“He looks like a comet, his flame-like hair slicked back on entry into earth’s atmosphere.”
Philip Hoare, on the fall to earth of alien Thomas Jerome Newton, aka David Bowie. RisingTideFallingStar (130)
After a brief meditation on the fall of Icarus (this book is about risings and fallings and risings of tides and stars, and Icarus, Lazarus, Billy Budd, Ishmael, to name a few), Hoare turns to The Man Who Fell to Earth. Throughout he refers to Bowie as the starman, and Bowie becomes a comet, a piece of a star not yet fallen to earth “forever roaming” (118), often seen as prophesying a sea-change in human affairs, apocalyptic or progressive. Hoare sees Bowie as both “outcast & sensor” (329), a resonant comparison.
The 1618 blue-green comet was taken by the Pilgrims as a sign that it was time to cross the sea to a New World (118). Their appearance is dual: comets with their ball and tails move very quickly, but since they can cover such distances, appear to be slow moving ; their cooling blueish tails may be our source of water (118). Water has disappeared from Newton’s planet and it is this for which he searches. Comet Lovejoy, as seen from International Space Station (NASA).
Hoare’s description of Newton’s hair being like a comet makes so much sense to me. It is — and isn’t — human colored. In the novel by Walter Tevis, Newton is finally busted because his $20 bills aren’t quite right. His planet’s reception of Earth’s transmissions was very, very good — but not quite good enough to see exactly the whorls on the US currency. Similarly, Nicolas Roeg’s/Bowie’s Newton almost passes as human, but in the first minutes of the film, as soon as his hood falls down, it is clear something is different about this guy.
“A sun grazing comet as witnessed by the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, as it dived toward the sun on July 5 and July 6, 2011. SOHO is the overwhelming leader in spotting sungrazers, with almost 3000 spotted to date. SOHO can see the faint light of a comet, because the much brighter light of the sun is blocked by what’s known as a coronograph.” Credits: ESA&NASA/SOHO
Bowie is also extra terrestrial in an uncommon sense; terrestrial to the extreme as a shape-shifter within his own species’ anatomy, which is not enough to accommodate his imagination. Hoare reminds us of the changes preceding Man Who Fell: Bowie as “half-canine, half-human, a dog star…with a feral yelp” — a Diamond Dog (132).
Hoare notes too that on the stack of televisions Newton watches, trying to make sense of Earth and its life forms, is a snippet from John Huston’s film of Melville’s Billy Budd of the beautiful sailor “golden Adonis or dark star” (338) who is hoisted up to be hanged, and then his dead body is buried at sea, falling to the depths.
Hoare then brilliantly links Man Who Fell’s use of whale songs when Newton and his wife are together in a “fluid cybersexual space” (132) continuing on to illustrate the similarities in covers for Songs of the Humpback Whale and the album 2001: A Space Odyssey, the story of astronaut David Bowman (134).
And whale songs, Hoare reminds us, are among the sounds sent on the golden discs in Voyager Explorer, launched in 1977 to tell another world’s people who Earthlings are, as are “Blakean images [of] a naked man and woman and transect lines indicating Homo sapiens’ place in the solar system [that] appear on the Black Star[sic] album” (note for page 134).
“Outside is set at the end of the millennium. What are your thoughts about what’s in store?” Bowie: “‘I’m very positive about it. …What Brian and I are trying to do is develop a series of albums that trace the last five years of the ‘90s. This is the first in this series or cycle of albums.’ [As it turned out, Outside was Bowie and Eno’s last recording together.]”
What, I wondered on first reading, is Admiral Nelson doing in a book featuring so many poets that returns again and again to Bowie?
It’s the frock coats, the frock coats with “pleated skirts [that] swung as Nelson walked. . .and gold-lace cuffs” (327). It’s also the stockings, and the emphasis in portraits on the Admiral’s “balanced” “stance,” more like a “dancer than a fighter” (323). Much of ruling is looking the part. It’s as theatrical and improbable as Bowie.
As the curators explain the fascinating construction of these amphibious woolen maritime frock coats, Hoare muses on how it would feel to be so protected, much as he earlier considered what it would be like to assume the body of a dolphin washed ashore in Provincetown: “I imagine her as a human in a dolphin wetsuit. I think of her bones, lighter than mine since they did not have to bear the full weight of gravity” (61), and the claims of the poet Oppian (AD 180) that killing dolphins is immoral because they were humans who returned to the sea, and “the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thought and human deeds” (60). If, Hoare imagines, he could slip on Nelson’s coat, and “feel the skirts sway and bounce like a kilt,” he could “be a hero, just for a minute or two” (328).
In fact, Nelson was not a handsome sailor but a small admiral who had lost an arm in battle and was blinded in one eye, above which was a scar,“as if he’d been ripped by lighting, a zig-zag rip” (324). His scar remindsme of the one on Pierrot in Ashes to Ashes, and during the production of David Bowie Is, the curators took Hoare to see the costume up close, which is described both in this book and a passage from a profile of Hoare inThe Guardian:
“There lay a cross between a plywood cradle and a semi-circular, space-age coffin. Like the casket of a mummy. In there was the Pierrot costume for the “Ashes to Ashes” video. It was made of buckram and silver fabric and sequins, but it was stiff and looked like the chrysalis of an insect which had vacated it. It was in the shape of David Bowie, as if he’d been teleported out of this world and left this reliquary we were worshipping. I reached out but I couldn’t touch it. It would have been too much. It would have broken the spell.”
As Hoare leaves the Nelson vaults, he notices a sequin had fallen from the coat, “a bit of stardust,” and dutifully returns it to the curator.
But what do these coats have to do with Bowie? RisingTideFallingStar covers the past five hundred years. It is, on one level, about the rise of Empire, the allure of the New World, the migrations of peoples, exploration, cruelty and destruction, and making it new.
It begins with Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a shipwreck halfway to the New World on Prospero’s island, likely Bermuda. Bowie spent a lot of time there is the late 1990s after selling his place on Mustique. He was poised then between Old and New Worlds, becoming, finally a New World New Yorker. He, like Hoare, was a child of a near-dead Empire, and when I look at Bowie’s wardrobe for Outside and Earthling, the End of Empire (millennium, century, and decade) comes to mind.
There is, of course, the slashed Union Jack coat for Earthling designed by Alexander McQueen, and some of Earthling’s titles allude to WWII, e.g. “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” and “Seven Years in Tibet,” but the coat itself is the most eloquent statement.
I’ve long been fascinated by the frock coat Bowie wore on the Outside tour. Why cobwebs? But when Hoare mentions Nelson’s coat that the admiral “wore at the Battle of the Nile… now sadly injured by moths” (317), my thinking changed. It’s described as “a dark, wool frock coat veiled with torn embroidered tulle, and a pair of high-waist, full dark trousers dribbled and smudged with paint.”
Torn embroidered tulle and lacy ruffled cuffs, deliberately distressed or delicate: this is the end of the Empire.
I was flipping throughJean Cocteau by Patrick Mauries recently and came across this photo of the character Death in his film, Orphée, based on the myth of Orpheus, a poet so in love with Death he follows her into the underworld.
Here we have Death (María Casarès) [photo by Roger Corbeau/Ministère de la Culture/AFDPP].
I was reminded of Thomas Jerome Newton in his homeland costume, and applied a black and white filter:
Not exact by any means, and I don’t know whether Nic Roeg or Bowie had any ideas about Newton’s alien garb. Costume designer May Routh says she wanted the water tubes but conceived them as more like lace; the special effects team interpreted the design differently, making the tubing more substantial.
We know that Bowie was interested in Cocteau’s surrealistic imagery. Heroes‘s “Beauty and the Beast” is a nod to the Cocteau film La Belle et la Bête, starring Jean Marais, who also played the lead role in Orphée.
Cocteau and Marais were lovers; Cocteausaid of his young man:
“It does not depend only on sensual grace. It flows from the child still at the heart of the mature man. That is the true source of the expressive beauty of his eye, of the way he looks at you, imposes his physical presence.”
Cocteau could as well be describing Bowie.
Cocteau was a sensualist, a painter of murals for churches, and fascinated by angels, who typically were modelled as beautiful boys, like this one, the Angel of the Annunciation at Notre Dame de France in London, England, photographed by Victoria Emily Jones. See her essay and photographic tour of Notre Dame de France in London, England by clicking the link.
It goes beyond angels, however. One minute into the video, Bowie rises quickly from his bed, in much the same way that the poet’s wife is commanded to rise from hers at the minute mark in this snippet from Cocteau’s Orphée.
When Bowie rubs his hand across the painting, his skin takes on a grotesque appearance as if his face is now a painted facade disturbed. Now, in another film of Cocteau’s, La sang d’un Poète (The Blood of the Poet), a sculptor has a similar fright. First he does some sketches, but the mouth starts to move. He tries to rub it out, but it transfers itself to his hand. He tries to rid himself of it by pressing it to the mouth of a statue (movie stills).
The statue entices him to break through a mirror to a different dimension and gives him a gun to kill himself. Instead he returns to his reality, and smashes the sculpture.
Smashing through mirrors is common to several Cocteau’s films. Go back to the Orphée snip and view the last frames.
Tormented Bowie places his angel painting in front of a mirror so he will not have to see what has become of his face, but can’t resist studying his new ugliness. He doesn’t manage to break his mirror or spell and ends up crawling under his bed, instead.
When the artist of Blood of a Poet is on the other side of the mirror, he encounters some strange scenes (movie stills , like this one, featuring a transvestite, Barbette, who Cocteau later wrote about:
That oppish bullseye and strange haired figure is vaguely reminiscent of the set and weird woman of “Strangers When We Meet.”
Here’s another image from Orphée. Flanked by two biker angels, the Poet and Death stroll through the Underworld:
Could this have been an inspiration for the Village of Ormen of “Blackstar”?
Finally there is one more odd Cocteauian echo for today:the similarity to this photograph of Jean Marais dressed by Chanel for Cocteau’s Oedipe Roi:
Last January while waiting forSerious 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 Guardianand 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.' 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 yearsago 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.
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 byElectric 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 ofWilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity,Hoarenotes 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’s a great scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth when Mary Lou [Candy Clark] takes Thomas Jerome Newton [Bowie] to church with her down in Artesia, NM. The pastor announces that a song sheet for a special hymn is in the pews which the congregation will sing in honor of their special guest who has come all the way from England. Mary Lou beams, and Tommy, the alien — but not the Englishman — squirms. He should know “Jerusalem,” William Blake’s words set to music by William Parry, but he doesn’t. And when he tries to sing, well, no, it is best he tries just the tiniest bit.
At the turn of the 19th century, “dark Satanic mills” were already part of the English scene, but an idealized vision of a pastoral England lingers. And through the 1970s, this persisted even in rock and roll lyrics by guys who had grown up in some of the least pastoral spots on the island, Liverpool, for example, or post-war London. Consider:
“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed ma’am/It’s just the sprinkling of the May Queen”
“Jennifer Juniper, rides a dappled mare,
Jennifer Juniper, lilacs in her hair.”
“Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun. . .”
“In the sunshine of your love. . .”
“Out here in the fields/I farm for my meals/I get my back into my living.”
You would never mistake any of these lines for a Bowie lyric.
Bowie doesn’t do the pastoral thing. He doesn’t compare girls to rainbows and he isn’t lamenting the loss of days at Strawberry Fields.
In his earliest days he tried it on. In “Memory of a Free Festival,” “The children of the summer’s end/Gathered in the dampened grass,” but it just didn’t fit.
Away with the wavy locks and on with the paint and spandax.
He never did look quite right in blue jeans. Charcoal jeans, yes. He could wear anything that stretched, tailored suits, socks with sandals, Alexander McQueen — but never blue jeans, especially not bell bottoms. And when he tried to look outdoorsy, Bowie looked like a demented Von Trapp brat, kept hidden in the cellar, a problem not even Maria could solve.
The animal world is different for Bowie than for his immediate predecessors. No “Sheepdog, standing in the rain/Bullfrog, doing it again” no “swans that they live in the park,” not even any wild horses.
Instead, there’s a “pink monkey bird,” “tigers on vaseline,” diamond dogs, and if you insist on real beasts, you get “Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats.” There’s one exception that comes to mind, and trust Bowie to do the best animal image in English rock and roll: the dolphin of “Heroes.” (I have to qualify that so I can exclude Patti Smith’s “Horses.”)
The natural world is best viewed from a distance: “Here am I, flashing no colour/Tall in this room overlooking the ocean”; but much has been lost: “Once there were mountains on mountains/And once there were sunbirds to soar with.” Far more to Bowie’s taste is the perfect interior [internal?] environment:
Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live
Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say
Oh yes, there is the album Outside, which has not a thing to do with the great outdoors, and its song “A Small Plot of Land” about the one who “swings through tunnels,” clawing his way. This album’s world is about as far from Blake’s “Jerusalem” as you can get.
But then again, Bowie is not just a post-pastoral Englishman, he is the reluctant Earthling, the post-terrestrial man.
I’ve written before about Bowie’s train trips. Would he not have seen a great deal of loveliness crossing the USA in the mid-1970s, the years he refused to fly?
Only if he had been awake during the day. But nights are his. And from the observation car of the Super Chief, what Bowie would have seen were stars. Stars and stars and more stars. From Chicago to LA there is a whole lot of nothing — no towns, no lights — just stars.
That’s where Bowie’s imagination is grounded: in the heavens, or emptiness of space, infinity, where none has gone and from where we came.
It’s one of the great constants in his work. Shall I count the stars?
The stars are out tonight. Moondust will cover you.
Nothing seems quite as inanimate as an animaton who will never again be animated. Such is the fate of Hoggle, the mischievious imp of Labyrinth, fated to stay encased in Scottsboro, Alabama.
The Hoggle was lost and forgotten, never reaching his destination, on a flight from who knows where.
He turned up, the worst for wear, in Scottsboro, AL, when an old crate was pried open at the Unclaimed Baggage Center. A puppet surgeon was called to assess the case, and the rotting Hoggle was restored by Gary Sowatzka of Sowatzka’s Dolls.
The store is like a peculiar thrift store: all its merchandise is what its name says — lost baggage that was never claimed. Most is from the airlines and most from individuals. There’s a lot of what you might expect: hats, lightweight jackets, small electronics, souvenirs, and then again a lot of what you’d think someone wouldn’t leave behind by mistake or would surely be unique enough to be reunited with its owner: wedding dresses and snow skis, for example.
Unclaimed Baggage buys by the crate load (think the reality show “Storage Wars”) and then sets about getting what it has bought sight unseen in shape to sell.
Unlike most things that land at Unclaimed Baggage, Hoggle was not put up for sale. He is the showpiece of Unclaimed Baggage’s two-case museum in the foyer to the store.*
If you’ve heard of Scotsboro, AL, it is probably as the site of one of the most widely publicized cases of injustice in the segregated South — the arrests, trials, and near-lynching of the Scottsboro boys.
Other than to pay homage to Hoggle, there is no reason to head to Scottsboro, but if you are determined, here’s a little 2-day tour you could take that would include three other spots with at least some tiny connection to Bowie.
You could begin in Memphis and visit Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home. Presley and Bowie share the same birthday, January 8, and Bowie is said to have offered “Golden Years” to Presley, who rejected it.
From there take US 72 east to Huntsville, AL, and visit the US Space & Rocket Center. You can go looking for satellites and see a Gemini spacecraft, Astronaut Jim Lovell memorabilia (he had a cameo in The Man Who Fell to Earth), and moondust.
Downtown Huntsville offers this for contemplation: The Werner Von Braun Civic Center. No kidding. The city is still all gaga for the man who built the V2 rockets that reduced so much of Bowie’s hometown to rubble.
Resume US 72 East and drive 45 minutes into Scottsboro and follow the signs to Unclaimed Baggage.
After you pay tribute to the goblin, get back on 72 and go east til you hit US 24. Take that into Nashville, then go west on 40 and follow the signs to Vanderbilt University.
Take West End Avenue to 21st Ave S and stumble around until you run into Furman Hall. That’s where the Department of Philosophy is housed. You have now seen a building in which Duncan Jones once studied before ditching his doctorate.
What an inspiring road trip!
*Photos of Unclaimed Baggage and caps courtesy of The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.