‘Librarian with a Sex Drive'

Singer, starman, sexual icon … bookworm? It turns out David Bowie is not just a pop-culture innovator but also a major bibliophile. Andrew Nette looks into the bookish side of Bowie.

David Bowie’s deep and complex relationship with modern music is news to no-one. But the ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition showing in Melbourne until November at the Australian Centre for the Movie Image (ACMI) highlights another, lesser-known aspect of Bowie’s persona: his febrile interaction with literature.

A documentary commissioned by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where ‘David Bowie Is’ first showed in 2013, quotes the singer describing himself as ‘a librarian with a sex drive’. He released his ‘Top 100 Must Read Books’ that year to coincide with the unveiling of the exhibition, and it’s an eclectic mix spanning everything from literary classics, to non-fiction and critical theory to the laddish satire magazine, Viz.

In 1998, he answered Vanity Fair’s famous Proust Questionnaire. In response to the question, ‘What is your idea of perfect happiness?’ Bowie answered ‘Reading’. And the quality he most liked in a man? ‘The ability to return books’.

It is hard not to read Bowie’s Top 100 without being struck by possible connections. The Life and Times of Little Richard, a biography of another influential singer by BBC radio and TV presenter Charles White, is one of several music-related works to make the list. Also interesting is the inclusion of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, a 1986 account of Chatwin’s trip to Outback Australia. Its inclusion is significant given Bowie had been here only a few years earlier on the Australian leg of his ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour. He visited Carinda in outback New South Wales to film the clip to his international hit, ‘Let’s Dance’, and later talked about the extent of racism in Australia.

But analysing the list also runs the risk of finding meaning that may not have existed at the time. Did Bowie tackle Colin Wilson’s 1956 classic The Outsider, an examination of the philosophical concept of the ‘outsider’ in Western society, as part of his preparation for his future career as a rock’n’roll innovator? Or did a copy of the book, widely read in the sixties, just happen to be lying around his London accommodation when he was looking for something to read?

While Bowie’s literary proclivities have been on the public record for some time, ‘David Bowie Is’ expands on this reputation and fills gaps in terms of literary influences not credited in Bowie’s recommended reading list.

Amid the ration cards and childhood drawings of Bowie’s early life in post-World War II London is a copy of Colin MacInnes 1959 novel, Absolute Beginners. The tale of a young man who escapes the suburbs for London, it featured what at the time was a new social category: the teenager. Interestingly, Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945 by influential British cultural theorist Jon Savage, makes Bowie’s top 100.

The same display includes Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence. First published in Italy in 1928, the novel about the relationship between a working-class man and an upper-class woman was not available in the UK until 1960, when it became the subject of a high-profile obscenity trial. In a clear sign of changing times undoubtedly not lost on the young David Jones, as Bowie was then known, the publisher was found not guilty.

The character Ziggy Stardust arrived on the scene in July 1972 when a pale and androgynous Bowie performed ‘Starman’ live on the TV show Top of the Pops.The exhibition shows how the persona of Ziggy Stardust, a rock star in communication with alien beings, was an amalgam of literary influences.

Chief among these was A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Both the book (which appears along with Earthly Powers, also by Burgess, in the Top 100) and film had a major impact on Bowie, who once described Ziggy Stardust’s costume as “ultra-violence in Liberty fabrics”. Another influence was British writer J. G. Ballard and his uniquely suburban brand of dystopian science fiction. Although Ballard didn’t make the Top 100, several of his paperbacks, including the 1970 edition of The Atrocity Exhibition with its cover drawing by Salvador Dali, feature in the exhibition.

Ziggy Stardust also owed a debt to the 1971 novel The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead by William S Burroughs, about a homosexual youth gang. Bowie modelled his character’s hair and make-up on descriptions of the Wild Boys.

Bowie met Burroughs in person in late 1973, when Rolling Stone magazine hosted a discussion between the two men in an article titled ‘Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman’. Bowie took from the encounter the ‘cut-up technique’, a method of randomly rearranging text to form new text – borrowed by Burroughs from the Dadaists of the twenties – and used it on his successful 1974 album, Diamond Dogs.

Diamond Dogs is another melange of influences. According to the exhibition, Bowie got the idea for a dystopian rock opera from images of Soviet Russia he saw during a trip on the Trans Siberian Express from Japan to England in 1973. He wanted to make a theatrical production of George Orwell’s 1984, but was denied the rights by the author’s estate.

The narrative of Diamond Dogs, about a youth gang in a post-apocalyptic future, also borrowed from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. In the liner notes of Diamond Dogs’ 30th-anniversary release, Bowie makes his connection directly. “They’d taken over this barren city, this city that was falling apart. They’d been able to break into windows of jewellers and things, so they dressed themselves up in furs and diamonds. But they had snaggle-teeth, really filthy, kind of like vicious Oliver Twists. It was a take on, what if those guys had gone malicious, if Fagin’s gang had gone absolutely ape shit?”

One of Bowie’s more intriguing Top 100 selections is Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders. Published in 1957, it was a groundbreaking study of the psychology and motivational techniques used by advertisers to manipulate consumers. ‘The book appeared at the exact moment at which there was a breakdown in public/private culture,’ says Tyne Daile Sumner, a researcher in English Studies at the University of Melbourne. ‘That is very much synonymous with the entrance of the TV into the family home and idea of the big public performer who is also inside your living room.’

The suggestion Bowie was thinking about the implications of advertising and the fact that one could self-advertise, is reinforced by the inclusion in the exhibition of a copy of Canadian media theorist, Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. This was a 1951 collection of essays, each of which begins with a media or advertising image followed by the author’s analysis of it.

In response to the question, ‘What is your idea of perfect happiness?’ Bowie answered ‘Reading’. And the quality he most liked in a man? ‘The ability to return books’.

Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical Goodbye to Berlin is also featured in the exhibition. Isherwood lived in Germany in the thirties and the novel is based on his experiences in Berlin’s pre-war gay sub-culture. Bowie, a fan of the book, reportedly became friends with Isherwood during the Los Angeles leg of his 1976 ‘Station to Station’ tour, a period when the singer’s drug use was peaking and he was discontented with life.

Isherwood’s influence is believed to have been the key reason behind Bowie’s decision to move to Berlin. The singer was able to live incognito in the Western section of the then divided city. Bowie also used the time to re-invigorate his career with three influential albums, Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979).

 In April this year, the Guardian reported the songwriter would collaborate with Irish playwright Enda Walsh on a musical called Lazarus, inspired by the 1963 science fiction novel The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis. Bowie starred in the 1978 film version, directed by Nicolas Roeg. It’s the story of an alien who comes to earth to find water for his drought-stricken planet. Whether or not the production gets off the ground, one thing is clear. Five decades into his career Bowie is still mining literature for inspiration.

 

Portrait of Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette is a Melbourne-based writer and journalist. His non-fiction has appeared in various print and online publications. He is co-editor of Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950–1980, forthcoming in 2015.

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