Professor Will Brooker, a film and cultural studies expert at Kingston University London, immersed himself in the study of musician David Bowie, intending to pack the legend’s four-decade career into a single year, living just as he did.
It was a lot of living even at normal pace, as Brooker discovered as he plunged, starting last June, into the neighborhood haunts, theatrical makeup, weird diet and intense, surreal world of Bowie.
As he tried to take in only the cultural content that had shaped Bowie, he found himself beginning to get inside Bowie’s head — even dreaming about him. “It’s sometimes quite a strange place, a dangerous place, a place you wouldn’t want to live for too long,” he said recently, as quoted by his university.
While he skipped some of the more dangerous or extreme parts of Bowie’s life (no fling with Mick Jagger, he noted), he immersed himself deeply enough to learn something he found extraordinary.
On Monday, after Bowie’s death from cancer, Brooker wrote with grief about what he has learned so far.
— Susan Svrluga
By Will Brooker
Jan. 11, 2016
I was interviewed by the BBC on Christmas Eve. The presenter introduced me with a joke about there being only two people in the world living as David Bowie – and I was one of them.
Now, just more than two weeks later, everything has changed.
I suppose it’s just me now, and I don’t feel remotely up to the job anymore.
I began researching an academic book about Bowie in June 2015. In addition to the usual studying, note-taking and scholarly theory, I had the idea of trying to gain an understanding of the popular culture that shaped Bowie’s mindset at specific points in his career, in order to better understand his work.
My project started simply, with playlists of his musical influences, reading lists of the books he’s known to have recommended to others, viewing lists of the movies he’d enjoyed.
I trained, some time ago, in filmmaking, and retrained more recently in photography. I’ve never been a model. I felt I should learn what it’s like to sit in front of a camera, wearing heavy make-up, under bright lights. Where does your mind wander when you’re holding a pose?
And once I’d tried that, what’s the excuse for not wearing platform boots around London hotels?
And to commit more fully to the research, surely I should have my hair dyed in his distinctive style from The Man Who Fell To Earth, and the cover of the Low album?
I started to represent my own research physically, in my appearance; and then in my diet, as I deliberately restricted myself to the red peppers and milk he notoriously consumed in Los Angeles.
Long-distance trips to the Bowie exhibition and conference in Melbourne — via San Diego and a lost-baggage limbo in Los Angeles, followed by five days of caffeine- and champagne-fueled jetlag — took care of the sleep deprivation.
Part of me jittered, half-hallucinated and struggled to form sentences in interviews. Another part took notes about what these conditions were doing to me, and compared them with Bowie’s frail, birdlike stance and jerky movements in the early to mid-1970s.
I felt the need to understand Bowie’s geography. I grew up in South London myself, and his childhood and teenage territories, Brixton, Bromley and Beckenham, weren’t far away. I realized how far he would have to walk from his suburban house, down long, drab main roads, to even reach the train station to central London. I sat in his favorite coffee shop in Soho. I traveled to the Sherry-Netherland in New York, its décor still authentically ’70s.
Bowie’s star rose rapidly and he found fame fast, after years of failure, but I was accelerating his experiences. I went straight from New York to Berlin.
I hadn’t been to Berlin myself since the Wall was still up. I traveled there early one morning and sat on my own in the Brücke Museum, where Bowie was inspired by German Expressionist art – its influence is on the cover of his ‘Heroes’, and his friend Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot. I never would have crossed Europe to sit in an art gallery: but now, I did it because of the project, because of Bowie.
While in Berlin, Bowie started to draw and paint in that style; so, copying Bowie, I started to draw and paint in that style, too. I’d given up any kind of art as an undergraduate, focusing on filmmaking and film studies instead. Like most of us, I assumed I just wasn’t good at it. Well, maybe I still wasn’t great at it, but I was okay, and I enjoyed it. I carried on creating. I bought cardboard, scissors and glue, and made dioramas. I bought clay and made little models. I bought books and plays in German and discovered my long-neglected language skills were still there, too, waiting to be reawakened.
I signed up for singing lessons. I started with early Bowie and, through the practice of learning his songs and how he performed them, I studied his shift in style from the higher-pitched English pronunciations of the earlier albums to the more soulful crooning – almost an Elvis impression – of Young Americans.
Sometimes, as a departure from Bowie, I would learn musical theater numbers – the sad songs, the girl songs. ‘You Must Love Me’, ‘Send In The Clowns’, ‘Tell Me On A Sunday’. Sometimes I found myself choking up with emotion at them. I never cry. I cried at these songs, in front of a teacher I hardly knew.
I forced myself to volunteer for an open-mic slot at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of London’s oldest and most famous gay bars, and sang ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ at the Bar Wotever cabaret night, starting the performance by whipping off a blonde wig.
The audience whooped and cheered. I asked to join a long-standing Bowie tribute band, the Thin White Duke; they auditioned me, then welcomed me.
People applauded my first gig.
I went out wearing make-up and platform shoes, and commissioned a dressmaker to sew me Bowie outfits. I was featured in the Dutch, Canadian, Russian and Spanish news.
I did things, and went places, I never would have dreamed of without the project: and the project was still the official reason, but sometimes I wondered if it was an excuse.
My research became a kind of living art project, a celebration of Bowie’s life embodied in my own. I dedicated 12 months to him, as a tribute.
And now he’s gone, and I’m left behind, playing catch-up – my project moves chronologically, and has only now reached 2000, with a new, sad final act suddenly in place at the end.
I hope I’ve learned something new about David Bowie during this year.
But I’ve learned other things, through the process. I’ve realized that we give up so much as we grow up, because we think we’re not good enough, that we’re never going to be great – but we don’t have to give up, and we don’t have to be great.
Bowie never became a great actor, though he played himself wonderfully in a handful of movies.
Bowie never became a great painter: his fame meant his work was exhibited, but it’s assessed as “good amateur” by serious critics.
I’m never going to be outstanding as a singer or a painter. I’m not even going to be great at reading German.
But doing those things – forcing myself to do those things – because I told myself I had to, in imitation of Bowie’s life, has not just increased my admiration for him. It has enriched me.
I’m a poor imitation of David Bowie. But this year, because of him, I’ve become a brighter, braver version of myself.
That’s just part of the legacy he’s given me, and however average I am at most forms of art, I feel somehow I owe it to him to carry on trying, carry on experimenting, carry on challenging myself and carry on creating – not just this year, but next year, and perhaps for as long as I live.
That is, after all, what Bowie would do.
That is, we now realize, what Bowie did.