For a time, during the tail end of the ’60s, David Bowie became a professional mime who occasionally sang on stage. His label wanted to be rid of him, every record that he had released had flopped, he didn’t have a band, and often his only regular work came from mime shows, whether in stage productions or even (disastrously) opening for rock bands like Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Mime, like it or loathe it, is essential to Bowie’s art—it’s as important an influence as Bowie’s love of R&B and jazz, or science fiction, or Buddhism, or Lou Reed. It lies behind everything that he did after 1968: Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, The Thin White Duke, even the wan extraterrestrial figure of his “Berlin” trilogy are basically all mimetic interpretations of rock musicians. Coming full circle, Bowie dressed as Pierrot in his 1980 video for “Ashes to Ashes,” winding down his most creative period.
Bowie had followed the path of a typical British would-be rock star—leaving school early, playing in beat groups, getting a manager, cutting singles, making a moderately psychedelic LP. His mime years broke this frame; it marked him with a different aesthetic than the typical rocker. It’s in part why Bowie is hard to fit into the standard “’70s rock star” slot, though radio stations and retrospectives try, and why some critics have considered him a poseur, a campy thief, a heartless vampire figure. Was Bowie really only a mime who “played” a rock musician? Or was he someone who considered mime to be an aesthetic equivalent to rock & roll, thus denying one of the music’s core myths—that its purity and simplicity made it superior to more elaborate, ‘higher” forms of art? When a mime can do rock as well as a “real” rock & roll singer, what does it say about the latter?
[Bowie] in class would drink up my words and do exactly as I asked of him. And a few years later, when he invited me to stage Ziggy Stardust for him at the Rainbow, he was still a joy to direct. I would keep encouraging him to simplify his performance, which he did, and we never had any artistic disagreements. He was an ideal student.
Lindsay Kemp, quoted in The Bowie Companion.
It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was. I joined the circus.
David Bowie, 1997, on working with Kemp.
Bowie met the mime Lindsay Kemp in mid-1967 and by the fall was taking dance lessons from him. Kemp later claimed, deliberately creating a legend, that he had saved Bowie from becoming a Buddhist monk, as Bowie had visited a Buddhist monastery in Scotland and allegedly was considering taking vows. Kemp asked Bowie to perform and write songs for a new production he was mounting, Pierrot in Turquoise. (Bowie suggested “turquoise” as it was the Buddhist symbol of eternity.) The play featured Pierrot, the sad, ever-trusting cuckold, his love Columbine and her lover Harlequin, variations on classic Commedia dell’arte types. The production became a traveling soap opera: Bowie was having simultaneous affairs with Kemp and the costume designer Natasha Korniloff, and once Kemp found out, he lived up to the role of the betrayed Pierrot and slashed his wrists before a show. When he reopened the wounds while performing that night, blood stained his Pierrot costume and the audience roared at the audacious realism.
For Pierrot in Turquoise, Bowie wrote “Threepenny Pierrot,” “Columbine” and “The Mirror” and revived, yet again, “When I Live My Dream.” While the jaunty “Threepenny Pierrot” (soon to be rewritten as “London Bye Ta-Ta“) could have fit on Bowie’s debut LP, “Columbine” and “The Mirror” show a new, emerging compositional style for Bowie—somber folk-esque songs, in which an elaborate lyric is countered by a basic, repetitive acoustic guitar figure. The type would dominate the Space Oddity LP. Bowie quarried from “Columbine” in particular—its guitar line is reused in “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” and a variation turns up at the end of “Width of a Circle.”
Bowie continued to work as a mime and dancer throughout 1968 and 1969, dancing in a Kemp-choreographed version of Pushkin’s The Pistol Shot and performing his own Tibetan-inspired production Yet-San and The Eagle. When Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, seeking to revive his client’s career, arranged for Bowie to record a promo film, Bowie included in the mix a mime piece (with narration) he had written entitled “The Mask.” During its five minute span, Bowie calmly and ominously depicts his future stardom and the subsequent near-madness it caused him. He acted out his future, then endured it.
“Threepenny Pierrot,” “Columbine” and “The Mirror” were debuted at the premiere of Pierrot in Turquoise in Oxford on 28 December 1967; their only recordings are from a 1970 production of the show, The Looking Glass Murders, that aired on the BBC. “The Mask” was recorded for Bowie’s promo film Love You Till Tuesday on 5 February 1969.
Top: David Bowie at the Middle Earth Club, 19 May 1968.