When it comes to the great questions of existence, the real divide may be not between Christians and Muslims or between god-botherers and atheists, but between those who make their answers to such questions explicit and those who decline to. Perhaps, underneath the tumult of argument, there is a different reality in the heart of each one of us, sometimes as far from the exterior as is possible to imagine. Words fail us; and words fail all notions of God or god.
I am thinking of David Bowie, whose work I revered for more than forty years, and who died of cancer in January 2016. I have been reading The Age of Bowie, by Paul Morley, published just six months after the death of its subject. I have been a fan of Morley, also, for almost as long as of Bowie—going back to his epic writing in the New Musical Express in the 1970s. He is one of the few rock writers who from the beginning had the ability to write in a manner commensurate with the best of the music: poetically, paradoxically, mysteriously in tune.
Two of Morley’s previous books rank with the very best of British literature: Nothing (2000), his powerful archaeology of the death by suicide of his father; and Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City (2003). In the latter, exhilarating odyssey—a cross between a poem, a song, and a book of lists—Morley implausibly but convincingly argued that the cutting edge of popular music was represented, at the start of the third millennium, not by Coldplay but by Kylie Minogue. Mainstream rock had become jaded, flat-earthist, and self-referential, whereas pop “carries on as always, blasting the past into the present, caring only about the thrill of sound and the speed of fashion.”
Morley’s latest book contains some of the best writing ever produced about Bowie, though the overall effect is of a thrown-together tribute that hits the road only on the tops of the hills. Still, it may be better than any other book about Bowie, past, present, or to come.
Morley treats of Bowie as the artist whose personae became his art at a time when the world was changing as though in a meltdown, and as often as not under his influence. Magpie-like, he stole the shifts and trends of the changing world and draped them on himself. For more than a few of us growing up in the wilds of Ireland in the 1970s, Bowie was fundamentally an educator in the ways of the mutating external world, showing us life in all its lights and shades. Nothing could be the same again after you had heard those haunting songs from Ziggy Stardust, or the sounds of 2020 minted in Berlin on Low and Heroes, or read one of his extraordinary interviews with the New Musical Express.
At its best, pop music can be prophetic, and Bowie’s life—into his thirties, certainly—became a kind of proclamation of the coming age. “Change,” wrote Jacques Attali in Noise: The Political Economy of Music, “is inscribed in noise faster than it transforms society. Music is prophetic because … it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible.”
Bowie was a canary in the coal mine of post-1960s culture, plumbing its depths and soaring above almost everyone else. In the 1980s, having walked up and knocked loudly on death’s door, he retreated into a contrived mediocrity, returning as a changed man in the 1990s, a recovering addict who had finally taken the measure of himself. He seemed to mimic in reverse the degeneration of the culture he may have done more than most to drive towards madness: becoming clean and sober while the world went to pot, and worse. Paul Morley quotes a 1975 interview with Bowie for Creem in which he spoke about Thomas Jerome Newton, the character he played in The Man Who Fell to Earth: “My character is … essential man, man in his pure form, who’s corrupted or brought down by the corruption around him.” He might have been talking about himself.
Morley places Bowie in the context of 1960s secular liberalism and leaves him there. He draws a sketch of 1970s Britain embracing the agenda advanced by “the progressive moderate, mild radical and social moderniser,” Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, whose policies “led to a liberalisation on the laws of divorce, abortion, homosexuality, the abolition of capital punishment and the outlawing of racial discrimination.” This is perhaps half the story. Bowie at no point considered himself an activist breaking down social barriers—always an artist exploring human possibilities.
But some of the cultural developments he was announcing—drugginess, androgyny, homosexuality, bisexualism—have long since ceased to seem like unambiguous freedoms. They have become problematic in ways that Bowie, as an artist of astonishing capability, must towards the end have come quietly to observe.
Bowie, because he was Bowie, and therefore honest in the ways that matter for an artist, would have had to acknowledge that the values/lifestyles he celebrated in his professional youth had mutated and become politicized and weaponized as he plummeted towards death, becoming tools in the hands of an intolerant and repressive establishment to target holdouts and dissenters. It is impossible to imagine that Bowie—in Morley’s words, a “spokesman for those persecuted and preyed on by menacing forces”—would have been blind to this reversal.
If you doubt this, consider: Could Bowie himself have survived, had the present climate of intolerance existed when he made his infamous Nazi salute outside London’s Victoria Station in 1976? Strung out by months of touring and drug-taking, having immersed himself to excess in the dreams of Albert Speer, he provided the press with a freeze-frame that today would have ended his career. He said he was clowning, but this is now verboten.
In a 1978 interview with Crawdaddy, he said that he was not in the business of adopting stances on behalf of any group of people: “I’m not a group person; I don’t like groups of gays, I don’t like groups of straights.”
In an interview with Tony Parsons in Arena in 1993, he said: “In the States, towards the end of the Seventies, I think the gay body was pretty hostile towards me because I didn’t seem to be supporting the gay movement in any kind of way. And I was sad about that. Because I had come to the realisation that I was pretty much heterosexual.”
His spiritual outlook also changed a great deal between the 1970s and the millennium. In 1990, he met the supermodel Iman Abdulmajid, who became his second wife and with whom he appears to have embarked upon a conventional existence in New York City. Morley reports that he had a tattoo inscribed on his calf with one of his drawings of Iman riding a dolphin, along with the Serenity Prayer. They had one child together, a daughter, Alexandria Zehra.
From the beginning he had thrown out hints of a spiritual life, briefly flirting with the idea of becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk. He sometimes appeared a spiritual dilettante, dabbling in Buddhism, Christianity, and elements of Islam. But there were darker parts, too: flirtations with unwholesome forces and, in particular, with the diabolical explorations of the occultist Aleister Crowley (“Do what thy wilt shall be the whole of the law”). He told Tony Parson in that 1993 Arena interview:
Looking at what I have done in my life, in retrospect so much of what I thought was adventurism was searching for my tenuous connection with God. I was always investigating, always looking into why religions worked and what it was people found in them. And I was always fluctuating from one set of beliefs to another until a very low point in the mid-Seventies where I developed a fascination with black magic. … And although I’m sure there was a satanic lead pulling me towards it, it wasn’t a search for evil. It was in the hope that the signs might lead me somewhere.
Something dark but indeterminate happened on the set of the 1975 movie The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie played the space traveler Thomas Jerome Newton. From then on, Bowie wore a small gold cross around his neck, the original given to him as a present by his then–business adviser and manager Michael Lippman and Lippman’s wife, with whom Bowie stayed for a time in Los Angeles.
“I only started wearing one a couple of years ago,” he told Timothy White in that 1978 Crawdaddy interview. “I just felt I’d been pretty godless for a few years. It’s no great thing, just a belief, or let’s call it the usual force. Or God? Yes, sure. It’s a lukewarm relationship at the best of times, but I think it’s definitely there.”
In the 1993 Arena interview he explained his earlier collapse into drugs, sex, and despair by saying, “I felt totally, absolutely alone. And I probably was alone because I pretty much had abandoned God.” But such references remained sparing. Perhaps he was wary of running afoul of the broader pop culture, and so only occasionally allowed his inner life to burst forth. A few artists showed similar inclinations, sometimes even more adventurously, but as often as not they looked to Bowie as a leader, and his refusal was for them definitive. U2, for example, retreated from such adventuring as they became less certain of their entitlement to the status of rock royalty. Bowie acquired the excuse of illness—a heart attack in 2004, then terminal cancer—and contented himself with artistically running on the spot, until the final glorious burst of The Next Day and Blackstar.
In a 1992 tribute to Freddie Mercury, a year after the Queen vocalist had died of AIDS, Bowie provided what must remain the most unexpected and dissonant moment in the official history of what is called rock music when, at the end of his set with Queen, he announced that he was going to do something in memory of Freddie and of “our friends—my friends and your friends” and family members who had been “toppled by this relentless disease.”
“I’d like to offer something in a very simple fashion, but it’s the most direct way I can think of doing it,” he said. He then lowered himself onto his left knee and, head bowed, began to recite the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in Heaven …”
He told Arena that, about five minutes before going on stage, “something just told me to say the Lord’s Prayer” as a tribute to a friend who was dying of AIDS. “… In rock music, especially in the performance arena, there is no room for prayer, but I think that so many of the songs people write are prayers. A lot of my songs seem to be prayers for unity within myself. On a personal level, I have an undying belief in God’s existence. For me it is unquestionable.”
In theof what might just as easily have been a spoof or a tease, a ripple of whoops and sniggers moves like a cold breeze across the crowd. Without looking up, Bowie steers into the skid, softening his voice as he comes to “hallowed be thy name,” so that, counterintuitively, the hubbub all but dies out. He continues, tripping slightly as though out of breath, perhaps fighting back a tremendous surge of emotion. On “forgive us our trespasses,” the force of it seems about to drown him, but he breathes his way through.
There is in his demeanor a studied determination, as he concentrates on delivering the words not to the crowd and not upwards, but bowed towards the earth. He does the long version, complete with “For yours is the kingdom …,” and then hard upon an emphatic a-men, springs to his feet, turns to the band who have been watching nervously, and exclaims, as though to break what tension may persist, “God bless Queen!” and, turning back to the crowd, “God bless you!”
As he passes the camera on his way offstage, his face is a picture of restrained relief and what may even be a trace of triumph, as though—yes!—something he shouldn’t have dreamt about doing has not caused the sky to fall in.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.