A creative break today to recharge my batteries. If you want to see the David Bowie is exhibition at the V&A in London, then you have two choices: queue early in the morning on the off-chance of getting a ticket for a random entry time that day, or buy membership to the V&A. Individual tickets are £15.50 (including donation) and membership is £64 (£79 with guest). I chose the latter a month before visiting with my friend Liz.
My elder brother gave me Changes One Bowie for Christmas when I was fourteen. It was my first rock or pop album. Yes, I’d bought singles – She’s So Modern by the Boomtown Rats was my first, I think – but my first album was Bach’s Fourth Lute Suite, played on classical guitar by John Williams. I was learning classical guitar because I could just never get how to do the mindless strumming required for rock and pop.
I’m not sure what Liz and I were expecting, but we’d been promised costumes and mementos – pieces of a life, I guess. The feeling of exclusivity – much of the exhibition’s content it is from Bowie’s own archives, and it’s not being staged anywhere else – is enhanced by a notice informing the visitor that, not only is photography banned, but sketching is too. Sketching. Heck, they allow sketching in court.
What we did get was a David Bowie experience. Not the David Bowie experience because, as you’ll come to understand, there can be no David Bowie singularity. The headsets were integral to it, and the content was triggered by one’s proximity to pieces. It didn’t always work that well, but it was pretty good. And it was a complete and immersive experience. The formulation (and I choose that word carefully) of an exhibition by Bowie would by its very nature be a complete and immersive experience. This is the essence of Bowie, and his art. It’s therefore meaningless to talk in detail about the individual pieces of the exhibition, because if you think they’re the point then you’re missing it completely.
What you take away is the realisation that this is the artist who did the most to invent the way a particular type of popular music is presented and enjoyed – branded, packaged and marketed, if you will. So many acts followed in his footsteps, but Bowie himself acknowledges his debt to predecessors from across the creative spectrum whose work he parsed and amalgamated. Right at the end of the exhibition he presents this in a Periodic Table of Bowie Elements (sorry if I have the title of this wrong), just in case people haven’t quite got it.
The end piece of the show is a three-story, three-wall video of Bowie playing a couple of numbers. Again, I won’t spoil the detail, but it’s almost like being at a live gig. One of the videos is his landmark performance of The Jean Genie on Top of the Pops. (How thankful the curators must have been that Jimmy Savile was nowhere in evidence.) I was not alone in dancing to the irresistible bass-line, but what was noticeable was that I was joined only by people my age or above. ‘The kids’ were having none of it. I’m not sure whether they were too self-conscious and cool, whether heavy beats don’t resonate with them, or whether the rest of us were sucked into a teenage time-vortex by Pavlovian conditioning.
It was moving and inspiring on a deep level. The secret to success in life was hidden in plain sight: you have to try a lot of things out, work hard at them and see what sticks. You have to adapt, because there’s no such thing as a completed work until you’re dead. You are free to live your life as you want. Everything you do is by choice, even if it’s nothing, or if it’s following society’s mores. Everything you do is present tense. It’s David Bowie is, not was, or will be. Your life is about living in the now. Reach out and grab it: live it and become it. David Bowie is cannot be a singularity because of the nature of David Bowie’s singularity. If that last sentence is a bit too pretentious, then it’s captured the quintessence of David Bowie’s career. (Oops, done it again…)
My big confession is that the only time I listen to music now is in the gym, where I have no control. My iPhone is devoid of musical content and I’ve yet to unwrap the earphones after three years of ownership. I gave up classical guitar at sixteen and switched to claw-hammer blues before dropping the instrument altogether. My music-listening all but ended when I gave up car ownership in ’96 – big business road trips in the States being the only exception (I became The Man Who Sold to the World, as opposed to The Man Who Sold the World).
My old classical guitar lies under my bed. I salvaged and repaired a beaten-up electric guitar from a charity shop in December 2011. I have a ukulele (bought before the current fad), an electric autoharp (December 2011) and a second-hand keyboard (same charity shop, autumn 2012). I also bought a gorgeous amp back in December 2011 which distorts and transmogrifies in a thousand wonderful ways. Mark the musician is clearly lurking beneath the surface. David Bowie is… definitely making Mark the musician restless. David Bowie is… going to make me unpopular with my neighbours.