There is a palpable sense in David Bowie’s music that, both as an artist and a man, he was running from something. What that something was is up for debate. Some have argued that his many transformations, from Ziggy to Alladin Sane and the Thin White Duke, were an attempt at self-mythologisation, a way for David Jones to create himself afresh time and time again.
Given that Bowie’s half-brother Terry had been committed to the Cane hill psychiatric hospital as a young man and that his mother’s sister was lobotomised, it’s understandable that he was fearful of his own mind. Songs like ‘All The Madmen’ and ‘The Prisoner’, as well as his alter ego Aladdin Sane, reveal a fear that he too would succumb to mental illness. As his Aunt put it in 1983, Bowie was frightened of visiting his brother Terry because he “fears insanity in himself.”
That same fear quite possibly served as one of the key forces behind Bowie’s career. It may also have been a sort of conduit through which Bowie was able to vent the madness he felt was such a looming threat. That being said, he still suffered from bouts of deep depression. Speaking on Showbiz People in 1992, Bowie explained: “I’ve gone in and out of happy periods over the last four or five years and this one seems to be going on a bit. Can’t be much longer,” he begins, chuckling dryly.
Responding to the observation that he was desperately depressed at a certain point in his career, Bowie was quick to interject: “I was desperately depressed about three days after I was born and I thought, ‘well, there’s no point in crying over spilt milk, I’ll just get on with it.’ I’ve done that a lot. But the depressions have got less and less as I’ve got older, and I haven’t been depressed for…hours!”
Bowie seems to have viewed combating depression as a gradual learning process, one of the most takeaways from which was the value of living in the present. “I think one of my greatest and gravest mistakes was always living in the future,” Bowie began. “I was very much about ‘this is what I want to do and that’s what I want to do’. And you spend so much time doing that that you end up forgetting about today, and so you don’t start living the day and all that. It’s a very sort of trite, cliche, modernist philosophy, but, like most cliches, it’s built on truth.” Wise words indeed.