David Bowie's Life at the Extremes
A brief look at Bowie, the occult, and cocaine addiction.
Posted Feb 15, 2017
Since David Bowie’s death in January 2016 I’ve written a number articles on the psychology of Bowie (you can read a couple of them here and here) but this article takes a look at the more extreme aspects of Bowie’s life. As a long-time David Bowie fan I’ve been meaning to write this particular article 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) 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 pored 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’) 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 Pauwel 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’ (1984) and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ (1994) (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”.
References and 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.
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. (2016). 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.