I’ve still not read an autobiography by a rock person that had the same degree of presumptuousness and arrogance that a rock & roll record used to have. So I’ve decided to write my autobiography as a way of life. It may be a series of books. I’m so incredibly methodical that I would be able to categorize each section and make it a bleedin’ encyclopedia. You know what I mean? David Bowie as the microcosm of all matter.
Bowie to Cameron Crowe, 1975.
We will never have a book from Bowie, apparently. One of the most literate rock musicians, one insightful and charming whenever he wrote about his music, has left no memoir behind.
Not that he hadn’t tried. He began an autobiography in 1975 while filming The Man Who Fell To Earth. It was a bizarre cocaine-fueled fantasy/memoir called The Return of the Thin White Duke; an excerpt was included in Crowe’s 1976 Rolling Stone profile of Bowie.
In 2015, Martin Schneider discovered that Bowie had given a draft of the first chapter of Thin White Duke to Crowe, who’d subsequently donated it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archives in Cleveland. Schneider quoted a few paragraphs from the nine-page typewritten document, including an apparently autobiographical passage about the 14-year-old Bowie in Bromley, 1961:
My grey flannel pants have been tapered at the cuffs to a tight thirteen inches. Waiving aside the Perry Como, I chose for class today the thin blue on white accountants stripe with its starched white collar.
I catch sight of myself in the living room mirror and take pride in those buttocks. My cock looks bulgy and tough.
Denis, all wreathed in smiles under his short curly hair, tells me that if I just pinned the badge to my school blazer, silk and wool, I can take the badge off when catching the bus home.
Schneider describes the draft as alternating between such fairly lucid passages and wild, grandiloquent rants in the tortured register of “Future Legend.” It’s unknown whether Bowie completed the manuscript; odds are no (if he gave a chapter draft to a reporter, it’s a sign he didn’t consider the work to be that essential at the time).
But much like his long-announced ambition to direct a film, a Bowie book seemed inevitable one day. Surely at some point, especially once he’d retired from performing and making albums, he’d get down to work at last. After all, he’d kept everything—costumes, lyrics, studio outtakes, posters, set designs. It would just be a matter of assembling the pieces of his past and sparking some memories from them.
Writing could be a salvage job. In the late Nineties, Bowie had talked up a 30th anniversary Ziggy Stardust film/ play/ remake spectacle. It came to nothing except for a 15,000 word introduction he wrote for Mick Rock’s Moonage Daydream, in 2002 (sample anecdote: “When the TV series Bewitched went into colour in the late 1960s, for some strange reason Samantha occasionally wore tiny tattoos on her face. I thought it looked really odd, but inspired. So I used a little anchor on my face myself for the ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ Video.”) Autobiography, especially if centered on his music, seemed feasible for him.
News about Bowie: Object broke in September 2010 when word spread at the Frankfurt Book Fair that Bowie, via agent Andrew Wylie, was shopping a book around. Wylie reportedly told publishers that Bowie’s book would be just “the first in a series designed to explore his creative process.” Penguin Books soon had Bowie under contract.
A 28 September 2010 post on Bowie’s website announced that “We still don’t want to give too much away just yet, suffice to say that David Bowie has been working on a book called ‘Bowie: Object’…a collection of pieces from the Bowie archive, wherein, for the first time, fans and all those interested in popular culture will have the opportunity to understand more about the Bowie creative process and his impact on modern popular music.”
It would be designed by Jonathan Barnbrook; its structure would be a list of 100 objects which told the history of David Bowie.”The book’s pictorial content is annotated with insightful, witty and personal text written by Bowie himself,” as per his website. One example, included in the announcement, was the notorious Kirlian photograph of Bowie’s cocaine-enhanced fingertip.
The book proposal came off as a parody of A History of the World in 100 Objects, a Radio 4/British Museum documentary series that began in early 2010 and was issued as a book later that year. You can see Bowie’s mordant sense of humor. Where in 100 Objects, the rise of science and literature is represented by No. 16, Iraq Flood Tablet (700-600 BC) and No. 19, Mold Gold Cape (Wales, 1900-1600 BC), Bowie : Object would represent his LA years via No. 29, Cocaine Spoon (ca. 1975) and Labyrinth as No. 65, Jareth’s Codpiece (1985).
He needed some kind of organizing structure (in Thin White Duke, Bowie used Hebrew letters to separate autobiographical paragraphs from fictional ones). One of his self-admitted weaknesses was an inability to follow through on long-term projects, so a pseudo-museum catalog concept seemed like a good way to get a book done: pick 100 things, write a few paragraphs about each, hit ‘send.’ A piece he’d written for the Daily Mail in 2008 seems like an early draft in retrospect, offering a few sharp, funny paragraphs for a handful of songs:
What followed was a long period of rumor about the book’s progress. In July 2011, The Guardian claimed that Bowie’s deadline for turning in the manuscript to Wylie had been December 2010. In January 2012, the Daily Mirror reported, in an article to commemorate Bowie’s 65th birthday, that Object would be published that October. “His first piece of public creativity in a decade (sic).” But nothing was confirmed, and the years went on.
A wonderful hoax appeared in 2012, when a website called Bowie Myths ran a scoop: the site manager had managed to obtain some sample material Bowie had submitted to Penguin. The excerpt builds slowly, starting with a straight-faced “object” description (“22. Minimoog. “The tilting control panel is truly iconic, the wood finish superb, the feel of the dials top-notch, and the 44-key (F to C) keyboard is a delight“) on through a set of increasingly absurd entries, closing with a taxonomy of Garden Gnomes.
Some fans thought this was the real thing, prompting message board battles and eventually requiring Bowie Myths to write a disclaimer. The hoax’s timing was perfect: 2012 was swirling with rumor, in part because Bowie was planning to launch something and news of his return had started to seep out, in quiet ways. The spoof also highlighted the absurdity of the Object concept, to the point where you wonder if Bowie didn’t read it, have a good laugh and say, “well, that’s been done well enough.”
Because there would never be an Object, not even a posthumous one. Days after Bowie’s death, Penguin spokesman Matthew Hutchinson told Newsweek, “Penguin is not expecting it to happen,” while Newsweek quoted a source allegedly close to Bowie as saying Bowie didn’t complete the book before he died. (One presumes a biographer will turn up the full story one day—the book world is a chatty one). The closest Bowie would ever come to an autobiography was the list of 100 favorite books that he offered in 2013, a collection that ranged from Mishima to Kerouac, Nancy Mitford to Homer; it’s essentially a bibliography of key Bowie influences, obsessions and points of reference.
Object became a ghost of a book that never was. On Amazon Canada, it’s still going to be published in some lost 2011. According to Amazon UK, it came out earlier this month.
The most obvious theory about the fate of Object was that the book was subsumed by David Bowie Is…, an exhibition that premiered at the Victoria & Albert Museum in March 2013 (Victoria Broackes, co-curator, said she thought this was the case). After all, the exhibit includes what presumably would have made the cut for Object—Bowie’s paintings of Iggy Pop and Mishima, his stage outfits, his lyric sheets, set designs and even his coke spoon.
Again there was mystery and misinformation. Initially The Guardian claimed, when it broke the story in August 2012, that Bowie would co-curate the exhibit (“the V&A’s director confirmed that Bowie is involved”). This prompted a rare public statement by Bowie to deny this. “I am not co-curator and did not participate in any decisions relating to the exhibition…A close friend of mine tells me that I am neither ‘devastated,’ ‘heartbroken’ nor ‘uncontrollably furious’ by this news item.”
During the 2000s, Bowie had hired a private archivist to finally catalog all of his holdings. Then he began quietly looking for a venue to make use of it. The V&A was an obvious choice, as they’d done an exhibit on Kylie Minogue in 2007. In late 2010, a Bowie assistant contacted the V&A to see if they were interested. Curators Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh flew to New York to discover a 75,000-piece collection, from which Bowie let them take whatever they wanted (presumably with some sort of veto power). It was much like how he’d let Ryko go through his studio outtakes in the late Eighties.
“The deal was that we could borrow anything from the archive but that he would have nothing to do with the exhibition, that all the text must be checked for factual accuracy by the archivist but the interpretation is ours,” Marsh told the New York Times.
The exhibit would be constructed around roughly chronological “rooms” (the layout didn’t alter much when the exhibit moved to other cities, though Berlin got a new “Berlin room”), from his childhood bedroom to the dressing room of The Elephant Man to a recording studio. It worked well enough to symbolize Bowie’s life: a man whose early days were spent in a series of small rooms, the dreams that he built hanging on the walls or in images swirling around the ceilings.
Ever since Col. Tom Parker sent Elvis Presley’s gold-plated Cadillac on a worldwide tour, in lieu of Presley making live appearances in the mid-Sixties, rock stars have had objects replace themselves. It’s rather medieval, sending reliquaries around to the shrines while the saints stay at home (or are happily dead). See the Beatles, using albums and promo films in place of live shows in the late Sixties, or Bowie here—David Bowie Is would be his last global tour, going from the UK to Canada, Brazil to France, Japan to Italy, and will run until decade’s end at least. It’s the sort of tour where just the roadies, sets and costumes are needed. The musicians exist only in the past, trapped in film loops, heard performing in headphones the exhibit gives you.
Bowie’s lack of involvement in the exhibit, where he’d once been intending to select and annotate the “objects” himself, can be read in a number of ways. He simply may have found it too much work, and happily outsourced it to professionals. He may have had a falling out with the curators after initially planning to take part. And as some reviewers of the show argued, there was a grand funereal sense to some of the exhibit—the stage costumes worn by blank-faced mannequins, like guardians of some restored temple; the handwritten lyric sheets mounted under glass, like butterfly specimens. It was the detailed recreation of a creative spirit that seemed to have departed, leaving rooms of marvelous relics behind.
And Bowie’s last years, with their frenetic activity, pushed against this idea. Who knows when he was diagnosed, what health issues he’d dealt with in the late 2000s. But it’s easy to see why he’d be writing a play at last, and keep making new albums and videos, rather than spend time curating himself. As he sang on “The Next Day,” he wasn’t quite dying yet. Leave the commemorations to someone else, there’s still work to do.
First opened: 23 March 2013, The Victoria & Albert Museum. Subsequent exhibitions: 25 September-19 November 2013, Art Gallery of Ontario; 31 January-20 April 2014, Museum of Image and Sound, Sao Paulo; 20 May-24 August 2014, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; 23 September 2014-4 January 2015, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; 2 March-31 May 2015 Philharmonie de Paris; 16 July-1 November 2015, Australian Centre For the Moving Image, Melbourne; 11 December 2015-10 April 2016, Groninger Museum, Groningen, Netherlands; 14 July-13 November 2016, Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna. Upcoming: 8 January–9 April 2017, Warehouse TERRADA G1 Building, Tokyo; Barcelona, spring 2017, hopefully NYC at some point after that, so I can finally see it. In comments, would love to hear the thoughts of those who have seen the exhibit.
I saw the exhibit in London and in Chicago. Both times looked roughly like the same experience to me, with some minor switches in layout. I’ll focus on the V&A visit – I remember becoming teary-eyed at the Space Oddity installation, because the environment was able to capture the tranquility and isolation of “sitting in a tin can, far about the world”, while offering a loving display of nostalgia. I was also taken aback when I came face to face with the Earthling/Union Jack frockcoat for the first time. It’s an imposing piece of clothing, more iconic than I ever appreciated until that moment. So many other little moments like that in the exhibit, so many opportunities to meditate on the multitudes of details I’ve loved about David Bowie over the years. It was incredibly satisfying. Also: I’m trying to decide if it really happened or if I imagined it, but was there a Tony Visconti mash-up soundtrack included in the V&A experience? I swear I remember hearing it, and I think Visconti himself posted an mp3 sample from it (or maybe that was a mash-up contest he instigated online), but I’ve never heard anything about it since. I’d love to hear that mix surface someday. What I remember (or imagine) hearing was sublime. (PS – Fantastic entry on this subject. Thank you.)
The Visconti megamix was definitely there in Toronto, in the big open room with the many stage costumes on display. I actually got tired of hearing it looped over and over, it was more fun for me to hear the loops that were ‘participatory’ and only played on your headset when you stepped into certain spots on the gallery floor.
Agreed. The shows in London and TO definitely had an excellent soundtrack mix that I would love to have a decent copy of.
There is discussion on the topic over at Bowie Station:
In Berlin, when you entered and saw the Ziggy vinyl suit, there was a really, really cool snippet of “saiiiilooors”, very synth-heavy, and I loved that – is that one of the pieces you mean? Because I would love to have a download of that. Does anybody have a link to the TV mix?
I certainly remember something fairly ambient, that seemed to sample past Bowie songs, when I viewed the exhibition in Chicago
(correction: far ABOVE the world, obvz. typo-free rambling is hard in the morning.)
The Bologna dates you have are actually for 2016 (which is where I saw it). I don’t know if I have very much insight to bring. It was enjoyable fun mostly. There’s definitely a sense that something is missing from the heart of the experience. Nice to see all the videos together in one place, you see some aesthetic connections. And you get a sense of how thin he must have been to fit into those outfits. The room full of videos at the end was suitably trippy. I’d like the Berlin room to have been a bit bigger. Your point about travelling relics in the middle ages is quite apt.
thanks–weirdly the V&A site, which i was confirming dates against, has it in 2017 for whatever reason
Lovely entry Chris. Wonder why the exhibit didn’t come to NYC earlier? Seems like such an obvious tour stop. Or maybe that’s just me being greedy. Despite the “dead” quality that you speak of, these museum exhibits and objects can be quite profoundly moving. I remember standing inches away (separated by glass, of course) to a Janis Joplin dress that I had seen countless times in photos through the years, and seeing it in person – the colors, the incredibly small size – got me choked up. Silly, but true. I’m sure I’d have the same reaction to seeing Ziggy’s TOTP jumpsuit.
I believe MCA Chicago insisted on being first in the U.S. It was a bit of a risk for them. Bowie, after all, hadn’t been in the charts for years. Of course, it wound up a huge success, but it looked like a gamble early on. And they took it on with the promise that they’d be first in the U.S.
I saw the the DB Is exhibit shortly before Bowie’s death at the Groninger Museum and was completely blown away. I spent nearly 8 hours on two different days inspecting every word, object, costume, detail … letting the sounds flood over me as I moved from piece to piece.
So, when I planned a trip to Sardinia for Oct (just returned, still blissed out) with a friend, I suggested we take a “quick” detour to Bologna so she could see for herself. Best laid plans and all: It was badly mangled from what the Groninger had produced. Much was missing, what was shown was disorganized and mashed together, sound collided and made it hard to concentrate or enjoy what was before us. I was disappointed, mostly for my friend (who thought I was off my rocker to have raved about it so).
I’m not sure if it was a space issue, or if the Dutch just loved him more and lavished space and attention on their hero, but if you’re debating where to see it, I’d skip Bologna. Great visit otherwise!
I had a similar experience – first saw it in Berlin, was AMAZING. Spent five hours in there and one in the concert room. Then the following year, I met with friends in Paris, and one girl had not seen it before, and it was so disappointing! I felt so bad for her because Berlin, as I said, was so overwhelming and vast.
Ah, I’m glad I’m not the only one. I realize that the first time you experience anything, it’s easy to romanticize it, so your validation is comforting. I had considered seeing it in Tokyo (really, an excuse to go somewhere I’ve not been), thinking that the Japanese would out do everyone, but now I’m feeling kinda meh about the whole thing. Damn you, MAMbo!
oops, that was supposed to be in reply to alexandriadouillette.
“the first time you experience anything, it’s easy to romanticize it”
Well, you know, very often it’s been exactly the other way around with DB songs for me. The first time I hear/d them, they sound too strange, weird, disturbing, or flat, or cryptic. Then, the second time is usually better, thy start sinking in. For those that are masterpieces to me, the more I hear them the more awesome I find them. They turn overwhelmingly enriching or moving. And to tell it all, once they become part of me, well, ah, they turn… divine 😉
But. Bowie –like anything– works only if you are receptive, in the right mood. If not, it’s noise. When I was 12, my dad (who departed too early afterward) told me his only comment on DB: This guy is crazy. Period. I was left with this, but I already could hear so much humanity, courage and vitality in his songs (that was Scary Monsters days) that the madness sounded way too sane. Then I met DB the same year at Geneva airport. A very nice and gentle guy (to a pre-teen, what do you expect?) –no madness.
So I don’t know about the exhibition, whether it’s a question of receptivity, mood or what. At first I didn’t like the pictures of it on internet. DB infinite dimensions appeared reduced to a collection of objects, in glass and metal boxes. But reading the comments, I realise the sound tracks might be a key to the event’s quality and impact. Ah, of course, me-stupid. Now, i don’t know the skills of the various museum curators who have to work with DB songs as the exhibition space changes (even slightly) from one Museum to the other… Sound and music are not their usual field I suspect. Do they hire sound staff when they install it, to adjust to the new space? Could that make a difference?
Or maybe the difference is if, on the subsequent visits, you skip much of the sound to focus your attention on the vision (because you are not hear to listen to music, since you can do at home, and you have heard the sound track already)?
Neglecting the sound could be a bad idea, I bet.
Thanks as always Chris. Went to Bologna last weekend and it was too cramped and severely overcrowded; Berlin was fabulous and London had the most amazing video wall. I have seen it 4 times now and could easily do so again. What I saw and heard the most was the humour in his work and the handwritten bits and pieces made it all seem much more personal than when seen from where I was at the time.
First got into Bowie in 2012, so I’ve got fond memories of Bowie: Object and how it felt like the best we could hope for at that time
Man,, I want to see this so badly…and I live way the hell down in Argentina..it did manage to make it to Brazil at some point, so maybe there’s hope?
I flew from NZ to Melbourne to see it, was so glad I did. Although it was busy, it was a fantastic exhibit. I went on my own which was perfect as I spent hours wandering through, reading everything, staring in disbelief at the actual costumes I had seen in photos for over 30 years.
Like you, Rachael, I went to see the exhibition in Melbourne last October and while I was obviously looking forward to it, found the experience incredibly and somewhat unexpectedly profound and emotional. I stayed there for hours… Like a lot of other contributors I’d love to see it again – I think I’d see so much more the second time around. Not only did it make me reflect on DB’s life and work, but also my own – where had the last 37 years gone? So while I experienced a huge high at the exhibition itself I found it personally unsettling at the same time. After all as many people have said this year, he had been the soundtrack to our lives.
Hi Chris, I’ve read that the exhibition will be moving to Barcelona after Italy in the spring of 2017.
forgot to include that. not confirmed officially—it would be after Tokyo but before New York apparently
yeah, it doesn’t appear on the official exhibition site (yet). Here’s hopin’… I saw it when it first opened in London in 2013. I think I was too overwhelmed to really take everything in.
Can’t wait to go again, this time it will have significantly more meaning.
This was such a nice diversion from the songs – and great anecdotes! Hopefully the exhibit will return to the US – NY or Philly would be great. Thanks for this *surprise* post!
Saw it in Groningen and was a bit disappointed. I think I was hoping to learn something new but everything exhibited was familiar. The Berlin room was promising but the really interesting stuff didn’t amount to much: no new insight about the recording process in the studio or the way Eno and Bowie fed off each other to create those iconic albums.
Seeing Bowie’s house keys was fun, the cut-and-paste lyrics I liked and his paintings are worth seeing. But ultimately it felt like a showcase for Bowie’s genius without any new insights and I already knew about Bowie being quite gifted…
As it is with objects and artwork, are you “viewing” the work when you encounter it on a screen, and does the effect change in person? Yes, I believe to see art you must see it live. (Forgive me, I’ve worked in art museums my entire professional life, I’ll preach the gospel).
I’m glad Bowie:object evolved into Is
The thing about David Bowie… Is is that the show felt alive. In a way, once I was in the middle of the exhibition, I realized David Bowie was dying. You didn’t need to tell me the man had cancer – for a man (David Robert Jones) who spent the majority of his life perfecting an image (Bowie), to send objects out in your place is the ultimate extension, and never-ending world tour.
Seeing the outfits (Diamond Dogs tour!) was lovely, seeing his first (toy) saxophone, the realization that “this is David Bowie’s handwriting.” The original painting for the cover of Scary Monsters. Very overwhelming. The clips in the show had been remastered to such quality that I was sad in the immediate realization I would never see a 4K transfer of his SNL performance unedited again in my lifetime (unless, of course, I find the opportunity to see Is again). The lines were so long and slow moving, I must have watched “Boys Keep Swinging” 10 times in a row.
What struck me the most, the deepest, was seeing Brian Eno’s EMS Synthi. I remember walking into the late-70s room and seeing a fair number of people flocking to outfits and ephemera. and right in the middle was Brian Eno’s Synthi! No one else seemed to care. I couldn’t bear it. That synth had been used on everything from Another Green World to Low. “Gift from Brian Eno to David Bowie.” I told my girlfriend I needed a moment. She understood. And there, in the midst of hundreds in a darkened room, in Chicago at Christmastime, I started crying quietly.
I sat and stared at the instrument for a while. I thought about the hands that had touched it and the music it made. I always enjoyed Bowie’s image, the gender-less weird man, but for me, the music always came first.
Against the museum’s direction, I took a photo on my iPhone. It exists somewhere.
i contributed in a small way to museum rule lawbreaking, telling everyone i knew who went “take pictures of the lyric sheets!”
I dragged the kids back a room to see the synth! Similar thing with the 12-string, ignored (or missed – I went in Paris, and it was a bit of a shuffle-crowd-through), but what songs were written on that guitar. And pictures of the clothes, especially the Philly Dogs era, don’t prepare you for the shock of their physical size. Those are not normal,healthy waistlines.
MY BODY LEFT TO ROT IN A HOLLOWWWW TREE!!!! 🤘🤘
Although I’ve always been a Bowie aficionado (well, I’m 25, so take that for what it’s worth), I didn’t fully appreciate his genius until seeing the exhibit in Berlin. Everything seemed so… deliberate. And he had a part in all of it. Choreography, costumes, sets—and, of course, lyrics and music. It’s easy to consider that sitting at home, but I didn’t really understand it until it overwhelmed me all at once (though I think the charm of the exhibit, at least how it was staged in Berlin, was in that it was airy and spaced out enough to allow you to really think about things). I could have spent six hours in the video room alone.
Also, to be honest, seeing the exhibit in 2014 reinvigorated my love of Bowie, which led me to discover this site! So I would say “David Bowie Is” was worthwhile in quite a few ways.
I saw the exhibition in Melbourne, enjoyed the “pre-famous” bit most of all (a couple of tatty 60s SF paperbacks were particularly evocative). There was some ABC TV footage of Gilbert and George from around 1970, I think filmed at the Art Gallery of NSW. The best bit was watching all the video clips that I already own on DVD, I stood there for ages in front of the video wall and was moved then, yes.
In retrospect – and perhaps a little at the time – I had a sense of Bowie toying with his legend here, as though with mortality in the air he wanted to see what it felt like to be a museum piece. Why not? It would be interesting, unique. Sending his bits and bobs around the world, then sitting in his apartment and watching his image fade off into myth.
I saw the exhibition in Melbourne. It is extraordinary; albeit not perfect (at least in that version of it). Some costumes were impossible to see up close and there were mistakes in a few of the object descriptions.
For example they had mislabeled the lapel-less lime green Tim Machine II era suit as the slightly less bright, and more conventionally cut, suit he wore a couple of years later at the Freddy Mercury tribute concert.
The latter was worn over the ‘Fuck you I’m in Tim Machine’ tshirt (and the jacket was buttoned up to hide the ‘fuck’). I thought the censorship and the mistake disappointing. Maybe they just got those items mixed up in Melbourne (but the lime green lapel-less suit was not on display).
The highlight for me was his story-board sketches for the Ashes to Ashes video. Beautiful, detailed and evidently really meaningful to him.
And the painter smock style costume with the diagonal stripes across the top he wore when I saw him on the Outside tour.
I think the history of the hypothetical book and the exhibition can be traced much further back. The May 1993 issue of Arena magazine has a feature on Bowie that includes photos of many of the items that are in the exhibition.
Crucially it reveals that Bowie had been professionally preserving and archiving them from before then. Some pics of the magazine are at http://fitzroyalty.net/2015/07/13/david-bowie-is-a-long-time-coming/
From Vancouver flew to London and then Toronto to see the Exhibit. Absolutely stunning in every way: content, presentation, fun.
Highlights: the original Scary Monsters/Creeps painting; the EMS Synthi AKS on display. Essential.
Cheers – great post.
I saw the exhibition twice at the V&A. The first time I was somewhat excitedly consumed by it all, mouth open and startled at very turn with actually being next to the ‘actual’ pieces, incredible!
The second time I looked for all the small details in the exhibit & was delighted to see ‘Joy Div’ scribbled in the 1980 era notes. An example of a very small but meaningful thing to me personally.
where was Joy Div scribbled–the Scary Monsters notes?
Yes in the 1980 Scary Monsters notes section. http://i66.tinypic.com/fok67q.jpg
thanks—ah of course, I remember this. just blanked on the Joy Div mention.
Yes, the page of notes with Criminal World at the top.
Well Joy Division were originally called Warsaw. Be interesting to see if any influences went the other way too.
Just reading everyone’s experience of the Exhibit is extremely moving. I hope to see it in person one day, but man, I’m going to need to bring a lot of kleenex.
Agreed on all counts – thanks to everyone for sharing their memories! Thinking very seriously about planning a trip around it when it comes back to NY, but I’m hoping they might have a showing a little closer to my native Texas somewhere down the line to make the trip (slightly) more justifiable. But if I do pull it off, I’ll probably be a mess the entire time.
These comments are really interesting. I’ve been lucky enough to see the exhibition at all the European stops.
London was just overwhelming, huge and packed. Remember seeing Paul Morley writing there and in the final room, the largest of any, my overriding memory is of ”Heroes” and nothing else.
Berlin was interesting, that period’s room was slightly larger. Saw Eduard Meyer which was lovely and that’s what I remember the most. And the coke spoon!
Paris was in a fabulous museum and in the final room my overriding memory is of the Diamond Dogs tour.
Groningen was too emotional; Bowie had released Blackstar and we took a trip there last Christmas. The Blackstar video was in the TV wall but the museum was virtually empty. I felt sad hearing Blackstar, though Bowie was still with us then. Went again to pay my respects in March and it was packed, you couldn’t see a thing. Actually didn’t enjoy it because it felt like being herded around with the crowd. The final room was in a separate part of the museum which broke the ‘spell’ for me a little bit. I remember Little Wonder and Blue Jean playing on small screens by the costumes.
Bologna is my favourite place so far – easily laid out displays all on one level and much more space to look at the pieces you really wanted a close look at. Spent an age looking at the SNL display with the Nomi suit and a longer look at the Berlin room. Again, my memory of the final room is Diamond Dogs. Here Little Wonder was on the TV wall and Dead Man Walking was by the costume.
Isn’t it strange how we all have different memories and feelings about this exhibition. I guess I’ve processed my memories on an emotional level. I must say I’ve preferred the quieter times, it’s a personal experience with Bowie.
I wrote a four part blog thread on the MCA/Chicago show, should anyone want to slog through it. I wouldn’t feel comfortable posting ~7K words in a comment field! Suffice to say that my wife and I [as well as my friend Cathy, who lives in Chicago] found it fascinating and rewarding. Finally seeing the Saturday Night Live performance that I missed in 1979 when visiting relatives with no NBC affiliate nearby was nothing I was prepared for. I’ve never heard as amazing a version of “The Man Who Sold the World.” Otherwise, it’s been a duff Bowie cut [and cover version] for me.
Chris, geeky question – do you know which exhibition the photos you’ve posted here are from? Thanks!
i believe they’re all V&A press photos, so London.
Thanks! The second pic is odd – the SNL dress and the white cape with kanji are never in the ‘windows’ and so I’m not certain about this. I’ll get my anorak now.
I saw it three times at the V&A in 2013 and two weeks ago in Bologna. Twice I took friends who were not into Bowie as much as myself, so spent time worrying about them and if they were getting bored – I didn’t learn from my mistake so I ended up being rushed through on those 2 occasions!
The V&A was a much larger, spacious affair which seemed to go on forever whereas Bologna was much more intimate…you could get up close enough to the clothes to touch them had you wanted to be bundled out – particularly McQueen’s iconic Earthling Union Jack coat which, as someone else has said, was breathtaking when viewed from 0.5m. I went to MAMBO on a Thursday and there was no queue, just straight into the event which was so different to the V&A (which was a free fight and jostle on each occasion). Walking past it 2 days, later the queues wrapped round the entire massive building.
Amongst other small things the curators hadn’t still realised were the Bowie quote boards which had a poorly replicated Bowie signature underneath it (taken from the font of all truth,Wikipedia!)- an amazing faux pas when they had access to 75,000 genuine items in total. The lighting in some crucial areas at both venues was very poor – difficult to take in the detail that is being displayed.
Yes, the many lyric sheets and story boards/drawings/muses/diary notes were jaw-dropping. For me the lyrics to “Win” were sublime, written in different colour felt tips on an A3 sheet with flashes and stars and the ode at the bottom “B (Bowie) December ’74 for A (Ava)” like a 13 year old’s poem to a loved one.
As many others have said, I deeply, deeply urge anyone who has not had the chance to see this wonderful experience, people were not crying in the V&A (Bowie was still alive), but they were in Bologna (myself included). IS is a poignant and clear reminder of the genius and was great to refresh my mind of what I had seen 3 years ago albeit in a shrunken state. I knew Bowie was a lot of things on a higher plain – I never realised he was quite such a hoarder and I thank God he was!
I went to the V&A exhibition for its extended run. A few items were genuinely overwhelming: the hand-written lyric sheets (the annotations, corrections and crossing-outs for Ashes to Ashes stuck with me), the full-size Scary Monsters artwork (much larger than I had imagined), and – most incredibly – a selection of original Oblique Strategy cards. It was the little details and smaller objects that I found most interesting and sometimes moving.
I hope this doesn’t sound too gossipy but I have some friends at the V&A and they confirmed that Bowie did visit the exhibition early one Sunday morning before the museum opened. He came with Iman and his daughter and, by all accounts, loved it. He spent a lot of time taking pictures and laughing apparently
that’s a sweet story.
I think I have seen a photo of the visitorsbook for the V&A with a page where, among all the visitors’signatures, you see Bowie’s, with an accompanying short, witty remark. Am I imagining this?
cool behind belief! thank you for that titbit.
I enjoyed reading all the replies, thank you.
I’m a fan since 1972. I flew from New York to Chicago and back the same day on about four hours of sleep so it was a sensory/emotional overload. The exhibit was ideally set up. Being there on a Saturday was fine, not crowded at all. I suspect if it comes to New York the lines and crowds will be a madhouse. I had seen the infamous McQueen Union Jack coat at the the Metropolitan museum’s Anglomania show but it’s still awe inspiring on subsequent viewings. Is it candle wax or ejaculate? Or candle wax mimicking ejaculate? It’s a perfect mix of designer and wearer. The Met had also exhibited the “rabbit suit” or “bunny suit”, the teeny tiny red mini sleeveless legless jumpsuit of the Ziggy era in another rock and roll exhibit. I marveled then at the dimensions. The thing is so small it goes up his crotch in photos but is it a mere 18″ tall? Seeing the costumes up close was thrilling, not that I didn’t devour everything else. It was like seeing the tiny envelope of Oscar Wilde’s son’s letter to him from boarding school at the Morgan Library’s exhibit – ephemera reminds us that these are real people who lived real lives. He wore these clothes. He touched this paper. It was poignant. The keys to his Berlin apartment were so quoditian and moving, probably my favorite item.
There was rationing in the U.K. after the war until like the early/mid 50’s – that generation was raised lean and remained lean. They had to let out the Life on Mars powder blue suit for Kate Moss for a photo shoot! Bowie was slimmer than a female supermodel! The Glam costumes were brilliant but also the Thin White Duke era black & white clothes were interesting for their subtle details like the slubbed silk of the black fabric which I don’t believe can be seen in photos. I was aware of the serious commitment to detail in all things. Seeing Freddie Burretti’s notebook with Bowie’s measurements was like a holy grail. I’ve been to many costume exhibits at the Met stuck behind older women reminiscing about when they wore that style back in the day etc and it can be annoying. However, there’s something peculiar about wearing headphones through the exhibit rather than interacting with fellow Bowie fans. On one hand I relished being able to look at it at my own pace with my own thoughts, on the other hand it’s a bit of a solitary experience.
I saw the exhibit when it was in Chicago. I don’t know how much more I can add to what’s already been said, but I loved it. I went with my gf, who certainly appreciates Bowie, but is in no way a die-hard fan like me. I think she enjoyed it just about as much as I did. I think we spent well over 4 hours going through everything, which was far longer than what the staff had estimated, and I still felt like I rushed through certain things, or just didn’t get a chance to observe the details as intently as I might have liked due to crowds, etc. Took home the David Bowie Is… book as my souvenir, which was a great way to basically take home the whole exhibit.
Here I am, in Barcelona.
Waiting. An endless wait
There was a really sweet, touching moment for me when I saw this show in London. In one of the rooms, Starman was playing and Marc Bolan’s face appeared on tv screens. A group of young kids there were asking who it was, and some guy just stepped up and said ”The prettiest star”.
I’ve been looking for any surviving pieces of the autobiography for years and the excerpts from Schneider are wonderful, hopefully more of it will be made available in the future. Thanks for posting Chris!
It’s kind of weird this exhibit has yet to show in NYC, that being Bowie’s final adopted hometown and all. As well as being, well, New York City.
Saw the exhibition in Bologna last month and it’s interesting to see that the show was more “intimate” than some of the other spaces it’s visited…. Quite busy and hot, too.
But there will still some breath-taking moments – stepping up to the Pierrot costume and hearing Ashes To Ashes fade up in my headphones was almost overwhelming. A friend saw it at the V&A before Bowie’s death and commented that the whole experience must be very odd now that he’s gone… I have to agree.
One question for the hive mind: I’m v. interested in the whole Anthony Newley / Gurney Slade programme and was glad to see some clips included on the big screen in the “early years” room.
But I didn’t quite catch the caption that flashed up in faux 1960s type saying “DAVID BOWIE IS…” as if it were Gurney Slade’s opening titles. And the exhibition was so busy I couldn’t really hang on until the video looped round again. Anyone catch what it was? Just wondered what angle they had on it!
“DAVID BOWIE IS WALKING OFF THE SET”, maybe?
Thank you Chris for the fascinating post and to all of the commentators for sharing your experience. Please keep sharing! I have not seen it and as I am living currently in South Asia I have little hope and had lost interest. Now thanks to this I appreciate everything each of you say, from descriptions to very personal details. Even knowing you are waiting in the Barcelona queue, I don’t know why, was meaningful. It was live, live love.
I have a friend who worked on sound engineering w Bowie in the 90s. They used to have to wait around for Bowie as he was always bidding on Ebay actions for his old stuff….so if you ever sold any important memorabilia, you possibly sold it back to him. 🙂
When i first read the title of this post I thought the Object was Bowie in contrast with Subject, not about objects.
Now I discovered Tanja Stark’s work yesterday. For those who may not know her she is an artist and writer with what I find very interesting writings on Bowie. At first they looked weird to me, but there is intuition, knoweldge and insight there.
She was asked to provide a few creations for the David Bowie Is exhibition, while some other work of her was bought by the “Bowie Archives”, which I suppose means the Subject (not Object?) himself.
Below a link to her –russian dolls (matryokshas): inside a Bowie, there is another Bowie, that looks different, in which there is another apparetnly different Bowie, …and there is not end to this…
Here is a link to her essay on Bowie connection with Carl Jung and pondering on the unconscious. It’s rather enlightening (it was for me, though nothing new, but great confirmation that we also need to let go with rationalizing Bowie and why the Object talks to us sometimes so deeply, and yet we are unsure of the meaning…
As soon as I saw that this exhibition was on at the V & A I got tickets for my family. My son would have been seven years old at the time and I so wanted him to ‘get’ Bowie and love him as much as I did.
Although Bowie was still alive at the time there was something very affecting about the whole thing. It may have been that I was seeing points in my life on show as Bowie has been famous for as long as I’d been alive. When I reached the end I felt emotional and a bit choked. I was surprised to see my wife felt exactly the same as she was nowhere near as much of a fan as me.
I don’t think Bowie was ill at the time and yet there was a sense of mortality and reflection that was felt as I viewed the exhibition. Did he know?
Cut to two weeks ago. I’m driving home with my, now ten year old, son. My ipod is on shuffle in the car. “Dad” he asks, “can we put some Bowie on?”
My work is done.
David Bowie Is Happening Now: https://vimeo.com/groups/361571/videos/153425701 – This is the documentary of the David Bowie Is exhibit filmed the final night at the V&A with special guests like Jarvis Cocker and Kansai Yamamoto. It played in theaters in limited release two years ago but it’s great to see it again on video.
Thanks, Lux, for posting this. I’ve yet to see the exhibition-having missed it in London and the other European stations thus far-but I’m determined to catch it in either Barcelona or New York, whenever that might be.
I know some non-Bowiephiles that are a little nonplussed, if not downright pissed off, with the ongoing Bowie commemorations and celebrations that have been running in the media almost without pause, certainly here in the UK, since his death, but his reach and influence merits it. His effect on some of the the ways we live today is beyond comparison with any other pop artist. There is no one single person or group of people working in the arts in the last half century that has remotely come close to ticking as many boxes as Bowie did. Well, I can’t think of anyone or anything to match his reach.
I found it very poignant when one of the anonymous interviewee’s said ‘Who could do all this in a lifetime…I mean, he’s not even dead!’
No, he most certainly is not.
Does anyone have any concrete news/dates for the exhibition beyond Barcelona, please?
PS In response to William’s post further upstream: my kids, who have grown up with and have always liked Bowie, asked me if we could listen to something other than Bowie now. It was August, and I had, without realising it at all, been playing solely Bowie throughout the house. Oh well; I don’t believe it’s done them any harm…!
Wow – this is awesome! Thank you so much for posting!
i saw the exhibit at the V&A and was very impressed with the content and the layout, and the sound was fantastic, especially the concert room at the end.
I had a Zavid-sceptic GF in tow at the time, but together we wore her down and she succumbed to David’s love.
I’m hoping to see it in Barcelona next year while I am over for Primavera Sound end of May. Anyone know the dates and venue for Barcelona?
The Museu del Disseny de Barcelona has a notice on its website that it will open there on 25 May. But the V&A hasn’t added it on the list yet and nor has David Bowie official. So I’m not booking tickets just yet!
I’ve almost run out of things to see in Barcelona, so this will be a welcome addition to my week there
I saw it in Chicago. Some friends talked us into going. I was just expecting a memorabilia show, so was kind of lukewarm on the whole thing. Add to that, I hadn’t really been following Bowie for years. But it blew me away and renewed my interest in his work, especially since I had become a jazz fan in the interim and he began dabbling in that music himself.
Thanks for sharing! Isn’t amazing how many of us are now having a renewed interest, over his retrospective? (For me, sadly his passing away did it, along with Blackstar clips/songs and the fact that I was in the UK then–the grieving was oh so massive. Specific phone helplines were even created to help fans cope…)
My sister and I flew from, respectively, California and Oregon to Brooklyn to see “Is”. We stayed for five hours. I’d have stayed overnight, because how many times does one get a chance to hang out in one’s idol’s head?
I’m convinced that the culture has yet to take Bowie’s measure as artist, writer, designer, musician, visionary and synthesist, and after ten years of fandom, I think I like him even more.