A month before my fifteenth birthday, I saw David Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour with my mother at Madison Square Garden. She came with me because I wasn’t allowed to go to concerts alone then, and because she loved him. In fact, my mother loved David Bowie so much, she forbid my father to come with us, lest he be uncomfortable with her excitement.
The Glass Spider Tour and the album it was in support of, Never Let Me Down, aren’t terribly well-reviewed or considered significant in the canon of Bowie’s work, and I knew that, even then, holding my breath for the older songs – like “Time” and “Heroes” — I had fallen in love with largely because they were on the cheapest cassettes for sale at Tower Records.
But the show had no less mesmerizing impact on me for all that, in large part because of the work done by choreographer Toni Basil and a character danced by Melissa Hurley, who, during “Bang Bang” is seemingly plucked out of the audience. Chosen, she then rejects Bowie; then once he is chastened, goes after him, and leads him in something resembling a tango.
While the ruse was obvious, and I had even read about the moment in a music magazine in advance of the show, it still had the barest tinge and hope of authenticity to me. After all, I was a teenager and there was no mainstream commercial Internet at the time, so I had not read a description of this exact moment appearing night after night as a reminder that I would never be that girl. With my dark curly hair, a dress at home that looked like the performer’s, and too many hours spent in dance classes, I had a tiny bit of hope, that one day….
I’ve had a lot of daydreams though, and that one faded faster than many it seems. Certainly, it was something long forgotten by the time I went to the David Bowie is exhibit at the Victoria & Albert in London last month and had what is certainly the most extraordinary museum visit I have ever experienced.
Even as the exhibit is far too crowded (it is sold out; without advance planning, the only way to get in at this point is to have, borrow, or purchase the same day a year long membership to the V&A) and chaotic in its isolation (as a guest you wear headphones for most of the journey that trigger music and interviews to scatter across your ears depending where you are in the exhibit) it is a trove of memory, evidence and technique that spans Bowie’s history and puts tangibility to details you may only have heard in passing: Diamond Dogs was supposed to be a stage musical; he performed on SNL with Klaus Nomi; he uses a computer program that cuts up sentences from other sources into his song lyrics.
This archive of sketches, sound and video clips, costumes, and artifacts, however, is not actually the highlight of the exhibit. Rather, it’s the other people there with you.
The structure of the exhibit renders nearly everyone completely silent. If they make sound, it is unlikely that you will hear them. Yet, sometimes I caught a random peel of laughter, or looked to my left or right and found someone staring open-mouthed at the video of a performance video of “Boys Keep Swinging.” Then, unavoidably, I was put in mind of Velvet Goldmine when the character of Arthur fantasizes about pointing at a television performance of the film’s Bowie avatar Brian Slade and shouting, “That’s me Ma! That’s me!”
But the true magic is in he penultimate moment of David Bowie is that leads viewers into a large, multistory room coated in video monitors. There are some exhibits scattered throughout this space, but they are secondary to the visual and auditory display and the many seating areas provided finally for guests.
Everyone stares up, mouths open yet again (we are tiny birds, there to receive this very fundamental piece of pop-culture nourishment and benediction; after all, one of the exhibits main arguments is that Bowie is in everything, including us). Eventually, people realize the sound is no longer coming through their headphones, but is piped into the room directly, and the isolation of the exhibit structure has gives way to the communal concert experience.
A woman near me laughed at the wonder of it, and a security guard tried to shush her, but the crowd told him no. A man to my left had tears tracking down his cheeks. I had to look away from a monitor close to the floor that showed 9/11 footage during a performance of “Heroes,” which for me in high school was a song about how I felt I would never be loved. Later I had to sit down as the whole of the room lit up with that long-forgotten performance of “Bang Bang” on The Glass Spider tour.
Exiting the exhibit one is given the proof, no longer needed, that David Bowie is in all of us. Photos of artists who have borrowed, begged, and stolen from Bowie’s various incarnations and looks, or even echoed him seemingly accidentally and disturbingly (Tilda Swinton must be noted, especially), line three walls. A periodic element chart of figures relevant, some as influence and some as influenced, is painted on the desperately meaningful fourth. Sometimes I would see names – Harvey Milk – and have to look away.
David Bowie is argues aggressively that Bowie’s presence, if not his work itself, is necessarily political in our cultures, and personal in the way that it does not just inspire, but infests. It reminded me of the relief I felt as little more than a child to see portrayals of desire and loss and otherness that I was entitled to access in private amongst the public.
And it reminded me that there are some strange gems in the Bowie’s canon, not just in the truly great albums (Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and the Berlin triptych), but in the lesser ones. In fact, I walked out of David Bowie is with an obsessive need to revisit Never Let Me Down, and while I (re)discovered an album with many legitimately forgettable tracks and an excessive abuse of the signature-80s unnecessary sax solo, I also found in it the feminine counterpart to Diamond Dogs through “Bang Bang” and the rather spectacular “Time Will Crawl” that clearly returns us to the unresolved narratives of Hunger City.
David Bowie is runs through August 11 at the Victoria and Albert in London.