It’s been only two weeks since David Bowie’s untimely death and the Bowie obsessive in me is still finding it difficult to accept. I have never been more upset by the death of someone that I didn’t know personally. The only other celebrity death that left me with such an empty feeling was that of John Lennon back in December 1980. I was only 14 years old but I remember waking up to the news on that Tuesday morning (December 9, the morning after he had been shot in New York by Mark David Chapman). I went to school that day with a feeling I had never experienced before and I got it again two weeks ago when Bowie (co-incidentally) died in New York.
Bowie and The Beatles (and Lennon in particular) are arguably the two biggest musical influences on my life. With my interest in addictive behaviours, Bowie and Lennon are just two of the many celebrities that have succumbed to substance abuse and addiction over the years (and was a topic I covered in a previous blog – ‘Excess in success: Are celebrities more prone to addiction?’). Thankfully, neither of their addictions was that long-lasting, and neither of them wrote that many songs about their drug-fuelled experiences (although Lennon’s ‘Cold Turkey’ about his heroin addiction is a notable exception).
Lennon was arguably one of Bowie’s musical heroes although Bowie’s 1973 covers LP Pin-Ups was notable for the absence of Beatle covers. By 1973, Bowie had covered songs by The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, The Pretty Things, and The Who on vinyl but never The Beatles. Having said that, two Beatle songs did play a small part in his concerts between 1972 and 1974. Most notably, The Beatles very first British single ‘Love Me Do’ was often played as a medley with ‘The Jean Genie’. (On the 1990 Sound and Vision Tour, a snippet of ‘A Hard Day’s Night‘ was also sometimes incorporated into ‘The Jean Genie’. He also sang a snippet of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends‘ in the encore of his final concert in 1978). Bowie also occasionally covered ‘This Boy’ (the b-side of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, their fifth British hit single in his concerts) as part of the early ‘Ziggy Stardust’ shows. (I’m probably one of the few people in the world that has this song on bootleg). Speaking of bootlegs, the Chameleon Chronicles CD featured a cover of the 1967 single ‘Penny Lane‘ allegedly by Bowie along with The Monkees song ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ (written by Neil Diamond). Although these songs sound like 1960s Bowie, they were actually from a 1967 LP (Hits ’67) and sung by session singer (Tony Steven). Nicholas Pegg (in his great book The Complete David Bowie) also noted that Bowie’s late 1960s group Feathers included ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘ in their live set and that Bowie performed ‘When I’m Sixty-Four‘ in his 1968 live cabaret show after his own song ‘When I’m Five‘).
It was in 1975 that Bowie worked with Lennon musically, and Lennon appeared on two songs of Bowie’s 1975 LP Young Americans (although Bowie gave Lennon a name check in his 1971 song ‘Life On Mars‘ – “Now the workers have struck for fame/’Cause Lennon’s on sale again”). The most well-known was ‘Fame’ (one of my own personal favoutrites) which went to No.1 in the US chart (but only No.17 here in the UK) and had a Bowie co-writing credit with Lennon (along with Bowie’s guitarist Carlos Alomar). Lennon was apparently reluctant to be acknowledged as co-writer but Bowie insisted (probably just to say he had a ‘Bowie/Lennon’ song in his canon and maybe because he was a little starstruck). The song should arguably include other co-writers as the riff was based on the song ‘Foot Stompin’’ (also covered by Bowie) by the doo-wop band The Flares (sometime referred to as The Flairs). Lennon also played on a version of The Beatles’ song ‘Across The Universe’ but was arguably the weakest song on the LP. It’s also worth mentioning that the title track also included a line – and tune – from The Beatles ‘A Day In The Life‘ (“I heard the news today, oh boy”). Bowie and Lennon were also photographed together at the 1975 US Grammy Awards (where Bowie presented the award for the best ‘rhythm and blues’ performance by a female vocalist Aretha Franklin). This was around the height of Bowie’s cocaine addiction and he subsequently went in to say that he has no recollection of being there at all. In the same year, Bowie also appeared on singer Cher‘s US television show and sang a medley of songs that included ‘Young Americans‘ and The Beatles ‘Day Tripper‘.
Like millions of people around the world (including myself), Lennon’s death in 1980 hit Bowie hard. Not only had he lost a good friend, but he began to think of his own mortality and how easy it would be for a crazed fan to kill him in some kind of copycat assassination. At the time, Bowie was receiving rave reviews for his portrayal of Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway. (I’ve always been interested in The Elephant Man as I may even be a distant relation as my grandmother was a Merrick). He soon stepped down from the role and went into ‘semi-retirement’ before re-emerging in 1983 with his biggest selling single and album Let’s Dance.
Since Lennon’s death, Bowie has covered three Lennon solo tracks (‘Imagine’, ‘Mother’, and ‘Working Class Hero’). He sang ‘Imagine’ at a concert in Hong Kong (December 8, 1983) three years to the day since Lennon had been shot (a soundboard recording of which appears on a number of different Bowie bootlegs). In 1989, Bowie recorded the first of two Lennon songs taken from Lennon’s most psychologically inspired album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) written while undergoing primal therapy (see my previous blog for an overview on primal therapy in music). The first was ‘Working Class Hero’ for the 1989 ill-fated album Tin Machine (often voted one of Bowie’s worst cover versions by fans). The second track he recorded was ‘Mother’ (in 1998) for a John Lennon tribute album that Lennon’s widow (Yoko Ono) was putting together. Unfortunately, the album was never released but in 2006 it was leaked on the internet and has now appeared on many Bowie bootlegs. Although Bowie and Lennon never collaborated musically again, they remained close friends until Lennon’s death.
As far as I am aware, the only other Beatle-related song that Bowie has ever recorded was ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ that appeared on George Harrison’s 1973 LP Living In The Material World. Bowie covered the song for his 2003 album Reality, and although this was recorded not long after Harrison’s death from throat cancer, Bowie claimed that he thought it was Ronnie Spector’s song (ex-lead singer of The Ronettes), as she was the first artist to record in 1971. It was also claimed by German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (26 January 2013) that Bowie’s 2001 song from Heathen, ‘Everyone Says ‘Hi’’ was a tribute to Harrison but I have yet to see this conformed by anyone within the Bowie camp. Harrison met Bowie in Memphis during his 1974 Dark Horse tour. In a 1974 interview to a New York radio station, Harrison said:
“I just met David Bowie [during the Dark Horse Tour]…David Bowie, these were my very words, and I hope he wasn’t offended by it because all I really meant was what I said. I pulled his hat up from over his eyes and said: ‘Hi, man, how are you, nice to meet you,’ pulled his hat up and said, you know, ‘Do you mind if I have a look at you, to see what you are because I’ve only ever seen those dopey pictures of you.’ I mean, every picture I’ve ever seen of David Bowie, or Elton John, they just look stupid to me…I want to see, you know, who the person is”.
It wasn’t until 1974 that Bowie and Lennon first met each other at a Hollywood party hosted by actress Elizabeth Taylor. Lennon was with his girlfriend May Pang at the time (during his 18-month separation from Yoko). According to Pang, Bowie and Lennon “hit it off instantly” and kept in touch. When John went back to Yoko, Pang remained friends with Bowie and eventually married Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long-time record producer.
“I was struck during the research of [my book ‘The Man Who Sold The World’] by the influence that the Beatles had on Bowie’s work in the 70s. Some of that influence is obvious – the McCartney-inspired piano styling of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things‘, for example. As early as 1965, in an obscure song entitled ‘That’s Where My Heart Is’, Bowie sounded as if he was learning how to write songs by listening to [The Beatles second 1963 album] ‘With The Beatles’…in the book I talk about the apparent Fab Four influence on ‘Blackout‘ from the ‘Heroes‘ LP. But the single most dramatic role played by the Beatles in Bowie’s 70s work was exerted by John Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ album. You can hear a touch of Lennon in the way Bowie sings ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969; some Beatles-inspired backing vocals on ‘Star’ from the Ziggy Stardust album; and, of course, yer actual Lennon voice and guitar on Bowie’s cover of ‘Across The Universe’ and his hit single ‘Fame’. All of which made me wish that Bowie had made a whole album (1980’s Scary Monsters, perhaps) in similar vein. So I was intrigued to learn from Bowie fan Martyn Mitchell that guitarist Adrian Belew recalled working on a whole set of Plastic Ono Band-inspired tracks with Bowie around this period, but that Bowie never completed or issued them. Perhaps he was hoping that he might persuade Lennon himself to join him in the studio – until fate, and a madman, intervened”.
Following Bowie’s death, the remaining Beatles (Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr) both played tribute to Bowie’s genius. Ringo (who appeared in the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars movie filmed in 1973 and released 1983) tweeted a short message, while McCartney’s message was a little more heartfelt:
“Very sad news to wake up to on this raining morning. David was a great star and I treasure the moments we had together. His music played a very strong part in British musical history and I’m proud to think of the huge influence he has had on people all around the world. I send my deepest sympathies to his family and will always remember the great laughs we had through the years. His star will shine in the sky forever”.
As far as I am aware, Bowie only met McCartney a few times in his life most notably at the July 1973 premiere of the James Bond film Live and Let Die (with McCartney writing the theme song), and at the Live Aid concert in 1985 (where Bowie was on of the backing singers as McCartney performed ‘Let It Be’). Yoko movingly described Bowie as a “father figure” to their son Sean Lennon following Lennon’s death:
“John and David respected each other. They were well matched in intellect and talent. As John and I had very few friends, we felt David was as close as family. After John died, David was always there for Sean and me. When Sean was at boarding school in Switzerland, David would pick him up and take him on trips to museums and let Sean hang out at his recording studio in Geneva. For Sean, this is losing another father figure. It will be hard for him, I know. But we have some sweet memories which will stay with us forever”.
It could perhaps be argued that Bowie and Lennon were cut from the same psychosocial cloth. They both had middle class backgrounds and had many of the same musical heroes (Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley being the most salient – Bowie sharing Presley’s birthday on January 8). They were both interested in the arts more generally and they were both singers, songwriters, artists, and writers (to a greater or lesser extent). Although Lennon rarely engaged in acting, he always appeared at ease in front of the camera. They both knew how to use the media for their own artistic advantage. In short, there’s a lot that psychologists can learn from both of them.
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.
Doggett, P. (2009). The Art and Music of John Lennon. London: Omnibus Press.
Doggett, P. (2012). The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s. London: Vintage.
Goddard, S. (2015). Ziggyology. London: Ebury Press.
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.
“We have an infatuation for famous. It’s gone global. It seems that, with the rise of fame generated through social media sites and TV, we all have this non-specific person, this idol, plonked on a pedestal, simply because they could be bothered to do something to get themselves out there…A lot of [celebrities are] known for their talent, work bloody hard for it, and that’s inspirational. That’s something to idolise – their drive and passion. But being starstruck because of somebody’s position or wealth or title – just think about it. Most of the people who would leave you starstruck will be everyday folk, just getting on with their thing, even if that’s earning £250,000 a week” (from ‘Starstruck, fame-obsessed and suckers for Hollywood culture’ by Bianca Chadda)
Regular readers of my blog will know that I have more than a passing interest in the psychology of fame. For instance, I have looked at many aspects of fame and celebrity including whether fame can be addictive, the role of celebrity endorsement in advertising, individuals that become sexually aroused by famous people (so-called celebriphilia), individuals that are obsessed with celebrity (i.e., celebrity worship syndrome), and whether celebrities are more prone to addictions than the general public, as well a speculative look at the psychology of various celebrities (including – amongst others – Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Adam Ant, Roland Orzabal, Salvador Dali and Allen Jones).
The reason I mention this is because a few days ago (December 11), I was interviewed by Georgey Spanswick on BBC radio about the psychology of being ‘starstruck’. The first thing that occurred to me was what ‘starstruck’ actually means. I knew what my own perception of the term meant but when I began to look into it there are many different definitions of ‘starstruck’ (some of which hyphenate the word), many of which did not match my own definition. Here are a selection which highlight that some of those differences:
- “Star-struck – fascinated or greatly impressed by famous people, especially those connected with the cinema or the theatre” (Oxford Dictionary).
- “Star-struck – feeling great or too much respect for famous or important people, especially famous actors or performers” (Cambridge Dictionary).
- “Starstruck – particularly taken with celebrities (as movie stars)” (Merriam Webster Dictionary).
- Starstruck – Fascinated by or exhibiting a fascination with famous people” (Free Dictionary).
- “Star-struck – a star-struck person admires famous people very much, especially film stars and entertainers” (Macmillan Dictionary).
- “Starstruck – when you meet someone you are very fond of, like a celebrity, movie star, etc. and you get completely overwhelmed, paralyzed and/or speechless by the experience” (Urban Dictionary).
Of all the definitions listed above, it is actually the final one from the online Urban Dictionary that most matches my own conception. In fact, an article by Ainehi Edoro on the Brittle Paper website provides a lay person’s view on being starstruck and how it can leave an individual:
“What does it mean to be starstruck? You meet a celebrity and you are struck by a force that freezes you, holds you captive. You can’t think, your eyes are glazed over, your heart is beating really fast, open or closed, your mouth is useless – it’s either not making any sound or spewing out pure nonsense. In a flash, it’s all over. The celebrity disappears. And you’re left with a sense of loss that turns into regret and, perhaps, embarrassment”.
However, as there is no academic research on the topic of being starstruck (at least not to my knowledge), the rest of this article is pure speculation and uses non-academic sources. The most in-depth (and by that I simply mean longest) article that I came across on why people get starstruck (i.e., being completely overwhelmed and speechless when in the company of a celebrity) was by Lior on the Say Why I Do website. The article claimed there were five reasons that may contribute to being starstruck. These are being (i) excited from a feeling of anticipation of meeting a celebrity, (ii) pumped up from the effort of wanting to impress a celebrity, (iii) excited from receiving undeserved attention from a celebrity, (iv) starstruck because that is how other people act around a celebrity, and (v) excited from overwhelming sexual tension towards a celebrity. More specifically:
Excited from a feeling of anticipation of meeting a celebrity: This simply relates to the anticipation that is felt after taking an interest in someone that the individual has admired and revered for years (i.e., they have become “idealized” and “bigger than life”). What will the celebrity really be like to the individual? Will they meet the expectations of the individual?
Pumped up from the effort of wanting to impress a celebrity: This relates to the fact that when meeting someone an individual admires (in this case a celebrity), the individual is trying to make the best impression they can and to put forward a persona that the individual would like the celebrity to perceive them as. This can be a situation that brings about a lot of pressure resulting in being starstruck.
Excited from receiving undeserved attention from a celebrity: This relates to the idea that the individual perceives the celebrity as somehow better (i.e., more successful, attractive, and/or talented than themselves) and that to even acknowledge the individual’s existence is somehow undeserved. The lower the self-esteem of such individuals, the more undeserved they feel by attention from a celebrity.
Starstruck because that is how other people act around a celebrity: This simply relates to the idea that individuals feel starstruck because everyone around them does (or they perceive that everyone else does). Similar situations arise when a crowd goes wild, screams, cries and faints when watching their favourite pop bands. As Lior’s article notes:
“Before Frank Sinatra became a celebrity, it wasn’t common at all to see screaming fans. In 1942, a publicity stunt was done to promote the 25-year old Sinatra, where they planted a number of girls in the audience who were told to scream and swoon when he stepped on stage. What began as a publicity stunt spread through the whole theatre to become a mass hysteria of screaming and fainting. It’s in human nature to copy behaviour around us”.
Excited from overwhelming sexual tension towards a celebrity: This relates to the idea that many celebrities are sexually attractive to individuals that admire and revere them. As Lior notes:
“When some people find someone good looking, they may start to behave in a way that’s quite similar to being star-struck. Star struckness from sexual tension may arise for several reasons. It may be a manifestation of embarrassment about having had fantasies about the person who is now standing in front of you. It may be that every time you look at that person, your thoughts go to places you can’t quite control and that makes you unable to think straight”.
If you are someone who thinks they might be starstruck if you met someone famous, there are various articles on the internet that provide tips on meeting famous people either out in public or within the confines of your job (see ‘Further reading’ below). I’ve been fortunate to meet many celebrities in my line of work with all the media work that I do but I always tell myself that celebrities are human beings just like you or I. I treat them as I would any other human being. No worse, no better. I’m friendly and I’m professional (at least I hope I am). I’ve yet to be starstruck although I’ve never met anyone famous that inspired me to get to where I wanted to get. 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.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Chadda, B. (2013). Starstruck, fame-obsessed and suckers for Hollywood culture. Lots of Words, March 3. Located at: https://biancajchadda.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/starstruck-fame-obsessed-and-suckers-for-hollywood-culture/
Edora, A. (2012). Seven tips on how to avoid being starstruck. Brittle Paper. May 21. Located at: http://brittlepaper.com/2012/05/meet-celebrities-starstruck
Intern Like A Rock Star (2012). Starstruck: How to talk to celebrities you meet at work. January 2. Located at: http://www.internlikearockstar.com/2012/01/starstruck-how-to-talk-to-celebrities.html#sthash.JBtzCC9Y.dpbs
Lior (2011). Why do people get star struck? SayWhyIDo.com. February 7. Located at: http://www.saywhydoi.com/why-do-people-get-star-struck/