I’ve just returned from what is, in my thoroughly unobjective opinion as a Bowiefreak, the best exhibition ever mounted. The V&A’s David Bowie Is deserves the hype. But since tickets have been selling out quicker than a rock star clutching a can of Pepsi, and you’re unlikely to get to go for a while yet, let me guide you through it in song…
The ever-circling skeletal family. The headset commentary offers snatches of song and interview, and amazingly it “knows” where you are, switching back and forth depending on which exhibit you are standing in front of. It’s like being inside a living documentary.
Cracked Actor. As well as selling over 140 million albums, Bowie has acted in over a dozen feature films including Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (right). There’s a separate screening space for clips from the likes of Labyrinth and Basquiat, as well as the loin cloth he wore while playing the Elephant Man, to no small acclaim, on stage in New York.
The hand that wrote this letter. In addition to the cut-up lyrics for Blackout (left) there are loads of handwritten song lyrics, most of which, sadly, are pristine, with none of the crossings-out and rewriting that usually make handwritten songs and poems so fascinating. Did they spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus? Or, more likely, are these just write-ups of the final versions? There are a couple of kooks, however. Most striking is a deleted verse from Fashion: “Hell up ahead – burn a play – start a fight/If you’re covered in blood, you’re doing it right.” There’s also a glimpse into how Heroes could have been very much worse: “And we kissed/And you felt called” is crossed out and replaced with “And we kissed/As though nothing could fall.”
Hang him on my wa-wa-wa-wall. Bowie’s interest in art goes back to his teens: a school sketchbook is here, along with sketches for album covers (such as his self-portrait for Heroes, right), costumes, stage sets, and characters and backdrops for a projected film set in Hunger City. He’s no draughtsman, but he has the vision for others to follow. Most poignant are two canvases from his Berlin period (including a bug-eyed Iggy Pop), with a bit of an Egon Schiele vibe. He has said that painting helped him to kick his drug addictions.
Return of the (Very) Thin White Duke. As well as loads of stage costumes, his measurements are written out in detail. His waist size in the early ‘70s is given as 26.5in!!
Space Oddity. The V&A show is vast, full of nooks and corners and booths. At the end is a cavernous space dominated by a vast screen pumping out supersized videos, and costumed mannequins stacked up in see-through boxes four storeys high.
Five years. The V&A has collaborated with the BBC on a documentary entitled Five Years, covering 1971, 1975, 1977, 1980 and 1983. It will be broadcast sometime next month.
He’s a star, man. I went round the exhibition with a Bowie neophyte, who previously had no interest in him or his songs. Afterwards she spent hours watching past videos and interviews on YouTube.
Click here for my blog on David Bowie’s Where Are We Now?
Click here for my 1995 interview with Bowie and Eno