David Bowie’s career has had its ups and downs. After his death, a sort of Bowie-washing took place. It told us that everything Bowie had ever done was flawless and that any criticism of him was equivalent to criticising God almighty. But the truth is that, like any other artist, Bowie went through periods of creative difficulty as well as periods of immense artistic brilliance.
But before you accuse me of defaming the name of Bowie, let me say that I genuinely believe that the fluctuation in Bowie’s musical output benefited him. His long and varied career allowed him to develop a sense of himself, of his ability, and to learn from his mistakes. He was also an active part of the industry for such a long time that he must have seen many a bright star fall from grace. All of this is to say that Bowie truly understood how to sustain a career.
In this clip, Bowie gives some excellent advice on remaining authentic. And surely there is no one better to offer that advice than a man who, for many, seemed so uniquely talented that it felt quite possible he had indeed fallen to earth from some distant star.
“Never play to the gallery,” Bowie begins, laughing. “But you never learn that until much later on, I think.” In his voice, there is a sense that this advice has been learnt the hard way – through experience. Indeed, at the very start of Bowie’s career, he was forced to make novelty records to gain a foothold on the charts.
‘The Laughing Gnome’ was a creative decision made, not for any artistic reason, but for a purely commercial one. The song, released in 1967, is a pastiche of one of Anthony Newley’s early records and features the young Bowie conversing with a gnome. It’s a song full of god-awful puns and cheesy production tricks and really doesn’t cast the young singer in a good light.
Unfortunately, the song was a commercial failure, and it wasn’t until it was re-released in 1973 (after Bowie had written Ziggy Stardust) that it impacted the charts. It taught Bowie a valuable lesson, however. One he carried with him throughout his career.
For Bowie, music was always a form of self-discovery and to use it as a vehicle for something as superficial as recognition was to degrade it. In the clip, Bowie observes this about himself: “Never work for other people,” he urges, “Always remember that the reason you initially started working was that there was something inside you that you felt, if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how to co-exist with the rest of society.”
For Bowie, life and art were inseparable. In his mind, art was a practice by which he could unstitch himself, by which he could eradicate his preconceptions and re-mould himself from the inside out. For Bowie, being authentic in his creative pursuits equated to being an authentic human being. And that’s something we can all carry with us.
Watch the full clip below.