Rock's space oddity, David Bowie falls to Earth
and finds his feet in film
Fred Hauptfuhrer • People • 6 September
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
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 US 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
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 US 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 US 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 US 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. I'm 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 I'd 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. Bowie's 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 LA 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