David Bowie (born David Robert Jones, 1947) is amongst the most charismatic, individualistic and influential figures in popular music, with a back catalogue spanning some five decades and comprising a dizzying array of musical genres and changes of image. He embodies many of the key characteristics of the type Four (The Artist, The Tragic Romantic, The Outsider), in that his personae and lyrical subject matters explore and celebrate the marginal, unconventional and (often quite literally) the alien.
So I turned myself to face me, but I never caught a glimpse (Changes 1971)
Bowie is sometimes simplistically termed Rocks Chameleon, owing to his aesthetic malleability and tendency to move from one style to the next and, in terms of the Enneagram, is commonly misidentified as a type Three.
However, whereas the type Three is capable of identifying what works, objectively utilizing their abilities to the end of succeeding swiftly, and usually in a proven field, Bowies career appears as that of one who doesnt recognise or is indifferent to what works (indicated by his long pre- stardom apprenticeship and abandonment of commercially successful formulas) and, in embracing the unusual, synthesizing seemingly incompatible aesthetics and mediums, and risking alienating his audience in pursuit of a very personal vision, he exhibits the essence of the Four, standing apart, exempt from conventional rules and expectations, ever in the process of becoming, in search of the true, authentic self. The latter is evidenced by the recurrent lyric themes of Bowies songs; for all his changes, the dominant tenor of his oeuvre is that of the brooding and often disquieting Romanticism of the type Four, with an emphasis on self- immersion (Im sinking in the quicksand of my thoughts Quicksand 1971), alienation, transgression, madness and loneliness.
This tendency to explore and indeed revel in his own vulnerability and insecurity is quite distinct from the Threes desire to at all times present themselves in the most suitable, flattering manner, usually as confident and perfect winners, exhibiting a deft ability to filter what they reveal about themselves. Bowie, in his life as well as work, has been consistently self- revealing, perhaps never more so than when he is playing a role; in The Mask, a mime written and performed in 1969, Bowies protagonist finds fame as an entertainer after donning a mask. His success is dependant upon this smiley facade and, in one telling scene, Bowies character removes the mask to reveal a look of scowling disdain, an expression of the unhealthy Fours contempt for what they perceive to be the unimaginative, amorphous and easily manipulated masses (from whom they feel excluded but nonetheless may wish to woo). In the final scene, Bowies performer finds himself unable to remove the mask and chokes to death on stage, with the voiceover commenting that newspapers mentioned nothing about a mask. Bowies mask is a metaphor for public perception and the gulf between performance and real life, a theme that is further explored in 1971s Life On Mars? where the girl with the mousey hair walks through her sunken dream, to a cinema, where shes hooked on the silver screen. At this point the focus shifts, emphasized by a key change and orchestral swell, where the film (a saddening bore) is revealed to be the girls real life (shes wrote in ten times or more), with her dissatisfaction expressed by her wishing to spit in the eyes of fools. Therein follows another change of key with a lyrical montage of filmic imagery (sailors fighting on the dancefloorlawman beating up the wrong guy) and the suggestion that the fantasy (the best selling show) and the real worlds are one in the same.
“I think rock should be tarted up, made into a prostitute, a parody of itself. It should be the clown, the Pierrot medium.” (David Bowie, April 1971)
This ability, to put himself and his point of observation at a distance from his subject, has led to charges of Bowies being inauthentic, a mere magpie flitting from one style to another. What is singularly overlooked is that, rather than being a Rock musician per se, Bowie is an Artist whose primary medium is Rock music. Because Rock, especially at the time of Bowies ascendance in the late 60s (the era of protest songs and counter culture agitation), was generally regarded as a sincere antidote to a manufactured pop ethos and celebrated for its genuineness, keeping it real has often meant sticking to clichÈs and remaining aesthetically static in the name of being down to earth, relevant or in touch with the ordinary man etc.
As a Four, Bowie identified that Art (as a creative, generative form, rather than a monolithic way of being) entailed a certain amount of what might superficially appear to be artifice, where sensitivity could be both shielded and expressed through the adoption of personae (Ive no defence, Ive got to keep my veil on my face Janine 1969). This allowed the intensely personal to be elevated to the Superhuman and iconic and, in that the Universal often resided in the strange and hitherto unexplored, Bowie, as a truly creative pop musician, would inevitably run against the grain.
Released in June 1967, Bowies debut album could hardly have been further from the then prevailing Summer Of Love ethic of groovy free-love and hippiedom. Consisting largely of orchestrated vignettes dedicated to odd, unglamorous characters and sung in a wry ironic cockney manner that owed a certain amount to Anthony Newley, Bowie had already, at the age of nineteen, a highly developed and uncommon melodic and linguistic sense, and was exhibiting classic Four traits of identification and sympathy with the socially excluded (such as, in Little Bombardier, a shell shocked lonely veteran befriending two small children, before being accused of paedophilia and consequently run out of town) , gender distortion (Shes Got Medals- her mother called her Mary, but she changed her name to Tommy, shes a one!), an aching nostalgia (Come & Buy My Toys and There Is A Happy Land .. where only children live, they have no time to learn the ways of you sir, Mr. Grownup), and a taste for rather macabre humour (Please Mr. Gravedigger). This was, in all, a far darker and more complex vision, albeit masked by the vaguely unhinged cheeriness of the music, than that offered by his contemporaries and, unsurprisingly, a resounding commercial failure. Though this album contains the kernel of many of the themes that were to dominate Bowies Golden Years of the 1970s (alienation, gender- mutation, war, nostalgia and Romanticism) it is still somewhat overlooked and dismissed as a misguided lurch into vaudeville, a view that in many ways reflects its stark variance to the surrounding psychedelic rock milieu from whence it came. However, Bowies preparedness to eschew the then dominant musical, lyrical and ideological mode in favour of a more individualistic, personally resonant aesthetic, illustrates the Fours admirable commitment to the dictates of the muse, willingness to go it alone and observe the common consensus with unique sensitivity and perceptiveness, as well as evidence of his being commendably authentic to himself, which, in Art, is arguably where it really counts.
Indeed, it is precisely the deficit in personal authenticity (and free thought) displayed by many celebrants of the Summer Of Love that Bowie was to lacerate in 1969s The Cygnet Committee, an examination of the contradictions and latent violence of the Hippy movement. This prescient piece, written some time before the Manson slayings and Altamont disaster that closed and tarnished that era, sees Bowie, as the outsider Four, offering reportage on a conformist mob-think imbued with unquestioning self- righteousness (our weapons were the tongues of crying rage), capable of creation (where money stood we planted seeds of rebirth), but equally of destruction (ploughing down man, woman, listening to its command, but not hearing anymore). In not hearing, the mob replaces discussion with simplistic slogans, starting benignly enough with love is all we need, but soon devolving into Kick out the jams, before descending into destructive generation- revolt (kick out your mother), and paranoia (cut up your friends, screw your brother, or theyll get you in the end).
A Leper Messiah: The Artist as Visionary
As the type Four is highly concerned with the broad potency of Art, Bowie was especially aware of the Messianic properties of the rock medium, with the crowd being dictated to by the machinations of the idol on the podium (leading Bowie to controversially claim Hitler as the first rock star) and where, in the case of 1972s Rock n Roll Suicide, the Fours desire to reveal (Ive had my share, Ill help you with the pain) and invite identification (oh no, love, youre not alone) is expressed through the media of performance, with the line just give me your hands evoking the image of the rock star reaching out to a sea of supplicants, whereby the experience of shared humanity can, for the socially maladroit and sensitive Four, best be attained through Art and Idealization.
The role of Leper Messiah (Ziggy Stardust 1972) has been a recurrent theme of Bowies; from the Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (whose idyllic mountaintop life ends with his being hanged by uncomprehending villagers), to All The Madmen (with whom Bowie wishes to stay, as theyre all as sane as me) and perhaps most notably with the alien rock star Ziggy Stardust, all of which reflects the Fours feelings of being apart from their fellows, (with the mountaintop visionary and alien superstar being idealized manifestations of the Fours sense of not belonging). Here, we find the Fours alienation being sublimated to a sense of Artistic mission, one that invites and, in true Tragic Romantic manner, expects castigation, rejection and misunderstanding.
I cannot breathe in the atmosphere of convention I find freedom only in the realms of my own eccentricity (David Bowie 1971)
Like fellow Fours, Oscar Wilde (I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality) and Prince (Am I black or white, am I straight or gay), Bowie delighted in eschewing conventional morality and definitions, taking a Puckish delight in transgressing boundaries of gender (being one of the first rock Artists to come out as being gay, in 1972) as well as genre (with his frequent stylistic shifts bewildering both fans and critics alike). Fours tend to abhor rules and, ever in the process of discovering themselves, regard definition as unacceptable restriction. Thus, following the long sought- after global success he finally attained with space- age superman Ziggy Stardust, Bowie felt capable of retiring this immensely lucrative character at the height of its popularity. He then embarked on a Broadway- style musical based on Orwells 1984 (Diamond Dogs), the tour of which involved an elaborate and costly set that ensured minimum profits, and played to a largely confused audience of Ziggy clones. No sooner was this new guise established than once again Bowie moved on, this time to soul music. Consequently, the vast 1984 set was abandoned, and the audience confronted by a baggy- suited Bowie, flanked by a plethora of gospel singers and backed by a funk band.
A more career- minded artist would perhaps play it safe and temper creative demands to the expectations of audience and critics alike, especially in the high- stake rock arena, where reputation and revenue are, once lost, seldom recovered. However, as a Four, Bowie was primarily driven by the need to follow his Artistic vision; that this decision was vindicated by longevity and ongoing success is testament both to his instincts and the individualistic commitment of the Four, a type who often suffer incomprehension and failure for furrowing new paths through unknown terrain.
In a pop culture that seeks to produce simplified, saleable artists, ever in pursuit of the predictable over the creative, Bowie serves as an example of the imaginativeness, courage and tireless self- discovery of the Four, and as an inspirational model of Artistic vision, commitment and perseverance.
The Pitt Report Kenneth Pitt (Omnibus 1983)
Glam! Bowie, Bolan and the Glitter Rock Revolution Barney Hoskyns (Faber & Faber 1998)
Alias David Bowie Peter & Leni Gillman (Hodder & Stoughton 1986)
Bowie – Jerry Hopkins (Macmillian, 1985)
Photo: flickr / Tim Yates
Gavan Keaney is a musician and artist based in London. After completing a degree in Fine Art with Sonic Art, Gavan commenced recording under the moniker Sand Snowman and has, to date released six highly acclaimed albums, toured Europe and collaborated with Porcupine Trees Steven Wilson and Gongs Theo Travis. He can be contacted at: [email protected]