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Fortean Times MARCH 2016 - by Dean Ballinger
THE MAGE WHO SOLD THE WORLD
From an early interest in UFOs and Aleister Crowley to flirtations with Kabbalah and Nazi mysticism, David Bowie cultivated a number of esoteric interests over the years and embraced alien and occult imagery in his costumes, songs and videos. Dean Ballinger explores the Fortean aspects and influences of the late musician's career.
David Bowie - who died on January 10 this year, two days after the release of his final album Blackstar on his sixty-ninth birthday - was inarguably one of the most influential rock musicians and pop culture personalities of the last fifty years. His artistic sensibilities and stylistic experimentation, particularly in relation to the phenomenally creative body of work he produced during his golden years of the 1970s, have been instrumental in inspiring innumerable musicians working in a wide variety of genres. Bowie can also be considered as a distinctly Fortean superstar, with occult and paranormal themes constituting an integral dimension of his long and complex career. As mainstream eulogies and encomia to Bowie gush forth in the music blogs and gossip mags, it is an apt time for FT to pay tribute to the weirder side of the performer born in post-war Brixton as David Robert Jones...
As most of his biographers acknowledge, Bowie was interested in two main aspects of the occult and paranormal: magic/esotericism and UFOs. While Bowie's ufological tendencies tend to err on the side of the superficial and sensational (see Loving The Alien panel), more serious consideration has been given to his engagement with the occult. Commentators and scholars exploring the subject of postwar occulture (the relationships between popular culture and occult ideas) often place Bowie in the small but influential group of 1970s rock'n'roll magi exemplified by Led Zeppelin guitarist and Crowley acolyte Jimmy Page (Peter Berbegal's 2014 study Season Of The Witch: How The Occult Saved Rock And Roll is a good recent reference point in this respect). While Bowie's relationship with the occult is pretty loose by comparison with Page's - Bowie's natural inclination was to be a dilettante rather than a devotee - it is clear from references in interviews, lyrics, and videos that such ideas played a substantive role in his creative output and personal life.
However, upon considering Bowie's career in its entirety it is also apparent that his esoteric leanings manifested themselves most visibly in specific periods of his life and in specific pieces of music. While occultism no doubt informs his oeuvre on a number of subtextual levels, it would perhaps be a bit of a stretch to contemplate recondite meaning in the Tin Machine albums or his contributions to the Labyrinth soundtrack (although theosophists, with their interest in elementals, may perhaps be able to discern profundities the rest of us have missed in Bowie's infamous 1960s novelty-ditty The Laughing Gnome).
GOLDEN DAWN: THE EARLY 1970S
Bowie's early creative life, as struggling musician and actor in late-1960s London, incorporated many of the mystical activities and interests that were de rigeur for any self-respecting counterculturist. These included group meditation sessions at a friend's flat near Hampstead Heath directed at contacting any space brothers who might be passing overhead alongside more considered investigations of Eastern spirituality, with Bowie studying the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism from expatriated lamas. That Bowie was also reading up on esoteric subjects and alternative ideas in a relatively in-depth way beyond fashionable namedropping is made clear by the songs on his fourth album, Hunky Dory (1971). The jaunty pop of Oh! You Pretty Things is belied by lyrics that evoke a rather sinister picture of spiritual evolution, in which the listener is asked to "make way" for "the coming race" of "homo superior" Nietszchean superchildren (these references came across as humorously incongruous when sung by ex-Hermans Hermits frontman Peter Noone, for whom a cover of the song was a Top 20 hit that same year). The "coming race" is also a probable nod to the Bulwer-Lytton novel of the same name that became a staple of the 'Vril' mythos associated with occult-minded Nazis, a subject that would have a rather negative influence on Bowie in the near future. More overt is the ballad Quicksand, in which Bowie expounds a New Age manifesto - "I'm not a prophet or a Stone Age man / Just a mortal with potential of a superman" - with reference to the Western magical tradition ("I'm closer to the Golden Dawn / Immersed in Crowley's uniform / of imagery"), The Tibetan Book Of The Dead ("You can tell me all about it on the next Bardo"), and Nazi mysticism ("Portraying Himmler's sacred realm of dream reality"). These references also suggest that Bowie was quite familiar with contemporary Fortean literature, such as Pauwels and Bergier's seminal The Morning Of The Magicians, one of the first popular expositions of subjects such as Nazi occultism and the psychic evolution of humankind. Another Fortean classic, Colin Wilson's The Occult, was also published in 1971, but given that Bowie recorded Hunky Dory in June of that year using songs he had composed earlier it seems highly unlikely it was a source of inspiration for this album).
With Bowie's star rising rapidly at this time - his next album, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972), would prove his ticket to megastardom - it's a good point to consider some of the evident resonances between occultism and his musical career. Bowie's autodidactic and æsthetic tendencies were a crucial part of his creative modus operandi, enabling him to keep his music fresh (through the 1970s, anyway) by drawing inspiration from a wide range of cultural influences. The realms of the esoteric, rich in drama and symbolism, would undoubtedly have been sussed by Bowie as a source of stimulating ideas and imagery to explore in lyrics, costumes and videos. The theory and practice of magic can also be seen to possess a more integral relationship with Bowie's work.
Parsing Crowley's legacy, one of the key aspects of magic is the transformation of the self (and, possibly, the wider social reality) through acts that focus the imagination/will towards such change, such acts including sex, drug consumption, meditation, and creative performance (i.e., rituals). In this vein Bowie can be considered a distinctly magical musician whose whole career revolved around the transformation of the self and the wider culture through the 'ritual performances' of rock music, such as concerts, recordings, and videos. In his most influential period of the 1970s, Bowie created personae (such as Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke) and undertook musical experiments (the 'plastic soul' of Young Americans and the avant-garde/krautrock/funk synthesis of the 'Berlin trilogy') that in turn transformed rock culture by inspiring scores of other artists. The gender-bending that was a notable aspect of Bowie's personae in this period (for example, the androgynous cover photo for The Man Who Sold The World (1970) or the 1979 video for Boys Keep Swinging), and the cultivation of bisexual overtones in his lyrics and performance (John, I'm Only Dancing as an account of bisexual angst), are also interesting to consider in relation to Crowley's emphasis on sexuality as a core component of magical transformation. The richness of meaning to be had from interpreting Bowie's oeuvre in relation to magical perspectives has led to him becoming a cult figure for contemporary esotericists.
COCAINE, CROWLEY, KABBALA: THE MID 1970S
While occultism may have constituted an important subtext for most of Bowie's career, the mid-1970s was his 'dark' period, when these interests manifested in more overt and sinister forms. Beset by fiscal, managerial, and marital problems - and probably suffering the psychological and emotional effects incurred from several years of nonstop writing, recording, and touring - Bowie spent most of 1975 living in LA in a state of drug-addled manic depression. Subsisting on an 'all white' diet of cocaine and milk, he studied occultism in a more serious fashion. In his comprehensive biography, Starman, Paul Trynka asserts that this enthusiasm derived from a February 1975 meeting with Jimmy Page (who, interestingly, shares his birthday with Bowie), in which the artistically competitive and status-conscious Bowie, intimidated by Page's Crowleyan hauteur, was inspired to develop his own magickal will accordingly. Bowie's subsequent coked-out immersion in books such as Dion Fortune's Psychic Self-Defence, Trevor Ravenscroft's The Spear Of Destiny, and the works of Golden Dawn acolytes Israel Regardie and AE Waite, had a number of significant consequences.
One was an interest in Arthurian mythology and Grail mysticism. Unfortunately, as Bowie himself later admitted, this interest led on to a contemplation of Nazi occultism (a subject introduced in The Morning Of The Magicians and subsequently exploited in the early '70s by sensationalist tomes such as The Spear Of Destiny and Occult Reich by J. H. Brennan). This unsavoury fascination in turn manifested in quasi-fascist statements made in interviews around this time and an enduring controversy about whether or not Bowie greeted UK fans at Victoria Station in 1976 with a Nazi salute. Another was a bout of full-blown occult paranoia, in which Bowie, among other things, solicited the advice of friends regarding a Rosemary's Baby scenario in which a coven of witches was out to steal his semen for the purposes of making a 'devil child'. Sadly, the yarns that he carefully collected his bodily residues such as nail clippings and urine, and stored them in his fridge so that they couldn't be used in black magic acts against him, appear to be apocryphal. This paranoia reached its apotheosis in the story of 'the demon in the swimming pool', related by Bowie's then-wife Angie in her salacious 1993 autobiography Backstage Passes: Life On The Wild Side With David Bowie. Having procured an LA manse with an indoor swimming pool, Angie found her husband disturbed one night by a vision of the Devil rising out of the water. NY music journalist and white witch Walli Elmlark was consulted for instruction on exorcising the house of evil spirits, with a ceremony being undertaken by Mr and Mrs Bowie shortly thereafter. Angie describes how, as the ritual progressed, the water in the pool "bubbled and thrashed", culminating in the appearance of a demonic shadow on the bottom of the pool. While the freaked-out and coked-up couple departed the residence shortly thereafter, Angie adds the coda that the 'Mark of Satan' remained visible to subsequent tenants despite extensive repainting of the pool. While a great story, the most plausible explanation for this largely uncorroborated yarn is (if not pure invention) that the couple experienced a folie a deux related to Bowie's advanced state of cocaine-induced psychosis. In a much-cited Rolling Stone interview from 1976, journalist Cameron Crowe (now a leading Hollywood director) describes a June 1975 encounter with Bowie in which the musician breaks off his megalomaniacal ramblings ("I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I'd be an excellent dictator. Very eccentric and quite mad") to look through the blinds, decorated with protective pentagrams, after hallucinating a body falling past a window.
Bowie initiated his recovery from this slough of despond in late 1975, by undertaking work on the Station To Station album. The abstruse lyrics to the epic title track can be interpreted as an autobiographical account of Bowie's mystical/narcotic gnosis, in which his "searching and searching" results in him being able to overcome "the side effects of the cocaine" and find redemption in some (presumably spiritual) love. Explicit reference is made to an ascent of the Sephiroth, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life ("Here are we / One magical movement from Kether to Malkuth"), along with a nod to a well-known volume of Crowley's mystic-erotic poetry ("The return of the thin white duke making sure white stains"). Despite the lyrical references to Crowley here and in Quicksand, it is interesting to note that Bowie was markedly ambivalent about his influence. For example, in a 1993 NME interview, Bowie states that "I didn't get into Crowley, by the way, because he uses too much Greek. I'm always very suspicious of anybody who says they're into Crowley because they'd better have a pretty fair handle on Greek and Latin otherwise they're talking bullshit". Bowie's occult 'dark night of the soul' proved an ultimately fruitful experience, as he thereafter moved to Europe and hit what many critics and fans consider his creative peak with the 'Berlin trilogy' of Low, "Heroes", and Lodger (1977-1979).
I'M A BLACKSTAR: 2016
Esotericism doesn't appear to be particularly overt in most of Bowie's post-'70s work, unless his creative nadir in the mid-'80s is considered a delayed case of psychic backlash from his occult dabblings in the prior decade. Even this period, however, produced the likes of Loving The Alien (1984), an atypical commentary on the dark history of Western religion inspired by another tome from Bowie's Fortean library, Donovan Joyce's 1972 The Jesus Scroll, which pioneered the 'Jesus conspiracy' genre several years before The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail. Outside (1995), an experimental concept album about the fin de siècle that saw Bowie collaborating once more with Brian Eno, was based around the premise of mutilation murders being committed as a new form of art, echoing one of the real-life explanations for the notorious 1946 'Black Dahlia' murder.
However, the Blackstar album has seen Bowie go out with a distinctly occult bang, with the artwork, lyrics and accompanying music videos being steeped in symbolism that actively invites esoteric interpretations of Bowie's impending mortality. As every prior Bowie album cover has featured a portrait, the five-pointed 'black star' of this one is presumably meant to represent Bowie too - perhaps in his ultimate persona as spirit (the five-pointed star being a classic Hermetic/Gnostic symbol of "man as microcosm", with the contradictory image of a 'black star' also evoking a koan or the alchemical union of opposites). The creepy atmosphere conjured up by the lyrics of the title track - "In the villa of Ormen / stands a solitary candle / On the day of execution / Only women stand and smile" - is successfully evoked in the video for the song. Bowie is depicted as preacher of some dark twenty-first century faith, brandishing a Blackstar bible among acolytes whose spasmodic 'dancing' suggests a state of possession. A reading of the imagery here as analogous to Crowley and his Book Of The Law is perhaps apt; director Johan Renck, who designed the videos with Bowie, has mentioned Crowley as a reference point. Some kind of Hermetic/Gnostic subtext about eternity, spirit and the flesh is further implied in the imagery of the video's other 'storyline', in which the shade of a dead astronaut - Bowie himself, in his formative Major Tom persona? - floats up into a 'black star' of eternity, before, in a possibly Orphic reference, leaving behind his bejewelled skull for ritual veneration by a sect of mutant women. Where the esoteric overtones of the Blackstar video are eerie, those of the video for Lazarus are poignant. Bowie plays himself as a patient in a hospital bed, whose closet is a portal from which appears a double who is seemingly meant to signify his essential spirit. This figure is not garbed as Ziggy, the Thin White Duke or any of Bowie's most famous personae, but in the striped black jumpsuit in which he undertook the famous occult photo shoot for Station To Station, in which he is depicted drawing Kabbalistic symbols on the wall. That Bowie chose this costume for his valedictory performance suggests he was giving a subtle nod to the deep, lasting metaphysical significance that this period had upon the rest of his life.
While critics may readily dismiss Bowie's magical side as the drug-addled dabblings of one of rock's greatest poseurs, the overall nature of his esoteric references and experiences has an intensity and integrity that indicate something of more intrinsic import to his life and work. For instance, in a fiftieth birthday interview in 1997, he expressed the "abiding need in me to vacillate between atheism or a kind of Gnosticism... what I need is to find a balance, spiritually, with the way I live and my demise". His views on death, however, appeared ultimately to tip towards the Gnostic rather than the atheistic: "I believe in a continuation, kind of a dream-state without the dreams. Oh, I don't know. I'll come back and tell you".
In light of the magical transformations that marked his entire career it would, perhaps, be unsurprising if Bowie ended up the first post-mortem rock star, relaying new music through media such as séances, Ouija boards, and ghost boxes.
In the 1970s Bowie quickly became established as an icon of alienness thanks to his unusual appearance (aided by his famous dilated eye), space-themed tunes (Space Oddity, Starman, Moonage Daydream) and otherworldly personae, notably Ziggy Stardust. It was an identification cemented by his starring role in Nicolas Roeg's arty 1976 sci-fi flick The Man Who Fell To Earth. On a personal level, Bowie's interest in occultism was complemented by a fascination with UFOs. In a remarkable 1975 interview in the US rock mag Creem, writer Bruno Stein documents Bowie's post-gig discussion with a contactee from Missouri, in which he makes the following claims about his skywatching experiences in hippy London:
"I used to work for two guys who put out a UFO magazine in England," he told the flying saucer man. "About six years ago. And I made sightings six, seven times a night for about a year when I was in the observatory. We had regular cruises that came over. We knew the 6.15 was coming in and would meet up with another one. And they would be stationary for about half an hour, and then after verifying what they'd been doing that day, they'd shoot off."
While sceptical commentators have suggested that Bowie and company were simply misperceiving the busy flightpaths around Heathrow whilst under the influence of various substances, many of Bowie's acquaintances from that time confirm that they really did espy saucers. Interviews from around the same period feature Bowie espousing various theories of UFO coverups that imply a more than passing familiarity with the UFO underground of the pre-Roswell and X-Files era. For instance, a 1974 dialogue has Bowie earnestly talking about the recent recovery of a crashed saucer around "Akron, Ohio" and then-US senator Barry Goldwater's decision, aware that official disclosure would soon be forthcoming, to resign from politics in favour of UFO research. this reference to a UFO crash presumably refers to the UFO story related by ex-wife Angie Bowie in her autobiography, in which Bowie's entourage, hanging out in a Detroit hotel room during his 1974 US tour, watched an afternoon tV newsflash about a local UFO crash involving four alien bodies. the main 6pm bulletin confirmed the earlier report. however, the 11pm update debunked the whole story, revealing that the earlier reports were a hoax perpetrated by the (now-sacked) prime-time news team. Ms Bowie states that everyone present would have dismissed the incident as "an overblown cosmic-hippie-cocaine dream" if not for the fact that British documentarian Alan Yentob, then shooting the contemporary BBC Bowie documentary Cracked Actor, had taped the evening newscasts in question, confirming their veracity. As with most stories of this ilk, these invaluable pieces of evidence have, as of yet, failed to resurface.
SOUND AND VISION: ESOTERIC BOWIEOLOGY
Discussion of the esoteric aspects of Bowie's life and work can be found readily online, with speculation unsurprisingly booming after Bowie's recent passing. Much of this material is tainted with tosh: for instance, one anecdote doing the rounds of mystery and UFO websites claims that aliens were audience members at Bowie's LA concerts in September 1974, the otherworldly costuming and make-up of Bowie fans enabling them to mingle amidst humans incognito (apart from being intuitively sensed by the man himself from the stage). While this story appears to be presented as 'fact', it is derived from a passage in the 1994 postmodern sci-fi novel Diamond Nebula by UK author Jeremy Reed, in which Bowie is one of the main characters.
However, there are several writers who have produced well-developed analyses of Bowie's esoteric dimensions that are available online. Mark Dery is an American cultural theorist whose critical novella Leper Messiah: A Jesus Freak's Search For The Meaning Of Bowie (2010) contemplates the star's appeal in relation to the Messianic mysticism of Christianity, while Australian artist tanja Stark has written extensively on Jungian interpretations of Bowie's work ('Jung the foreman' being a lyric in Drive-In Saturday from 1973's Aladdin Sane). the gnostic/magic/shamanistic aspects of Bowie are covered in (often jaw-droppingly) comprehensive detail by two writers in particular: Swiss occult researcher Peter Koenig in his brilliantly titled essay The Laughing Gnostic (updated 2016), and American Christopher Knowles in multiple entries on his occulture blog The Secret Sun (for example, Knowles discusses the magical overtones of Bowie's relationship with transsexual singer Romy Haag, which was a defining aspect of his tenure in Berlin in the late 1970s).