Bowie by Steve Schapiro
9781576878064 – h/b – 76pp – £30
Published 28th April 2016
All images used in this post are images included in Bowie
Bowie, by Steve Schapiro collects 50, full-colour, large-scale photographs from a photoshoot Schapiro did of David Bowie in winter 1974. The shoot started in the afternoon and carried through until midday the next day. Images from it went on to form the covers for Station to Station and Low. Access this comprehensive to Bowie at a pivotal year in his career was unprecedented.
We all know who David Bowie is, but because – across a career that spanned 6 decades – he produced a vast oeuvre so sprawling and rich, with so little repeated imagery, it remains difficult to draw any one communal understanding of him out of the amorphous, joyful cacophony of his body of work.
There are a few images that are better known that others – Bowie, thrusting his way into the lyric, “wham/bam/thank you ma’am!” on Suffragette City. Bowie, playing the opening chords to Rock n Roll Suicide on the last date of the Ziggy Stardust tour and ducking his head to smile at the ground, like it’s all too much to try and project, all too good to bear, like he feels guilty for it. Bowie, shouting to all the drunk kids whose parents don’t know, “if they’re a boy or a girl,” who’ve “torn their dress” and whose “faces are a mess” because they’ve rubbed half their make-up off crying, yeah, I’m talking about Bowie on Rebel Rebel just belting out to those intense, bedraggled kids on the dancefloor: “Hot tramps! I love you so!”
We have these images, and my god, they’re good, but they don’t provide a narrative or a structure. So that’s what this post is going to do instead. I’m going to try and put the Steve Schapiro photo-shoot, lovingly reproduced in full in Bowie, in chronological context. Because these images are important.
By the time 1974 – when the Steve Schapiro shoot happened – rolled around, Bowie had already created and killed off his first alter-ago Ziggy Stardust, and was busy cultivating his second, Aladdin Sane.
Something not often spoken is David Bowie’s family history of schizophrenia. He openly discusses the profound influence that his schizophrenic older brother Terry’s institutionalisation and eventual suicide had on him in the documentary Sound and Vision.
I think in the same way that someone suffering with acute anxiety might try and make a lot of jokes at their own expense, in the hope that by being self-deprecating, ‘inevitable’ social belittling of them would at least happen within their control, someone who feared that genetically, late-onset schizophrenia was a likely occurrence for them might frenetically, consciously attempt to create and destroy characters. I think of the ‘killing off’ of Ziggy Stardust as an attempt by Bowie to control what might happen to him through self-awareness – an attempt to ‘get’ himself before he was gotten.
So – we find Bowie in ’74 far enough into establishing his creative process to be aware that it will be part of it to both create and destroy characters. That he will be “the first person to say I am using rock n roll, rather than being rock n roll.” He’s developed and articulated a post-modern idea of a human being being a lens, not the finished product. He wants us to trust the sincerity of what he’s saying at any one moment, without expectation of what he will say in the future.
He wants to be seen as fractious and impermanent, a guy who runs out ahead with one idea and shows us how it’ll end. All the while knowing that the idea’s not him, because he can drop it at any time and take up with another one. He’s introduced the idea that a musician can be an actor (remember: David Bowie trained first as a mime artist), and that an actor can be sincere.
This is all perhaps best summed up in an interview included in Sound and Vision, where Bowie surmises:
“We in Britain are not truly a rock nation, everything we do in rock ‘n’ roll has a sense of irony attached to it. We know that we’re not the Americans, we know it didn’t spring form our souls, so as the British always do, we try and do something with it to make them feel smug, and that’s what we’re good at.”
So, Bowie enjoys playing with imagery. Taking up whole systems of thought and casting them away. He’s a purveyor of that slightly cruel, born of a vulnerable need to defend oneself, brand of irony. Oh, but I never meant it. Maybe it makes sense then, that the Steve Schapiro shoot features him with a Kabbalah, an esoteric diagram that explains the relationship between one man and infinity, first associated with early Judaism but later taken up by occultists like Bowie’s heroes, Aleister Crowley.
Maybe it makes sense too that the next shot is Bowie against a now blank wall, with the Kabbalah scrubbed away. Been there. Done that.
Bowie’s fascination with Aleister Crowley did not begin and end with an interest in his reclamation of the Kabbalah, In fact, we’re told in the blurb that Schapiro and Bowie bonded the day of the photoshoot over a love of Crowley.
The Crowley whose best known quote is:
“The common defect of all mystical systems is that there has been no place for laughter.”
When I first learned that David Bowie listed Crowley as one of his heroes, I felt that something in his oeuvre was unlocking for me.
Something that Bowie himself appears not to have realised at the time of the Schapiro shoot – that fantastical image generation and destruction with him was skin-deep. As an artist, he might have needed frenetic connections with the surreal and the strange to function, to occupy his mind, but the work he was really doing was honing in with precision on the day-to-day experiences of British working class life.
Previously, the people who knew me had always been surprised that I was as much of a Bowie fan as I was, because I’ve never enjoyed science fiction. My favourite TV shows are The Office and Parks and Rec and Girls. My favourite artist is either Grayson Perry or Tracey Emin. My favourite photographer is Martin Parr. Perhaps my favourite series of books ever are Sue Townshend’s Adrian Mole’s. My sense of humour has always been to enjoy exquisitely accurate descriptions of things that aren’t usually described – the funny shock of unexpected moments of self-awareness – way more than I’ve ever enjoyed the humour in flights of fancy. I’ve never found silly costumes or voices or elaborate imagined scenarios funny.
But I love David Bowie. Bowie, with his alter-egos and his obsession with space imagery (think of the video for his first ever top-10 single, Space Oddity). Why? Because I’ve always felt the artifice in his grandiose showmanship was so clear. The Crowley-esque laughter by-himself at-himself while he was doing it.
I was never in doubt that what David Bowie was was a painfully accurate documenter of loneliness and suburbia, of mental illness and poverty.
My favourite Bowie song, Sound and Vision, came out three years after the Schapiro shoot, in ’77. A crisp, beautiful song about boredom and isolation. About how important connecting to little touches of beauty is to surviving those situations. Yes, you’re stuck in your bedroom, where “the pale blinds are drawn all day,” and “there’s nothing to do, and nothing to say.” But! Crucially! The walls of your bedroom are a good colour. And that matters. That matters so much. You can live in that knowledge. You can keep going back to it, like a touchstone.
Listen to the song. To Bowie’s delight that
“Blue, blue, electric blue/ that is the colour of my room!/ Where I will live”
You can live through what feels like a structure-less, context-less, lonely life, if you know that you can still access, “the gift of sound and vision.”
What hints are there of this self-awarness to come in the ’74 Schapiro shoot?
That, among the concept shots, he insisted on having an image taken that was posed to look as though he was in a teenage bedroom, holding a library book.
Now let’s talk about Starman, one of Bowie’s best known songs, released almost a decade after the Schapiro shoot, in early ’84. It’s unashamedly about being a teenager, lying on your bed in the dark, idly listening to the radio when you happen across a song that makes you feel strange, a song with some kind of inarticulatable quality, that makes you feel like you’re in on the world’s secrets. Look at the first verse:
“Didn’t know what time it was – the lights were low
I leaned back on my radio
Some cat was laying down some rock ‘n’ roll, “lotta soul”, he said
Then the loud sound did seem to fade
Came back like a slow voice on a wave of phase
That weren’t no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jazz.”
So you’ve heard something brilliant, that’s also spaced you out. So what comes next? You make an excitable phone call to a friend, to try and make the experience seem real. Classic. Cos of course, in knowing someone else heard it too, it seems more possible that you’ll be able to navigate your way back to the alternate reality of that song. It’s safe. It’s still there. Look at the second verse:
“I had to phone someone so I picked on you
Hey that’s far out, so you heard him too?
Switch on the TV, maybe we can catch him on channel two?”
Bowie is precise when it comes to documenting the day-to-day of teenage loneliness.
Taken at a time when Bowie knew he was a showman, but was not yet self-aware of his powers as a documentarian, the Steve Schapiro shoot collected in full in Turnaround Book of the Month Bowie provides a glimpse into the development of a legendary artist’s self-image.
Bowie is published 17 April by powerHouse Books
Post by @claraheathcock