David Bowie was a man of many faces. He always considered himself a writer first and actor second – everything else was just a way for him to transmit his vision. In ways, you could consider Bowie a method actor in that what you saw on stage was what you got in person; although, he may have exhausted his canon of imaginary personas by the late 1970s, beginning instead to write songs for himself as opposed to new characters.
His most elaborate and purposeful of personas was Ziggy Stardust: a rock ‘n’ roll alien prophet who descends to Earth to tell the message of the planet’s imminent demise. His propensity for theatrics stemmed from his initial desire to want to write songs for others to perform. When nobody would do his songs, he got over his fear of the stage by putting on a mask.
After he conquered his homeland of Britain, he began to set his sights on achieving success within the United States. By 1974, Bowie embarked on his Diamond Dogs tour which incorporated the most elaborate stage production thus far in his career. After a stop at Sigma Studios in Philadelphia, one of the home bases of soul music at the time, Bowie was inspired to take his music in a new creative direction. The second half of his Diamond Dogs Tour became the ‘soul tour’.
Bowie dispensed with the different amalgamations of the glam space alien look once and for all, and decided to put on a suit and dye his hair even more orange and slick it back. With his high-waisted pants and his padded-shoulder suit jacks, along with his ever-increasing appetite for cocaine -which made him lose even more weight – Bowie began his transformation into a new character entirely.
The change of direction wasn’t only in his look but also, the stage production became increasingly sparse, doing away with many of the props, the multiple costume changes, and the elaborate theatrics. “Now that I’m working with just the band and singing, which is something I hadn’t done for years – just to stand and sing and my songs – I’m finding a new kind of fulfilment,” Bowie said after the Diamond Dogs tour on the Dick Cavett show.
Part of this transformation was Bowie’s desire to fully embrace American culture and its music. “America supplied a need in me,” he said. “It became a myth land.” Bowie recruited a very significant addition to his new band: Carlos Alomar would help Bowie refine his vision for plastic soul music and co-write some important songs such as the Young Americans number ‘Fame’, also with the help of John Lennon; this was his first number one in the United States.
After spending some time living in Los Angeles in the United States, Bowie became extremely disillusioned with the so-called ‘promise land’ of the future of music. He sunk deeper and deeper into the thralls of cocaine addiction while the glitz and glamour of LA began to lose its facade very quickly. “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth,” Bowie said about the infamous City of Angels.
Bowie’s cocaine addiction would force him to stay awake for multiple days on end. He allegedly dabbled in the occult and kept strange pieces of history around in his apartment, such as Nazi memorabilia and Egyptian artefacts. The blue-eyed, hopeful singer of Young Americans was slipping into a kind of demented and warped view of reality: Enter the Thin White Duke.
From this phase came his 1976 masterpiece, Station to Station, a soul and funk album in essence, but it also incorporated art-rock and the avant-garde. There was something very European that began seeping into Bowie’s artistic sensibility. Carlos Alomar commented on this record: “It was one of the most glorious albums that I’ve ever done … we experimented so much on it.”
Despite all the seeming turmoil in Bowie’s life at the time, it is a mark of genius that he was able to leave his strife at the door when he walked into the studio. Alomar adds, “When we were in work mode, it was always about the work,” he says. “If it was fueled by coke or by whatever, David was always able to manage the decision-making. And it was always the same concern for him: ‘What are the lyrics, and what am I going to talk about?”
This is, hands down, Bowie’s most controversial period; a time when the character of the Thin White Duke consumed Bowie. More so than ever before, he had blurred the lines between fiction and reality. This persona had similarities to the plastic soul man he had inhabited a year prior, but there was something more sinister about the thin white duke. His hair was now more strawberry blonde; he looked more pallid than ever before, and his lyrics as found on Station to Station, were incredibly esoteric and indecipherable, mentioning strange occult themes of ascension and reprising Nietzche’s ideas of the superman – spurring notions of Nazism and claims of the superiority of the Aryan race.
Many have commented that if social media was around when The Thin White Duke was, Bowie’s career would not have survived. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to compare his look at the time to a Nazi doctor. In an interview with the NME, Bowie said something that would follow him for the rest of his life and even beyond the grave.
“You’ve got to have an extreme right-wing front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up,” Bowie said. To make matters worst, he even glorified Adolf Hitler, calling him “the first rock star.”
Adding, “Britain is ready for a fascist leader… I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism… I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership.”
In 1976, Bowie was in the back of a Mercedez and as it pulled up to London’s Victoria train station, he stood up and gave what appeared to many the Nazi salute…
Did Bowie really give the Nazi salute?
Bowie did not give the Nazi salute despite his harmful statements about fascism. As the Starman got into the car that was picking him up, he decided to stand up and wave to a horde of fans who were there to greet him.
A photographer who later sold the images to the NME took a bunch of photos of Bowie waving, and of course, catching a couple of shots of him in mid-wave.
The publication then chose a photo that caught Bowie’s arm up in the air, as if he were giving the Nazi salute. It was the power of editing; along with this deceiving photo, coupled with Bowie’s disparaging comments on fascism a couple of months prior, they were able to sensationalise David Bowie as a Nazi.
Years later, Bowie would fully regret his fascist remarks and claimed that he wasn’t exactly in his right mind during this time.