Taking it all the right way: was David Bowie a Fascist? (part 3)

Part 2

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.


Taking it all the right way: was David Bowie a Fascist? (part 2)

Part 1

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.

Thin White Duke
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.

Bowie Nazi Salute
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.

Part 3 (final)

Taking it all the right way: was David Bowie a Fascist? (part 1)

***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.

Part 2