Why is Ziggy Stardust Labeled Androgynous?

The “androgynous Ziggy Stardust” is so commonplace a description of the leader of the Spiders from Mars that it seems to be indisputably correct.

But repetition of a characterization doesn’t make it right. 

On the covers of The Man Who Sold the World and especially Hunky Dory, Bowie’s appearance is androgynous. With no prior knowledge, at first glance one might think that the person on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World is a female; on second, the figure is obviously a man in a dress. With nothing to go on but the front cover of Hunky Dory, my guess is that many — maybe most — people would maintain, even after a good long look, that they are seeing a woman. “Don’t know if you’re a boy or a girl”: that’s androgyny –at least of the quite literally superficial variety.

In contrast, could anyone seriously believe that Ziggy was a woman?

This Ziggy picture is not Bowie at his loveliest, but consider the Adam’s apple, the chest, the crotch. What is androgynous here? Make-up?

Ziggy wasn’t androgynous at even the basic level of not being obviously male or female.

So what is special about Ziggy?

The same thing that was consistently true of Bowie: his extraordinary sexual magnetism. And this extended to gay guys, straight guys, bisexual guys and women, straight women, gay women, transgender, and the questioning (before such a category was even suggested).

Is there any other man so widely revered by both men and women for his sex appeal and beauty? 

The point of Ziggy was transcendence. Bowie’s earlier androgynous personas were self-limiting because they were not inclusive. On Hunky Dory, Bowie is a man who attains idealized feminine beauty, something few women can achieve, and something that would be counter-productive for a straight male to seek. Androgyny, in other words, depends on accepting that there are feminine and there are masculine traits.

“Oh no love, you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone”  — Rock & Roll Suicide

I know gay males who were born in the 1950s who regard Bowie as their savior. I don’t pretend to be able to even imagine what it would have been like to grow up gay in the sixties and seventies — and then to have heard “Rock & Roll Suicide.”

Maybe Ziggy was gay and maybe he wasn’t. What is clear is that he wasn’t “masculine.”

I also know straight males who found in Bowie an aesthetic perfection that they sought to emulate, in spite of being teased and taunted. It would have been easier for them to dress like their “masculine” peers, to leave off the clear nail polish, etc. but I think that for many of us who grew up knowing we were too young to have been at the forefront of social change, that is, we had missed the sixties, the mass demonstrations were replaced by small scale, even personal, rebellions.

“No matter what or who you’ve been”: In the Bowie-verse there were no losers.

When I was a teen, football players and soldiers were at the apex of a very limited range of acceptable manifestations of the masculine. (I think things are better now. I hope so.)

And aggression and violence, while not inevitable components, seemed always to be brewing just below the surface in these manliest of men.

Bowie’s appeal to straight females discredited the presumption that rough and tough were the aspects all women require in a lover. Whether you call what Bowie’s Ziggy was attempting to do rejecting, refining, or redefining masculinity, it couldn’t have occurred without modifying femininity.  In Ziggy’s universe, not making the cut for the cheerleading team didn’t mean a woman was less feminine than the chosen few; she didn’t have to measure up to the standards of the homecoming queens, there were other kings waiting for her.

In this respect, Ziggy was anti-androgynous. Blurring the feminine and masculine diminishes the range of both.  Ziggy came to smash the stereotypes and expectations, and to see where the pieces fell.

Even Ziggy’s size was a relief to a number of us women. He was small; he seemed safe (and I believe Bowie found brutality as despicable as “Repetition” suggests [this is the one Bowie song I cannot listen to]).

My experience — by no means unique — was that the more Bowie-esque a man is, the more likely he is to have an interesting mind and to be a gentle man.

Make way for the homo superior.

 

Bowie Sighting: Philip Hoare. Public and Personal Bowies

Last January while waiting for Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant, I chanced upon Philip Hoare’s, The Sea Inside, and enjoyed it so much that after Serious Pleasures I returned to Hoare, this time The Whale (UK Leviathan), and hence to Melville’s Moby Dick, a wonderful book to live in for several weeks, when not required reading. I also started keeping an eye out for Hoare’s short pieces in The Guardian and following his Twitter feed (@philipwhale).

Looking for allusions to David Bowie in Hoare became a game with me because if he could work Bowie into a book about whales, then where would one appear next? Now the game feels bittersweet; in the past few weeks so many have written so much.

Already it is tapering off, this deluge of tributes. I suppose tributes — their writing and their reading — are part of grieving, which serves the living, not the dead. I wonder too if there is not some element of magical thinking about them, whether they are like the command not to speak ill of the dead or RIP [rest in piece], means perhaps of insuring that the spirits of the dead are placated, safely sent on their way, no lingering, no haunting.

I find tributes to the living much more compelling, and this, I realize, is what I was looking when I started keeping track of Bowie Sightings, in Hoare and in Matt Haig’s novels.

Such sightings I see as thank-you notes, sent out into public space, with generosity of spirit: to Bowie, and to the future readers.

When authors I respect allude to those from whom they have gained much, I take note (Patti Smith’s highly allusive M Train is a moving, melancholy meditation on memory and mediaries to the mystical. To read what she has: a fantastic voyage).

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”  — E. M. Forster, Howard’s End

Forster, best known for his novels including A Passage to India, was a friend of Stephen Tennant’s, but what I’m interested in here is “only connect.”

By sharing or connecting, the personal becomes public, while still remaining just as personal to Hoare or Smith, undiminished.

Consider (again) the Bowie allusion in The Whale [Leviathan]:

“And I stood looking out to sea, watching transatlantic ships sail by, like Fitzgerald’s boats borne back ceaselessly  into the past, waiting for a future that might never come, like the man who fell to earth.”

Hoare explains this in the notes on the text:

“17 ‘boats borne back ceaselessly’ F.Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Penguin, 1974, 188. Gatsby looming over the water is a reflection of Ishmael at the Battery, whilst Fitzgerald’s closing phrase about ‘that vast obscuity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night’ echoes the final passage in Moby-Dick: ‘then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.'[576] In The Man Who Fell to Earth, (1976), Thomas Jerome Newton also looks out over the water, and the film’s director, Nicholas Roeg, cites Auden’s poem, Musee des Beaux Arts, with its reference to Icarus.”

Several years ago I wrote about similarities I saw between Jimmy Gatz (who the Great Gatsby was before he was Gatsby) because I see Bowie as very much a self-made man. Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby are Americans novels that have very little in common except what matters most: they will endure.

blue light

David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg’s  THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976). Courtesy Photofest.

Here, however, Hoare is responding to resonances of imagery. There is no ocean in The Man Who Fell to Earth, (1976), but there is a pier, and at the end of it is a light. Newton and his girlfriend live across a lake from the scientist who seems Newton’s friend but betrays him, and all collapses for Newton, as it did for Ismael.

When Hoare was asked by Electric Sheep  who he considers his avatar or alter ego, he readily responded:

“Thomas Jerome Newton, the flame-haired, paper-skinned, grounded angel in The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

“Newton crosses zones and cultures, an existential figure, a stranded alien in search of water for his parched planet. The scene in which he stands at the end of a dock was, to me, a direct echo of Jay Gatsby standing at the end of his Long Island dock.”

In David Bowie Is, Hoare remarks that “The Man Who Fell to Earth is such a key point in the Bowie universe because it exists sui generis – it’s completely on its own” or “reduced to the essence of Bowie-dom. . .always being beyond.”

I agree, and if I had only one Bowie item — album, video, film — that I could take to a desert island, it would be The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Magic — that is the only explanation for  the trinitarian creation of Thomas Jerome Newton by Walter Tevis (who wrote the novel), director Nicolas Roeg, and David Jones/David Bowie (and I will add that the actor in those other movies of Bowie’s is more correctly David Jones).

It’s not that Bowie fits the description of Newton in Tevis’s novel; he doesn’t. But Roeg knew when he saw Cracked Actor that only Bowie would do, no matter that he had no previous experience. Interestingly, in his next picture, Walkabout, Roeg would cast David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu, an Australian aboriginal who spoke no English (as well as his own son, Luc) in the lead role, and it seems unimaginable that any other man could replace Gulpilil in the role.

So why did Roeg chose Bowie? He is not human. And he isn’t. He is a projection. When Newton teleports, when he sends messages home by way of music broadcast into space, he is Bowie. When he is the gentlest of gentlemen, private and remote, and one of the most influential people on the planet, he is Bowie.

The way I connected Bowie and Gatsby differs from Hoare’s, and he brings them together via Melville.

In other instances the public persona of Bowie is connected in more obvious ways. Take, for example, Oscar Wilde and Bowie. In Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand, Hoare slips in a reference to Heddon Street, where Bowie is photographed for the Ziggy Stardust cover. Bowie of course had no direct physical connection to Wilde (1854-1900), but Hoare sees Wilde as a proginitor of Bowie — and Bowie as a guide to those who preceded him, including Wilde (connections run multiple ways). “My education came from him [Bowie] as I learned about William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, and Jean Genet. Just like Oscar Wilde, he commodified dissent for the suburbs,”  and in a review of Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity, Hoare notes that author David M Friedman “might have updated his story further. A century later, Andy Warhol installed his fame-making Factory at 33 Union Square. There, a pre-Ziggy Stardust Bowie – who, long-haired, wearing a “man-dress” and draped on a sofa, had reprised Sarony’s languid portraits of Wilde for the cover of his 1970-71 album, The Man Who Sold the World – would call on Warhol and reinvent himself as a result.”

I agree Bowie’s visit to Warhol’s Factory led to his re-invention of himself. When I look at the picture of Bowie in his man-dress, scowling and being paid no attention at Warhol’s, I think Bowie’s epiphany is that a colorful and embracing decadence is what he could offer England, that NYC already had the dark decadence market cornered: consider the Velvet Underground’s songs “Venus in Furs” about S&M and the paean “Heroin.”

I’d also argue that Bowie’s legacy will surpass Burrough’s, Warhol’s. Genet’s and Wilde’s. He was a magpie: Bowie took the shiny bits he found and built himself a magnificent fortress. And he had well over 50 years to do so.

“Live in fragments no longer,” to repeat Forster. Add to this Ezra Pound’s command to poets to “make it new,” Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” and Blake’s “He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.”

There are so many ways begin to talk about Bowie.

Bowie Sighting: Philip Hoare

At the end of my last post, I quoted a passage at the end of Spike Island in which Philip Hoare gives credit to Bowie for delivering Hoare’s generation from the conventions of suburban life. This was the shared Bowie experience.

But there is also a personal one. Hoare’s latest book, The Sea Inside —part natural history/part cultural history/part adventure tale/part travelogue  has nothing to do with David Bowie. It begins with the author returning to his childhood home. His parents are dead and surviving siblings scattered. He has returned from places he never dreamed he’d go and finds that the

“lawn where I lay as a teenager, reading King Lear on a hot midsummer’s afternoon, although I’d rather have been listening to Ziggy Stardust on my cassette recorder, has long been overtaken by meadow grass.”

The passages of his life, rendered in such brief but resonant allusions, are about his own Bowie.

Thousands, quite possibly millions, of words have been written about Bowie since his death was announced on January 12, 2016, and nearly always the attempt to accommodate both the public and personal Bowie is obvious.

Hoare’s elegy for Bowie in the New Statesman, which I expect will be just one of many he will pen, begins by acknowledging this:

“the problem with writing about Bowie is that we are all writing about ourselves. That’s how important he was.”

How can a writer distinguish his own Bowie from everyone’s shared Bowie? Is that the question to ask? Or is it why do so, since the two are so entwined.

Can a conventional biography ever be written about Bowie? Those in which the author has tried to keep himself out of the book, that is, all the biographies published, are unsatisfactory (Pegg’s Complete David Bowie is encyclopedic, the essential reference book through 2011, but it is not a biography).

The factual is superficial when the subject is David Jones/David Bowie.

There is a historical David Jones. David Bowie never existed; he is mythic. We make him in our own images; if he had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.

I’ll discuss Hoare’s essays and interviews about setting Jones/Bowie in a historical context, both personal and public, next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bowie Sighting: Philip Hoare, Part 1

I’m not going to write about my feelings on hearing David Bowie has crossed over; this blog has over the years been an extended thank you to David. I  don’t know if I ever wrote here about one of the worst periods of my life when the only thing that brought me solace was scrolling through Bowie tumblrs for hours and hours, and for a year listening to only Bowie: that pretty much sums things up. My respect for his bravery — see posts “At 27 and 54,” the “(No Longer Crashing in the Same Car”) series, and, perhaps most relevantly, “Wake Up to the Next Day”.

I’ve neglected this blog because of my own liver disease (see any post in havealittletalk.wordpress.com. for the past year).

But now I want to pick up where I left off. and that is with what I call Bowie sightings: when he is alluded to or mentioned in a context where you wouldn’t expect to find him.

And my favorites are in the works of Philip Hoare, a longtime friend to the Pet Shop Boys and a contributor to the roundtable discussion of Bowie’s films in David Bowie Is.

But I started reading him after watching  The Man Who Bought Mustique (2000). I’d come across Stephen Tennant 1906-1987) before as an acquaintance of novelist Anthony Powell and the source for the (barely) fictionalized landlord of V. S. Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival, and I knew there was a huge biography of this man who essentially did nothing, but did it beautifully.

Hoare does not explicitly mention Bowie in Serious Pleasures, but there is a sense that Tennant was a forerunner of Bowie as a persona. He was a beautiful boy  and unabashedly androgynous. In all other meaningful ways, David Jones/Bowie and Stephen Tennant could not be more different. Bowie was a self made man (or men); Tennant, an aristocrat. Bowie had an enormous capacity for work, but Tennant never finished anything, instead writing and rewriting the same book for decades. Hoare did make the link explicit later:

“Indeed, Stephen is a Zelig of 20th-century culture, having appeared as a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novels in the 1920s, in Woolf’s diaries and in his niece Emma Tennant’s novels. He was still being visited by Derek Jarman, David Hockney and Marie Helvin in the 1960s and 1970s. I followed in their footsteps, and met him in 1986. It was a visit that changed my life, since it prompted me to write my first book – an attempt to explain the effect of that memorable day.

“Caroline Blackwood, who knew Stephen when she was married to Lucian Freud, told me that Stephen was the nearest thing to David Bowie that the 1920s produced.”

He [Hoare] adds: “You can see why I liked him.”

And:

“Stephen really had been a Bright Young Thing, and he had looked like David Bowie in 1927, wearing gold dust in his hair and that extraordinary leather coat with the chinchilla fur collar – the alien in Mayfair. And I was Stephen Tennant’s stalker… John Waters would love that.”

I confess to having only read the first 100 pages of Hoare’s biography of Noël Coward (1996). I did read England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia (2005) but did not see any allusions to Bowie.

There’s an oblique one in Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century (it’s a long story, in sum, conservative homophobic war-mongering politicians conspire successfully to reverse social progress). The so-called Cult of the Clitoris met in The Golden Calf, a private club on Heddon Street — where 60 years later, Ziggy landed. See “Going Underground,” an interview following the 1997 publication of the book, in which Hoare reminds us that Lindsay Kemp performed a decadent version of Wilde’s Salome.

I consider Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital (2001) to be Hoare’s break-through book. Like his other books, Spike Island is obviously meticulously researched. But this time Hoare does not hesitate to connect his subject to his own life, and as he does so, he explicitly thanks David Bowie.

Hoare tells us in its opening chapter that he grew up near Netley Hospital in Southampton, the biggest hospital ever built, a place for broken men from the Crimean War through WWII. It’s oddly fascinating (would you pick up a book about a hospital now in ruins?), but befitting its subject, it is dark, despairing, melancholy.

At the book’s end, Hoare tells of about the event that shaped his childhood: the death of his older brother in a motorcycling accident. What kept him going was London, great expectations of a release from his working class background and, while not putting his brother’s death behind him, finding his own way in a world beyond the confinement of grief:

“As I lay in my narrow bed by the window, while Bowie drifted in white space, a sci-fi Dietrich in powder-blue suit and make-up singing ‘Life on Mars,’ I dreamed of UFOs landing in our back garden, scanning the terrifying dark skies in my head for phosphorescent craft set to conquer the world. But the future did not descend from outer space. It arrived by train. . . And in a Somerset field, . . . I watched a middle-aged Thin White Duke. . .as the fires burn in front of him and the stars shine behind until they all go out.” [p. 362]

Hoare’s next books, Leviathan [American title: The Whale] (2011) and The Sea Within (2014) bear witness to Hoare’s gratitude to Bowie primarily in several allusions to The Man Who Fell to Earth. For example, in The Whale (p. 17): ”

“And I stood looking out to sea, watching transtlantic ships sail by like Fitzgerald’s boats borne back ceaselessly into the past. waiting for a future that might never come, like the man who fell to earth,”

an echo, he explains by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby of the closing lines of Melville’s Moby Dick, and which Hoare finds re-imagined by Nicholas Roeg and Bowie (source notes, found on Penguin Books’ website).

But more on Philip Hoare’s gratitude to Bowie and Thomas Jerome Newton next time.

Bowie Sighting: Matt Haig

Novelist Matt Haig has a memoir coming out on March 5, 2015, Reasons to Stay Alive, which has been getting a lot of press.

I don’t know if David Bowie will prove a reason, and I am not being silly. I’ll explain below.

I do know that there is every indication that Haig is a Bowie fan. I’ve only read three of his novels, and The Labrador Pact (The Last Family in England in the UK) was narrated by a dog, but in two of the other books, there were these can’t miss Bowie sightings.

The Radleys is about a family of ancestral and acquired propensity vampires in contemporary Britain who are trying to be abstainers. But it is hard for Dad Peter Radley, who with his brother Will had flown to Berlin in 1977 “to watch Iggy Pop and David Bowie play a joint set at the Autobahn nightclub.” The teenage daughter has watched The Hunger but prefers Lost Boys, although her uncle says the 1931 Dracula is “‘the only one directed by an actual vampire.'”

But it is Jared, a non-vampire, who is the biggest Bowie fan in the book, and one night he is entranced when a favorite video comes on TV:

‘Ashes to Ashes’ by David Bowie. He used to be a massive Bowie fan, back in his day, when he knew how to really feel music. And as he sits there, watching the procession of harlequins walking across the screen, he experiences an obscure, contented feeling, which seems to be related to the rich scent in the air. . . [He] realizes he is lowering his head in the direction of the bottle and the uncorked top from which the delicious aromas are leaking out, like spores of a heavenly pollen.

Haig’s next novel, The Humans, has one allusion to Bowie, but it is a particularly lovely one. An alien who came to Earth on a mission of malevolence toward humans learns several dozen things about the species, including:

David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ tells you nothing about space, but its musical patterns are very pleasing to the ears.

I was having a hard 2011. I was not then looking for reasons to stay alive: I had no choice but to. Someone I love very much had been very badly injured in the several ways people can be, all at once.

Little could be done, and little helped me. But Bowie did.

There were many sleepless pre-dawn hours.  I vacated my life in the only way I could: looking at Tumbl’r after Tumbl’r of Bowie and watching youtube after youtubes of Bowie. One night that fall in a strange city I went to a midnight showing of  the re-release big screen Man Who Fell to Earth, and then I walked for hours in light rain waiting for the hospital’s main entrance to open. All those months I listened to Bowie and only Bowie. I consciously cultivated an obsession and I needed it.

Bowie wasn’t a reason for me to stay alive. But he sure made being alive easier.

He survived — I’d go back and look at those skeletal pictures and I would think — he survived, improvement is possible, it is it is it is, he survived.

And yes, my dear one survived, and is very well in all the ways a human can be. And I survived.

 

On the Late Cat Turbo of the House Where Bowie Doesn’t Live

Once upon a time Bowie owned a house called Mandalay on the island of Mustique, the subject of a scrumptious photo-essay in the September 1992 Architectural Digest. Google Mustique today and you will still find Bowie; the young Prince George vacationed on Mustique last week, where, Hello! says, he can “meet interesting people” maybe at David Bowie’s house.

Bowie sold the house twenty years ago — in 1995 — to Felix Dennis, publishing tycoon, who died last summer. I cannot find who owns Mandalay now.

Last month I watched The Man Who Bought Mustique (2000) about its one-time owner or king or laird, Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner. The IMDB lists Bowie in its cast as appearing in archival footage. I didn’t see him. Colin Tennant bought the island in 1958 but having run through a fortune was forced to sell it to its homeowners’ association in 1987. He repaired to St. Lucia, and this odd little documentary covers his first — and unsatisfactory — visit to Mustique since his departure.

Stephen Tennant photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1927

The Tennant family was quintessentially British eccentric. A 100 years of decadence ended with the 3rd Baron’s death. Stephen Tennant (1906-1987), one of the 1920’s brightest young things and fourth son of the 1st Baron, took to his bed for the last decades of his life after doing very little beside being beautiful. VS Naipaul fans will know him as the landlord suffering from acedia (or sloth) in Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (Naipaul is from Trinidad, an island not far from Mustique. When the UK banned slavery, it imported peasants from India to work its Caribbean plantations.).

I was curious to see if Lord Glenconner’s path and Bowie’s crossed. Probably so, since Colin was still hosting memorable parties in the 1980s, and Duncan Jones recalls school holidays in Mustique.

Duncan (b. 1971) may have run into the Baron’s twin daughters (b. 1970) or third son (b. 1968). The older Tennant boys, both of whom died young, would have been closer to Bowie’s age.

 Lord Glenconner disinherited his heir Charles (1957 – 1996), but the title passed to Charles’s son Cody when Charles, a one-time heroin addict, died from hepatitis C. Henry (1960 – 1990) died of AIDS.

Below is Charles, photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1978. Mapplethorpe met Charles when Lord Glenconner invited him to Mustique to photograph his 50th birthday party for Interview. The photo is owned by The Tate. That same year Charles published one issue of a broadsheet, The Chelsea Scoop, which featured his meeting with Andy Warhol, who called Charles “the most modern person I’ve ever met” (as reported by Charles himself).

Bowie bought the land for Mandalay in 1986 and first vacationed in his new house Christmas 1989. But by then Tennant was gone. And three years after Bowie married Iman in 1992, he sold his house. Perhaps the tone of the island changed when Tennant left; the Baron oozes contempt for the The Mustique Company in the film. Or perhaps Iman found the island’s history too ugly to disregard. The descendants of the slaves who worked Mustique’s sugar plantations are now the island’s “help,” as is obvious in the film. As a side note, when the Baron died in 2010, he left his St. Lucia estate to his servant of 30 years, born and raised in one of Mustique’s shanty towns — and his family challenged the will.

Felix Dennis, who bought Mandalay from Bowie, has a history in some ways reminiscent of Bowie’s: working class Londoner, born in 1947; went to art college while preparing himself for rock stardom but ended up in publishing with an illustrious launch as editor of Oz; recorded a single in 1971 with John Lennon “God Save Us” (which no one has heard of; its purpose was to raise money and awareness when Dennis was jailed on obscenity charges); used narcotics heavily and quit, made a fortune, and in 1995 bought Mandalay, which is where I will stop. You can continue though at the Time Line on felixdennis.com.

Dennis remained a Bowie fan. His company publishes The Week, which featured “Did Bowie bring down the Berlin Wall?” in 2008, and Bowie is a frequent topic on his denofgeek.com. But the relationship seems one-sided. After speculation on a sequel to Labyrinth, a complaint: ” Don’t ask us about David Bowie, because he hasn’t returned our calls in ages. Ziggy, baby, give us a ring.” Perhaps Bowie was not pleased to hear that Mandalay’s gardens were no longer as he left them.

At last, the cat.

Felix Dennis has lots of poems on his website, and one from his collection Island of Dreams, “The King of Mandalay,” is an elegy to a cat named Turbo;

They told me, dear old Turbo, they told me you had died;
‘The king is dead’ is what they said. I very nearly cried. . . .
You bullied little Molly; your ways were rough and rude;
You never wanted petting, — you always wanted food. . . . 
But now the house feels empty and Molly seems to say:
Oh where is my tormentor, Turbo — King of Mandalay?

Dennis’s note reads:

“Turbo was the tomcat at my home, ‘Mandalay’ in Mustique. I inherited him from David Bowie. . . .  Molly is Mandalay’s lap cat, a petite white female. Turbo hated her with an abiding passion and I was forced to throw him in the fish pond once or twice to teach him to mind his manners. It was Tony, our old butler, who christened Turbo ‘The King of Mandalay’, as indeed he was, but I never did find out why he was called Turbo in the first place.”

I can find no cats, neither the tiger striped Turbo nor little puss Molly, in the Architectural Digest spread.

But there is a big fat dog.

Everyone says hi.

Are You Lithuanian?

I’d always assumed that the “Are you Lithuanian” scene in Nicolas Roeg’s film of Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell to Earth was an episode of Roeg-ishness, a dialog equivalent of some of the odd visuals in the film.

And then I read Walter Tevis’s novel. And, yes indeed, Bryce, the chemical engineer, does ask Thomas Jerome Newton just that question. The two men have been drinking through lunch, and Bryce had long wondered about Newton. Bryce

“looked at him again, and Newton smiled gravely. From Mars? He was probably a Lithuanian, or from Massachusetts . . . he peered inquisitively at Newton and said ‘Are you from Lithuania?’

‘No.'”

It’s easy to imagine how excited Roeg must have been when he saw Bowie in Cracked Actor. Except that Tevis’s Newton is 6½ feet tall, the character could have been modeled on mid-70s Bowie. He needed to be very pale and very light, light enough to be carried by a woman. He needed delicate hands and to walk “slowly, his tall body erect, but with a light gracefulness to the movement.” 

Why Newton is on earth is very clear in the novel. Only 400 or so of his life form remain on planet Anthea, the rest dead and the planet dying from a series of nuclear wars. There isn’t fuel remaining to evacuate, so Newton is selected to come in a life-boat type craft, simple and rudimentary, then use the Antheans’ technology to amass a fortune, build a craft, develop a means to conserve fuel, and return and bring the rest of his people to earth. They will be saved, but through their leadership and technological powers, the Antheans will also save humanity from blowing itself up. The novel was first published in 1963 at the height of the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis. (However, a reference to Watergate means Tevis or his executors made some later revisions.)

Nothing Has Changed — Everything Has Changed

1. The biggest difference is that there is a lot of sex in Roeg’s film, and none in Tevis’s book. This meant that Roeg had to change a good deal about Betty Jo/Mary Lou and Nathan Bryce. Betty Jo does not visit Newton during his imprisonment. Bryce and Betty Jo do, however, get together at the end.

Tevis’s Betty Jo and Roeg’s Mary Lou don’t have a lot in common other than their social status and alcoholism. I guess the name change was to make the song “Hello Mary Lou” work with the gun sex scene. Tevis’s Betty Jo is fat and forty. She is more housekeeper than mistress. But she does comfort and truly cares for her Tommy. Tevis’s Bryce is a widower and not a swinger.

2. Tevis’s Newton falls to Earth in a remote region of Kentucky; Roeg’s, New Mexico. Their first encounter with a human is selling gold rings. What the Antheans know of humans is what they have gathered from TV, and they realize they cannot get a clear enough image of currency to forge bills. But they have plenty of gold.

3. In the novel Newton arrives in 1985; the last scene is in 1990, so Tevis was projecting 25 years or so into the future. Political turmoil, both within the US and internationally, is extreme. Within the US, the CIA and FBI are out of control and competitors. (Tevis gets the party in the White House wrong, but it’s clear that both parties are essentially the same.) Roeg’s film is set in the present day, that is, c. 1975.  

4. Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus, which gets a little screen time in the movie, is frequently viewed and discussed in the novel. The first and third sections of the novel are “Icarus Descending” and “Icarus Drowning.” The middle one, “Rumplestiltskin,” an allusion to the fairy tale, doesn’t get a mention in the movie and frankly doesn’t work well in the novel.

5. In the novel, Newton is described removing his nipples and ears and contacts, but he does so alone. He doesn’t out himself to Betty Jo.

6. The music spheres Newton has in the movie are Tevis’s idea.

7. Remember the cat in the New Mexico hotel room and later at Bryce’s and Mary Lou’s? Tevis’s Newton was fond of cats. and he and Betty Jo had several. Tevis’s Newton’s eyes without the disguising contact are described as like a cat’s, as are Roeg’s Newton.

8. In the novel, the x-raying of Newton’s eyes blinds him.

9. The Visitor album Bryce sees on Christmas Eve in a record store in the film is also the means by which Tevis’s Bryce tracks down Newton once the Anthean has abandoned his project. It’s not vinyl in the book, but a little metal sphere like Newton had in his home. The spheres are marketed with big tags taking the place of vinyl covers. The Visitor’s reads “poems from outer space. . . .we guarantee you won’t know the language, but you’ll wish you did! seven out-of-this-world poems by a man we call the ‘visitor’.” Newton tells Bryce it is his farewell letter to his wife and people.

10. In book and movie both, Newton ends up drunk, but in the novel, the fedora falls off as Newton weeps. Tevis’s bartender says, “‘I’m afraid that the fellow needs help.’ ‘Yes,’ Bryce said. ‘Yes, I guess he does.'”

fedora cropped