Tuesday, October 22, 2013

David Bowie Is X 3

Pop icon David Bowie is the subject of the David Bowie is exhibit currently at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Three of our critics, Deirdre Kelly, John Corcelli and Kevin Courrier, attended the show and each of them contribute their thoughts to this review.

It was the summer of my 15th year and my mother, to get me out of the house, and perhaps also to make me realize there was a wonderful world waiting for me outside it, sent me to London, England, where she had some friends who would put me up for a few hot weeks. I already knew the British capital to be the crux of all things cool. I was a Beatles fan, and, well, pretty much a fan of everything else with an English accent. But The Beatles were long over by 1975, and I was on to the next big thing which, to my constantly changing teenage self, meant glitter rock in the form of Marc Bolan of T. Rex, David Essex, Elton John (before he became respectable), Queen and – of course – David Bowie. Bowie was the pin-up in my bedroom, and I choose the word deliberately because he was, at the beginning of his career, not a boy, not a girl, but a deliciously subversive blend of both.

Bowie wasn't the first pop idol to court androgyny. The legendary ballet dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, embodied the masculine/feminine dichotomy within his own stage persona when in the early year in the new 20th century he wore a petal costume as the figure of the Rose in a ballet in which the effeminate flower was linked to a dreaming girl’s erotic fantasy of male conquest. The flower, without putting too fine a point on it, was to deflower her. I wasn't aware of it at time, being a lot like that dreamer myself, but many male idols, the ones adolescent girls find attractive, are often a mix of the pretty and the phallic. Look at all those rockers I lusted after in the 1970s: they all had long hair, wore make-up, and wiggled their hips while lasciviously licking their lipsticked lips with their serpent-like tongues. I loved it! And I wasn’t alone. My girlfriends and I bonded over the New York Dolls. We went after boys at our school dances who wore platform (read high heel) shoes. One day, in grade 10, I noticed that a girl (whom I couldn’t stand even looking at) had a colour picture of Steven Tyler, his shagged hair dishevelled, his chest revealed through a transparent shirt with plunging dĂ©colletage. I knew then I could hang with her. We liked the same thing.

Vaslav Nijinsky
Male rock stars who adopted the attributes of the feminine while still wanting to be one of the boys was the pop culture standard of my day. I didn't think anything was odd about it. I readily accepted it as the new normal, and perhaps because of Bowie. He had taken the gender bending tendencies in art and made them his own. His own teacher, the esteemed British dancer, actor and mime artist Lindsay Kemp, was regularly walking about London in drag, or as they might say in the 'theatah,' en travesti. The ongoing David Bowie is exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (the is giving away that it is a study of identity, the verb, To Be) includes a photograph of Kemp, another of my idols and directly because of Bowie’s association with him, wearing an evening gown, with boa and fabulous false eyelashes.

This idea of swapping roles, in particular gender roles, is an entrenched a part of the English tradition. We always hear how Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, and other plays, to be played by men - presumably because there were no women allowed to join them on the stage. Dressing in women’s clothes, aping women’s ways, then became the practice. There is documented evidence that men dressed up as women for the ballet, and the opera. Later, when men were seen as disgusting in ballet, the women dressed up as men – but that’s another story. Kemp, and then Bowie immediately after him, was simply repeating a long standing trope of the British stage when he appeared in public as a cross-dresser. Bowie, in fact, had a knack for making all this borrowing look startling fresh. I was happy to think him an original.

I revered him, sitting alone in a seat at Toronto’s now-defunct New Yorker Theatre, watching over-and-over, a film of his early Ziggy Stardust concert, footage of which can be seen at the AGO show. I also desired him. I wanted to have a rose-like lover as effete as him, I thought as I listened over and over to Hunky Dory, staring into Bowie’s waifish face, the China Doll he eventually sang about in one of his songs. “Oh you pretty things (oh you pretty things),” he sang to me as I lay on the pink chenille coverlet on my bed. “Don't you know you're driving your/Mamas and papas insane/Let me make it plain/You gotta make way for the homo superior.” What that homo superior looked like was this: an androgynous figure with no eyebrows and a shock of tomato red hair posing on stage in a powder blue suit and matching powder blue eye shadow. This was the look Bowie presented to the world when he sang "Life on Mars" for a 1973 TV show. I must have watched that somewhere else and somehow in colour, given that our TV at home was black and white, because that blue was forever etched in my memory as the colour of the sexual revolution then erupting around me.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust.

I have to add here that I loved that song, "Life on Mars." It was, in truth, my teenage anthem. I was the girl in the lyrics, the one with the mousy hair, because I felt that my life then was a god-awful small affair. My mother was always telling me no, and my father really had told me he had to go, when he left me for good when I was still young. So I saw myself mirrored in Bowie’s world. It was why I adored him. Being a narcissistic youth, Bowie fed that narcissism – he was the pool in which I saw myself reflected – and that insecurity. He roused my anxiety, and somehow calmed me by making me feel not so alone. Bowie was an alien who underscored my alienation. I thought he must know about me. Bowie and Mick Ronson. They knew, somehow, that I was out there, because they were singing to me

The blue suit
And so I went looking for Bowie in London – yes, I am finally making my point – when I was 15, wandering the Kensington High Street looking for luverly English-accented rock stars, wherever it was they might be draping. I had on my list of sites to visit one particular July day, after Abbey Road, Biba, the legendary English fashion store which Polish designer Barbara Hulanicki had opened in 1964, at the height of Beatlemania, selling a rock and roll sensibility along with clothes in psychedelic colours. I hadn't even walked through the doors when I knew I had arrived.

Striding out of the store and in to the street was a beautiful man. He was wearing a powder blue suit and matching powder blue eye shadow. I inhaled sharply. No, it wasn’t David Bowie. It was his lookalike. Or, more to the point, a David Bowie devotee, like me –except he had the fashion down pat. I stared as he breezed sexily past me, and onto the sidewalk where he just kept walking, so beautiful in his tailored togs and sky-high suede boots, his make-up perfect and polished and well, blue. I think I stumbled a bit as I turned to push my way through the revolving door. And then I kept turning. Around and around I walked, pushing that door but lost in thought. Was this love? I had encountered the man of my dreams. Should I run after him? But I was only 15. Despite how I might be making it sound, the trumped up bravura, the sex kitten just learning how to purr, I really didn’t have the guts. I was too shy. Too girl-with-the mousy-hair. I eventually did go into Biba, but I remember now nothing about it save for that Bowie doppelgänger at the entrance way.

At the AGO, when I saw Bowie’s now iconic blue suit on display, I recalled those mixed up sexual feelings I had way back when. And then I heard the song again – ‘It’s the freakiest show”– and I must say I got a bit teary, remembering my adolescent self, and the dreams of self-realization that I once felt were tied up in a David Bowie song. But it had been a short-lived fixation. David Bowie was to blame for that. The chameleon of rock and roll changed his colours, along with his make-up, throughout the 1970s. He was like that Talking Heads song, changing his hairstyle so many times you didn’t know what he looked like. He went from Hunky Dory to Ziggy Stardust to a Diamond Dog, a crooner in men’s pleated trousers. With age, he was shedding his girlishness – some might say not enough – but certainly by 1976, when I was a full year older and wiser, he had morphed into the Thin White Duke and was settling down in decadent Berlin to begin experimenting anew with his image, and his music.

David Bowie in fedora.
Photographs of him at this time show him wearing tweeds, his hair trimmed and slicked back, like a modern day Edward, Prince of Wales. By the end of the decade, he was tipping his hat to Sinatra, wearing 1940s suits with suspenders. In the 1980s, he wore aviation jackets and black leather and Saville Row double-breasted jackets, often appearing on stage looking not only better dressed than his audience members, but like some kind of respectable businessman.

Ach, Davey, you sold your soul.

My more astute rock and roll critic colleagues will argue that there was no soul there to sell, that throughout his career David Bowie was all surface reflection, a rocker who, as he says so himself on a voice over in the AGO show, wanted to be known not as a trend but as trendy person. Certainly, in the 1970s, when I first started noticing him, he had all the day’s trends sewn up into one of the futuristic costumes designed for him for the stage by Japanese designer, Kansai Yamamato. It was all theatre then and is all theatre now. But for a brief while, when I was 15, Bowie’s magic worked on me. It enabled me to see the world not as black and white but as an explosion of colour. And that colour was blue. The colour of heaven.

– Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, is published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out www.deirdrekelly.com for more book updates. At 7pm, on Saturday, October 26, Deirdre will be at the Meaford Hall Arts & Cultural Centre as part of Georgian Bay Reads.

In a show more worthy of the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, than a world renowned art gallery, the two-floor display known as David Bowie is endeavours to be about David Bowie’s music, but it is more interested in his costumes, videos and hand written notes. Nevertheless, upon entering the exhibit wearing a personal headset with a narrative we get into his earliest recordings, at the age of 16, with the Konrads, a local band from his hometown of Brixton. Bowie left that group to pursue blues music with a band called The Kingbees, named after a Muddy Waters song. It, too, was short-lived as Bowie’s ambition to succeed in the music business, was inspired by the success of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

It was in 1965 when he formally changed his name from David Jones to David Bowie, a letter of which is displayed next to his debut album. Unfortunately it was released the same day as Sgt. Pepper, June 1, 1967 and was hardly noticed. The Bowie is exhibit puts the pieces of his early life and his roots, if you will, into focus. It is in this first room, where you can see, read and hear about his early life and what he thought about the wide-ranging influences that would form David Bowie, the pop-star. The one song that did it was “Space Oddity” a track inspired by NASA missions to the moon and the loneliness of the long distance space traveller. At this point in the exhibit, where you listen to various elements on headset, the exhibit tries, but fails, to put his work or influences into perspective. In this exhibit Bowie’s “music” is presented as a means to re-invent his image or at least solidify it in our consciousness.

From the psychedelia of “Space Oddity” to the pseudo-transgendered Hunky Dory, we hear a change of attitude in the compositions as Bowie’s music comes down to earth, as it were. Unfortunately, the David Bowie is display seems to push the viewer into the music of Ziggy Stardust (better costumes no doubt) as soon as possible. Footage of the very last show in the Hammersmith Odeon (July, 1973) is featured in the larger, communal gallery graced with all of Bowie’s costumes over the years and his music blasting out of the sound system. At this point, the headset narrative device is useless. What’s missing from the exhibit is any real sense of what the music either means to Bowie or pop culture as such. It’s as if the music takes second place to the costumes and videos so proudly displayed everywhere you look. That is, until you come upon a tiny, cone-filled studio room with a small screen of Bowie actually working on a song from Outside (1995).

On the tiny opposite wall, by the entrance, are the original studio album covers displayed in chronological order. For me, this was a missed opportunity for the curators to showcase how Bowie’s music has evolved over 45 years up to 2013. It is, after all, the only legacy that matters: the songs and what Bowie had to say. Unfortunately, Bowie is fails to pay proper tribute to what brought the singer to stardom in the first place.

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

"White rock & roll had always been about inspired impostures," critic Tom Carson once wrote back in the Seventies perhaps implicitly invoking Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. He made clear that their intent was to set themselves apart from the larger culture while simultaneously creating an alternate one for other outsiders to join. "The pact made made between rock performers and their listeners in the Fifties and Sixties was that those pretenses had conviction." In other words, their showmanship promised more than just a desire to entertain; they sought to transform their world – and ours – with an impassioned desire to create a new one. So for those who felt set apart from the demands of this older order, a compliant society that demanded you conform to its idea of normalcy, Elvis, Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones engaged our estrangement and opened up possibilities for us to remake it – and ourselves in the process.

David Bowie, on the other hand, was far less demonstrative in his appeal. "Bowie's show, by contrast, was a show – explicitly artificial and camp, not from ineptitude but brazen intention," Carson went on to say. "Through his invented alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, the singer presented rock & roll as a dying religion: Ziggy himself was a synthetic messiah, an alien come to earth to enact a parody version of that emblematic counter-culture fantasy, the rock star as martyr." With all his talent and awareness of the cultural shifts that came to define rebellion in 20th Century art, including Dadaism and surrealism, David Bowie became a virtual catalogue of those transgressive movements. While walking through the David Bowie is exhibition at the AGO, however, you can become acutely aware that, for all his attraction to transgression, Bowie never offered a true self to give his rebellion intent. His revolt merely provided a mirror for those who only wished to see their rebellion reflected in his shape-shifting personality. In other words, David Bowie was the first rock performer to make passivity seem sexy.    

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).

The adolescent narcissism that Bowie always appealed to, as Deirdre pointed out, wasn't new. James Dean had it with his physically contorted expressions of alienation. But Bowie came of age in the Seventies when youth rebellion had lost its aggressive insolence. In the world of glam, sensitivity was defined by creating a fetish out of the notion of feeling different, of finding yourself in a mirror while preening, rather than shattering the reflection that the mirror holds. Even with his sex role dimensions, Bowie never suggested a specific gender in which to transform himself. (In his starring role in The Man Who Fell to Earth, as Pauline Kael pointed out, he was the first movie star to have his crotch airbrushed.) While there was impudent power in his best music, there really wasn't the threat of danger in Bowie's many character roles, as there was in James Dean, Brando, or Mick Jagger. Aggression got turned inward so that Bowie's costumes and masks provided protection from a hostile world rather than using them to face up to the outrage that hostility can stir and marshalling the defiance needed to confront it. 

"Bowie's much-vaunted androgyny seemed more than anything an aspect of to be all things to all pop people  – in sequence, never simultaneously," Greil Marcus once wrote in Rolling Stone. "He became 'new' so regularly that his personality ceased to exist." Bowie is provides a fascinating and shifting portrait of a modern day aesthete who became a bridge to a laundry line of personae rather than inhabiting them himself.

 - Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. On Monday evenings from 7pm-9pm at the Miles Nadel JCC, Kevin Courrier lectures on the enigmatic genius of director Robert Altman.

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