“Turn and face the strange”: A personal goodbye to David Bowie

“There is a well known cliché that you should never meet your heroes but if David Bowie or Paul McCartney fancy coming round to my house for dinner I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be lost for words”.

This was the last sentence I wrote in my blog on the psychology of being starstruck less than a month ago. I, like millions of others, was deeply shocked to learn of Bowie’s death from liver cancer earlier this week (January 10) two days after his 69th birthday.

I first remember hearing David Bowie on a 1975 edition of Top of the Pop(when the re-release of ‘Space Oddity’ reached No.1 in the British singles chart). Although I heard the occasional Bowie song over the next few years (‘Golden Years’, ‘Sound and Vision’ and ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ being some of the songs I taped off the radio during the weekly chart rundown) it wasn’t until ‘Ashes To Ashes’ reached the UK No. 1 spot in the week of my 14th birthday (late August 1980) that I became a Bowie convert.

I still vividly remember buying my first Bowie album – a vinyl copy of his first greatest hits LP (Changesonebowie) on the same day that I bought the third album by The Police (Zenyatta Mondatta) and the latest issue of Smash Hits (that had Gary Numan on the cover with a free yellow flexidisc of the track ‘My Face’ by John Foxx). It was Saturday October 4th, 1980. Ever since that day I’ve been collecting David Bowie music and now have every single song that he has ever commercially released along with hundreds of bootlegs of unreleased songs and live recordings.

My collection of Bowie books is ever growing and I have dozens of Bowie DVDs (both his music and films in which he has appeared). In short, I’m a hardcore fan – and always will be. Like many other fans, I’ve spent all this week listening to his final studio LP (Blackstar) and poring over the lyrics knowing that he wrote all these songs knowing that he had terminal cancer. The first line of ‘Lazarus’ appears particularly poignant in this regard (Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now/Look up here, man, I’m in danger/I’ve got nothing left to lose”).

Anyone who’s been a regular reader of my blog will know that when I get a chance to mention how important he has been in my life, I do so (and do so in writing). I mentioned him in my articles on the psychology of musical preferences, on the psychology of a record-collecting completist, on record collecting as an addiction, and on the psychology of pandrogyny. I’ve also mentioned him (somewhat predictably) in my articles on the psychology of Iggy Pop, and the psychology of Lou Reed (two more of my musical heroes).

I’ve also been sneaking the titles of his songs into the titles of my blog articles ever since I started my blog including ‘Space Oddity’ (in my article on exophilia), ‘Holy Holy’ (in my article on Jerusalem Syndrome), ‘Ashes To Ashes’ (in my article on ‘cremainlining‘), ‘Under Pressure’ (in my article on inflatable rubber suit fetishism), and ‘Changes’ (in my article on transformation fetishes).

When I started writing this article I did wonder whether to do ‘the psychology of David Bowie’ but there is so much that I could potentially write about that it would take more than a 1000-word blog to do any justice to one of the most psychologically fascinating personalities of the last 50 years (Strange Fascination by David Buckley being one of the many good biographies written about him).

Trying to get at the underlying psychology of someone that changed personas (‘the chameleon of pop’) so many times during his career is a thankless task. However, his desire for fame started early and he was determined to do it any way he could whether it was by being a musician, a singer, an actor, a mime artist, an artist, or an entrepreneur (arguably he has been them all at one time or another). Being behind a mask or creating a persona (or “alternative egos” as Bowie called them) was something that got Bowie to where he wanted to be and I’m sure that with each new character he became, the personality grew out of it.

As an academic that studies addiction for a living, Bowie would be a perfect case study. Arguably it could be argued that he went from one addiction to another throughout his life, and based on what I have read in biographies a case could be made for Bowie being addicted (at one time or another) from cocaine and nicotine through to sex, work, and the Internet.

Bowie also had a personal interest in mental health and various mental disorders ran through his family (most notably his half-brother Terry Burns who was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and committed suicide in January 1985 by jumping in front of a moving train. A number of his aunts were also prone to clinical depression and schizophrenia). Bowie first tackled his “sad [mental] inheritance” in ‘All The Madmen’ (on his 1971 The Man Who Sold The World LP) and was arguably at his most candid on the 1993 hit single ‘Jump They Say’ that dealt with is brother’s mental illness and suicide.

Like John Lennon, I’ve always found Bowie’s views on almost anything of interest and he was clearly well read and articulate. He described himself as spiritual and recent stories over the last few days have claimed he almost became a Buddhist monk. Whether that’s true is debatable but he was certainly interested in Buddhism and its tenets. Now that I am carrying out research into mindfulness with two friends and colleagues who are also Buddhist monks (Edo Shonin and William Van Gordon), I have begun to read more on the topic. One of the things that Buddhism claims is that identity isn’t fixed and nowhere is that more true than in the case of David Bowie. Perhaps the chorus one of his greatest songs – ‘Changes’ from his 1971 Hunky Dory LP says it all:

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes/Turn and face the strange/Ch-ch-changes/Don’t want to be a richer man/Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes/Turn and face the strange/Ch-ch-changes/Just gonna have to be a different man/Time may change me/But I can’t trace time”

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Buckley, D. (2005). Strange Fascination: David Bowie – The Definitive Story. London: Virgin Books.

Cann, K. (2010). Any Day Now: David Bowie The London Years (1947-1974). Adelita.

Goddard, S. (2015). Ziggyology. London: Ebury Press.

Hewitt, P. (2013). David Bowie Album By Album. London: Carlton Books Ltd.

Leigh, W. (2014). Bowie: The Biography. London: Gallery.

Pegg, N. (2011). The Complete David Bowie. London: Titan Books.

Seabrook, T.J. (2008). Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town. London: Jawbone.

Spitz, M. (2009). Bowie: A Biography. Crown Archetype.

Trynka, P. (2011). Starman: David Bowie – The Definitive Biography. London: Little Brown & Company.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on January 15, 2016, in Addiction, Case Studies, Cigarette smoking, Drug use, Fame, Online addictions, Popular Culture, Psychology, Sex, Work, Workaholism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Great post M.

    “When I started writing this article I did wonder whether to do ‘the psychology of David Bowie’ but there is so much that I could potentially write about that it would take more than a 1000-word blog to do any justice to one of the most psychologically fascinating personalities of the last 50 years”

    Don’t do it. Tis a Rabbit hole to beat ’em all.😉

    Seriously, I took a stab, a few years back, and it is/was a fascinating journey. My views have changed a bit since, but the process was both obscuring and illuminating, but that’s Bowie isn’t it?


    • Hi Tanja. Thanks for your comments. Just wondering if you could send me copies of your book chapters. I’d love to read them. Best wishes. Mark

      Book Chapter: “Crashing Out with Sylvian: David Bowie, Carl Jung and the Unconscious” in Deveroux, E., M.Power and A. Dillane (eds) Critical Perspectives: Routledge Press Contemporary Music Series. 2015 (chapter 5)

      Book Chapter: “Confronting Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses” in Enchanting David Bowie Bloomsbury Press, 2015 (for Deakin University) exploring Art history and symbolism in pop culture.

  2. Of course.

    Im actually writing again at the moment, in light of his death which i guess I intuited, and expounded upon, last year.

    Indeed my Corpses piece pretty much spells it out in not so many words, but there is no academically acceptable way of saying, “the reaper is almost upon him” without sounding crazy so i did the best I could😉

    I stumbled across your blog as part of my research/musings/ponderings this week.

    I’m not even sure how this paper will coalesce. It won’t be academic, thats for sure.😉

    Copies of the chapters are here:
    The Rutledge one:

    and the Bloomsbury one:

    I highly recommend the purchase of both collections of essays. It might be something you could integrate academically even?

    As sometimes happens as contributors, we work independently and don’t always get to read the other essays during the editorial process, which by it’s very nature almost wears us out by the end. ( I think i had to cut 5000w from mine which was pretty tricky).

    Only recently I have I read both books cover to cover and found all the other contributions absolutely riveting. I only wish i had have had access to my fellow essayists when i was writing! ( And despite the plug, I don’t get any financial benefit for book sales btw😉 )

    Let me now your thoughts.


  3. (autocorrect typo’s – sorry)

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