Life On Mars Does Exist
What David Bowie meant in my life was a truly creative lighthouse, one of the artists who captivated and fascinated me the most.
But very strangely - and unlike Elton John, Véronique Sanson and a few others - I never really dreamed of ever meeting David Bowie "for real".
This is perhaps because, unlike Elton John who, as an artist, never had anything to offer but his own soul and himself through the genius of his music (i.e. just and only his complex human truth – no less!...- endearing and embodied, sublimated by his feelings, his affect, his sensitivity, thus a rich and mesmerizing human dimension which one could always easily suspect existed behind the Glam facade of the glitz and, actually, behind this very extraordinary musical genius of his), I always felt about Bowie that the odds of meeting the human being David Jones behind the Bowie artist were virtually nonexistent - and by this I mean specifically some meeting occurring within the context of a work process, not that of the fan versus the artist (for example, the context that produces some works inspired by his multiple impersonations and fictional characters).
In fact the creator of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack or the Thin White Duke has brilliantly (the word is weak) staged a succession of characters, some ideal screens camouflaging his real persona. All these being invented, manufactured and sometimes borrowed from the universes developed by others, such as the mime Lindsay Kemp’s eccentric and before-the-time "decadent" and ivy world, those of Japanese Kabuki or of the American "Philly" Soul sound, or William Burroughs’ with his system of writing based on collages and assemblages of random words without links ...
But who was the man behind these splendid metamorphosis in the shape of lures? There is, unfortunately, no longer any possibility of trying to find an answer to this question, since that fateful January 10, 2016.
By the mid Seventies, I had created a couple of gouaches with David Bowie as a theme.
Here are the specific circumstances that allowed me to do so: I had obtained from RCA in the US (then Bowie’s record company) a set of photographic documentation during a stay in New York in the summer of 75.
Being on vacation in Stamford, Connecticut, staying with my American friend Sue Rudman’s family, I was able to get an appointment at RCA at the Major’s Art Department, the headquarters of which were at the time in Manhattan at 1133 Avenue of the Americas. There I showed what I had done regarding Elton John, as well as describing my intentions regarding Bowie. What my interlocutor had seen had convinced them enough to give me a set of RCA promotional photos of Bowie, so that I could take inspiration from them, with the prospect on RCA’s side of seeing what I might achieve eventually graphically with the help of that material. I then used these pictures as a basis for the majority of my works.
Subsequently, my contacts at RCA kept me posted upon the progress of things - which ultimately went nowhere.
This is perhaps because Bowie, whom RCA assured me by mail that some reproductions of my works had been submitted to, was not impressed with what he saw?
Quite surely, with the hindsight that passing years have given me, I also think that when this work was submitted to Bowie (if it ever was), the majority of the constituent gouaches were produced showing the looks-of-the-moment that the former Ziggy Stardust bore between 1974 and 1976, roughly the looks that had characterized the emergence of the Young Americans album after the trial run of the David Live album – some looks that would evolve rapidly into the icy, minimalist character of the Thin White Duke, from the Station to Station album.
A period during which the former extra-terrestrial Ziggy, having momentarily become the new Young American King Of Disposable Plastic Soul, finally let his eyebrows grow back for the transitional Station to Station album. Thus burying, once and for all, the last stigma of this epoch of formal hyper creativity when King David would shave off his eyebrows, giving birth to an extreme weirdo’s allure with prominent bare eyebrow arches that over shone due to a heavy orange or fuchsia gloss, a look to which Bowie’s status of falling from another planet –Mars?- substantially owed much...
But due to Bowie’s chameleon like perpetual mutation, by mid 1976 the Young Americans look was already history: Bowie had started his new transformation, very far from the Young Americans’s funky and sometime furious rhythms, its luxurious, shimmering and silky smooth sounds, preparing his departure from the United States and his return to European shores, traveling physically and artistically towards what would become his famous "Berlin" trilogy, namely Low, "Heroes" and Lodger.
Article on the recording of "Young Americans" at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios
Melody Maker October 12, 1974.
This perhaps explains that, at least in part.
Today the matter is irrelevant, anyway.
In the spring of 1976, having understood that nothing would ever come out of this work dedicated to David Bowie, I produced an alternative sleeve for the successor of Young Americans, Station to Station, the original cover of which I absolutely loathed at the time because it had just nothing to do with the looks developed by Young Americans – therefore a mistake, a crime that I needed to repair ... Of course very quickly, and even more so today, I remain confused by what I did and the nonsense of this alternative sleeve, especially when compared to the original, which I find creative, sober and elegant – what it is, and always was. Well, an error of youth, désolé David, nobody's perfect! ...
In my defense, I must say that I was disturbed by my unconditional love of Young Americans. What I did not understand then was why Bowie had to abandon so soon what for me was his apotheosis in terms of music and looks. I certainly remembered then, like everyone else, that Bowie had "eliminated" Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane for the benefit of the starving, skeletal, whimsical and affectedly sophisticated dandy of the Young Americans’ voluptuous and androgynous embodiment. At the time, however, I had not understood that Bowie was essentially, both by self programmed artistic philosophy as well as by temperament, a serial killer, and that the duration of each new incarnation was determind the very day of its birth, the author changing (Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!... ) radically from album to album ...
Much later, my eyes were permanently opened when I realized indisputably that Bowie acted methodically, systematically, as was the fate reserved for his superb Lunar Clown from the Scary Monsters & Super Freaks album (a clown returning to ashes… or stardust? One amongst Bowie’s undisputable masterpieces, no question), a character that the "normalization" of the 80s’ production terminally ended in blood, for the profit of the disappointing next-in-line that we know.
Scary Monsters, thus the last truly great album by Bowie did announce with its title the nature of its successors...
Lets' Dance, a raucous musical cheap supermarket, a tawdry prostitution where Bowie turned his back on everything that had made the rarity and uniqueness of the artist Bowie, by raiding the bank of the Hit Parade – even at the price of his own integrity ; Tonight, which contrary to legend, is a far more acceptable album than Let's Dance is – if not a masterpiece, far from it!- because of the presence of the extraordinary Loving The Alien and Blue Jean. Never Let Me Down, Bowie’s nadir, a noisy, empty and unlistenable mess from beginning to end and which, by its very title, portends the legitimate fears of Bowie against the erosion of his audience, namely ... er, David, pardon but this is the album too many, so… adios! ...
Fortunately, Bowie showed us with his masterly albums of the 90s (Black Tie, White Noise, a worthy successor to Young Americans, or 1. Outside, and also from the 2000s with Heathen, Reality and Blackstar), that these three above mentioned paragons of emptiness from the 80s were only forgivable mistakes along an extraordinary – if not flawless – artistic path.
So, back to the spring of 1976 and the height of the impasse in which I found myself with my “Bowie” production. I decided at least to give myself a last stand: I managed to mount a mini exhibition with the help of my Parisian friends Claire, Françoise and Pierre-Marie, and with the support of the French branch of RCA, in a small gallery on the Champs-Elysées.
The walls were coated with a silver wallpaper with geometric designs, as only the 70s dared propose, my gouaches therefore doing what they could against this messy psychedelic background worthy of Paco Rabanne ... and thus it is always with emotion and a big smile that I see pictures of this small exhibition.
I concluded that Dorian Gray had not necessarily been happy to confront his past image, that of his heyday.
Indeed, it is reputedly painful for every human being to witness the ravages of Time on one’s face, this elusive foe at work busy on decaying us, his merciless work punctuated by the clock’s tick-tock pacing our journey on Earth and its inexorable outcome, towards which we are all moving relentlessly.
I guess watching dusk to come must be even harder for those who were once so young, so brilliant, so extravagant, so fascinating and so adulated, as Bowie was. Today, I still have very mixed feelings about these autographed remains, sort of relics shattered by the idol himself.
In 2003, the shooting of a promotional video for Vittel – for which my partner was responsible - took place in New York City, a film in which Bowie played the leading role. Therefore, my partner could easily approach the musician one day during a break, which he did, by handing him my Young Americans sleeve (a real treasure for me, a first original hardcover edition, plasticized by me in order to protect it against time! ...) with some NME and Melody Maker press articles of the time of the record’s release, so that David Bowie could dedicate them to me.
When the sleeve and articles were returned to me, I was astonished to see that Bowie had completely covered his face and scribbled it with a signature and words, quite friendly in meaning, yet ones that almost reflected some kind of rage or anger in their shape. He had had every opportunity to do otherwise, to affix his signature on the side, if he wanted, but no, what he had done he had done purposefully by crossing and masking his face.
So thank you,
for my youth punctuated by all your dazzling works of the 70's,
from Hunky Dory to Ziggy Stardust,
from Aladdin Sane to Diamond Dogs,
and especially by the funk
and plastic chic of Young Americans,
thank you for your genius
and your so peculiar ability to have persistently
shown us that, yes,
Life Did Exist On Mars,
and that consequently you are still alive up there…
Where, obviously, Somebody Up There Likes You
- at least we do heartily
But thinking about it finally, when one considers the Heathen’s album cover, released at about the time that Bowie massacred with black ink my Young Americans’ copy, one can perhaps better understand Bowie’s mindset about iconography - including his own. Throughout his life, his choice was to surprise, to deconstruct, to alter and modify, to challenge and destroy everything (including himself, occasionally, with cocaine and outrage), if only to rise from the ashes.
In this, his “attack” against my Young Americans’ copy seems coherent, almost friendly, somewhat touching. The No-More-So-Young-American with his ragged autograph had projected his Black Light on what was –and still is- the album of his career in my own view... Well, what else would you expect from a Black Star?