“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 Pops (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
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.
A world of disc-overy: Record collecting as an addiction
Regular readers of my blog will know that (a) some of my friends describe me as a “music obsessive” and (b) that I have written blogs on both compulsive hoarding and ‘collecting’ as an addiction‘ (including a separate blog on murderabilia). Today’s blog briefly looks at a really interesting 2008 paper I came across on ‘record collecting’ as an addiction written by Professor Kevin Moist in the journal Studies in Popular Culture. (Moist also has a new co-edited book – Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices, and the Fate of Things – that has just been published by Scarecrow Press).
According to research papers and books by Dr. Russell Belk, around one in three people in the United States collects something – yet one of the observations that Moist makes is that collectors (in general and not just relating to record collectors) are often portrayed negatively as “obsessive, socially maladjusted oddballs in thrall to acquisitive drives”. I have to admit that those closest to me certainly see my passionate interest in collecting music by certain recording artists as “obsessive” (although arguably not “socially maladjusted”). I’ve also been described as “no different to a trainspotter” (but said in such a way that it obviously relates to something negative).
Research by Dr. Susan Pearce (published in her 1998 book Contemporary Collecting in Britain) shows that collectors as a group are “quite average, socially speaking”. Additionally, Dr. Belk claims that the image of a ‘collector’ acts as “an unwitting metaphor for our own fears of unbridled materialism in the marketplace”. Belk then goes on to say that his research has led him to the conclusion that collectors cherish things about objects “that few others appreciate” and are not necessarily materialistic in their motivations for collecting. Belk also talks about collecting behaviour being on a continuum of the ‘heroic passionate’ collector at one end of the spectrum and the ‘obsessive-compulsive type’ at the other with most collectors falling somewhere between the two. I briefly dealt with the motivations to collect things in my previous blog but in her book Museums, Objects, and Collections, Dr. Pearce argues collecting falls into three distinct (but sometimes overlapping) types. As Moist summarizes:
“One of these she calls ‘souvenirs’, items or objects that have significance primarily as reminders of an individual’s or group’s experiences. The second mode is what she calls ‘fetish objects’ (conflating the anthropological and psychological senses of the term), relating primarily to the personality of the collector; the collector’s own desires lead to the accumulation of objects that feed back into those desires, with the collection playing a central role in defining the personality of the collector, memorializing the development of a personal interest or passion. The third mode, ‘systematics’, has the broader goal of creating a set of objects that expresses some larger meaning. Systematic collecting involves a stronger element of consciously presenting an idea, seen from a particular point of view and expressed via the cultural world of objects”.
When it comes to record collecting, I appear to most fit the second (i.e., fetish) type. The artists that I collect are an extension of my own personality and say something about me. My tastes are diverse and eclectic (to say the least) and range from the obvious ‘classic’ artists (Beatles, David Bowie, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed), the not so obvious (Adam Ant, The Smiths, Bauhaus, Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, Divine Comedy), the arguably obscure (Art of Noise, John Foxx, Propaganda, David Sylvian, Nico) and the downright extreme (Throbbing Gristle, Velvet Underground). Arguably, most people’s conceptions of record collecting (if they are not collectors themselves) are likely to be based on media and cultural representations of such individuals (such as John Cusack and Jack Black in High Fidelity, or Steve Buscemi in Ghost World). I agree with Professor Moist who asserts:
“Most record collectors fit well within Belk’s definition, passionately acquiring sets of records both as objects and cultural experiences. As with most types of collecting, the ‘thrill of the chase’ is a major part of the experience…[However] today, with eBay and other online resources, the amount of time required for the hunt has been reduced, and collecting is also less of a face-to-face social activity since one can search in private rather than actually traveling to find records…Music writer Simon Reynolds notes that record collecting also ‘involves the accumulation of data as well as artifacts’, a factor that can be seen in magazines devoted to record collecting such as Goldmine and Record Collector, and that has only increased as collecting has gone online”.
The above paragraph could have been written about me. I am one of those record collectors that collect as much for the cultural experience as for the object itself. I have loads of mint condition singles and LPs that I haven’t even played (but listen to the music on my i-Pod). I have bought Record Collector magazine every month for over 30 years and have never missed an issue. Every month I buy a wide range of other music magazines including Mojo, Q, Uncut, Vive Le Rock, Classic Rock and Classic Pop (as well as the occasional issue of Rolling Stone, NME, The Wire, Future Music and Shindig). In short, almost a lot of my disposable income goes on buying music or reading music. My records, CDs and music magazines can be found in almost every room in my house. To me, my collection is priceless (and I mean that in an emotional sense rather than a financial one). I am an archivist of the artists I collect as much as a collector. Professor Moist comments that: “While such fanatical and obsessed collectors do exist…they are clearly outliers on the scale of collecting passion…For such people collecting is a real problem”. However, I am a true fanatic of music but don’t believe I am addicted (based on my own criteria). My love of music and collecting it adds to my life rather than takes away from it. As Moist also notes (and which I again wholeheartedly agree:
“Most record collectors collect as much for the content as for the object: one is far less likely to find a collector whose collecting criteria is ‘records with yellow labels’ than to find one whose focus is ‘west coast jazz’ or ‘pre-war blues’. Collectors might follow particular artists (Charlie Parker, the Sex Pistols), musical genres (reggae, soul, classical), records from certain cultural/geographic areas (New Orleans, South Africa), records from specific labels (Sun, Stax, Rough Trade), records for special types of use (sound effects, ‘library’ music), records from a historical era (the 1960s), records with covers by particular graphic artists, special editions of records (first/original pressings are again popular), particular types of records (45s, LPs), records that embody memory on a more personal scale (those played by a favorite local DJ, or listened to in one’s youth, etc.), and many more besides. For many collectors, records’ status as bearers of personal and/or collective meaning is most significant”.
Moist’s chapter also features a number of case studies of people that appear to be addicted to record collecting – an activity that completely takes over (and conflicts with) almost every area of their lives. Moist concludes:
“Is there something about recorded music that lends itself to this sort of collecting? It could be that records’ dual levels of significance – objects themselves, and materializations of sound – make such types of activity more likely, that the status and possibilities of the object itself provide for certain approaches to collecting it…more research is needed on other types of collecting before such conclusions can be reached, though certainly the era of mass production has seen popular collecting expand greatly, and the digital era should see even further changes”.
I (for one) would love to carry out research in the area of record collecting but I guess I would get little research funding to carry out such studies. To me, the psychology of record collecting is fascinating but I know only too well that most others I know simply cannot fathom what it is I love about music and collecting music.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Belk, R.W. (1995). Collecting as luxury consumption: Effects on individuals and households. Journal of Economic Psychology, 16(3), 477-490.
Belk, R.W. (2001). Collecting in a Consumer Society. New York: Routledge.
Moist, K. (2008). “To renew the Old World”: Record collecting as cultural production. Studies in Popular Culture, 31(1), 99-122.
Pearce, S. (1993). Museums, Objects, and Collections. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Pearce, S. (1998). Contemporary Collecting in Britain. London: Sage.
Reynolds, S. (2004). Lost in music: Obsessive music collecting. In E. Weisbard (Ed.), This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project (pp.289-307). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Norse power: A brief look at Berserker rage
Ever since I was a young kid, I have used the word ‘beserk’ (to describe someone going into a mad, wild, uncontrolled and violent rage) in my day-to-day language. However, it wasn’t until I was in my teens when I bought the Gary Numan albums The Fury and Beserker that I came to realize the origin of the word.
Beserker rage is a culture-bound condition historically affecting Norsemen. The condition manifested itself among males only as an intense fury and rage (berserkergang, i.e., “going beserk”) and mostly occurred in battle situations (but could also occur when they were engaged in labour-intensive work). Dating back as far as the ninth century, the berserker Norse Warriors were alleged to be able to perform almost seemingly impossible super-human feats of strength. Nowadays, the word ‘berserker’ refers to anyone that fearlessly fights with a disregard to their own lives. Similar conditions have been noted in other cultures. For instance, the Irishman Cúchulainn (“Culann’s Hound”) was recorded as displaying ‘battle frenzy’ and ‘foaming at the mouth’ akin to berserkers in texts such as The Tain. The Malay phenomenon of ‘running amok’ (i.e., running mad with rage) also appears to bear a close resemblance to berserkers.
Those displaying beserker behaviour were also said to experience a specific set of symptoms prior to the rage (i.e., beginning with shivering and chattering of their teeth, followed by a swelling and changing of colour in the face as they literally became ‘hot-headed’. The final stage was full-blown rage and fury accompanied by noisy grunts and howls. They would then just indiscriminately injure, maim and kill anything in their path. This would be followed by one or two days of feebleness, along with a dulling of the mind. The condition of berserkergang was described in the thirteenth century by Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson:
“[Odin’s] men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them. This was called Berserkergang”.
The ravenous self-induced rage before battle commenced enabled the Norsemen to indiscriminately ‘loot, plunder and kill’. A recent book about the Vikings claimed that some battle chiefs held their berserkers “in reserve” during a battle. The berserkers were only sent into fight if one section began to weaken. An article on berserkers in the Journal of World History by Dr. M. Speidel noted that Norse berserkers were very effective killers, but could not stop killing at will. Apparently, their berserker state was only turned off once all members of the opposition were dead. László Kürti, in a 2004 encyclopedia entry on shamanism claimed that berserker is a regional form of present-day shamanism that utilizes archaic Nordic techniques – particularly the ability to go into a trance-like state.
Various theories about the causes of the condition have been speculated. Some have alleged that psychoactive drugs (such as hallucinogenic agaric mushrooms or copious alcohol drinking) were used. Some botanists claim that berserker behavior can be caused by the ingestion of the plant bog myrtle, one of the main spices in Scandinavian alcoholic beverages. Other theories speculate either pre-existing genetic and/or medical conditions or pre-existing psychological disorders (e.g., mental illness, manic depression [i.e., bipolar disorder], epilepsy). Some have even speculated that the fury may just be a consequence of post-traumatic stress. For instance, clinical psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay wrote in his 1994 book Achilles in Vietnam:
“If a soldier survives the berserk state, it imparts emotional deadness and vulnerability to explosive rage to his psychology and permanent hyperarousal to his physiology – hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. My clinical experience with Vietnam combat veterans prompts me to place the berserk state at the heart of their most severe psychological and psychophysiological injuries”
Professor Jesse L. Byock claimed in a 1995 issue of Scientific American, that berserker rage could perhaps have been a symptom of Paget’s Disease (i.e., uncontrolled skull bone growth that often causes painful pressure in the head). However, there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive evidence of this.
Other more esoteric theories surround spiritual and/or supernatural beliefs. For instance, some scholars have claimed that the Vikings believed in spirit possession and that berserkers were possessed by the animal spirits of wolves and/or bears. According to some theorists, berserkers learned to cultivate the ability to allow animal spirits to take over their body during a fight (an example of animal totemism) that also involved drinking the blood of the animal that they wished to be possessed by.
Back in 1987, Dr. Armando Simon published a paper in the journal Psychological Reports and argued that berserker rage (or as he termed it ‘Blind Rage Syndrome’) should be incorporated into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Dr. Simon characterized the condition as (i) violent overreaction to physical, verbal, or visual insult, (ii) amnesia during the actual period of violence, (iii) abnormally great strength, and (iv) specifically target oriented violence. Some case studies are presented and a parallel is made with the Viking Berserkers of the Middle Ages. Dr. Simon also claimed that the condition had typically been diagnosed as part of other violent disorders (such as intermittent explosive disorder). However, it looks unlikely that berserkers will be making a separate entry into the DSM anytime soon.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Armando, S. (1987) the berserker/blind rage syndrome as a potentially new diagnostic category for the DSM-III. Psychological Reports, 60, 131-135.
Kürti, L. (2004). Shamanism – Neo (Eastern Europe). Located at: http://publikacio.uni-miskolc.hu/data/ME-PUB-31198/Kurti_Neo_shamanism_2004.pdf.
Nationmaster (2012). Berserker. Located at: http://www.statemaster.com/encyclopedia/Berserker
Shay, J. (1994). Achilles in Vietnam. New York: Scribner.
Simon, A. (1987). The berserker/blind rage syndrome as a potentially new diagnostic category for the DSM-III. Psychological Reports, 60, 131-135.
Speidel, M. (2002). Berserks: A history of Indo-European ‘mad warriors’. Journal of World History 13, 253-290.
Wikipedia (2012). Berserker. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berserker