Man of ch-ch-ch-ch changes

Profile David Bowie The Jones boy repeatedly reinvented himself as rock star. Mick Brown asks if his latest identity is the real thing
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The Independent Online
LATE last year the magazine Modern Painters published an illuminating interview with the legendary and reclusive French painter Balthus by David Bowie. The two men are friends, and the conversation meandered genially through such topics as the work of Balthus, Bacon and Picasso, and the shared enthusiasm of Balthus and Bowie for St Augustine's Confessions.

Asked about his old friend the painter Derain, Balthus talks of an "extraordinary man ... because he changed his opinions every day like a cloud".

You can sense Bowie's antennae quivering. "And did he have a throughline?" he asks. "A sense of continuity about what he did as a painter, or did he change that as well?"

You can see his interest because the same question might well be asked of David Bowie himself. For almost 30 years he has floated across the horizon of rock music, as evanescent and mysterious as a cloud. And the throughline has often been difficult to divine.

Better than anybody, David Bowie has understood the imperative of change in pop music. His rise as a rock performer was predicated on the deployment of disguise - Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, theatrical creations which as much as they enthralled his audience, begged the perennial question: will the real David Bowie please stand up.

Last week, a blue Mercedes limousine pulled up outside The Gallery in Cork Street, London, and another David Bowie stepped out - David Bowie, painter. "David Bowie: First Solo Exhibition" is a retrospective of Bowie's work as a painter over the last 20 years. It includes portraits of Iggy Pop and Lucien Freud, computer-generated prints, sculpture, and - bizarrely - designs for two wallpapers, produced with Laura Ashley.

Two paintings have already been purchased by the Saatchi Gallery, and three more by what his press office describes as "very important British collections".

This, it seems, is no celebrity dilettantish exercise - the Sunday paintings of Tony Curtis. Bowie takes painting seriously. He sits on the board of the magazine Modern Painters, and he is an enthusiastic collector of German Expressionist and British contemporary art, notably Graham Sutherland and William Tillier. Last year he paid £18,000 to keep the controversial Peter Howson painting, Croatian and Muslim, in Britain after the Imperial War Museum rejected it.

The guise under which David Bowie, artist, now presents himself to the world is some distance from the exotic figure of the past. Cary Grant- suave, elegant, clean living. Like other pop stars of his generation, he has made his way to the public confessional to recant on the sins of the past - the libertine sexuality, and the cocaine abuse which allegedly left him with acute memory loss, causing him once to consider having his brain examined "to see if there are any holes". Now he extols the virtues of sobriety, married life and fatherhood. At 48, David Bowie is a little old to be playing games with his own identity. We must assume this is the real thing.

DAVID JONES was born in Brixton, south London - a milieu which, in later life, he would liken, somewhat fancifully, to the mean and picaresque streets of Harlem. In fact, by the time he was six, the Jones family had moved to the tree-lined and curtain-twitching streets of suburban Bromley.

At Bromley Tech, he distinguished himself by being the first pupil to make the important transition from winkle-picker to chisel-toed shoes, and displayed an early interest in aliens, editing a UFO magazine. He would later claim to have seen battalions of alien craft: "They came over so regularly that we used to time them."

He left with one O-level - in art. The late Sixties saw him working his apprenticeship as a rock musician and displaying early signs that he was casting around for an identity: "The Laughing Gnome" had him sounding alarmingly like Anthony Newley; "Space Oddity", his first major hit in 1969, suspiciously like the Bee Gees. He dabbled in multi-media, running an arts lab in Beckenham, and studied dance and mime with Lindsay Kemp.

His album, The Man Who Sold The World, released in 1971, proved a portent. Bowie appeared on the album sleeve resplendent in a dress, and several songs on the record dealt explicitly with the theme of madness.

A biography, Alias David Bowie, written by the journalists Peter and Leni Gillman and published in 1986, provides some illumination. Bowie, the Gillmans revealed, had an elder half-brother, Terry, who suffered from schizophrenia, and who committed suicide in 1985 by throwing himself under a train. Terry's predicament, the book suggested, had exercised a baleful influence on Bowie; the fear that the same germ of madness that infected his brother might lie in him too.

For years Bowie refused to discuss this thesis. "He was clearly upset by it," says Peter Gillman, "either because it was outrageously untrue, or painfully true. I think it confronted him with something he had been hiding from himself."

Gillman believes that the anxiety inculcated by Terry's schizophrenia was the catalyst for the shifting roles which Bowie adopted through the Seventies. "I think he was working out his fears through the role-playing, the lyrics and the themes of his performance."

It was his first full-blown creation, the flame-haired, androgynous and unearthly Ziggy Stardust that would bring him to international stardom in 1972, to be followed by the painted Aladdin Sane and the desiccated Thin White Duke.

Psychotherapy this role-playing may have been, but it put Bowie in the forefront of rock as theatre. Better than anybody, Bowie understood that pop music is a hybrid form. In the 1960s "authenticity" had been highly prized - a throwback to rock music's roots in the pure form of the blues. Bowie's talent was for miscegenation, artfully appropriating avant-garde ideas and popularising them.

He also understood the power of sex in pop music. Mick Jagger had flaunted effeminacy with the Rolling Stones. Bowie took it further, elevating the thrill of sexual ambiguity to a revolutionary cri de coeur - "Oh you pretty things", he sang in one his most popular songs, "Don't you know you're driving your mamas and papas insane."

His public "coming out" as a bisexual in 1974 to Melody Maker suggested both a bracing honesty and a shrewd understanding of the shifting sexual barriers of the time.

Bowie has subsequently characterised the Seventies as a time of "pushing the boundaries of exploration", of pursuing an insatiable appetite for sex, drugs, whatever was to hand. Living in America, he enveloped himself in a cocoon of cocaine, sycophancy and self-regard.

His wife Angie - from whom he separated in 1976 after seven years of marriage - subsequently proved to be the rock missus from hell, publishing an autobiography which gleefully recounted details of Bowie's orgiastic excesses, his dabblings with the occult, as much sensationalist claptrap as she could muster. In search of recuperation, Bowie relocated to Berlin. He is said to have attempted suicide twice, and one occasion was seen in a caf with his head in a plate, crying "Please help me".

The clouds of hubris and messianic self-importance thickened. In 1976 he was quoted as saying that "Britain could benefit from a fascist leader", and apparently proposing himself as a feasible candidate for premier. Shortly afterwards he arrived at Victoria station, black-shirted and greeting waiting fans with what appeared to be a fascist salute. Happily, he pulled through. The early Eighties saw him reclaiming his old commercial popularity with the album, Let's Dance, although, curiously, it was to be his last great success as a performer. Recently he has dabbled with the avant-garde heavy metal group, Tin Machine; a game experiment, but a commercial disaster. Black Tie, White Noise, released two years ago, was his first solo album since 1987, but it excited scant attention.

There is a sense that having built a career on the obligation to continually reinvent himself, as a rock performer at least, Bowie has long run out of things to reinvent himself as. The throughline has become a cul-de- sac. He has said he feels no inclination ever to tour again. He has been working on a CD-Rom for release later this year, and he will reportedly play Andy Warhol in a biopic of the artist's life, which brings alarmingly to mind Lou Reed's old plan to market a Warhol doll - you wind it up and nothing happens.

His emergence as a painter seems opportune then. It would be easy to dismiss his paintings as a way of capitalising on his fame as a pop singer - easy, but unfair. His friend, the art dealer Bernard Jacobson, says that Bowie is "as serious, and as eclectic, an art maker as he is an art collector". Bowie names his influences as the Dada-ist Picabia, the abstract landscape painter Peter Lanyon and David Bomberg. "He's single-minded, talented, sensitive and intelligent. All the things an artist should be," says Jacobson.

It was Jacobson who introduced Bowie to the board of Modern Painters. He religiously attends the quarterly meetings, with such fellow members as Lord Gowrie and Jeremy Isaacs, and the informal board dinners. "I remember the first dinner he came to at the Gay Hussar," says Jacobson. "He was absolutely terrified, worrying about whether he could hold his own with all these academics. But they absolutely loved him. He has been a breath of fresh and very unpretentious air. He's got strong and intelligent views on art; you could let him loose with anyone." After his interview with Balthus, he wrote a piece on South African art which will be published in Modern Painters in June.

His personal life too, has found the stability it always lacked. Having declared himself resolutely heterosexual after all, he married the model Iman in 1992 in the modern style, sharing it with just a few close friends and Hello! magazine. His 25-year-old son, having survived the early vicissitudes of a broken home, a Gordonstoun education and being christened Zowie, had the sense to change his name to Joe and recently left university with a doctorate in philosophy.

At the opening of his exhibition last week Bowie moved among the celebrity crowd, accepting congratulations and talking eagerly of his plans to collaborate with Eduardo Paolozzi and his new friend Damien Hirst. The artist at ease, the spectres of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke gone with the clouds.

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