“Just turn on with me and you’re not alone…”
That lyric, from “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” might be as close to a manifesto as David Bowie has ever uttered. Indeed, for all the revolutionary tunes and culture-crossing costumes, perhaps his greatest legacy is that he made it okay to be different. Very different.
“I suppose that has been Bowie’s most sizable impact,” reckons Victoria Broackes, co-curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s spectacular “David Bowie Is” exhibition, which opened March 23. “Kids saw Bowie on Top of the Pops and their lives changed.”
The show traces the career of arguably the greatest rock star ever by theme, rather than chronology. Most dazzling, as one would expect, are the costumes: the alien-like Ziggy Stardust bodysuits, Kansai Yamamoto’s androgynous Aladdin Sane creations, and on through to the iconic and subversive Alexander McQueen Union Jack coat.
“It seemed perfectly normal to us,” insists longtime guitarist and collaborator Earl Slick. “Nothing was done just for shock value.”
But the show also cuts deep into the intellectual and artistic obsessions (German Expressionism, Ballardian dystopianism, Japanese Kabuki, et al) that drove Bowie through such incessant Zeitgeist-altering transformations. In fact, the oft-repeated description of the singer as a chameleon ignores that he was actually just an artist with an unstoppable zeal for absorbing and re-interpreting ideas.
“He showed that you could expand on the idea of being in a band, lyrically, musically, staging, wardrobe,” Slick says. “He was doing mime, we had Jules Fisher designing stages for us…it literally opened up the doors for bands like Pink Floyd.”
Bowie’s first album in ten years, The Next Day, has coincidentally been released in time with the exhibition. And while the Thin White Duke has long been a New Yorker, Broackes makes a strong case for the show being staged in London. In fact, it features a section specifically dedicated to his relationship to Dear Old Blighty.
“There are so many things about Bowie that mean he couldn’t have been born in any other place or time,” she points out. “He was from the suburbs, which at that time were sort of a hive of dissatisfaction that brought out the rebel in people. I think in the language of his creativity, you realize that London is a great inspiration.”
The exhibit emphasizes the monumental influence of Bowie’s output in the ’70s. Legendary photographer Mick Rock, who captured it all so vividly, enthuses about the inclusion of the pioneering pre-MTV videos he produced and directed for “Life On Mars,” “Jean Genie,” “Space Oddity,” and “John I’m Only Dancing.”
“It was the beginning of modern culture,” he asserts of their roles as young visionaries. “He fused so many different elements, and out came this monster called Ziggy Stardust. It was a projection of the future.”
Rock makes an emphatic point of the “high level of sophistication and intellect” that went into Bowie’s oeuvre. But the show is also intent on offering a peek behind all the artifice and high conceptualizing. There are diary entries, as well as handwritten lyrics and set lists, reminding viewers that even a work of genius starts with a very human scribble. Perhaps most fascinating of all is a set of never-seen-before storyboards for Diamond Dogs done by the singer himself.
Beyond the show’s fascinations for rock fans and Bowie fanatics, though, “David Bowie Is” aims to shine a light on how his fearless radicalism helped to significantly define the latter half of the 20th Century, and show how it continues to reverberate loudly into the 21st.
“If you have any interest in the history of the last seventy years, you’ll find something interesting,” Broackes maintains. “He seems to represent us in many ways, and somehow speaks about something in our lives. It’s something about the freedom of the individual.“
Or as photographer Rock unhesitatingly puts it: “Nothing was ever the same after Bowie.”
Main Image via Victoria and Albert Museum