On this day, 6 July, in 1972, a generation of British young people – not to mention their parents – had, as it were, a bit of a cultural awakening. There on Top Of The Pops, screened on their TV, during their evening meal, was something, someone, far more confrontational than they’d experienced perhaps in their lifetime. Was it a man? Was it a woman? And if it was a man, why was he *putting his arm around that other man*??
It was of course, David Bowie and his band, The Spiders From Mars, singing ‘Starman’. Bowie was dressed in a costume he’d asked designer Freddie Buretti to make, based on the costumes from ‘A Clockwork Orange’, but “with less violence”, and “possibly Liberty fabrics”. With screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo, he was more than like some cat from Japan, he was like something from outer space – the very starman of the song. And – when he put his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson, he gave all the freaks and weirdos license to be themselves.
Professor Iain Webb, lecturer in Fashion at Central Saint Martins, was growing up as a 14 year old boy in a West Country village, and claims from that moment Bowie literally changed his life. After seeing Top Of The Pops, he painted his nails green, and wore an antique fox stole his mother bought him – while watching Match Of The Day with his father. Webb says his “poor father” but then goes on to say that it actually made his dad happy to see his boy being different. And the young Iain documented Bowie’s every move in scrapbooks, one of which has made its way into the ‘David Bowie is’ exhibition, curated by The Victoria & Albert Museum. The exhibition stayed in London for four months, before moving around the world. On July 14 the documentary film made on August 13 2013, the last night at the V&A, will return for one night only as an encore screening at selected cinemas around the UK.
In a period of over fifty years, David Bowie fused art, design, and performance, and essentially embodied the qualities that the Victoria & Albert Museum was created to represent. The exhibition poses the question, “What Is David Bowie?”, to which of course, there is no single answer. Bowie himself believed in the concept that we all inhabit many different identities, sometimes at the same time. He is quoted in the documentary as saying,
“All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author.
There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”
It is one of many quotes from Bowie, giving a great insight into the man who rose from very humble beginnings: a rice sculpture especially commissioned for the exhibition gives a powerful understanding as to how far he actually came. The sculpture features a grain of rice for each child born in Britain in 1947, the most significant post World War 2 year for births in the UK. Bowie, born David Jones, was one of a multitude born that year. Born with a very ordinary name, from an ordinary family, growing up in Bromley, Kent, in a very ordinary, middle class village. And yet he knew he was born to be something different.
The documentary features several people whose lives have been dramatically influenced by Bowie. We’ve already mentioned Iain Webb, who discovered through Bowie that it was okay to be different; Hanif Kureishi, author of ‘The Buddha Of Suburbia’ and ‘Sammy And Rosie Get Laid’ among others, spoke of how during his time at Bromley Technical College, former student David Jones was often held up as an example of “watch out or this will happen to you”. Rather than having the affect on them that the teachers had hoped, of them knuckling down and striving to become that for which they were being trained (“we were destined to be clerks and office workers”, says Kureishi), many boys realised that if Jones had made it out of Bromley, they could too, it was okay to be creative and different.
‘David Bowie is’ was the fastest selling exhibition in the history of the Victoria & Albert Museum. It was a remarkable collection of artefacts from the David Bowie archive, which included such fascinating items as sketches made by the teenage Bowie of the costumes for his earliest bands, as well as a stage set for his band, The Konrads.
Bowie said he was mixed up creatively, and realised, when thinking about it, that it was because he always wanted to be famous, to turn people onto new ideas and perspectives. Having attended the exhibition in London in 2013, I was impressed at the time by the handwritten song lyrics, and notes he’d written about booking gigs in New York on his first US tour (he managed himself from 1975 onwards, using only advisors for occasional assistance). His complete desire, need even, for creative control overwhelmed me. Watching the documentary of the exhibition gave me further insight. Ken Pitt, who oversaw David change from Jones to Bowie in 1965, brought an acetone back from New York of an album he’d obtained from Andy Warhol. He gave it David, who was quite rightly fascinated by it. It was ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ – and was as yet unreleased even in the US. This is just one example of Bowie being ahead of his time, of having this talent of being able to find the right people at precisely the right time, to influence and anticipate future trends.
‘David Bowie is’, the Documentary, takes the viewer on a journey from Bowie’s very beginnings, right through to his second to last album, ‘The Next Day’. It’s poignant to be watching it and hearing people describe him as still being alive. In retrospect one wonders if when he agreed to this exhibition that this was yet another demonstration of his obsessive need to control every aspect of his career: that somehow he knew the end wasn’t far off and through this exhibition he could therefore control how he was remembered.
‘David Bowie Is’ will be screened in cinemas around the UK on Thursday July 14. Find out more information on cinemas and screening times please visit the official website.