ANGIE BOWIEBowie’s first wife: 1970 to 1980. Née Barnett. Manipulative, scheming, volatile, promiscuous, bitter, emotional nurse, mental housekeeper, creative ally, occasional redeemer, and perennial business adviser. American, she agrees to an open marriage with Bowie to secure her work permit in England. Mother of Zowie (from the Greek ζωή: life) Jones, born 1971, who became Joe, who became Duncan. Last contact with son: 1984. Long claims to have inspired The Rolling Stones’ 1973 hit “Angie,” an assertion Mick Jagger and Keith Richards consistently deny.
BERLIN, 1976–1979Shattered city surrounded by a dry mined moat. Seedy, poor, polluted, drab. A nexus where everyone thinks the next global inferno will mushroom any day and so keeps a packed suitcase beneath their bed just in case. In the west, military tanks and spectral black jeeps roll through the streets while Nazi war widows walk rat dogs through the overgrown parks. In the east, rubble from the Battle of Berlin is still heaped everywhere, the Soviets refusing to remove the monuments to German savagery. Yet also an energized, tireless, incredibly inexpensive hub of alternative culture brimming with bars, cabarets, drag reviews, discos, punk clubs, untamed galleries. Bowie: The rest of Germany can’t stand Berliners, and Berliners look down on the rest of Germany. That’s why Hitler put his thumb on the city and decided to set up base here, because this was the most troublesome spot. Bowie loves it. Bowie hates it. Bowie feels intoxicated. Bowie feels trapped. Bowie collects Nazi memorabilia, including Goebbels’s old desk, which he displays in his apartment. He tells the story about how late one night, parked with Angie on the west side, sharing a cigarette, staring across a canal into the east, all at once there is a rap on the roof. A Red Army guard gestures for him to lower his window. Bowie does, and the guard asks for a light. You shouldn’t be here, Bowie tells him. You should be over there. The guard spells out amiably he often traverses the secret tunnel running beneath the river to stretch his legs in this neighborhood. Like that.
MARC BOLANLead singer: T. Rex. Glam rock pioneer. In 1977, career wobbly, fronts a six-part after-school series on ITV featuring both new and established bands. Final guest: David Bowie, with whom he performs “Heroes,” at the end of which Bolan accidentally stumbles off the stage to Bowie’s obvious glee as the credits roll. Days later the Mini that Bolan is in, soul-singer girlfriend Gloria Jones behind the wheel (Bolan never takes up driving because he fears automotive oblivion), skids out of control and rams a tree. He is killed instantly. Jones suffers a broken arm and jaw. Despite his relationship and baby (named Rolan Bolan) with Jones, Bolan is still legally married to June Child, a one-time gofer. The result is neither mother nor infant receives Bolan’s inheritance. Bowie, Rolan’s godfather, steps in to help out the couple financially until June Child dies of a heart attack while vacationing in Turkey seventeen years later, at which point Rolan acquires the estate.
WILLIAM S. BURROUGHSBowie employs a version of Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s cut-up method, whose randomness appeals to him, to generate some of his most startling lyrics: cf., most notably, Diamond Dogs, Outside, Blackstar. February 1974: Rolling Stone hires journalist Craig Copetas to drive Burroughs from his pared-down two-room flat in Piccadilly to say hello to Bowie in his elegant Chelsea townhouse and document what transpires between them. The joke, the reportorial tension, is that Burroughs doesn’t know who Bowie is, save for the handful of lyrics Copetas has given him to read shortly in advance of the get-together. Both writer and rock star are clearly uncomfortable being thrown together, have almost nothing substantial to say to one another. The mutual interview meanders and unwinds. Burroughs: You remember Ma Barker? Ma Barker doesn’t like talk and she doesn’t like talkers. She just sat there with her gun.
AVA CHERRYBacking vocalist and Bowie’s Black lover from 1972 to 1975, during his marriage to Angie. Travels the world with him. Hobnobs with celebrity heavyweights. Kind-hearted, compassionate, a-sparkle with love of and admiration for the superstar, who produces her proto–new wave album, People from Bad Homes, which, however, because of management issues, isn’t released until 1995. Deep into cocaine derangements, Bowie determines his own management company has been spending most of his money behind his back on posh hotels, limos, and private jets from LA to Europe and back for his forty-plus entourage. He crumples emotionally, breaks up with Cherry, who has been trying on and off to mother him back to health and sanity, and pitches inward. Cherry in the rearview mirror: I kept trying to find a way to not make it final. Bowie, always the virtuoso at cutting, running scared and running away, makes sure it is just that.
DON DELILLOFifty-three on Bowie’s reading list: White Noise (1985). The fear of dying obsesses Babette, the narrator Jack Gladney’s wife, to the point where she begins popping an experimental drug, Dylar, to repress her pulverizing sense of mortality. Jack, professor of Hitler Studies at a small midwestern college, gratified at cashing in on the intellectual goof called cultural studies, explains to one of his students that all plots move in one direction, deathward, something Bowie is achingly aware of most of his life, no more so than while making Blackstar, its title slang for the radial lesion on mammograms announcing breast cancer. During his final months, work becomes Bowie’s Dylar. The album appears on Friday, January 8, 2016. Bowie becomes his own past two days later.
TONY DEFRIESManager whom Bowie dubs his damager and sacks in 1975, wrecked by Defries’s misappropriation of funds. Nevertheless, DeFries deploys an ingenious strategy up front in Bowie’s career: make it extremely difficult for anyone to get close to him. DeFries teaches the unseasoned singer how to act imperious: never open a door for himself; never pick up something dropped; never pass something at a restaurant; always stage aloofness; become enigmatic; amplify into something larger than himself. The strategy works in spades: Bowie plumes into rock’n’roll royalty, ascertaining in the process that acclaim and talent are unrelated concepts; that if you perform a character long enough, that character will eventually begin to perform you.
T.S. ELIOTThe original cut-up king, atoms of whose “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) and “Hollow Men” (1925) can be spotted in lyrics for “Eight Line Poem,” and of whose The Waste Land (1922; sixteen on Bowie’s reading list) in those for “Goodnight Ladies.” Like Bowie, Eliot dabbles in the occult and criticizes democratic politics. Marries British woman, fragile Vivienne Haigh-Wood, even as Bowie marries American, feisty Angie. Recovering from a nervous breakdown in 1921, Eliot settles into a sanatorium in Lausanne, Switzerland, on the shores of Lac Léman, the area to which Bowie withdraws for much of the eighties and early nineties into a fourteen-room mansion built at the turn of the century by a Russian prince—until Iman complains that Switzerland is far too dull for her, prompting the couple in 1999 to shift their gravitational center to Manhattan.
FANSDistillate: on the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour in the US, where Bowie hasn’t appeared live for more than a year, his rhapsodic fans expect him to turn up as Aladdin Sane (pun on Bowie’s state of mind at the time: A Lad Insane). Instead, he steps onto the stage wearing slicked-back hair, baggy pleated pants, suspenders, and a white cotton shirt. During intermission, his devotees pour into the restrooms to wet down their own spiky hair, scrub the lightning bolts off their faces, and do what they can to modify the look of their ho-hum clothing that wasn’t ho-hum an hour ago.
BRIAN ENOKeyboardist for Roxy Music, 1971–1973. Bowie’s collaborator on the sonically revolutionary Berlin Trilogy—Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979)—an amalgam of alternately anguished and euphoric funk, electronica, ambient soundscapes, cabaret, and guitar-based rock that, among other things, introduces millions around the world used to vanilla pop to what the Germans call Neue Musik. Eno plays synthesizer. Producer Tony Visconti uses an Eventide Harmonizer to alter the drums in a way, he is positive, he claims, fucks with the fabric of time. The outcome shapes many nineties musicians and bands, among them Radiohead, Björk, P.J. Harvey, Moby, and Blur. Bowie: In some ways, those albums really captured a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come. My complete being is within them. They are my DNA. Eno and Bowie’s last project together: Outside (1995), about which Eno wrote in his diaries: I become a sculptor to David’s tendency to paint. I keep trying to cut things back, strip them to something tense and taut, while he keeps throwing new colors on the canvas. It’s a good duet. The only thing missing was the nerve to be very simple. The pair remains close for nearly forty years. Separated geographically by the Atlantic, they exchange regular emails between London and New York, signing off with invented names: Mr. Showbiz, Milton Keynes, the Duke of Ear. Eno describing their Berlin era: It struck me as paradoxical that two comparatively well-known people would be staggering home at six in the morning, and he’d break a raw egg into his mouth and that was his food for the day. We’d sit around the kitchen table feeling a bit too tired—me with a bowl of crummy German cereal and him with albumen running down his shirt.
HERMIONE FARTHINGALEFirst love, 1968 to 1969. Bowie and she form a band, Feathers, that mixes music, poetry, and mime. Smitten, according to friends at the time, he is ever the perfect gentleman. At dinner, he holds the chair for her, pushes it in, speaks in always devoted inflections. And yet, according to others, he is also domineering, demanding, wily, and incorrigibly promiscuous, openly hopping from bed to bed without apology. Farthingale’s solicitor dad disapproves vehemently of his daughter moving in with a boy from Brixton who lacks prospects. He believes Bowie is just using her and is relieved when she decides to put an end to her relationship with him so she can pursue her own dance career on the set of Song of Norway. After landing a further handful of stage and screen roles, she slides into obscurity, marrying, settling, divorcing, docking at a yoga studio in Bristol, Enya cycling on the sound system. In “Letter to Hermione” from his eponymous 1969 album, Bowie puts into lyrics what he could never tell her to her face: I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do, so I’ll just write some love to you. Unlike countless others caught up in his trajectory, decorous Farthingale maintains her silence through the decades about what they had. Their split marks the launch of Bowie’s heavy cocaine use and ever-more-prodigal sex addiction.
ROMY HAAGBorn Edouard Frans Verbaarsschott. Dutch dancer, singer, actress, former nightclub manager, and, throughout the seventies, one of the most famous transgender personalities in Europe. Claims she is the reason for Bowie’s move to Berlin in 1976: We saw each other at one of his concerts and that was it. Naturally I fell in love with his eyes. We knew we had to do some time together. While married to Angie, Bowie lives on and off with Haag, while living on and off with Cherry, while living briefly with Kinder, trying to fathom what family might become once one frees oneself from the solely biological shackles. Haag’s influence on his work is evident in his “Boys Keep Swinging” video, where Bowie appears in triplicate as a chorus of drag queens. Haag leaves home at thirteen to become a clown, then trapeze artist, and in due course a drag queen in Paris, where she commences living as a woman. In 1974 she opens Germany’s most popular nightclub, Chez Romy Haag, with celebrity regulars Bryan Ferry, Bette Midler, Tina Turner, Freddie Mercury, Lou Reed, and occasional lover Mick Jagger. Haag: David was such a boy back then. He was a little boy. A lovely little boy, who wanted to have some inspiration, who wanted to have some life. He always sat on the floor in the corner at the club (we didn’t own any tables or chairs), just taking it all in.
DUNCAN ZOWIE HAYWOOD JONESFilm director, producer, writer, son. His birth in 1971 prompts Bowie to write the charming “Kooks” on Hunky Dory, whose opening lines read: Will you stay in our lovers’ story? If you do you won’t be sorry. Raised mostly by Scottish nanny in London, Berlin, Switzerland. Dreamed of becoming professional wrestler. Bowie granted custody after divorce from Angie in 1980. Jones marries photographer Rodene Ronquillo on November 6, 2012, the same day Ronquillo is diagnosed with breast cancer. Best-known movie: his first, Moon, the disturbing parable of another Major Tom lost in space, now on the far side of the moon at the conclusion of a solitary three-year stint mining helium-3, hallucinating, alone, forsaken as his identity shreds—just like Bowie’s during the seventies when Jones witnessed his father fall short of maturing, repeatedly.
LEXI JONESFifteen when her father dies. Throughout childhood, shielded from the media by Bowie and Iman. One of several black boxes stacked along the interstate of his life.
KATJA KINDERBowie and she help themselves to each other’s bad dreams for three weeks in his umbral seven-room Schöneberg flat late in 1976, after Iggy Pop moves into his own digs across the courtyard. Aggressively Pollyanna-ish, below her tenacious involuntary smile Kinder is broken and forlorn at nineteen. A congenital planner, congenitally unmotivated and aimless, she conscientiously reformulates her experiential blueprint every three days as if this time she really means it. We cannot lay our hands on any more information about her. She seems to disperse into history sometime in 1977, although we do dig up a few fumy rumors circulating shortly thereafter that she relocates to Hamburg, where she winds up the sort of high school math teacher who keeps a flask of vodka in her purse, and/or relocates to Phoenix, Arizona, where she ends up the sort of massage therapist who keeps a dog-eared copy of The Power of Now on a shelf next to her healing crystals, scented votive candles, and repressed anguish. Given her disposition, these rumors seem as unlikely as likely to be based on fact.
R. D. LAINGEighty-six on Bowie’s reading list: The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity (1960), wherein the iconoclastic guru/mystic contrasts the experience of the ontologically secure individual with that of the one who cannot take the realness, aliveness, autonomy and identity of himself and others for granted and who consequently slips into ontological insecurity and psychosis often triggered by abnormal family relationships. Reading it, Bowie can’t help thinking about his half brother, the emotional mutilation that defines his household as a child, his mother’s detachment, the way his father bullied and excluded Terry from all things domestic, how icy that rail must have felt beneath Terry’s cheek as the express train chaos-ed into the station.
British director of such iconic music videos in the seventies and eighties as Queen’s “Bicycle Race,” Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone,” Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays,” and Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging,” “China Girl,” and “Ashes to Ashes,” the last at the time the most expensive ever made. It features scenes in stark noirish black-and-white set in a hospital-examination-room-cum-spaceship, in shadowy color set in a padded cell, and in psychotropic solarization on a beach. In it, Bowie wears a gaudy Pierrot costume, visual trademark of his Scary Monsters phase. A stock character from seventeenth-century commedia dell’arte, Pierrot is the epitome of the sad clown, the heartcracked fool pining for love, naïveté incarnate. The lyrics take us back once again to Major Tom floating out of control high, high above the earth, yet simultaneously huddled, frightened and unhinged, back on terra infirma, just like Terry at the asylum, just like part of Bowie himself, because everyone—even Davy Jones from Bromley, even Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth—now knows Major Tom is a junkie who has never done good things, never done bad, and the shrieking of nothing is killing. The expected future never arrives. The past is Marc Bolan’s car always crashing, is wondering if she ever thinks of you, is the blood that starts to leak from your eyes one night because the cocaine has begun dissolving your sinuses. The video’s tenor is somber, reflective, even mournful. Shot near Hastings, filming at one point is interrupted by an old man walking his Weimaraner. Mallet politely asks him if he would mind stepping out of the scene, gestures toward Bowie sitting next to the catering van, and asks: Do you know who that is over there? The old man responds: Of course I do. It’s some cunt in a clown suit.
GEORGE ORWELLTwenty-eight on Bowie’s reading list: 1984 (1949), whose first line reads: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,summoning the intense cold on the day of Bowie’s birth, which causes the clock on Lambeth Town Hall, a five-minute walk from his house in Brixton, to strike, not twelve, but thirteen times. In 1973 Bowie decides to make a musical based on the novel. Sonia, the author’s widow, refuses to grant rights, so Bowie makes the dystopian SF album Diamond Dogs instead, his original plans reverberating through such songs as “Big Brother,” “1984,” and “We Are the Dead”—the latter one of the last lines the protagonist Winston speaks to his first love, Julia, an instant before shock troops blast through the door, and drag them out to separate nightmares.
TONY OURSLERLongtime friend and American multimedia and installation artist whose repertoire of characters comprises neurotic, confused, abandoned teratoids in a continuous state of stupefied incredulity before the universe. Raised in Nyack, New York. Studied under Laurie Anderson at CalArts. One afternoon in the early nineties, Bowie simply shows up at his hovel of a studio at 175 Ludlow Street, a couple blocks east of Bowie’s Lafayette Street penthouse, wanting to talk art. Oursler: After his first heart attack, David went very quiet before reporting to me that he was reading approximately a book a day; he suggested I read one he loved that traced the fate of Oliver Cromwell’s head, which had been cut off his disinterred body shortly after burial and traveled here and there. I am grateful to have had these kinds of discussions, and sometimes when he thought it had gotten too highbrow for me he would put a hand on my shoulder and say with a grin, Tony, Tony, it’s only rock ’n’ roll. Some have posited that the impulse to construct alternate identities is a model for another kind of consciousness, free from Freudian archetypes. Once, while visiting the Rubin Museum, David and I discussed Carl Jung’s Red Book in relation to Jung’s view of channeling characters while creating. That’s a distinctly different view from Freud’s, and, to my mind, Bowie’s collection of personas offers just such a liberating trajectory, while also providing an alternative to the American cliché of rugged individualism and fixed, “authentic” identity.
IGGY POPBowie’s accomplice, collaborator, and little brother by proxy. Born James Newell Osterberg Jr. on April 21, 1947, three months after Bowie. Raised in a trailer park in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Godfather of punk. Vocalist/lyricist for the Stooges, with whom he perfects the skills of stage diving, rolling on broken glass bare chested, self-cutting, and exposing himself to profoundly pleased audiences. Unable to control his heroin addiction, he checks himself into the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute in 1974. Bowie is one of his few visitors, showing up initially with a paper bag full of assorted drugs, which the staff makes him leave at the front desk. Bowie invites Pop to accompany him to Berlin so they can clean up together. He tours and makes four albums with Bowie: Raw Power, The Idiot, Lust for Life, and Blah Blah Blah. Describing their Schöneberg years, Pop says: The big event of the week was Thursday night. Anyone who was still alive and able to crawl to the sofa would watch Starsky & Hutch. About Bowie’s visit to Pop’s parents’ trailer: The neighbors were so frightened of his car and the bodyguard they called the police. My father’s a very wonderful man, and he said to David, Thank you for what you’re doing for my son. I thought: Shut up, Dad. You’re making me look uncool.
PROMISE, NEW ANGELS OF (1)Artists acknowledging Bowie’s influence: Arctic Monkeys, Boy George, Kate Bush, The Cure, Eurythmics, the Flaming Lips, Michael Jackson, Joy Division, the Killers (Brandon Flowers drops out of college to pursue music after hearing Hunky Dory), Lady Gaga, Lorde, Madonna, Marilyn Manson, Morrissey, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana (Cobain’s favorite: The Man Who Sold The World), Pet Shop Boys, Pixies, Prince, Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Smiths, U2. Zum Beispiel.
PROMISE, NEW ANGELS OF (2)The addictive personality. The search for the quick fix. The urge to risk everything, over and over again, which is to say sex with Charlie Chaplin’s widow Oona (twenty-two years his senior), Marianne Faithfull, groupies (he estimates more than a thousand—among whom number girls as young as thirteen), his second manager Ralph Horton, Slash’s mother Ola Hudson, dancer Melissa Hurley (twenty years his junior), Bianca Jagger, possibly Mick himself, mime Lindsay Kemp, record executive Calvin Mark Lee, Bette Midler, Susan Sarandon, Elizabeth Taylor, Tina Turner, his assistant Tony Zanetta. I think I was always a closet heterosexual, Bowie telling a journalist, breaking into his characteristic angelic, self-effacing, impish smile.
RAWArt Spiegelman and wife Françoise’s avant-garde comics anthology that ran from 1980 to 1986 and appears forty-seventh on Bowie’s reading list. After an abysmal failure with Arcade, which goes under after only seven issues, Spiegelman swears he is finished with the form, but Françoise talks him into giving it a last go with a one-off compilation of such cartoonists as Chris Ware and Charles Burn. The first issue sells out almost immediately. The second features, among others, the first installment of Spiegelman’s own Maus, which will reconceptualize the genre’s power by telling his father’s experiences in the Holocaust by casting the Nazis as cats, the Jews as mice, and the Poles as pigs.
LOU REEDGuitarist, singer, principal songwriter for the Velvet Underground. Son of Toby and Sid Reed, an accountant who changes his name from Rabinowitz. Although Jewish, Reed maintains his real deity will always be rock’n’roll. Furious, competitive, resentful, stormy, conceited, inflexible, carnal, alcoholic, addicted, bullied at school, taken under wing by Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University, frantically if sporadically into meditation as a mode of self-medication never as satisfying as drugs. When his parents find out about his fluid sexuality, they approach local psychiatrists in an attempt to unbisexual him. The psychiatrists prescribe several rounds of electroshock therapy. The effect, Reed reports, is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can’t read a book because you get to page seventeen and have to go back to page one. In college he adopts heroin, contracts hepatitis. When the Velvet Underground breaks up for good in 1970, he is forced at twenty-eight to live with Toby and Sid for a year, running office errands for his dad for forty dollars a week. Lives with transgender woman named Rachel for half a decade. Meets his first wife, Bettye Kronstadt, in the midst of a three-day methamphetamine bender. He physically abuses her, leaving Bettye with facial bruises and blackened eyes on a regular basis. Friends characterize that relationship thus: A marriage made in the emergency room. His second wife: Sylvia Morales, art designer, manager, reading partner, maintains he is never anything but kind to her. Third wife: Laurie Anderson. Bowie coproduces Reed’s solo album, Transformer, home to “Perfect Day,” about his early love for Bettye, and “Walk on the Wild Side,” about drag performers moving to New York to become prostitutes and/or denizens of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Over dinner following a show at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1987, Reed asks Bowie to produce his next album. Bowie says he would be happy to—on the condition Reed sobers up. Reed leans across the table and punches Bowie in the face. Twenty-six years later, Reed dies of liver disease on a frisky Sunday morning in October at his home in East Hampton, taking in the trees outside his window while doing the famous twenty-one forms of tai chi, just his hands moving through the air, trying to disprove the assertion that there is no easy way out of this life.
MICK RONSONRonno. The Keith Richards to David Bowie’s Mick Jagger in the Spiders from Mars. Morrissey: He was the balls to Bowie at that time. He was the engine. Bowie: He provided this strong, earthy, simply focused idea of what a song was all about. And I would flutter all around him on the edges and decorate. I was sort of the interior decorator. Yorkshire working-class. Lapsed (very lapsed) Mormon. A man’s man’s man, that oddest of hormonal species, but never built to be a front man. Good friend all the way back to the days of the Hype. Trained in classical piano, recorder, violin, he supplied Bowie with string arrangements as well as lead guitar. Bowie and he last took the stage together on April 20, 1992 for the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert to play “All the Young Dudes,” which Bowie had written for Mott the Hoople. Died of liver cancer on April 29, 1993 at forty-six. Bowie said he was too distraught to play at Ronno’s memorial concert. Trevor Bolder, fellow band member in the Spiders from Mars: But when Freddie Mercury died, Bowie was straight on stage because it was in front of millions of people. . . . He wouldn’t get there for Mick Ronson’s because it wasn’t a big enough audience.
CORINNE SCHWABCoco. Personal assistant with Jewish ancestry, perhaps closest friend, alleged intermittent lover, provoker of Angie’s ire, lifeguard, guard dog, partition between Bowie and everything else (cf. provoker of Angie’s ire), yet another nanny and surrogate mother (quite possibly the most significant), yet another blackbox, unceasingly discreet, nearly invisible, silent, nevertheless by his side for forty-six years. Friends commenting that Bowie and she looked as if they had been married decades. Coco is the subject of “Never Let Me Down”—e.g., When I believed in nothing I called her name. Designated Lexi’s guardian, should anything happen to Iman before their daughter turns eighteen. Bequeathed two million dollars in Bowie’s will. (Two million? Given her devotion, the enormousness of his estate? Really?)
TONY VISCONTIAmerican record producer, musician, singer. All said and done, you can count on the fingers of one hand all the people who really meant something to Bowie over the course of his career, and, if you’re being honest, it is probable that that one hand holds several fingers too many. Visconti, however, would always be numbered among them. Works with, among others, the Dandy Warhols, Fall Out Boy, Gentle Giant, Paul McCartney and Wings, the Moody Blues, T. Rex, the Stone Roses. Leaves hometown of New York in 1967, transplanting to London, meets Bowie through Marc Bolan, hitting it off because of their shared musical loves: Frank Zappa’s free-form improvisations and sound investigations; Velvet Underground’s merger of the aurally innovative and pared-down rock-as-prophecy; the Fugs’ lewd, comedic countercultural songs in the key of the middle finger. Bowie and Visconti form one of the great artist/producer partnerships in music history, working on fourteen albums together, among which: the second, David Bowie; the Berlin Trilogy; the penultimate, The Next Day; and the last, Blackstar. Writing Bowie’s afterword: His death was not different from his life. It was a work of art.
ANDY WARHOLAugust 6, 1928: born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh to a coal-miner father and homemaker mother from Austria-Hungary. Artist, film director, producer, pop art nobility fixated on the nexus of advertising, celebrity culture, ironized sincerity, and what used to be thought of as Art with that capital A: What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too. June 3, 1968: shot through both lungs, spleen, stomach, liver, and esophagus by Valerie Solanas, a separatist feminist advocating the elimination of all men from the planet. Warhol nearly succumbs, suffers physical repercussions for the rest of his life, requiring him to wear a surgical corset. Bowie recounting their first meeting, which transpires shortly after Warhol returns to the Factory after Solanas’s assassination attempt: So I stepped off the elevator and right into a camera lens. He took my photo before I could say anything and it struck me he doesn’t look like flesh. Clearly he’s reptilian. Yellow complexion. White wig. These little glasses. He’s the wrong color to be a human being. I extended my hand and he pulled back. I tried to make small talk, but nothing happened. Then he saw my shoes. They were gold. I adore those, he said. Where did you get them? He wanted to be a cliché. He wanted to be available in Woolworth’s. We tried to talk a little more, then I said I had to be going. I left knowing as little about him as a person as when I went in.
BLACKOUT—scribbles Alec Nolens on his canary legal pad in blue ink, we scribble, the third day of his sabbatical having somehow adjusted into the forty-eighth of mine, most marked by a morning’s pleasure in resisting linearity’s limitations, the axiological and the genealogical, an afternoon’s stroll through breezy, leafy Prenzlauer Berg to Anna Blume, my choice café, named after the subject, by the way, of a 1919 Kurt Schwitters poem, for my daily latte and slice of Apfelkuchen (sans whipped cream—one must know one’s boundaries), perhaps a visit to a museum or gallery, trailed by an evening’s reading and note-taking with occasional excursion to a movie in the Hackescher Höfe Kino or jazz across town at the cramped A-Trane. With my writing it is always the same drill. Some days nothing can go wrong. Some days nothing can go right. Some days there are simply too many words in the English language. Some days there are not enough, syntax is a minefield, ideas are missing in action. Some days an unexpected discovery dazzles out from the middle of a clause. Others a drizzly brain fog clings to slate thought-streets in some rotting medieval village of the mind. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
How odd to be back at it after all this time, after that first study an aeon ago (lush language the actual indecent love affair eventuating in Nabokov’s special favorite, Lolita )—number nine, it turns out, synchronicity never ending, on Bowie’s book list), which reeled in my tenure and promotion, the second (Charles Mingus’s apparition wafting through contemporary literature and culture—n.b. listen to the fifth line in the last stanza of “Suffragette City” to hear Bowie wave at track three of Oh Yeah, “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am”), which hatched my full professorship, the odd essay and review left askew along the road’s shoulder . . . and continuous wonder at where they all came from, the startle that rounding this lap of life I might just have another book in me which I genuinely care about, free from yawny professional presumptions. I can sense how stubbornly this one has rooted itself inside me, unwilling to get out of my head because—because there’s that word again, causality’s hocus-pocus burrowed deep into our conjunctions, when in the final analysis it’s really all and and except down, down, down the paratactical rabbit hole.
I thought I was done. I hoped I was done. I was betting I was done. I set my writing aside in favor of the sea of perplexed faces in my classrooms and whatever the local cause of the week was, trying to sway myself into thinking I could accomplish more Out There than In Here, on paper, amid the brain’s empathy, although I could never quite explain to friends what I meant. In any case, as luck would have it, my psyche incubated other proposals behind my back. Incrementally, secondary sources began rising like a slow tide around me, photographs, books, newspaper columns, miscellaneous scraps, all in the form of an appeal, a proposition, a challenge to decode and think again and feel again with something like intensity again, and so here I am this morning, June’s bird gibber constant in those courtyard trees beyond my cracked-open window, never sure if this thing before me is sailing or sinking, staring down one more blackbox: Bowie and Iman’s relationship. Where did that come from? What was it like? Iman and Bowie wouldn’t say. Try hazarding a guess, and all you do is bump your nose against the glass pane of that pact they kept between themselves for nearly a quarter of a century: do what you need to do to further your personas and portfolios, only at the end of each day David Bowie and Iman must remain propped against the wall in the hallway, two cardboard cutouts, while the other pair reanimate themselves on the far side of the door—which means, exactly, what? Beats me.
You seem to know things, which is to say you have ferreted out a few thousand facts, more or less. You can tell people, for instance, that Iman means faith in Arabic, that she was born July 25, 1955 in Mogadishu, Somalia, to a gynecologist mother and diplomat father—though early in her career she deliberately aided and abetted the hoax that she had been unearthed herding cattle in the African bush to spike the exotic stock of her tall stature, slender figure, long neck, full lips, mysterious accent, and lustrous cinnamon skin. </br? From age four, you can say, she attended a Catholic boarding school in Egypt, and, when Somalian politics blighted, the family fled to Kenya, where Iman briefly studied political science at the University of Nairobi before marrying a Hilton executive at eighteen. That marriage dematerialized when she moved to the US to pursue modeling, famed photographer Peter Beard having stumbled across her on a street in the Kenyan capital. In 1977 she crept charily into a second marriage with LA Lakers forward Spencer Haywood, whose ho-hum performances on the court earned him the nickname Spencer Deadwood among sports writers, and whom she ditched nine years later, promising herself never to speculate on a third lockup. A not undevout Muslim who labels herself a lapsed feminist (cf.: The struggle is real, but so is God.), you can say, Iman is impressively fluent in Somali, Arabic, Italian, French and English. She functions as cosmopolitan plexus where ethnicity, religion, politics, pop culture, and the game of glitz coalesce into an uneasy confederacy, which includes breast inflation to a 34B (I was raised to treat my body as a temple, but I thought there was something wrong with the temple.), getting married to Bowie in an Episcopal church rather than a mosque, vowing publicly to cook dinner for her hubby every evening, making nice through her philanthropy, and making gobs of money through her Global Chic clothing line (featuring anything except real fashion; neither global nor chic) on the Home Shopping Network, and Iman Cosmetics (featuring makeup for women of color) everywhere. Her autobiography, I Am Iman, isn’t an autobiography. Not a real one, at any rate.
It sheds zippo light on the private. So we must look elsewhere for refracted glimpses of her connection with Bowie and Bowie’s with her. She tried him on, she disclosed, and found a soulmate fit, but: I fell in love with David Jones. I did not fall in love with David Bowie. Bowie is just a singer, an entertainer. David Jones is the man I met. When she interviewed him for Bust Magazine in the fall of 2000, a decade after they first met at a dinner party (Bowie: I did something really corny the next day. I invited Iman to afternoon tea—despite the fact that he hated tea and ended up drinking coffee instead), eight years after they were wed (Bowie: You would think that a rock star being married to a supermodel would be one of the greatest things in the world—it is), for which he got his gnarly canary smoker’s teeth replaced with a shiny white straight set of crowns, taming his rebel mouth—when Iman interviewed him for Bust Magazine, she posed this as her last question: What do you think makes relationships between men and women work? Bowie answers, deadpan: Complete and absolute generosity with the duvet.
It’s blackbox blackout beneath blackbox blackout. Who cares? Nobody.
Come on: Who cares? Everybody. Really? At least a little, right? Otherwise, why are we reading on?
As I say, my interest in Bowie accrues at the inverse of his youth. When we’re in our teens, our twenties, we believe effortlessly that we choose cha-cha-cha-changes. At some point it becomes increasingly clear that change is also choosing us. Somewhere in our late forties, early fifties, we turn into a batch of letters somebody sent a long time ago. We are no longer on the way. We have arrived, wherever we are, for better, for worse, for both, till death do us part. The harrowingly fundamental question remains: Who do you become when you become yourself? Yourselves? That’s the big ask that bobs up after all the pee-wee ones. And the clear, conclusive answer is: Nobody knows. If challenging texts—think Ulysses; think Tender Buttons; think Gravity’s Rainbow—teach us how to read them (and they do with a vengeance), what results when we encounter one like Bowie&Iman, a text that makes it its business to italicize its own illegibility? What results when unreadability is the interpretation?
That didn’t go well. Let me try again. Julian Barnes’s glistening critifiction Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) appears forty-third on Bowie’s reading list. Geoffrey Braithwaite, the novel’s narrator, its beautifully rigorous reader, an academically disposed retired doctor obsessed with all things Flaubert, especially (I have no idea why) A Sentimental Education (1869) and (so much so) Madame Bovary (1856), has thrown himself, in the wake of losing Ellen, his wife, first to adultery and then to suicide, into the minutiae of Flaubertiana in order to stuff the searing nothing not-ing at his core. By immersing himself in the personality of others, Flaubert knows, he forgot his own, which is perhaps the only way not to suffer from it. Amen. Braithwaite gets that, and hence knows his undertaking is an always-already lost cause and because. He knows something else, as well: that getting a historical person—which is to say any person—right is wrong. It can’t be done. There is no such thing as an accurate account of somebody’s existence, although there can certainly be and ever are vastly inaccurate ones. That’s the sham that keeps biographers and memoirists in bankable business. The symbolic flag for this realization in Barnes’s novel is Lulu, the stuffed parrot Gustav kept on his desk while composing “A Simple Heart,” and which Braithwaite stumbles across in Rouen’s Musée Flaubert. The difficulty comes when, not long after that initial encounter, Braithwaite stumbles across a second stuffed parrot alleged to be Lulu, this one at the Croisset pavilion where Gustav lived the last thirty-seven years of his life riddled with various venereal diseases and barreling toward the brick wall of a cerebral hemorrhage at fifty-eight. Both docents—the fellow at the museum, the fellow at the pavilion—claim with comprehensive French hauteur that his parrot is the real taxidermied deal.
Another way of putting this: history is a mode, not merely of dates and data, but also of writing moves and belief, which is to say a mode of reading, which is to say a series of blindnesses, which is to say a conglomeration of misgivings, misconceptions, and misinterpretations. We can’t go back, no matter what. As much as physicists and New Age claptrappers would like to pretend otherwise, time’s arrow is stuck on fast-forward. (Sorry about that.) This knowledge, if we let it penetrate us even for a second, shatters our wits almost as quickly as it does our hopes.
We never find history waiting for us like an Uber at the airport. We make it up as we go along. Not from whole cloth, certainly, but from jigsawed, biased bits. We decide which dates and data to foreground, which to background, which to drop, which to jump up and down about, which to sweep discreetly under the manuscript. Then we arrange what’s left into a certain order that, as Hayden White reminds us in Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in the Nineteenth Century (1973), necessarily turns history into a beeline narrative, which in other contexts we would recognize as generic romance, satire, comedy, or tragedy, depending—never, however, into the disheveled thing itself. How could it be otherwise? History thereby regularly applies that catty conjunction used by doctors, geologists, mathematicians, and literary wannabes alike in order to appear to explain (and hence explain away) what occurred, when, why, how, and to whom. In A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), Linda Hutcheon tunes into White’s wavelength and converts what she hears there into her own station: historiographic metafictionn—i.e., fictions about history that understand that they are fictions about “history,” which can never accurately manifest history, but rather only the problematization of the very idea of pastness. Tony, Tony, it’s only rock ’n’ roll.
Iman and Bowie maintain they are wholly uninterested in persona’s pretense. Rather, for them, they say, it’s the something supposedly far more authentic deep down inside that they care about. The former carefully fabricates her yarn to make sure it is the one she wants the world to recall about her, even as the latter becomes Geoffrey Braithwaite personified, obsessive writer and reader of superstar David Bowie, archivist and curator of Davy Jones’s avatar, amasser of a vast collection of articles relating to said avatar’s career, among which resides a tissue blotted with his lipstick, the celebrity counterpart of some saint’s finger or femur stuck in a gold-leafed jug, pop culture’s nuzzle into faith and exaltation. People pay twenty bucks on weekdays and twenty-five on weekends to hop through the looking glass into the cathedral whose name is David Bowie is . . . , a recasting of museum space into holy sheen, theatrical spectacle, sacred awe, and the promise of redemption through a surge of film montages, soundtracks, and three hundred objects (working notes, sketches, lyrics, artworks, videos, costumes, even an old coke spoon) from his seventy-five-thousand-object personal collection—all assiduously laid out to make the visitor feel a Protestant’s divine intimacy with the theorem in question’s creative practices, processes, and products, at the end of which awaits the blessed gift shop where you, too, can buy your way into heaven. (Coca-Cola, anyone?) At the entrance, we are confronted by an illustrative choice: which of two doorways to step through. They are of equal size, indicating both equal validity and no central path through the textual labyrinth toward our narrativization of D.B. Walking through the rooms, one reviewer wrote, is like walking through parts of his brain. But it isn’t. It isn’t at all. That’s missing the point entirely. Walking through the rooms (in 2014, in Kreuzberg at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, after my early afternoon Apfelkuchen and latte—sans whipped cream) is like walking through a carefully constructed hallowed funhouse of feints, surfaces, and irredeemable promises.That feeling of relishing David Bowie is . . . is precisely the feeling of relishing who David Bowie isn’t. The exhibition’s meaning lies squarely in its title’s ellipsis of uncertainty.
Lance Olsen is author of more than 30 books of and about innovative writing, including, most recently, the novels Skin Elegies (Dzanc, 2021) and Always Crashing in the Same Car (FC2, forthcoming this month), from which the piece in this issue is an excerpt. He teaches at the University of Utah.