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David Bowie: The darling of the avant garde

Richard Cromelin • Phonograph Record • January 1972


Is this frail-looking young Englishman with the delicate, birdlike features, arresting Capricorn eyes and pageboy waves of sandy blonde hair indeed destined to become the Darling of the Avant-Garde? Will his eye makeup and wardrobe of full-to-semi drag and the kinky campiness of his bearing and his associations with the likes of Andy Warhol, Michael Garrett, Ultra Violet, Lou Reed and Iggy Stooge vault him to that coveted throne?

Or will he settle for simple pop stardom, the recognition that doubtless will accumulate when (and if) he ever harnesses his extensive theatrical experience into the ultimate rock’n’roll spectacle? Or even for critical recognition of his words and music and singing as interesting, or intriguing, and other standard critical words and phrases?

Perhaps, should none of this come to pass (an unlikely circumstance at this point), he will be content to just live out his role of anonymous outrage, a theatrical gadfly in the midst of a ticklish suburbia, continuing (for he certainly couldn't stop) to perform on the stage of his neighbors' front walks – Pierrot in Beckenham.

Never, despite the forbidding fact that he is married and now a father (Angie is the wife; Zowie the wee one), will he go the way of Paul McCartney and become a domestic marshmallow. His unpredictability notwithstanding, there are, after all, limits.

David Bowie makes it hard to tell which of these (if any) will come to pass, continuing his tradition of keeping a rather erratic rein on the course of his career: leaving his first groups because of artistic dissatisfaction; departing entirely from the music scene after his first album to learn mime; later dropping out altogether to study Buddhism; devoting his energies to non-musical projects following the success of his Space Oddity single; failing to receive a performing visa for America after the release last year of The Man Who Sold The World, et al.

Yet through it all, and through all the ups and downs his psyche has ridden, he has managed to come up, fairly regularly in fact, with a product. The reason is simple: Bowie has the gift for translating his states of mind into musical artforms without bogging down in obscurity or self-indulgence.

"I had a depth of understanding on the satirical level that the other kids hadn't achieved at the age of 13."

Born David Jones 25 years ago in London, Bowie's first memorable encounters with the arts were seeing The Defiant Ones (at 11) and reading Kerouac (at 13). Then came music:

"The first person I ever really listened to was Acker Bilk. Acker Bilk was a jazzer, when there was a boom in Trad Jazz; and Acker Bilk led it all. I was playing tenor sax at that time – well, actually I bought a little white ebonite one. Have you seen one of those? I think Coleman Hawkins used to play one...And they're very cheap and they're very good. It was an alto, and I played that.

"And then Little Richard came along. Actually Little Richard didn't come along until after John Coltrane came along. So that was quite a jump (I never really understood Coltrane at that age). And I played in a modern jazz group, and also played in rock bands – intermixtures of anything: rock’n’roll and anything that required a saxophone except dance music. I played extreme music – it was either rock’n’roll or jazz."

Upon his graduation, at 16, from the prestigious Bromley High School for Boys, Bowie plunged into the world of commercial art with a Bond Street advertising firm, only to leave after one disillusioning year: "It was diabolical. I never realized that to be an artist meant buckling under so much."

He had now decided to get into showbiz, and so he continued on with his rock 'n' roll groups (which included David Jones and the Lower Third, later changed to David Bowie and the Buzz) until a combination of ingredients – including his penchant for falling behind or pushing ahead of his mates on rhythm guitar and a mounting dissatisfaction with performing the material of others – convinced him to strike out on his own with nought but his 12-string guitar to keep him company. In due time he was signed, along with Cat Stevens, to launch the new Deram label in 1968. As David says with a rueful laugh, "Cat won."

He also says of Love You Till Tuesday (the English title): "It's a strange little number. I sound like Tony Newley. I sound more like Tony Newley than Newley." While most of the album (Deram DES 18003) has not worn particularly well with the passage of time, there are, here and there, hints of what would soon emerge as a distinctive Bowie sensibility (not to mention the liner notes of one Kenneth Pitt, who enthusiastically marks David's progress as an avant-garde innovator: "Why, he was even photographed in 1964 wearing a military jacket!").

Interspersed with some poppish, over arranged inconsequential songs in which David's voice sounds most uncomfortable are things like: Uncle Arthur, a jaunty Kinks English ditty whose pleasant tune and clever lyrics make it a worthy opening track; the Bonzo-ish Rubber Band, which marches along like Equestrian Soldier and touches on everyone's fear of lonely afternoons; Little Bombadier, about a man who learns to stop fighting and love children, only to be persecuted by those who suspect him of really loving the children; She's Got Medals, the story of Mary, who changes her name to Johnny, joins the army, then deserts after winning her decorations; and the chilling Please Mr. Gravedigger, a quietly obsessed little a capella chant set against the sounds of a rainstorm and scraped dirt, full of dead little girls, golden lockets and murderous intentions.

After Cat hit and David didn't, he temporarily abandoned the musical scene to devote himself entirely to one of his longstanding interests, the study of Tibetan Buddhism. Soon thereafter he was to come upon one of the most important periods of his professional, artistic and personal lives.

"I met a guy called Lindsay Kemp, who was a mime in London. He was holding a one-man show and he played one of the records I'd made during the break as mood music. And so I went to see him backstage. We were kind of pleased to meet each other, and he said would I write some more music for his things, and I said, "If you teach me mime."

"And so he took me on as a pupil, and I started taking ballet and mime, and eventually I got into the company. I eventually started writing the plays with him, which was good. It was even better because I think he must be the leading mime in England, and possibly his reputation has spread to Europe. So it was very good training.

"Lindsay Kemp was a living Pierrot. He lived and talked Pierrot. He was tragic and dramatic and everything in his life – theatrical. And so the stage thing for him was just an extension of himself. There's a lot of material from his private life that would beat any script. But we utilized the figures of Columbine, Pierrot and Scaramouch, what have you – traditional figures. We used some Genet – Lindsay was very fond of Genet – and we used some Oscar Wilde, some Joyce."

In time, Bowie broke off from the Kemp company and formed the Turquoise Mime Theater. The financial situation was difficult, and he found himself in folk clubs, with his 12-string, singing songs from the show to keep the troupe solvent: "But it never held together and eventually I was just on my own with the songs. And I found I was a folksinger. I didn't want to be; I just found it was the way I was making money."

"The first album was written in Beckenham and on the road. The second album was written in London. I think therein lies the difference."

The "first album" is actually his second, Man of Words/Man of Music (Mercury SR 61246). "The difference" was occasioned by the relative placidity of Beckenham, and, consequently, a state of mind that, if not on the brink of Nirvana, was not as yet rented by psychotic upheavals: "I was substantially happy at the time of writing the first album. I had a terrific social conscience and I really wanted to sort things out in the world."

As he attempts to do in Space Oddity (here a different version from his hit English single), wherein astronaut Major Tom (a wonderful name) just can't bring himself to return to earth – "I think my spaceship knows which way to go;" Or in the deliberately naive Memory of a Free Festival, a tender treatment of a time that now seems incredibly remote, wherein the potentially sticky is rendered genuinely touching.

The album's two most ambitious cuts, The Cygnet Committee and Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud, touch, in a manner alternately obscure and graphic, on a theme that still occupies much of his writing: the younger generation as progenitors of a New Man; the hardships that must be borne; the corruption and failings of which such a revolution is subject. Bowie usually outdoes himself when dealing with this subject, giving it an air of timeless, quasi-religious mystery.

It is on this album that Bowie's distinctive musical style begins to assert itself, effectively sustaining the impact of these pieces despite occasional lyrical lapses. He sings forcefully now, and his brittle voice is immediately recognizable, though it has not yet acquired its later anguished metallic edge. His ability to compliment his words with subtle vocal nuances, his gift for writing melodies that are loose and free and yet always to the point, the mood of science fiction dreaminess and his subdued intensity (cf the crisp, jagged litany in Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed) all work strongly to his advantage.

He is bolstered by some big names – Paul Buckmaster providing the string arrangements (which sometimes get pretty lush); two cuts produced by Gus Dudgeon, the rest by Tony Viscount; mellotron and electric harpsichord by Rick Wakeman. A notable album in all, though marred by some love songs, one line from which – "So I've been writing just for you" – concisely describes his inability to bring the listener into the two-way relationships he sketches.

Man of Words/Man of Music appeared in 1969, and its moderate sucess, combined with that of the single, provided Bowie with the opportunity to realize a long-smoldering project:

"I started a thing with a friend of mine called Mary Finnegan, who was one of the chief writers for The International Times in its beginnings. We decided to try and create some kind of interest in the New Culture in suburbia, because we were both living in the same area in Beckenham. And we wanted to know and see how we could fight suburbia, and so we started what was called the Arts Laboratory, on the lines of Jim Haines' Arts Laboratory in Drury Lane.

"The idea was to get a piece of property that could be used as a total environment, and it just became a place for people to meet on their own terms. And it succeeded in the beginning. We had a lot of great interest from all kinds of painters and sculptors, and people turned up who we didn't know existed in Beckenham – tremendous!

"And then it started to deteriorate, because we found that the mass percentage of the people that came just came to be entertained. The participation element was gone – the wave of enthusiasm that the whole thing captured in the beginning. It gradually became just another place to go. In fact the only place to go in Beckenham."

At the same time: "With the popularity of Space Oddity I started getting the wrong kind of gigs. I was getting ballrooms and things – everything that goes with chart success. And the intimacy of some of the performances I had been doing was lost completely."

All of which, in combination with events like his father’s death and the continuing inability of his mother's family to deal with the world, spiraled to a shrieking head that exploded in an album, recorded two years ago in London and released a year later, that turned a lot of heads in the direction of David Bowie – The Man Who Sold The World (Mercury SR 61325).

"I used to have periods, weeks on end, when I just couldn't cope anymore. I'd slump into myself...I felt so depressed, and I really felt so aimless, and this torrential feeling of 'what's it all for anyway?'"

"A lot of it (the album) went through that period, Width of the Circle was definitely that – I went to the depths of myself in that. I tried to analogize the period of my life from when I left school to that time – to the making of that LP. Just for my own benefit, not really for any listener's benefit. I very much doubt whether anyone could decipher that song correctly on my level. But a lot of people have deciphered it on their own levels. That's fine – that's what a song does."

He struck the ground a cavern appeared
And I smelt the burning pit of fear
We crashed a thousand yards below
I said "Do it again, do it again"
(Turn around, go back)
His nebulous body swayed above
His tongue swollen with devil's love
The snake and I, a venom high
(Turn around, go back)
Breathe, breathe, breathe deeply
And I was seething, breathing deeply
A spitting sentry, homed and waiting for you

– from The Width of the Circle

Of what is possibly the album's most impressive cut, Bowie says: "All the Madmen was written for my brother and it's about my brother. He's the man inside, and he doesn't want to leave. He's perfectly happy there – perfectly happy: Doesn't have to work, just lies there on the lawn all day, looking at the sky. He's very happy.

"He comes out occasionally, and we have him at home for a bit. But he gets in the way. He says 'Well, I think I'll go back to – " and he goes back, and we don't see him for a few months. We go every fortnight, we go for the weekend and we take a hamper of sandwiches and apples and things, new shirts and fresh stuff, and take his laundry. And he's always very happy to see us, but he never has anything to say."

Day after Day
They send my friends away
To mansions cold and grey
To the far side of town
Where the thin men stalk the streets
While the sane stay underground...
Don't set me free, I'm as heavy as can be
Just my Librium and me
And my E.S.T. makes three...
Day after day,
They take some brain away
They turn my face around
To the far side of town
And tell me that it's real
Then ask me how I feel
'Cause I'd rather stay here
With all the madmen
Than perish with the sad men
Roaming free
And I'd rather play here
With all the madmen
For I'm quite content
They're all as sane as me.
Zane, Zane, Zane,
Ouvre le chien

– from All The Madmen

In The Man Who Sold The World David Bowie does more than coherently and effectively express the nature of the state of mind that inspired its themes. Through his use of simple, solid rock melodies and clever but basically sound song constructions, by setting his songs in a numbing blast of sheer uncompromising hard-rock intensity, he has provided an energetic alternative to the reactionary troubadour/soft-rock sounds that leave anyone who was teethed on people like Chuck Berry and the old Who and the Kinks et al. a little less than satisfied in the parts of the body where solid rock 'n' roll hits hardest.

Not only is Bowie's outlook expressed with intelligence, humour and emotionally compelling passion, but the support he receives from Mick Ronson on lead guitar and Woody Woodmansey on drums ("Two stout Yorkshiremen who were Jeff Beck fans"), as well as from producer Tony Visconti on bass, is nothing short of incredible: They immediately supercharge things up to a jarring level which they never relinquish, translating into disquietingly, spastically forceful music the emotions Bowie has so graphically painted.

Bowie is certainly not "in command" of his material; he rides along on it like a cowboy on a Brahma bull. But he rarely falters, and his singing, which has now matured into a powerful disturbingly metallic instrument with an anguished, razor-sharp edge that lets it slice with a vengeance through the thick mix, emphatically conveys his inner turmoil.

If as soon after its release as last February Bowie was maintaining that he could no longer relate to the album because he found its energy level uncomfortable, and if he once again felt closer to the first Mercury album, The Man Who Sold the World nonetheless stands as a most impressive achievement.

I'm the twisted name in Garbo's eyes

I'm living proof of Churchill's lies

– from ‘Quicksand’

Last winter David Bowie visited America, and though visa problems prevented him from performing, he did find time to cavort about the country, camp about in the streets and hotels ("A couple of dresses I bought in London...The people seemed to be very offended. I looked very presentable."), write songs, destroy the sensibilities of hip FM jocks in radio interviews and offer the following:

– "I didn't believe it till I came here, till I got off the plane. From England, America merely symbolizes something, it doesn't actually exist. And when you get off the plane and find that there actually is a country called America, it becomes very important then...

"I haven't enjoyed myself so much for years – that must be some indication. I suppose I like it very much. It's a vulgar prostitute, isn't it? America in three or four words. I wrote a little poem about it yesterday: "A bell tolled in San Francisco/And three buses went through a green light"...I just thought up those two lines, out of my own head."

– that his association with Mercury Records was a disheartening experience, itemizing such inefficiencies as miscrediting (e.g. they called George Underwood's painting on Man of Words/Man of Music "Depth (rather than "Width") of the Circle," and changed the title of Mick Weller's cover painting on the next album from "The Metrobolist" to "The Man Who Sold the World," thus alienating Bowie and the artist), not to mention their unforgivable refusal to allow David to appear in his Lauren Bacall drag in a double-spread Unipak.

– that his marriage to Angie (who is, according to reliable sources, as unconventional in her habits as David is in his) and the (then) imminent birth of Zowie (rhymes with Bowie) have served as immensely stabilizing factors.

– that the Velvet Underground, and particularly Lou Reed, are nearly God, and that Iggy and the Stooges are next in line.

All of which have played parts (implicit or explicit) in the formation of his new RCA album Hunky Dory (LSP 4623). Two seconds into the first set it is apparent that the ragged, the schizophrenic and the psychotic have given way to a much mellower, more stable outlook – distinctive, sparkling production, a restrained (but certainly not soft) approach, a clear, unfrantic pace, and delightful integration of some tasteful, near-campy pop devices. It impresses not by its solidity and singleness of purpose, as did its predecessor, but by its ability to shift from one style to another without losing its direction or unity.

There are songs like the marvelously indulgent Kooks, a musical equivalent of flashing snapshots of the kids to friends that contains revealing lines like "Don't pick fights with the bullies or the cads / Cos I'm not much cop at punching other people's dads." And the buoyant Fill Your Heart, a Biff Rose song that is so tough to handle that only Tiny Tim (besides Bowie) has been able to make it work.

There are some disappointments as well: the lack of conviction that surrounds Song for Bob Dylan reflects the fact that it is about what Bowie's friends think of the former Mr. Zimmerman rather than an expression of his own opinion. The Bewlay Brothers, a "confession" piece about himself and a friend and their many transformations of identity, remains too obscure and aloof, never really relating to the listener. Queen Bitch, aside from an amusing Lou Reed style vocal, is forgettable.

But to more than make up for such lapses, he gives us: Changes a joyous blend of words and music that starts and stops and rolls and rocks over an underpinning of controlled intensity; the rapidly escalating, Sinatra-based Life on Mars, and what is possibly his best song to date, Quicksand. Written on the American trip, it opens with his plaintive voice over his supple and sensitively strummed 12-string. As the other instruments join in, with intensities rising and falling, he combines mundane and media-based imagery with cosmic resolutions until his desperation finally finds a way out in the subdued chorus: "Don't believe in yourself/Don't deceive with belief/Knowledge comes with death's release."

The emphasis in Hunky Dory is placed on melodic strength and refined arrangements rather than on rock'n'roll power. Ronson and Woodmansey are back, and Bowie has coaxed them out of their white power-blues bag long enough for them to contribute some very tasty lines (note Ronson's solo in ‘Life on Mars’). The real musical lead, though, is taken by the ever-more-illustrious Rick Wakeman (late of Strawbs, now with Yes), whose keyboard work is strictly sensational. And David finally gets to play saxophone on record.

Since his return to England, David Bowie has been: watching Zowie grow, recording a singer named Rudy Valentino, "who was good," but decided to return to designing clothes; recording Hunky Dory; completing yet another album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which returns to the hard rock sound; rehearsing with his band (Ronson, Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder), catching Alice Cooper's show (he was disappointed, having expected transvestites and instead finding "these very butch guys"); and eagerly anticipating visits from Lou Reed and Iggy Stooge.

He is currently on tour in Europe, tightening things up for a performing tour of the States, which should commence in March. And he says that his head is, at the moment, a lot happier, because "it's emptier."

It's not out of the question that David Bowie could become one of the more important figures of the 70's, not only in rock but in all the related performing arts. First, his gift for and training in the theater could mean that, though he is still vague about the nature of his show, he may be the one to give a much needed shot in the arm to the rapidly expiring art of rock-as-theater.

More important though – even more important than his rapidly diminishing avant garde pretensions – is the possibility that, if he handles it properly, he could brings a significant measure of sexual and artistic liberation to a scene too little concerned with the freedom which its best music so eloquently implies.

This potential is founded in the fact that he is willing, even eager, not only to be known as a sexually aberrant personality, but to brazenly (yet unpretentiously) incorporate that dimension into his image. He may thus expose as blatant nonsense the fleeting curiosity that many of your questionable but desperately cocksure rock 'n' rollers seem to want to perpetuate about themselves, as well as challenging the shameful sexism that is as pervasive in rock as it is in suburbia. Of course he could just as easily be booed off the stage, but at any rate it is bound to be an intriguing confrontation which in itself will be a most welcome relief from the rumbling pile of clichés that rock has recently begun to unleash upon its audiences.

David Bowie was recently asked if he had yet achieved his goal of becoming Darling of the Avant Garde.

"No," he laughed, "I'm not even the Darling of Beckenham."


Bowie Golden Years v2.0 will be launched page by page throughout 2020

Bowie Golden Years v1.0 created and designed by Roger Griffin 2000
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Photographs and texts have been credited wherever possible

this page updated June 30, 2020