***This article was first written in 2007. Republished 2016***
This question has never been dealt with seriously. Everyone just assumes they know the answer. The official story, which most biographers adhere to, is that in the years 75-76, while he was temporarily out of his mind due to drug intake of gargantuan proportions, David Bowie made some inane pro-Fascist remarks, along with expressing his admiration to Adolf Hitler and his wish to rule the world. These statements were fully retracted once he overcame his drug addiction, and therefore, argue his fans, this whole story should be dismissed. Those readers who consider themselves smarter, however, scoff at this simplistic explanation. Although they agree that he probably grew out of whatever rightwing leanings he had at the time, they point out that young Bowie’s ties to Fascism run deeper than just those remarks, and we can find evidence for them in some of his lyrics. The latter are usually not big fans of Bowie, so they don’t bother to try and get into his thought process and understand his logic, but rather judge his actions from an outside point of view and casually build theories of their own. And since his fans are reluctant to deal with this issue, the field is left for these detrimental theories to spread and be accepted by the general public. And so the profile of Bowie the Fascist lives on and proliferates, through books, websites and newspaper articles, and no one makes any effort to find out if there is any truth to it.
The story has a certain charm to it, the titillation of dabbling in something dangerous and evil, which has always been such an integral part of rock’n’roll. But Fascism is no laughing matter, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. It is a stain on Bowie’s record, and some people are still bothered by it. I know Israelis who wouldn’t listen to Bowie’s music because they think he is/was a Nazi sympathizer. And if, as I believe, Bowie’s stature as an artist will continue to grow in centuries to come, then anything about it will be magnified, including its dark sides. This is not the kind of thing that should be left unchecked.
The idea that Bowie could have been a Fascist never made sense to me. After all, we are talking about the man who was always at the forefront of the fight for human rights, a person who opened doors for oppressed groups and traversed the social boundaries of race, gender and religion. Everything about his art and life is diametrically opposed to anything Fascism stands for. How could he, at the same time, entertain Fascist notions? For a while I accepted the drug explanation, but when I explored deeper, I realized that there’s simply nothing to this fable. Bowie was never a Fascist, and the real story here is how we came to think of him as such. And this story, unsurprisingly, is a lot more interesting and complex than anything that has been told so far.
It is time to tell that story. It is time to set the record straight, put everything in its right context, and dispel the myth. As long as we don’t address the question of Bowie’s alleged Fascism, it will keep on infesting under the surface and continue to dog his legacy. The time has come to reopen the dog.
Part 1: Got to make way for the homo superior
If we are to even begin to grasp what went through Bowie’s mind during those years, we must go back in time, and enter the state of mind that pervaded the late sixties. The youth rebellion, started in the mid-fifties with the rise of rock’n’roll, had by now turned into an ideological revolution, a counter-culture aiming to replace the reigning order with a better one. The Hippies were at the helm, and sang about a brave new world where all humans will live freely and harmoniously. The holy trinity of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll was believed to be the doorway to a new kind of spirituality, that was supposed to engulf all humankind and create this perfect world. Bowie, who went through a Hippie phase in 66-67 and delved into the spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism, was initially part of this quest, but in some of his 1969 songs he is already portraying the death of the dream, the realization that the counter-culture did not achieve its goals. Youth culture, ever since its inception in the fifties, was always characterized by enthusiasm and optimism, believing that it represents a better alternative to the world it grew into. Now, in Bowie’s songs and a bit later in the songs of many others, it fell into pessimism and despair.
This way of feeling is by no means new to recent times. In fact, the entire history of the Modern age (as we conventionally call the age beginning in late 18th century) can be viewed as a continuous process of failed attempts to bring about a perfect world. Contrary to the religious frame of mind that dominated up until then, a frame of mind that claimed that Man should live his earthly life as an obedient servant to God and be rewarded with eternal paradise in the afterlife, the Modern frame of mind asserted that Man should be his own master and that he is able to create eternal paradise for himself on Earth. Humans, the Moderns believed, are by nature inclined to live harmoniously with one another, but since their mind is distorted by religion, prejudices and the old social systems they are miserable. And so, if Man would be freed of the shackles of religion, if he would learn to think for himself and liberate his mind from its superstitions and prejudices, and if the structure of society would be changed so that everyone would be free and equal, human nature will take over and a perfect Utopian world will transpire. But Utopia was slow in coming, and every movement and ideology that tried to bring it about ended in bitter disappointment. It was then left to the thinkers to explain why they failed, so that a new ideology could be formed and a new attempt to fix the world would set forth.
One of those thinkers was the late 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Surveying a century of Modernism, Nietzsche claimed that all the movements that preceded him had no chance of succeeding, because they never really liberated their mind. The Moderns tried to release Man from his religious and social binds, but they did not realize that the concept of “Man” itself was faulty and distorted due to centuries of religious rule. Christianity taught Man that the way to salvation goes through moral behavior, and that in order to be moral he should repress his individuality, instincts and desires and dedicate himself to serving the good of the collective. In that, claimed Nietzsche, Christianity oppressed the vital forces of Man and turned him into a wretched and miserable creature. Modernism, he continued, may have thrown off the yoke of Christianity and released Man, but kept on holding to the belief that Man can be happy only by repressing his instincts and individuality and by serving the good of the collective, so it tried to build the perfect society on these grounds. And so, Man was kept in his wretched state and had no chance of making his life better. To overcome this predicament, Nietzsche decreed that we should not merely wish to free Man, but should pose an ideal of Man to aspire to, an ideal which he termed “The Superman”. The Superman will be the result achieved after Man sets all his inner forces free, and uses his own will not to repress them but to master them and shape them, turning them in the direction of creativity and spirituality. Only then will humanity be truly free and harmonious, and able to achieve Utopia.
From perusing Bowie’s lyrics of 70-71, it is quite obvious that he read some Nietzsche and connected to his message. While the Buddhist mysticism he earlier adopted taught him that he should let go of his ego, and therefore did not provide expression to his strong individual traits, Nietzsche’s philosophy preached that you should unleash the powers of the ego and build upon them, and that suited him better. Surely, Bowie also recognized the strong Christian and Buddhist strains that entered Hippie discourse after 67, and was looking for something more powerful and heroic than the hippy-dippy peace/love talk. However, it seems that Nietzsche was not his main point of reference, but rather other, more populist sources, which took the idea of the Superman to more fantastic realms. One obvious source was science-fiction, and his lyrics suggest that he read those sci-fi novels that prophesied a race that will supersede the humans, from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (published in 1870, and considered the first book of this sort), up to classics like Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Science fiction would inform a lot of Bowie’s music from that period, and would give it its outward sheen. But beneath it, and in a more cryptic manner, there were other influences at play, of a shadier kind.
One such influence was the Occult, specifically the work of Aleister Crowley, the mysterious magus who in the early decades of the twentieth century earned the notoriety of being the wickedest man on Earth. Initially a high-ranking member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an order dedicated to preserving the esoteric mystic knowledge which Christianity oppressed, Crowley broke away from it when he felt that it wasn’t going far enough. To really reach the light, he felt you first had to go through the dark side. Delving into an existence of sex, drugs and black magic, Crowley believed that only through these “sinful” means will humankind be able to break free from Christianity and achieve a connection with supernatural forces, forces that will transform it into a Superman race. By 1970, this dark and powerful mysticism came to overshadow the more benign Buddhist mysticism in Bowie’s world.
Left: Aleister Crowley; Right: Bowie circa 1971
The final source of Superman philosophy he sampled, and the one that interests us here, is Nazi mysticism. The Nazis, heavily influenced by both Nietzsche and Crowley, were also interested in the Occult, believing that it hid the secrets of ancient Aryan knowledge that was erased by Christianity. The Ahnenerbe foundation, formed in 1935 and headed by top-Nazi Heinrich Himmler, was dedicated to unearthing the remnants of this knowledge and putting them back together to restore the “true” heritage of what they regarded as the Aryan master-race. Going on archaeological expeditions all over the globe to search for this ancestral heritage, the Ahnenerbe became somewhat mythic, and it was this myth that piqued Bowie’s interest and lured him to read and explore the subject.
Nowadays, a young person who would have a library containing of Nietzsche, Crowley and tales of the Ahnenerbe would most probably be a member of some extreme right-wing group. But back then, it was all part of the late sixties’ spiritual quest. This is the thing that must be remembered: up to the mid-seventies, Nazism and Fascism were considered monsters from the past, not part of today’s world. They were therefore taken as one of those thrillingly dangerous things you could play with, like you played with drugs or black magic. Bowie wasn’t the only one flirting with such stuff. Aleister Crowley is one of the faces on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the proverbial who’s who of the generation’s heroes, and Hitler was supposed to be on that cover as well but thankfully they thought better of it in the last minute. So Bowie wasn’t doing anything out of the blue, but he was special in what he was searching for in those writings: a way to a heroic, super-human existence, that will replace the Hippie way. Let us now see where it takes him.
Shooting the Sgt. Pepper cover. Crowley is top row, second from left. Hitler surveys from the sidelines, kicked out of the club at the last moment.
The album that develops Bowie’s Superman concepts is The Man Who Sold the World (1970). In the song ‘Savior Machine’, Bowie describes a future world very similar to the utopia that most of the Moderns (including the Hippies) were dreaming of, a world with no famine or wars, but concludes that this comfortable world is not suitable for human existence because it does not provide outlets for some of humankind’s irrational traits. Alternatively, ‘The Supermen’ poses a different Utopia, a primeval society of super-humanoids who lived a life where there was “no pain, no joy, no power too great”. It seems that this Utopia was also not that wonderful, but the powers it contained are the stuff from which we can create a truly heroic existence. Other songs describe his attempts to break out of his mundane existence and reach that superior plane that lies beyond, through methods such as self-induced madness, black magic, wild sex, perpetual wandering, meditative solitude and mystical flights. But Bowie isn’t thinking only of himself. “We’re painting our faces and dressing in thoughts from the skies / From paradise,” he sings in ‘After All’: here, as in other songs from that period, Bowie is assuming the role of spokesperson for his generation, the generation of flower children who used to paint their faces and think mystical thoughts, attempting to replace the old technocratic order with a heavenly one. But he hijacks their revolution: while aligning himself with them against the old system, he is also pointing their rebellion in a different direction, towards his own Nietzschean ideals. “Man is an obstacle, sad as a clown”, he sings. The “man is an obstacle” line is vintage Nietzsche, and there’s no doubt it came from him. But where does the clown image come from?
To answer that, we must mention another influence on young Bowie’s art. In the years 67-68 he was a member of the eccentric mime troupe of Lindsay Kemp, and absorbed a great deal of the European theater tradition. He was especially taken by the image of Pierrot, the sad clown figure in the Commedia dell’Arte, and the idea that he is supposed to present a ludicrous mirror image of the human race, to show us our follies and help us mend our ways. But here, in the aforementioned line, Bowie is defining Man as a sad clown in his very nature. His Pierrot, then, would not just mirror Man’s faults, but would be a mirror of Man himself, a mirror designed to help us see how pathetic Man is, so that we can transcend him and become Supermen. This concept, as we shall see, will play a significant role in his work.
Left: Lindsay Kemp as Pierrot; Right: David Bowie as Pierrot, 1968
Those themes are carried into Bowie’s next album, 1971’s Hunky Dory. But here, we find other themes as well. From the philosophical realms of the previous album, Bowie is now turning his sights towards actual history, especially the history of youth culture. Ever since the rise of rock’n’roll, working-class youth realized that it doesn’t have to play by the rules of the middle-class adult world, but that it has a powerful tool – pop music – to voice its own opinions and create its own culture. From that moment, youth culture continued to develop without much introspection, as it was always obvious what the next step should be. But now, it seemed to have lost its way, and Bowie is turning back to look at its history, commenting on the rock’n’roll world, trying to find where it went wrong, trying to find in it the hidden powers that would enable him to put it back on track and steer it in the direction of the Superman.
But Bowie goes even further back. If the language of youth culture is pop music, then pop culture should also be reassessed. The beginning of pop culture is with the rise of Hollywood after WWI, when Tinseltown realized that the way to deal with the new world of mass media is by creating stars – heroic, one-dimensional, larger than life models of existence. The archetypes of the Hollywood stars were Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo, who taught everyone how to project their image from the screen and burn it into the minds of the public, becoming cultural icons. Many other stars were to follow, and the film industry would create films that were vehicles for them, enabling them to carry on their image and build it from one movie to the other. But in the fifties, Hollywood started to take itself more “seriously”, i.e., it started to think of cinema as a form of art, and judge it by the traditional values taken from “serious” art-forms like literature and theater. The focus now shifted from the stars towards the writers and directors, and movie actors were required to be more versatile, not just replay the same role over and over again. But something essential was lost in the process, and not everyone failed to notice. One person who went against the stream was pop artist Andy Warhol, who lamented the death of the Hollywood star-system and idolized movie stars in his painting. Furthermore, his studio became a hangout for characters who created unique one-dimensional personas for themselves, living their entire lives as if they were on the silver screen. Warhol called them “Superstars” and immortalized them in films that had no preconceived plot or dialogue but would rely solely on the magic of the superstars, thus bringing cinema “back to its roots”. And Warhol, as well, created such a superstar persona for himself, turning his own image into an ongoing artistic project. Bowie, who celebrated Warhol in song, embraced his vision, but added something of his own to it: for him, it seems, the Superstar became the pop culture manifestation of the Superman. It was not enough to create yourself by your own rules, like the rock’n’roll kids did, but you also had to build yourself as something larger than life, and project it through the electronic media for others to emulate, just like Valentino and Garbo taught us to do. Rock’n’roll pioneers like Little Richard and Elvis Presley possessed this kind of glamour, but then it was ruined by the Hippies, who regarded this part of rock’n’roll as nothing but residue of showbiz glitz and affected a decidedly anti-glamorous stance. Bowie was now attempting to put the glamour back into rock, to recreate the flamboyance and arrogance it once had. And with that determination, glam rock was born.
In the song ‘Quicksand’, Bowie brings all these different elements together. The main theme running through the song is that he knows he has potential to live a heroic life of a Superman but is doomed to an ordinary existence and doesn’t know how to climb out of it, and he delivers this message with all the different strands of his thought, weaving together Buddhism, Nietzsche, the Occult, the Nazis and Hollywood into one beautiful tapestry of images. This is actually the only song where he employs Nazi-related concepts to get the message through. “I’m living in a silent film / Portraying Himmler’s sacred realm of dream reality,” he sings – in other words, he believes that he contains the powers that Himmler’s Ahnenerbe was searching for, but he doesn’t know how to manifest them, so he remains silent. Elsewhere, he claims to be “living proof of Churchill’s lies”, evoking Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who referred to British propaganda as “Churchill’s lie factory”. This line is somewhat dubious, but I think what Bowie is telling us is that he is the product of the victory of the allied-forces, a victory which was unquestionably a good thing but has also buried the search for a more heroic way of life than the mediocre bourgeois existence, and his miserable condition stands as testimony to the result. Stuck in this paralyzed state, Bowie is tempted by all these different roads to a different existence, but doesn’t know which of them is the true one and feels as if he is swamped by them and sinking in the quicksand of his own thoughts. He needs to find a way to break out.
The search for a new way is the recurring theme throughout the album. In ‘Life on Mars?’, Bowie describes the youth’s current existence as one devoid of anything new, where everything has already been tried and tested but the world remains as bad as it was. The only hope left is for a completely different existence, manifested in the question “is there life on Mars?”, but he doesn’t know how to reach that existence and remains stranded in our world. In ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ the solution comes from outside intervention, someone (either an alien of a supernatural being) who comes from beyond our world and transforms the youth into Supermen. But no such intervention occurs in real life, so Bowie turns to rock’n’roll, to look for the Messiah there. In ‘Song for Bob Dylan’, he approaches the man who was the skipper of the sixties youth revolution until he got fed up and became a recluse, and begs of him to come back and reassume his role. But there is a hidden message here: the title of the song and some of the lyrics paraphrase Dylan’s own ‘Song to Woody’ from 1962, in which Dylan eulogizes Woody Guthrie and other folk heroes, and vows to go their way. It was Dylan’s first significant composition, the first portent of what he was about to become, and by invoking it, Bowie hints that he is now ready to take Dylan’s mantle and be the new leader of youth culture. If no one comes from Mars to give him the answer, then he will have to be the one to do it. It is up to him to play the role of the Martian with Superhuman forces who assumes the form of a rock’n’roll superstar to project his message into the minds of the youth and be the messiah that leads them onto a higher plane of existence.
Enter Ziggy Stardust, the starman, the Martian superhero, the creature made out of the dust of stars. By transforming himself into Ziggy, Bowie could climb out of the quicksand, and soar to the heights of the heroic existence he was dreaming of. The 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is Bowie’s most famous creation, and one of the aspects that endow it with such renown is the fact that the plot of the album actually happened in reality as well, blurring the boundaries between art and real life. The loose narrative formed by the album’s songs goes somewhat like this: it starts in the same state of mind as Hunky Dory, a feeling that we are stuck in an existence where there are no answers and no future; then, an answer comes from the heavens, in the form of the alien Ziggy Stardust who comes from another world in the guise of a rock’n’roll superstar and offers the kids a way to a heroic, ecstatic and meaningful existence; a community evolves around him, made of all the kids who felt alienation and misery in the old world, and for a while they all come together in a perpetually joyful state of love; but then, different kind of rock’n’roll excesses infect the community, and the sense of unity and joy is broken, leaving us stranded in a bad world once again. And that is what happened in reality as well, as a youth subculture coalesced around Ziggy, made of alienated teenagers who felt like someone finally gave them a voice of their own. But Bowie did not go all the way with the plot. He went along with Ziggy during his rise, but he had no intention of experiencing his fall. Once he realized that the processes of decline entered his rock’n’roll creation, he announced Ziggy’s death, and set out on a new road.
Ziggy, then, was not the Superman – he was the clown. He was the form that Bowie put on so that he could live a heroic life for a while, and shed once he wasn’t heroic anymore. To say it differently, he was the old, failed, human model of a rock star, which Bowie enacted in order to transcend and become a Superman rock star. The story of Ziggy Stardust was an allegory to all the rock heroes up till then, who started out as messiahs offering a new and pure way of life but ended up incorporated by the system or victims of their own excesses. But Bowie found the solution how to circumvent this fate: create yourself as a messianic figure, go with your creation during its rise, and once it starts to fall, transfigure once again into a different character. And that is what he would keep on doing in the coming years: once a year he would put out an album; every album would open with a song describing a crisis, a nadir that his previous incarnation had led him to; but then, the rest of the album would present a reincarnation, a new heroic figure promising a pure, exciting and total way of existence for him and his fans; and so he could beat fate, and keep on living a Superman life.
And all along, he kept on philosophizing through the music, questioning his way of life, warning of the pitfalls it contains, trying to navigate through this uncharted land. In the album Diamond Dogs(1974), he is once again telling the story of a rock’n’roll uprising, which transforms a decayed and meaningless existence into one of excitement and joy. But once this heroic way of life is presented, the people want to find a way to contain it and make it everlasting, so they turn it into a dogmatic ideology and build an Orwellian, totalitarian society around it. Bowie is here expressing his fear that the human race is not ready for the freedom that rock’n’roll is offering them, and so the youth rebellion will end badly. Instead of striving to constantly recreate themselves and remain free, most humans look for the ultimate truth, believing that it will bring them eternal happiness. And so, when they find something that makes them happy for the moment, they erroneously think they found the final answer and become its servants. Instead of becoming free, they end up as slaves.
Bowie was not the only one to express this anxiety. Following the ordeals of the late sixties the rock world, almost unanimously, came to the conclusion that a revolution can only end badly, and there were a few rock albums who told the story of a joyful rebellion that transforms into a messianic revolution and ends up destroying everyone. This is essentially the story told by the Who in Tommy, Genesis in Trespass and the Residents in The Third Reich’n’roll. This realization led to despair, a feeling that there is no point in trying to change the world. It is that feeling that prompted John Lennon, in 1970, to angrily smash all sixties idols and declare that “the dream is over” and that he will now tend only to his personal happiness. And it was that feeling that induced the ascendance of the singer/songwriters, musicians who turned their gaze inward, turning rock into a reflective, rather than rebellious, form of music. Bowie can be regarded as one of the singer/songwriters, but then, through his reflections, he also came up with a solution, realizing that the problem was that the youth was still thinking in terms taken from the adult world. Just like Nietzsche once claimed that the Modern project could not succeed until it sets itself free from religious dogmas, so did Bowie now claim that youth culture could not succeed until it sets itself free from Modern dogmas. “I’m tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien / Can’t take my eyes off the great salvation of bullshit faith” he sings in ‘Quicksand’: the problem, according to Bowie, is that the Modern mind is conditioned to look for a final salvation, and since the Hippies did not free themselves from this conditioning, they were destined to fail. In the Modern mind, “changing the world” actually means “fixing the world”, and that is what the Hippies aspired to. Bowie, in the song ‘Changes’, turns this banner on its head: he aligns himself with the youth, claims that they are “quite aware of what they’re going through” when they are “trying to change their worlds”, but then tells us that the change is done not in order to fix the world but for the sake of change itself, because through constant change you can experience the ultimate form of existence.
But Bowie also knew that the youth wasn’t really “aware of what they’re going through” and had to be shown the way, to be released from being “tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien”, to be set free of their Modern conditioning that drove them to look for a final salvation. He attempted to do so by presenting a series of Pierrots, characters who believed they found the way to eternal happiness but ended up beaten and lost; and at the same time, presenting the alternative in himself, by continually ditching these characters once they lost meaning and recreating himself in a new and meaningful way. Very few, however, got the message at the time. In the minds of his contemporaries, this life of constant change seemed superficial and fickle, and most of the rock world reacted negatively to the alternative Bowie was offering them.
A 1973 interview was the first time that the connection between Bowie and Nazism was suggested, as the interviewer notes that “the same Nietzschean concepts that formed a basis of Nazism crop up in songs like ‘The Supermen’.”[i] Bowie laughs off the association, and rightfully so: there is nothing Nazi about Bowie’s work in that period. There is a big difference between Nietzsche and the Nazis, and what sets them apart is that the Nazis (and Crowley) preached that in order to create the Superman race all the unworthy humans should be disposed of in the process. That wasn’t part of Nietzsche’s Superman philosophy, and it is this philosophy that Bowie was trying to live up to. On his search for it, he also looked up these dark and dangerous alleys, but he never brought the sinister sides of their doctrines to the table – he was interested in the Superman aspect alone. And once he found the answer to his quest, an answer very different from what they had to offer, they were cast aside: from 72 to 75, Crowley and the Nazis completely disappear from Bowie’s work.
But they will be back.