David Bowie is one of my favorite artists of all time, and not only because his music is stellar. His art was deeper than his songs, and his soul was darker than his pop might reveal. I was inspired to write about Bowie by a recent biographical Rolling Stone article by Mikal Gilmore (one day, I hope to read an exhaustive biography).
In the article, the theme that Gilmore focuses on is Bowie’s fight to hold on to his sanity. “Sanity” is a loaded term, but it seems that some of David Bowie’s creativity may have emerged from his fear and anxiousness about becoming schizophrenic, like his brother Terry (whom he loved dearly). Schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder marked by delusions, hallucinations and paranoia, among other symptoms. It does have some genetic basis, and it is one of the most frightening conditions imaginable for most healthy people, since it causes you to actually lose touch with reality. Sure, other disorders like depression, OCD, and eating disorders might result in equal amounts of distress, and also some twisted perceptions…but trying to prove to someone that something that you see and hear is real, when it’s not, sounds like a terrifying prospect.
So in order to avoid getting lost between realities, David Bowie proceeded to invent some new realities.
With each album, he became a new person – new costumes, different kinds of songs, new storylines. Ziggy Stardust might be Bowie’s most iconic character. The album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars tells a vague story about an alien-musician who fell to earth. The content of the album is meant to comfort outsiders, as Bowie often felt like an outsider himself. David transformed himself into Ziggy onstage, and he felt comfortable taking risks because, in a way, he was outside of himself. By creating a character, and becoming that character to such a great extent, he could live a slightly different life. And this appealed to many of Bowie’s fans, especially homosexual fans. They felt oppressed, and saw a role model in this androgynous, heavily made-up star, who mimicked sexual acts onstage.
But when Bowie grew tired of the elaborate Ziggy-themed concerts, and he grew bored with the concept, he quit it. And this was the best, most cathartic part of making and performing music this way. It was an escape in itself, so you could escape it anytime. Ziggy wasn’t David when it was no longer convenient for David to be Ziggy.
This escapism appealed to young, marginalized people in the ’70s and ’80s, and the music still stands the test of time. David Bowie’s brother committed suicide, and this hurt David greatly…but he is healthy, and has been dealing with his own fear and mental health issues through music and performance. And that makes David Bowie – at least with the legacy that we ascribe to him – a good role model for creative people everywhere.
“Will the fight for sanity be the fight of our lives?” – Flaming Lips