“When you’re young, you’re still ‘becoming’,” David Bowie once said, “Now I am more concerned with ‘being’.” This sense of childhood’s inherent wandering ways is something that was forever a touchstone throughout the late Starman’s career. And even when he did settle on “being”, it ironically had a lot of the pantomime of youth at its core.
On a US chat show, David Bowie even joked: “I reinvented my image so many times that I’m in denial that I was originally an overweight Korean woman.” The chameleonic and kaleidoscopic reinventions that Bowie swirled through like an alchemist of identity were a calling card for his otherworldly artistic talent. They were not just character studies or quirky conduits for creativity; they redefined what was possible in rock music. Bowie happened upon the powers of reinvention at an early age and quite by chance.
It’s a remarkable insight into Bowie himself to picture him as a doe-eyed youngster perched in front of a TV and having his full artistic gestalt revealed to him in a predestined mind-wallop that he was too young to fully comprehend. The pivotal piece of art that was being piped through the airways and straight to his creative psyche was the 1952 film, Hans Christian Andersen.
The classic Charles Vidor movie opens with the following introduction: “Once upon a time there lived in Denmark a great storyteller named Hans Christian Andersen. This is not the story of his life, but a fairy tale about the great spinner of fairy tales.” Bowie, who would soon become a tale spinner of a rather more rock ‘n’ roll variety, found himself enamoured by one moment in the film in particular.
At one point in the unfurling fantasy, Danny Kaye who plays Andersen sings a beguiling tune named ‘Inchworm’ which proved to be a defining moment in Bowie’s life. As he said himself in an interview in 2003 with Performing Songwriter: “I loved it as a kid, and it’s stayed with me forever. I keep going back to it. You wouldn’t believe the amount of my songs that have sort of spun off that one song. Not that you’d really recognise it.”
Adding: “Something like ‘Ashes to Ashes’ wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t have been for ‘Inchworm.’ There’s a child’s nursery rhyme element in it, and there’s something so sad and mournful and poignant about it.” This poignancy to child’s play is something that recurs throughout Bowie’s career, and not just in Labyrinth either. He was never afraid to mix solemnity with humour in the way that many artists are. Even in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ he depicts a story of substance-induced isolation with the playful motif of spacemen.
And as far as he was concerned, this creative habit kept coming back to his moment perched before Hans Christian Andersen and the seismically fateful scene of a man crooning afore some marigolds. “It kept bringing me back to the feelings of those pure thoughts of sadness that you have as a child, and how they’re so identifiable even when you’re an adult,” he said.
Concluding: “There’s a connection that can be made between being a somewhat lost five-year-old and feeling a little abandoned and having the same feeling when you’re in your twenties. And it was that song that did that for me.” How very befitting of Bowie that a humble TV movie could be interpolated as something holding enough involved artistic weight to be a hallmark of the swirl of imagination that it later stirred up.
Aside, from ‘Inchworm’ the idea of life reimagined in fantasy terms is another element that stayed with him too. For instance, during the production of the 1997 release, Bowie developed a desire to write a song that used the names of all seven dwarves from Snow White.
The song begins with a Prodigy-esque electro-industrial sounding intro before breaking into a melody reminiscent of his very early work on ’60s songs like ‘The London Boys’. The lyrics to the aptly named song ‘Little Wonder’ begin: “Stinky weather fat, shaky hands / Dopey morning doc, grumpy gnomes.” Within this opening stanza of total William S. Burroughs-inspired nonsense, he manages to dole out two of the seven, and he continues in such a prolific vein that he eventually has to invent Disney Dwarf names of his own.
Yes, Bowie was certainly playful, but never without knowing the worth of it. Much like fairy tales themselves, over his career, he made the freakish familiar, and this mix-up of avant-garde nonsense, cartoon fantasy, and the poetic profundity that embalms it all is perhaps all wrought from Hans Christian Anderson and ‘Inchworm’. If that’s the case, then it reaffirms that his insightful interpretation of all art itself was his finest feat and asset.
You can witness Danny Kaye perform the song below, and striking how much the vocal inflections even sound like Bowie!