“I was probably stupid enough to believe that having the same birthday as him actually meant something,” the younger Bowie once said about “a major hero” of his, Elvis Presley.
They shared quite a number of things — a record label, a weakness for drugs, shocking sexuality for the times — but perhaps the strongest link between this two icons was their ascension to religious levels of adoration.
The reach of Bowie fanaticism was clearly evident in the long line of people who recently journeyed to Tennozu Isle to view “David Bowie is,” a visual celebration of his genius. Leather-clad rockers and goths bumped shoulders with well-heeled fashionistas, elderly hipsters and young families.
We were all there because Bowie is … Bowie.
Unlike the King, everyone’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll alien managed to kick his habit, keep his svelte figure and, above all, remain a revered and relevant artist through his golden years. And as a parting gift, he gave us “Blackstar,” a startlingly rich album that added another layer of mythos to the Starman’s story.
Bowie lacked a Graceland, but “David Bowie is” — a retrospective exhibition first staged at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 2013 — appears to be the next best thing. In fact, on the one-year anniversary of his death, disciples paid their respects with flowers at the venue’s entrance.
The show cannot help but fan the flames of idolatry. The 300-plus items on display — ranging from signature costumes and handwritten lyrics to personal items such as his little cocaine spoon — are, for many, relics of a holy man.
Curators Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, who deserve high praise for encapsulating such an expansive subject, were blessed with a dedicated archivist, David Jones himself, who gave the curators full access to his treasure chest of memories.
“The most interesting discovery was the archive itself and its completeness, and the fact that David Jones, the man, had been creating an archive about this personality, David Bowie, for decades,” Marsh said at a brief news conference in Tokyo. “And the strange thing about the archive is that there’s nothing about David Jones. … It’s a complete creation about an artificial person, but who for millions of people around the world is very real.”
The show appropriately kicks off with the iconic extraterrestrial kabuki costume designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the Aladdin Sane tour, displayed under Bowie’s words: “All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. This is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”
It’s sage advice for those still seeking to interpret the DB gospel as well as an indicator of the journey ahead. While certain sections focus on career milestones, much of the show is akin to a spotlight shone on a broken mirror, the rays dazzling and reflecting shards of past brilliance while giving hints of David Jones himself.
Bowie might have appeared to have a God-given gift for style and music, but as the curators reveal, he didn’t exactly fall fully formed to Earth. He not only studied his forefathers, Elvis included, but also sought stimulus from a wide variety of sources, be it nursery rhymes or Beat literature, Lindsay Kemp’s tutelage in mime or Germany’s nascent krautrock.
“David Bowie is” might give the illusion of being a blueprint for success, but the back story included failed plans and false starts. As one exhibit illustrates, if Bowie had been satisfied with the original and painfully twee version of “Space Oddity” he might have gone down as a one-hit wonder, but somehow he found the gravitas necessary to make Major Tom a timeless figure.
Fortunately, Bowie the quick-change artist didn’t — as so many rock stars are wont — make love to his ego. When Bowie foresaw a wave breaking he found the right people to help him ride the crest. One exhibit in particular — a sublime vase-like costume inspired by Dadaist design and used in one of his 1979 “Saturday Night Live” numbers with futuristic scenesters Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi — showcases how spot-on Bowie’s appropriations could be.
The exhibition does a great job of mapping his influences but ends on the most important thing: Bowie’s onstage presence. The final room, in which footage of a Ziggy Stardust show is projected on multiple scrims, is filled with the spirit and energy of Bowie and the chosen concert — the one in which he announced this would be Ziggy’s last — is the perfect illustration of a man who recognized both the power and the danger of hero worship.
It’s such a wonderful exhibition, but it’s got problems, albeit minor ones. Blame Bowie’s popularity, but this show really would work better in a more spacious venue. Go at the wrong time and you might find yourself stuck in a bottleneck of devotees poring over each dimly lit info panel. It’s almost enough to drive a lad insane. Almost.
The original V&A show hasn’t been expanded to include Bowie’s post-2013 career. For Japan, though, the curators appended video interviews with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Takeshi Kitano, his co-stars from “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” Sakamoto says that although he’s aware of theories that “Blackstar” was meant to be a farewell, he hears the voice of man who planned to keep working and changing. We probably will never know.
Fans, however, have had a field day dissecting his final cryptic lyrics and images of “Blackstar,” and its allusions to — guess what — a rare Elvis track called “Black Star,” which has the lyrics, “When a man sees his black star, he knows his time, this time is over.”
I guess Bowie impersonators in hotel lounges isn’t such a stretch but are reports of Bowie sightings far away? As the show’s coda notes, in pop culture’s continued referencing of his groundbreaking legacy, Bowie is indeed everywhere.
“David Bowie is” at the Warehouse Terrada runs until April 9. Advanced ticket reservation is advised. For details, visit davidbowieis.jp.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.