Commemorating David Bowie (1947-2016) opens so many avenues to explore in his long and rich creative life. After all, here’s an artist in several media who kept on working from 1962 right up until his death. He was perhaps the most literary and intellectually sophisticated pop star ever, who wove literary influences into his music and his personas. Certain key trends and styles in popular culture probably would never have developed quite the way they did without Bowie drawing on his deep connections to the intellectual, cultural, and literary currents of his time. He was a voracious, wide-ranging reader. And he also pioneered some cultural and even technological developments online.
Who but Bowie would have planned a musical based on George Orwell’s 1984? Who but Bowie would have launched a concept album, Diamond Dogs, based around the homoerotic literary terrorism of William Burroughs’s Wild Boys? Who but Bowie would have used The Wild Boys and Stanley Kubrick’s filmation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange as the inspiration for his Ziggy Stardust persona? Who but Bowie would have appropriated Burroughs’s cut-up technique for his own songwriting? (The November 1973 encounter of the two Bs is part of the Bowie legend.) Who but Bowie would have created a character like “The Jean Genie” – his name inspired by Jean Genet, “strung out on lasers and slash-back blazers,” and a prototypical cyberpunk hero born ten years before William Gibson rolled out Burning Chrome? And Bowie was wired in to science fiction right from the “Five Years”/Major Tom/Spiders from Mars/”Drive-In Saturday” blastoff.
True to his sci-fi roots, Bowie also delved into the internet and electronic media. With his wife Iman, he appeared in the 1999 Windows/Dreamcast video game Omikron: The Nomad Soul, also writing its soundtrack. The same year, he staged his “Cyber Song Contest,” in an early crowdsourcing exercise to find a collaborator lyricist. The resulting recording session was streamed online – cutting-edge stuff at the time – with chat rooms hosted around it. The whole exercise helped support Bowie’s own ISP and website, BowieNet. Yahoo! named Bowie 2000’s Online Pioneer of the Year for the Cyber Song Contest.
The 2013 international exhibition David Bowie Is included in its materials a list of Bowie’s 100 favorite books. (You can imagine many popsters who would have trouble citing ten, or even one.) And as well as Burgess, Burroughs, and Orwell, there’s Homer’s Iliad, The Portable Dorothy Parker, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle, and a slew of titles that were probably critical in developing and deepening Bowie’s Berlin/electronica/krautrock period of the later 1970s: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Christopher Isherwood’s Mr. Norris Changes Trains, and Otto Friedrich’s Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s. Adding even more literary depth, there’s also Bowie’s sometimes highly literate acting roles: for instance, his beautifully understated portrayal of Nikola Tesla, in Christopher Nolan’s film adaptation of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige. And Neil Gaiman actually wrote Bowie his own story, “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” now made available on his website.
Bowie gone, we’re left with a popular music culture typified by the likes of Kanye West and Noel Gallagher, and their much-publicized rants against books. No wonder they look such pygmies alongside Bowie. Painter, photographer, actor, musician, songwriter, impresario, he’s much needed and already grievously missed.