Talk: ‘I’m just the space cadet, he’s the commander’ – Reflecting on Bowie Fandom

Talk given at Club Critical Theory seminar, following a screening of Cracked Actor, as part of Strange, Mad Celebration, a Bowie all-dayer held at The Railway, Southend-on-Sea on 19th June

When I last spoke at a CCT event, I talked about the ‘pilgrimages’ surrounding two very different local bands – Dr Feelgood and Depeche Mode. I focussed on the once annual Lee Brilleaux Memorial Walk around the Feelgoods’ Canvey led by the band’s manager, Chris Fenwick, and the ‘Bas’ electronic music festival, which has been run in Basildon since 2011, and its bus tour of Depeche Mode’s former homes and haunts in the town. I talked about the parallels between ‘fandom’ in the context of popular music and worship in the context of religious devotion and emphasised the extent to which, in these two cases, being a fan expressed itself in communal forms, specifically in the camaraderie across nationalities on the Brilleaux walk and the coming together in Basildon of an international community of Depeche Mode fans who refer to themselves as a ‘black swarm’. In support of this argument about the communal nature of fandom I referred to Victor and Edith Turner’s landmark anthropological work on Christian pilgrimage where they identified it as an activity that transcends social barriers, terming the losing of one’s old identity and freely and spontaneously encountering others on pilgrimage communitas. (As an aside, it should be mentioned that, as long as we are talking about Bowie’s influence and legacy, both of these local bands may not have existed if it were not for Bowie, even if in the case of Dr Feelgood it was due to an antagonistic kind of influence. The first album Martin Gore of Depeche Mode bought was Ziggy Stardust and Bowie was a clear influence on the band’s mid-eighties Teutonic, industrial turn, when they recorded at Hansa studios. Meanwhile, Lee Brilleaux said of Dr Feelgood’s 1976 live album Stupidity that it ‘was the culmination of the revolution against the stack heel and platform shoe brigade… We said bollocks to all that, this is how a live band really goes to work’, although admittedly he may have been talking more about Mud and the Bay City Rollers who dominated the charts that year, than Bowie.)

The Basildon and Canvey events had a very communal emphasis then and when turning to think about Bowie fandom, I was at first struck by the communality of the spontaneous expressions of love and adoration for him after his death. Fans gathered to lay flowers at the Aladdin Sane mural in his birthplace of Brixton , while the site of the Ziggy cover shot on Heddon Street, and even the former site of the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham, the venue for the Beckenham Arts Lab which was so important for Bowie’s early development (incongruously now a Zizzi restaurant), became focal points for vigils. Videos of huge crowds spontaneously breaking into song in Brixton as dusk fell on the day his death was announced were genuinely moving and I, like many fans, felt a strong pull to go there and take part in what was going on at this ‘site of continuing fellowship and veneration by his fans’, as Richard Howells of Kings College has termed Jim Morrison’s Père Lachaise gravesite. Later I was able to carry out my own act of homage, going over to Groningen to catch the V&A’s David Bowie Is exhibition – I’d shuffled round it six people deep on the opening day in London and wanted another shot at it. This was quite something in terms of the music fan pilgrimage – almost everyone on the plane from Southend was booked on a package deal to see the exhibition, the LCD display on the front of the airport shuttle bus rechristened it the ‘David Bowie bus’, and the reverence in the final room of the exhibition, the cathedral-like space surrounded by stories-high video screens, was certainly far more palpable than it had been in London when he was still on the planet with us and was thus at least tangible, however much we might have identified him with the astral. While in his short book on Bowie, Simon Critchley wrote of the atmosphere in this room at the original exhibition as the Ziggy farewell gig performance of ‘Rock n’ Roll Suicide’ finished – ‘The lights came up. Around me, people were just smiling. Just happy. Wonderful. Oh no love, you’re not alone’ – the ‘Bye bye, we love you’ at the end of that performance had gained an entirely new poignancy two months after his death. It was a communal act of worship to stand in that space and be bound by the same enthusiasm, bordering on, or even thoroughly, embracing devotion. There was community in these expressions of Bowie fandom then, but I would argue that in fact Bowie fandom is very much about individuality – not a wholly original insight – but I want to examine that idea a bit further and perhaps identify some of the finer features of individuality in Bowie fandom. I’m hypothesising that Bowie fandom is about individuality in three ways – identity-making (which has been a pretty well-known function of his influence), escapism, and Bowie as a personal guru. These are far from mutually exclusive, but I just want to briefly look at each of these ideas in turn.

As I think is clear here today, Bowie fans are remarkably diverse. There is no uniform (no common dress like the leather clad Euro goths of the Depeche Mode fan cult, for example), and while he may notably have inspired New Romanticism and its local manifestation at the Glamour Club at Croc’s, now the Pink Toothbrush, if we are talking sartorially, his changing look gave rise to a wealth of responses in his fans’ own aesthetic. This is writ large in the fans interviewed outside the LA gig in Cracked Actor – there’s a lot of jeans and, dare I say, tank tops, in that line of fans, but we also see full pierrot make up, Aladdin Sane flashes, and right up-to-the-moment white soul boys sporting orange wedge hairdos. By 1974, Bowie had already embraced such a wealth of looks and accompanying cultural references, that he was inspiring a huge range of reflections of this in his fans. But this was more than just dress-up. Because Bowie was authentic in his very inauthenticity, as Critchley has argued, embracing and prizing the inauthentic openly in both interview and lyric, this could be about a profound remaking of identity for fans. In Cracked Actor, Bowie is explicitly supportive of ‘The idea of [fans] finding another character within themselves’ – the top-hatted fan in the film who says ‘I never get bored because I can always change – I’ll draw a different picture, this way or that way’ clearly got the memo. Critchley points out that for many people ‘Bowie was the being who… freed them to become some other kind of self’, saying ‘identity is a very fragile affair. It is at best a sequence of episodic blips rather than some grand narrative unity’. Bowie’s constant evolution modelled the possibility of the repeated making and remaking of identity to fans, episode by episode, and he could appeal to both the ‘freaks’, and the very straight ‘we’re all big rock fans’ boys of Cracked Actor – they could all claim him. We might make reference here to Max Weber’s work on charismatic authority, described by Simon Morgan of Leeds Metropolitan University as paradoxical: ‘the celebrity is identified as a unique individual possessed of a form of hyper-individuality; simultaneously, they are imbued with qualities that enable large numbers of people to identify with them.’ As Sady Doyle brilliantly put it in a piece published on Medium following Bowie’s death, ‘calling yourself a David Bowie fan feels like claiming to own the Post Office. You might send a lot of mail, but buddy, that building is for everybody.’

The second aspect of the individuality of Bowie fandom is that of escapism – being lifted out of the normal flow of life. Again, Critchley says ‘He is someone who made life a little less ordinary’, pointing to the lyrics of ‘Rock n’ Roll Suicide’ as placing the outsider in suburbia and explicitly telling all the misfits – misfits, paradoxically, because they were ordinary – that they were ‘not alone’. Bowie’s music, he says, allowed us ‘to escape from being us’ and ‘think of another life’. In an article in the Social and Cultural History journal asking ‘Are saints celebrities?’, Aviad Kleinberg said ‘Celebrities touch us in different ways. When we – or twelfth-century people – want to see, touch, hear and maintain certain physical proofs of such contact (in the form of torn pieces of cloth, autographs, photographs, even stories), we imply that a particular person connects us with symbolic realms that are out of the ordinary, with para-natural power.’ Bowie did this more than any other artist I can think of, but this went beyond just his encyclopedic referencing of other ‘symbolic realms’, from Nietzschean supermen to laughing gnomes. I’d argue that a large part of Bowie’s escapist power was achieved through his modelling of the creative act. In her article Sady Doyle wrote of Bowie’s artistic failures and ultimate transcendence of human limitations through sheer dogged dedication to his art: ‘He tried being a mod. He tried being a folksinger. He tried heavy metal (almost, almost, “The Man Who Sold the World” is very nearly it… He studied music — studied every art form, really — voraciously, until he internalized it… “When I started writing, I couldn’t put more than three or four words together. Now I think I write very well,” David Bowie said. “I’m finding that if I just look at something and think, A man did that, I realize I can do it, too. And probably better… It’s only a matter of deciding what you want to do.”’ Bowie showed fans that the creative, both in terms of making your own identity – making yourself – and in terms of creating stuff that takes you outside of yourself, is the ultimate escapism because it makes the fantasy real – you really do escape.

Finally, I just want to mention the possibility of Bowie being a kind of personal guru to his fans. In a negative assessment of fan culture, the spirit of which I don’t agree with, but none the less the concept is interesting, Richard Schickel designated the celebrity’s relationship to the fan as that of an ‘intimate stranger’, with the fan engaging in an imagined familiarity with their object of adulation. Simon Critchley has admitted ‘I feel an extraordinary intimacy with Bowie… this is a shared fantasy, common to huge numbers of loyal fans…’ The idea of the ‘intimate’ stranger can of course have a sexual connotation. Critchley tells the story common to so many others of seeing Bowie’s Top of the Pops performance of ‘Starman’: ‘He seemed so sexual, so knowing, so sly and so strange… a door to a world of unknown pleasures’. The woman in the amazing glittery eye make-up in Cracked Actor seems to echo similar ideas when she says so fabulously – ‘I guess I’m living my fantasy… he represents it all to me, excitement, space – see I’m just the space cadet, he’s the commander’. When mentioning fans’ sexual fantasies about stars we have to mention Fred Vermorel’s almost literally seminal 1985 book Starlust, a collection of first person accounts of such imaginings. It features Bowie a lot, however, what’s striking in a book of really explicit content is only one or two of the Bowie fans write in predominantly sexual terms – most seem to have a more complex relationship to him than this. They write to him in a tone of extreme familiarity and many of them treat him almost like an agony aunt – they open up about their often mundane problems, their mental sufferings, and actively seek guidance from him. One of the fans in Starlust writes ‘When I listen to Bowie, I feel as though I have a special friend. I feel very close to him, as if I’ve known him for years’. Other take this further and treat him like a saint – many are in effect invoking his intercession and seem to be seeking salvation. Indeed, one of them describes him directly as a messianic figure, saying ‘he came to us a bit like Jesus. You could also call him an alien.’ Others create their own mythologies around him, often predictably space-based (as in the case of the follower of the ‘Bowie Universe’ from Phoenix in Cracked Actor). Here we have Bowie as confidante, his strong intellectualism and reference to a whole world of ideas beyond himself, from which the fan many choose those which they most identify with, perhaps encouraging a deeper, more individual and personal level of engagement from the fan. Bowie’s relationship to the fan becomes that of guru or oracle, and this identification only seems to have intensified as he got older and more reclusive, becoming more and more like the holy man at the top of the mountain. He directly played with ideas of being a messiah or preacher figure in ‘The Next Day’ and ‘Blackstar’ videos and the ideas of Ziggy – the leper messiah to his fans – perhaps really came to pass.

Bowie’s legacy in terms of the study of fandom, for both religious history and cultural studies, is to highlight the possibility of a highly individual, possibly religiously-tinged fandom, which doesn’t preclude the possibility of communal expression (we are all here, after all). Indeed, to refer back to the anthropological work of the Turners, they state that the communal nature of pilgrimage ‘does not merge identities; it liberates them from conformity to general norms’ – this seems to apply very well to Bowie too. For fans themselves, I hope I’ve begun to show that Bowie’s legacy is profound – it is nothing less than turning ourselves to face us and seeing that we can remake ourselves, escape the everyday and maybe become something extraordinary.