Rebel Rebel … detail from a photograph of David Bowie and William Burroughs taken by Terry O'Neill in 1974 and hand-coloured by Bowie. Click for full image. Photograph: Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive 2012. © V&A Images
When Bowie met Burroughs
Trend-setter, impresario, phenomenon: David Bowie has shaped entire subcultures. Jon Savage traces the star's talent for reinvention and his catalytic encounter with William Burroughs
Saturday 9 March 2013
William Burroughs: The weapon of the Wild Boys is a bowie knife, an 18in bowie knife, did you know that?
David Bowie: An 18in bowie knife … you don't do things by halves do you? No, I didn't know that was their weapon. The name Bowie just appealed to me when I was younger. I was into a kind of heavy philosophy thing when I was 16 years old, and I wanted a truism about cutting through the lies and all that.
On 28 February 1974, Rolling Stone magazine published a remarkable encounter between David Bowie and William Burroughs. Entitled "Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman", the event had been hosted in November 1973 by the American journalist A Craig Copetas. As published it took the form of a Q&A between the writer and the musician that, in retrospect, was an inspired piece of positioning for both parties.
Bowie was then at the zenith of his pop star cycle. Five days before the cover date his single "Rebel Rebel" entered the British charts, where it would peak at No 5.
With its teen address, deep androgyny and dancehall imperative, the song was very much in line with previous Bowie hits such as "John, I'm Only Dancing" and "The Jean Genie". But, although nobody knew it at the time, it would be the last in that sequence. Bowie wasn't a traditional pop star, happy to be known for one sound or idea then to be discarded by a fickle public. That was the Ziggy Stardust storyline, and he was determined to avoid the fate of his fictional alter ego.
Late 1973 saw Bowie at a particular crossroads. Stardom had come hard and fast, after a long apprenticeship. The previous year had seen his breakthrough, with three hit singles and an extraordinarily successful album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His success pulled into the charts previous albums such as Hunky Dory,Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World as new fans delved into his past. He became a kind of impresario, producing hit records for Lou Reed ("Walk on the Wild Side") and Mott the Hoople ("All the Young Dudes") and promoting the most feral rock group then in existence, Iggy and the Stooges.
Ziggymania had begun, but this was something more than stardom. Bowie had become a phenomenon, the kind of performer who comes along once in a generation, and carries the whole culture along in his or her wake. His only rivals – Marc Bolan and Rod Stewart – did not have quite his allure or cutting edge: during this period, Bowie was moving faster and further than the media that was trying to contain him.
And 1973 saw no let-up: he toured America and Japan, travelling back by train through Russia and West Germany. A new album, Aladdin Sane, became his first No 1. It coincided with the peak of fan mania during the group's 61-date UK tour – and, thanks to Pierre La Roche's red and blue "lighting flash" makeup, served up the single most identifiable image of Bowie for fans and the general public alike.
Ziggy was on the point of saturation. Aladdin Sane was released in April. Two months later, New English Library published the novel Glam by Richard Allen – the sixth book in the Skinhead series, the 1970s equivalent of penny dreadfuls. With a tag line that reads "Johnny Holland fights to stay idol of a million fans", the cover shows a young man with a poorly executed red and blue flash down his face.
In June, Bowie decided to kill off Ziggy. It was an inspired piece of timing: the look, culture and attitude he had fostered were in danger of being assimilated and superseded. The trend became known as glam rock: a combination of hard rock, flash, often absurd silver costumes and an attempted, androgynous glamour. By the middle of 1973, the purity and power of Bowie's breakthrough had become dulled by imitation and repetition – the full stupidity of fashion or trend evanescence: here today, gone tomorrow. Diluted elements of his style were all over the pop charts: Sweet, Mud, Alvin Stardust.
By now Bowie was not just a pop star but a culture leader, the focus for several micro-generations of fans, ranging from teens to twenty-something urban sophisticates. And he was looking to push them, and himself, forward into uncharted territory.
So the November meeting with Burroughs was well timed. The author was well known, but not the cult he would later become. He was near the end of his time in London, where he had lived since 1968, and his burst of early 1960s creativity – brought on by the discovery of the cut-up technique – had slowed down. However in 1971 he had published The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead, a nightmarish vision of a future (dated 1988) overrun by "adolescent guerrilla armies of specialised humanoids".
Bowie later stated that he got "the shape and the look of what Ziggy and the Spiders were going to become" from The Wild Boys and from Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film version of A Clockwork Orange (1962): "They were both powerful pieces of work, especially the marauding boy gangs of Burroughs' Wild Boys with their bowie knives. I got straight on to that. I read everything into everything. Everything had to be infinitely symbolic."
The encounter went well. Both parties were equally aware of what they had to offer each other. For Burroughs, who had been publishing ground-breaking books for 20 years without much appreciable financial return, it was association with fame and the music industry, as well as the possible benefits: a wider readership, film hook-ups and more money.
Burroughs had already had a brush with pop: he met Paul McCartney several times in late 1965 and early 66 – having set up a tape studio with Ian Sommerville in McCartney's Montagu Square flat in London's Marylebone – and had been rewarded with a cameo portrait on the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Burroughs was an underground press staple and a counter-cultural influence, not least in the coinage of group names such as the Insect Trust and Steely Dan.
Bowie's needs were less obvious, but nonetheless urgent. Searching for an exit from conventional pop stardom, he needed another way of working and a different kind of public persona. Literary cachet offered the chance of a deeper, wider and more permanent cultural relevance; Burroughs had an impeccable avant-garde reputation and an image that was at once forbidding and forbidden, remote and culturally potent.
Most of all, Burroughs had a technique that would enable Bowie to renew his entire method of writing lyrics and making music. During the early 1960s, Burroughs and his colleague, the painter and writer Brion Gysin, had developed the cut-up as a method of visual and verbal reassembly that was equally applicable to painting, montaged artworks, calligraphy, tape manipulation and the word. It offered, in fact, a whole new way of seeing.
Having read Burroughs' cut-up novel Nova Express to prepare for the interview, Bowie applied the technique to the words and sound of his next album, the darkly dystopian Diamond Dogs – a fusion of Burroughs and George Orwell. The cut-up, as he admitted later, perfectly suited his own fragmented consciousness, and also enabled him to cut through the tangle of expectation and image that threatened to slow him down. It sped everything up.
As well as enhancing the author's fame and credibility, the meeting helped set Bowie's trajectory for the next few years – a series of dazzling physical and artistic changes that would not slow until the early 1980s. Bowie became the pop star as harbinger of the future, at the same time as he injected many of Burroughs' ideas and techniques into the mainstream of popular culture.
Within five years of Ziggy, the punks were enacting The Wild Boys on the streets of Britain – as if to promote and preview an inevitable collapse of society. Many accounts of punk accentuate its social realism, but it also had a very strong science-fiction element – projecting into a conceivable nightmare future. The music developed further the chopped acceleration Bowie had previewed on Diamond Dogs and it continued the dystopian preoccupations of that album.
Few could have foreseen in 1974 a youth culture that took many of its cues from a figure such as Burroughs – but Bowie saw it and helped bring it about. After all, he had been in the audience himself, as a teenager, and he understood the dynamic of public performance with a clarity very few stars have had before or since.
Bowie saw the members of his audience raw and close-up in 1972 and 1973. He knew their strengths and weaknesses, and he relished their diversity. He knew he and they were a kind of mutation, and that empowered him to push himself and his fans as far and fast as they would go. He felt they would follow him, and they did – passing through their own rites of passage to become glam rockers, soul boys, punk and eventually, in 1980, new romantics.
After the demise of the Spiders, Bowie lost some of the closeness he had had with his audience. Foreign tours, elaborate concepts and the deleterious effects of super-stardom meant he would no longer see them in quite the same way. Bowie's interview with Burroughs came at the end of his intimate pop star phase. It projected him into a new set of engagements that saw him become more disengaged, more abstracted – indeed more alien: a trajectory enshrined on film by Nicolas Roeg in The Man Who Fell to Earth. This was deliberate: Bowie had become a leader but, as he had written, the leader is always deserted by his followers. The trick was to withdraw before they deserted you.
Bowie's increasingly remote persona and ever-more radical image and sound changes didn't stop the public from buying his records: although his singles sales dropped from the 1972–3 peak, his albums would all make the top five until the end of the decade. Musically, his hardcore fans would follow him wherever he directed: into SF dystopias, contemporary American soul music, icy krautrock and the ambient instrumentals of Low and Heroes.
His subcultural influence would continue to be strong: in the Soul Boys of 1975 and 1976, with their Jerome Newton hairdos and plastic sandals; and the bizarre, cartoon-like punks who began to emerge from London's outer suburbs in 1976. The most visible of these were given a group name, the Bromley Contingent, and they showed the depth of Bowie's influence in their dress and demeanour.
In the mid 1970s, Siouxsie Sioux lived in Bromley: as Bowie had, she made trips into London, in her case to the Biba building in Kensington High Street. "I was besotted with art deco, art nouveau. That was my escape from humdrum. I think Bowie … had a big part in that. Whoever latched on to them then were that way inclined. The whole thing, not just the music. It aroused something that was dormant, that was causing frustration."
Her friend Steve Severin also lived in Bromley: "Something had to happen. Mainly searching for people with shared interests. I think it was all sparked by Bowie." In 1976, the two friends formed one of the first punk bands, Siouxsie and the Banshees. They were among the most obvious examples of just how deep Bowie's influence had been on this generation – just old enough to be bowled over by his 1972 breakthrough. Bowie turned 30 in January 1977. Just as his followers flooded the media with angry noises and blank poses – in an echo of Diamond Dogs and the Stooges' Raw Power – he was into his next phase with Low, an album of two faces: one side of short, clipped songs with cut-up music and lyrics, and another of longer, atmospheric synthesiser instrumentals. His second album of the year, Heroes, marked the transition to even greater effect.
In doing so, Bowie helped set the electronic style that took over when punk was exhausted: the wave of synthesiser groups, such as the Human League, that became very successful in the early 1980s. Once again, he seemed uncannily in touch with future trends – just like the Beatles had been in the 1960s. But he was no longer involved intimately with youth subcultures, nor did his continued relevance depend on this closeness.
Bowie tackled this directly in a track from the 1980 album Scary Monsters …and Super Creeps. "Teenage Wildlife" imagines "one of the new wave boys/ Same old thing in brand new drag/ Comes sweeping into view, oh ho ho ho ho ho/ As ugly as a teenage millionaire/ Pretending it's a whizz kid world".
The hit single from the album was "Ashes to Ashes", a No 1 record that lyrically appeared to close the cycle that had begun with "Space Oddity", 11 years before. Shot by David Mallett, the ground-breaking video featured Bowie in Pierrot costume walking along a beach with the most florid examples of the latest youth subculture he had inspired: the new romantics, who fused several periods of Bowie – Aladdin Sane, Station to Station, and Low – all at once.
In the same year, Bowie filmed a live appearance for the West German film Christiane F – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, the lightly fictionalised story of a teenage drug addict in Berlin. Bowie was presented at the centre of German youth culture, while the city of Berlin was re-envisioned by the use of a soundtrack that included the ambient instrumentals from Low and Heroes. It was the most popular German film of 1981.
Bowie didn't release a new record for another couple of years, while he freed himself from his contractual obligations to RCA Records and former manager Tony Defries. The singer returned in April 1983 with the No 1 single and album Let's Dance. Bowie was tanned, healthy, seemingly at peace with his demons. It may well mark the "normalisation" of David Bowie – freed to be an individual and an adult.
• The catalogue for the V&A exhibition David Bowie Is is edited by the show's curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh.
Bowie at the V&A: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/david-bowie-is/
Elsewhere on the blog: