Believing the Strangest Things
The Elusive Spirituality of David Bowie (Pt. 2 of 3)
By Joe Parziale
Bowie performing as the Thin White Duke in Toronto, February 1976. Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin
Throughout his personal and creative life, David Bowie’s search for meaning and reconciliation typically took the form of engagement with faith traditions merely as a means to ontological ends, but there were instances in which he expressed interest in mysticism for its own sake. This never took stranger form than his fascination with the occult. Explicit references to the esotericism of Aleister Crowley and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, for instance, can be heard in recordings from as far back as 1971 in the opening lines of “Quicksand.” But as his drug-fueled torment peaked in 1975-6, Bowie’s fascination transformed into paranoid obsession. While living in Los Angeles around the time he was writing and recording Station to Station and filming his first starring role as a desperate alien visitor to Earth (fittingly enough) in the beautifully eerie The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie’s behavior became increasingly troubling. He later recalled surviving on a diet of milk, peppers, and massive doses of cocaine, sleeping only a few hours a week. When not writing, recording, or filming, his favorite activity was drawing the shades, burning candles, and marking pentagrams on the floors and walls. An oft-repeated tale in Bowie lore from these years has him urinating in jars that he would store in his fridge because he feared theft of his genetic material, a story he coyly would neither confirm nor deny to Virginia Campbell in an interview for Movieline nearly two decades later.
But preserving his bodily fluids was the least of his intrigues, for the pop star was indeed lumbering towards death. He welcomed few visitors and left family and friends concerned that he was headed for a psychotic break, if he wasn’t there already – no trivial matter given his family’s extensive history with mental health issues, including his half-brother, Terry, who by this point had seriously deteriorated and was confined to a drab institution for schizophrenic tendencies after several suicide attempts. It was during this time that Bowie grasped toward the kind of genuine nihilism that his lyrics only mused about, and even then its appearance was grafted onto an oblique subtext of admonition. Starting in late 1975, Bowie scandalized the public with statements in the press professing admiration for fascism. In August, he told National Musical Express’s Anthony O’Grady he had conceived of just the antidote for the listlessness of the capitalist world’s Cold War consensus as it plodded through unimpressive growth and persistent inflation, rubbing salt in the fresh wound of final defeat in Vietnam: “You’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up. Then you can have a new form of liberalism.” (O’Grady dubbed this strategy “rent-an-apocalypse.”) In an interview with journalist and future filmmaker Cameron Crowe a few months later, Bowie said he “believe[d] very strongly in fascism,” calling Hitler “the first rock star.” And his new alter-ego, the Thin White Duke, with his icy stare, dapper collars, and neatly slicked-back bright, blonde hair, was the consummate romantic integralist. Crowe’s story was published shortly after a photographer captured Bowie offering what looked like it could have been a Roman (Nazi) salute to a throng of fans at London Victoria station. Video footage later showed quite clearly that Bowie had simply offered a tense, little wave, but his other overtures were sufficient to generate considerable outrage.
But there is something missing here. As biographer Tim Buckley put it, “what people really want to know is not so much if Bowie is a Fascist, but if he is a racist,” a case that’s rather hard to make. In the intervening years, more than one writer has reassessed a 1983 MTV interview – in which he excoriated an MTV host for the network’s oversight of black artists – as the signal repudiation of Bowie’s hitherto fascist and, by extension, racist leanings. Others have made the argument citing similar expressions: advocacy for the Aborigines, his marriage to Somali model Iman, his contributions, with Iman, to an anti-racism issue of British fashion and pop culture magazine The Face, and so on. In fact,he had championed a kind of cultural anti-racism all throughout the 1970s: he had always pointed to the enormous debt of gratitude he and other pop stars owed to African-American pioneers of jazz, rock, and soul, counting the likes of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Nina Simone, and his childhood hero, Little Richard, as among the artists whose styles he sought to alternately emulate and re-interpret. He had often gone out of his way to cultivate and vigorously support black talent – most contemporaneously Luther Vandross, his collaborator and backup vocalist on Young Americans. (“You’ve got to stick with this,” Vandross remembers Bowie telling him. “You’re going to make it.”) The backing band he typically toured with, and frequently featured in studio recordings, was dominated by people of color. The stars of both his touring and studio band in the Thin White Duke era were two erstwhile Apollo Theater regulars, guitarist Carlos Alomar and Max Roach-trained percussionist Dennis Davis, the former of whom had become one of Bowie’s closest confidants since the two first worked together in 1974 while Bowie was doing production work for Scottish singer Lulu. And it is worth noting that Bowie was in a deeply intimate relationship at the time with soul singer and South Side-Chicago native Ava Cherry. Needless to say, none of that disproves claims of racism, but nor does a temporary infatuation with Nazi symbolism – problematic as it is – provide, on its own, a particularly sound basis for those claims
Bowie, quickly remorseful, initially blamed his flirtation with fascist aesthetics on his “astronomical” cocaine intake, insisting they led to “glib, theatrical observations on English society.” But by 1980, he admitted there was more to the story, telling NME’s Angus MacKinnon, “I was in the depths of mythology. I had found King Arthur…All that stuff was flying around, buzzing around the skies. I could see it.” “Everywhere I looked,” he said, were “demons of the future on the battlegrounds of one’s emotional plain,” adding that he and his collaborators (many of them dealing with substance abuse problems of their own) would “all talk about it together.” Even this may not be the whole story – as noted, Bowie contradicted himself regarding every subject under the sun. And it betrays shocking naiveté and insensitivity on his part regardless. Nevertheless, there is a fair amount of plausibility in this explanation given what we know about Bowie’s thinking and behavior around this time. It’s also clear that he was fighting demons – literal ones, to his mind – that he wanted very desperately to exorcise, which returns us to the narrower subject matter at hand.
Station to Station is perhaps David Bowie’s darkest record. Even its more upbeat tracks are as faintly haunting in texture as they are manic and jarring – at turns frenzied and full of angst, overconfident and self-aware. The two songs that deal directly with spiritual matters mark a couple of those rare moments where Bowie probes salvation rather than cerebral ontology.
The album’s eponymous track is highly complex and, as always, never explicit, so trying to extract some cohesive meaning makes little sense – that is, if one can be interpreted and explained coherently and persuasively, to say nothing of whether one was intended in the first place. Still, the imagery is quite powerful, and one can’t help but notice its dizzyingly shifting spiritual poles, suggestive of a rather labored internal dialogue, darkness and rebirth not least among the hotly debated topics. The title itself seems to contain three meanings. On a superficial level, it simply evokes a train traveling from one station to the next (hence the opening sound of an air whistle, followed by a heavy load barreling down railroad tracks). On a spiritual level it has two distinct meanings: on the one hand, the dark esotericism of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, probably referenced here through a Hermetic frame considering the continued references to Crowley; on the other, the promise of salvation, embodied in the Stations of the Cross. Bowie paints an opening scene of the Thin White Duke standing menacingly in a room near the sea (let’s say he happens to be in Los Angeles) and musing about black magic. He finds himself “bending sound” and “dredging the ocean,” traveling in “one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth” – i.e., from the top to the bottom of the Tree of Life. The abyss closes in, driving “like a demon from station to station,” frantically erasing the faint rays of light. The Duke reflects longingly, with just a hint of promise, about a time when that light enveloped him: “Once there were mountains on mountains/And once there were sun birds to soar with/And once I could never be down.” He vows to continue searching for rebirth, such “fortunes evasive and shy,” asking, “What will I be believing and who will connect me with love?” The song’s iconic refrain, then (“It’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love”), describes not the overindulgences of a rock star lifestyle, but a kind of delirious spiritual resplendence, arrived at through deep despair.
“Word on a Wing” is much more direct – and much more desperate. Here, Bowie converses candidly with a Christian God to explain the bind in which he’s found himself. He hopes to embrace personal salvation, but isn’t afraid to disclose his lingering doubts, both because he finds the process frightening and because he has difficulty discarding wholesale any ideas he’s heretofore developed about age-old questions. Hence, in an “age of grand delusion,” God “walked into my life, out of my dreams,” but the timing might be a problem for him: “I don’t need another change/Still, you forced your way into my scheme of things.” Later, Bowie defiantly reminds God, “Just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well/Don’t have to question everything in heaven or hell” – right before he genuflects, his voice shaky and cracking with urgency: “Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing/And I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things.” No matter his doubts, he prefers it to the hell on earth he’s created for himself, wailing: “It’s safer than a strange land/But I still care for myself/And I don’t stand in my own light/Lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing.” A few years after recording the track, Bowie told O’Grady the song was borne out of the “psychological terror” of using a deadly amount of cocaine while filming The Man Who Fell to Earth, describing it as “the first time I’d thought about Christ and God in any depth.” He explained that “the passion in the song was genuine,” but vowed to never again be “suckered into that narrow sort of looking.” The song seemed to have had painful associations – despite being a clear fan favorite, Bowie wouldn’t perform it again for nearly a quarter-century after the “Station to Station” tour. When he did finally perform it again, in a concert recorded for VH1 Storytellers, he characterized it as a “signal of distress” during “singularly the darkest days of my life.” (To give one an idea of the sense of humor he’d developed about himself, he broke up the tension of his bleak recollection with some playful self-deprecation: “I had concerned myself with questions like, ‘Do the dead concern themselves with the affairs of the living? Can I change the channel on my TV without using the clicker?’”)
After the mid-‘70s, Bowie abandoned the practice of creating, touring as, and then destroying theatrical characters. The alter-egos were great fun in messing with the audience’s head, but he later admitted they were messing with his own, too, in part because they allowed him the freedom to occupy two realities at once – and to neglect the genuine one when things made him uncomfortable. Across the first ten years of Bowie’s body of work, he suggests such a concept. Other times, the farce is openly revealed (“I turned myself to face me/But I never caught a glimpse/Of how the others must see the faker”). It began with performing his songs in “disguise” to avoid stage fright and other feelings of self-consciousness, he told noted rock critic Timothy White, then editor of the Bohemian U.S. journal of culture Crawdaddy, and progressed over time, slowly infiltrating every sphere of his personal and professional life. Soon, the genuine Bowie had become a fading speck, until the character of his personality had become but a distant abstraction. “When I don’t have a character to play with, I stand in total ignorance of what’s happening around me,” he said. “But not long ago my characters turned on me…It’s no small wonder that I thought I had done my sanity irreparable harm.” In what had been surely his most candid public statement to date, he admitted to White, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a real handle on anything I’ve ever done.”
In 1971, the ascendant pop star could hardly contain his glee about his freedom to obscure a fixed public personality by inhabiting an invented one, only to displace it with another persona the moment fans and critics began to apprehend the previous one, paying homage to his model in artifice on “Andy Warhol.” Three years earlier, after surviving an assassination attempt, Warhol remarked, “Before being shot, I suspected that instead of living I was just watching TV. Since being shot, I’m certain of it.” Bowie, apparently smitten with employing this concept for his own purposes, sang, “Andy Warhol/Silver screen/Can’t tell them apart at all.” But by the last third of the decade, that strategy had nearly killed him. No longer able to hide behind his characters, Bowie began that painful process he had heretofore treated with such contempt: to use his earlier phrase, turning himself to face him.
Joe Parziale is a Cofounding Editor at The Flood.