by Matthew Sweet / Intelligent Life
The Line of Beauty: as the V&A prepares to showcase David Bowie’s iconography, Matthew Sweet pinpoints his looks and guises, from Aladdin Sane to family man…
These days, he is a happily retired man, living quietly in New York with his wife and daughter. But for 15 years or so he was a superstar: a top-class singer, songwriter—and curator of his own image.
Davy—or Davie—Jones c.1965
Bowie’s otherworldly credentials are so established that his early years now play like a sci-fi serial about aliens engaged in the slow infiltration of some suburban nowhere. Beckenham, for instance. Did the teenage Pod Person in this picture really fool anyone? The name, for one. David Jones! Too self-consciously ordinary to be plausible, despite the tweaks to “Davy” and “Davie”. Here’s what Professor Quatermass would have said, if they’d given him a column in the NME: Bowie’s years of struggle—the ice-cream commercials, the failed alliances with bands called Riot Squad or the Konrads—were a Martian ploy to lull us into a false sense of security.
At home 1972
As with many of the aesthetic schemes Bowie has devised for himself over the decades, Cher might have looked good in this: psychedelic party gear suitable for a Batman villain or one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, but worn with the attitude of someone auditioning for the part of the Virgin Mary. Let’s not canonise him retrospectively, though—as the shutter closed on this image, Bowie was known solely as the author of “Space Oddity” (1969)—one of the most evocative aural narratives ever produced, but still, essentially, a novelty record to put beside Rolf Harris’s “Two Little Boys”.
In New York 1973
All the best alien incursions—Martians, Daleks, Triffids—begin in Britain. Ziggy Stardust made planetfall on a 1972 edition of the BBC’s “Top of the Pops”, and, as he slinked an arm around the neck of his guitarist, chorusing a tune clearly borrowed from Judy Garland, the nature of this invasion was clear. This portrait shows him taking the fight to the Americans: captured at RCA studios in New York in January 1973, it shows Ziggy remade for a transatlantic audience. The sullen beauty of Lauren Bacall, the Harlequin tailoring of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. A know-your-enemy shot for conservative parents with mimsy sons.
Aladdin Sane album cover 1973
It looks like another leap into a distant future, or beyond the bounds of the solar system—but the Lad Insane’s lightning streak and alabaster skin are no extraterrestrial phenomena. They are borrowed from music hall, the stars of which were dying as Bowie, a child of the 1940s, was born. So, some homework: Google “George Chirgwin, the white-eyed Kaffir”. You may have to hold your nose, but have a look at his white-diamond-on-blackface make-up: it’s the Edwardian ur-Bowie. Brian Duffy’s shot became the defining look of Bowie’s career, and of 1970s pop. In 2003 it made a Vogue cover, with Kate Moss as Bowie. That doesn’t happen to Roger Waters.
The Bowie family 1974
Peter Mazel’s portrait captures the oddness of Bowie family values. Angie, David and young master Zowie are gathered at the balustrade as Gainsborough might have had them. Angie has come to the party as a PVC version of the Duchess of Beaufort. The lord of the manor has gone all Ramon Novarro—sombrero, tight black pants, green silk blouse. The eyepatch doesn’t make him any more domestic. Zowie, by the way, is now Duncan Jones, the 41-year-old film director responsible for “Moon” and “Source Code”—pictures only slightly odder than this one.
Diamond Dogs tour, November 1974
Rock stars who build themselves a persona—Gary Glitter, for instance—often become entombed within it. This shot shows how Bowie was too restless for calcification. A canine mutant version of Ziggy Stardust prowls the cover of the “Diamond Dogs” album—but here, on the tour, Bowie has already adopted the white soul-boy look of his next album, “Young Americans”. What is he, precisely? Frank Sinatra in drag and on hunger strike? The fourth busker of the Apocalypse? His prodigious cocaine consumption may supply the answer: a man hurtling coldly forward, beyond the orbit of his old friends and influences.
The Man Who Fell to Earth 1976
If Bowie had been born before Al Jolson sang, he might have been a great film star: a figure somewhere between Valentino and Max Schreck. “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence” (1983) used him as a lightbulb of lucent blondness; “Absolute Beginners” (1986) made him Fred Astaire with menaces. Here, Nicolas Roeg casts him in the role to which Bowie always aspired: the emissary from another planet, overpowered by the noise and venality of the terrestrial world. And, as he lies in his bed, tyrannised by the blaring nonsense of a wall of TV screens, he is clearly a kind of modern everyman, too.
Lodger cover May 1979
For his third collaboration with Brian Eno in Berlin, after “Low” and “Heroes”, Bowie wraps his LP in something extraordinary: a Weegee crime-scene photograph with an art-school twist supplied by Derek Boshier, a contemporary of David Hockney; a murky fantasy about an ageing hipster executed—or just dancing—during a restorative visit to the gents. The image shows Bowie on the way to what seems, increasingly, to be his final mutational form: the connoisseur, the collector, the patron, a man in a well-cut suit at the top of a very high Swiss mountain.
Ashes to Ashes/Scary Monsters 1980 (pictured, top)
There’s a parallel universe somewhere in which Bowie retired after his Berlin trilogy and became a perfect embodiment of the 1970s, rather as Vera Lynn is of the war years. In fact, with this image—again taken by Brian Duffy, and inscribed, on the cover of the “Scary Monsters” LP, with the squiggles and pastels of Californian post-modernism—Bowie escaped the decade that made him. The tattered ballgown, the Marlene Dietrich ciggie and beauty-spot, the swirls of Athena-print blusher: it’s all a warning shot fired across the bows of the New Wavers and New Romantics that they are on his territory, not vice versa. History would suggest he was right.
Serious Moonlight tour 1983
This is the form in which most of the world knows David Bowie—not the sequined proponent of “fag rock” or the art-school troublemaker—but a lean golden statue topped with an ice-cream quiff. The Serious Moonlight tour was no joke: it sold 2.6m tickets in 16 countries. It brought his entire back catalogue to a generation too young to recall the Moon landings. It cemented the position that he retains today: an individual of uncompromising strangeness who could fill a stadium with a click of his long, bony fingers.
With Iman in Mustique 1992
The light falling here belongs to Princess Margaret’s favourite dot in the Caribbean. The camera belongs to the 12th Earl of Drogheda. Bowie, never queerer than when posing with a wife, joins Iman, whose most celebrated screen role was Martia the Chameleoid, who once put the wind up Captain Kirk. She’s dolled up for the disco on Aldebaran 5; he’s a toff roughing it as Wallaby Jim of the Islands. It’s a portrait of an alien marriage, with hints of Bowie’s earthbound phase: the chain, the earring. You see a lot of that in Beckenham.
David Bowie Is V&A, London, March 23rd to July 28th
Matthew Sweet presents “Night Waves” on BBC Radio 3. He is the author of “The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels”
Pictures: Getty, Brian Duffy, Corbis, Denis O’Regan. For reasons of copyright, only seven of the 11 pictures that appear in the magazine can be reproduced here