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David Bowie: the shifting shaman of the modern age

How the musician came to be a digital presence in the lives of millions.

If your aim is to be original, you will most likely end up looking and sounding highly derivative. Striving for self-expression, you turn yourself into a mouthpiece for the ruling clichés. David Bowie did the opposite. Knowing himself to be – as a matter of fact or fate – utterly singular, he chose to become a clairvoyant who served as a channel for the shifting spirit of the age. Along the way a succession of selves emerged, each of them novel and original. A commonplace view has it that Bowie was a chameleon who kept reinventing himself in order to exploit the turns of fashion. But his changes served a deeper end. By becoming Nobody, he became many people and at the same time himself.

The circumstances of Bowie’s life predestined him to the role of a medium. His early years exposed him to splintered minds. His brother’s mental illness taught him the fragility of sanity, and at some points – when inflamed by too much cocaine – Bowie does seem to have come to the edge of madness. Yet the experience did not leave him less experimental in his art or his life. He used his time on the edge to take more risks and become more fearlessly creative.

He grew up and thrived at a time of upheaval. The Seventies and Eighties were decades when class, sex and gender roles were dissolving and mutating, and for many of us who lived through them these were years that Bowie not only embodied, but also anticipated and enacted. Some may have been seized by panic as social conventions melted down, but not Bowie. He revelled in the metamorphoses that were under way. Many have noted the eclectic craftsmanship with which he mixed art forms from different sources – kabuki and music hall, for example. These transformations did not come quickly; there surely must have been a lot of labour in them. But his changes were not mere exercises in pastiche, however brilliantly executed. Using a method of cross-matching, he created a space in which new forms could appear. When they did, it was as if they came from nowhere. Talk of Bowie being a magician is not all hyperbole.

That there was a streak of streetwise shrewdness in the man cannot be denied. In 1997, foreseeing the financialised economy that was coming into being, he sold $55m worth of “Bowie Bonds” – securities that were backed by current and future revenues from the albums he had produced before 1990. The deal was possible because, unlike many musicians, he owned the rights to his songs. New technologies eroded this copyright and the value of the bonds, which were wound up in 2007. By then Bowie had been active in new media for almost a decade. In 1998, years before YouTube and Twitter were founded, he launched BowieNet, creating what he described as “the first community-driven internet site that focuses on music, film, literature, painting and more”. But here as elsewhere there was more going on than meets the eye.

In the course of his career – if that dated concept can be used in connection with him – Bowie became a digital presence in the lives of many millions. From very early on in its development, he seems to have understood how the new virtual world would become a vehicle for ancient dreams. So he turned the cultural mediumship he practised during much of his life into an internet-
enabled practice of channelling images and stories that linked him with his fans.

Whether he was always fully aware of what he was doing cannot be known. From one point of view, the album released just before his death was artfully scripted by him as a cryptic valediction. Yet the premonitory lyrics of Blackstar have a trance-like rhythm, suggesting they came from somewhere beyond his conscious personality. Finally eluding our and possibly his own understanding, Bowie died as he lived, a modern shaman.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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