D.A.N. Jones writes about David Robert Jones

  • Bowie by Jerry Hopkins
    Elm Tree, 275 pp, £8.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 241 11548 5
  • Alias David Bowie by Peter Gillman and Leni Gillman
    Hodder, 511 pp, £16.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 340 36806 3

David Robert Jones, alias David Bowie, is now in his 40th year. His creepy, chilling phrases pop out of pub jukeboxes, and extracts from his movies catch the eye on pub videos, whether he is embracing a Chinese girl or being executed by Japanese soldiers; his image appears in the Sunday-paper magazines, artistically displayed in sundry poses. As actor, mime, musician and crowd-poet, he has chanted his eerie music and frightening stories in thronged arenas; he has strutted in high boots, wearing strange masks. This is what I call ‘crowd-poetry’, not mere words. He can make up catchy tunes to go with his half-heard words and he can blow them or sing them while he shows off his costumed body. He is more like the old Athenian crowd-poets whom Aristotle praised for their command of spectacle and song, pity and terror. ‘Aeschylus tragical on stilts,’ sighed Aldous Huxley. ‘Bawling sublimities through a tortured mouth-hole!’

It is not for his ‘artistic merit’ that I would compare him with those old Greeks, only for his choice of medium. The crowd-poetry of Aeschylus did not persist: only the script remains, as an ‘after-life’. Poets lost their skill with musical tunes and instruments: they became reserved and bookish. Such book-poets as Eliot, Graves or Larkin would not dare to sing their words or act out their stories: if persuaded to read their work in public, they were shy and halting. David Bowie is not shy in that way: in the crowded arenas he physically enacted his own creation, Ziggy Stardust, ‘the leper messiah’, in song and spectacle, and he evoked a certain pity and terror from audiences, if only because they feared he might never escape from that clinging costume and make-up. Bowie himself had expressed that very fear in 1968, with a highbrow mime called The Mask, about an actor who strangled himself trying to remove his magic mask: it was performed with a small company called Feathers, securing three bookings, netting only £56. The next year, though, Bowie made the Big Time. His haunting little song, ‘Space Oddity’, was officially chosen to represent the nation’s strange mood as we watched a real space odyssey on our screens. While American astronauts danced on the Moon, the BBC played ‘Ground control to Major Tom ...’

Jerry Hopkins, an American rock critic, thinks this was an odd song to choose for the occasion. ‘In a way, it didn’t make any sense. “Space Oddity” was about a loser, who drifted off into space, rather than complete his mission. It was as if the BBC hadn’t listened to the words.’ Very true, but Bowie’s song – the tune with the words – evoked the pity and fear which British viewers felt during the Moon landing, quite as strong as our sense of jubilation, of ‘a giant step for mankind’. Further, as Peter and Leni Gillman suggest (prosaically or poetically), ‘Space Oddity’ sounds like an experience of shooting heroin, and they sternly quote another Bowie lyric:

Ashes to ashes, funk to funky,
We know Major Tom’s a junkie.

Anyway, Major Tom helped to make Bowie into a rock idol and, therefore, a valuable commercial property.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in