Part two: Rule Britannia is out of bounds
In the beginning of 1975, Bowie’s incessant changes and travels take him to L.A, were he sets his camp for a while. And there in California, home of the Hippies, he gets a chance to see the decaying of rock’n’roll up close, to witness the materialization of what he was warning of. It was the era that the Eagles summed up so well in ‘Hotel California’, where the loving mystical spirit that existed up until 1969 turned to ritualistic Satanism, and where the liberal breaking of all taboos and indulgence in earthly pleasures went so far that nothing was left but to be hung up on your own indulgences until ultimate freedom became no freedom at all, where “you can check out any time you like / But you can never leave.” Bowie himself, by now, was hung up on cocaine, and in the documentary film Cracked Actor he shows some signs of drug induced paranoia. In this mental state, he went back to dabbling in black magic, and Crowley makes a big comeback into his world. But there is one big difference between 75 Bowie and 71 Bowie, a difference we must underline before we proceed any further: he no longer regarded himself as a Superman.
When did this change occur? It seems we can pinpoint it quite accurately. In July 1974, Bowie was still in the guise of Halloween Jack, the heroic rock’n’roll rebel from the Diamond Dogs album, commanding a grandiose and elaborate stage show, the biggest rock spectacle to date. But he was actually heralding the death of rock in this story of a rock’n’roll-rebellion-turned-totalitarian-dictatorship, prophesying that the youth uprising will end badly. But then, he found something that could offer a new way for youth culture, a new hope for a better future: in the positive-thinking, communally-based spirit of black soul music, he found a door to let him out. In August he took a break from the tour to record his own soul album, Young Americans, and the title track shows the new direction: it is a snapshot of the current state of both white and black American kids, living in the aftermath of the failed sixties rock and soul promises, and suggests that a new way might be established from merging the two forms of music together. The rest of the album proceeds to do just that, dealing with the same themes he dealt with in his rock albums, but from a soul point of view which offers new solutions. When he came back on stage in September, the show was completely different, a rock/soul revue with very little props. Instead of a spectacle to wow the audience, Bowie was now attempting to come down to the same level with it and create a communal vibe, just like soul singers always aspired to do.
Left: early 1974, the elaborate and menacing stage of the Diamond Dogs tour; Right: late 1974, the naked and warmly lit stage of the soul tour
Bowie, despite claims to the contrary by some critics, was actually always advocating a communal feel in his albums and his work in the glam period can be seen as his attempt to bring the Love that the Hippies failed to produce. But the way to get it, in his glam years, was always through a Superman, a messiah that would descend from the mountain to convey the new gospel that will bring the kids together. Now, he had come to regard the Superman as the problem, the thing that prevents him from reaching love. By freeing himself from his desire to be a Superman, and opening up to the world, he felt that he could achieve what he was always after.
This optimism dissipated, however, and by mid 75 Bowie would find himself in a dead end, not knowing where to turn to next. His next album Station to Station, which came out of this period, would show the impotence of the once omnipotent Superman. “Once there were mountains on mountains / And once there were sunbirds to soar with / And once I could never be down,” he sings: once he could always find a new identity he could soar with and climb to the toppest tops, but now he lost his way. No longer able to stand in his own light, Bowie turns once again to mysticism, trying to connect and lean on a higher being that will guarantee some safety. Once again, though, like in Hunky Dory, Bowie seems unable to decide which form of mysticism he should choose, sampling several mystical doctrines and renewing his interest in the works of Crowley and the Ahnenerbe (just to get an idea of how confused he was: at the same time he also took to wearing a cross and installed a mezuzah on his door). But that infatuation with mysticism, it seems, only served to enhance his drug-induced paranoia. Reportedly, Bowie was performing black magic rituals at the time, using protective spells to defend him from people he thought were out to harm him. And, at the same time, this menacing evil he was afraid of took on a Fascist face as well.
It is a common fable that Bowie went a little crazy during the next year. The drugs, they say, messed up his mind and turned him into some emotionless, delusional, Fascist lunatic. Bowie himself alleges that he was completely out of his gourd, and that he remembers nothing of that period. Let me start off by saying that I don’t buy this story. Bowie was undoubtedly unstable, but he didn’t totally lose his wits. When you read the many interviews he gave at the time, what you find in them is an astute, emphatic and very clear-minded individual who makes some of the sharpest observations he ever made, before or since. Artistically, too, he’s on top of his game. It is time for the misty shroud that was later pulled over this period to be lifted – there’s really nothing to hide. Bowie was not crazy at all, and didn’t all of a sudden become a Fascist monster. He was merely trying to put a message across, a certain grim prediction about where the world was heading, and this message was misconstrued, sometimes at his own fault, but mostly because of his listeners’ lack of comprehension. Let us now, three decades after the fact, try to reconstruct what he was trying to say.
Let’s go back to Young Americans, his soul album. As mentioned above, he deals with some of his usual themes here as well, but from a different point of view. In the song ‘Somebody up There Likes Me’, he cleverly takes the gospel motif of trust in God’s love and puts it in the mouth of a sinister, Machiavellian politician, who assures the public that he has God’s blessings. Discussing the song in late 74, he said: “what I’ve said for years under various guises is that ‘Watch Out, the West is going to have a Hitler!’ I’ve said it in a thousand different ways. That song is yet another way.”[ii]
One interesting thing about this quote is that we can see how Bowie is reinterpreting himself as he goes along. That is an inevitable characteristic of the “ch-ch-ch-changes” process: whenever he enters a new phase, he gains a different perspective on his previous phases and reevaluates them as nothing but masks that he now removed. In the glam phase he was adorning Superman identities, with his main intention being to experience a heroic existence, but he was also warning that they might turn into crazed dictators and trying to avoid this fate. This warning was the secondary thing, but now, he interprets it as if it was the main message. It was all part of disavowing the identity game altogether: at first, Bowie was going to adopt an identity for the soul period as well and call himself “The Gouster”, but since he was now about “being himself” and “getting rid of the masks”, he dropped it. This claim that he was “being himself” wouldn’t last long: several months later, he would disavow his soul period, and claim that he wasn’t being genuine but merely trying to manifest the “plastic” (i.e. fake) soul of the times. This is something that we must always remember when we listen to Bowie talk about himself: we must discern between what he says when he is in a certain phase, and how he reinterprets it after he comes out of it. Bowie never wore a mask, and was always true to himself – it’s just that his “self” changes. We should keep that in mind when we come to discuss his next phase as well.
The other thing of interest for us in the aforementioned quote is his fear from the rise of dictatorship in the West. It may seem odd to us, but we must remember that the sixties generation believed that it was living in a revolutionary age, that a new world was right around the corner. Bowie’s outlook on the fate of this world, however, was always grim. The liberal belief that if you set people free they will live happily together was not one he subscribed to, as he claimed that most people would rather be led than be free. In 1969, he said about England: “this country is crying out for a leader. God knows what it is looking for, but if it’s not careful it’s going to end up with a Hitler. This place is so ready to be picked up by anybody who has a strong enough personality to lead.”[iii] Here we already see the perception of humankind that he will repeat in a 1976 interview: “people aren’t very bright, you know. They say they want freedom, but when they get the chance, they pass up Nietzsche and choose Hitler”[iv] – but while in 69 he was talking hypothetically, in the height of his 75-76 paranoid state the danger of a new Hitler seemed imminent, and would color all his interviews of the period.
This perception also explains his attack on the morals of the period. The Hippies believed that human nature is wholly good, that if all restrictions would be lifted a perfect society will emerge, and the mid-seventies post-Hippie world was characterized by its laxness and loose morals. But Bowie already warned in ‘Savior Machine’ that this belief does not take into account certain cravings that are intrinsic to human nature and would only bring calamity on society. Bowie is not a complete pessimist about human nature, but he doesn’t believe that it is totally good either, so for him, loosening all restrictions was not the right solution. “There’s some form of ghost force liberalism permeating the air in America, but it’s got to go, because it’s got no foundation at all,”[v] he says in mid 75, and in the same interview he opines that: “”I think the morals should be straightened up for a start. They’re disgusting.” Total liberalism, in Bowie’s opinion, would only result in precipitating the coming of Fascism, as it lets the base instincts of humankind run loose.
And, even more specifically, Bowie was anxious that this Fascist revolution might come from the rock world itself. In his previous albums, Bowie documented the decaying of the original rock’n’roll spirit and now he was afraid that Fascism would come to offer the excitement that the rock’n’roll kids were still craving for but rock’n’roll could no longer provide. To say it differently, he feared that the narrative of Diamond Dogs might materialize. This was the beginning of the age of stadium rock, when a charismatic band would stand on a grand stage and command the attention of tens of thousands of fans, and Bowie dreaded that the next logical step was outright Fascism. In several interviews of the time he repeats his warning that “there will be a political figure in the not too distant future who’ll sweep this part of the world like early rock and roll did.”[vi] Furthermore, he points out the similarities between rock and Fascism, showing how the former could easily lead to the latter. “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars… think about it… I think he was quite as good as Jagger. It’s astounding. And, boy, when he hit that stage, he worked an audience. Good God! He was no politician. He was a media artist himself. He used politics and theatrics and created this thing that governed and controlled the show for those 12 years.”[vii] With such similarities, and with kids looking up to rock stars as though they were gods, it’s easy to understand why Bowie was concerned that some dictator might ride in to take over.
“I feel that we’re only heralding something even darker than ourselves,”[viii] he said about himself and his fellow rockers. That is another important point: Bowie was not excluding himself from the grim picture he was painting. When he said that Hitler was a media artist himself, what he meant was: “like me”. Bowie’s description of Hitler’s antics could just as easily describe what he himself had been doing in the past few years, and he realized that the same crave for power that drove the Nazis was present in his own psyche as well and that the adulation of his fans was akin to the way dictators were worshiped. Once, when he talks about the Ziggy phenomenon, he describes how he got addicted to the power it gave him and how he might have ended as another Hitler, and then adds, as an afterthought: “I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I’d be an excellent dictator. Very eccentric and quite mad.”[ix] The same instincts that brought the rise of Nazism, hints Bowie, are present in the subconscious of the rock generation as well, and if we’re not careful they might prevail.
But there is something else needed, according to Bowie, for Fascism to take over. In Diamond Dogs, the rock’n’roll kids realize at one stage that their rebellion is being manipulated by powers greater than them, that they are just puppets in the hands of certain establishment forces that are scheming to take over. In his interviews, as well, Bowie warns that such forces of establishment are at play, forces that are more powerful than any individual, and in the age of technological advancement and mass media these forces are gaining more power to control the public and are threatening to form a dictatorship. Once, to illustrate the point, he claims that even Hitler was nothing but a puppet in the hands of the Nazi establishment. The interviewer asks him how this is possible, since we know that Hitler’s mismanagement of the military campaign probably cost Germany the war – wouldn’t they have replaced him if he wasn’t really the one in charge? “Oh he was a terrible military strategist,” answers Bowie, “the world’s worst, but his overall objective was very good, and he was a marvelous morale booster. I mean, he was a perfect figurehead.”[x]
Of all the horridly misquoted Bowie statements of this period, this one is the worst. I have read more than one writer, attempting to provide an example of Bowie’s politics at the time, quoting him as saying: “Hitler was a terrible military strategist, but his overall objective was very good.” The horrendous implications are obvious: it’s like saying that Bowie was dreaming of an Aryan-dominated, Jewish-free world, and blamed Hitler for failing to realize this vision. So let us emphasize: Bowie is not saying that Hitler’s objective was good; he is saying that from a Nazi point of view Hitler’s objective was good, and that is why they kept him as a figurehead even though he was a bad strategist.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let us ask: what was Bowie’s actual political stance at the time? Was he right-wing? Was he even political? Well, Bowie does, several times, express his wish to become the Prime Minister of England, but it is always said ironically, usually to show how ridiculously big his stature has become, or as an example for his inherent drive for power. Once, after he says it, he adds: “I wouldn’t mind being the first English president of the United States either. I’m certainly right-wing enough.”[xi]
Ok, that settles it: Bowie was right-wing. Or does it? What does it mean when an Englishman, coming from Britain’s welfare state, says that he is “right-wing enough” to be the President of the United States? It means, of course, that he considers himself basically left-wing, but not to such an extent that he can’t be elected in the US. As we have seen, Bowie was against the extreme forms of liberalism that were common at the time, and thought they were bad. But he still regarded himself a liberal.
This should come as no surprise to the reader: after all, all the political statements we encountered so far were made in the name of freedom, and against Fascism. And indeed, if you read the interviews from that period, that is exactly what you will find: a lot of talk about Fascism, and always in a negative and disparaging manner. Actually, he is talking like someone who feels he managed to free himself from his Fascist inclinations, which is how he now came to regard his Superman infatuation, and warns others against them. How did his message get so subverted, then? Because there is another argument about Fascism which he puts forth, and this one is more ambiguous. In an article called ‘Watch out mate! Hitler’s on his way back ‘, printed in NME magazine in August 1975, Bowie is at his most adamant about the danger that is coming upon us, and at one moment, his reflections lead him to find a positive side to this impending dark age: “you’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up. Then you can get a new form of liberalism,” he muses, and after elaborating about the rotten nature of the day’s liberalism, he concludes: “so the best thing that can happen is for an extreme right Government to come. It’ll do something positive at least to cause commotion in people and they’ll either accept the dictatorship or get rid of it.”[xii]
Here, as well, we’ve got to be careful not to misinterpret what Bowie is saying. This argument is presented from the perspective of an amateur historian, describing historical processes and predicting the future. So when he’s saying “you’ve got to have an extreme right front come up”, he isn’t advocating this rise of the extreme right, but merely predicting it. He is speaking from the point of view of a liberal who wants to see liberalism prevail, but thinks that it cannot happen in the decadent state liberalism had sunk into, so he’s pondering that the only way to get to where we want is to go through a Fascist phase which would get rid of the current liberalism and would elicit the creation of a stronger and better form of liberalism, which would defeat this right-wing front and banish Fascism once and for all. Bowie was still thinking as a liberal, but incorporating Fascism to come in and save liberalism from its own decadence.
This is quite a common conjecture, which we find in many ideologies: things must first get worse before they can get better. Bowie, however, appears to be disregarding the implications of this phase he seems to be wishing for. From his descriptions of this Fascist stage it is clear that he is thinking of it merely as a phase when rules will become stricter for a while, forgetting that Fascism harbors other traits that he is obviously opposed to, such as racism, imperialism, the erasing of individuality, the censorship of thought and the banishment of democracy, not to mention genocide. Bowie isn’t that dumb. It is obvious that he wasn’t seriously wishing for a Fascist state to come, but merely doing what he does best: finding the most provocative way to get his message through. That’s what he’s been doing, to great effect, since the days of Ziggy, and that’s what he was doing now: he wanted to attack post-Hippie liberalism, so he was saying that we need Fascism to come and destroy it. This is a questionable tactic, and you can claim that one should be more careful about what he says in the press, but Bowie maintained that as an artist he was entitled to be risqué. When backed to the wall by his interviewers, who ask him if they should take his statements at face value, he explains that it is all theater. “I have to carry through with my conviction that the artist is also the medium. The only way that I can be this abrasive as a person is to be this confoundedly arrogant and forthright with my point of view.”[xiii] Bowie, in other words, was still being Pierrot, presenting a frightening mirror-image to society and using the harshest concepts to do so. In another interview, while talking about the staidness rock’n’roll had sunk into, the interviewer hypothesizes that “the only thing left in rock & roll that would really affect people would be a Nazi rock & roll band”; Bowie agrees, and observes: “I think that there are two bands now who come close to a neo-Nazi kind of thing – Roxy Music and Kraftwerk.”[xiv] Bowie always contended that rock’n’roll should be like Pierrot, and in 75-76, that meant that it should adorn some Fascist accoutrements.
Left: Roxy Music, late 1975; Right: Kraftwerk, early 1976
He was, once again, one step ahead of everyone else. A year later, the use of Nazi and Holocaust-related imagery to punctuate the distraught nature of the times could be heard on many punk records, while the use of Nazi iconography as shock tactics was already employed by Bowie’s buddies Lou Reed and Iggy Pop (both of them Jews) and then, in full shock’n’roll galore, by the Punks on the streets. None of them was neo-Nazi. The Fascistic image was essentially a way to lash at Hippie liberalism, to break away from it and regenerate. The Hippies believed that they liberated society and created a better world, and that they were still on their way to making it even better, but the new Punk generation felt that the Hippie freedom was a sham, sugarcoating a bleak reality. With the Nazi images, the Punks portrayed what they saw as the sickness of society, presenting a mirror image to it and shocking it out of its complacency. This is essentially what Bowie was talking about.
Left: Lou Reed, hair styled like a German army helmet; Right: a bleeding Iggy Pop dragged away by a Nazified Ron Asheton
But Bowie himself never went that far. Instead, he became the Thin White Duke, and the Thin White Duke was no Fascist. The above quote where he marks Kraftwerk and Roxy Music as the only bands who “come close to neo-Nazi kind of thing” is from April 76, in the midst of the Duke phase and just a couple of weeks before the whole “Bowie is Fascist” hullabaloo began, and shows that, at the time, it didn’t even occur to him that what he was doing could be interpreted as Fascistic. What the Thin White Duke was, rather, is an aristocrat, a relic of the Weimar republic, of the German society just before the Nazis took over. The way I understand it, Bowie was looking back at Western culture, trying to find where it went wrong and go back to that point to take it in another direction. The nineteen-twenties were the moment when pop culture was born, when the working-class first gained the ability to form its own cultural expressions and not just live according to high or middle-class dictations, and Bowie was always a proud member of this culture; but now he looks back at it and sees that something was lost in the process: the aristocrats’ strive for self-improvement, their credo of living according to a self imposed code of virtue. Without this tradition, pop culture was sure to decay into a life of self-indulgence, which would wipe out all the good things it brought with it. This is what was missing from the liberalism of the time, the liberalism which Bowie so detested, and which reminded him of twenties Weimar. There were many parallels between the sixties and the twenties, when the overthrowing of old figures of authority resulted in a colorful and swinging world for a while, and Bowie was trying to hint that the sixties adventure might end up like the twenties, in the rise of the Nazi monster.
The Thin White Duke
The Thin White Duke, then, was Bowie’s reaction to the decadence and nihilism which engulfed him, his attempt to impose order on his existence. He no longer thought that he could be a Superman, but at least he could try to be a better man. The Duke’s musical manifesto, the album Station to Station, was built on black rhythm, the basis which pop culture was built on; but on top of it, he laid down ideas that harked back to the glorious legacy of European art and culture, that tradition that rock’n’roll had all but erased. While a year earlier he sang the praises of African-American musicians, now his spiritual world was comprised of names such as Bertolt Brecht, Christopher Isherwood, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and, as contemporary ambassadors of that European legacy, Kraftwerk. This was the message that Bowie was trying to bring to the world at the beginning of 1976, and with this message, he set out on a world tour.
But the message fell on deaf ears. When the media caught an eyeful of the Thin White Duke, dressed in a style taken straight out of thirties Germany, their collective subconscious was capable of producing only Nazi associations, while his aristocratic self-control and stark aloofness were taken as antipathy that harbors sinister notions. On the 26th of April, the shit finally hit the fan: following a show in Stockholm, the Thin White Duke was pursued by a local reporter who questioned him about his recent political comments, and was quoted as saying that “as I see it I am the only alternative for the premier in England,” and “I believe Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader.” The furor didn’t fail to arrive, and on his next interview, given to Daily Express a week after, Bowie gave his retraction: “if I said it – and I’ve a terrible feeling I did say something like it to a Stockholm journalist who kept asking me political questions – I’m astounded anyone could believe it. I have to keep reading it to believe it myself. I’m not sinister.”[xv]
The picture that arises is quite clear: when Bowie said that “England could benefit from a Fascist leader”, he was obviously repeating the same kind of statements he made in the NME interview, but while there it was in the context of an overall anti-Fascist sentiment, here it was a hurried interview that made him come off like a Fascist himself. “So long as it’s publicity, does it matter?” wonders the Daily Express person. “Yes, it does,” replies Bowie, “it upsets me. Strong I may be. Arrogant I may be. Sinister I’m not.” As we can see, the man who didn’t mind being called all sorts of things during his life drew the line when it came to Fascism – it was not something he wanted to be associated with.
By the time this interview saw light, however, the snowball was already rolling, and the story became even bigger, as the sensationalism of British media reared its ugly head. Arriving on England’s shores on May 2nd, Bowie was greeted at Victoria station by a large crowd of his devoted fans, who came to welcome their hero back from exile. The press, looking to perpetuate the Fascist story, printed a photo of him waving to his fans, and claimed that he gave them a Nazi salute. Bowie’s vehement denials, backed up by anyone who was there, did not register, and the story of “Bowie’s Nazi salute” lives on in pop-lore to this very day. It is a real outrage that this should be the case. I can see how someone might mistakenly think that Bowie was a Fascist, but to believe that he could do something as tasteless and stupid as greeting his own fans with a Nazi salute is ridiculous.
The “Nazi Salute”
There was another occasion, however, on which Bowie unfortunately did let himself be tasteless and stupid. The September 76 issue of Playboy provided an extended interview with Bowie, made out of talks he had with writer Cameron Crowe in recent months. It is an odd interview. Probably thinking that this is what the readers of Playboy want, Bowie is being flippant and provocative, supplying an interview full of outrageous fibs and hyperboles, trying to live up to all the myths that surrounded him. Here, too, the overall sentiment is liberal, but he doesn’t fail to supply another seemingly pro-Fascist statement (one would assume he did it before the Victoria station incident). Crowe asks him: “you’ve often said that you believe very strongly in Fascism. Yet you also claim you’ll one day run for Prime Minister of England. More media manipulation?” “Christ, everything is a media manipulation,” responds Bowie, “I’d love to enter politics. I will one day. I’d adore to be Prime Minister. And yes, I believe very strongly in Fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air at the moment is to speed up the progress of a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over as fast as possible.”[xvi] As we can see, he is merely regurgitating the same old stuff, and even warns us not to take it too seriously, but he’s also allowing the reporter to manipulate him. In fact, Bowie never before said that he “believes very strongly in Fascism” – Crowe is quoting from hearsay, and Bowie, instead of correcting him, follows his lead and goes on record as saying that he believes in Fascism.
This was, however, the tail-end of it. By the time this interview was published, the Thin White Duke was already dead, and Bowie entered another phase. A year later, he would admit he made a mistake in making those dubious statements. “I’d made some very trite theatrical observations which in fact backfired. I can’t blame the press for that,”[xvii] he said, and in another interview: “I can’t clarify those statements. All I can say is that I have made my two or three glib, theatrical observations on English society and the only thing I can now counter with is to state that I am NOT a Fascist.”[xviii] Realizing that he made a mess of things, Bowie drops the ambiguity and reveals his true stance. He also learned a valuable lesson from this ordeal: from here on, he will always be more calculated and careful about what he says in the press.
“Two or three” is about right. The only occasions on which Bowie made remarks that could be misconstrued as pro-Fascist were in the NME and Playboy interviews and in the Swedish incident, and they were all of the traditional “things must get worse before they can get better” type, which in this case was translated as: since our society is going to hell anyway, let’s just have the worse kind of dictatorship and get it over with as fast as possible so we can build a better society afterwards. As he hints, these remarks were not meant to be taken at face value but were a theatrical way to criticize contemporary society, and anyway, they were retracted shortly after. So, by any common sense, the thing should have died there. But instead, it only grew – why kill a juicy story? All that any half-witted writer had to do was to take these three remarks, pour them into the mold of Bowie’s earlier Nietzschean lyrics, pepper it with misquotes from his other ruminations about Fascism, top it with the Nazi salute story, half-bake it all in a pseudo-intellectual oven, and presto! You have yourself a Fascist rocker. After a while, as we shall see, Bowie gave up trying to deny it, and preferred to blame it on the drugs. But let us recall his immediate response: a flat denial, accompanied by the assertion that the accusation gravely upsets him. So let us now, at long last, rectify this historical injustice, and put things right: Bowie, as he would later admit on more than one occasion, acted irresponsibly; you might even claim that he was being foolish; but he was never a Fascist.