"Heroes" (AFL1-2522) is a significant, indeed momentous step in the career of RCA recording artist David Bowie. But to understand why this is so, we must go back to the beginning.
He was born David Robert Jones in Brixton, South London, in 1947. That makes him about ten years old when rock In' roll struck England and 16 when the Beatles happened--a perfect second-generation child of-rock. Leaving school in Beatles year, he worked for a while in an advertising agency and, like so many others, formed a group. David Jones and the Lower Third struggled around the London clubs and soon turned into David Bowie and the Buzz, achieving the dizzy heights of a residency at the breeding ground of British rock, The Marquee.
Even at this early stage his restless, questing nature led Bowie to abandon the prevailing mod culture and take to Buddhism. At 19 he was signed to the Deram Label and recorded an album, "Love You Till Tuesday," which got nowhere, and retired to a Buddhist retreat in Scotland: "I was within in a month of having my head shaved, taking vows and becoming a monk," Bowie once said.
But by 1969 he was back into music and had his first hit single with "Space oddity." As a "Pop Star" he was expected to make personal appearances and he recalls the experience of trailing round ballrooms and local halls as a bad dream: "It turned me off the business. I was totally paranoid and cut out."
He cut out to Beckenham, a small Kent town swallowed by London's suburban sprawl, and there opened an arts lab. As part of its activities the lab put on a free festival which attracted large crowds and is still talked about in the locality, but Bowie was unhappy. People came to be entertained rather than to take part, he complained. So he left that, too.
A restless spirit, dismissed as a dilettante, a non-sticker, Bowie had also been involved with the art of mime, working for a while with the celebrated Lindsay Kemp group. In fact, he had been trying as many means of expression as he could. With hindsight we can see how right his instinct was, and how the same urge for change has characterized his work ever since.
Significantly, it was at the very end of 1969 that Bowie produced the album which was to launch him as one of the authentic rock spokesman, possibly the spokesman, for the seventies--"The Man Who Sold The World":
"I'd rather stay here with all the madmen
than perish with the sadmen roaming free."
It was a bleak and disenchanted prospect of the future, but delivered with enormous, defiant energy.
Like its predecessor, the next album, "Hunky Dory," is peopled with outsiders, loners, choosing to inhabit their private asylums. The enthusiasm which greeted "Hunky Dory" proved how closely Bowie was in touch with the pulse of the times--or perhaps the times had finally caught up with what he was saying. At any rate, things would never be quite the same again.
Most pop stars play themselves, or a version of themselves, in their work. You know where you are with them. If they change, they change slowly. But from "Hunky Dory" onwards, David Bowie has changed his style even, apparently, his personality with each new release.
The first change came with "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," Bowie didn't tell the story of Ziggy: he became Ziggy. The superb actor inside him, drawing upon his mime and theatre experience, was possessed by the character. Ziggy was the doomed star. His fall enacted the death of the sixties dream, the tragedies of Janis Joplin,and Jimi Hendrix, a profound sense of disturbance and loss.
Ziggy Stardust's appearance was, in many ways, the archetype of seventies style. The makeup, the stacked boots, the dyed hair, were, bowie now reveals, derived from the stylized Kabuki Theatre of Japan, to which Lindsay Kemp had first introduced him.
David/Ziggy appeared in a stage show, the like of which had not been seen before. It was a total experience which reached out and engulfed the audience. Fans came dressed for the part, eager to be engulfed. "The man is a stone genius" said the Village Voice, "and, for those who have been waiting for a new Dylan, Bowie fits the bill.
During his American tour, Bowie had been profoundly affected by the living nightmare of the disintegrating cities. "Aladdin Sane," the next album, was his version of urban hell. The titles give the flavor of the whole thing; "Panic in Detroit," "Cracked Actor," "Drive-in Saturday"--but the track which caught on was "Jean Genie," the little boy who "snuck off to the city."
As though coming up for air, we turned next to "Pin Ups," an affectionate look back at the sixties, a collection of old favorites. And then on to "Diamond Dogs," a work so black and devoid of hope that no one else would have attempted it, let alone brought it off as brilliantly as this. The world of the Diamond Dogs is the worst of all futures, drawing inspiration from George Orwell's classic novel "1984" and the work of American avant garde author, William Burroughs. It was Burroughs who introduced David Bowie to the "cut-up" technique which has been a constant factor in his writing ever since. The idea of cut-up writing is to bring an element of chance into the process. The author writes a passage in several different ways, takes a pair of scissors, slices the paper into several bits, and then joins them together again in a new combination to produce a completely fresh version.
With "Diamond Dogs" David Bowie achieved an extraordinary maturity. And then, a sudden, bewildering change of direction with "Young Americans," an album he described as "relentless plastic soul."
The album produced a hit single, "Fame" (co-written with John Lennon) and marked a radical departure from both the Ziggy and Diamond Dogs personae. This was Bowie taking the stealthy approach, using a familiar idiom to make his point.
Early in 1976 came "The Man Who Fell To Earth," the film directed by Nicholas Roeg in which Bowie plays the part of a visitor from space, stranded on Earth. "The success ... owes much of its credibility to Bowie's long-suffering countenance, the otherworld remoteness of his personality," said one critic, and it is certainly difficult to think of anyone else who could have conveyed the same impression. Bowie was universally acclaimed for his part in the movie. It could have been invented with him in mind.
The next album, "Station to Station," was a cautious advance on "Young Americans.-, To coincide with its release Bowie went on tour with a new stage show. This was a complete departure from his earlier appearances and revealed another of his great influences-the German Expressionists of the early 20th century. These artists, particularly the film director Georg Wilhelm Pabst, had long fascinated him and he met about emulating the stark, clinical lighting which Pabst always employed. No one who saw this show could forget the curiously tense and vulnerable figure illuminated in that harsh, flat glare.
And then Bowie changed direction yet again and came up with perhaps the most puzzling album so far. "Low" was quite unexpected. "Bowie doesn't sit on his laurels," the Sounds critic remarked, "he shreds them and thinks again." Half the album has no singing at all. It is a testament to Bowie's nerve, in that he gives the lion's share to electronics' abstract structures of pure sound, created by himself and Eno. Now, with "Heroes" before us, we can see the logic of it.
"Low" was a clearing of the decks, a completely fresh start. "I've given up adding to myself," he says. "I've stopped trying to adapt. No more characters."
With "Heroes" Bowie is at last Bowie and that is really a totally new character.
Bowie has just completed work on his second film, "Just A Gigolo" directed by actor David Hemmings. Appearing with Bowie is an international cast that includes Kim Novak, Sydne Rome, Curt Jurgens and Marlene Dietrich. "Just A Gigolo" tells the story of a young Prussian soldier trying to adjust to the vast economical and social changes he discovers in the post-war Berlin of the 1920's.