When I fell for David Bowie back in 1981, I fell hard. While I had always prided myself somewhat on maintaining enough critical distance from musicians to avoid sheer fandom, Bowie fascinated me like no other artist and I went willingly down the rabbit hole of his career. The catalyst had been the casual purchase of the ChangesTwoBowie compilation as a holiday gift for my brother. I think it may have been only the second Bowie album in the house, believe it or not, with the other being Changes One.
Perhaps because it covered a longer period than the first collection, it gradually dawned on me how varied his work was. "All of these songs are so different," I remember thinking, " but they're all so good. What's going on here?" Game, set, match to Bowie as I began haunting my favorite used record stores for decent pressings of his catalog as the RCA "Nice Price" reissues used flimsy vinyl and indifferent color correction on the sleeves. In short order I had acquired them all and was busy absorbing song after song.
Interestingly, Bowie himself was basically absent from the world stage as I was losing myself in his past. The end of his RCA contract had coincided with the disastrous realization that he had essentially been turned into his own employee. Having almost nothing financially to show for creating one of the greatest multi-album runs in recorded history he had retreated to lick his wounds and plot his next steps. They turned out to be...dance steps. I stayed up late one night to hear the New York premiere of Let's Dance and it was instantly obvious that something had changed. It was a great song, fun to dance to, but the Nile Rodgers production gleamed just a bit too brightly and the seams in the songwriting were a little too obvious.
I didn't buy the album (it would be six years before I bought anything by him (I still stand by the first Tin Machine album, by the way!) but its success meant ubiquity for Bowie and I eagerly snatched up every magazine with him on the cover and paid a scalper $50, which felt like a fortune, to see him at Madison Square Garden on the Serious Moonlight tour. He was as astonishing a performer as I had hoped and I was thrilled when Stevie Ray Vaughn was replaced by Earl Slick, who was a connection, along with Carlos Alomar (ever-present on rhythm guitar) to the RCA years. How the heck was Vaughn going to play Heroes, anyway?
Many articles on Bowie start out remarking on how hard it can be to be a Bowie fan, what with his sometimes wayward career after Scary Monsters. But that's old news. Despite the 10 year hiatus between Reality and The Next Day, that makes three great albums in a row, with the latter being one of his strongest records period. And there seems to be more on the way: BBC 6 just premiered his new song, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), a striking collaboration with jazz composer Maria Schneider, that will appear on an upcoming retrospective, cleverly titled Nothing Has Changed.
All of this is to say that when it was announced that David Bowie Is, the comprehensive exhibition created by the Victoria and Albert Museum was touching down only in Chicago, I knew I had to get there. Thanks to my lovely and supportive wife, a plan was hatched to make a family trip of it and spend Columbus Day weekend in the Windy City. I knew I was in the right place when I took a random run near our hotel and came across a huge Aladdin Sane mural on the side of the museum. Above it was a sign: David Bowie Is Watching.
After a day of sightseeing on Saturday, we were among the first people at the Museum Of Contemporary Art on Sunday with our 10:00 AM timed tickets. The facade of the ultra-modern building hinted at the glories within, with another mural and Bowie's lyrics on the stairs to the entrance. When we told the greeter we were from New York, she said to our kids, "Wow. Do you know how cool your parents are right now?" I was beginning to really like this place! We checked our bags, ascended to the third floor and walked through the empty queue to pick up our headsets and enter the show.
Somewhere I had read that the average stay inside the exhibition was 90 minutes. I was in there for four hours, so deeply immersed it felt like mere minutes. Alongside the traditional vitrines and frames, the show uses cutting-edge display techniques like huge 3D shadow boxes with internal projections, which serve to bring various periods of his career to life. Also, wearing the headphones, which delivered content triggered by where you stood in each gallery, had the effect of putting Bowie in your head, spoken words and music colonizing your consciousness.
Bowie saved everything so each room contained more than one astonishing artifact, from the document that made his name change official, to his coke spoon from the Thin White Duke era, to the ring of keys from his years in Berlin. And that's not even mentioning the creative memoribilia - hand-written song lyrics, sketched out vocal arrangements, storyboards for an abandoned film called Hunger City, instruments from guitars to keyboards. Then there are the costumes, some for performance and others for street wear. Along with the evidence of his inspirations - Anthony Newley, Lindsay Kemp, Ballard and Burroughs, etc. - this all has the effect of connecting you deeply with his process. Then when you turn a corner and are confronted with his product, say the performance of Starman on Top of the Pops, the impact is enormous (my wife watched that one four or five times, marveling at the bromance between Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson).
I'm not sure there has ever been a museum show that so explicitly lays out the path of an artist from preparation to experimentation to the creation of a new original. For Bowie, periods of research, drawing on seemingly disparate materials, are followed by an assembling of collaborators, often a familiar group with a wild card or two, and then working in the studio with lightning speed to capture a song before it ossifies. The way Bowie works is tailor-made for an exhibition like this and, having long found his methods instructive for the way an artist can operate, seeing it all in front of me was thrilling.
The rooms were laid out mostly chronologically, with strategic intrusions from other eras when it made artistic sense. You slowly realize that, even with his chameleonic ways, there are constants: the canny combination of abstraction and specificity in his lyrics, the draw of dance music, the clothing that reshapes his figure, the appeal of squalling guitars. He often stuck with collaborators like Ronson, Eno, Tony Visconti, or the designer Freddie Burretti, as long as possible, not casually casting people aside to get a quick infusion of new blood, and occasionally returning to people years later. One flaw in the show, although an understandable one, is that a neophyte could walk out thinking more about Bowie's extensive work with Alexander McQueen just because his name is on the wall, and have no idea who Mike Garson, Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray are, just to mention a few of the musicians who were crucial to many of his best records and performances.
Speaking of performances, throughout the show, there is the occasional throb of what almost sounds like a live concert, noticeable even while wearing the headphones. This makes you wonder what you're missing and pulls you through the galleries. I was able to resist the temptation to dash ahead and let myself get thoroughly absorbed in everything. I knew I was getting closer when I got to the room where a well-edited loop of Bowie's film and theater work was running and the throb got louder. From his first appearance in the 1967 short The Boy, he was perfect for the camera, magnetic and controlled. By the time of The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Elephant man, he had learned how to invest his seemingly natural charisma with pathos and had become a great actor. Unfortunately absent is his spectacular turn from Extras, singing Pathetic Little Fat Man to Ricky Gervais, which proved comedy was also in his grasp. Based on the evidence in this room, there probably is more he could do with his acting talents if he so chose.
Finally it was time to enter the room where the noise was coming from. This turned out to be a larger than life showcase of some representative performances which were projected on three walls. Some of these were heard through the headphones but others were blasted into the open air, almost replicating the collective experience of being at the show. There was a stonking take on Jean Genie with Mick Ronson playing to rule the world - I almost applauded when it ended - and three versions of Heroes playing at the same time. One was part of The Concert for New York City, which was put on in the wake of 9/11 to raise funds for the rescuers. Gradually everyone in the room gravitated to that wall, mesmerized by Bowie's obviously heartfelt performance.
As the camera panned over the audience, filled with police officers and firemen in uniform and their families, I couldn't help but be reminded of all the emotions surrounding the city in those terrible days. And then I thought about how remarkable it was that this artist extraordinaire, who made the world safe for freaks and outsiders of every stripe, was also able to provide succor and uplift with grace and generosity to people who really needed it. Just one more incredible moment in the life and work of the man born David Robert Haywood Jones, someone who has enriched my musical, creative and emotional life immeasurably. As I left the show to puruse the extensive gift shop, I was filled with a sense of gratitude for his work and for the dedication of the curators who gave me this opportunity to engage with it on an entirely new plane.
David Bowie Is will go down in history as one of the greatest museum shows of all time. If you can't get there, I highly recommend ordering the beautifully executed catalog, which features essays by Camille Paglia and Jon Savage, among others, along with a generous selection of photographs. When you get your copy, dial up either this career-spanning mix or the original track list of ChangesTwoBowie, put on your own headphones, and dive in to the world of David Bowie. May your time there be as rewarding as mine was.