do everything you can to hold on to what you have. Bowie, however, saw his closest rival Marc Bolan fall into the that trap, repeating the same trick with diminishing returns. By contrast, a visual rollcall of Bowie highlights from 1972 reminds you all over again, just how casually he would jettison one successful incarnation in order to make room for another one. The music press of the early 70s was slow to pick up on The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars (the album received no more critical attention than dozens of other modestly successful releases that came out at the same time) – but then the music press of the 70s and 80s had always been suspicious of artists who appeared to lack authenticity. A New Yorker writer flown to the UK to see the Ziggy shows fretted that “Bowie doesn’t seem quite real,” unwittingly alighting on a central theme of Bowie’s work – the disconnection between the mask and the man.
And what an astonishing series of masks he created for us: the wan simulacrum of soul who had the brilliant audacity to unveil Golden Years on Soul Train; the cadaverous high camp of the Boys Keep Swinging video, which prompted his American label to withhold from releasing it as a single; the post-apocalyptic Pierrot of Ashes To Ashes; the anguished protagonist of Heroes, somehow reminded of his own mortality by his own desperate attempts to deny it; the barbed colonial throwback of Let’s Dance; the subterranean ringmaster of outsider artists on The Heart’s Filthy Lesson. At times, he could even use an arresting image as a Trojan horse in which to smuggle a less-than-great song (Blue Jean).
His passing, of course, is made all the more bitter for the fact that he had just appeared to be getting going again. Three years ago, Where Are We Now heralded another all-too-short-lived golden period of visual innovation. Prior to its arrival on the second Monday of 2013, Where Are We Now? had been the best-kept pop secret of recent memory. It was, perhaps, Bowie’s most unexpected incarnation since Ziggy himself: the disembodied Dame, singing his own psychogeography in cracked, elegiac tones. It all seemed to suggest that, in his absence, he had been doing exactly the same thing that we’d been doing as we pined for his return. – arranging his legacy into some sort of comprehensible order.
More than at any point in his creative life, his final years saw him retreat from public view. There were no interviews. No public appearances. All we had to go on was his music and the films that accompanied it – which means that, now more than ever, it’s impossible to watch those final videos without freighting them with unbearable significance: the prophet, architect and victim of some holy apocalypse singing his own eulogy on Blackstar; and on his final single Lazarus, seemingly the same protagonist surveying the world he has left behind.
To watch that final film now is to watch a mask becoming transparent before your very eyes. More than any other David Bowie video, this is where we see the art, the artist and the person finally converge. He masterminded his arrival into our lives; and over four decades later, here he is masterminding his exit. In between, he both sang about and personified the gift of sound and vision. A gift that keeps giving and giving.