On the Books That Most Influenced the Great David Bowie
Genius Recognizes Genius
Widely acknowledged as one of the most influential artists and pop-cultural icons of the 20th century, David Bowie created music that was laced with symbolism and references. This not only showcased Bowie’s talent as an artist but proved Bowie was an avid consumer of art himself. Below are some of the books that influenced and helped shape the artist and personality of David Bowie.
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962)
The debt owed by David Bowie’s first hit song, “Space Oddity,” to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey couldn’t be more obvious. But Kubrick’s next film, a chilly adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange, is where the story really gets interesting.
Set in a totalitarian, future-present Britain, A Clockwork Orange is the story of delinquent, Beethoven-loving schoolboy Alex, the leader of a gang that spends its nights raping and pillaging while wired on amphetamine-laced “milk-plus.” Kubrick had set aside his planned biopic of Napoléon Bonaparte to make a movie version after being given a copy of the book by screenwriter Terry Southern, with whom he’d worked on Dr. Strangelove, and falling in love with it. In 1972 Bowie repurposed its swagger and shock value for his career-making turn as “leper messiah” Ziggy Stardust, a bisexual alien rock star with fluffy red hair and a weakness for asymmetric knitted bodysuits who ends up being killed by his fans.
Ziggy was a collision of unstable elements—some obscure (drugaddled rocker Vince Taylor; American psychobilly pioneer the Legendary Stardust Cowboy), others less so. It’s easy to see what Bowie took from Kubrick’s movie because, like his hijacking of the melody from “Over the Rainbow” for the chorus of “Starman,” the borrowing is so blatant. Bowie-as-Ziggy walked onstage to Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9, as played by Moog synthesizer maestro Wendy Carlos, while his band the Spiders’ costumes were modeled on those of Alex and his droogs—“friends” in Burgess’s invented language Nadsat.
The early 70s was a grim, embattled era in England. John Lennon sang in 1970 that the (hippie) dream was over. But 1971 was the year things turned brutish as the alternative society splintered into a mass of competing factions such as the radical-left urban terrorists the Angry Brigade—Britain’s answer to Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang—who launched a string of bomb attacks against Establishment targets. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange came out in the UK in January 1972, five months before The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The following year the director withdrew it from cinemas after receiving death threats; the gesture amplified the film’s air of leering menace while saying a good deal about the febrile social climate.
Both the movie and its source novel celebrate the exquisite sense of belonging that being in a gang affords. But they’re also interested in the aftermath: what happens when the gang dissolves and the power that held it together leaks away. You can, if you want, see Alex as Ziggy and his droogs as the Spiders—the fictional band, not Bowie’s actual musicians Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey, and Trevor Bolder. In Bowie’s opaque Ziggy narrative they’re cast as bitter sidemen who bitch about their leader’s fans and wonder if they should give him a taste of the old ultraviolence by crushing his sweet hands. . . .
The novel itself had a tragic genesis. The story goes that in 1959 Burgess was diagnosed incorrectly with terminal brain cancer. Spurred into action, he wrote five novels very quickly to support his soon-to-be widow. A Clockwork Orange took him three weeks and was inspired by a horrific incident in April 1944 where his first wife, Lynne, pregnant at the time—she subsequently miscarried—was assaulted in a blackout by a group of American soldiers. She’d been on her way home from the London offices of the Ministry of War Transport where she was involved in planning the D-Day landings. A Clockwork Orange is interested not just in what might drive someone to carry out this kind of attack, but also in the ethics of rehabilitation. Can you force someone to be good by torturing them, as per the Ludovico Technique aversion therapy Alex undergoes?
If Burgess and Kubrick were equally important to Bowie, it’s worth noting the differences in their visions, differences Burgess considered so stark he ended up renouncing the novel because he felt the film made it easy for readers to misunderstand the book. He meant that his handling of sex and violence was more nuanced than Kubrick’s, which might be true, though in some ways the novel is nastier—for example, the scene where Alex rapes two underage girls after getting them drunk. In the movie they are clearly adult women, the sex is clearly consensual, and Kubrick uses a fast-motion technique to blur the action and create a slapstick tone.
The biggest difference, though, has to do with the ending. The British edition of the novel ends on an optimistic note, with Alex turning his back on violence and contemplating fatherhood. But the original US edition on which Kubrick based his screenplay omits this epilogue. It ends with Alex saying sarcastically, “I was cured all right,” having just shared with us his dream of “carving the whole litso [face] of the creeching [screaming] world with my cut-throat britva [razor].”
Burgess had been intrigued by the razor-packing teddy boys of the late 1950s. Kubrick picked up on the androgyny of the mod culture Bowie flirted with in the mid-1960s. For example, Kubrick turned Alex’s false eyelashes—bought in bulk from hip London boutique Biba, bombed by the Angry Brigade shortly after the shoot concluded—into a key visual motif. Nadsat, the Anglo-Russian slang spoken by Alex, crops up in “Suffragette City.” But the way Bowie used it decades later in one of his final songs, “Girl Loves Me,” suggests a deeper appreciation that leads back to the rich linguistic textures of the novel. For in “Girl Loves Me,” Bowie mixes it knowingly with the secret gay language Polari, reinforcing the cultural historian Michael Bracewell’s point that A Clockwork Orange was an audit on modern masculinity. Finding men to be in crisis, the movie hastened the birth of a new kind of loner—the young soul rebel, who offset corruption with an intense emotional idealism. That sounds like Bowie to me.
Read it while listening to: “Girl Loves Me,” “Suffragette City”
If you like this, try: Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1963)
In the Berlin flat where he lived while he was recording “Heroes”, Bowie slept beneath his own painting of Yukio Mishima, the handsome Japanese multihyphenate (author, actor, playwright, singer, terrorist) who committed suicide by hara-kiri in November 1970 after he and four members of his Tatenokai private militia failed in their attempt to incite a coup intended to restore the power of Japan’s emperor.
What did Bowie find so admirable in Mishima’s warrior machismo? Perhaps the fact that it was so obviously a performance. Film historian Donald Richie, who knew Mishima, thought him a dandy whose talent was bound up with his understanding that if you behave the way you want to be, you will become it: you become who you are by practicing.
As a child, Kimitake Hiraoka—Yukio Mishima was a pseudonym—was raised in isolation by his deranged, bullying grandmother Natsu, who refused to let him play with other boys or be exposed to sunlight. Encouraged by her, he read everything he could lay his hands on and emerged a model of poised, precocious elegance. To exorcise his shame at having been rejected by the army on health grounds, an event recounted in his semiautobiographical first novel Confessions of a Mask, he transformed his weedy body into a solid knot of muscle. He learned the ways of the samurai, becoming skilled at kendo (swordsmanship).
Despite having a wife and two children, Mishima was openly gay rather than bisexual; he rationalized this paradox in a later autobiographical work, Sun and Steel, as a means of embracing contradiction and collision. (Another key scene in Confessions of a Mask is his first, explosively successful attempt at masturbation, electrifyed by a painting of St. Sebastian pierced all over by arrows.) To please his ailing mother, his marriage was an arranged one, in traditional Japanese fashion. Among Mishima’s requirements were that his bride should be no taller than he; pretty, with a round face; and careful not to disturb him while he worked. Eventually he settled on Yoko Sugiyama, the 21-year-old daughter of a popular Japanese painter.
Having himself come out as bisexual in 1972, albeit in what was felt to be a publicity stunt, Bowie was still talking up his fluidity four years later. His gay side was mostly dormant, Bowie explained to 19-year-old Cameron Crowe in a deliberately outrageous interview in the September 1976 issue of Playboy, but visiting Japan always roused it reliably: “There are such beautiful-looking boys over there. Little boys? Not that little. About 18 or 19. They have a wonderful sort of mentality. They’re all queens until they reach 25, then suddenly they become samurai, get married and have thousands of children. I love it.”
An allegory of Japan’s postwar humiliation not usually ranked among Mishima’s best works, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea has the brutal symmetry of one of the Grimms’ fairy tales Mishima devoured as a child. It unfolds in a suburb of Yokohama in the aftermath of the war. Fusako, a widow who runs a store selling European luxury goods, takes a sailor, Ryuji, as a lover. Her son Noboru watches them have sex through a peephole in his room. At first Noboru idolizes Ryuji as a hero who has traveled the world, but the next day, on the way back from killing and vivisecting a stray kitten with his sociopathic school friends, he meets Ryuji again and decides he is weak and ineffectual because he has sprayed water on himself to keep cool.
Ryuji swaps his seafaring life for domestic security with Noboru’s mother. But Noboru is unimpressed, even more so when Fusako catches him looking through the peephole a second time, and Ryuji refuses to punish Noboru despite Fusako’s urging. Noboru and his gang decide to restore Ryuji’s lost honor by giving him the full kitten treatment.
Anyone who managed to miss the Mishima-ish themes (affronted honor, repressed homosexuality) of Nagisa Oshima’s Second World War drama Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, in which Bowie played imprisoned British officer Major Jack Celliers, could find elucidation in the title of David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s haunting theme song—“Forbidden Colors,” after Mishima’s novel of the same name. Bowie himself returned to Mishima on 2013’s The Next Day, borrowing Spring Snow’s ominous image of a dead dog obstructing a waterfall for the lyrics of the sparse, Scott Walker–style “Heat.”
Read it while listening to: “Blackout”
If you like this, try: Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
The song “Black Tie, White Noise” from the 1993 album of that name is one of Bowie’s least elliptical lyrics and represents perhaps his most personal statement on the subject of race. Hiding from the 1992 LA riots in a hotel room, the recently married Bowie and Iman are having sex. But in the thick of this intimate moment Bowie looks into his Somali wife’s eyes and wonders if, despite being a well-meaning white liberal, he really understands her blackness, or if he’s living in a Benetton-advert multicultural fantasy world. He hints that he is scared himself, as a famous white man, by the rioting black crowds below. Assuming there’s a part of Iman that shares their anger, is any of it directed at him? In an astonishing line which he repeats three times, Bowie reassures himself that Iman—and by extension Al B. Sure!, with whom he is duetting and who functions as a sort of proxy for Iman in the song—will not kill him. Then he admits he sometimes wonders why she won’t, given white people’s appalling racism and mistreatment of black people through the centuries.
Of course, the reason Iman won’t kill him is because she loves him. And as James Baldwin assures us in The Fire Next Time, one of the wisest polemics ever written, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
The book, which is in two parts, had its roots in a letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the centenary of black America’s “emancipation.” The elegance of Baldwin’s sentences, with their teeming subclauses and rich biblical cadences, is a function of anger, the same anger that energized the LA rioters. It is also a desperate need to cancel out the real white noise—the spurious national mythology white people invoke to convince themselves that their ancestors were wise, fair-minded heroes who always treated their neighbors and ethnic minority populations honorably.
Baldwin has news for his nephew: it’s not for white people to decide it’s within their gift to accept him. Nor should he try to impersonate them in any way or be tempted to believe that he is what the white world thinks he is—inferior. Why should black people have respect for the standards by which white people claim to live when it’s clear those standards are illusory?
He sounds implacable. Yet Baldwin, like Bowie, believes that the future has to be postracial. Hybrid. Tolerant. There can be no frisson of shock, no disapproval on either side, when it comes to interracial marriage and mixed-race children. When, in the book, Baldwin meets with Elijah Muhammad of the separatist Nation of Islam, he understands the doctrine of black self-sufficiency and self-respect Muhammad preaches but is suspicious of the groupthink he inspires in his followers. Baldwin has white friends he would trust with his life. Can he set this fact against the historic evilness of white people? Muhammad would say no. But for Baldwin there is no other way forward.
There is an invented aspect to racial difference, Baldwin felt. Which is how it becomes a tool of oppression: “Color is not a human or a personal reality. It is a political reality.” Views like this set him apart from the radical black movements of the late 60s and early 70s, some of whose followers and leaders—Eldridge Cleaver, for example—saw Baldwin’s homosexuality as deeply suspect, even treasonous. Baldwin had no wish to be typecast, or to be a spokesman—hence his move to France at the age of 24.
Plenty of the books on Bowie’s list are thrilling, fun, or informative. Many of them are important. The Fire Next Time is essential.
Read it while listening to: “Black Tie, White Noise”
If you like this, try: James Baldwin, Another Country
From Bowie’s Bookshelf: The Hundred Books that Changed David Bowie’s Life by John O’Connell. Copyright © 2019 by John O’Connell. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, An Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.