Believing the Strangest Things
The Elusive Spirituality of David Bowie (Pt. 1 of 3)
By Joe Parziale
David Bowie performing in Milan in 1999. Photo by Fabio Diena
Author’s note: Sometime after conceiving of an essay some months ago addressing David Bowie and his elusive spiritual attitudes, a friend asked me how I’d felt about the allegations that Bowie had had sex with a 15-year-old girl in 1972, when he was 25. I might have known about the story had I browsed among the bountiful supply of commentary presented to me in the days after his death. I didn’t. I was quite surprised to feel as though I had lost a friend – I hadn’t thought I was capable of so personally mourning a complete stranger, and I didn’t have much interest in others’ thoughts about his legacy. Apparently, I should have paid more attention.
Needless to say, I was horrified by Lori Maddox’s revelations about her encounter with Bowie when she was a teenage groupie in the early 1970’s. Maddox says she hasn’t any regrets about losing her virginity at 15 years old to an adult male rock star, and she recalls the experience fondly, even tenderly. But we all know it could have turned out differently, and for that I don’t think it’s appropriate to defend him from the reproach he clearly deserves.
I will defend him from the charge that he forcibly raped a makeup artist named Wanda Nichols after a concert in Dallas in 1987. I believe that victims have a right to be believed, but that right does not preclude an examination of her story (which she was quite candid about selling to a tabloid for $30,000). And of course, it is true that the decision by a grand jury not to indict Bowie because of a lack of evidence does not falsify Nichols’ claims, but it is worth looking at her statements – including sworn ones – which are, after all, the most basic piece of information needed to form a judgement. To take one of the most widely reported series of claims, Nichols told police that Bowie answered “no” when she asked if he was HIV-positive, but shortly afterward swore before the grand jury that Bowie had said, “I have AIDS and now you’ve got it. You are now one of us.” And the sensationalism of Nichols’ claims proliferated henceforth, with very apparent attempts by Nichols’ attorney to keep the issue in the courts on procedural technicalities, even though Bowie and Nichols had both tested negative for the virus. The National Enquirer, for one, never backed off the scandal, running an “exclusive” story upon the singer’s death revealing that “AIDS Killed David Bowie.” The story’s kicker quote was provided by none other than the now born-again Wanda Nichols (and “now AIDS-free,” the Enquirer reassured us), who wished the singer eternal damnation.
I hate producing these sentences – after all, none of this tells us much about what actually took place between Bowie and Nichols, and we’ll almost certainly never know (Bowie said they had consensual sex). But I felt if I were to address the larger issue – and I hardly could have avoided it in good conscience – that a response to the scurrilous reports that surfaced, in one case complete with a sonnet entitled “The Rapist David Bowie,” warranted a response.
There was no shortage of thoughtful reflections on the Maddox issue, and I would encourage people to engage with those. This moment leaves us with precious few reasons to be hopeful, but I am at least glad to be around at a time when these kinds of issues would be addressed with more seriousness had they happened today. For our purposes here, it’s important to keep in mind as we proceed, that although that so much of Bowie’s art remains breathtakingly ethereal, the artist was extremely, often tragically, human.
Many critics have used phrases like ‘chameleon’ and ‘shape-shifting’ to describe Bowie’s career. I would suggest a more specific description along these lines: in his values and personal affairs, as in his work, Bowie was in a state not just of evolution, but of self-aware maturation. Cynical and humorless as a young man, his outlook had changed dramatically by the time he reached his 30s. If he temporarily lost his creative vision in the 1980s, it was because the process of carefully constructing artifice after artifice, only to tear it down and start anew, became increasingly alien to a man so eager to find himself. As I was preparing materials for this essay, I found it challenging to avoid fixating on that search. I soon realized that the thrust of the story was staring me in the face.
“I was young, fancy-free…Tibetan Buddhism appealed to me at that time, and I thought, ‘There’s salvation.’ And it didn’t really work. Then I went through Nietzsche, Satanism, Christianity – pottery. And then I ended up singing. It’s been a long road.”
”I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain,” David Bowie (apparently channeling Jacques Brel), once assured us. “Let’s turn on and be not alone,” he implored desperately. “Gimme your hands, ‘cause you’re wonderful.” Before the world recognized these lines as the dramatic denouement of his signature record, Bowie would close his performances with “Rock and Roll Suicide,” standing on the edge of the stage with his hands outstretched to the audience as he sang this closing verse. (The song was reportedly written with an eye toward its theatrical utility – a novel approach for the young singer that would soon become one of the central motifs running through his body of work). But this particular routine didn’t meet with the reaction Bowie hoped for in these early shows. Reported Aylesbury, England, club owner David Stopps: “I remember him doing ‘Rock and Roll Suicide,’ maybe for the first time. He shouted at the audience, ‘Gimme your hands, ‘cause you’re wonderful!,’ and nobody got up. In those days they used to sit on the floor, and the stage was reasonably high, and somebody got up to give him their hands, but only half-heartedly.”
Shortly afterward, Ziggy Stardust and his Spiders from Mars – the first in a series of Bowie’s rock alter-egos – created something of a stir in the UK. Many, like the eminent philosopher Simon Critchley, would fall in love for the first time watching Ziggy perform “Starman” on “Top of the Pops” in July 1972 – Critchley’s affection would deepen after his mom, who had watched the performance with him and was impressed with Ziggy’s hairstyle – bought the “Ziggy Stardust” record for her 12-year-old son. Before long, Bowie had developed a devoted cult following who took great solace in these lines from “Rock and Roll Suicide” and their accompanying gestures, eagerly reaching out to touch his hand. These listeners were, as Critchley would later write, “the disaffected…the socially awkward, the alienated. [Bowie spoke to the weirdos, the freaks, the outsiders and drew us in to an extraordinary intimacy, although we knew this was total fantasy.”
Bowie’s ability to speak to social and spiritual alienation grew out of personal experience, and it is clear he knew what it meant to his fans. Two days before his death in January 2016, the singer released his remarkable final album, which he recorded in the throes of terminal liver cancer. On the track “Lazarus,” he reached out his hand one final time, seemingly from beyond the grave, comforting us with his vulnerability, singing:
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
So concluded perhaps the most inimitable career in pop history– a striking feature given Bowie’s acknowledged penchant for borrowing heavily from other artists. Yet, his death meant so much to so many who never knew him not because of his artistic achievements, but because his was a collection of music that drew together a sort of spiritual community of, as Critchley put it, “the weirdos, the freaks, the outsiders.” It constituted a sort of imagined community (to borrow political scientist Benedict Anderson’s brilliant conception of nationalism) that transcended time and space, creating solidarity among a diffuse people who would never meet, achieved through the work’s ability to draw us closer not to Bowie himself, but to one another. Put another way, we were reminded that, “You’re not alone.” Bowie’s spiritual experiences are therefore worth a glimpse, for they were the impetus behind his very best work.
Many music journalists have, with some justification, focused on Bowie’s Nietzschean invocations as a locus of his early-career outlook and spiritual philosophy. These references, however, are consistently misunderstood, often on a number of levels. For one thing, Bowie confessed that his interpretations may not have been as faithful as the analyses of these writers suggest. Hence, it is true that much the lyrical content from Bowie’s early-1970’s period directly references Nietzsche: “Quicksand,” from 1971’s “Hunky Dory” is perhaps the most memorable of these, and a listen to “The Man who Sold the World” (1970) doesn’t exactly take a scholar of nihilism to detect the influence – one track is simply called “The Supermen.” But by 1976, when Bowie, in the depths of cocaine-induced, near-psychotic episodes, can be said to have been at his most menacingly Nietzschean (about which, more below), he had this to say to BBC Radio1’s Stuart Grady: “I was still going through the thing where I was pretending I understood Nietzsche…and I had tried to translate it into my own terms to understand it, so ‘Supermen’ came out of that.”
For the young Bowie, this reputed embrace of Nietzsche seems to be less a nihilistic rejection of morals as we understand them, than just one of many stops on his journey to elucidate and transcend his deep sense of isolation. He consistently said as much, most recently in an interview for French television in 2003: “The content of most of what I write, there’s been a continuity of alienation and isolation throughout everything.” Bowie is famously one of the most mystifying figures pop has ever produced, and his music indeed reflects that; if there’s a key to decoding him and his work, this is it. For him, God is not dead – He’s just gone AWOL.
Bowie’s actual theological outlook was, of course, all over the map. He was only half-joking to DeGeneres – indeed, as a teenager, Bowie did study to become a monk. Inspired by the legendary (and then recently-expelled) Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa, and at the urging of his friend (and, eventually, longest and closest collaborator) Tony Visconti, Bowie began studying under Trungpa’s student, Lama Chime Tulku Rinpoche. Bowie said many times that he was ready to commit to the monastery, and Chime Rinpoche thought Bowie a highly disciplined student. He soon got cold feet about monastic life, and from that point forward he couldn’t even decide whether God existed, seemingly changing his position each time he was asked. The question may be facile, but his vacillation underscores the point that Bowie’s bleak expressions of alienation are often followed up, in some form or another, by some attempt at finding meaning and reconciliation.
We see this from song to song, from one album to the next, and between specific lyrical references over across many years. Hence, on 1971’s Hunky Dory, we’re presented on the opening track (“Changes”) with the candor of Bowie’s penchant for artifice:
So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test
This takes a dark turn on “Quicksand,” especially when combined with a threat of nihilistic resignation:
I’m living in a silent film
Portraying Himmler’s sacred realm
Of dream reality
I’m frightened by the total goal
Drawing to the ragged hole
And I ain’t got the power anymore
But immediately after “Quicksand” closes with its final exhortations not to believe in ourselves, we’re given a jubilant cover of Biff Rose and Paul Williams’ “Fill Your Heart:” “Gentleness clears the soul/Love clears the mind and makes it free.”
The cynical decay of 1974’s Diamond Dogs (“I’m having so much fun with the poisonous people/Spreading rumors and lies and stories they made up”) became the playful soul ofYoung Americans the following year. And consider how Major Tom, that first alter-ego and perhaps the sine qua non of Bowie’s emergence from obscurity, develops over a quarter century: first, we see the resigned, even content detachment surrounding suicide in 1969’s “Space Oddity” (“I think my spaceship knows which way to go/Tell my wife I love her very much/She knows”); followed by a plunge into mental torment on 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes (“Ashes to ashes/Funk to funky/We know Major Tom’s a junkie/Strung out in heaven’s high/Hitting an all-time low”) – a less-than-oblique reference to Bowie’s unhappy descent into the depths of cocaine addiction in the mid-1970s; and finally, by 1995 (“Hallo Spaceboy”), cracks of daylight seem to be making their way into Major Tom’s abyss, if he’d only care to look (“Spaceboy, you’re so sleepy now/You’re silhouette is so stationary/You’re released but your custody calls/And I want to be free/Don’t you want to be free?”).
Joe Parziale is a Cofounding Editor at The Flood.