The hero worship of David Bowie has obscured the graft behind his song-writingby John Harris / November 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
“He was a shit to his mother, he was a shit to his manager who supported him through thick and thin, and he was a shit to numerous partners, including his first wife, whose contribution he meanly refused to acknowledge even unto death.”
This is the writer Paul Gorman trying to explode the myths around David Bowie, on page 469 of Dylan Jones’s exhaustive new oral history of the musician. Not only that, says Gorman, Bowie “didn’t pay UK taxes for 40 years. He made execrable records during the period from 1984 to 1995, often wore terrible clothes [and] stupid makeup and had rotten haircuts, definitely flirted with rightwing politics, and made silly statements on the subject.”
Pointing this out, Gorman insists, is not to question Bowie’s achievements. Instead, it is to rescue him from a posthumous airbrushing that removes all depth and substance from an artist. When Bowie died from cancer on 10th January 2016, aged 69, the banal praise that followed was best summed up by a tweet from that well-known font of impartial truth, Boris Johnson: “No one in our age has better deserved to be called a genius.” Much the same syndrome was evident in popular beliefs that took root even while Bowie was alive, and then went nuclear after his death: the idea, for example, that the 1977 classic “‘Heroes’” is a hymn to heroism, rather than—as pointed out here by its producer, Tony Visconti—“a song about alcoholics.” The inverted commas around the title were put there for a reason.
If Bowie has been subject to a pop-cultural canonisation, it was surely he himself who prepared the ground. From around 1971 to 1984, he had a sure grasp of how to cultivate his mystique. His rock-star lifestyle fed the idea of a man who somehow existed beyond normal human limits. By the mid-1970s, he was taking so much cocaine that he really was living in a different dimension. He became obsessed with the Nazis and occult mythology, and lived on a diet of milk and peppers. In 1976, he starred in Nic Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell To Earth as a humanoid extra-terrestrial stranded in America, a persona which blurred into perceptions of Bowie himself. Taking its title from a single he released in 1984, one Bowie biography is entitled Loving the Alien. It was no surprise, then, that his death turned his otherness into the stuff of sainthood and that ever since, some people have been talking complete twaddle.