A disclaimer: My understanding of what Dion Fortune wrote is slight, as is my knowledge of the occult. I read Psychic Self-Defense because I was intrigued by Bowie mentioning the book and his use of “psychically damaged,” which I previously figured he used because of his antipathy toward psychiatry. Psychic Self-Defense defies summary. If I get things wrong, please comment.
Speculation: Could one of the reasons Bowie cited Psychic Self-Defense as one of two books about the occult that were most important to him during his terrible time in LA, be that it allowed him a different way to think about what was happening in his head? He never denied that his behavior during that period was bizarre, and I expect he probably wondered if what he had long feared had come to pass, that he would have a psychotic break like his half-brother Terry, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, institutionalized for much of his adult life, andcommitted suicide, or one of his three maternal aunts, including one who was lobotomized.
Fortune trained as a psychologist, and a good deal of Psychic Self-Defense addresses mental illness and psychic experiences. The differential diagnosis of a mental illness or psychic attack is complicated because the effects of both are so similar. An unstable person might have delusions of psychic attack, but a psychic attack can cause madness as well. There are ways of dealing with and overcoming psychic attack, according to Dion Fortune. In Bowie’s mother’s family, psychiatry lost the battle with mental illness every time.
“We live,” Fortune writes, “in the midst of invisible forces whose effects alone we perceive [and] invisible forms whose actions we very often do not perceive at all, though we may be profoundly affected by them” (3). Life goes on, the veil between worlds stays in place – until it doesn’t, and we are face to face with the Unseen. It’s not that the Unseen is any more inherently evil than water or fire. It’s when it has been “corrupted and perverted” by “adepts of the Left-hand Path” that problems arise (6).
One of four conditions usually applies when the Unseen makes itself known in a psychically damaging way:
Being in a place where forces are concentrated*
Associating with people who are “handling these forces”*
Seeking out the Unseen and getting in too deeply
Being ill with “certain pathological conditions which rend the veil.” [p. 4]
Any – or possibly all – of these could have contributed to the psychic damage that took Bowie from Beverly Hills to Bel Air to Berlin, and years to repair.
Psychic attacks are preceded by a sense of fear and foreboding, then nervous exhaustion, fear of sleep, and mental breakdown – in other words, the warning signs are much the same as what Bowie experienced. The liminal state between sleep and wakefulness is a time of vulnerability. If Bowie feared sleeping, his wakefulness may not have been a side-effect of the cocaine; it may have been the goal. **
Fortune warns against jumping to the conclusion that these feelings are necessarily the result of an externally sourced attack. When a person first becomes involved in the occult, psychic disturbance is not uncommon since his “consciousness is being disturbed by an unaccustomed force” (102). Another risk is “partial recovery of the memories of past incarnations” (103), especially those having to do with involvement in the occult. The emotions associated with the memory are recovered first, and it can take a long time for the memory itself to emerge.
Although Bowie had been interested in the occult for many years before LA (“Quicksand”), it is possible that all he knew was limited to what he had read. Fortune stresses that it one thing to read about the occult, and another to participate in ritual and ceremonial magic (if he did so).
Bowie’s years of training withLama Chime Rinpoche, beginning in 1965, may have made it easier for him to deal with memories of his past lives. I expect he would have had a better understanding of this than most who get involved in the occult.
When other explanations had been rejected and Fortune was asked to evaluate a probable psychic attack, she considered three possible causes of the disturbance:
“malicious human action”
“non-human interference” (175).
I’m going to leave “malicious human action” for the next post and concentrate instead on “non-human interference.”
A good deal of detective work went into evaluating whether a psychic attack had occurred and if so, what type. When Fortune interviewed a victim, she’d first ask about the place where the attack occurred and check out the neighborhood (Had a prison, asylum or workhouse been there before?). Were any unusual objects in the house, particularly those associated with religious rituals?
Bowie’s house was described as Egyptian in style. Who had owned or lived in it before? Did they practice any ceremonial Egyptian magic? What had caused them to leave the property? Did it contain any Egyptian artifacts?
His collection of occult books would have been of interest as well. Surely among the hundreds of occult books Bowie is said to have carted around there would have been more than a few second-hand ones, and some of these may have been used by sinister magicians (180).
Knowing Bowie had an interest in Buddhism, she would have asked about any Buddha statues he possessed. Fortune had her own encounter with a seemingly benign Buddha that had been excavated in Burma. One evening she spontaneously placed a marigold before him; the next time she passed him, she found herself pursued by “a ball of pale golden light.” Later she learned that these types of statues (“archaic soap-stone statuette, some nine inches high”) had been consecrated with human blood (66).
Fortune also notes that care should be taken with Buddhas from Tibet in case they have been used in Dugpa sect, one that engaged in “some of the worst black magic in the world” (66).
His investigator would want to know too whether Bowie’s symptoms improved when he was away from home. A likely yes. Had he been as tormented in New Mexico as he was in LA, he could not have worked. Then again, he wasn’t using cocaine when on The Man Who Fell to Earth set.
He possibly felt better in New Mexico because, probably by accident, he was doing things that Fortune suggests to alleviate suffering: One is exposure to sunlight, which strengthens the aura (169), and another is to eat regularly (170). Anything that strengthens the body is helpful. Solitude is not. The person under attack is advised to stop all occult studies and return to the “prayers of his childhood” (172).
But whatever progress he had made in New Mexico, when Bowie returned to LA, he came closer than ever to the abyss.
When the attack is in the nature of a haunting, the solution is to get away from the place and leave behind all possessions (185).
The dates are vague, but at some point Bowie left the Beverly Hills house for one in Bel Air. He only lived there a few months before decamping for Berlin. This was his fourth residence in 11 months, not counting time spent in New Mexico.
And yes, I do know about the exorcism of Bowie’s swimming pool, but since the only witness was Angie Bowie, I hesitate to credit it. Some accounts say that white witchWalli Elmlarkexorcised the demon in the pool, but Angie (Backstage Passes) says that David himself conducted the exorcism as she looked on, aided by notes from Elmlark and several hundred dollars worth of occult supplies. She says the experience prompted the move to Bel Air.
*For a sense of the concentration of occult activity in Bowie’s neighborhood, see Christopher Knowles’s The Secret History of Rock N’ Roll or visit his blog and follow the “rock and roll” tags. http://secretsun.blogspot.com/
**When Fortune suspected psychic attack, if the victim had to be drugged to sleep, she sought the assistance of someone who knew how to keep an “occult guard” (169).
At times I’ve found the emphasis on the Ziggy years to be puzzling. Pick up any of the biographies or most of the obituaries, and you’ll see what I mean: the 1970s are covered at much greater length than the whole of 1980 to 2016 (36 years!), and even within these pages, Ziggy gets a disproportionate amount of attention.
There are good reasons for this: the theatricality and myth-making are two. And the risk Bowie took. Had he not been able to pull it off, a silly Ziggy Stardust would’ve been hard to overcome.
I don’t know how to substantiate my next claim, but I’d guess that the strongest feelings for Ziggy (not to be confused with Bowie) are held by English fans born in 1955 or earlier, and that this is largely a matter of geography.
The first concerts for Ziggy and the Spiders were in small venues, taverns and pubs. Then they graduated to university halls, and finally to civic centers and theaters.
From January 29 to September 7, 1972, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars performed 55 times in England and once in Wales. I imagine it would have taken at least two concerts for fans to take in what they were seeing, and then if you were in these early, small audiences, you’d be back as often as you could manage, and you would start to notice those that were doing the same.
From an audience, a congregation would emerge.
Membership in the church of man, love. You didn’t need faith you weren’t alone in your weirdness; you had evidence, and no matter how miserable your work or school week was, there would be another chance to be back with your people.
Or so it could have been in England.
But not in America.
Why? The whole of England is roughly 400 miles at its longest and 300 at its widest, and it has a functional rail system.
Whether by car or rail, it would have been possible to attend dozens of performances. The longest legs, like Manchester to Plymouth (300 miles) or Sunderland to Torquay (380) could be done in a day (and a night) round trip. Most distances were less than 250 miles. Even Aberystwyth, Wales is only 210 miles from London.
Ziggy Stardust played half as many shows — 26 — in the US in 1972. And in so doing, the entourage covered over 15,000 miles by bus, car, or train. (Bowie refused to fly for a few years).* Whoever planned this itinerary had never opened an atlas, had no experience of a road trip from hell, and wasn’t footing the bill.
One stretch of the tour was 1632 miles (Kansas City to Santa Monica); another, Seattle to Phoenix, was 1440, not counting the 800 it took to get from San Francisco to Seattle to play for an audience of 400.**
I’m guessing that other than journalists, very, very few people in the US saw Ziggy Stardust more than once in 1972***. Only those who had a lot of time and a fair amount of money could do what wouldn’t have been a big deal for those in the UK.
No church of man, love in the US, in other words.
Ultimately I suppose it mattered little. The congregants who formed the hard-core fan base in the UK probably numbered only in the thousands.
But wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have been one of these?
What Bowie’s manager Tony Defries did right in the US was to get the journalists and celebs on the East and West Coasts excited about Bowie. Those shows, and perhaps for good will, Cleveland’s would have sufficed. The fan experience wouldn’t have been so different that it would justify the strain on Bowie.****
Whenever I hear people knock down Bowie for his 1980s money-making shows, I think about those 15,000 miles. Supporting an entourage of 42 or so people didn’t fall on the folks who engineered this zigzagging mess, but on Bowie, who ended up having made very little money for the physical and psychological investment demanded by the Defries machine. Once out of this servitude to Defries, he decided to take care of his (and his son’s) financial security.
And then he was able to do what he enjoyed.
*Look at some of these distances: Cleveland to Memphis: 730 miles; back up to NYC 1100; down to Boston: 216; west to Chicago 990; up to Detroit 280; down to St. Louis, 530; then to Kansas City, 280; out to Santa Monica: 1632; up to San Francisco, 380, and then to Seattle, 800*; down to Phoenix, 1414; east to New Orleans: 1550; south to Ft. Lauderdale (Dania), Florida 875, and so on.
**Another site not worth the effort it took to get there: Pirate’s World in Dania, FL. Dania is a small Southern town, when you get right down to it, north of Ft. Lauderdale, or about an hour and a half from Miami. Pirate’s World was an amusement park, so bands were competing with screams from roller coasters, etc. I looked for audience size for this concert, and on twosites, Bowie’s appearance isn’t even listed. These folks came out for Grand Funk Railroad, Iron Butterfly, Alice Cooper. And for this, Bowie traveled 1775 miles from New Orleans to Dania (875 miles) and then back up to Nashville (900 miles).
And why go to Nashville in the first place? It’s the epicenter for country music. And it is in the Bible Belt of the Deep South.
***The few who did, if there were any, probably lived in or near Cleveland, Ohio (3 shows), Santa Monica, San Francisco, or Philadelphia (2 each). Only the Cleveland shows weren’t all on consecutive nights (one at the start of the tour, two toward the end).
****Cleveland, Ohio, had disc jockeys who in 1972 took a break from “Horse with No Name” and “Song Sung Blue” to play a bit of Bowie; they were ready for Ziggy’s landing. And Cleveland is on the way from NYC to California.
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.
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.
Updated: Since I wrote this, I got hold of the Criterion DVD with the extras, including interviews with Production Designer Brian Eatwell and Costume Designer Mary Routh. Additions in green.
Trying without success to figure out how astronaut Capt. Jim Lovell landed in The Man Who Fell to Earth (Hallo Spaceboys), I came across a number of interesting bits. The scenes depicting the home planet of Bowie’s character, Thomas Jerome Newton, and the hours before Newton’s lift-off in the rocket he had built to get home were shot at White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Perhaps Lovell just happened to be visiting the Missile Range or the New Mexico Museum of Space History. This is possible. After all, Lovell isn’t the only one playing himself in the film; novelist Terry Southern is also at the festivities preceding the non-launch of Thomas Jerome Newton’s spacecraft, but Southern was involved in the film world, and was visiting Bowie’s co-star Rip Torn (Dr. Nathan Bryce) during filming in New Mexico.
“All of the cast and crew had to be cleared by the government,” he recalled. “There was even a time when we were filming that the military police showed up and made us stop filming. The range was doing a missile test and I think they remembered that there was a foreign crew on the ground. We had to wait until the missile was up and then it was fine.”
Here’s another picture making the rounds: our favorite visitor, having a look through the camera, on location in White Sands, New Mexico.
The film was shot in July and August, 1975. Temperatures average in the very high 90’s during these months in White Sands.
Newton comes from a planet suffering from severe drought. He and his family wear tight-fitting body stockings criss-crossed with plastic tubing attached to a tank on their backs.
While not all deserts are hot, the Newtons appear to be not just thirsty, but broiling, as Bowie must have been on the set.
So why this costume?
What we sort of have here is one layer of an Earth astronaut’s spacesuit, which would function as a personal air-conditioning system. The NASA version was a lot tidier, of course:
“Lunar crews also wore a three-layer Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment (LCG) or “union suit” with plastic tubing which circulated water to cool the astronaut down, minimizing sweating and fogging of the suit helmet. Water was supplied to the LCG from the PLSS backpack, where the circulating water was chilled by an ice sublimator.”
Mary Routh says she was challenged by Nic Roeg to include in the aliens’ costumes what they valued most — water, and that she had in mind representing the veins of the body through lace when she came up with the circuits of hosing through which ran colored water. The apparatus was fragile, and forever having to be patched and adjusted, she remembers. Co-star Candy Clark added that the body suits themselves were quite thin, nearly transparent, in fact.
It took me a long time to find the next image. What words would you use to search for this thing? It’s a puzzler, isn’t it. Why would a society with the technology to get Newton to Earth with all those patents that made him a billionaire design their transit vehicle to resemble a Teletubbies’ playhouse? And why if their situation alone in that desert was so dire didn’t Newton’s wife and kids hop on? Anywhere had to be better than where they were.
Brian Eatwell remembers wanting the aliens to have a vehicle that didn’t look typically sci-fi shiny metallic. So he built an A-frame over a cart, covered it with a hay mulch mess, and spray-painted it orange. Then when it came time for the thing to move along the rail, the scrapyard engine powering the contraption failed. A man on the set solved the locomotion crisis by bringing in two white horses draft horses. The ropes were edited out, but horsepower is what moves the extraterrestrial train. While Eatwell didn’t mention this, there is a very brief shot of two white horses in a lush green field during the scene when Newton recalls his planet before its drought, and I bet those horses are the same two.
What does this have to do with White Sands? I can only think that it was the presence of rails in the desert that inspired someone to build this thing.
Here’s an example of a stretch of track, now moved to the museum in Alamogordo. Rocket sleds were used to test craft considered too experimental for launch, see how many G forces a man could tolerate, perfect ejection seats, and test missile components. In 2003 a land speed record was set on Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo of Mach 8.5 (6,416 mph / 10,325 km/h).
And poor Tommy, who had trouble with elevators, would complain when his chauffeur exceeded 35 mph.
Be sure to read the comment below regarding the tracks.
David Robert Jones was born within walking distance of the house where William Blake (1757-1827) did much of his greatest work.
London seems a remarkably small town in some ways: so much has happened there in so little space over so many hundreds of years’ time. South of the Thames River, at Hercules Road, London SE1, between 1791 and 1800, William Blake created theSongs of Experience, Europe and America (among other prophetic books), and Newton and Nebuchadnezzar.
The man who would be David Bowie was born about three miles down the road at 40 Stansfield Road, Brixton, London, SW9 9RZ on January 8, 1947.
At age 10, in 1767, Blake started Mr Pars’ drawing school in the Strand and then in 1772 became an apprentice engraver to James Basire of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. At age 11, David Jones went to Bromley Tech to study art, leaving five years later to start work at Hirst Advertising, 98 New Bond Street, London, not far from Lincoln Fields.
There the similarities end.
Blake scrambled for enough cash to maintain himself and wife and buy what he needed for his engravings and paintings, unknown and unappreciated. But likely he came close to satisfying himself, creating his own system of belief, was never “enslav’d by another Man’s,” and preserved his visions in ways which honor both language and image, joining the sound of poetry and the meaning of its words and the sensuality and immediacy of his visual art.
Jones became Bowie and achieved fame and riches. I don’t mean to suggest that he is not a man who has achieved great things. But I think he never got to where he wanted to go. I think he wanted very much to join sound and vision, but it didn’t happen. He could imagine it, using elements of Kabuki or mime, costuming, and so on to add visual interest to the music, but one problem, of course, is that performance is fleeting. My choice, based solely on youtube snippets, of the most visually interesting tour is Sound and Vision. Even on my monitor, the interaction of the giantess Louise Lecavalier and Bowie is impressive.
For recordings, Outside came closest, perhaps, but appeared after the transition from 12″ by 12″ LP format with heavy cardboard opening out to a 24″ by 12″ canvas and capable, even unboxed, of including glossy 8″ x 10″ photographs and a 24″ by 36″ poster (I’m thinking of the Beatles’ White Album) to the shoddy little 5.5″ square CD case with the flimsy little booklets of thin paper. The artwork of Outside is essentially ruined by being so shrunk that even a magnifying glass doesn’t help with the lyrics.
Bowie’s Blakean Mind
Bowie thought in Blakean mode — Blakean in the synathesia sense (like one who hears or smells colors). In 1978, Bowie told Melody Maker‘s Michael Watts about his “peculiar system of notation for the musicians”:
“I draw the music, the shape that it should look like. I have to draw the feeling because I can’t explain it. The musicians who have worked with me have now learned the language.”
“I’d find that if I had some creative obstacle in the music that I was working on, I would often revert to drawing it out or painting it out. Somehow the act of trying to recreate the structure of the music in paint or in drawing would produce a breakthrough. . . .I’ll combine sounds that are kind of unusual, and then I’m not quite sure where the text should fall in the music, or I’m not sure what the sound conjures up for me. So then I’ll go and try and draw or paint the sound of the music. And often a landscape will produce itself. . . . . Suddenly I’ll realize where things go in the music.”
So there we are. Except for one odd little connection.
The Institute of Imagination, Blake House, London
If you search “David Bowie” + “William Blake,” you are going to find an annoying number of hits for Bowie’s description of artist Tracy Emin as “William Blake as a woman, written by Mike Leigh.” Keep going though and you’ll find a most peculiar invitation to join the Institute of the Imagination [IΟI]. Membership is limited to 100 people. The cost is £1ooo to join and then another £1000 each year for dues. Three patrons are listed: Bowie, Prof. Chris Orr RA, and Sir Stephen Tumim.
Tumim was a judge who campaigned vigorously for prison reform. He also oversaw the Arthur Koestler award for prisoners’ art, which he collected. The judge died in 2003.
Chris Orr is a visual artist who attended Ravensbourne College of Design, once the not so grandly named Bromley Technical College, Bowie’s old school. Of his work, Orr says,
“The basic physical nature of the print processes… allows one full control of the output. From the conception of an idea and the making of plates to their refinement through proofing and the printing of the edition, I was fully in control…I identified strongly with William Blake: being married to Catherine, having the press in the house, publishing and distributing the results. My homage to Blake also takes in his capacity as an inventor. In pursuit of my own poetic vision I have discovered, or re-discovered, printing processes such as counter-proofing and relief printing that can serve to liberate creativity.”
The closest connection with Blake is via the IΟI’s founder and director, Tim Heath, who studied math, practiced law, and is now a writer and designer. Heath is also Chairman of the Blake Society and owns the only building still standing where Blake once lived, Blake House, 17 South Molton Street, London — which also happens to be the headquarters for IΟI.
As for surviving Patrons Bowie’s amd Orr’s support of Director Heath’s IΟI, or for that matter the existential status of the IΟI, I haven’t a clue or £2000 to find out. But maybe I’ll send in a membership application, accompanied by an imaginary £2000, just for fun.
You know what else is amusing: Philip Pullman, one of my favorites, is the president of the Blake Society, which sometimes meets in the same digs as does (or did) Bowie’s IΟI. How tidy life sometimes seems.