Bowie-Versary: See David Bowie’s Heroes from V18
To celebrate the rock icon’s birthday, we’re looking back at his personal heroes as explained by Bowie himself from V18.
HENRY DARGER, ARTIST
It was only by chance that I found the outsiders. It was 1980 or so. It was a beautiful spring day, and I thought and then chose to walk through the quieter streets of Lausanne, Switzerland, the city near to my then-temporary home in the village of Blonay. Drifting along Avenue des Bergières, I stumbled upon the “castle” of Beaulieu. Small and not at all castlelike, it discreetly advertised itself as having the Collection de l’Art Brut inside. I was intrigued and keen to learn what “rough art” could be.
Well, it was really cool. Lots of unbelievably obsessive drawings, paintings, and then handcrafts by people who, by accident or illness, found themselves disenfranchised from the flow of society: people who were damaged, some clearly deranged, all frighteningly lonely and isolated. And within the work, they had mapped out the paths of their bewilderment and fear.
The collection started as a few small works that the painter Jean Dubuffet had stumbled across in various psychiatric institutes around the mid ’40s. These astonishing pieces had had a huge influence on his own work, and he set about giving them this permanent home. The renegade imagination had always sparked my own creative endeavors, and after discovering this wonderful place, I made every effort to see more.
In the ’90s, this fascination took me to the Gugging Hospital in Austria to meet and talk with the “art” patients there. Mostly all old men by then, some were already legendary, their work selling at auction for huge prices. Many would take the money and a nurse, make trips to New York or London, and just for one day, or maybe a week or two, have a wild and surreal time.
Back in the U.S.A., my fascination initially boiled down to one man. His name was Henry Darger, and boy, had he been stolen by the shadows. And his outside was so very claustrophobic. Born in 1982 and abandoned by his father after his mother died, he spent most of his youth in institutions for the feebleminded. Then in 1930, having lived for many years on the streets, scrounging in dustbins, working pickup jobs, but attending Catholic Mass sometimes up to five times a day, he got himself a single room and began to collect, cut, copy and trace. In the sanctuary of his room, Henry would conduct multipersonality conversations with himself—taking on both male and female roles—while he worked.
In 1973, after Henry Darger had passed away, his landlord, the photographer Nathan Lerner, investigated his room and found it piled ceiling-high with religious artifacts (mostly kitsch); more than a thousand balls of string; corridors of papers, magazines, and comic books; bizarre nine-foot-long double-sided scroll paintings; a six-volume daily weather journal, updated for more than ten years; and a five-thousand-page autobiography. The written works amounted to more than thirty thousand pages, all hand-bound. Something a little more special, I suspect, than familiar possessions of an old, poor, and lonely man.
Moreover, in the place of honor in the center of the squalor was something that only a true outsider could have created. It was Darger’s life’s work, an obsessively epic nineteen-thousand-legal-size-page, self-drawn and -written mythology called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known As the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Oh yes! A tormented and gargantuan ramble, War and Peace as written by a demented Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Hieronymous Bosch, using the techniques of Rauschenberg or Warhol.
The Vivians are seven little girls at war with the adult Glandelinians, and their task is to rescue other children who have been captured and enslaved by these wicked adults. After much death and destruction, a strange good-triumphs-over-evil morality concludes this gory and violent narrative. These girls are the victors and the little children freed. Many of the incidents reflect episodes from the American Civil War, Darger being an enthusiast of this chapter in American history. As the work is neither signed nor dated, it is calculated that it was possibly started around 1910 and continued up until his death.
Darger never attempted to draw anything freehand but developed his own system of tracing from children’s coloring books and various print sources. He would pop down to his local drugstore and have pieces and characters from these media reproduced and resized photographically to fit his visual compositions, sometimes adding male genitalia to the little girls. All of these images, a kind of bricolage of clouds, mountains, caves, girls, and horror, were appropriated from magazines and the like. Encountered for the first time, Henry’s paintings are immeasurably powerful and, although there is no sexual activity, jarring and disturbing. It is art. However, it is not our art. At no point did Henry present his work to a gallery, nor did he ever show it to another living being. It was secret.
The American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan has established the Henry Darger Study Center. All of his life’s work, including his materials and sources, is now available to the world’s scrutiny. May we judge him in the same light we would any “legitimate” artist? Inasmuch as he quarried the mines of American junk culture and developed a handmade and prescient form of pop art, I think the answer has to be yes. This singular and highly worrisome voice is redolent of much that is humming in the depths of modern-day morality. At times both idealistic and perverse, childlike and knowing, Darger, like Bacon or Balthus, mirrors the shame, invention, individualism, and dysfunction that was a keystone of last century.
PETER ACKROYD, AUTHOR
The passage above is the opening paragraph of an extraordinary novel of architecture and magic written by Peter Ackroyd. It takes place in the early eighteenth century, a period of British history that has always appealed to me with its barbaric pagan elements rubbing easily and comfortably against enlightenment and sophistication in thought and deed—a time not dissimilar to our own in some ways. And that right there is a secret of Ackroyd’s writing. He negotiates a twisting and obstacle-laden path through the history of London in nearly every book he writes. London is in his heart and soul and every fiber of his body. He feels it viscerally and relishes its mysterious and magical roots. He is unlike any other writer working in Britain today.
“London,” Ackroyd once stated, “has always provided the landscape for my imagination. It becomes a character—a living being—within each of my books.” He first came to prominence with The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, in which he duplicated perfectly Wilde’s aphoristic wit and convinced some that it was indeed a newly discovered Wilde text. This tendency toward mixing the biographical with the fictional eventually led him to write London: The Biography, a book I have read and, I am sure, will continue to reread over many years. His talents have also stretched to producing some of the best pure biography we have. His Blake is stunning, as is his Thomas More.
An attribute that fascinates me about his work is his ability to work in the dual narrative, in two voices often separated by centuries. However, more than this, I sincerely covet his skill in creating place so vividly. His research is impeccable, his scholarship pronounced. His description of the banks of the river Thames in More’s time is nothing short of breathtaking in its orientalism. You can really smell the spices, feel the dirt between your toes, and see the turbans and gowns of the traders. It’s no longer boring Britain; it’s North Africa. Who would have thought?
On a lighter and last note, one of his least known works is Dressing Up, a history of drag and transvestism. I’ve not yet read it. You can get it for me for Christmas.
THE LEGENDARY STARDUST COWBOY MUSICIAN
For me, there are two valid reasons for writing about this guy right now. The first is that it is, like, seventy-five years this year since Ziggy Stardust was first put on commercial release, and the other is that I’ve booked him into the Meltdown Festival in London in June. His fellow performer that same night on the same stage is to be Daniel Johnson, another shining star in the Firmanent of Wonder. Two Wizards of Odd. However, back to the headliner….
Norman Carl Odam was born in September 1947 in Lubbock, Texas, to Utahonna Beauchamp and Carl Bunyan Odam. He grew up to be a guitar-lovin’ songster who would turn up early for high school and sing his songs on the steps, bringing his friends to a complete stop as they pushed past to get to class. They were mesmerized. Some would laugh. Upon leaving school, he got into his car and headed to New York. “I’m gonna be on the Ed Sullivan Show,” he told everyone. He didn’t have a guitar at the time and hadn’t made a record, but he knew what a man had to do. He got as far as Fort Worth, a little way down the road from Lubbock, which was a start. He found another guitar, jumped onto the roof of his motor, and played his songs right there in a parking lot.
A passing vacuum-cleaner repairman spotted him and took him over to the local recording studio. There a young engineer by the name of T. Bone Burnett stuck up a mic in front of him and got behind the drums himself. The sound they produced was unlike any heard probably since the dawn of time. Against a superspeed but out-of-time one-chord hurricane, Norm screamed and hollered like a vengeful Indian brave. Two minutes in, he stopped playing his guitar and picked up a bugle and honked a spluttering hail of notes that would pass as the solo. “What is your name,” asked Burnett. “Why, I’m the legendary Stardust Cowboy,” replied Norm. Burnett rushed the quarter-inch tape upstairs to the local radio station. “Holy faboly” or something, said the DJ. “I’m playing this at five p.m. tonight.”
“This is it. This is it,” yelled the DJ over the airwaves at five p.m. that night, as promised. “This is the new music.” In thirty minutes, the station had more calls than in any full day in its history. “This is the new music,” said the people. In less than a week, the Ledge had been signed to Mercury Records. “Paralyzed” was released and broke the Billboard 200. Soon thereafter, Norm appeared on Laugh-In, the comedy show. The people laughed at him, and the Ledge stormed off. And that, really, was that.
In early 1971, just before my departure from the States back to the U.K., Mercury executive Ron Oberman took me aside and furtively pressed a couple of singles into my hand. “Play these,” he said. “You will never be the same again.” Back home, I choked on “Paralyzed,” gasped in awe at “Down in the Wrecking Yard,” and fell all about the floor at “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship.” It was the laugh of love. I could not believe that such a talent had gone virtually unrecognized. If ever there was an equivalent to outsider art, this was it. The integrity, honesty, and innocent, brutal focus entranced me. I became a lifelong fan, and Ziggy got a surname.
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN DESIGNER
I saw him for dinner the other week. He’d swung into town for a couple of high-level production meetings and wanted some fun on his night off. His friends call him Lee. He looked so trim and happy. I thought back to when we first met, sometime back in the ’90s. Possibly, because of his shy disposition, he came across as somewhat sullen, a little angry. He was being thrown into the public spotlight because of his extraordinary ideas, his haunted vision of clothing for a chaotic and terrible century. Here was someone who was more influenced by Joel Peter Witkin and Rebecca Horn than he was by Armani or Calvin. It was all too weird…and wonderful. “I wouldn’t be in a corporate world,” he told me at that time. (The rumor was that he was to be top honcho at Givenchy.) “You know, I can only do it the way I do it. That’s why they chose me, and if they can’t accept that, they’ll have to get someone else. I’m sort of saving a sunken ship.” Well, now!
He was somewhat glad that Britain has always been better at innovation than manufacturing. “I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “It makes you holy, it makes you quite respectable about what you do, and anyway, the actual money-making part of it is for the greedy.”
The designer that he loved in those days was Rei Kawakubo. Not rich yet, he was nevertheless spending an awful lot of available cash on Comme des Garçons menswear. “I’ve never paid, Lee!” I laughed, “until I met—” “Until you met me,” he laughed back. “Yes, but I knew you needed the money,” I replied. Since then, Lee has been more than generous, and I’ve gotten to wear some of the most dynamic outfits that I could have ever imagined.
He decided in the mid ’90s that it was time to recover the idea of the long coat with its slight nod to eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century grace. From around 1995, Lee made me a series of these coats for television and road shows, culminating in the British Union-flag jacket for the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards show. This appearance caused an eruption of British-flag items and cemented the long coat as a completely acceptable garment for men’s eveningwear. No Grammy Awards or New Year soiree is complete now without half a dozen or so. The original hangs in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
We’ve both worked in not a dissimilar way, Lee and I. We both wanted jobs were we could indulge our passions and loves without having to answer to anyone. To bring in from the outside the low-level, nagging fear that crouches in corners and invest our chosen fields with that starved anxiety. Only Lee could read the Marquis de Sade and come up with spring ready-to-wear.
ETTORE SOTTSASS ARCHITECT/DESIGNER
It started with a red typewriter, a beautiful thing produced by Olivetti. I typed up many of my lyrics on that. The pure gorgeousness of it made me type as much as my need to get the songs down on paper. I couldn’t not look at it. I read that this guy Ettore Sottsass had designed it. Wow, he had designed the Alessi salt and pepper shakers that were in the kitchen, too. I must be drawn to his “thing.” 1982. A chair in the window of a so-funky furniture store in the West 30s. A trendy clothes shop called Fiorucci. All linked to Sottsass.
After contributing to the birth of a new wave of postwar Italian design, Scottsass delivered the knockout punch to the modernists. Bauhaus had become an easy option. No further thought needed than to just strip function down to essentials and make it out of chrome, leather (any color, sir, as long as it’s black or brown), and glass. Interiors? White, of course. This totalitarianism had spread like a sleeping sickness with evangelical passion from zealot to proselyte, from showroom to soiree.
Boom. Then the bomb dropped. Already sixty-two years old, Sottsass had energy to burn. He gathered around him a team of very young kids—some hadn’t graduated from design school even—and formed Memphis Design Milan and blood began to boil. It didn’t look serious. It looked like a prank. It mixed Formica attitude with marble diffidence. Bright yellows against turquoise. Virus patterns on ceramics. It couldn’t care less about function. How do you sit on that? It tabled the idea of the idea. Each piece of furniture offered a plethora of possibilities, options, and inconclusive open ends. It sucked on the breath of pop culture with gusto and an enthusiasm that was delightful to witness. Within a short time, the street was overflowing with cheap and nasty spin-offs. Everyone thought they could knock off a Memphis line and did. Oh, the horror, the ridicule. Except that nothing ever looked the same again.
Even now the jolt, the impact created by walking into a room containing a cabinet by Memphis—the Carlton, for instance—is visceral. It’s true that you can’t put another piece of furniture within the same space. There is just no aesthetic room. All networks of proposition are trammeled by this one item. Terrific. It’s a remix, rap, it’s hip-hop. Would all of the Starcks and Lovegroves of the world please stand and salute the greatest designer of the last fifty years? Your doors were opened by this man, Ettore Sottsass.