David Bowie is more than just a musician; he is an artist who constantly reinvented himself, staying ahead of the game of his contemporary and throwing his talents into the world of pop, rock, glam, folk, avant-garde, and experimental.
As such an inventive creator, Bowie is at one with the cultural movements and monoliths that went before him, from film to music to literature. He regularly appeared as an actor in films, including The Man Who Fell To Earth, Labyrinth, The Prestige and The Hunger.
So too is Bowie, an avid reader. When I visited an exhibition in Barcelona celebrating Bowie’s life a few years ago, I found an interesting snippet of information that revealed that when the future star was a young lad, he used to carry books around in his jacket pocket that he thought would make him look cool.
After a while, however, the mere aesthetic value of these tomes wore off, and Bowie took to actually reading the books, which introduced him to the worlds of fantasy, sci-fi and the advantages of being literarily adept, which would all contribute to the songwriting of his future career.
Bowie loved Anthony Burgess’ 1962 dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. He frequently references Nadsat’s fictional language on many of his tracks, including ‘Suffragette City’ and Blackstar’s ‘Girl Loves Me’, the latter of which is sung predominantly in the language Burgess devised from Russian.
However, books other than A Clockwork Orange played a crucial role in the development of David Bowie’s artistry and songwriting. We’re taking a closer look at them here.
Five books that influenced David Bowie’s artistry:
The Waste Land (1922) – T.S. Eliot
In an interview between author William S. Burroughs and Bowie, Burroughs noted that ‘Eight Line Poem’ was reminiscent of Eliot’s sprawling epic poem ‘The Waste Land’. Bowie claimed never to have read him.
However, he was almost certainly exposed to the poem when producing Lou Reed‘s Transformer in 1972 as Reed’s track ‘Goodnight Ladies’ toys with a section from Eliot’s poem. The influence, whether Bowie knew it or not, was that an artist could draw inspiration from their dreams, as Bowie and Eliot were known to have done.
Passing (1929) – Nella Larsen
Bowie had first-hand experience of tense race relations through his wife, Iman. When they were looking for a place to live in Los Angeles in 1992, they were caught up in the eruptive LA riots that started because four LAPD officers were acquitted of beating African American taxi driver Rodney King.
Passing explores the notion of crossing an undrawn line of acceptance into another country’s primary race. Bowie’s song ‘Black Tie, White Noise’ was written after he experienced the LA riots and examines the complexity of race relations at the time.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – George Orwell
Bowie once recalled watching a BBC science fiction series called The Quartermass Experiment as a child and its creator, Nigel Keale, also wrote a TV adaptation of Orwell’s monolithic dystopian novel, which is perhaps where Bowie was first introduced to Orwell.
Bowie loved the novel so much that in 1973, he devised a plan to adapt it into a stage musical. However, Orwell’s Widow, Sonia, wouldn’t allow it. Bowie was frustratingly left with a tonne of unused material. However, much of it would arise from the ashes a few years later on Diamond Dogs, which featured tracks such as ‘Big Brother’, ‘1984’ and ‘We Are The Dead’.
Silence: Lectures and Writing (1961) – John Cage
One of Bowie’s most significant musical influences was the ambient pioneer Brian Eno. Eno himself would find great inspiration from the experimental music of John Cage. Silence is Cage’s manifesto-cum-memoir.
Cage regularly eschewed the conventions of harmony and notation, which laid the groundwork for Eno’s musical approach. Bowie would explore such ideas on his most experimental albums, Low and Blackstar. Bowie would also collaborate with Eno on the 1995 sci-fi-themed concept album 1. Outside.
Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (1974) – James Hall
Hall’s art dictionary clarifies the abstruse symbols we often find in visual art. For example, the book deconstructs what some aspects of famous paintings mean; say, a pig with a bell around its neck standing next to a monk indicates that the monk is St. Antony the Great.
Bowie had a deep fascination with symbolism in art, and it was regularly featured in his live shows and music videos. In the videos for ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’, we find a blindfolded beggar who is meant to be representative of either a saint about to be executed or a person with spiritual blindness. Both symbols are apt metaphors for the end of Bowie’s life.