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Occult figure: David Bowie and living life at the extremes

Since David Bowie’s death earlier this year, I’ve already written two articles on the psychology of Bowie (which you can read here and here) but this article takes a look at the more extreme aspects of Bowie’s life (excluding his various addictions which I briefly examined in my previous pieces). As a long-time David Bowie fan I’ve been meaning to write this particular blog for a long time but just never got around to it. I had made lots of notes taken from various Bowie biographies (see ‘Further reading’ below) but Dr. Dean Ballinger (University of Waikato) recently beat me to the punch by publishing a similar article to the one I had planned in the March 2016 issue of the Fortean Times.

During Bowie’s five decades in music he has been interviewed on almost every conceivable topic but it’s always the interviews about his most extreme and esoteric subjects that have caught my eye whether it concerned his religious and spiritual beliefs, his political views, or his moral philosophy. I’ve always looked for hidden meanings in his lyrics and taken the view that his lyrics provide an insight into his personality as much as anything else that I have seen or read about him in the print and broadcast media. Like most other hardcore Bowie fans, I have been poring over the lyrics of his final studio album Blackstar now knowing that he wrote and recorded it while suffering from an aggressive form of cancer. The album is arguably his most cryptic and mysterious since the classics of the mid- to late-1970s (Station To Station, Low and “Heroes”) – although I also love 1.Outside and Heathen both lyrically and musically.

Looking back, it was probably the Station To Station title track that really made me wonder what was going on in Bowie’s head. Although Bowie says he was “out of his gourd” on cocaine at the time (and has little recollection of recording the album), the lyrics (as a teenager) made no sense to me at all (Here are we/One magical movement/From Kether to Malkuth/There are you/You drive like a demon/From station to station”). I had no idea that Kether (“the crown” – divine will or pure light) and Malkuth (“the kingship” – the nurturing receptacle of the light) originated from Kabbalah (an esoteric school of thought rooted in Judaism) representing two of 10 sephirots (sometimes spelled ‘sefirots’ and meaning ’emanations’ or ‘attributes’) in the Tree of Life.

During his cocaine-fuelled days, Bowie rarely slept and filled his time reading books. Not only books about Kabbalah but also books on the occult (a number of books by Aleister Crowley; Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians; Israel Regardie’s books on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), on the symbolic obsessions of Nazism (most notably Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny), and defensive magic and tarot cards (Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense) as well as more general books on the secret history of Christianity, UFOs, political conspiracies, and numerology. It’s also worth noting that Bowie’s 1976 persona (‘The thin white duke’ in his ‘Station To Station’ lyric) is almost certainly taken from Crowley’s erotic poetry (“The return of the thin white duke making sure white stains” from the 1898 book White Stains).

It’s been claimed by Chris O’Leary (author of the excellent Rebel Rebel and founder of the Pushing Ahead of The Dame website) that “Bowie’s immersion in Kabbalah was part of an overarching spiritual quest that took him from Tibetan Buddhism (he almost joined a monastery in the late 1960s, until his teacher told him that he’d make a better musician than monk) to Christian mysticism, occult worship and a flirtation with neo-Nazi imagery that nearly derailed his career when it was discovered that he collected Nazi memorabilia”. I hadn’t realised that Bowie had made reference to the occult in earlier songs such as ‘Quicksand’ (The Order of the Golden Dawn – a late 19th/early 20th century organisation devoted to the practice of occult, metaphysical, and paranormal phenomena, and the root of more traditional modern day occult practices such as Thelema and Wicca) as well as Tibetan Buddhism (more specifically his use of the word ‘Bardo’ in the song – the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth).

Bowie’s interest in Buddhism and Tibet dates back to the 1960s as evidenced by songs such as ‘Silly Boy Blue’ (first demoed in 1965). In an interview by Bowie with the Melody Maker (24 February, 1966) notes:

I want to go to Tibet. It’s a fascinating place, y’know. I’d like to take a holiday and have a look inside the monasteries. The Tibetan monks, Lamas, bury themselves inside mountains for weeks, and only eat every three days. They’re ridiculous—and it’s said they live for centuries…As far as I’m concerned the whole idea of Western life – that’s the life we live now – is wrong. These are hard convictions to put into songs, though”.

Chris O’Leary also noted that:

“Bowie’s interest in Tibetan Buddhism wasn’t a sudden trendy affectation—he had begun exploring the religion when he was in his mid-teens, first inspired by reading Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet, and he eventually met and befriended the Tibetan lama Chimi Youngdong Rimpoche, who was exiled in London. Bowie even fantasized about becoming a Buddhist monk – cropping his hair and dyeing it black, wearing saffron robes and even changing his skin color (he’d have to settle for becoming Ziggy). Buddhism was an early influence in his songs: he had meant for the backing chorus of his single ‘Baby Loves That Way’ to sound like chanting monks.”

Bowie didn’t appear to have strong religious beliefs. In an interview in 1997 he noted that there was an “abiding need in me to vacillate between atheism or a kind of Gnosticism…what I need is to find a balance, spiritually, with 
the way I live and my demise” but in relation to thoughts on his own mortality he said “I believe in a continuation, kind of a dream-state without the dreams. Oh, I don’t know. I’ll come back and tell you”. In addition to his spiritual leanings, Dr. Ballinger in his 2016 Fortean Times article goes as far to say that occult and paranormal themes constituted an “integral dimension” of Bowie’s career. Bowie clearly had an interest in aliens, science fiction, and the paranormal as reflected in many of his singles dating back to ‘Space Oddity’ (1969) through to ‘Loving The Alien’ (1985) and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ (1996) (as well as many album tracks and his acting breakthrough as an alien in Nic Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell To Earth). Dr. Ballinger also argued that:

“Bowie was also reading upon esoteric subjects and alternative ideas in a relatively in-depth way beyond fashionable name dropping is made clear by the songs 
on his fourth album, Hunky Dory (1971).
 The jaunty pop of ‘Oh You Pretty Things!’ is belied by lyrics that evoke a rather sinister picture of spiritual evolution, in which the listener is asked to ‘make way’ for ‘the coming race’ of ‘homo superior’ Nietszchean super children…The ‘coming race’ is also a probable nod to the Bulwer-Lytton novel of the same name that became a staple of the ‘Vril’ mythos associated with occult-minded Nazis, a subject that would have a rather negative influence on Bowie in the near future. More overt is the ballad ‘Quicksand’, in which Bowie expounds a New Age manifesto – ‘I’m not a prophet or a Stone Age man/Just a mortal with potential of a superman’ – with reference to the Western magical tradition (‘I’m closer to the Golden Dawn/Immersed in Crowley’s uniform/of imagery), [and] The Tibetan Book of the Dead (‘You can tell me all about it on the next Bardo’)”.

Bowie wasn’t the first musician to use The Tibetan Book of the Dead as inspiration for lyrics. More famously, John Lennon used it for The Beatles classic ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the final track on the 1966 Revolver album (something I forgot to mention in my previous article on Bowie and The Beatles). However, John Lennon based his lyrics after reading The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. (And while I’m going off on tangents, I just wanted to mention that Alpert’s most well known book Be Here Now just happens to be the title of (Beatle-loving) Oasisthird album).

Dr. Ballinger also makes the argument that in Bowie’s 1972 breakthrough LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars there were “evident resonances between occultism and his musical career” and that he drew inspiration from a wide range of esoteric cultural influences to source “stimulating ideas and imagery to explore in lyrics, costumes and videos”. Ballinger also claims that Bowie’s work at this point of his career had a more integral relationship with the theory and practice of magic and occultism:

“Parsing Crowley’s legacy, one of the key aspects of magic is the transformation of the self (and, possibly, the wider social reality) through acts that focus the imagination/will towards such change, such acts including sex, drug consumption, meditation, and creative performance (i.e., rituals). In this vein Bowie can be considered a distinctly magical musician whose whole career revolved around the transformation of the self and the wider culture through the ‘ritual performances’
of rock music, such as concerts, recordings, and videos. In his most influential period
 of the 1970s, Bowie created personae (such 
as Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke) and undertook musical experiments (the ‘plastic soul’ of Young Americans and the avant-garde/krautrock/funk synthesis of the ‘Berlin trilogy’) that in turn transformed rock culture by inspiring scores of other artists. The gender-bending that was a notable aspect of Bowie’s personae in this period (for example, the androgynous cover photo for The Man Who Sold The World (1970) or the 1979 video for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’), and the cultivation of bisexual overtones in his lyrics and performance (‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ as an account of bisexual angst), are also interesting to consider in relation to Crowley’s emphasis on sexuality as a core component of magical transformation”.

Like some of the best music by The Beatles, some of the best music made by Bowie was while he was using drugs excessively (often described by his biographers as a ‘cocaine-induced psychosis’). Bowie himself claims that in 1975 he was in poor mental and physical health but ironically he was producing some of the best music (and acting) of his career. However, Bowie’s cocaine addiction has also been used as an excuse for his behaviour during the 1976 period where he flirted with Nazi occultism and made the claim that the UK would benefit from a fascist leader (“I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I’d be an excellent dictator. Very eccentric and quite mad”). Many musicians have said they are interested in Nazi imagery and fashion (e.g., Bryan Ferry) and others have collected Nazi memorabilia (e.g., Lemmy) but these interests do not mean such people are Nazi-loving or fascists.

Bowie’s esoteric and occultist interests appear to subside as his career progressed and it wasn’t until his final album that Bowie appeared to be using music (and the accompanying promo videos) in a symbolic way for people to re-interpret his music as a cryptic death note to all his hardcore acolytes (of which I would include myself). Unless Bowie left any explanation for his final seven songs, we can only speculate. However, I’ll leave you with the thoughts of Dr. Ballinger who has done a better job than I could ever do:

“The Blackstar album has seen Bowie go out with a distinctly occult bang…As every prior Bowie album cover has featured a portrait, the five-pointed ‘black star’ of 
this one is presumably meant to represent Bowie too – perhaps in his ultimate persona as spirit (the five-pointed star being a classic Hermetic/Gnostic symbol of ‘man as microcosm’, with the contradictory image of a ‘black star’ also evoking a koan or the alchemical union of opposites). The creepy atmosphere conjured up by the lyrics of the title track – “In the villa of Ormen/Stands a solitary candle/On the day of execution/Only women stand and smile” – is successfully evoked in the video for the song. Bowie 
is depicted as preacher of some dark 21st century faith, brandishing a Blackstar bible among acolytes whose spasmodic ‘dancing’ suggests a state of possession. A reading of the imagery here as analogous to Crowley and his Book of the Law is perhaps apt; director Johan Renck, who designed the videos with Bowie, has mentioned Crowley as a reference point. Some kind of Hermetic/Gnostic subtext about eternity, spirit and the flesh is further implied in the imagery of the video’s other ‘storyline’, in which the shade of a dead astronaut – Bowie himself, in his formative Major Tom persona? – floats up into a ‘black star’ of eternity, before, in a possibly Orphic reference, leaving behind his bejewelled skull for ritual veneration by a sect of mutant women. Where the esoteric overtones of the ‘Blackstar’ video are eerie, those of the video for ‘Lazarus’ are poignant. Bowie plays himself as a patient in a hospital bed, whose closet is a portal from which appears a double who is seemingly meant to signify his essential spirit. This figure is not garbed as Ziggy, the Thin White Duke
 or any of Bowie’s most famous personae, but in the striped black jumpsuit in which he undertook the famous occult photo shoot for Station to Station, in which he is depicted drawing Kabbalistic symbols on the wall. That Bowie chose this costume for his valedictory performance suggests he was giving a subtle nod to the deep, lasting metaphysical significance that this period had upon the rest of his life”.

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

Further reading

Ballinger, D. (2016). The mage who sold the world. Fortean Times, 338, 28-33.

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.

Doggett, P. (2012). The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s. London: Vintage.

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.

O’Leary, C. (2016). Rebel Rebel. Alresford: Zero Books.

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

Rogovoy, S. (2013). The secret Jewish history of David Bowie. Forward.com, April 16. Located at: http://forward.com/culture/174551/the-secret-jewish-history-of-david-bowie/

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.

Germanic street preachers: The psychology of Krautrock

Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I describe myself as a music obsessive with an eclectic taste ranging from Iggy Pop and Adam Ant through to the Velvet Underground and Throbbing Gristle. Another genre of music that I have more than a passing interest is that of ‘Krautrock’ (see my previous blog on Kraftwerk and their alleged addiction to cycling). Krautrock (as you can probably guess) is a somewhat derogatory term – believed to have been coined by the renowned music journalist Ian MacDonald – to describe a number of German bands that came to the fore in the British music scene in the early 1970s (most notably Amon Düül, Faust, Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Kluster, Cluster, Harmonia, Popol Vuh, Ash Ra Tempel, and Tangerine Dream).

Krautrock (as defined by the British media) has traditionally been viewed as electronic in nature (although many of the compositions in the late 1960s were far from electronica and utilized ‘found sounds’ from whatever was to hand) with an emphasis on improvisation and somewhat minimalistic arrangements. The Wikipedia entry on Krautrock also notes that:

“The term is a result of the English-speaking world’s reception of the music at the time and not a reference to any one particular scene, style, or movement, as many Krautrock artists were not familiar with one another…Largely divorced from the traditional blues and rock and roll influences of British and American rock music up to that time, the period contributed to the evolution of electronic music and ambient music as well as the birth of post-punt, alternative rock, and new-age music”.

Given my profession, it won’t surprise you to know that as much as I love music itself, I am also interested in the psychology of the musicians too. When it comes to Krautrock, I have argued for the best part of 20 years (to anyone that would listen) that the psychology of the archetypal Krautrocker in the late 1960s was likely to be influenced by being raised in post-second world war Germany. It was only over the holiday period that my thoughts were confirmed by the artists themselves (in interviews with journalists and musicologists).

More specifically, I read two excellent books on different aspects of ‘extreme music’ over the Christmas period – Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany (by David Stubbs), and Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music (by S. Alexander Reed). Alongside this, I also watched the wonderful three-hour documentary DVD Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution, the BBC 4 documentary, Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany, and the 2008 film The Baader Meinhof Complex (about the Red Army Faction, left-wing German militant group and based on the 1985 non-fiction book of the same name by Stefan Aust).

These books and films all made reference to the cultural, political, and psychological climate in post-war West Germany. There were a number of repeated themes that I couldn’t fail to notice. Firstly, many of the middle classes holding a lot of the important jobs (mayors, town leaders, judges, professors, teachers) were still Nazi sympathizers. Secondly, children born after 1945 were generally not told about their history by either their parents or their schoolteachers. Thirdly, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, teenagers said they experienced feelings of guilt but didn’t know what for. On the musical front, West Germany’s pre- and post-war musical legacy was “Schlager” music (described by music journalist Adam Sweeting as a genre unpleasantly redolent of the sentimental slop with which Josef Goebbels had saturated the Third Reich”). As Wikipedia notes that:

“Schlager music (German: Schlager, synonym of “hit-songs” or “hits”), also known in the United States as entertainer music or German hit mix, is a style of popular or electronic music…Typical schlager tracks are either sweet, highly sentimental ballads with a simple, catchy melody or light pop tunes. Lyrics typically center on love, relationships and feelings”.

By the late 1960s, many older teenagers and students were united in their politics (the most high profile touch point arguably being the student protests across Europe in 1968). They were also united in their dislike of schlager music except they didn’t really know they were united. Pockets of underground music sprouted up across a number of towns and cities across Germany. Key bands in the history of Krautrock were formed in Dusseldorf (Neu!, Kraftwerk), Cologne (Can), Berlin (Kluster, Tangerine Dream), Munich (Amon Düül), and Wumme (Faust). Bands playing in one city had no idea that bands were forming in other parts of Germany with similar ideological, political and psychological roots. More bizarre was that none of these bands – at least initially – had no following in Germany itself. Most fans of these bands were in the UK rather than their homeland. It was the British music press (NME, Sounds) and DJs (most notably John Peel) that were waving the German flag.

Arguably, the most overtly political of the emerging Krautrock bands was Munich’s Amon Düül. Their band members lived in a radical West German commune including the gang that formed the Red Army Faction (RAF) in 1970 (the so-called Baader-Meinhof Group (or Baader-Meinhof Gang including Andreas Baader, and Ulrike Meinhof). The members of Amon Düül quickly dissociated themselves from the RAF saying that their comrades were going too far in making their political presence known. In fact, the band members ended up falling out with themselves leading to different versions of the band with the second incarnation (Amon Düül 2) becoming the most revered.

Another important hotbed of anti-schlager musical development was the formation of the Zodiak Free Arts Lab (also known as the Zodiak Club) by experimental musician Conny Schnitzler in West Berlin. The Zodiak Club provided a hub where anyone could come and play whatever they wanted amongst like-minded people pushing the boundaries of music with whatever was at hand. Schnitzler himself was an early member of Tangerine Dream as well as the founding member of later Krautrock bands such as Kluster and Eruption. The other important figure in West Berlin’s burgeoning Krautrock scene was Hans-Joachim Roedelius who played with Schnitzler in Kluster but then went on to form Cluster with Deiter Moebius (another key player in the Krautrock movement) but without Schnitzler.

In relation to the psychology of Krautrock, Michael Rother (an early member of Kraftwerk, co-founder of Neu!, and later in ‘supergroup’ Harmonia) was interviewed by David Stubbs in his book Future Days. Rother had actually studied psychology and that as a German he strived for an alternative identity, and a new personality almost:

“Studies into psychology also assisted Rother in realizing that as a young man coming of age in Germany in the late 1960s, he could not be impervious to the cultural, social and political forces ranging at that time, all of which would have a profound impact on his musical identity. He rejected out of hand the burgeoning violence and ‘lunacy’ of terrorist movements such as the Baader-Meinhof group, whom he regarded as on the wrong road altogether. At the same time, the horrors of the Vietnam War acted as a jolting reminder of the need to wrench oneself away from Anglo-American hegemony, to create oneself as a personality anew”.

Rother’s perceptions and psychological insights appear to have been shared by many other individuals forming bands across West Germany in the late 1960s. The complete silence by parents and teachers towards children about the actions of Hitler and the Nazis (most notably the genocide of the Jewish people living in Germany) left post-war adolescents psychologically ill at ease about their national and cultural identities. They needed to create something unique, something identifiably German, and something they would feel proud of. The new music of Krautrock met such criteria. But was the music really that new? Some (including myself) would argue that much of the burgeoning music in Munich, Dusseldorf, Cologne and Berlin had its’ roots in ‘musique concrète’ (“concrete music”) and the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Developed by French composer Pierre Schaeffer at the Studio d’Essai (“Experimental Studio”) of the French radio system, musique concrète is a form of electroacoustic music. It comprises an experimental technique of musical composition that uses recorded sounds as raw material to create a montage of sound (often referred to as ‘found sounds’ but can include recordings of voice and musical instruments). Musique concrète compositions don’t follow any conventional musical rules of melody, rhythm or harmony. Many musicologists view musique concrete as a precursor to electronica. Furthermore, many groups from Throbbing Gristle to Depeche Mode have sampled ‘found sounds’ in their musical output as well as many of the earlier pioneers in Krautrock.

The roots of Krautrock can also be traced back to one of Germany’s musical giants, Karlheinz Stockhausen. I’ve been aware of Stockhausen’s work through his influence on the Beatles (Stockhausen is one of the figures on their 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP cover). Although in the public’s mind it was John Lennon that was associated with the more avant-garde recordings by the Beatles (‘Revolution 9’ and ‘What’s The New Mary Jane’) and his first solo albums with second wife Yoko Ono (Two Virgins, Life With The Lions, and Wedding Album), it was actually Paul McCartney who first developed an interest in avant-garde composers such as Stockhausen. (In fact, prior to his relationship with Ono, Lennon was famously quoted as saying “Avant-garde is French for bullshit”). Evidence for McCartney’s interest in Stockhausen and the avant-garde is the still unreleased Beatles composition ‘The Carnival of Light’ recorded in January 1967 for The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave held at the Roundhouse Theatre).

Stockhausen is seen by many as one of the greatest musical innovators and visionaries of the twentieth century. His electronic compositions were way ahead of his time, and had a large influence on many more modern day recording artists including Frank Zappa, Pete Townsend (The Who), Roger Waters (Pink Floyd), and Björk. In relation to Krautrock, two members of Can (Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay) were actually tutored by Stockhausen at the Cologne Courses for New Music, and Kraftwerk claim they also studied under him.

In terms of Krautrock’s influence on modern music, it doesn’t matter whether it was genuinely new. It was genuinely (West) German and grew largely from individuals’ psychological and/or political reaction to their experiences of growing up in post-war Germany following the fall of Nazism. The content of the output may not have been psychologically-based, but the attitude and spirit in making such music arguably was. We are all products of our genetics and our environment, and post-war teenagers born after 1945 in Germany experienced a culture and an immediate history that most can never ever experience. The Krautrockers fighting (artistically, culturally and literally) against the ‘establishment’ in late 1960s brought about some of the greatest music ever produced, and I for one, am eternally grateful for the pleasure it has brought in my own life.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Blaney, J. (2005). John Lennon: Listen to this Book. Guildford: Paper Jukebox, Biddles Ltd.

Buckley, D. (2012). Kraftwerk Publication. London: Omnibus.

Cope, J. (1996). Krautrocksampler (Second Edition). Head Heritage.

Reed, S.A. (2013). Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stubbs, D. (2014). Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany. London: Faber & Faber.

Wikipedia (2014). Krautrock. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krautrock

Wikipedia (2014). Musique concrète. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musique_concrète