I began living as David Bowie in June 2015. My aim was to surround myself with the culture that influenced Bowie at each point in his career – the music he listened to, the films he watched, the books he read, the clothes he wore, and the places he lived. The aim was to gain a better understanding of him as an artist, and the patterns that shaped his work. Once the international media picked up on it, my project grew and grew: I accepted all interview invitations, as part of the point was to try to understand what it was like to be in demand, to have your image circulated around the world, to become public property. I travelled to New York, Berlin, Switzerland, Philadelphia. I performed several times with a band. Like Bowie in the Tin Machine period, I even grew a beard.
It wasn’t just an art project for the sake of it. This was part of my research towards was a book, Forever Stardust, which was published for Bowie’s 70th birthday in January 2017. The project itself was also recorded in a video diary documentary called Being Bowie, now available online.
The year of David Bowie ended in June 2016, and I believe I emerged from it a different person. I wasn’t Bowie, of course, but I wasn’t quite the person who had started the project a year before. I had gained a new understanding of him, but also of myself.
Here are a few of the things I learned.
You can admire Bowie – you can love Bowie – and still accept that he was a flawed human being. I’ve never agreed with the semi-serious memes of Bowie as a strange alien who came down to show us a better way of being, then ascended back to the stars. The concept doesn’t seem to do his still-grieving family any favours, and it also underrates Bowie’s extraordinary abilities. He was a brilliant human being. The whole point is that he was a human being. He failed, and flopped, and tried again. He made mistakes, experimented, retired and returned. He was an icon and an idol, but also, at times (and for years) a laughing stock, the butt of jokes. He kept on going. He didn’t give up.
David Bowie was very far from a perfect person. He could be glorious and generous, but also thoughtless and unkind. He would promise to contact artists and bandmates he’d worked with, then abandon them for years. Sometimes he’d drop them a line after decades, expecting them to drop everything in turn and work with him again. Although to be fair they usually did. He was an absent father for much of the 70s. Though he later made it up to his son, it was hard for him to balance being Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke with being Zowie’s dad.
Bowie’s first wife, Angie, writes lovingly of him in her post-divorce memoir, but even from her adoring account, David comes across as a brat, a man-child who needed to be led to his daily bath. He sulked, stropped and wanted to be mothered both by his wife and by the many other women in his life. More seriously, he had sex with groupies who were too young to legally consent, even if they still remember him fondly and idealise the memory.
Artistically, he was a genius at borrowing, reworking and incorporating other sources. This is fair enough if you’re lifting from other white men like Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Stanley Kubrick and Anthony Newley, but a more dubious practice when you’re stealing from minority cultures and taking the credit. His use of African American music and style in the mid-1970s can easily be seen as appropriation, as can his embracing of what was then simply called gay culture. He famously gave mixed messages – though to be fair, his message was also misrepresented – about his own sexuality. He and his band, and Angie as the canny brand manager, used the word ‘gay’ flexibly in the early 1970s, knowing it was seen by some as a synonym for cool and experimental. When society cracked down harder on homosexuality and he wanted to appeal to the MTV mainstream of the 1980s, Bowie was able to shrug off gayness and, officially at least, go straight.
I knew all this, but I was still surprised when a young gay man in one of my cultural studies classes at Kingston University went into a passionate rant about Bowie: the more he learned about Bowie, the student exclaimed, the more he hated him! Bowie was an appropriator, he said, stealing queer culture and then disowning it, using it as a convenient mask and then throwing it away. He told me he didn’t want to hear any more about Bowie, because it made him too angry.
When Bowie died, I read articles reclaiming him as non-binary, as an LGBT icon: a legitimate reading, but I think my student provided a useful counter to that kind of celebration, and I remain grateful to him for it.
Thanks to Bowie, the way I live my life has been transformed in small but significant ways. Because of the project, I was able to try things I had given up years ago.
I started singing lessons in June 2015. I’ve been going every week since then, even now the project’s over. It started just as an experiment, a few trial sessions. The idea was to get further inside Bowie’s music, to explore his phrasing – his mid-1970s shift from a higher-pitched, thinner tone to the deeper, richer soul voice. I didn’t know how long I was going to keep up the classes for, but after a month something shifted, and my singing tutor, silently recognising that I wanted more, moved me away from just copying Bowie, and back to basics: scales, arpeggios, breathing, increasing range, doing it right. Now, eighteen months later, after performing at half a dozen gigs, I’ve enrolled for the kind of music exam little kids take when they’re at primary school. When I join my tutor’s other students for concerts in church halls, I tower over them: the oldest one apart from me is eighteen. It has definitely helped my teaching to become a student again, a novice with a lot to learn. Professors in particular should, I think, enrol for classes and face the fear of being only average at something. We’re told too often that good at one thing and we don’t move often enough out of that comfort zone. We should learn how it feels to be taught, often by someone far younger.
But the most obvious difference is external. People say I look different. Basically, I wear a lot more make-up now. I wear a lot more jewellery now. (I started buying rings after shaking hands with Bowie’s guitarist, Earl Slick). I wear a lot more nail varnish now. My hair is a lot longer, a lot blonder now. I wear whatever I want now.
There are names for that kind of thing – there were names for it when I was younger, like ‘poof’, which is no doubt why I stopped doing it – and there are more positive names and labels these days for people who don’t like gender conventions. I don’t know which of those names and labels I would apply to myself. I am under no illusions that I benefit every day from patriarchy, and I don’t feel any amount of Urban Decay eye pencil is going to either remove me from the structures of gender, or do much to destroy those structures. But I hope that for some young people, having a professor who looks like an ageing member of Duran Duran might remind them that you can experiment with and explore what our culture calls ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, and still succeed, working within the system.
Living as Bowie – for all the flaws of the brilliant man himself – reminded me of the creativity I’d given up during my own life, and resolved me to embrace it again. Being Bowie helped me to become a braver and bolder version of myself.
But I didn’t really suit the beard.
Author – Will Brooker