The Man Who Sold the World (7 page)

 

VIII

The lure of the swinging sixties—the myths of Carnaby Street and flower power—both enticed and repelled Bowie. He could recognize the thrill of dressing sharp and loud, of flitting from woman to woman (or man) in search of a momentary thrill, of waving his peacock feathers as a sign that he was alive. Yet like George Harrison of the Beatles, who looked at Carnaby Street and saw only spiritual emptiness, Bowie was racked by the conviction that there must be more. “As far as I'm concerned the whole idea of Western life—that's the life we live now—is wrong,” he declared in 1966. “The majority [of people in London] just don't know what life is.”

Before the Beatles inaugurated an era of pop spirituality with their sponsorship of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Bowie was staking his allegiance to the mystic East. He was, he proclaimed, a Buddhist who was fascinated by Tibet. “I'd like to take a holiday and have a look inside the mountains,” the budding cultural tourist said. He also claimed to be fascinated by astrology and reincarnation—anything that would explain and expand his life on the planet. As he admitted, though, “These are hard convictions to put into songs.” At a formative age, he had read Christmas Humphreys's book
Zen Buddhism
,
*
a suitably enigmatic account of the spiritual path that vanishes at the moment you begin to glimpse it. Humphreys declared that Zen was “incommunicable,” and then devoted two hundred pages to proving himself right, although his failure still offered the stuff of temptation: “[Zen] climbs, with empty hands, from the level of ‘usual life' to the heights of spiritual awareness. The effort is terrific; the results are commensurate.” For a creative person like Bowie, who was conscious of the fleeting moment of creation and the distraction of goals, Humphreys's conception of Zen must have sounded both familiar and bewitching: “Zen is not a new thing but a new way of looking at things. It is a new vision with the old eyes.”

The Beatles had the advantage of being able to immerse themselves in the spirit of the East with only self-imposed distractions. Bowie, by contrast, was scratching for a living, searching for acceptance, struggling to remain immune from his past. On February 22, 1967, Bowie accompanied his brother Terry to a concert by the overpoweringly loud rock band Cream. As they walked home afterward, the increasingly disturbed Terry fell to the ground in terror, convinced that the earth was opening up beneath his feet in flames. The chronology is uncertain, but around this time Bowie's brother had returned to London after several months, expecting to live with his aunt Pat—only to discover that she and her husband had emigrated to Australia without telling him. Scarred by the apparent rejection, Terry is said to have run away to Chislehurst Caves in Kent (where Bowie and the Buzz had performed the previous year), where he was discovered in a state of profound emotional dislocation, and escorted back to the Jones household by the police. Henceforth he would spend his weekends with his mother and stepfather, and then stay in a mental hospital between Monday and Friday.

It's clearly not a coincidence that Bowie now began to spend as much time as he could at Kenneth Pitt's London flat, becoming a full-time resident in June 1967. Terry had once been his family protector and spiritual guide; perhaps it had simply become too uncomfortable for David to witness his brother's disintegration; perhaps the Jones house in Plaistow Grove, Beckenham, was now too cramped for creative endeavor; perhaps Bowie simply needed to be closer to London's media and artistic milieu. Whatever the rationale, the relationship of Bowie and Terry gradually faded away, even if the memory of what Terry had been, and what he had become, continued to shape Bowie's outlook for many years to come.

“One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity,” he told the BBC in 1993. “You start to approach the very thing you're scared of.” To alleviate this pressure, Bowie depended on his creativity: “I felt that I was the lucky one [in the family] because I was an artist, and it would never happen to me. As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work, I could always be throwing it off.” During the remainder of the sixties, and for much of the seventies, he pursued a ferocious working schedule, as if constant exertion—the flood of songs, film treatments, scripts, and artworks that he produced, even when he was supposed to be resting between tours—would keep madness at bay. Creative output also blocked another avenue of negativity: “I was convinced I wasn't worth very much. I had enormous self-image problems, and very low self-esteem, which I hid behind obsessive writing and performing. I was driven to get through life very quickly. I thought I didn't need to exist. I really felt so utterly inadequate. I thought the work was the only thing of value.”

His lack of self-esteem must have been reinforced when
David Bowie
—the album, and its attendant image—was launched, to a minimal response from the public. It had the misfortune of being released on the same day as the Beatles' epochal
Sgt. Pepper
album, but Bowie and Pitt's loyal supporters in the media ensured that it did at least receive a modicum of press coverage. “David Bowie has no great voice,” one review stated, but “he can project words with a cheeky ‘side' that is endearing yet not precocious,” while his work was “full of abstract fascination.” In an apt summary of Bowie's current situation, the journalist suggested that he could “make quite a noise on the scene if he gets the breaks and the right singles.” Prestigious though his album was, it effectively suffocated his career. Until a month before its release, he was still performing with the Riot Squad, incorporating a psychedelic lights show, surreal sound effects, and garish makeup into his act. The
David Bowie
LP bore no relation to this persona, and few of its songs—whimsical character studies, for the most part, defiantly removed from the psychedelic ambience of the era—could be performed without orchestral musicians. Bowie and the Riot Squad parted company in May, with the bizarre result that he celebrated the release of his album by not performing a conventional “pop” gig for the next fourteen months. Any momentum created by his years of performances at venues such as the Marquee was lost.

Instead, Pitt encouraged Bowie to look beyond the vicissitudes of the pop charts for more enduring success—a farsighted view that would reward the singer, if not his new manager. His publisher, David Platz, urged him to pen English lyrics for songs from Israel and France, the most notable of which would provide the biggest hit of Frank Sinatra's career—though not, sadly, utilizing Bowie's translation [A50]. He also continued to write deliberately commercial pop songs (“top ten rubbish,” he called them, though none came remotely close to achieving that status) in the hope of attracting other artists.

Meanwhile, Bowie won the starring role in a short silent film,
The Image
, made in September 1967. Written and directed by Michael Armstrong, it was ostensibly a tale of obsession in the vein of Henry James's “The Story of a Masterpiece,” though it carried a subtext of homosexual self-loathing so obvious that perhaps its creator was blind to its implications. An artist has painted a portrait of a mysterious young man, and then finds the incarnation of his picture at his door. He is so unnerved by this apparition that he kills the youth, only for him to reappear continually in his house. The haunted artist then destroys his painting and immediately drops dead. Bowie's role required nothing more demanding than a fixed expression and the ability to tumble down a few stairs. But he achieved this with sufficient panache for Armstrong to offer Bowie the lead role in a screenplay based around Offenbach's opera
Orpheus in the Underworld
; the screenplay updated the plot by centering it on a pop singer who is torn apart by his fans—an uncanny precursor of the Ziggy Stardust myth five years later.
*

“I want to act,” Bowie had announced in 1966. “I'd like to do character parts. I think it takes a lot to become somebody else.” His subsequent career as an actor, certainly until the early eighties, merely demonstrated the truth of what he was saying, as he found it difficult to escape a sense of self-consciousness that left the audience constantly aware that they were watching David Bowie rather than a fictional character. Yet in his music Bowie found it natural to “un-become” himself, or at least offer an array of different aspects to his personality.

 

IX

Two other routes to that “un-becoming” were available to him in late 1967. Neither promised financial reward: despite Pitt's moral and monetary support, Bowie was forced to take part-time jobs just weeks after his album was released, as a cleaner and an assistant in a West End photocopy shop.
*
Hence the attraction of escape, which led him to explore the possibility of becoming a Buddhist monk. He had befriended an American record producer, Tony Visconti, who introduced him to the guru Chimi Youngdong Rimpoche at the Tibet Society in Hampstead. By the end of the year, he and Visconti were at the Samye Ling Tibetan Centre in Scotland. “I was a terribly earnest Buddhist at the time,” he admitted in 1969. “I had stayed in their monastery and was going through all their exams, and yet I had this feeling that it wasn't right for me. I suddenly realised how close it all was: another month and my head would have been shaved.” He embellished the story for William Burroughs in 1973: “About two weeks before I was actually going to take those steps, I broke up and went out on the street and got drunk and never looked back.” What had he learned from this episode? “To try and make each moment of one's life one of the happiest, and if it's not, try to find out why.” It was an admirable philosophy, though not one that he would be able to follow in the years ahead.

“I decided that as I wasn't happy,” he claimed in 1969, “I would get right away from it all. I vanished completely for a year. No one knew where I was.” He certainly wasn't at the heart of London's youth culture, at the UFO Club or at Middle Earth; neither was he visible in Grosvenor Square, protesting against US involvement in Vietnam, or joining the hippie campaigns against the repressive drug laws, or supporting black power, or lining up in the student revolts, fired into action by the tear gas on the streets of Paris, Berlin, or London. At the moment when many of his generation regarded their youthfulness as a revolutionary act, and their political activism as a basic function of being alive, he was absent, apparently uninterested, definitely uninvolved.

So determined was Bowie to remain silent, in fact, that he began to experiment with a medium in which he would not be allowed to use his voice. In July 1967 he was introduced to dancer and mime artiste Lindsay Kemp, who was using Bowie's album as interval music for a London show titled
Clowns Hour
. Besides his classical training and innate physical skill, Kemp was powered by a fearless drive to confront his audience and destroy their inhibitions—which led to his being branded “lewd and obscene” and banned from performing in various parts of Europe. While Buddhism offered Bowie freedom from desire and ambition, Kemp was able to dangle the more enticing prospect of liberation from dread and self-restraint. Although other artists, from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol, may have left a more identifiable mark on Bowie's career, it was Kemp who liberated him to recognize his scattered selves and let them loose upon the world.

“I knew we shared a common joy,” Kemp remembered. “I said, ‘We have to be together, we have to have a child between us.' It was like Isadora Duncan when she first saw Nijinsky. It wasn't just because I wanted to screw him, although I must say that was at the back of my mind.” “He lived on his emotions,” Bowie noted, “he was a wonderful influence. His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I had seen, ever. It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was.”

Kemp introduced Bowie to the discipline of mime, its code, its emblematic characters, such as Columbine, Pierrot, and Scaramouche. “Lindsay Kemp was a living Pierrot,” Bowie recalled. “He lived and talked Pierrot. The stage thing for him was just an extension of himself.” Some of Kemp's literary influences, such as Wilde and Joyce, were familiar to Bowie from Kenneth Pitt's bookshelves; others, notably the French novelist and playwright Jean Genet, were a revelation. Bolstered by fame several years later, Bowie would intervene to settle an artistic quarrel between Kemp and Genet; in 1967, he was simply entranced by Genet's celebration of transgression in his rococo descriptions of thievery, male prostitution, and suicidal despair. “[Genet] has come,” said critic David Mairowitz in 1966, “out of his private erotic cave to say ‘shit' to ‘our' world”—which was exactly the spirit that Kemp admired, and that Bowie could not help but ingest.

Three months after their first meeting, Bowie joined Kemp and his partner Jack Birkett in
Pierrot in Turquoise
at the Oxford Playhouse. While Kemp and Birkett acted out a scenario of erotic infatuation that was heightened by Kemp's passion for his new recruit, Bowie played the aptly vague role of Cloud, which required him to perform songs from his LP and flit ethereally across the stage, demonstrating the bare minimum of mime expertise. “I enabled him to free the angel and demon that he is on the inside,” Kemp reflected many years later. That perhaps explained why Kemp essayed a token slash at his wrists with a knife during a subsequent engagement at an arts center in Lancashire, taking to the stage that evening bandaged and with bruised ego because he had discovered Bowie in intimate congress with the troupe's costumer, Natasha Korniloff.

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