The Dream-Plagiarist

Usually my response to people claiming Bowie was a plagiarist is to roll my eyes and figure they’re just jealous: They saw the same things he did but weren’t creative enough to do what he did with the material. I still think that.

But last month at the Bowie Is exhibition in Brooklyn, looking at all his sketches and mock-ups and mood boards, all the Polaroids taken to record this or that approach to makeup and lighting, the hand-sketched storyboards for his videos–all the backstory, basically, of his album covers, costumes, lyrics and looks over the decades–it hit me: He wasn’t plagiarizing. He was dreaming.

His creative process was to enter the dream state while wide awake. All the debris of everything he’d ever seen or read or heard, every passing phrase or color glimpsed or thing remembered from childhood, streamed through his imagination. He grabbed pieces here and there–a photo of suburban London in 1958, a pair of shoes a friend once wore, a phrase overheard at a bus stop, a play of light he once saw on a kimono in Japan–and recombined them into something new, just like dreams do.

For instance, at Bowie Is, you discover some of the backstory to this album cover (“Tonight,” 1984):


In the original chalk-on-black-paper drawing of his face, which is on display at Bowie Is, he wasn’t blue but green, the same shade as the Chinese woman in Vladimir Tretchikoff’s 1951 painting “The Chinese Girl” (which, at Bowie Is, is right next to the album artwork):


That painting, so the web tells me, was a massively popular print that hung in thousands if not millions of British homes in the 1950s–so presumably Bowie saw it then. It was the first flash, in grim, grey post-war England, of color and luxury and beautiful foreign worlds. The odd coloring presaged Warhol and injected a glimpse of modern cool into London’s worn-out rubble. Tretchikoff was one of the first artists to target everyday people, rather than art critics (who hated his stuff); he exhibited in department stores.

Wait. A flash of exotic color in grim and boring England, a glimpse of modern cool, a portal to a world much more interesting than this one, an artist reaching out to “all the nobody people”… Sound like anyone we know? As Bono said, “He was so vivid. So luminous. So fluorescent…. David Bowie was the reason to have a color TV. With Bowie, you had this sneaking suspicion that if you hung around him, you might find some doors into those other worlds.”

Ok, but what’s with the blue face? Where did that come from? Well, Bowie painted a few portraits of his friend Iggy Pop when they lived together in Berlin in the 1970s. This one–a three-quarter view headshot of Pop looking up, which if we’re going to spell it out is compositionally a lot like the “Tonight” cover–is at the Brooklyn Museum exhibit, in the next room over from the “Tonight” artwork:

Bowie Iggy painting headshot

And Iggy Pop worked on “Tonight” with Bowie. So that’s an obvious contender for inspiration, as is Picasso’s blue period, when he painted a few portraits of people with blue-grey skin like Iggy’s here. But the cobalt shade points to another inspiration, too. Bowie’s face on “Tonight” is a shade of blue you see in medieval stained glass; Chartres blue is the most famous example. Colors like that weren’t used again in stained glass for five hundred years, until a resurgence in the 19th century–the beginning of the modern age.

Bowie loved medieval art, (serious) moonlighted as an art journalist, collected art from Tintoretto to the 21st century, founded an art publishing company, and was an obsessive autodidact who would’ve richly deserved an honorary PhD in art history. And obviously, he was European; he’d seen a few medieval cathedrals in his time.

And speaking of stained glass, if at first glance it looks like Bowie just took the embroidered golden dress from Tretchikoff’s painting and redesigned it as the background for his album cover, think again. Or look again, at some of Marc Chagall’s stained-glass windows in the 1962 Windows of Jerusalem series:

Chagall Levi-L Chagall Naphtali-L

The jewel tones, the black-lined squares–there they are, from Chagall straight to “Tonight”! Ok, but why? I can think of a ton of reasons, but as with dream interpretations, who knows which (if any) are true: Chagall, like the Eventide Harmonizer that Tony Visconti convinced Bowie to use on Low, “fucked with the fabric of time” (as Visconti put it, to Bowie’s delight) by combining modern art with the ancient genre of stained-glass windows. His windows, made less than 20 years after the end of World War II, looked like the shattered pieces of Old Europe–not just figuratively shattered, but literally, church windows blown apart by bombs–put back together in a completely new way. This is all very Bowie.

But what about the flowers on “Tonight”? To me they look like a modern, faux stained-glass (the black outlines) version of medieval “millefleurs” (thousand-flowers) tapestries like the Lady and the Unicorn–portraits on a background of flowers:

L-U-Detail-Taste dame

A modern take on a medieval genre (Bowie once again fucking with the fabric of time). A Christian genre combined with a Jewish artist’s stained-glass windows, which hang in a synagogue in Jerusalem (Bowie, as ever, crossing every boundary there is and giving the finger to tribalism). A portrait of a man (Bowie on “Tonight”) in a genre (millefleurs) and style (“The Chinese Girl”) previously used for portraits of women: Bowie, as usual, erasing the gender divide.

So those are the pieces of the “Tonight” cover, and I’m sure there are more the Brooklyn Museum and I haven’t thought of. Those are the stray fragments that Bowie remade into a whole new piece of art. The only difference between that process and dreaming is that the result exists on objects in the world that everyone can look at. Bowie was a dreamer who left his dreams here for us to see.

And just for the record, that’s not plagiarism. That’s art.



Why Bowie Was the Greatest Artist of the 20th Century

And I don’t just mean “recording artist.” Who else created so many original, influential and lasting works of art? Twenty-seven albums, over a hundred singles, most of them strikingly original, many of them classics–and none of them sound dated even 45 years later. It’s obvious that with his hyperliterate lyrics and frankly weird (at the time) music that often changed completely from one record to the next, he expanded the definition of what a rock song is and created new genres of rock music every few years. So that makes him a great rock star, sure.
Bowie performing “Starman” on Top of the Pops, 1972. As Bono said, “He was so vivid. So luminous. So fluorescent…. [In the early 70s] Bowie was the reason to have a color TV.”


But he wasn’t fundamentally a rock musician; he was a performance artist who chose rock as his medium. Wait, what am I saying? His life was his medium. His life and death were works of art.
He was light years ahead of any other artist in expanding our definition of what a man is (and by extension what a woman is, what gender is). He was the first popular artist to publicly identify as gay or bisexual. He rolled his eyes at what passes for authenticity–namely, picking a style of clothing and music and a way of living that reflects “the real you” and then maintaining it, or an evolving version of it, all your life. By doing that he rolled his eyes at the very concept of a fixed personality, and at the idea of belonging to any outwardly identifiable tribe.

Yes, these are all the same guy

Gender, personality, tribe–these concepts are basic to almost every civilization, and he melted them down, played with them, jettisoned them like last year’s clothes. And he did it with the eyes of the world on him, challenging everyone, showing everyone that none of these concepts are inherent in a person; they’re all borrowed from culture, they’re all something we can put on and take off at will.

Bowie sporting the style that Rolling Stone writer John Mendelsohn described as “ravishing, almost disconcertingly reminiscent of Lauren Bacall.”

His challenge to tribalism was implicitly and explicitly a challenge to racism, another foundation stone of our culture that he hacked away at. Here he is in 1983 interrogating MTV about why they weren’t playing many black artists, and why the ones they were playing only showed up at like 3AM. Pathetic VJ Mark Goodman’s explanation boiled down to–I’m paraphrasing–“Most of America is not as cool as you and me–they’re racist–so, you know, we just have to pander to the lowest common denominator since that’s our audience.” Bowie shot down Goodman’s “I’m not racist, our audience is” BS with this killer comeback:
Goodman: “We grew up in an era when the Isley Brothers mean something to me—or the Spinners… but what does it mean to a 17-year-old?”
Bowie: “I can tell you what the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye mean to a black 17-year-old, and surely he’s part of America as well?”


That same year the “Let’s Dance” video highlighted the racism of Australia, where Bowie lived at the time, against aborigines. And obviously he married a black African Muslim woman, Iman, the last and best-for-him in a long line of intelligent women he was associated with (quote from a 22-year-old Bowie in 1969: “I’ve never had a bad relationship with an intelligent girl”). The woman speaks five languages, has spoken out on racism in the fashion industry, and was in college in Kenya, where she was a refugee from war in her own country, when she was discovered as a model. How many Somali Muslim girls go to college? How many Somali female refugees?! Smart woman. And here’s her husband talking about being in an interracial marriage (fast forward to just before the 4-minute mark).


If your definition of “great artist” includes “challenging people to question the basic tenets of their culture”–and mine does–then Bowie is a slam dunk. If it includes “anticipating and creating the future”–again, mine does–there’s another slam dunk. On top of triggering a cultural sea change by being the first artist to say he was gay or bi, he created several genres of rock, spotted the talent of many emerging artists very early on and helped launch them (Bruce Springsteen, Iggy Pop, Luther Vandross–who says, “Bowie made me go out and do an opening 45-minute act for him every night with my own material”–Arcade Fire, and others), and was the first major artist to release a downloadable single, in 1996. The internet barely existed in 1996. Oh, and then in 1997 he did a live cybercast of his “Earthling” concert (which didn’t work so well because he was way ahead of the actual technology), and in 1998, “when plenty of major corporations were still struggling to even comprehend the significance and impact of the web,” he had not only had a website for years, he created his own ISP, BowieNet.

And who but Bowie inspired so many other artists, creatives, and everyday freaks? Who else had such a pervasive impact on our culture? Look at just a few of the things we owe him:
  • No Bowie, no mainstreaming of gayness and gender fluidity.
  • No Bowie, no room for scrawny, snaggletoothed, odd-eyed weirdos–and by extension other previously ridiculed human variations–to be cool.
  • No Bowie, no Prince… because even aside from the inspiration Prince took from him, what major American label would have signed a sexually ambiguous chameleon freak (exhibit A: Prince’s first TV appearance) if Bowie hadn’t shown that the public would buy that?
  • No Bowie, no 1980s… because without him, could we have had Annie Lennox (when she hit in 1984 she seemed a woman in Bowie drag, a female Thin White Duke)? Could we have had Joy Division without his Berlin trilogy? (answer: no). Could we have had Boy George or Adam Ant or the vast majority of other acts that now epitomize the 1980s (remember: the folks who freed American radio from cock-rock bar music like Billy Squier)? And Madonna herself pretty much says that without him we wouldn’t have her.
He even paved the way for Cyndi Lauper, since she broke without sexing herself up at all, without pandering to men’s lust or women’s anxious urge to be pretty–she looked like a rainbow-hued Ziggy Stardust freak and told us all, as Bowie did, that being a freak was actually much cooler than being normal. Funny thing is, she did not send that message on her first album (Blue Angel), and that album flopped. It was only when she let her “True Colors” out, as Bowie implicitly told us all to do, that she succeeded. And by sending that message they both galvanized the gay rights movement and became enduring gay icons.


And all his movies about alienated otherworldly weirdos (Man Who Fell to Earth, etc.) made being an alienated otherworldly weirdo cool, since after all it was Bowie under the makeup. Other rock stars who venture into film almost always do so in a role that makes them look cool, instead of a role that their own charisma has to subversively make cool. His absolute and utter confidence was revolutionary and splendid to behold. Without it he would have looked like the proverbial 90-pound weakling on whom jocks kick sand.


Who else working between 1900 and 2000 even arguably deserves the title of greatest artist of the 20th century? What other contenders even come close?

“Times Square Chronicles” Reviews My Play

Congrats to fellow playwrights Loren Lieberthal and Shebana Coelho, director Melissa Attebery, and all the actors (special props to Dominique Roberts, Jeff Solomon and Justin Michael Wagner for bringing my play to life)!
Ophelia's review page

“Ophelia’s Landlord” Premiers Tonight in NYC

Come see my play on April 28, 29 or 30th at the Players’ Club on Gramercy Park! It’s directed by Melissa Attebery and stars Dominique Roberts, Jeff Solomon and Justin Michael Wagner. It’s part of a triple bill of one-act plays on the theme of secrets and things left (for better or, often, worse) unsaid.