Part three: It’s in the white of my eyes
In mid 76, following up on his new European direction, Bowie moved to the continent, eventually settling in Berlin. There, away from the hectic pace of Hollywood, he would work on cleaning himself up from the drugs and his other bad habits and creating albums that were heavily affected by the European forms of electronic and ambient music. His next album, Low, coming out in the beginning of 77, opens with a frenzied instrumental number called ‘Speed of Life’, manifesting the nature of the life he was leaving behind. Then comes a series of fragmentary songs, presenting the fracturing of his world under the pressures of that life. In ‘Breaking Glass’, he sings:
Baby, I’ve been
Breaking glass in your room again
Don’t look at the carpet
I drew something awful on it
The “awful thing” on the carpet, as he would profess later, is one of those black magic pentagrams he was busy drawing during 1975. But what does “breaking glass” stand for? Well, it could be another black magic reference, as broken glass is used in several rituals. In the ‘breaking glass spell’, for instance, you are supposed to hold a glass, imagine all your bad emotions getting into it, and then hurl it at the wall as a way to get rid of them. Like other songs on the album, then, ‘Breaking Glass’ seems to be about the negative sides of human relationships, but here it is looked at through a black magic prism.
But broken glass has a meaning in neo-Nazi symbolism as well. For the Nazis, it signifies “the night of the broken glass”, the Krystalnacht, the infamous 1938 pogrom which was, from the Nazis’ distorted point of view, the first time they struck back at Jewish world-domination. It could be that Bowie, in this self-admonishing song, is using the image of breaking glass as a joint sign for Crowlian and Nazi mysticism, which he was now trying to get away from. “Don’t look at the carpet,” he begs, as he doesn’t want us to see the mess he made with his “Nazi” statements. Instead, he encourages us to “listen” and “see”, to try and open our senses and discover another way of perceiving things. This is also the message of ‘Sound and Vision’, perhaps the key song of the first side of the album, in which Bowie tells us how he is going to recede from the world, shut himself up in his room, and wait for a new way to perceive and understand the universe which will enable him to form a new way of life. In all these songs, Bowie sings in a bland, subdued manner, not committing himself to any emotion, documenting this state of lull and nothing more. The number that closes this side is ‘A New Career in a New Town’, another instrumental, but slower than the opener, representing his move to Berlin and a slower pace of life. This leads us right up to the surprise that awaits us on the other side, which consists of four long, slow, electronic ambient instrumentals. Bowie, here, is giving up on his individuality altogether, letting the spirit of European cities speak to him and through him, trying to regenerate from it, and find a way out of his paralysis.
At the same time he was working on Low, he was also busy co-writing and producing another one of the period’s seminal manifestos, the album The Idiot by Iggy Pop. Iggy, the godfather of the Punk movement that was speedily gathering momentum, was always the wildest rocker on the block, the face of seventies nihilism, the embodiment of the sex-drugs-rock’n’roll lifestyle. This album, however, finds him in a different place. The lyrics are still describing the rock’n’roll lifestyle, but also manifest how all the years of living on the edge have left him an empty shell, unable to have fun. Just like Bowie, then, Iggy has reached a dead-end, and the two friends produce a masterpiece of musical dehumanization. The music is repetitive, robotic, and Iggy’s vocals are cold and emotionless, as though he is devoid of any humanity and unable to feel like a living organism. Except for one moment.
The song ‘China Girl’ is an erotic fantasy about a Chinese lover, which the protagonist imagines may bring back meaning into his empty life. The vocals sound more humane than on the other songs, and Iggy is showing some warm feeling towards this dream lover, so different from what his real life has to offer. But then, as the fantasy progresses, its nature turns violent and his voice turns excited and becomes a wild shriek, as he reconnects with his urges:
I’d stumble into town
Just like a sacred cow
Visions of swastikas in my head
And plans for everyone
It’s in the white of my eyes…
And then he continues, his voice dripping evil:
My little China girl
You shouldn’t mess with me
I’ll ruin everything you are
I’ll give you television
I’ll give you eyes of blue
I’ll give you men who want to rule the world
That is all that’s left. An empty shell, unable to induce any joy out of his own being, the only joy left in his life is to force himself on others, destroy their identity and make them as empty as he is. The monster that Bowie was prophesying for these past few years was beginning to materialize, to rise from the bowels of seventies society and threaten to take over. By 1977, the extreme right was no longer a myth from the past, but a living, growing being, reentering the field of Western politics. It was entering youth culture as well: the Punks’ use of Nazi iconography and slogans may have been ironic, but for some kids, it was the step that took them towards aligning with the National Front, the British extreme right movement. And the Front was even more successful among the revived Skinhead subculture, as many of the Skins adopted its neo-Fascist agenda. With ‘China Girl’, Bowie and Iggy transfer the dread of that moment in time, providing a scary look at what might be the future of rock, the future of the youth revolution.
It was, then, imperative to find a new way. The isolationism of Low was not a privilege one could afford anymore – you had to make a stand. Towards the end of the year, Bowie answers the challenge with another album of his own, titled “Heroes”. The opening song, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, throws us right into the fray, projecting the feeling that the story of youth culture has gone wrong, that the promise of rock’n’roll turned sour. Bowie described this song as “schizophrenic”, and what he means is that the beauty and the beast are both dwellers of his own psyche, that his nature holds both beautiful and beastly sides. “You can’t say no to the beauty and the beast,” he warns: those two sides are intrinsic to human nature, you cannot overcome them, and the belief of the Hippies that they could transcend the beastly side was therefore naïve and dangerous. But Bowie knows that the alternative he offered to the Hippie way was also revealed as deficient: the lifestyle of ch-ch-ch-changes, of always committing yourself to the thing that felt right at the moment, meant that anything might be right for him one day, even Fascism. “Someone else inside me / Someone could get skinned,” he sings: the elements that brought the rise of neo-Nazism are present in his psyche as well, present in the core of the youth culture that he helped shaping, and if he doesn’t find a measuring-rod to tell good from bad, then there’s nothing to prevent that “someone else” inside him from taking over one day, nothing to prevent him from “getting skinned”, i.e. becoming a Skinhead himself. And so he remains stuck, and the album bursts with tension, a turmoil of human emotions trying to break loose, but held tight under an electronic blanket, as Bowie is unwilling to commit to any of them until he finds out which of them is good and which is bad. Only once does he let go, and when he does, he opens up the path to take youth culture out of the crisis.
In the song ‘”Heroes”‘, Bowie assumes the character of a young kid, standing at the foot of the Berlin wall and talking to his girl, painting their mutual future for her. Right away, we see a change in Bowie’s discourse: in the past, it was always an individual hero who came to bring love into the world; here, he is talking in plural, about the heroism of the “we” that will fight for love to prevail. “Because we’re lovers, and that is a fact / Yes, we’re lovers, and that is that,” sings the boy: love doesn’t need any hero to come and generate it; it is a primary fact, as the nature of humans is communal. But the human race denies this connection, and erects walls between humans. This love that the boy feels rejects these walls, and hopes to bring them down one day, but there is desperation in his voice. “I, I will be king / And you, you will be queen,” he sings, portraying the future in grand heroic colors, but when he comes down to describing this future it is nothing but a picture of everydayness, a troubled relationship built on a love that probably won’t last. There is a great sense of irony in Bowie’s lyrics: his heroes are “heroes”, people who cannot transcend their mundane human life and live out the Utopian existence they dream of. The song is the conclusion of all his previous albums: the lovers know that any victory they can gain over their situation will be temporary, just for one day, as any love that will triumph and break down a certain wall will not last, and its ideals will then be subverted and used to build a new wall. It is this realization that drove youth culture to despair, realizing that the world can never be fixed; but then, in the pits of this despair, Bowie realizes that this is actually the solution, the answer he’s been searching for: if love will never rule, if it will always have walls closing in on it, then it is exactly the thing that we should hang on to, the thing that can ensure a perpetual heroic existence. Until now, Bowie saw heroic life as an individual quest, always breaking away from society by redefining himself as an alien super-being; but he came to a dead-end, as he no longer had any sunbirds to soar with, any way to break away. ‘”Heroes”‘ provides the answer: if you hang on to your love and empathy to other humans, then you will always be in opposition to the state of things, always standing by the wall and fighting to break it down, and you will always be able to create a heroic identity for yourself based on that struggle. And so, although the victory will last just for one day, you will always have the ability to keep on fighting and recreating yourself, and continue to live a heroic existence for ever and ever. With this realization,Bowie finds the measuring-rod to tell good from bad, and reconnects to his feeling. When he gets to singing “I, I will be King / And you, you will be Queen” the second time around, there is no more irony, as his voice breaks free and rings out loud, piercing through the iron curtain of metallic sound, through the walls of hate and through the desperation of the time, to bring a new gospel to the world.
It came just as Punk was collapsing, and the record’s humanistic vibe had a massive impact, especially when it was coupled with Lust for Life, the optimistic, sensual, life-affirming album he produced for Iggy Pop in their second collaboration of the year. Bowie and Iggy were not the only ones with a positive message at the end of 77, but they were among those who turned rock around. Out of the crisis of the mid-seventies, youth culture now emerged with a new agenda, seeing itself as the voice of anti-oppression, fighting a continuous, never-ending, global struggle against injustice, inequality and hate. It was an agenda that united the rock generations: the sixties generation dropped its naïve Utopianism and focused on the here and now, while the Punks disavowed their nihilism and joined the fight. The bad dream of 75-77 was left behind and became a learning experience, as the rock world asked itself how could it be that the peace/love revolution devolved into this quasi-Fascist stage, with everyone drawing their own conclusions (Pink Floyd’s The Wall is the most glorious example), to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. The crisis was over.
And who would come to symbolize that bad period? Naturally, the man who mirrored it, and highlighted its dark corners. Bowie can’t complain, though, because he was vigorously helping to paint that picture. In 78, he described the Thin White Duke as “a very Aryan, Fascist type; a would-be romantic with absolutely no emotion at all but who spouted a lot of neo-romance.”[xix] That is not at all what he was saying about himself in 76. On the contrary, he was promoting Station to Station as his warmest, most emotional album to date, and all the listeners of the time seem to agree with him (and if you listen to it without the baggage of your preconceptions of the Thin White Duke, you’d agree, too). Just like Paul, the Weimarian soldier he just played in the movie Just a Gigolo, who was against the Nazis during his lifetime but after his death was dressed in Nazi uniform and buried as a party member, so did the Thin White Duke receive a posthumous Nazi entombment. It was simply more convenient, one would presume, to dress him up that way, blame the drugs and just bury the subject, then to try and explain what he was actually up to.
It worked, and most people accepted the drug-psychosis explanation. That enabled Bowie to move ahead and play a vital role in the new wave era. Emerging out of the punk upheaval, the new wave artists now tried to break in new directions and take rock music out of its mid-seventies stagnation, and it was the art of David Bowie, the man who offered alternatives to the Hippie logic, that they turned to. All the different stages that Bowie went through during the seventies were now the basis on which the new generation of youth culture created a plethora of fresh genres and sounds, to revitalize the rock world and take it into the eighties. Bowie was no longer the outsider but rather the mentor of the younger generation, and this role took him straight into the mainstream and to rock superstardom. But he did not forget the lessons he learned from his travels in the outer regions, and tried to impart them to the youth. In 1983, he revived ‘China Girl’, that chauvinistic song he wrote with Iggy Pop, and gave it a disco, mainstream arrangement. The video-clip, shot in Hong Kong, shows him having an affair with a local girl and treating her like a Western gentleman should, until that moment of Nazi outburst when his animalistic cravings and his innate feeling of cultural supremacy take over and he pounces on her and takes her by force. The moment, however, fizzles away and becomes nothing but a joke between them, and the cravings find release in steamy consensual sex, while Bowie’s photo on the nightstand gives us a little wink, to calm us down and tell us that he was only kidding. Or maybe the wink means something else? Maybe he is winking to those of us who know what the song is really about, to tell us that he hasn’t really become a commercial entertainer, but is still dealing with the shadier sides of human existence? By the eighties, the danger of Fascist takeover seemed like a thing of the past, but Bowie knows that it still exists under the surface, and there’s no telling when it will reemerge. “It’s in the white of my eyes,” he sings, emphasizing the word “white”, just like Iggy did before him – the Fascist urge, Bowie reminds us, is inherent in white culture, and we must beware of it.
In the song ‘Fashion’, Bowie portrays the new world that emerged out of the sixties upheaval, when the old figures of authority were shattered. It’s a world where there’s no universal law to guide us, and our concepts of right and wrong are time-dependent, a matter of fashion. We are freer than ever before, but we are also living on the edge, as there is no telling which goon squad might come to town tomorrow and enforce its laws. In such a world, we need a moral compass, something that will tell us how to navigate our way through life, and which of the numerous and ever-changing identities and ideas presented to us we should adopt. I, personally, have never found a better compass than Bowie’s seventies albums.
In the latter months of 1975, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, ruler of Spain and the last remaining Fascist dictator in Europe, was nearing his death. This fact seemed significant enough to American national TV networks, which kept monitoring his condition and occasionally informed its viewers that he was still alive. Needless to say, this occupation seemed completely idiotic in the eyes of the rock’n’roll generation, and after his demise it would be weekly lampooned on Saturday Night Live’s “weekend update”, as a straight faced Chevy Chase would announce: “this breaking news just in – Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead!” But someone preceded SNL in having the last laugh at Franco’s expense. On November 28, the Spanish government requested urgent use of satellite time to let the world know of the Generalissimo’s death, just when David Bowie, from his home in LA, was preparing to give an interview to British TV and announce his new world tour. Bowie displayed his healthy sense of priority, refused to give up his slot and went ahead with the interview, which was, with hindsight, the first time the world got to see the Thin White Duke. From his moment of birth, then, the Duke was dancing on the grave of Fascism.
This little anecdote displays the shift in Western consciousness that occurred during the sixties. For people whose mind was shaped by Modernist ideas, the fate of world leaders seemed very important indeed. In the Modern frame of mind, the state was seen as the body that is supposed to mold the identity of its citizens and create a perfect society, and heads of states were the figures that represented this struggle, the people who drove history forward towards achieving the Utopian goal. For the generation whose mind was shaped by pop culture, on the other hand, our identities are not to be shaped by the state, but by the communities we choose to belong to. It is in these communities that we find freedom, perfection and happiness, while the state is regarded merely as a mechanism to organize the relationship between the communities and heads of state are nothing but managerial roles. In the Pop frame of mind, the most important figures are the rock icons, as every one of them represents an ideal identity which draws similar individuals to gather around it and create a unique community. In the early stages of pop culture, the youth rotated towards these icons without thinking about it, intuitively grasping that this was much better than following political leaders. By the end of the sixties, however, the snags and risks of this way of life were also becoming evident, and the rock world had to deal with them. David Bowie became the figurehead of pop culture in the seventies because he was the first self-conscious rocker, the first to address the questions, problems and dangers that this new way of life entailed. To achieve this, he was at once both a true rock icon for the youth to emulate, and an ongoing theater project presenting the life of a rock icon and trying to draw conclusions out of it. As a result, his conduct was drenched in ambiguity and irony, and went over the heads of most members of the public and media. The rock’n’roll crowd wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand it, while the sophisticated crowd never imagined that a rocker could be a serious artist. And so, when the Thin White Duke came along, he was completely misunderstood and was regarded as a Fascist when his essence was actually anti-Fascist.
Fortunately, things eventually worked out for the best. All the media racket over the Duke’s alleged Fascist statements jolted people in the rock world into action, and the “Rock Against Racism” campaign was launched in late 76, just in time to be in full gear by the time the Punks and Skinheads brought the Nazi look into vogue. Thus, it was able to counteract it by arranging large “Rock Against Racism” concerts featuring some of the prominent punk and new wave bands, and help steer rock towards the humanistic direction it took in the eighties. Bowie’s actions exposed the rot infesting youth culture, and forced it to start the healing process. In a late 1977 TV interview, speaking of his previous year’s “Fascist” statements, Bowie claimed that he was merely commenting on the state of British society and concluded that he didn’t need to do it anymore, because other people were now finally becoming aware of the problem. The Thin White Duke, then, accomplished his mission, but the price was that he would go down in history as a sinister character, and his creator would have his name blemished. In this article, we tried to do right with Bowie, and clean his name. We followed his artistic development through the seventies, and showed how his message got subverted. Let us now summarize the subject of Bowie’s “Fascism”.
This false image, we found, comes first of all from a tendency to join together two different strands in Bowie’s work, which were actually completely detached; and secondly, it comes from a misinterpretation of each of them. So we separated the strands, and then checked each of them out. The first strand, which starts in the late sixties and ends in 1974, was Bowie’s search for a heroic way of life to replace the crumbling Hippie solution, a search that led him to read the literature affected by the Nietzschean concept of the Superman and draw images from it into his lyrics. This literature included stories about the Ahnenerbe, the Nazi archaeological foundation that endeavored to dig up evidence of an earlier human master-race. It had nothing to do with the evil sides of Nazism, and reading these books does not make Bowie a Fascist. It was just part of the no-boundaries, no-responsibilities spirit of the sixties, which drove the youngsters of the time to dabble in whatever was out of the ordinary. The older Bowie would chastise himself for this young infatuation, saying that he should never had anything to do with a movement that committed such atrocities; but that is what the sixties were about, and youth culture in general had to gradually clean itself up from some of the things it embraced it that decade. After 1977, Crowleyan black magic would be relegated to the nether regions of heavy metal, while the only role the Ahnenerbe Nazis would have to play in pop culture would be as villains in the Indiana Jones movies.
The second strand of Bowie’s dealings with Fascism was his mid-seventies outlook on the state of society, which led him to believe that we are facing a dark age of dictatorship. This had absolutely nothing to do with his Superman quest (which he already left behind) or with his interest in the Nazis. But this interest did give him some insight into the makings of the Nazi era, and he drew parallels from it to his own time, fearing that he saw a resemblance. As an artist, he felt he had an obligation to portray those characteristics of contemporary society which he deemed dangerous (excessive liberalism brought to the point of nihilism, a wish for a new sensation that would recreate the thrill of rock’n’roll, the proliferation of technological means to control the masses), as well as those traits of human nature which Fascism springs from (the drive for power which he found in himself, coupled with the need to be led which he recognized in most other people); but since his canvas was his own image, it was bound to cause confusion and lead some people to believe that he is actually that thing that he was merely portraying. In the Daily Express interview in which he denies being a Fascist, the interviewer asks him: “then why look it?” “How do I look?” asks the Thin White Duke. “Like Dracula, Berenice, a zombie or an emaciated Marlon Brando playing a Hitler youth,” comes the reply. “No, no, no,” protests Bowie, “I’m Pierrot. I’m Everyman. What I’m doing is theater, and only theater. All this business about me being able to raise 7000 of my troops at the Empire Pool by raising one hand is a load of rubbish. In the first place the audience is British, and since when will the Brits stand for that? What you see on stage isn’t sinister. It’s pure clown. I’m using myself as a canvas and trying to paint the truth of our time on it. The white face, the baggy pants – they’re Pierrot, the eternal clown putting over the great sadness of 1976.”[xx] That is Bowie’s line of defense: first of all, that he is an artist whose job is to function as a mirror-image to society and show the truth of his time; and second, that because he is an artist, he presents no real danger, so he can afford to be risqué. And Bowie is right – that is exactly what he is supposed to be doing as an artist. Artists are not supposed to cower away from the dark sides of human nature or of the times they live in; they are supposed to turn and face the core of human existence, to deal with its dark sides and manifest them, because by so doing, they help us understand them and overcome them and point out possibilities for a better existence. Bowie was not being a Fascist – he was being a true artist.
We’ve become accustomed to think of the Nazis as something completely alien to our Western civilization, which somehow inhabited it for a while. But the truth is that Fascism grew straight out of Western culture and thought, and there are moments in time when our culture is weak and the Fascist monster might grow big enough to threaten to take over. One of these moments came in the nineteen-thirties, and the European culture of the day was not strong enough to hold it back. Another such moment came in the mid-seventies, when the revolutionary movement of the sixties devolved into a state of mind that might have ended up in something catastrophic. Fortunately, this time around there were some individuals brave enough to throw themselves into the cauldron, dive all the way to its bottom and dredge it for a while, and eventually emerge with a solution, to show the way out. The relatively good and stable life we enjoy today is partly indebted to the courage of Bowie and his peers, to their determination to face the crisis and tackle it. Therefore, rather than sitting in the comfort of our armchairs and weaving vile stories about them for our amusement, it is time we all stood up, and said thank you.