How can there be so much confusion about a list of 100 books? The David Bowie Top 100 Books is making the rounds again, this time at BookPeople, who say its source is the New York Public Library, which issued it on January 11, 2016. The NYPL says its source was a 2013 post on the David Bowie Facebook page (gone). Davidbowie.com* now has 100, noting that when the list first appeared in openbookstoronto.com, it was incomplete. If you search for that site, you will find nothing, but the link that begins with “only 75%” takes you to open-book.ca.
The earliest list I can find including 100 books is at open-ca.com, dated September 26, 2013: “David Bowie IS co-curators [Geoffrey] Marsh and Victoria Broackes have released a list of Bowie’s favourite reads.”
Should a list of 100 books include 100 books?
Not at The Guardian and Telegraph. Twice, first on October 1, 2013, and as a reprint in January 2016 (“This article is 3 years old”), the Guardian published a list headlined “David Bowie’s top 100 must-read books” which included only 75 titles and was said to be from the “curators” of the David Bowie Is show at “the Art Gallery of Ontario.”
The Telegraph listed 75 books on April 1, 2016, as if their publication were news: “And thanks to an exhibition of Bowie at the Running at the Art Gallery in Toronto, Ontario, we have a list from co-curator Geoffrey Marsh of Bowie’s 100 favourite books.” This line suggests that the article is part new (includes Bowie’s death) and part old (the show was not in Ontario in April 2016).
So why did the Guardian and Telegraph headline 100 but only list 75 books? In the online editions, space is not a problem, and in a print edition, the headline or subtitle still doesn’t have to refer to 100 when there are just 75. And, yes, they are the same 75, and the reasoning is transparent.
The oldest two books on their lists are Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and Ann Petry’s The Street (1946). The newest is from 2008. Bowie was born in early January 1947 and died in January 2015.
Why the Culture editors at these two publications decided that Bowie’s favorites were only those published in his lifetime is inexplicable.
Were these Bowie’s favourites?
Marsh’s list was compiled for David Bowie Is. Alist of books to place in the exhibit might focus on those published in his lifetime, not because they were Bowie’s favorites, but because they say something about the times in which he lived.
Marsh, in fact, made it clear that while Bowie gave the show’s curators access to his archives, “Bowie would have no involvement at all.”
Let’s look at some of the 25 that didn’t make these major news sites’ lists (for the entire list in chronological order, go to open-book.ca: As I Lay Dying, Blast, Dante’s The Inferno, Homer’s Illiad, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Madame Bovary, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, The 42nd Parallel, The Bridge, The Great Gatsby, The Stranger and The Waste Land.
Pretty amazing exclusions, whether they were Bowie’s favorites — or not.
While I can’t see Bowie looking for books published in each year of his life (or nearly so) it’s possible, probably likely, that Bowie provided some of the titles. For years that Bowie had not mentioned a book, Marsh and the archivist could have searched an archival database for books published between 1945 and 2011.
Most serious readers like Bowie talk in terms of authors, as he has (all Pagel, everything by Ackroyd, and so on); the choices for these authors could be Bowie’s — or not.
As for me, I wouldn’t put my favorites in a box in my archives, unless I had multiple copies (paper, cloth, first, ones I’ve underlined, etc.). I’d keep them with me. I think he might have had multiple copies of his favorites; paperbacks acquired when young and traveling, first editions later.
I hope some day we will know more.
*I believe it first listed 75 until contacted by #BowieBookClub.
Last week I came across Billy Collins’ poem “Embrace” — and I learned the rules* have changed, so I can offer it in totality, which is a good thing because you need it all.
You know the parlor trick. wrap your arms around your own body and from the back it looks like someone is embracing you her hands grasping your shirt her fingernails teasing your neck from the front it is anotherstory you never looked so alone your crossed elbows and screwy grin you could be waiting for a tailor to fit you with a straight jacket one that would hold you really tight.
@Billy Collins. From the collection, The Apple That Astonished Paris: Poems. First published 2006; rptd. 2014 by the University of Arkansas Press
It’s a stunning 12-line poem, and immediately I thought of Bowie, and will likely never again watch Bowie do the “parlor trick” without thinking of “Embrace.”
There’s absolutely no reason as far as I know why Bowie would have inspired any of Billy Collins’ work — the connection is in my head. Collins is an American poet, born 1941 in Manhattan, and was America’s poet laureate for 2001 to 2003. I’d describe him as an imagist, with a small i.
I hunted without success for a portrait by Andrew Kent, the photographer who did the black-and-white studies of the Thin White Duke. Maybe there is a Kent still of the “parlor trick,” or perhaps I was just mingling what we know of Bowie in the TWD era and the last six lines of “Embrace.”
I then asked for help from a particularly welcoming FB group of Bowie devotees (not all are) and got dozens of response, but this one of “Heroes,” from the same broadcast as the Bing Crosby and Bowie duet of the “Little Drummer Boy” is in in tone and choreography perfect. The video starts 15 seconds in.
*Quoting more than a few lines of a poem used to amount to academic or professional suicide. But the Poetry Foundation has concluded that a non-commercial blog may do so, if the poem is accompanied by “critique or commentary.” Many other conditions apply and are listed on page 13 of the guide. If a poet objects, then his or her wishes are to be respected. My reasoning is that since 52 of Collins’ poems are on PoemHunter, and the Foundation and PoemHunter are frequently mentioned in tandem on educational sites, Collins would probably not object.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.