David Bowie: Friend or Foe?

THERE YOU GO. Less than a year ago MTV jocks, the rock press, the radio stations and the music trade journals were rife with predictions that David Bowie, after a three-year-hiatus from both recording and performing, would be back strong in 1983. Sure enough, in 1983 Bowie was back, and back in a big way. He now has a $17 million contract with EMI-America; a Top 10 LP in Let's Dance, and a number 1 single in the album's title track; a string of superb new videoclips on MTV; a triumphant major-arena tour of the United States (Detroit dates are July 30-31 at Joe Louis arena); and now, NOW, to top it all off, he's got the cover story (!) in the July 18 issue of Time magazine.

Yup. The current issue of Time is really thin, but I'm sure David Bowie's face (actually, an artist's rendering of same) will attract plenty of newsstand sales. Immediately following the Bowie article, which was written by the dubious Jay Cocks, the magazine's editors have placed an article on music entitled "New Rock on a Red-Hot Roll: Sizzling sales have record execs dancin' in the suites." I think the boosterist title is sufficient indication of what the content of the article is like.

There are many ways to react to the appearance of this Time magazine piece, the most common of which will likely be, "Wow, man, David Bowie has really sold out." But we think it would be more productive to look at the image of Bowie that is being presented, and then to decide if we like or agree with that image. Is David Bowie a mercurial superstar or a potentially dangerous ego-maniac? Is he our friend or our foe? Neither?

We all approach the Time cover story with different feelings for Bowie and the history of his musical development. By and large, most people see David Bowie quite positively. Though there have been some lapses, he's been one of the most successful artists in a troubled decade (the 1970s). Very, very few English musicians who've come up after him have avoided his influence.

Yet there are those who don't like David Bowie at all. Take Steve Wynn, the singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist for the L.A. band The Dream Syndicate, for example. In the March 1983 issue of Sweet Potato, Wynn says, "Bowie's made some good records. He had some good costumes. He has good cheekbones. But man," Wynn continues, "if there'd never been such a thing as David Bowie, we'd have been spared from all the worst music alive. If the Beatles made all of 1970s rock unbearable, then Bowie has made 1980s rock even more unbearable. The worst. Everything that's horrible in music is David Bowie's fault. Oh, he didn't mean any harm. Goebbels didn't mean any harm, either, but there he goes."

Pretty hot stuff, huh? Sounds like a personal problem, right? Maybe even a slight case of sour grapes? You betcha. But the thing is, the guy's got a point. The heirs to mid-period Beatles -- groups like Fleetwood Mac, REO Speedwagon and the rest -- are indeed "unbearable." The heirs to Bowie, which include nearly everyone from Duran Duran to Prince to Missing Persons, have also produced some terrible stuff, worse than REO et. al. because of their pretensions of being something new and different. In short, Wynn -- though he's a bit too extreme for my tastes (Bowie is the rock equivalent of Joseph Goebbels?!) -- has convinced me that good intentions on Bowie's part have paradoxically have had very bad effects.

Take a look at the photo [not available on-line]. It was taken in 1980 by Kevin Cummins and published in Cool Cats: 25 Years of Rock 'n' Roll Style. The photo depicts "Bowiephile" Paul McVey in his bedroom. The caption in the book reads, "His wife's name is Angie, his daughter is Zoe. Rock style influences at its strangest and most obsessive." Though it is true that McVey is strange and obsessed with David Bowie, we don't think the caption goes far enough. It implies that people like Paul McVey are the exceptions to the rule that says that there is a time to wash off your party makeup and go back to your own life.

This guy is what Bowie himself would call a "vampire drug creature of the night." And Paul's quite obviously got his Bowie impersonation down to a T. He's got Ziggy Stardust hair; a Thin White Duke suit; a pair of The Man Who Fell To Earth bracelets -- he's got it all. It may be true that this man's obsessions with the fantasies of a another would have eventually found expression, even if David Bowie had never existed. But it's equally true that the image of David Bowie gives purpose and meaning to this guy's life. And that means that, on some level, David Bowie is indeed responsible for Paul McVey's obsessions.

Being a vampiric drug and sex creature of the night is a dangerous hobby. Even Bowie himself says so. In the Time magazine piece, he's quoted as saying, "that same attitude, that same image, has been coming from one particular area of rock for the last 15 years, but it hasn't done anything except produce casualties." Bowie should know: he predicted in "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" what the likely result of his post-Ziggy Stardust superstardom would be. Yet Bowie pressed on anyway. In Jay Cocks's words, "Bowie became a zombie [in the 1970s], sending back musical dispatches from the dead zone. He was a casualty, but he endured." And now, five years after Bowie hit the depths of Low, the rock 'n' roll survivor is back, "resplendently straight and sincere," as Jay Cocks puts it.

But what we wanna know is, What about "Bowiephile" Paul McVey? Bowie's helped get him addicted to glitter, dancing, technology, sex and desperation. What will McVey do, how will he be able to structure his life, now that Bowie's reportedly forsworn all roleplaying that isn't for a movie or a stage production? Unlike his role model, Paul McVey doesn't possess or have access to a nearly unlimited amount of cash. He can't, like Bowie has done, just move to the Swiss Alps for "a much needed vacation."

Nope. Paul McVey is stuck. He can't reinvent a new Bowie persona, and he can't very well go back to being plain old Paul McVey. What if (and we know that this is a big what if) Paul's decision is to try to murder Bowie, as David Mark Chapman did with his idol, John Lennon? Who's fault would that tragic event be? This isn't asked for the sake of outrage or sensationalism. It's asked because it could conceivably happen: "When the kids had killed the man, I had to break up the band" ("Ziggy Stardust"). When Chapman killed Lennon in 1980, few people bothered to discuss how such murders could be prevented from happening to other celebrities.

Dig. Hinckley saw Taxi Driver, identified with the character played by Robert DeNiro, and went on to shoot Ronald Reagan in 1982. Several months later, the film's director, Martin Scorsce, was interview in Rolling Stone. When asked for his reactions to the outcome of the Hinckley trial (the shooter was acquitted), Scorsce said (words to the effect) that he makes films for personal reasons, that it was unfortunate that Taxi Driver had been misconstrued by a sick person, and that he couldn't be bothered with figuring out what it all meant morally. Much more so than Scorsce, David Bowie isn't concerned with dodgy moral issues. Let's hope that someone like Paul McVey doesn't force him to become so.

-- Written July 1983.



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