David Bowie Is
David Bowie, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh
The V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL • March 23 – August 11, 2013
I grew up with David Bowie. My mother’s youngest brother, only ten years older than me, was Bowie-mad. He even had the crimson-dyed mullet to prove it. Every inch of his bedroom walls and ceiling plastered in pictures of his hero – huge posters, postage-stamp-size images cut from magazines and newspapers, no image too small not to merit a place. I’d visit my Nan each Saturday, bolt upstairs to Uncle Kev’s room, harass him from his hung-over slumber, and while I waited for him to get up, I’d sit on his bed drinking in the hundreds of Bowies …… the shaggy-haired fop reclining on a chaise longue in a silk dress …… gaunt Major Tom …… Aladdin Sane, that futuristic flash, bare chest and platinum tights, hips cocked forward, airbrushed crotch as sexless as Action Man’s yet overtly sexual …… a half-man half-canine whose sprawled thighs revealed the genitals of a Diamond Dog, not a ‘Queen Bitch’ ….. ’Star Man’, that golden circle painted on his forehead making him look like some Glam Rock Cyclops …… the trompe l’oeil cosmetic masks of Pinups – Bowie, one eye blue and the other hazel, staring with startled intent, while Twig The Wonder Kid gazed forlornly …… a Zoot-suited ‘Young American’ … an infant Zowie snuggled up to a thoroughly modern father, Bowie’s lipgloss and lurex light years away from my Brut-doused beige-clad dad …… not one Brylcreem-ed tangerine strand out of place despite the fact that this man had fallen to Earth from God-knows-where …… the robotic pose of ‘Heroes’. Then cancer took my beloved uncle in 1979, ironic that Bowie’s final incarnation to make it onto Uncle Kev’s wall-of-fame had been a poster of the cover of Lodger, Bowie’s dislocated corpse, prostrate against antiseptic tiles, seeming to symbolize the ravages terminal illness had wrought on Kevin who’d spent his twentieth year in and out of hospital. I don’t know what happened to those posters, but the records were bequeathed to me.
A few months after Kev’s death, Bowie unleashed Scary Monsters, and just as The Jean Genie had inspired Kev to dye his hair red, the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ promo, with its Blitz Kid co-stars, inspired me to raid my mother’s make-up – experimenting in private for the next couple of years until I was ready to go public, a fully-fledged New Romantic by age fourteen, with the sharpest lipline Birmingham had ever seen. Times change though, outré can become passé, ‘Let’s Dance’ those Conservative-with-a-capital-’C’ blues away, as the `80s inched on all of us guilty of growing a little duller. But Bowie’s legacy never let us down.
And that legacy, entwined so deep within the fabric of mine and millions of others’ formative psyches, has been woven into an exhibition which transcends being merely a meander through an icon’s golden years. We see a video installation of David Jones’ family home, sofa mutating into a jukebox, grainy black-and-white `50s grey Britain ripe to explode with the Pop Art `60s; we see the sculptural outfit from ‘Saturday Night Live’ displayed beside Dadaist Sonia Delaunay’s costume designs for the 1923 play ‘Le Coeur a Gaz’, contextualizing what inspired it; we see a photo of Dietrich, the embodiment for Bowie of Weimar pre-war decadence, her man-drag reworked in The Thin White Duke’s sharp-tailored suits; we see Eartha Kitt’s 1956 autobiography Thursday’s Child, the trigger for Bowie’s 1997 song of the same name; we see footage of space exploration; we see what Bowie wore in ‘Baal’, Brecht revived for a pop audience, a fan letter from Goodbye To Berlin author Christopher Isherwood; we see the set of keys, big as a jailor’s, to the Berlin apartment Bowie shared with Iggy Pop – keys that locked out the world on a thousand cocaine nights, nights which fuelled a trinity of Teutonic-cool albums that would inspire a New Wave generation; we see an original early-`70s make-up sketch – actual cosmetic daubs artfully contrived by an image-maker, an A4 paint-by-numbers map of what-goes-where, slavishly copied by legions of rebel rebels who’d get their mothers in a collective whirl; we see his handwritten lyrics – lyrics we’d memorize, decipher according to our own emotional needs, our anthems, rallying calls of rebellion, odes to heartbreak, our highs and lows on show. Then there are the stage costumes, iconic, as sacrosanct as the Turin shroud, as familiar to us as our own wardrobes, mannequins backed by live footage on ten-metre screens, sound and vision, extra-sensory overload, but so cleverly exhibited it never suffocates.
There are those a half-generation ahead of me who talk of the moment they saw Bowie’s first performance on Top of the Pops singing ‘Star Man’ as when it all began; but for me, still in Kindergarten when Ziggy first gate-crashed my consciousness, barely out of short trousers when ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ shook television sets with its video of Bowie dragged up as a latter-day Rita Hayworth, it really did all begin with Bowie – this wonderful retrospective more than a tribute to England’s greatest pop star, but a reminder of those Saturday mornings at Nan’s, of a sadly-missed uncle, of my New Romantic teenage wildlife, of the time I was booked to do Iman’s make-up and she made my year by saying when I was being my usual cheeky self “You’re just like my husband!” So drink, drink, drain your glass, raise your glass high – to the curators of The V&A’s ‘David Bowie Is’, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, and, of course, to the great man himself.