The Thin White Duke Laid to Rest and Psychic National Defense

Nothing about the Thin White Duke, the last of Bowie’s characters or personas, makes sense.

There’s no story line to him, as there is with Ziggy, just the one song, “Station to Station.” And what an odd song it is: There seems to be a narrator in the first two lines (“The return of the Thin White Duke/Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”). In lines 3-9, the TWD begins by addressing a listener (“Here are we”), but by line 6, he is alone again (“Here am I”), then in line 8, it’s “we” again, and in line 9, “you” enters, and then after the reiteration of the narrator’s lines, it’s “I” and “you” again.

It’s as if Bowie couldn’t control the TWD, even here, in his one song.

There were just too many perspectives to juggle. And this I think is how things were for Bowie in 1975. There was still a David Jones in there somewhere, who was presenting himself as David Bowie, and playing Thomas Jerome Newton, and trying to create a new persona so he could face the world post-LA.

Bowie seems to have been hell-bent on self-destruction during this period. As part of this perverse project, he creates a persona fashioned to repulse.

Not that there is anything in the TWD’s one song that is repellant. The TWD persona emerged in style and interviews.

Bowie had met Christopher Isherwood, an English writer who was attracted to Berlin because in the 1930s it was a place he could safely enjoy with his lover, poet W. H. Auden. He evacuated himself as the Nazis gained power. Had Bowie lived in Germany when transportation to the death camps began, he could have been sent to a concentration camp for any of at least three reasons: bisexuality, miscegenation, and familial history of mental illness.

Isherwood’s Berlin Stories provided the inspiration for Cabaret, which may in turn have inspired Bowie to end Station to Station with “Wild is the Wind,” a song that his friend Nina Simone performed with great feeling. (Nina Simone was foremost a singer, but she was also a black activist. Bowie befriended her during a slump in both their lives, and although Simone died in 2003, her website is still updated. When Bowie died, someone took the trouble to say that  Simone considered him to be “a close and trusted friend and ally.”

Bowie’s black and white suit and the stark staging of the Station to Station tour were perhaps intended to recapture the look of Berlin in 1930s newsreels, a black-and-white world.

The TWD is not a starman; he is a time traveler. If the TWD had been a connoisseur of decadent Berlin nightlife, he would have been fine. But to be a very “Aryan” looking guy in 1930s Berlin was a dangerous look. And because the TWD wasn’t in the music, Bowie started talking. I think it is clear that the outlandish things Bowie said were the persona talking. When you read these words: “I think that morals should be straightened (emphasis added) up for a start. They’re disgusting,” you know Bowie isn’t doing the talking. We don’t believe that when Ziggy sang “Five Years” that Bowie believed we had five years left to live, do we?

Another hint: From the Cameron Crowe 1976 Playboy interview: “Last question. Do you believe and stand by everything you’ve said? BOWIE: Everything but the inflammatory remarks.” 

The most thorough examination of the TWD’s views I’ve found is by Arad Alper, “Taking It All the Right Way: Was David Bowie a Fascist?”  I was so glad to find this because I had been putting off writing this post because everything about Bowie – actions and words -prior to and after the TWD repudiates what he said in the interviews.

By 1980, when Bowie – not the TWD – talked to NME, I think he was genuine here:

“I was in the depths of mythology. I had found King Arthur. It was not as you probably know because… I mean, this whole racist thing which came up, quite inevitably and rightly, but – and I know this sounds terribly naive – but none of that had actually occurred to me, inasmuch as I’d been working and still do work with black musicians for the past six or seven years. And we’d all talk about it together – about the Arthurian period, about the magical side of the whole Nazi campaign, and about the mythology involved.”

The Nazi mythology was fantastical, involving as it did Atlantis, hollow earth, grails and arks and holy spears, round tables, bizarre archaeology, expeditions to Tibet, and Hitler’s persuasive powers a result of his being an accomplished wizard. And of course Alistair Crowley’s name pops up, sometimes as a British agent; others, a double agent.

Nazi occultism has been a source for all manner of entertainments, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to appearances of occult-obsessed Nazis in superhero comic books,  villains in video games, not to mention sensationalist histories. Not surprising then that during his isolated existence in LA that Bowie would have indulged his imaginings of “Himmler’s sacred realm/Of dream reality.”

Battle of [for] Britain/The Letter[s]

One more speculation before we leave the TWD and Dion Fortune.

Fortune loved Glastonbury and describes its spiritual power in Avalon of the Heart. She would have tolerated no Nazi nonsense about the Holy Grail. It’s in Glastonbury, and that is where it belongs.  It’s a pity that Bowie didn’t put down Psychic Self-Defense and read Avalon of the Heart. Then again, he might not have recognized Violet Firth, its author, as the real name of Dion Fortune. (The book is now available with Fortune as the author. There may have been a 1971 issue with Dion Fortune as author.)

Not all the occult activity in WWII was in Germany. Occultists were active in Britain as well, but they were true to the tenets of occultism, working below the radar as it were. Doreen Valiente, the mother of modern witchcraft in England, was one of the Bletchley Park codebreakers. Although there is no suggestion that she used magic to break codes, it’s an intriguing idea. I don’t know when the Bletchley codebreakers were first mentioned by name in the press.

During WWII, Fortune encouraged occultists throughout Britain to launch a psychic defense against the enemy, asking them to unite and use their magical forces to repel an invasion. Each week she would send instructions for a meditation to be performed as a certain time by magicians throughout Britain with the aim of establishing a psychic barrier to a physical invasion by the Nazis.  The name of the book that tells of these efforts: The Magical Battle of Britain: The War Letters of Dion Fortune. You can read a fairly large chunk of it on Google Books.

Fortune clearly took the occultism of the Nazis very seriously indeed and considered WWII a fight between good magic and evil magic.

Bowie wouldn’t have known of this in the 1970s. The Magical Battle of Britain was first published in 1993.

The lyrics don’t seem relevant, but I wonder if the song title “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” on Earthling was a little nod to Fortune.

And as it happened, the Nazis never did set foot on the mainland of the British Isles.

Good prevailed.

Psychic First Aid

When Dion Fortune reaches the last division of her book Psychic Self-Defense, she admits that all she can offer the layman are simple means of coping with the attack, “a manual of first aid rather than a treatise on treatment.” Far better is to come under the care of someone with “specially trained faculties and specially developed powers” (183), an exorcist, in other words.  Three tasks are essential: repairing the aura, clearing the atmosphere, and breaking contacts.

We don’t know whether Bowie took any of this to heart, but Fortune stresses that even the most mundane activity can be made restorative if approached mindfully. Simple bathing is an example; better still is bathing with salt and water, for which Fortune provides a blessing.

Fortune describes two categories of “practical psychic work” (193). One is meditating on what is good; the other, which she favors, is “invocative” – prayer. 

She describes the means of making a banishing circle: face east, make the Qabalistic cross (very similar to the Sign of the Cross), imagine holding a sword (the Sword of Power) aloft, and then draw the circle with the tip of the Sword of Power while imagining that from the tip flames ignite– visualized within the confines of imagination, fortunately (197).

Bowie is said to have drawn pentagrams for protection during his LA days and nights.

Fortune describes the correct way to make a pentagram with one’s arms to protect the body.

Other choreographies are effective for sealing one’s aura. In the presence of people who sap your energy? Make a “closed circuit” of your body by interlacing fingers, placing them against your solar plexus, elbows pressed to body, and feet touching (201). 

The choreography for the line “from Kether to Malkuth” in “Station to Station” is well known. It would be interesting to look at Bowie’s other choreographies to see if any could have been inspired by Fortune. 

Angelic Assists

“‘Word On A Wing’ I can’t talk about. There were days of such psychological terror when making the Roeg film that I nearly started to approach my reborn, born again thing.

It was the first time I’d really seriously thought about Christ and God in any depth and ‘Word On A Wing’ was a protection.” Bowie, NME

Finally, Fortune is an advocate of Guardian or “Bright Angels:

“in times of spiritual crisis, when the very soul is being swept away, then it is that the cry of the soul is heard, and Something manifests out of the mists of the Unseen, manifests itself in a form that is comprehensible to the one who calls.” (213)

The cry of a soul being swept away is what Bowie expressed in “Word on a Wing.”

It would take Bowie a year or so to even begin to attain psychic peace.

Along the way, he — or at least, the Thin White Duke — partook of what Fortune calls the “worst faults of occultism”: “credulity, a slipshod scholarship that verges on illiteracy, and a widespread sappiness of intellect” (224) .

The Cabbalah and Magic, Malicious Magic, and Magical Mishaps

Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense (1930) is a book she would have preferred not to write. She acknowledges that to describe means of defending against psychic attacks requires divulging information about how psychic attacks are made, but she believed too that psychic attacks went unrecognized and were more common than one might expect, and so it was time for someone to discuss the problem with authority and clarity.

Fortune counted herself among those who use the occult to achieve “mystical experiences and [as] a means of lifting the burden of human suffering” (xxvii). As such, she thinks it critical that “men of goodwill should investigate the forces which men of evil will have perverted,” that is, “the pathologies of the mystic life” (xxviii); she warns, however, that those of highly suggestible natures stay clear of the book.

We won’t ever know if Bowie was a victim of a magical muddle or targeted for attack by an evil magician. If he had been targeted, then there had to be a reason.

Was it more likely that he believed himself to be psychically violated, and this conviction was as potent as any magic?

The Cabbalah and Magic

The Cabbalah is the basis of Jewish mystical thought, so what has it to do with magic?

Fortune was an expert on the Qabalah (her preferred spelling), and provides a brief overview of this exceedingly complicated system that “forms the basis of Western occult thought” (p. 83). There are two kinds of evil, negative evil and positive evil, and both of these have their own positive and negative states. “Negative positive” evil is chaos; “positive Positive Evil” are “the demons themselves, or the Qlippoth” (84). In Qabalitic philosophy, the Creator brought “the universe into manifestation through a series of Divine Emanations” (84). These, the Ten Holy Sephiroth, are what make up the Tree of Life. The Sephiroth didn’t come into being all at once; instead one would emanate from another and eventually the two would be in equilibrium and the next emanation proceeded. However, during the time of emanation, there was an “uncompensated force,” from which came ten kinds of Positive Evil (Qlippoth).

Evil intentions go to these Qlippoth, building up their strength throughout the history of mankind: “when we consider all that must have been poured into these ten sinks of inequity since the days of atlantean Magic, through the decadence of Babylon and Rome, down to the Great War [WWI], we can guess what rises up from them when their seals are broken” (85). “Evil intelligences” carry the temptations of the Qlippoth further still. These beings, formulated by sinister magicians, produce “objective phenomena”: noise, slime or blood deposits, balls of light, and putrid stenches.

The Ten Divine Emanations (Archangels, Sephiroth) have their counterpart Infernal Emanation (Archdemons, Qlippoth ). An Adept needs to control the Archdemon before he invokes the Archangel. Otherwise, the two will be released simultaneously (85). Experienced magicians calling on Archangels know that.

Deliberate Malicious Magic

Black magicians deliberately unleash powers of darkness.

Deliberate attacks proceed by means of telepathic suggestion, invocation of “certain invisible agencies,” and using a physical substance or magnetic link (136-37).  The magician penetrates his victim’s aura, usually by using something like a lock of hair or an item frequently worn or handled by his target. He has now formed a magnetic link which enables the magician to begin his telepathic communications. These are received by the victim’s subconscious, rendering him “disturbed and uneasy” (140). Alternative methods are by ceremonially substituting an animal that is then sacrificed or a wax effigy then melted or by using a talisman.

Some causes for attacks are “falling foul of an unscrupulous occultist” (142), or worse still, “a  dispute with an occult fraternity” (157). 

Magical Mishaps

Those who have some knowledge of magic but who get in over their heads may become the victims of their own ineptitude, particularly people working alone whose knowledge is theoretical.

Fortune provides as a case study a letter to the Occult Review of 1929:

“Desiring some information which I could not get in any other way, I resorted to the System of Abramelin, and to this end prepared a copy of the necessary Talisman, perfecting it to the best of my ability. . .The ritual performed, I proceeded to clear my place of working. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; my ritual was imperfect and I only rendered the Talisman useless without in any way impairing the activities of the entity invoked. This looks like nothing else than gross carelessness on my part; and to a certain extent that is true – but the point I wish to make is this, that my knowledge of this particular system, and therefore my ritual, were imperfect; and in any case, I had been shown no method of combating this particular entity when once aroused.” (86-87)

What followed were monthly attacks of increasing violence by a demonic entity. He sought the help of a competent magician who was able to control the force he had set in motion. His lesson: “treat with the greatest of care any printed system of magic, and [do] not use them at all unless they have the fullest control over the entities invoked” (89).

I wonder if Bowie in his wired state either attempted magic and had such a mishap, or had attempted magic ineffectually but decided he had released some entity that was intent on his psychic destruction.

All we know that he did conjure in LA was the Thin White Duke.

Psychic Attacks

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.
Page numbers are from this 2001 edition (Weiser Books) of Fortune’s 1930 text.

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, and committed 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 with Lama 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:

  • physical disease 
  • “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 witch Walli Elmlark exorcised 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.

**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).

Bowie’s Cross: A Tool for Psychic Self-Defense?

“Did you always wear a cross?” I ask.

“No.” Bowie murmurs. “I only started wearing one a couple of years ago. It came around that same LA period. I just felt I’d been pretty godless for a few years. It’s no great thing, just a belief, or let’s call it the usual force. Or God? Yes, sure. It’s a lukewarm relationship at the best of times, but I think it’s definitely there. It became part of a new positive frame of mind that I have about trying to reestablish my own identity for myself-for my own sanity. And for my son’s sake.  — Interview by Timothy White, Crawdaddy, 1978

Every so often on the numerous Bowie fan sites, some one wants to know why Bowie wore a cross. Did it mean he was a Christian? No, so then why? 

In one of the first anecdotes in Psychic Self-Defense, Dion Fortune describes being on a retreat during which most of the group suffered nightmares. She felt that one of the group harbored evil impulses. This woman repeatedly asked that Fortune tuck a little silver cross she wore out of view. Now, Fortune had had this cross blessed since the group she was going to was new to her. Only she knew that the “cross had been specially magnetised against psychic attack. Nevertheless, the  woman who would have attacked,  if she could, felt its influence and feared it” (p. 31) . Fortune adds that this woman was found to have been a witch in a previous incarnation, and just as the witch-traditions tell, she couldn’t abide religious symbols, be around religious paintings, wear a cross, or enter a church.

Although this is no secret — anyone who watched The Exorcist knows that the possessed can’t abide churches or crosses  — there it seems a religious response, dependent on the mediation of a priest, and so perhaps not of much use to an unaligned gnostic.

Dion Fortune was a Christian, but if the power to repel evil came from the symbol itself and not from the faith of its wearer, one could have a “lukewarm relationship” with God and still use it as a first-line defense against malevolent magic.

Does the cross itself has magical powers? Was Bowie fighting magic with magic if he took to wearing the cross for the reason Fortune describes?

The Laughing Gnome, the first website to address Bowie and the occult, and one to which other sites refer,  doesn’t mention that after leaving LA, Bowie would wear a cross off and on for at least the next 30 years.

The irony of this is that if Bowie wore one as a tool of psychic self-defense, it shows that he took the occult very seriously indeed.

Perhaps later, after he no longer felt “psychically damaged,” he continued to wear it because it reminded him of his vulnerabilities, or second chances, or to stay on the side of the angels: Who knows?

The first pictures I know showing Bowie wearing a cross are from the set of The Man Who Fell to Earth taken by Stephen Schapiro .

He wears it very visibly in the “Heroes” video. Why? Did Bowie want to make it clear to some of his former associates that he no longer wanted to have anything to do with them?

He wore it in the late 70s , the 80s, the 90s, and the 00s. Once Bowie started wearing high collar shirts (Heathen) or kerchiefs (Reality), it wasn’t visible, but the backstage photos show he was wearing it still. He wore it in 2005 when he performed with Arcade Fire (his top button was opened). Then  Bowie seemed to get self-conscious about his neck, even wearing a thick scarf indoors (in photos with son Duncan at Sundance), and during his years in retreat was most often photographed in evening wear, out with Iman. 

Here is a sampling of pictures of Bowie with crosses. Once you start looking, you see it.

Photos are used for illustrative purposes in support of text. Should any holder of a copyrighted photo object, I will remove it. Even doing a reverse Google search image rarely reveals a provenance for a picture. The first picture is by Stephen Schapiro. I think the TWD is by Philippe Auliac. The sixth is by C. Simonpietri.   The seventh photo is the cover for the Spanish version of David Buckley’s Strange Fascination. The tenth is the cover sleeve for the single “Never Let Me Down.” The angel one is by Denis O’Regan. It’s the 12th picture here.

Bowie and Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense, Part 1

The release of Blackstar and its videos has generated speculation (again) on Bowie’s interest in the occult. Yes, there are allusions to so-called occult symbols, as there are to Christianity, as well, and to Bowie’s own ouevre. That the allusions  to the occult are so obvious means that the occult isn’t any longer — hidden, that is. The Cabbalah, alchemy, numerology, astral projection, auras, telepathy, Tarot, astrology — all of these ideas, systems, philosophies, practices that deal with forces unseen could be called occult. The imagery is rich and studying one branch leads to another and another, and so would be fascinating to a creative intellect. 

So why had the occult been a secretive system of thought? Magic. 

Whatever his intentions were in drawing attention to himself and his sex life and drug use, and publishing widely that which had been held secret,  Aleister Crowley posthumously achieved his aim of being the most notorious magician in the world.

He achieved this by making the rituals of ceremonial magic widely known. There are those who use magic to accomplish positive change. But the temptation of the dark arts are great, particularly to those who feel they have scores to settle or a ruthless will to power.

Crowley seems at the center of it all because he launched his own bid for recognition as the age’s greatest magician by violating the trust of magical  societies, such as the Order of the Golden Dawn, which were structured on a hierarchy of orders and degrees attained by initiates through study and practice and kept secret,  incorporating these secrets into his new religion of Thelema, over which he reigned absolutely. 

The rituals of Thelema featured drug use for altering states of consciousness and pan-sexual encounters  within its practice. No wonder then that he became a cult figure in the late 60s and early 70s. Many who talked about him had likely never read his books, but they would have known the law of Thelema: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” and possibly the response to this command: “Love is the law, love under will.”

It seemed a declaration of freedom from convention, but the ramifications of such a law were far from simple — especially when a malevolent magician decided what he wilt was your torment.

Peter-R Konig’s site The Laughing Gnome, which he began in 1996 and is still adding to, and Steele Savage’s David Bowie, Outside, Aleister Crowley, and the Holy Grail, suggest that Crowley’s works greatly  influenced Bowie.  These two sites are devoted to Bowie. In his farther reaching blog, The Secret Sun, Christopher Knowles frequently finds himself returning to Bowie, who he believes was a magician.

In 1997, Bowie told NME:

“I always thought Crowley was a charlatan. But there was a guy called [Arthur]Edward Waite who was terribly important to me at the time. And another called Dion Fortune who wrote a book called Psychic Self–Defence.”

A.E. Waite (of the Rider-Waite tarot deck) was Crowley’s most vocal detractor. By aligning himself with Waite, Bowie distances himself from Crowley, but not from the Mysteries.

I think it safe to say that Bowie believed in magic and didn’t always think Crowley a charlatan. Bowie came to fear magic, and you don’t typically fear what you don’t believe is possible.

The 1997 interview above is the first I’ve found where he repudiated Crowley. Did it take 20 years for him feel safe enough to do so? If I believed in magic, I wouldn’t want to raise the ire of a Crowley-ite.

I don’t know whether he was the victim of  a magical attack or if he was experimenting with performing ceremonial magic and got in over his head or both, or paranoid about being attacked, but after he’d quit cocaine, Bowie would say of his time in L.A. that  he was “totally washed up emotionally and psychically,” [TimeOut interview 1983]  and told  interviewer Peter White: “It took the first two years in Berlin to really cleanse my system. Especially psychically and emotionally” [ Musician 1983]. In 1997 he recalled that during the Station to Station era, he was “psychically damaged.”  Search “psychically damaged” + Bowie and you’ll get about 8400 results.

It’s the use of psychically rather than psychologically to describe the nature of his damage that brings us to Bowie’s abiding respect for Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense (1930). 

Dion Fortune (1890-1946) was a psychic and practitioner of benevolent magic, trained as a psychologist, and a scholar of the Cabbala. She was 15 years younger than Crowley (1875-1947)  but both were active during the same era. Fortune was highly respected in her day, but she wasn’t a sensation. The work she describes in Psychic Self-Defense suggests that a lot of her time was spent undoing the harm that Crowley and would-be Crowleys had caused. 

I believe that at some point Bowie realized as he read Psychic Self-Defense that he could be the poster child for those who must not mess with magic.

But more on that next time.



Lazarus’s Pajamas and the Return of the Thin White Duke

The video of “Lazarus” isn’t the first recent Bowie video to allude to the Station to Station era. That would be “Love is Lost [Halloween Version]”  from 2013, the one Bowie made himself with help from Coco Schwab and Jimmy King, using images from previous or planned videos. Remember the sad projected face of “Where Are We Now?” It’s back, with a witch’s hat stuck on it. As creepy as that face is (and how foreboding the line “Walking the Dead” seems now), the scariest thing in this video is the presence of a marionette Thin White Duke splattered with blood. The marionette Duke was going to be used in a video for “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.”

The lyrics of “Love is Lost” seem made for the Halloween  version (“Say goodbye to the thrills of life/Where love was good, no love was bad/Wave goodbye to the life without pain”). The world has become a scary place.

When future Bowies were asked about the Thin White Duke, he consistently declared that this persona was an ogre, very threatening, and one he was glad to be rid of. The Thin White Duke [TWD] came to represent what had been — at that point — the worst time of his life. 

The timeline of Bowie’s cancer isn’t our business, but I’m wondering if the TWD surfaced in the Halloween video because Bowie intuited that something was wrong, or if he knew. October 2013 falls well outside the eighteen months that has been cited as the length of Bowie’s final illness, but I have read that he had had cancer, they thought he had beat it, and then it returned, which may account for the type of cancer initially being pegged as liver cancer and later changed to pancreatic.

At least once it was clarified as pancreatic, the nonsense about his cancer being caused by drink and drugs ended. Is it any wonder that he wanted to keep his illness private? Bowie had, after all, been straight for 15 or so years. If the cancer had metastasized to the liver, the cancerous cells had their origin elsewhere.

The point is that Bowie may have been sick longer than 18 months.

And sometimes, even if there has been no firm diagnosis, you know something is wrong before you know what it is. And that is very, very scary.

Since the TWD years were the ones when Bowie was scared and sick, it is unsurprising that Station to Station is alluded to in “Lazarus.”

Now, the TWD doesn’t appear in “Lazarus,” but Bowie has chosen, for the last we will see of him on film, to wear striped pajamas resembling the ones he (Bowie, not the TWD) wore on the back cover of Station to Station (photographed by Steve Schapiro). 

I have never liked those pajamas, and they look awful on him in the “Lazarus” videodbkaSome say the white lines were inspired by the copious amounts of cocaine Bowie was consuming at the time. I think they look like the convict uniform in the South, with stripes askew. (I’ve wondered too why in the Schapiro photo he is using white chalk to draw black lines.) 

But the pajamas do evoke some of the darkest days of his life.

I don’t, however, think they mean that Bowie was using his last months to revisit the Kabbalah, regardless of stories on sites ranging from The Irish Mirror  to The Jerusalem Post. Even The Guardian’s Jude Rogers talk about Aleister Crowley “with whom Bowie was obsessed in the 1970s.”

I think what he said in the 90s still held true: “Nobody professing a knowledge of the black arts should be taken seriously if they can’t speak Latin or Greek.” This implies that there are black magicians out there. He could have added that those who dabble in the occult can get in way over their heads. This is not something you want to fiddle with when you are already sick and weak. He’d already been through that. Bowie arrived in LA a Crowleyite, but he left with respect for Dion Fortune, a white magician, and particularly her book, Psychic Self-Defense. More on that next time.

The “Lazarus” video is about a man who is sick and under attack, not from a malevolent magician, but from that for which there is no psychic defense. 

Still, he isn’t going to let that lady with the creepy face be the guise in which Death comes for him. He eludes her and backs into the closet from which she had emerged. He will do as he told Cameron Crowe back in 1976: “I’ve now decided that my death should be very precious. I really want to use it. I’d like my death to be as interesting as my life has been and will be.”

Here’s a strangeness for you: In 1976 when Cameron Crowe reviewed the Station to Station tour for Creem,  he subtitled the piece “David Bowie Pulls A Lazarus.”

Finally, did anyone else feel chilled by Bowie’s teeth in “Lazarus” ? Gone are Bowie’s beautiful hands; they are now mottled. His neck has bulging veins, not the swan’s smoothness he had so long. But his teeth? His teeth are perfect.