(photo: Polaroid snapshot of David Bowie with some of our mutual friends visiting our favorite nightclub together, Chicago, August, 1980)
A few readers have suggested that I should re-post this reflection on David Bowie, who died a year ago (as of tomorrow), on January 10, 2016. This was originally posted a few days ago within a listing of various persons who passed on in 2016.
David Bowie (David Robert Jones, Jan 8, 1947 – Jan 10, 2016) age 69
Bowie (aka Davie Jones, aka Jonesy) and I met in the late 60s and early 70s, through a mutual beloved woman friend — a brilliant musical actress and later brilliant academic who we each had previously dated at different periods, when we were all very young and single. A decade or so later, in August 1980, Bowie’s Elephant Man stage production brought him to Chicago for a month. I’d been living in the city for a few years and Bowie, recently divorced after nine years of marriage and fatherhood, asked me to take him round to all the best “secret” & not-so-secret spots — late-hour blues & jazz clubs, ethnic cafés, bookstores, offbeat clothing boutiques, etc.
He was then going through a mostly clean, drug-free period, so I agreed, though with some very serious, trepident reservations. He had also dropped his drug-fueled insane performance-persona of “the thin white duke,” a heartless pro-Nazi British fascist aristocrat. A few years before bringing his theatre performance to Chicago, he had shocked his sane fans and most humane members of the public, — and thrilled and emboldened skinheads and neo-Nazis and other rightwing thugs and wannabe-thugs all over Britain, Europe and the US, — with his seemingly quite serious public use of the Nazi Hitler salute on virtually any occasion, and his atrocious and seemingly quite candid and sincere public statements such as this, made in 1974:
“Britain is ready for a fascist leader. . .I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism. . . I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under regimental leadership. . . . Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. . . . You’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up.”
My initial response to his request/invitation to spend time socializing was polite, of course, — cautiously polite. But I had to call round to some mutual old acquaintances to verify that he was no longer spouting vile fascist idiocies, even in parody, and no longer (at least mostly not) caught up in the insanity of addictive drug use that had seemed the strongest factor in his disgusting “white duke” phase, addiction that had permanently ravaged his body while also at least temporarily unsettling and overshadowing much of his mind. With strong vouchsafing from some trusted mutual friends, I agreed to his request.
We immediately had some very good & funny times together, aided by a few of my local friends, mostly women, one of whom Bowie instantly began dating. At that time Davie was dedicated to trying to establish a personal daily meditation routine, and very much appreciated having a local chum with whom he could practice daily meditation sessions (mostly in the shrine room of my flat, but also, rarely, up at his sometimes-fan-besieged hotel room). He also appreciated having local chums he could go have 4am breakfast with, usually just myself & a couple of my women friends, casual “double dates,” if you will, after taking-in late-hour club sets, staying up til dawn discussing art and literature, music and spirituality. Bowie loved to paint and study painters, was very intelligent, fairly well-read and articulate. However, it seemed all his drug use of past years had somewhat compromised both his stable sharp attention-span, and his ability to enjoy being deeply relaxed at the same time.
All of this was poignantly ironic, for when Davie was around 16 to 18 or so, he had met and studied for about a year with a London-based Tibetan lama, Venerable Chime (CHIH-mey) Tulku Rinpoche, with whom he remained friends. I could only speculate, somewhat sadly, as to how much more personal developmental growth, health, and enjoyment Bowie likely missed out on by subsequently becoming caught up for several years in quite damaging drug abuse and worthless superficiality rather than further cultivating his early spiritual interests with the guidance of a competent mentor. Chime Tulku (who still lives in London) had been a nephew and student of one of my most important Tibetan teachers, His Holiness the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Chime Tulku also was a student of another one of my teachers, the late 16th Karmapa, and we share some other Tibetan teachers and friends as well. So, while I had not met Chime Tulku, having Bowie hang out for a while during that summer of 1980, meditating and socializing together with me and a few of my select local friends, was mostly all very relaxed and homey from the get-go.
One very serious initial impediment however, was that the woman I was then most fondly and steadily seeing refused at first to meet Bowie. She is Jewish and her parents were Holocaust survivors. A part-time theatre actor herself, she was surprised and impressed by what a good job Bowie did on stage when she agreed to come with me to see him in Elephant Man, but she refused to allow me to make introductions. She was far too sickened and angry over his public pro-Nazi pronouncements and antics from the recent past. When I told him this, Bowie sought out my friend and her parents on his own initiative, apologized, and gravely asked for their forgiveness. He ended up having a series of hours-long soul-searching discussions with my girlfriend’s father. This man was a hugely-gifted surgeon, historical and literary scholar, a classical musician, acclaimed humanitarian activist and international medical aid volunteer director. Their talks left Bowie visibly quite shaken and ashen for several days, after which he seemed both sobered and uplifted.
Although I always thought Bowie was an exceptional showman and a talented songwriter, I was not (and still am not) a particularly strong fan of his music overall. So much of his work just seems, forgive me, rather shallow. Nor have I ever found anything about his various early public “performance-personae” the least bit interesting. It all seemed fueled by brain-scrambling drugs and unresolved basic issues of self-identity. It is one thing to offer insightful, empathetic observations about such concerns, including gender-identity for instance, especially from within a lived emic perspective. It is another thing, either to be so fucked-up from continual drug abuse that you have no idea who you are in almost any sense, or, — vice versa — to have so much discomfort or pain from lack of self-knowledge and/or self-acceptance on numerous levels (not restricted simply to your sexuality or celebrity or wealth) that you prefer to constantly stay fucked-up for years on grossly damaging drugs and to make numerous horrific public acclamations of the need for a violent take-over of society and government by some neo-Nazi dictatorship.
From the vantage of my own personal universe of sensibility and concern both then and now, “glam rock” and almost all that went with it has always seemed to me for the most part to be a vapidly silly preoccupation and a childishly pointless, even offensively banal response to life and to the pressing needs of the time. Such superficial, fictional costume drama role-playing as a creative career and/or in daily street life, has always seemed, to me, a desperate and doomed attempt to make up for a lack of knowledge regarding more comprehensive, more satisfying states of natural fulfillment. That is to say, a lack of knowledge of the more richly-engaging adventure of discovering and nurturing, enjoying and sharing the deep abiding unity between individual holistic self-nature and the natural world at large. And thus a lack of awareness also of the profound fulfillment that comes from applying the resulting benefits of this experience of deep unity in active contribution toward a more humanely meaningful, conscious evolution of society and culture.
At a personal level, however, “in real life,” Davie during that time, at least, was notably polite, thoughtful, surprisingly intellectual, and quite funny. Wherever we went, he always dressed in a most simple, nondescript way. I think he must have studied the slightly preppie-influenced clothing preferences of young, educated Midwestern suburban dads, and/or rather square young grammar-&-composition instructors at Midwestern state colleges. It seemed he somehow decided such a look would best allow him to “blend” while in Chicago, and he had arrived already equipped somehow with the requisite clothing items. There were lots of topsiders, penny loafers, chinos, and Izod golf shirts, along with a navy blazer or two. Never did I see him act the prima donna, or bank on the social “currency” of his celebrity. Well, with the one exception that he was sometimes willing to “hook up” for the night with a just-met sufficiently appealing-and-interested woman (if he also did so with any men, or under-aged girls or boys, as his self-advanced reputation would have it, I never observed it or heard about it). Certainly Bowie knew that in most if not all such instances of one-off hook-ups, the woman’s interest was due more to her attraction to his celebrity status and presumed wealth, rather than simply his striking good looks and quiet suavité.
This factor, he once told me, was part of why he preferred often to go hide-out in “obscure” parts of urban Africa and Asia where he could ramble the city streets incognito for weeks at a stretch without anyone ever once suspecting his identity or status as a pop star. But that had become very difficult by then. His fame, he complained, among other difficulties, had made it virtually impossible in Europe or North America or Australia, etc, to simply chat-up a girl he fancied and take his chances on success with his charm alone. He was too well known. Partly related to this, Jonesy therefore was also sincerely grateful to spend time “dating” the female friend of mine I mentioned earlier (not my steady girlfriend, but one of our close pals). This woman was very much aware of who Bowie was in terms of music, his rock star status and film work — far more than I was, — but she was not the least bit wowed by any of it. Her casual near-indifference to such things was helped by the fact that she was far more strikingly attractive and charismatic even than Bowie himself, in her own unassuming and deft way, and also by the fact that she had plenty of money of her own, as well as a devoted posse of quite attractive would-be suitors, both male and female. Plus, she was a serious grad student, an accomplished classical musician and dancer, and was an impressively well-grounded and level-headed person. Davie seemed more impressed by her than she did by him — in my opinion quite rightly so.
This friend, unlike my steady girl, was not Jewish and though of course she also found Bowie’s Nazi shit profoundly abhorrent, she was able to give him the benefit of the doubt (rightly or wrongly) as to his claimed intention in having presented it in the recent past, before dropping it — that is, as being a farcical critique and denigrating pantomime of actual British fascists and Nazi-supporters from the 1930s and beyond. This friend found Bowie’s single dad status, temporarily quite square attire, and unassuming casual approach more interesting features in someone to have a brief affair with than his pop idol star status. And she had no interest in any lasting romantic future with anyone at that point in her life. So it seemed to be an instantly mutually-recognized good match, providing them both with lightheartedly intimate, sincerely good company with no strings attached.
From my limited observation, I found Bowie, or Jonesy, to be a chap of several internal conflicts and obvious “issues”, but overall a well-intentioned and generally kindly person. I certainly never knew him well, but our time hanging out together that August was an amiable renewal and extension of our previous very casual initial acquaintance from years before. He conveyed the impression of deeply yearning to feel much more free, internally and externally, to pursue his deeper spiritual interests than he seemed to feel encouraged or “allowed” to do. He pretty much confessed this more than once. Yet something, some partly-unconscious complex of things, kept him too caught up in far less edifying concerns than was best for his growth or even his day-by-day sustained happiness and clarity. Bowie was certainly not alone in that. However, my closest friends and I had been engaged for many years in daily meditation and related spiritual practice and study as the primary focus of our lives. Our social and personal lives as professional creative artists, academic teachers or students, and committed activists, etc., were secondary extensions and expressions of our primary spiritual engagement and growth as practitioners and teachers of Transcendental Meditation trained and certified by His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who I had known since his first world teaching tour in 1959.
Jones was 33 the year he spent that month acting and exploring in Chicago. By then the early mutual friend and one-time girlfriend who had initially introduced us, over a decade earlier, had retired from her own very successful international performing career. She had completed her personal training with His Holiness Maharishi as a certified teacher of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) program — some of which training she and I had undertaken together. She had also finished her doctoral studies and had already begun gaining significant notice as a gifted professor and research scholar. Reminiscing about her, Jones expressed some regret over various directions and turns taken in his own life, particularly the less edifying aspects of his still freshly ended marriage and the years of his life lost to drugs. He told me that due to extreme addiction to cocaine and a slough of other drugs, he couldn’t remember having given many of his concerts over the years or even having recorded some of his albums.
With all the outward success he had achieved, it was obvious that on some very significant levels Jonesy continued to wish that he could be someone else, living elsewhere in time and space. Again, he was not alone in this, of course, although he found it deeply isolating much of the time. He expressed a desire to find a genuine way out of this existential state of dissatisfying constraint. But, like many individuals who struggle with addictive tendencies, he found the false escape into drugged mind-body states a strong pull toward further avoidance and muddling of his chances for making serious progress toward his own self-realization and self-liberation. His daily and nightly immersion just then in the stage role of the Elephant Man was both partial compensation for, and also partial postponement and distraction from, the need he felt for greater, deeper self exploration and integration. Like other theatre people I have known, he seemed able to access a larger, more satisfying aspect of himself when presenting the fictional facade of a dramatic character than when just being his “ordinary,” unaffectated self as Davie Jones.
Jones had his young son along with him during his stay in Chicago, a quiet boy of eight or ten. I felt that this helped ground Davie’s own sense of a fuller, richer adult self-identity and responsible connection to life. At the same time, it was one of the largest contributors to the cluster of competing interests for Bowie’s hour-by-hour, and day-by-day attention. Bowie had a lot on his plate right then. The month in Chicago, with most mornings spent more or less alone with his son, was meant to be in part a kind of working father-son vacation, a time for healing and relaxation. And to some extent I believe it was. At the same time, Davie’s grueling theatre schedule and newly applied immersion in single parenthood left him both semi-exhausted and also eager both to plunge deeply into the inner silence of daily meditation practice as well as to go out and discover a new city with a few friendly locals who could be trusted to take him round to some of the kinds of places and events he most wished to experience during his free “down-time” hours.
^ ^ ^ ^
Chime Tulku on David Bowie:
Detailed profile of Chime Tulku:
Song written by Davie about Chime Tulku in 1965 (?) and included on his first album David Bowie (1967); this is a later BBC sessions version:
“Silly Boy Blue” – lyrics (with my notes)
Mountains of Lhasa are feeling the rain
Lamas are walking the Potala lane
[* lama means guru, spiritual teacher, not necessarily a monk or nun *Potala Palace is the Dalai Lama’s former monastic “White House” in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital]
The teacher takes the school
One boy breaks the rules
Silly boy blue, blue, blue, silly boy blue
Yak butter statues that melt in the sun [*ritual offering items]
Cannot dissolve all the work you’ve not done
A chela [*ie disciple] likes to feel
That his Overself [*ie buddha-nature] pays the bill
Silly boy blue, blue, silly boy blue
You wish and wish, and wish again
You’ve tried so hard to fly
You’ll never leave your body now
You’ve got to wait to die
Dalai-La, Dalai-La, Lhasa-La, Lhasa-La, Dalai-La, Lhasa-La
[*“la” is a term of respect affixed to the end of a name or title]
Chime, Chime, Chime, Chime, Chime
[*Chime is the name of Bowie’s Tibetan teacher and friend, Chime Tulku]
Silly boy blue
Child of Tibet, you’re a gift from the sun
child incarnation of one better man
[*a rambunctious schoolchild, Chime was also recognized as the reincarnation of a revered previous lama]
The homeward road is long
You’ve left your prayers and song
[*after relocating to London as a young man, Chime returned his monk’s vows, married and raised children, while remaining a respected lama]
Silly boy blue, silly boy blue
Silly boy blue, blue, silly boy blue, blue,
Silly boy blue