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Hallowed spaceboy

Over 40 years, David Bowie has repeatedly reinvented himself, pursuing the idea that all pop is art.

Over 40 years, David Bowie has repeatedly reinvented himself, pursuing the idea that all pop is artifice. Graeme Thomson surveys the career of a revered innovator

Forty years ago this month, David Bowie made his first ever appearance on Top of the Pops, singing "Space Oddity" from Lime Grove Studios in west London. Despite a performance that travelled some light years beyond fey, suggesting that he would have trouble opening an umbrella, never mind traversing far-flung galaxies, the single climbed to number five. It was the first step in a career that would position Bowie as the shape-shifting, gender-hopping, zeitgeist-jumping pop star in excelsis.

The central image in "Space Oddity", with Major Tom cast adrift in his "tin can", has proved particularly resonant. Bowie's music is one long song of dislocation, disconnection and recurring identity crisis. Haunted by a genetic predisposition to mental illness that led his half-brother Terry into schizophrenia, asylums and suicide, he has always seemed afraid to sit too long in one place. Aged 22 in 1969, the erstwhile David Jones had already bolted through several undistinguished incarnations - quiffed R'n'B band leader, king mod, hippie, sub-Anthony Newley vaudevillian, mime artist - before landing somewhere between Bolan and Bob Dylan, yet another London art-school boy with crazy hair, a 12-string guitar and a penchant for forming "Arts Laboratories" in the function rooms of Beckenham pubs.

In some respects "Space Oddity" was a false dawn, widely regarded as an opportunistic novelty number timed to coincide with the moon shot. Bowie, meanwhile, never felt at ease playing the winsome acoustic troubadour. Bored by the "denim hell" and frayed authenticity of the likes of Led Zeppelin, he eventually hitched his wagon to the overt theatricality of glam rock, creating Ziggy Stardust, the quintessential Bowie construct. Incorporating elements of mime, kabuki and the droogs as portrayed in Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange, Ziggy was the ultimate representation of pop-star-as-alien, driven by the robust buzz-saw guitar riffs of Mick Ronson. Three years after the first, Bowie's second appearance on Top of the Pops was genuinely iconoclastic, his performance of "Starman" denoting 1972 as Year Zero for a generation of punks, Goths, new wavers and New Romantics.

Having achieved lift-off, Bowie followed through on his promise to make a "wild mutation" as a rock'n'roll star. Only five years passed between 1971's Hunky Dory and the corrupted Aryan beauty of Station to Station, but in that time Bowie bounced from hokey folk to glam to hard rock to frigid Eurodisco, mutating en route into Aladdin Sane, Hallowe'en Jack and the Thin White Duke.

Falling on each emerging trend - disco, Philly soul, electronic minimalism, new wave - as it stole into view, he was a magpie with a priceless knack for pinching ideas from the cultural margins and siphoning them into the mainstream through his own work. One biographer defined him as a "style vampire", a mannequin dressed in a series of beautiful, borrowed clothes. "Some people say Bowie is all surface style and second-hand ideas," said Brian Eno, his on-off collaborator for three decades. "But that sounds like a definition of pop to me."

He certainly looked and acted the part. Sexually voracious - when he met his first wife, Angie, in 1969 they were famously "fucking the same bloke" - he was impossibly thin and vampiric, those fangs and odd, mismatched eyes emitting an unearthly vibe. Like all great pop stars, he contrived to paint the grim grind of sustained drug-taking as a vaguely noble quest, a way of seeking new dimensions rather than making emergency repairs to a fractured psyche. In Bowie's case, mired in cocaine addiction, those dimensions involved dystopian visions where the occult, the Holy Grail and fascism met in some futuristic, Ballardian hell.

Recovering in Berlin from these nightmares in 1976 and 1977, Bowie made the most influential records of his career. Low and "Heroes" were dense, pensive, occasionally hilarious works marrying US R'n'B with the electronic Euro pulse of Neu and Kraftwerk. Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters (1980) concluded his journey from secluded drug dependency to boisterous commercial rejuvenation, but after that his creativity crumbled. The hugely successful Let's Dance (1983) and his triumphant performance at Live Aid in 1985 marked a commercial pin­nacle, but everything had become too bright, brash and easy to digest. He later formed Tin Machine, a blokey, democratic, four-to-the-floor experiment in rock orthodoxy that was the stubbly antithesis of every hope he ever stood for.

The 1980s and early 1990s were a creative waste ground from which, perhaps not coincidentally, Bowie salvaged a degree of personal stability. He cleaned up his act - no drugs, no alcohol - and married the Somali model Iman in 1992. He found new ways to be creative and remained a devoted early adopter, harnessing the power of the internet in the early 1990s while the world was busy doting on the reductive joys of grunge. His two most recent albums - 2002's Heathen and Reality in 2003 - were easily his best in 20 years.

The gathering momentum of Bowie's third act was halted abruptly in June 2004 when he suffered a minor heart attack. In the five years since, his profile has steadily diminished. There are whispers that, at 62, pop's Dorian Gray is at last succumbing to the vagaries of ageing. Sightings are rare, all interview requests are politely rebuffed, and his press office confirms there are no plans on the horizon for any new material.

If he has indeed slipped off into unannounced retirement, Bowie leaves plenty on which to chew. Pop's foremost individualist, he is not a man whose life and music encourage neat conclusions. There are few clear lines: the divisions between gay and straight, innovator and thief, bright'n'bouncy pop star and experimental outsider artist are often blurred. His determination to incorporate elements of theatre, literature, sci-fi, visual art and computer technology into his work ensures his artistic legacy is both complex and hard to overstate.

His rich basso profundo was appropriated wholesale as the voice of Goth; his style, glamour and pale androgyny made him the godfather of the New Romantics; his blend of electronics and guitar virtually invented new wave. Gary Numan and Brett Anderson owe him the kind of blood debt that can never be repaid, while everyone from Kurt Cobain, Placebo and Of Montreal to Philip Glass, Lady Gaga and the Killers has cited a direct influence.

Bowie is easy to parody (witness the recent superb spoof by Flight of the Conchords) but essentially inimitable. It can be forgotten that underneath the dazzling visual incarnations and sometimes dubious aesthetics lies a singularly talented singer and musician. Nobody writes songs like Bowie, strange affairs with unconventional chord patterns and bizarre, unpredictable melodies, held together by that imperious voice, leaping across keys or slipping into a meticulously contrived sarf Lahndan twang.

We needn't blame him for the many atrocities committed in his name, nor linger too long on his own misdemeanours. Observing the high-concept albums, contemporary art shows and existential lyrics objectively, it is easy to accuse Bowie of peddling ideas above pop's station. Although he has often made himself seem ridiculous, I must confess to cherishing his stumbles almost as much as his giant steps. They are part of the package, further expressions of an admirable fearlessness.

Above all, I love how Bowie has never succumbed to peddling "sincerity", the dread, dishonest concept that creeps into the body of pop and calcifies its bones. All great pop is artifice, and Bowie stands as the Platonic ideal: a glorious, fluid, preposterous, inspired, contrived fabrication that changed the outline of our cultural terrain permanently.

“In art you can crash your plane and walk away from it. If you have that chance, you should take it." Coming from anyone else - Madonna, or, more likely, Bono - this would be laughably delusional. From Bowie's lips, amid the carefully calibrated doses of pretension and preciousness, it has the sharp tang of truth. If he has destroyed more conceptual jumbo jets than he or we may care to recall, that is simply the price of flying so high, so far, for so long.

“Space Oddity (40th Anniversary)" is out now on EMI
Graeme Thomson's biography of Kate Bush will be published next May by Omnibus

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide