Svengali of the collective imagination

bowieVivien Lash on the demagogic love-in that is the V&A’s David Bowie exhibition

David Bowie was always more of a reflector of his times than an innovator. But the dead glamorous mirror he looked into was a few seconds into the future giving us what we didn’t yet know we wanted.

Clever, but not too clever. Being one step ahead of your audience is perfect timing. But nobody can see you if you’re a mile away.

The man who fell to earth was never crashing in any car until he got fat and fell out of favour; at least with me.

Now Bowie’s back, reflected by our own longing as the grandfather of rock in a new spaceship to Bowiemania, starring in the best-selling show, David Bowie Is, at London’s V&A with 70,000 tickets sold in advance of opening.

In 1973 David Bowie walked into our lives out of our dreams singing Starman on TOTP, one of those iconic memories that’s equally memorable to people who didn’t witness it.

It’s easy to imagine the young Kate Moss locking herself in the bathroom with scarlet hair dye having just seen the future.

Except Kate wasn’t born yet; still, she’s never looked better than when photographed as a lady David in French Vogue last year. And John Lydon was never cooler than when channeling Bowie-red hair as Johnny Rotten.

Is the Bowie Juice Bar and pile of oranges at the entrance to the V&A’s David Bowie Is show an homage to Ziggy Stardust hair?

Should it be a bunch of carrots? A good haircut can change your life and Bowie’s never looked back since becoming a phallic-spiked carrot top, even though he’s since returned to his unnatural blond.

I can’t get in close enough to read the card explaining the oranges. The fat-skinny people are pushing in like they’re expecting to gaze at Ziggy Stardust, not just his costume.

The oddly pale and almost pastel Starman onesie isn’t quite able in real life to live up to its vibrant myth. But there it is, trapped in a glass display case, the costume that launched a billion bisexual fantasies.

Bowie was always more than just a pop star. The first asexual supermodel is an artist who’s appeal lies somewhere between scaring your mother and seducing your brother.

It was cold and it rained, so I felt like an actor.

The longest lasting stars are actors. We want to be them or fuck them as Louis B Mayer intended. Ronald Reagan was stuck in B Movies until his biggest role as the leader of the western world. Kate Moss plays the simple part of impersonating her shallow not stupid self and when she strays from this we don’t like her as much.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, punctuating eternity with obsession and fantasy. David Bowie, like all the best actors, is good at creating character.
‘I wanted to be free…from David Bowie or the Thin White Duke or whoever I was at the time,’ Bowie says with a throaty laugh, reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich whom he starred with in Just a Gigolo.

David Bowie Is has most of his alter egos, thematically arranged – Major Tom, Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke – with Bowie’s voice in your headphones the whole time, laughing in his Estuary accent, being funny and fabulous, throwing in the occasional song.
No sign of the Laughing Gnome in the V&A, or any pictures of David fat and faltering onstage in New York in his first public appearance after his heart attack. A painful sight of the man who inspired a million diets. If the coolest skeletor on the planet can get fat anyone can!

The golden years from Hunky Dory to Scary Monsters couldn’t last forever. Meteoric rises need a fall from grace so that they can make a comeback. In Uncle David’s middle years there were ugly rumours that he’d traded his talent for stardom and – shock, horror – wanted to make millions! Do you prefer not to be paid for your work?

At the end of the affair, he killed off his evil twins with the sexy lack of conscience of a lad insane and moved to another town. From London to Berlin then…um…Geneva and finally New York, a city that must have been invented for him to live in. Though in the 21st century it’s time for him to pack a bag and move on – maybe to Mars.

Not many rock stars survive having their teeth fixed, but Bowie influenced the next generation and their idols and is still an integral force in popular culture. Number one with The Next Day, and still starring in the best-selling show.
If he was just a pop star, we could measure out our lives with his songs. Youth never dies, it’s just hiding in your heart.

But Bowie is a Svengali of the collective imagination. As we get to the exit, a picture taken on his 66th birthday watches from the wall looking like a cross between Tommy Newton, the alien he plays in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the ageing vampire he plays in The Hunger.

As the audience leave, David Bowie’s still in there jamming good with Weird and Gilly and the Spiders from Mars.


Read more episodes of Vivien Lash’s column, Shallow Not Stupid .

Read more about Vivien Lash in Spying on Strange Men.

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