The Literary Influences of Superstar Musician David Bowie

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Illustration by Alex Fine

David Bowie was a pop star for most of his career from the 1960s until his death in 2016. He was known for his flamboyant style, songwriting and the ability to artistically turn on a dime. But Bowie, who died of cancer at 69, was more than a multi-platinum rock and roller. He was also one of the more literate composers in the business.

So much so, in fact, that in conjunction with a career retrospective in 2013 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Bowie issued a list of the one hundred books he considered the most important and influential. British music columnist John O'Connell linked this list to Bowie's prolific music. The result? A book called Bowie's Bookshelf out this month from Gallery Books.

"Bowie's Bookshelf grew out of my obsession with the list and my conviction that it was a trail laid down for fans—a mystery that needed to be solved," explains O'Connell. "The books plot a course through Bowie's life from child to teenager and from drug-addled superstar to reflective, reclusive family man." Here's a brief sampler from his book:

The Waste Land
By T. S. Eliot (1922)

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Courtesy of Penguin Random House

William S. Burroughs first made the link between Bowie's lyrics and T. S. Eliot's poetry. In a Rolling Stone interview, Burroughs asked if Hunky Dory's "Eight Line Poem" had been influenced by Eliot's "The Hollow Men." Bowie's reply: "Never read him." But Bowie was definitely exposed to Eliot's influence. "Goodnight Ladies" on Transformer, the album Bowie produced for Lou Reed in 1972, is a riff on the end of the second section, "A Game of Chess," from Eliot's poem "The Waste Land." Eliot, for his part, is deliberately quoting Ophelia's "Good night, sweet ladies" speech from Hamlet. Eliot's method established a new protocol for artistic theft—the modern poet in dialogue with his or her predecessors. Bowie, too, was candid about how much he took from other artists. "You can't steal from a thief," he said when LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy admitted to stealing from Bowie's songs.

Passing
By Nella Larsen (1929)

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Courtesy of Penguin Random House

As the husband of a Muslim woman from Somalia, Bowie couldn't help but be highly attuned to racial identity politics. He and Iman were house-hunting in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, and were caught up in the race riots that followed the acquittal of four LAPD officers for beating up African American taxi driver Rodney King. The song he subsequently wrote, "Black Tie, White Noise," grapples with the complexity of race relations, a subject that was clearly on his mind at the time. Passing is the second of the two novels written by mixed-race, light-skinned Nella Larsen, a nurse who became one of the key writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1920s African American intellectual movement. The book's title stands as its subject—"passing," when a member of one racial group is accepted by another as its own; a crossing of the "color line" that was possible for Larsen in her own life.

Nineteen Eighty-Four
By George Orwell (1949)

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Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Orwell's visionary masterpiece, written on the remote Hebridean island of Jura while its author was terminally ill with tuberculosis, recast the gray, bomb-ravaged London of Bowie's childhood as the capital of Airstrip One, a province within the greater superpower of Oceania. Bowie remembered watching The Quatermass Experiment as a small child, so it's possible he discovered Nineteen Eighty-Four through watching Quatermass author Nigel Kneale's celebrated BBC adaptation of the novel in December 1954, starring Peter Cushing as hero Winston Smith. It certainly left a vast psychic imprint on him. In 1973, with the chutzpah of the newly famous, he showed his love for it by hatching a grand plan to develop it as a stage musical, then as a television show. But Orwell's widow, Sonia, who controlled the rights, wasn't having any of it. This was a major inconvenience for Bowie, who was left with a load of half-recorded material he wasn't sure how or where to use. The result was the album Diamond Dogs, into which he decanted songs like "Big Brother," "We Are the Dead" and "1984" while subtly changing the emphasis until the project felt more like Oliver Twist as rewritten by William S. Burroughs. Airstrip One became Hunger City, and Diamond Dogs a portrait of disaffected youth running wild in gangs and living on rooftops—an echo, perhaps, of the stories Bowie's father Haywood Jones used to tell him about the displaced, war-damaged children he met in the course of his work as a publicist for the children's charity Barnardo's.

Silence: Lectures and Writing
By John Cage (1961)

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Courtesy of Wesleyan University Press

One of the biggest influences on Bowie's music-making from the mid-1970s onward was the former Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno. And one of the biggest influences on Eno was the American composer and pioneer of post-war experimental music John Cage, born in Los Angeles in 1912. That Cage's father invented an early type of submarine is one of the factoids scattered through Silence, a loose collection-cum-manifesto-cum-memoir whose playful layout (multiple columns, tiny text, lots of white space) mirrors Cage's scorn for conventional concepts of harmony and notation. Mushrooms, an obsession of the composer, crop up repeatedly. Ditto Vorticist-style sloganeering ("I have nothing to say and I am saying it"), lists of questions ("What is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?") and abstruse theorizing about the nature of sound which anticipates Eno's mid-1970s invention of ambient music.

Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art
By James Hall (1974)

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Courtesy of Westview Press

Thanks to Hall's dictionary, nonspecialist art lovers can understand why a pig with a bell around its neck beside a monk identifies that monk as St. Antony the Great and can work out what the skulls, jugs and grapes in Dutch paintings mean. Bowie loved the potency of traditional art symbols. They crop up throughout his shows, album art and videos. But he used them in a more careful, concentrated way in the videos for "Lazarus" and "Blackstar." With Hall's help, we can deduce that Button Eyes, the blindfolded beggar character Bowie plays in both, is either a saint about to be executed or a symbol of spiritual or moral blindness. Although in the "Lazarus" video, it's all too clear what the skull on the desk means as Bowie scribbles frenziedly, desperate to commit his final ideas to paper.

From Bowie's Bookshelf by John O'Connell. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

The Literary Influences of Superstar Musician David Bowie