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) Oasis’ third 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
Ballinger, D. (2016). The mage who sold the world. Fortean Times, 338, 28-33.
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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.
Completing the ‘killection’: A brief look at ‘murderabilia’
In a previous blog, I examined the psychology of collecting and whether collecting can (in extreme cases) be classed as an addiction. Yesterday, the Daily Mail’s front page story was about collectors that buy ‘Holocaust memorabilia’ on eBay such as the striped pyjamas that prisoners were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps during Word War II. This type of collecting is closely related to collectors that buy ‘murderabilia’. Although the word ‘murderabilia’ is fairly new (and is an amalgam of ‘murder memorabilia’), the act itself has a long history and basically refers to collectibles that relate to murder, murderers and/or violent crimes (including such items as artwork produced by incarcerated serial killers, as well as houses, vehicles, clothes, and weapons used in crimes by mass murderers).
The fact that people collect such extreme memorabilia doesn’t surprise me in the least. To me, such behaviour is only one step removed from ‘disaster tourism’ where people pay money to see places, sites, and/or artefacts related to death and disaster. One recent example involved a travel company selling €10 tours to see the sunken cruise liner Costa Concordia off the Tuscan island of Giglio (Italy). Another related type of collecting are the thousands of people that collect Nazi memorabilia (including high profile cases such as the lead singer of Motörhead – Lemmy). As Lemmy’s Wikipedia entry notes:
“Lemmy collects German military regalia, and has an Iron Cross encrusted on his bass, which has led to accusations of Nazi sympathies. He has stated that he collects this memorabilia for aesthetic values only, and considers himself an anarchist or libertarian, and that he is ‘anti-communism, fascism, any extreme’ saying that ‘government causes more problems than it solves’. According to Keither Emerson’s autobiography, two of Lemmy’s Hitlerjugend knives were given to Emerson by Lemmy during his time as a roadie for The Nice. Emerson used these knives many times as keyholders when playing the Hammond Organ during concerts with The Nice and Emerson, Lake & Palmer”.
As I noted in my previous blog on collecting as an addiction, Dr. Ruth Formanek suggested five common motivations for collecting in a 1991 issue of the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality. These were: (i) extension of the self (e.g., acquiring knowledge, or in controlling one’s collection); (ii) social (finding, relating to, and sharing with, like-minded others); (iii) preserving history and creating a sense of continuity; (iv) financial investment; and (v), an addiction or compulsion. Formanek claimed that the commonality to all motivations to collect was a passion for the particular things collected. None of these motivations beyond passion appears to explain why people collect murderabilia (unless the collectors themselves identify with the person and/or actions of the murderabilia they collect). Crime writer Leigh Lundin claims such individuals may be interested in the macabre, and that many believe by collecting such items offers the collector power and control. My own opinion is that such collectors want to possess unique items that no-one else has and also believe that possess a piece of history (even if the item is connected with actions or people that are sadistic, depraved and/or deluded). Arguable this latter motivation may be related to the motivation of ‘preserving history’.
Back in May 2001, eBay banned the sale of murderabilia items but all this has done is move the murderabilia industry elsewhere (for instance, on websites like Supernaught.com that claims on its’ homepage that it is “the first and longest running website providing true crime collectibles”; among the items they were selling were bricks from [Milwaulkee Cannibal] Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment at $300 a time). The Australian Caslon Analytics website also noted that:
“Contemporary murderabilia has included items owned or created by serial killers, including postcards from Charles Manson, what are claimed as his fingerprint cards, the license plate of the van used by John Wayne Gacy, a murder weapon used by Gary Gilmore, letters from the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ [Peter Sutcliffe] and the ‘Acid Bath Killer’ [John George Haigh] in the UK, drawings by Gacy and other US killers, the radiator cap from the Bonnie & Clyde ‘death car’, Heinrich Himmler’s limousine, earth supposedly from the house where Gacy buried some of his victims and the clothing of some killers. 2009 saw artworks by UK gang leaders Ronnie and Reggie Kray auctioned for £17,125, along with £3,105 for a canvas by poisoner Graham Young”.
The academic literature on murderabilia is mostly in the field of law and/or morality. However, I did unearth a few interesting academic pieces on the topic. There are also some interesting pieces written from a media studies perspective. For instance, Dr. Melinda Wilkins in her PhD ‘A Comfortable Evil’ noted that:
“The serial murder epidemic also generated within the popular media a lucrative moral controversy to negotiate via films, television movies, docu-dramas, true-crime accounts, novels, and memoirs. There were serial-killer comic books and serial killer trading cards to sell; there were serial-killer records to play, taped interviews with Edmund Kemper, Ted Bundy, Henry Lee Lucas, and Kenneth Bianchi billed as ‘honesty about violence’; and for a while during the early 2000s, there was even an eBay web site devoted to the sale of ‘Murderabilia’, memorabilia of one sort and another from various notorious murderers in prison. The epidemic provided American journalists with an apparently inexhaustible topic guaranteed to draw readers and viewers”.
One US academic – Professor David Schmid – has written a number of articles and books on the general public’s consumption of fame including murderabilia including one on this very topic in the M/C Journal (an academic journal concerning media and culture). As Professor Schmid observes:
“The sale of murderabilia is just a small part of the huge serial killer industry that has become a defining feature of American popular culture over the last twenty-five years. This industry is, in turn, a prime example of what Mark Seltzer has described as ‘wound culture,’ consisting of a ‘public fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound’. According to Seltzer, the serial killer is ‘one of the superstars of our wound culture’ and his claim is confirmed by the constant stream of movies, books, magazines, television shows, websites, t-shirts, and a tsunami of ephemera that has given the figure of the serial murderer an unparalleled degree of visibility and fame in the contemporary American public sphere”
Schmid’s paper examined how the celebrity culture concerning serial killers has developed and the ethics of collecting such items. He provided examples of how collectors buy the hair and nail clippings of murderers as if they were religious icons. Citing from an old book chapter by US sociologist Leo Lowenthal (‘Biographies in Popular Magazines’), Lowenthal argued that magazine biographies underwent a striking change in the first half of the twentieth century with a new type of social biography emerging. His main argument was that biographies had changed from ‘idols of production’ (those in politics, science, sports, business, etc.) to ‘idols of consumption’ (those in film, music, literature, etc.). This latter group has also evolved to include the lives of infamous criminals. As Schmid then notes:
“With Lowenthal in mind, when one considers the fact that the serial killer is generally seen, in Richard Tithecott’s words, as ‘deserving of eternal fame, of media attention on a massive scale, of groupies’, one is tempted to describe the advent of celebrity serial killers as a further decline in the condition of American culture’s ‘mass idols’. The serial killer’s relationship to consumption, however, is too complex to allow for such a hasty judgment, as the murderabilia industry indicates”.
Schmid also discusses the 2000 US documentary Collectors (directed by Julian P. Hobbs) and discusses some of the multiple connections between serial killing and consumerism.
“Hobbs points out that the serial killer is connected with consumerism in the most basic sense that he has become a commodity, ‘a merchandising phenomenon that rivals Mickey Mouse. From movies to television, books to on-line, serial killers are packaged and consumed en-masse’…But as Hobbs goes on to argue, serial killers themselves can be seen as consumers, making any representations of them implicated in the same consumerist logic: ‘Serial killers come into being by fetishizing and collecting artifacts – usually body parts – in turn, the dedicated collector gathers scraps connected with the actual events and so, too, a documentary a collection of images’…Hobbs implies that no one can avoid being involved with consumerism in relation to serial murder, even if one’s reasons for getting involved are high-minded”.
Schmid then goes on to say:
“The reason why it is impossible to separate neatly ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ expressions of interest in famous serial killers is the same reason why the murderabilia industry is booming; in the words of a 1994 National Examiner headline: ‘Serial Killers Are as American as Apple Pie’. Christopher Sharrett has suggested that: ‘Perhaps the fetish status of the criminal psychopath…is about recognizing the serial killer/mass murderer not as social rebel or folk hero…but as the most genuine representative of American life’. The enormous resistance to recognizing the representativeness of serial killers in American culture is fundamental to the appeal of fetishizing serial killers and their artifacts”.
Even if the murderabilia market carries on ‘making a [financial] killing out of a killing’, it is unlikely to wane in popularity (unless the mass media stops reporting such behaviour). Furthermore, even if legislation outlaws such a practice, the activity will simply go (and likely burgeon) underground. There will always be individuals that are fascinated by the macabre (myself included) and no law will ever stop people collecting such items, however immoral, bizarre and/or depraved.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Chang, S. (2004). Prodigal son returns: An assessment of current Son of Sam laws and the reality of the online murderabilia marketplace. Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal, 31, 430.
Daily Mail (2012). ‘Disaster tourism’ boom for Giglio as day-trippers visit the Costa Concordia site. August 15. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-2188623/Costa-Concordia-tragedy-Disaster-tourism-boom-Giglio-day-trippers-visit-stricken-ship.html
Formanek, R. (1991). Why they collect: Collectors reveal their motivations. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 275-286.
Jarvis, B. (2007). Monsters Inc.: Serial killers and consumer culture. Crime, Media, Culture, 3(3), 326-344.
Lowenthal, L. (1961). The Triumph of Mass Idols. Literature, Popular Culture and Society (pp.109-140). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Schmid, D. (2004). Murderabilia: Consuming fame. M/C Journal: A Journal of Media and Culture, 7(5). Located at: http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0411/10-schmid.php
Sharrett, C. (1999). Introduction. Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media. (pp. 9-20). Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Tithecott, R. (1997). Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Wikipedia (2013). Murderabilia. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murderabilia
Wilkins, M. P. (2004). A Comfortable Evil. Doctoral Dissertation, Pennsylvania State University).