At the end of “Moonage Daydream,” the new documentary about David Bowie, there is a brief snippet showing some of the greats who were among the “eclectic influences” on Bowie’s art. We see Buster Keaton, John Coltrane, William S. Burroughs, Aleister Crowley, Kafka, and some clips from science fiction movies.
All too quickly the scene is over, and the film turns back to kaleidoscopic images and concert footage of its main subject. The thinkers who made David Bowie David Bowie are a snippet, an afterthought.
Early in the film, “Moonage Daydream” writer and director Brett Morgen reveals that Bowie fled from his drab British upbringing and never looked back, but not before his brother Terry gave him a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The book had a huge influence on Bowie, he says. But he never says how.
What is happening here is that Morgen is painting, in broad strokes, the kind of artistic arc that every Western intellectual is said to have followed in the postwar 20th century West. It’s a familiar, if tired, story. The journey began with the Beatniks, then went through the Beatles, got lost somewhere in the 1970s and emerged sober and re-energized after punk. The defiant stance is essential: down with the bourgeois life left behind, forward with dismantling the old ideas about gender, family, home, capitalism and society.
Yet in Bowie’s case, this might be an exaggeration to the point of a lie. Of course Bowie was an avant-garde artist and a brilliant musician. He was the epitome of cool. Yet the singer, painter, and actor also harbored suspicions of revolutionary movements and was deeply influenced by the books he read—books that were often classics of Western literature. An international superstar who lived globally, Bowie was formed by Western culture.
To understand this one can turn to Bowie’s Bookshelf: The Hundred Books that Changed David Bowie’s Life by John O’Connell. Note: these are not Bowie’s favorite books, but the ones that changed his life. One is not surprised to see some of these titles: Beyond The Brillo Box by Arthur C. Danto, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima, and The Outsider by Colin Wilson. Not to mention The Life And Times Of Little Richard by Charles White, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock by Nik Cohn, and Mystery Train by Greil Marcus. There was, of course, Kafka’s Metamorphosis. “I had vivid nightmares about that,” Bowie said, “literal translations of what he was writing about: the enormous bugs flying and lying on their backs and other creepy crawly dreams. I saw myself as something unrecognizable, a monster.”
These are all great books and it’s easy to understand why they were on the Thin White Duke’s shelf. But then check out some of these other titles:
The Iliad by Homer
Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler
If every undergraduate English major in every American university read the books in the Bowie Bookclub, the colleges might no longer be Marxist.
In Bowie’s Bookshelf O’Connell also makes a fascinating observation about how Bowie used art to create a performance, not to topple the man:
What’s interesting is how Bowie bought into ‘that modern avant-garde stuff’ not to secure world peace or undermine capitalism but as a sort of mood board, a dressing-up box he could raid at will . . . he never got off on revolutionary politics. He just wanted to channel these mostly high modernist influences, artists, and writers he admired for their daring and their extravagant sense of spectacle, into a new, knowing type of pop performance.
Bowie also got a lot of his Ziggy Stardust alien rock star persona from books. In Strange Stars: How Science Fiction and Fantasy Transformed Popular Music, Jason Heller explores the intersection between rock and roll and science fiction in the 1970s. Popular musicians including Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, and Blue Öyster Cult explored interplanetary exploration, androids, time travel, the future, and the nature of human consciousness. Their influences ranged from George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut to Anne McCaffrey and J.R.R. Tolkien. Then there was the libertarian Robert Heinlein, whose 1953 book Starman Jones mesmerized a young British kid named David Jones. That kid would become David Bowie.
How fascinating, penetrating, and wonderful “Moorage Daydream” might have been had Brett Morgen slowed down and taken the time to examine the books that made Bowie Bowie. Rather than the usual narrative of the kid who discovers the Beats and goes on to embrace revolutionary politics, it may have shown David Bowie as the glorious product of a classical Western education.