David Bowie

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Bernard Pomerance’s brilliant play The Elephant Man received equally bright stagings in 1979 in New York, from Jack Hofsiss, then a 28-year-old wunderkind who adeptly wrestled 21 short scenes about the 19th-century sideshow act John Merrick, who suffered from severe physical deformities, into a thing of moving beauty.

Sadly, Hofsiss, just died. He was adept at all media, working also in TV and film, and his career continued even after he was paralyzed from the waist down in a diving accident six years after his Elephant Man triumph. Here’s a piece from Richard F. Shepard’s 1979 New York Times profile of Hofsiss as he was readying to move the drama from Off-Broadway to on:

Mr. Hofsiss is a man of his generation, that is, a man who can call the action with equal ease in stage, film or television. Yet there is something about Broadway that stirs the blood and seizes the imagination, even though one knows that Broadway is just another stage, maybe one with a bigger budget and higher prices.

“Each production you do has its realities and necessities,” Mr. Hofsiss said. “These are compounded on Broadway because of the commercial nature of the beast. There is a pressing professionalism on Broadway.”

“The Elephant Man” is the story of John Merrick, a Briton who lived in the late 1800’s and was a fleshy, prehensile monster of a man whose awful‐looking body encased a sharp and inquiring mind that developed quickly as opportunity allowed. The opportunity came from a doctor who interested himself in Merrick and brought him to the attention of upper‐crust curiosity seekers. As played by Philip Anglim, an actor with good and regular features, the monstrous nature of the deformity is not spelled out by specific makeup, but the sense of it is conveyed by the manner in which Mr. Anglim can contort his body, although even this is not a constant distraction during a performance.

All of this is by way of saying that this is a show that leaves much to a director’s imagination, backed by a good deal of self‐discipline. Mr. Hofsiss, who was born and reared in Brooklyn and received a classical, old‐style educadon from the Jesuits at Brooklyn Prep and a more freeform one at Georgetown University, where he majored in English and theater, felt equipped for the situation.

“This is an episodic play, 21 scenes that constantly shift the characters,” he said. “The script itself is purely words, containing no production instructions. In that way, it reads like Shakespeare: enter, blackout, and that’s all. Like Shakespeare, Bernard Pomerance wrote it for a theater he knew in England, where it opened in 1977. Everything is there in the script, but it’s as though you’re carving a sculpture out of a beautiful piece of stone, frightening but rewarding.”

Mr. Pomerance, an American who lives in England, came to New York only briefly before each opening, the one Off Broadway and the one on Broadway, and one might wonder whether author and director who are oceans apart in the flesh might not be in the same condition spiritually. But, “Bernard and I worked it out by telephone — he’s trusting of directors,” Mr. Hofsiss said.•


The third John Merrick during the original run was David Bowie. A 1980 episode of Friday Night…Saturday Morning featured Tim Rice interviewing the rock star about the play.

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Just after David Bowie’s death, Saturday Night Live reran his December 5, 1979 performance, in which he was accompanied by Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias. While singing “The Man Who Sold the World,” Bowie donned a geometrically daring suit that seemed torn from Lewis Carroll’s REM stage. It was all very cutting edge–in 1923.

That’s when the artist Sonia Delaunay dreamed up a similar design for the Tristan Tzara play The Gas Heart. The prolific visionary, who coincidentally died ten days before the aforementioned Bowie appearance, was the subject of a 1924 Brooklyn Daily Eagle profile, thanks to her outré outfits.

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Words from a late-life Delaunay, for those of you who know French.

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You had to have had a particularly fetid heart if you were a young adult in 1973 and despised David Bowie, but New Statesman found such a grinch in Martin Amis, who dragged his rotting teeth to what would be the penultimate Ziggy Stardust performance and had a miserable time. Amis has since written some excellent novels, but I want to say this to his 23-year-old self: Fuck you, you privileged snot.

An excerpt:

For all his preening and swanking Bowie often seemed a frail, almost waiflike figure, curiously dwarfed by the electric aura of knowing sexiness and modish violence on which his act depends – panicky strobes, dizzying light effects, a Clockwork Orange-theme ritornello, and SS lightning-flashes.

This incongruity may be responsible for Bowie’s appeal and for what (if anything) is sinister about it. Among certain more affluent hippies Bowie is apparently the symbol of a kind of thrilling extremism, a life-style (the word is for once permissible) characterised by sexual omnivorousness, lavish use of stimulants – particularly cocaine, very much an élitist drug, being both expensive and galvanising – self-parodied narcissism, and a glamorously early death. To dignify this unhappy outlook with such a term as “nihilist” would, of course, be absurd; but Bowie does appear to be a new focus for the vague, predatory, escapist reveries of the alienated young. Although Bowie himself is unlikely to last long as a cult, it is hard to believe that the feelings he has aroused or aggravated will vanish along with the fashion built round him.•

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The growling, hirsute deejay Wolfman Jack used to tell bawdy tales of David Bowie’s Los Angeles years, a period of extreme decadence that belied the rock star’s cyborg persona. In a really well-considered Economist obituary, the protean performer’s coked-up California days are recalled. An excerpt:

Some called him a chameleon, but he was the reverse. Chameleons change hue to blend in with their background; he changed to stand out, and dared others to mimic him. He was never afraid to murder his darlings. Ziggy was killed off in 1973 as he finished an exhausting worldwide tour at London’s Hammersmith Odeon; he was being too much imitated, and Mr Bowie always had to be one step ahead. One successor was Aladdin Sane, a zigzag of painted lightning across his face; another, the most troubled, was the Thin White Duke, an aristocratic cabaret singer in black trousers, waistcoat and white shirt, needing only a skull to play Hamlet.

The tragic garb was well judged. As he dashed from persona to persona, station to station, so the worlds he pushed into became darker. Shaped by the threat of nuclear war, the cultural imagination took a catastrophic turn in the 1970s—one ever-present future was no future at all. Mr Bowie was there at the turning point; his song “Five Years” says more about impending annihilation than a shelf full of reports from the RAND Corporation. Spectacular levels of cocaine abuse also shaped this nihilistic trajectory. Settled in Los Angeles from 1975, he stayed up for days on end, sitting cross-legged behind black curtains, surrounding himself with black candles and painted pentagrams.

His diet was “red peppers, cocaine and milk”; always slender, he became skeletal. He would work madly on a song for a week, only to realise that he had got no further than four bars. Nicolas Roeg had originally been set on Peter O’Toole to play the titular alien in his film The Man Who Fell To Earth. But on seeing television footage of Mr Bowie sitting utterly isolated in the back of a limousine he knew he had his not-quite-man. Mr Bowie, true to form, remembered almost nothing of the filming. There is no alienation like drugged alienation, and perhaps no worse place to experience that than “the most repulsive wart on the backside of humanity”, as he described the City of Angels.•

In 1975, Bowie visits with Dinah Shore, Henry Winkler and Nancy Walker, performs “Stay,” acknowledges he’s a “great fan of Fonzie” and takes a karate lesson.

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So sad to hear of the death of David Bowie, one of the great creative minds of his era and a constant readerRolling Stone, the magazine that today publishes Sean Penn’s jungle flatulence, sat Bowie and William S. Burroughs down for a chat in 1974. The two artists may have arrived at a similar place, but they sure came to it from different angles, the rock star as the man who fell to Earth and the writer seemingly escaped from the planet’s core like a mole. In a section that begins with the Ziggy Stardust backstory, Bowie ultimately voices concerns about the Global Village in much the same way that Marshall McLuhan had. An excerpt:

William S. Burroughs:

Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five-year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.

David Bowie:

Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage.

William S. Burroughs:

Yes, a black hole on stage would be an incredible expense. And it would be a continuing performance, first eating up Shaftesbury Avenue.

David Bowie:

Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes ‘Starman’, which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch on to it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is travelling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a Black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie the Infinite Fox.

Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world. And they tear him to pieces on stage during the song ‘Rock ‘n’ roll suicide’. As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rodgers and Hammerstein of the seventies, Bill!

William S. Burroughs:

Yes, I can believe that. The parallels are definitely there, and it sounds good.

David Bowie:

I must have the total image of a stage show. It has to be total with me. I’m just not content writing songs, I want to make it three-dimensional. Songwriting as an art is a bit archaic now. Just writing a song is not good enough.

William S. Burroughs:

It’s the whole performance. It’s not like somebody sitting down at the piano and just playing a piece.

Bowie: A song has to take on character, shape, body and influence people to an extent that they use it for their own devices. It must affect them not just as a song, but as a lifestyle. The rock stars have assimilated all kinds of philosophies, styles, histories, writings, and they throw out what they have gleaned from that.

William S. Burroughs:

The revolution will come from ignoring the others out of existence.

David Bowie:

Really. Now we have people who are making it happen on a level faster than ever. People who are into groups like Alice Cooper, The New York Dolls and Iggy Pop, who are denying totally and irrevocably the existence of people who are into The Stones and The Beatles. The gap has decreased from twenty years to ten years.

William S. Burroughs:

The escalating rate of change. The media are really responsible for most of this. Which produces an incalculable effect.

David Bowie:

Once upon a time, even when I was 13 or 14, for me it was between 14 and 40 that you were old. Basically. But now it is 18-year-olds and 26-year-olds – there can be incredible discrepancies, which is really quite alarming. We are not trying to bring people together, but to wonder how much longer we’ve got. It would be positively boring if minds were in tune. I’m more interested in whether the planet is going to survive.

William S. Burroughs:

Actually, the contrary is happening; people are getting further and further apart.

David Bowie:

The idea of getting minds together smacks of the flower power period to me. The coming together of people I find obscene as a principle. It is not human. It is not a natural thing as some people would have us believe.•

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About 12 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage of David Bowie during his 1973 Ziggy Stardust tour.

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Via Liz Bury at the Guardian, here’s David Bowie’s list of must-read books that’s been released as part of an exhibition about the pop star at the Art Gallery of Ontario:

  • The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby (2008)
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz (2007)
  • The Coast of Utopia (trilogy), Tom Stoppard (2007)
  • Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, Jon Savage (2007)
  • Fingersmith, Sarah Waters (2002)
  • The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens (2001)
  • Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler (1997)
  • A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1890-1924, Orlando Figes (1997)
  • The Insult, Rupert Thomson (1996)
  • Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon (1995)
  • The Bird Artist, Howard Norman (1994)
  • Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard (1993)
  • Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, Arthur C. Danto (1992)
  • Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Camille Paglia (1990)
  • David Bomberg, Richard Cork (1988)
  • Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Peter Guralnick (1986)
  • The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin (1986)
  • Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd (1985)
  • Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music, Gerri Hirshey (1984)
  • Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter (1984)
  • Money, Martin Amis (1984)
  • White Noise, Don DeLillo (1984)
  • Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes (1984)
  • The Life and Times of Little Richard, Charles White (1984)
  • A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn (1980)
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole (1980)
  • Interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester (1980)
  • Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler (1980)
  • Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess (1980)
  • Raw, a “graphix magazine” (1980-91)
  • Viz, magazine (1979 –)
  • The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels (1979)
  • Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebowitz (1978)
  • In Between the Sheets, Ian McEwan (1978)
  • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, ed Malcolm Cowley (1977)
  • The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes (1976)
  • Tales of Beatnik Glory, Ed Saunders (1975)
  • Mystery Train, Greil Marcus (1975)
  • Selected Poems, Frank O’Hara (1974)
  • Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich (1972)
  • In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture, George Steiner (1971)
  • Octobriana and the Russian Underground, Peter Sadecky (1971)
  • The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, Charlie Gillett (1970)
  • The Quest for Christa T, Christa Wolf (1968)
  • Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, Nik Cohn (1968)
  • The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
  • Journey into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg (1967)
  • Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr (1966)
  • In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (1965)
  • City of Night, John Rechy (1965)
  • Herzog, Saul Bellow (1964)
  • Puckoon, Spike Milligan (1963)
  • The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford (1963)
  • The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea, Yukio Mishima (1963)
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin (1963)
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (1962)
  • Inside the Whale and Other Essays, George Orwell (1962)
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (1961)
  • Private Eye, magazine (1961 –)
  • On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, Douglas Harding (1961)
  • Silence: Lectures and Writing, John Cage (1961)
  • Strange People, Frank Edwards (1961)
  • The Divided Self, RD Laing (1960)
  • All the Emperor’s Horses, David Kidd (1960)
  • Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse (1959)
  • The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1958)
  • On the Road, Jack Kerouac (1957)
  • The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard (1957)
  • Room at the Top, John Braine (1957)
  • A Grave for a Dolphin, Alberto Denti di Pirajno (1956)
  • The Outsider, Colin Wilson (1956)
  • Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
  • The Street, Ann Petry (1946)
  • Black Boy, Richard Wright (1945)

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The first ten minutes of a 20/20 profile of David Bowie from 1980, the year of his three-month run portraying David Merrick on Broadway in The Elephant Man. The late Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Hoving does the honors.

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Two versions of “Space Oddity.”

Now: Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield from the International Space Station.

44 years ago: David Bowie’s original video.

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Russell Harty, who in British parlance was a “world-class prat,” interviews David Bowie via TV remote in 1975. Harty was in Britain while Bowie was in Los Angeles, having just shot The Man Who Fell To Earth. Nobody was more meant to be a disembodied head on a television screen than Bowie. He was the original Max Headroom.

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How cool. The first part of a 1980 episode of Friday Night…Saturday Morning featuring an interview with David Bowie, who was giving a stunning performance on Broadway in The Elephant Man at the time. Embedding is disabled on Youtube, but go here:

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Ziggy Stardust, 1973.

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David Bowie and Marianne Faithfull sing Sonny and Cher, 1973.


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After hosting David Bowie in 1975, Dinah Shore invited him back, along with Iggy Pop, in 1977. Dinah called Iggy by his real first name “Jimmy.” Rosemary Clooney was also on hand. Not in color for part and some stills are used, but still worth it. In fact, the technical deficiencies actually enhance the viewing, as if Chris Marker directed an episode of Dinah!

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David Bowie, Dinah Shore, Henry Winkler and Nancy Walker in 1975. In one segment, Bowie gets a karate lesson.



More from the same interview
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Two years before David Bowie released this 1969 promotional video for “Space Oddity,” a Soviet cosmonaut became a casualty of the Space Race. From the BBC: “The Soviet Union has announced the catastrophic failure of its latest space mission, with the crash of Soyuz 1 and the death of the cosmonaut on board. Colonel Vladimir Komarov, 40, is the first known victim of a space flight. He was an experienced cosmonaut, on his second flight, and had completed all his experiments successfully before returning to Earth. But within seconds of landing, just after he re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, the strings of the parachute intended to slow his descent apparently became tangled. The spaceship hurtled to the ground from four miles up. It is likely that Colonel Komarov was killed instantly on impact.”

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A film rich enough to be read about a dozen different ways, Nicolas Roeg’s trippy 1976 genre picture uses an extraterrestrial tale to examine the immigrant experience, the discomfiting marriage of art and commerce and the nature of cultural imperialism. But in a broad sense, it’s a story, much like Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” about the overwhelming isolation experienced by those who dream the biggest dreams and then have the fortune (and misfortune) to have their ambitions realized.

Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), equal parts Howard Hughes and Nikola Tesla, is an alien from outer space who’s left his water-starved planet to secure some much-needed H2O from Earth. In America, Newton, disguised as a human, plays the role of a reclusive, obsessive British inventor, and uses money accrued from his remarkable tech inventions to try to build a spaceship that can return him with water to whence he came. In the meanwhile, he immerses himself in the free-for-all that is American culture and becomes the leading innovator on the planet. But more money means more problems, and soon Newton is whisked from his remote New Mexico desert home by some evil capitalists who want to know who and what he is.

Newton is transformed into an otherworldly guinea pig by his captors, poked and prodded by corporate medicos, who decide to X-ray the strange man’s eyes, not realizing that they will permanently solder his fake human eyes over his real ones. Once the deed is done, the inventor screams in horror: “They’re stuck. I’ll never get them off!” Newton knows that he’ll never be able to see things the same way anymore. For the immigrant, artist and industrialist, things have gone too far and he can never go home again.

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New DVD: Moon

Sam Rockwell is a man who wants to fall to Earth.

Even though it’s ultimately not the full-bodied triumph that it might have been, there is much to recommend Duncan Jones’ small-scale, engrossing 2009 sci-fi feature, Moon.

In his debut, Jones tells the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), an employee of Lunar, a company that has solved the global energy crisis by harnessing the power of sunlight as it reflects off the moon.

Sam is nearly at the end of a three-year hitch at a mining station on the moon, and is getting antsy about being away from his wife and daughter and being all alone. Of course, he isn’t completely alone.

There’s a HAL-ish computer that speaks in deadpan (voiced by Kevin Spacey), and there’s a clone of Sam that appears one day without warning. Adding to Sam’s headaches are his deteriorating health and faltering space equipment. He has to figure out what’s going on and get his tin can back home.

Writer-director Jones is David Bowie’s son, and Moon owes a debt to ’70s sci-fi films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, a starring vehicle for his dad. While the story isn’t quite developed enough, Moon succeeds because of Rockwell’s magnificent performance(s), and Jones’ gifts for mood, visual design and ability to express a sense of dread that echoes our fears in an age when almost anything seems possible. And the genre pic also works well as a parable about the endlessness and redundancy of warfare.

Read more Film posts.

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Let's go hit some golf balls, you orange-haired freak.

The extremely bizarre and extremely great Bing Crosby-David Bowie duet of “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” has become a popular Christmas chestnut. It’s one of the few holiday songs in heavy rotation that doesn’t cause fits of revulsion. But there were plenty of logistical problems that the producers had to circumvent to pull off the odd pairing, not the least of which was Crosby’s failing health. From a 2006 Washington Post article entitled, “Bing and Bowie: An Odd Story of Holiday Harmony”:

“How did this almost surreal mash-up of the mainstream and the avant-garde, of cardigan-clad ’40s-era crooner and glam rocker, happen? It almost didn’t. Bowie, who was 30 at the time, and Crosby, then 73, recorded the duet Sept. 11, 1977, for Crosby’s “Merrie Olde Christmas” TV special. A month later, Crosby was dead of a heart attack. The special was broadcast on CBS about a month after his death.

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Read the full Washington Post article.
Watch the original video.

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