Sophia Deboick on the fascinating story of the star’s often self-destructive obsession with the US, 50 years after the release of the foreboding album which marked its beginning.
David Jones was hardly the only baby boomer to adore all things American. The schoolboy was one of millions who had come through austerity Britain to find rock ‘n’ roll arrive just in time for their teens. For Jones, America meant a ready-made dream of glamour, exoticism and decadence, sustained by listening to Little Richard records, following American football, and reading Jack Kerouac in his tiny bedroom of his parents’ terraced house in suburban Bromley.
But Jones was one of the few of his generation to make that dream reality. Pictures of the 16-year-old in his first band, the Konrads, toting a saxophone and with an immaculate DA hairdo, mark the Alpha point of a lifelong musical love affair with America. As David Bowie – a name inspired by the intense Americana of the 1960 film The Alamo, where Richard Widmark played Texan rebel Jim Bowie – he would explore the American mythos again and again throughout his half a century-long career. But he would also almost be killed by his first-hand experience of that country, suffering personal breakdown in step with its national crisis.
Bowie’s first substantial artistic confrontation of America as an idea came on The Man Who Sold the World, made before he had ever set foot in the States, and whose 50th anniversary of release comes just the day after the 2020 US election. With its exploration of madness, violence and dystopia, it is an album that speaks to the Trumpian nightmare.
Bowie had been around the music industry block a few times by 1970. His time as a Soho mod and then a hash-fuelled hippy had resulted in two albums and no hits, but then 1969’s Space Oddity got to No.5 and won an Ivor Novello. Its success had allowed the 23-year-old to rent a Victorian pile in Beckenham called Haddon Hall where he established a commune-like atmosphere with his new wife, Angie, and assorted acquaintances.
While things looked rosy in his personal life, Bowie’s faith in his career was wavering. His next single had sunk without trace and the band he put together with bassist and producer Tony Visconti, guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Mick Woodmansey had bombed live (Bowie’s very first onstage character, ‘Rainbowman’, had proved unsuccessful). He approached making his third album in the summer of 1970 in a state of creative lethargy, handing Visconti and Ronson chord changes and working titles for the songs and then retreating to his state of domestic bliss.
But putting the record in the hands of Visconti and Ronson revolutionised Bowie’s sound, and the mod-rock-meets-music-hall and folk rock of his previous efforts were junked in favour of the lead-heavy sounds of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. Ronson, imitating Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, laced the record with abundant filthy feedback and string-melting solos (“You believed every note had been wrenched from his soul,” Bowie later said), while Visconti’s bass was frantic and dominatingly high in the mix.
But if the sound was not Bowie’s vision, the lyrics unmistakably were. Despite, according to Tony Visconti’s autobiography, being dashed off between sessions of “billing and cooing” with Angie and trips to antique shops to unearth knick-knacks for Haddon Hall, the stories told on The Man Who Sold the World proved that Bowie’s imagination had hardly been dulled by domesticity, and the tenor of the times coloured the record.
America had taken a dark turn by 1970. The shiny, hopeful nation of the 1950s – at least as it had appeared in the British popular imagination – had spiralled into chaos as the country was bruised by Vietnam and rocked by civil unrest at home. Even the hope of creating an alternative society had died as the counterculture once represented by Woodstock instead became symbolised by Charles Manson. Bowie’s American influences too turned darker, from the heroin-induced alienation of the Velvet Underground to Stanley Kubrick’s stark futuristic visions.
Even before The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie had been inspired by dystopian images of America. The rendering of human loneliness in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) resulted in Space Oddity (1969), ultimately a tale of American hubris as Major Tom spirals off into space and certain doom. We Are Hungry Men from Bowie’s 1967 debut LP had taken its basic scenario from the New York-set 1966 science fiction novel Make Room! Make Room! – an overpopulated nation adopts ‘mass abortion’, infanticide, rationing oxygen and, finally, cannibalism as policy.
But on The Man Who Sold the World Bowie’s engagement with the American dream-turned-dystopia was extensive, and writer on Bowie Chris O’Leary has said it was as if “He knew what was coming: neo-fascism, nuclear war, authoritarian cults of personality, decadence, civilization’s end”.
The first side of The Man Who Sold the World was thoroughly unsettling, opening with the eight-minute long descent into a homoerotic Dantean hell, The Width of a Circle, followed by the deeply personal portrait of lunacy, All the Madmen. Bowie’s attempt to exorcise his fear of inheriting the mental ill health that had plagued his mother’s side of the family, the song’s “mansions cold and grey” referenced the Victorian Cane Hill Asylum in Croydon where Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother Terry was a patient. The creepy innocence of
After All, meanwhile, dealt with the puncturing of the dreams of the flower children: “The thought just occurred, we’re nobody’s children.”
But on side two, the feverishness was ramped up as a violent, apocalyptic America came into view and ideas of the country as benevolent global policeman and the world’s saviour were subverted. Running Gun Blues was a horrific tale of a Vietnam vet gone rogue, alluding to the 1968 My Lai massacre, Bowie chirpily singing “I’ll slash them cold, I’ll kill them dead/ I’ll slice them till they’re running red”. Saviour Machine was a science fiction tale of “President Joe” coming up with a “scheme for a saviour machine” which brings peace and plenty before things go awry. The loss of free will, a crisis of democracy and a betrayal of political leadership were all at stake.
As The Man Who Sold the World drew to a close, the title track’s disorientating opening riff was a sign that such linear narrative was about to be abandoned. Obliquely concerned with an encounter with another self, existential dread and possible pasts and futures, the song has been called an “anxious grapple with the elusiveness of identity” by Bowieologist Nicholas Pegg. The final track, The Supermen, was Wagnerian in its scale and Nietzschean in its theme. Bowie would later call it “pre-fascist” in its glorification of an immortal master race.
On the LP’s US release in November 1970 Rolling Stone called it “an experience that is as intriguing as it is chilling, but only to the listener sufficiently together to withstand its schizophrenia”, while the Los Angeles Free Press described it as “What happens to a flower-child when all of the world around him is going slightly crazy and power struggles are taking over everything”.
When Bowie finally went to America in early 1971, going to Greenwich Village and being shown round fashionable LA by nightclub owner and tastemaker Rodney Bingenheimer, he caused a stir by wearing a “man’s dress” by London designer Mr Fish and telling reporters about his previous life as “a shaven-headed transvestite”. He returned home to promptly complain to Disc & Music Echo about how unappreciated he was in the UK, saying “In fact, the only thing that gave me faith again was being asked to go across to America. If I’m into making it in records, I’ll have to go and live there”.
In the event, ‘making it in records’ seemed a distant prospect as the album sold fewer than 1,500 copies in the US and, despite attracting attention when it was released in the UK in April 1971 for its cover showing a highly androgynous Bowie lying languidly on a chaise longue in the living room at Haddon Hall wearing another Mr Fish dress, The Man Who Sold the World “sold like hotcakes in Beckenham, and nowhere else”, as he later put it.
The effect of that US trip on Bowie’s psyche was no more beneficial than it was on his sales. Bowie would later say of Quicksand from his next LP, 1971’s Hunky Dory, “The chain reaction of moving around throughout the bliss and then the calamity of America produced this epic of confusion”, the song suggesting the encounter with America had resulted in defeatism (“I ain’t got the power anymore”) and nihilism (“Knowledge comes with death’s release”). Bowie’s identity crisis, as explored in the title track of The Man Who Sold the World, had only been exacerbated.
Three years later, having painted vivid dystopian scenes on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) and Aladdin Sane (1973), and then taken the idea to its full conclusion by setting Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four amid “sterile skyscrapers”, elevators, boardwalks, and hamburgers on 1974’s Diamond Dogs, Bowie was in the middle of his epic US-only tour for that album.
Filmed for the BBC’s Cracked Actor documentary at this time, Bowie confided “I hated it when I first came here” but added “It filled a vast expanse of my imagination… It just supplied a need in me, America. It became a myth land for me. I think every kid goes through it eventually, but I just got onto it earlier”.
But this place of David Jones’ childhood dreams was consuming David Bowie. A move to New York in late 1974 and then to Los Angeles would lead to a complete loss of self. In the grip of a galloping cocaine addiction, an obsession with the totalitarian and the satanic came to dominate a paranoid mind. The Aryan superman character of the Thin White Duke and the occult references of Station to Station (1976) were followed by an arrest in New York for drug possession, remarks about the benefits of having a fascist leader and the virtues of Hitler as a “media artist”, and the famous Victoria Station incident when Bowie was caught in a pose that looked like a Nazi salute.
In retrospect, Bowie would see the atmosphere in LA as a large contributor to his breakdown, telling the NME in 1980 “the f***ing place should be wiped off the face of the earth”.
Bowie’s relationship with America would later change profoundly. After cleaning up in Berlin and becoming a Swiss tax exile, he moved back to New York in the early 1990s, making it the home of his new family and finding both a restorative anonymity and creative inspiration there. He put together a band of native New Yorkers who he worked with for the next 20 years and his last creative projects, the Blackstar LP, recorded with a local jazz quintet, and the Lazarus musical staged at the New York Theatre Workshop, could only have come out of Manhattan.
Back in the summer of 1974, the day after work had begun on Young Americans – Bowie’s most earnestly American LP, as he co-opted Philadelphia soul and started dressing like a Lower East Side gangster – Richard Nixon resigned in ignominy. Bowie namechecked him on the LP’s irony-laced title track, while Somebody Up There Likes Me painted a picture of an ultimate leader with “his eye on your soul, his hand on your heart”, who can “sell you anything”.
Trust in the American values that the presidency was meant to embody was in crisis, and Bowie’s personal disintegration coincided with this disillusionment – no longer was America the dreamland of the post-war generation, but edging towards the nightmare of The Man Who Sold the World.
When Trump took the oath of office, a year almost to the day after Bowie’s death, it was another moment when what America means fundamentally shifted. What has come after has again taken the country further towards dystopia. What comes next could mirror Bowie’s own redemption and discovery of a different America.