The death of David Bowie has revived both intense media interest in his work and astonishing creative legacy and also a plethora of unthinking and misleading cliches about who he was and what he signified. Foremost amongst these is the description of him as some kind of alien being, or “mysterious extraterrestrial”: “40 years ago, in millions of living rooms across the British isles,” one hagiographic BBC documentary started, “a strange alien creature was beamed onto our television screens”. Online and newspaper headlines are full of references to Starmen, Spaceboys, The Man who Fell to Earth – but there is very little attempt to explore or decode these references or to consider their psychological significance.
David Bowie didn’t come from the stars: he came from Brixton, south London. And much of the potency of ‘space’ imagery in his work derives from his intense feelings of alienation and dissociation, as well as his ability to give remarkable and eloquent expression to the sense of dislocation and displacement he carried with him throughout his life. Much of this sense of disconnection centres on the disturbing experiences of mental illness, especially schizophrenia, that his whole family suffered from, including his mother, three aunts, and half-brother, and which surrounded him in childhood.
“I felt often – ever since a teenager,” he later confided, “so adrift, and so not part of everyone else – with so many dark secrets about my family in the cupboard. It made me feel very much on the outside of everything”. This sense of being adrift – the archetypal “Major Tom” experience of disconnection, dissociation, and being “on the outside of everything” – centred on his formative childhood years: he later referred to “an awful lot of emotional and spiritual mutilation” going on within his family. And of the plethora of ‘alien characters’ in his songs, he once observed: “they were metaphysically in place to suggest that I felt alienated, that I felt distanced from society and that I was really in search of some kind of connection” (interview, 1997).
What makes his work so compelling I think, is that he gave voice to these feelings, this sense of being psychically damaged. Not to recognise that this is the dynamic driving the imagery of space, stars, and distant worlds, is both to undervalue his artistic and personal contribution to the exploration of these dispersed worlds, and to ignore what he has to offer others also experiencing similar alienations. And what is remarkable is that Bowie himself recognised this, and very early on: “that’s the subject matter that I deal with,” he noted, “the content of most of what I write – there’s been a continuity of alienation and isolation throughout everything I’ve written.” Throughout all his celebrated “endless reinventions”, critics often miss this continuing thread that unites his various incarnations and relentless disguises. The list of Spaceboys, extraterrestrials and Major Toms disconnected and floating in empty space that haunt his verse have their origins not in some transcendent incarnation of the stellar universe, but in the fragmented and isolating universe of his upbringing, and in particular the schizophrenic family into which he was born.
According to Ken Pitt, Bowie’s manager from 1967-1970, David confided that his mother never kissed him. “There was no sign of affection any time,” Dudley Chapman, one of David’s childhood friends, similarly confirmed. “It was a very cold household. She’d feed him, clothe him, do all the mother’s things, but there was no cuddling.” Bowie’s aunt similarly recalled that “David started out as a fun-loving, beautiful little child. But he grew up in a cold atmosphere and by the time he was five he was extremely quiet and serious.” This “cold atmosphere” would reappear in his later lyrics, relocated into the imagery of empty space. Preoccupied with her own mental health issues, Bowie’s mother was sadly not able to attend to or respond to the affective and developmental needs of her son, and neither does she seem to have encouraged or even noticed his burgeoning artistic talents. “A compliment from her was very hard to come by”, David later recalled. “I would get my paints out and all she would say was, ‘I hope you’re not going to make a mess.’ ”
As Bowie’s biographer Wendy Leigh observed, “her deep-seated remoteness, her strangeness, her inability to relate closely to David are highly likely to have been a slight manifestation of the schizophrenia from which her sisters Una, Nora, and Vivienne also all suffered”:
In September 1950 [when David was three years old], Una was sent to a mental hospital, Park Prewett, where she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. She was thereafter subjected to archaic [electric shock] treatments for the condition, and died in her thirties. Vivienne suffered from schizophrenia. Nora was hospitalised, diagnosed with manic-depressive psychosis, and, most horrifyingly of all, underwent a lobotomy. Then there was Terry, David’s half-brother, whom David idolised, but who would also be felled by the family curse of schizophrenia.
David’s pain at his mother’s failure to demonstrate maternal warmth toward him inevitably took its toll. “I was cut off from my feelings since I was maybe four years old,” David later revealed. “I’m a pretty cold person. A very cold person”, Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1972, a recognition of how deeply this sense of affective disassociation had penetrated (indicators of this ‘coldness’ are his rather ruthless public sacking of his band live on stage at Hammersmith, his non-attendance at his half-brother’s funeral, and Bowie’s own cremation where “no friends or family were present”). Biographers allude to the “sub-zero emotional climate in the Jones’ house” and write of “the austere, non-physical nature of his relationship with his parents” that may have left a significant mark on the young child. Indeed, you wonder whether the “strangeness” he was always turning to face, to embrace – the cold depths of the stars – might have been that of his mother’s: strange rather than “familiar” – cut off from his life-support systems and floating in a most peculiar way. In which case all these hackneyed celebrations and glorifications of his alien ‘star’-ness and otherness are even more inappropriate and disturbing.
“There’s a lot of madness in my family,” David told biographer George Tremlett, who then suggested to him that he was merely talking about eccentricity. “No, madness – real fucking madness,” David shot back. “It worries me sometimes, because I don’t know whether it’s in my genes and if I’ll end up that way too.” One of the remarkable achievements of Bowie, I think, is that he didn’t: that, partly through his conscious use of music and stage personae to try and objectify and “enact” some of these feelings (as we’ll see in a moment) – and also through his remarkable bravery in overcoming considerable drug addiction in the mid-70s – on top of this family background of crack-up, maternal coldness, and schizophrenia – he was able to manage and control these divisive and terrifying splits and demons. Again, I think painting him as a glorious ‘alien’ pop-star, not only does him huge disservice as a human being, but only serves to perpetuate our ignorance and repression of mental disturbances, and how they manifest. Bowie later said: “Everyone says: ‘Oh yes, my family is quite mad…’ Mine really is.”
The story of his relationship with his half-brother Terry is also significant in Bowie’s later trajectory. Almost ten years older than Bowie, it was Terry who looked after him in the house – David also shared a bedroom with his teenage brother throughout his school years and the two became very close – it was Terry who introduced him to bohemian London, and who also introduced him to music, especially modern jazz, such as his favourite saxophonist John Coltrane. Bowie would later teach himself sax (at the age of twelve), and it features prominently in many of his songs, such as Soul Love and Young Americans. According to David, “it was Terry who really started everything for me. He was into all these different Beat writers and listening to jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.”
However, Terry was also prone to periods of severe depression, and in 1967 David experienced one of his full-blown bouts of schizophrenia after having taken Terry to see Cream at the Bromel Club. The loud music induced a bad reaction in his brother and David took him outside to the street to get some relief. David later recalled that Terry then fell to the ground, convinced there was fire coming out of cracks on the street and trying to hold onto the road to keep from falling into the sky. In his mid-20s, Terry was diagnosed as a manic depressive and schizophrenic and was eventually institutionalised at Cane Hill mental hospital. One snowy morning in January 1985, he climbed over the wall of a psychiatric hospital in Surrey and walked to the nearby station, where he lay down on the track directly in the path of the oncoming London express train. Bowie said he built Terry up into something more than a brother and used him almost as one of his alter egos. “I invented this hero-worship to discharge my guilt and failure, and to set myself free from my own hang-ups.”
The theme of madness haunts many of Bowie’s songs, both as an allusion to his institutionalised brother (Jump They Say, All the Madmen etc) and an expression of his own fears of mental instability. In March 1973 (post-Ziggy, pre-Aladdin Sane) he discussed this intimate relationship with mental illness with music writer Patrick Salvo:
BOWIE: Yes, it does do.
SALVO: This is found quite plainly in some of your writings.
BOWIE: Yes, you’re right. It happened to my brother. Do you know the new album?
SALVO: The Man Who Sold The World.
BOWIE: There’s a track on that based on my brother, called “All The Madmen.”
SALVO: I heard he was in the hospital.
BOWIE: Yeah— he’s only 28, maybe 30. But, I mean there’s a schizoid streak within the family anyway so I dare say that I’m affected by that. The majority of the people in my family have been in some kind of mental institution, as for my brother he doesn’t want to leave. He likes it very much. My mother signed him in, which is very sad, but she’s been in as well. She thought it did her good but it didn’t.
Bowie’s awareness of the “schizoid streak” is particularly interesting in relation to the work he was doing at this time – not only creating the alienated “leper messiahs” and alter egos, and writing songs such as Aladdin Sane, Oh You Pretty Things, and Kooks, but also referenced in Aladdin Sane‘s famous cover lightning streak (it is perhaps significant that his aunt had had electric shock treatment, for a similar “schizoid streak”).
This “schizoid attitude” in Bowie’s make-up was combined with something that he at least shared with many other young people of his generation: intense feelings of social, and particularly urban, alienation. It was precisely this connection with disconnection that struck such a chord amongst his audiences, many of whom spontaneously and eagerly identified with his electrifying portrayal of the glamorous misfit, the other-worldly “alien” – or the“leper messiah” as Bowie memorably described his on-stage alter Ziggy. In ‘Ziggy’s Urban Alienation: Assembling the Heroic Outsider’, Ian Chapman acutely charts the correlation between the appeal of Ziggy and the specific social conditions of the modern post-industrial metropolis, observing that the theme of “alienation is a thematic cornerstone of David Bowie’s work”, and that nowhere is this more present than in the manufacture of Ziggy – whose whole genesis and appeal lie in this wider zeitgeist. And as both Louis Sass and Christopher Bollas have noted, there is also a link between schizophrenia and the very conditions of urban modernity: “the rate of schizophrenia is two and a half times higher in urban metropolitan areas than it is in rural areas” (Bollas).
The album cover of Ziggy Stardust is itself a defining image of urban alienation: rubbish bags, parked cars, industrial brick buildings, cardboard boxes, and streetlight, and in the middle of this all the isolated figure of David Jones: in London, at night, alone – perhaps, like so many other people drawn to the metropolis, looking for something. This discourse locates Bowie’s creation not in outer space but where it properly belongs, in inner London. As Chapman notes, “Because Bowie’s location is urban-industrial rather than suburban-residential, and clearly identified as England’s capital city, inferences of both industrialisation and mass society are inherent to the image.” It was this subconscious identification – Ziggy as lost urban citizen – that resonated so vibrantly and strangely for his legion of fans in depressed early 70s Britain.
Bowie addressed this connection between anonymous and alienated mass culture and the desire/need for fame and glamour in his classic song of this period, Life on Mars. The lyrics refer to the “mice in their million hordes/ From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads”, suggesting a whole swathe of mass culture seeking escapism, as Bowie deftly links them to endless trips to the cinema, to “the seat with the clearest view”, to holidays abroad, to mass pop culture (“Cause Lennon’s on sale again”), to Disneyland – until this too becomes prey to the process of repetition, dullness, and meaninglessness that it seeks to alleviate. The alienation and “unreality” of London (also explored by T.S. Eliot in his similarly surreal and dystopian vision of London in The Waste Land) looks for relief in all manner of drugs and distractions, including the entertainment industry (of which Bowie is clearly a part). But the efficacy of fantasy, like any drug, has its limits – and like all Burroughsian “junk”, the film inevitably becomes “a saddening bore”.
Bowie himself described the song as “a sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media”, adding that “I think she finds herself disappointed with reality … that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it.” Life on Mars isn’t about Mars: it’s about “the doldrums of reality”, south London in the post-war era. The song’s an aching daydream for a fuller life: the reality of the girl’s suburban life denies her this, even the consumerist and entertainment industry fantasies she gets “hooked to” eventually fail to give her it (“for I’ve lived it ten times or more”), so she’s driven to a desperate projection – the song ends with the plaintive question “is there life on Mars?” – transposed both an octave up and into the desperate skies.
Bowie wrote Life on Mars on a bus going to Lewisham. In many ways this is what the song is about. As author and journalist John Harris acutely observes, for all its slightly surreal imagery “you recognise it as a song about Britain” – a song about growing up in Britain, seeing “the cosmos in the bus-stop” as he says, and sensing the massive alienation and the mundane brutality all around you (policemen beating people up – and not even the right people). Like Blake before him, Bowie sees in London streets the marks of weakness, marks of schizo. It is precisely the alienation – the boredom, misery, and violence (the song repeatedly references anger and violence) – that drives the entertainment industry, Bowie notices, that generates belief in cinema, music, fantasy:
But her mummy is yelling no
And her daddy has told her to go…
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
The second verse focuses in particular on how media-driven and media-saturated America has become – people desperate for fame, for the latest Lennon records, for Mickey Mouse clubs (themes that he also explored in ‘Andy Warhol, ‘Fame’, ‘Aladdin Sane’, ‘Fashion’, etc) but he also draws our attention to other more everyday forms of junkie escapism: holidays in Ibiza, even in the Norfolk Broads – the whole middle-class dream of ‘getting away’ from it. And like a film, he notices, this process happens again and again and again and again. Ironically, the escapist characters that Bowie himself adopted both to inhabit and satirise this trend would themselves become simply another part in this media production line – elevated into a ‘star’, idolised for a while as useful destruction for the masses, inevitably imploding with excess and exhaustion, former star’s death, mass grief and posthumous resurrection, another star ‘rises’ … As he notes, “It’s about to be writ again.”
Life on Mars, Bowie’s song of alienation and growing up in south London, therefore deftly references the late twentieth-century obsession with fame and pop culture, but does so critically and knowingly. This is a world that has been reborn as farce: Lenin has morphed into “Lennon”, and Mickey Mouse has “grown up a cow”. He is surrounded by a culture saturated in fantasy: cinema (“she’s hooked to the silver screen”), best-selling shows, Disney, pop music, cheap holidays in the sun – escapism of every form. What are they all escaping from? It is this question he would explore in the creation of Ziggy Stardust.
“My entire career,” Bowie noted in 2002, “I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety.” Bowie’s self-analysis is a refreshing change from the hagiography of both unconscious critics and uncritical fans, who by focussing so much on the visual distractions and shape-shifting reinventions (a discourse of course ideally suited to the vacuous and consumerist ideology of capitalist mass culture – which Bowie himself satirised in his song Fashion) tend to ignore and obscure what Bowie is actually singing about.
“Isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety” constellate the emotional and ontological universe of Bowie. As Ian Chapman notes, Bowie addresses himself to what are actually very mundane and common experiences – “feelings of loss, powerlessness, meaningless and estrangement from self and society.” “The alien was among us” announced a clearly still star-struck NME on the news of his death. But in fact alienation is always among us: we are an alien producing culture, thanks to the processes of late capitalism – as the Thin White Marx laid bare a hundred years ago or more:
Despite Marx’s original definition having been considerably broadened, many theorists agree that his fundamental dictum of separation remains largely sound, and that alienation ‘in every variation suggests the loss or absence of a previous or desirable relationship’ (Kenniston, 1972). While alienation at large is a central component within Bowie’s work, this study is concerned with a particular manifestation of alienation that has received relatively little attention: urban alienation.
And sadly buying Ziggy Stardust CDs won’t really change that: indeed, the alienation is encrypted into those very CDs, is burned into the corporate music streaming sites.
It is part of Bowie’s savviness of the media that he was always aware that his success and appeal put him precisely in this world. It is a surprising feature of the song Ziggy Stardust, for example, that Bowie writes it, not from the point of view of Ziggy himself, but rather as one of the band – “then we were Ziggy’s band” – so he’s critiquing the pop star figure from outside, while being him on stage. Bowie’s detachment from the scene he’s portraying on stage allows him the necessary distance to observe the process: to the audience, he seems godlike as Ziggy. But he realises Ziggy is a grandiose fabrication, sewn onto the desperation of his “fans”, who necessarily become the “lepers” in this equation, the mice in their million hordes.
It was a process that both fascinated and troubled Bowie, the fact that so many people were looking for things to “follow” and without perhaps knowing what they were following, or indeed looking for, and how easily popular culture allows them to do this. He recognised this tendency in both the music and the fashion industries – “the lemming-like quality that people were slaves to fashion” which he parodied in his song Fashion – a song which of course has been played numerous times on the very catwalks it is suggesting are vacuous and indeed fascistic. “It was dictatorial authority that seems to grasp people,” Bowie observed about the song, and it is this unconscious dynamic which he noted recurrently produces both political tyrants and pop “superstars.” And it was exactly this dynamic of course that allowed Ziggy to also “grasp people”. Fans think that by buying into their stars (literally as well as metaphorically) their lives will become somehow richer, just as the “stars” themselves believe that by becoming famous that will somehow fill the aching hole in their childhoods. And neither question very much the emptiness of these trajectories: as Bowie noted, the modern pursuit of celebrity for its own end, for fifteen minutes of Facebook, is “so Warhol. It’s as vacuous as that. And that to me, is a big worry. I think it’s done dreadful things to the music industry.”
The process of turning oneself into a “star” was in many ways pioneered by Bowie, at least within the music industry at this time. As Music journalist Michael Watts notes: “what made Ziggy different, and Bowie different, at that point was he turned himself into an Idol, that people could worship. Nobody had actually in pop music ever done that before. It was the province of Hollywood.” The Hollywood “star system” was equally fabricated on distance and alienation: the “stars” had to be remote, to act as incarnations – as empty signifiers – of the suburban, post-industrial fantasy of “otherness”, and the “stars” themselves were frequently deeply damaged people, craving attention and adoration, the fans pleasantly supplying this role in a mutually-dependent if highly toxic and destructive relationship. As George Michael has acutely pointed out in his analysis of “star-text”, it’s not what you have that makes you a star, it’s what you don’t have (see also Longhurst‘s excellent discussion of this).
Bowie’s genius was to see that this dynamic works both ways: the unwanted or unloved child seeks relief and compensation in the adoration of a mass audience (to finally recognise and validate it, and hope to fill the endless hole within), and similarly the “fans” seek some relief from their feelings of intense alienation, devitalisation, boredom, and disconnection, through ersatz fulfilment in their projective identification with the “star”.
The music industry is a perfect expression and container of unconscious projection and unhappiness, “Stoking the star maker machinery/Behind the popular song”, as Joni Mitchell perceptively observed in Free Man in Paris (her song about David Geffen). The pathological nature of this relationship is both encapsulated and unconsciously transmitted in the symbol of the “Star”. The pentagram, in both esoteric and exoteric systems, has always been the subconscious psychological trigger for egoic “want”, as I discuss in The God of the Left Hemisphere. Wanting to be a “star” – or even a “black star” – is a terribly sad thing to want to be.
The modern music business, in exactly the same way as the previous religion “business”, stokes this star-maker machinery and also ensures that this psychological connection remains hidden. What’s so exciting and significant about Bowie’s creation of the alter-ego Ziggy Stardust is that he plays with all these aspects. Bowie himself said that the song is “about the ultimate rock superstar destroyed by the fanaticism he creates”, and what is so startling about the Ziggy persona is its adrenalised exposure of rock “stardom” as mere construction.
Again this points us to something very interesting, and largely ignored, about what is going on in these complex commentaries of musicians and artists who are often at the heart of the industry and therefore very much aware of the machinery of fabrication. As Roger Waters also explored in The Wall (1982), there is something actually very disturbing about the rock world – and especially about the figure of the front man – the “special man” – with its religious, indeed often fascistic undertones (as anyone who’s ever seen a Queen concert knows), and its relentless supply of egos needing adoration. Interestingly, Waters similarly locates his own feelings of wanting – wanting to be on stage, looked at, loved – to his own disconnected post-war family.
There’s an irony or a weirdness then, in the fact that so many Bowie fans love – perhaps even idolise – Ziggy: because it’s precisely that sort of attitude and attention towards him, that Bowie’s song so effectively shines a light on and deconstructs. One of the inspirations for the Ziggy character was 60s musician Vince Taylor, who started off imitating Elvis – the King – and ended up believing he was God. “Vince Taylor was the inspiration for Ziggy,” Bowie once told Alan Yentob, “He always stayed in my mind as an example of what can happen in rock n roll. I’m not sure if I held him up as an idol or as something not to become. There was something very tempting about him going completely off the edge.” Like so many people Bowie knew, Vince also ended up in a psychiatric hospital.
The mid-70s were a particularly disorienting period for Bowie. “I was psychically damaged”, he later recalled, “I have serious problems about that year or two. I can’t remember how I felt; I have no emotional geography.” This state of emotional disconnection and mental disturbance is very much in evidence in the albums he released during the period. As Chapman notes:
Listening to Aladdin Sane, psychological disturbance quickly becomes evident as the preeminent theme, supporting the front-cover image. Bowie has spoken of the duality of the character, including saying, ‘Aladdin Sane was a schizophrenic.’ More specifically, he has claimed that the album reflected a point in his career where the boundaries between his private and performative lives were difficult to discern, resulting in ‘this kind of schizophrenia that I was going through.’ ” (Experiencing David Bowie)
Chapman also notes that the famous Aladdin Sane facial lightning flash also keys into this split or unconnected state: “The split face is also a long-established symbol of schizophrenia; of split personality. Artist Paul Klee, for instance, used the lightning flash to divide the face of his subject in his painting Physiognomic Flash.” “Aladdin Sane was split down the middle”, Bowie later confessed. These tensions, splits, and confusions between his own life and those of his alter egos – or even that of “David Bowie” (himself an alter ego, as his real name was David Robert Jones) – became amplified even more through his arduous split life of touring and performing in America.
At its nadir, it gave birth to the ‘Thin White Duke’ alter, a well-dressed, cocaine-addled tortured soul with an interest in the occult, described by Bowie as an “emotional Aryan superman.” This dubious character made its appearance on the album Station to Station (1976), which was released shortly after Bowie’s appearance in a similarly disorienting film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. The album sleeve used a still from the movie as its cover – the character Thomas Jerome Newton, stranded on earth and trying to get back to his home planet. “I have only flashes of making it,” a saner Bowie said much later of the album.
Bowie’s problems were compounded not only by his heroic use of cocaine, and his developing a substantial interest in Aleister Crowley, nazism, the occult, and the Kabbalah (the back cover shows him sketching the Kabbalah Sephirot – the ‘stations’ of the album title). The final ingredient in this cocktail was Los Angeles itself: like London and Berlin, and most other modern western metropolises, this was a city built on alienation and division. And especially on unreality. As Geoff MacCormack, his backing singer and childhood friend, recalled: “he hated LA towards the end. LA at that point was a very very alien society. It was kind of unreal with unreal people.” Bowie himself recalled these golden years in America’s entertainment capital even more dramatically: Los Angeles, he said, was “where it had all happened. The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth. To be anything to do with rock and roll and go and live in Los Angeles is, I think, just heading for disaster” (interview, 1980).
“If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now,” Bowie once remarked, “I’d either be in the nuthouse or in prison.” As we have seen, he was remarkably well-aware of how therapeutic and perhaps life-saving his ability to project and invent persona to deal with his own insecurities and fears was. His “hero-worship” of his half-brother Terry was “invented’, he said, “to discharge my guilt and failure, and to set myself free from my own hang-ups” – quite a remarkable statement really. This ability to “set myself free from my own hang-ups” through externalising them and dramatising them – one of the central processes of art therapy, in many ways – was a crucial aspect both of his creative drive and his ability to hang on to himself. In this, his early enrolment in the classes of mime artist and dancer Lindsey Kemp seem to have played a pivotal part (as they were later to be for Kate Bush).
The theatricality and artifice of Kemp’s technique allowed Bowie a space to develop a persona, a way of escaping his intense shyness and feelings of inauthenticity: “as an adolescent, I was painfully shy. I didn’t really have the nerve to sing my songs on stage and nobody else was doing them. I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn’t have to actually go through the humiliation of going on stage and being myself” (1983). The “humiliation of being myself’ is an interesting way at looking at the figure that these Major Toms and Ziggy Stardusts are concealing. “One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity,” Bowie said. “As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work, I could always be throwing it off.” He also admitted that the Ziggy character was his way of dealing with the mental health issues that plagued his family: he basically went into character so he wouldn’t go crazy. “Offstage I’m a robot,” he once admitted, “Onstage I achieve emotion. It’s probably why I prefer dressing up as Ziggy to being David.”
“Look up here, I’m in heaven”, he sings on Lazarus, released days before his death. But of course he isn’t: he’s still here, on earth, where he’s always been. And that’s a good thing: he’s part of us, part of human culture, and we do him a disservice to glamorise or celebrate the “star man” persona, which originated in family coldness, schizophrenia, and modern urban alienation. A world that, like many of us, he did not feel at home in, and often became deeply disconnected from. But it is up to us to change that world – not to escape into the convenient world of fantasy and personal reinvention, that keeps this “star-maker machinery” going. So let’s not idolise “stars” or look up to the stars – there is nothing holy about empty cold space, and nothing significant about being “up”, other than it underwrites concepts of hierarchy, judgmentalism, and social control. (As McGilchrist persuasively suggests in The Master and his Emissary, the desire to be “Up” is simply the default and unconscious trait of the disconnected and dehumanising world of the left hemisphere – which is also perhaps why so many gifted people on the autistic/AS disorder spectrum gravitate towards study of astronomy, with its reassuringly repetitive, unemotional patterns and cycles.)
It’s also interesting in this context that the planet “Mars” is such a frequent reference point to those living with autism: from Joshua Muggleton’s Raising Martians: How to Help a Child with Asperger Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism (2012) to Claire Sainsbury’s Martian in the Playground:Understanding The Schoolchild With Asperger’s Syndrome (2009), Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars (1995) to Simon Baron-Cohen‘s observations of how people with AS often have a “sense of being a Martian …alienated on a planet where they do not feel they belong”. As Bowie also noticed about the alien characters in his earlier songs: “They were metaphysically in place to suggest that I felt alienated, that I felt distanced from society and that I was really in search of some kind of connection.” The fact that no less than three of this year’s top Oscar-Nominated films are tales of men struggling solo in the wilderness – one even called The Martian – shows that this theme of disconnection and alienation shows no sign of abating.
It is touching, therefore, to find out that Bowie’s iconic character of Major Tom originated in something very mundane, very human: the song Space Oddity was written not about the lunar landings, but about Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, released the previous year, and from which he borrowed more than just his song title. Bowie had seen the film repeatedly with his then girlfriend, Hermione Farthingay, whom he later described as “the great love of my life”. When Farthingay left him for another man, he was devastated, and wrote this song about someone drifting off into space, disconnected from the earth. In the original video for the song, we see Bowie lying in his bedroom, spaced out on the bed and fantasising both about disconnection and sexual encounters of more than the third kind.
It’s really rather affecting and normalising: and Bowie wasn’t the only one in the late 60s getting spaced out as a way of coping with the Vietnam war, relationship difficulties, and chronic social alienation. As Bowie’s landlady and friend Mary Finnigan recalled: “the whole of disaffected Beckenham, Bromley, Penge and points north, south, east and west dropped acid that summer.” Bowie found in music a way both to channel his own peculiarly deep feelings of dislocation and displacement – of feeling “very much on the outside of everything”, as he put it. And his galvanising alter egos and incessant identity-shifting mesmerised and electrified a generation, while also generating a remarkable musical and creative legacy. “A lot of my songs seem to be prayers for unity within myself”, he once observed. I hope he’s found that now, and that his work can help others to integrate and ground themselves, and not fly out into empty space.
Rod Tweedy is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation, a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience, and has also written a number of articles and reviews on Romanticism and popular culture, including Iain McGilchrist, Ang Lee and the Revolution of Perception, Frozen Children: The pathology of contemporary Disney, and Albion Rose: William Blake and the Awakening of Britain. He is a former trustee of the William Blake Society and an enthusiastic supporter of the user-led mental health organization, Mental Fight Club.