Confronting Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses

David Bowie's pieta by Steven Klein via
“Prison Cell Pieta”. David Bowie wears Papal Red Slippers and makes a Latin Benediction gesture with ink stained fingers, recalling Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Image: Steven Klein

“Confront a corpse at least once” Bowie implored, “…the absolute absence of life is the most disturbing and challenging confrontation you will ever have” (Esquire 2004). His words accompanied a haunting photographic recreation by Steven Klein of Michelangelo’s Pieta in a prison cell, a strange androgynous figure draped like the lifeless body of Christ across Bowie’s lap while he made a Latin Benediction gesture with the ink stained fingers of his left hand [i].  A decade later, Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day contained more than just one cadaver; indeed the album dripped death like a bleeding beehive of blood, a honeycombed-catacomb of cryptic mystery, rage and resignation. This was no safe space for neophytes or necrophobes, but for those with the “terror of knowing”, bright light casts dark shadows and the eternal paradox lies in discerning which one is which. The Next Day ain’t rock ‘n roll, as much as art on suicide watch, with last observations taken at 9.25 [ii].

Death has been an enduring companion to Bowie from the beginning, giving creative form to that most existentialist Kierkegaardian obsession:

This paper on Death and Bowie was presented in London in 2014 and  published as a chapter in Enchanting David Bowie (Bloomsbury) June 2015 prior to the release of Blackstar. I have been asked if I knew the artist’s death was imminent when I wrote it and the answer is yes. Artist’s Intuition  can be mysteriously powerful at times. 

As soon as a human being is born, he begins to die. But the difference is that there are some people for whom the thought of death comes into existence with birth and is present to them in the quiet peacefulness of childhood and the buoyancy of youth; whereas others have a period in which this thought is not present to them until, when the years run out, the years of vigor and vitality, the thought of death meets them on their way. (Kierkegaard, 1844: 280)

Born in the shadows of World War 2, the first corpses emerged when Bowie was barely out of his teens. Amongst Bowie’s earliest songs was a murderous narrative about a child killer who kills a gravedigger (“Please, Mr. Gravedigger”, 1967), cannibalistic “Hungry Men” threatening mass extermination (David Bowie, 1967) and the heartbreakingly poignant “Conversation Piece”, the story of an intellectual who jumps despairingly from a bridge, a brilliant mind no compensation to the despair of loneliness [iii]. These songs mark the first taste of Bowie’s ongoing fascination with liminal spaces, control, consciousness and the extinguishment life, foreshadowing a lifetime of deathly intrigue that led inexorably to 1. Outside. The Ritualistic Art Murder of Baby Grace – a Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle (1995) and later, to The Next Day and the dark torment of “You feel So Lonely you Could Die” in 2013.

My head’s full of murders where only killers scream” the tripped out singer confessed on 1970’s “Unwashed and Slightly Dazed”. It was on the same album he introduced us to “The Man Who Sold the World” who thrust Bowie deep into the mysteries of death and consciousness as he found himself amongst millions of undead in a song with echoes of Saint-Exupéry’s novella The Little Prince and the jazz standard “Nature Boy”; with their tales of enchanted wanderers, magical encounters and the revelation of wisdom[iv] (The Man who Sold the World, 1970).

On the apocalyptic The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars in 1972 Bowie was a “Rock and Roll Suicide”, a “leper messiah” resigned to sacrificial, (albeit hubristic) slaughter at the hands of ignorant masses. Two years later Diamond Dogs (1974) pushed into stranger territory. Melodramatically opening the album with the dystopian specter of Hunger City, its gruesome urban decay splattered with decomposing bodies …and in the death, as the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare… it gave way, amid a primal, pulsating force of wailing guitar, to one of rock’s darker manifestos “…this ain’t rock and roll, this is genocide”. (“As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent” pumped up on nihilistic hedonism, cultural cleansing had never sounded so damn sexy.)   Conceived as an interpretation of Orwell’s 1949 book Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bowie’s Diamond Dogs hypnotically entranced us with fatalistic resignation on “We Are the Dead”: “Oh dress yourself my urchin one, for I hear them on the stairs / Because of all we’ve seen because of all we’ve said / We are the dead” – and reinforced our inevitable fate conjuring the macabre specter of death in the strangely shamanic funk rhythm of “The Chant of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family”.

Homicide and crucifixion continued to claw their way into the oeuvre wherever they could take hold, adding to the metaphorical death of love (“Up the Hill Backwards, 1980”), death of faith (“I Would be Your Slave” 2002), reason (“I’m Deranged” 1995) and identity (“Heat” 2013).  In 1982, Bowie’s haunting rendition of Brechts The Drowned Girl evocatively conjured the viscerality of dead flesh decomposing in the river after suicide: “Once she had drowned and started her slow descent…Wreck and duckweed slowly increased her weight…Through her limbs, the cold-blooded fishes played…Once her pallid trunk had rotted beyond repair, It happened quite slowly that she gently slipped from God’s thoughts, First with her face, then her hands, right at the last with her hair Leaving those corpse-choked rivers just one more corpse”.  Who can bear to be forgotten?

Even during his most commercially popular incarnation as the suave yellow-suited star of the Let’s Dance (1983) era, Bowie’s death complex never abated, that most commercial of albums masking dark references to spiritual struggle and death. Among the themes of colonialism, race, identity and morality, the albums iconic lyrics “put on your red shoes and dance the blues” also seem to recall Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Red Shoes [v] and the little girl vainly tempted to wear them only to find they could not be removed, dancing the wearer insane and separating her from God’s grace – “lets dance for fear your grace should fall” [vi]. In Andersens tale, the Holy Pictures on the church wall glared at the girl in divine judgment, a weight of condemnation echoed in “Ricochet” (1983) with its injunction to “…turn the Holy Pictures so they face the wall” amidst its spirit crushing lyrics and the “sound of the devil breaking parole”. “So you train by shadowboxing, search for the truth [vii]” Bowie had sung three years earlier on “Scream Like Baby Teenage Wildlife” (1980). On the cover of Let’s Dance Bowie continued this fight with shadows and spiritual tricksters with “no sign of life…just the power to charm.”

Symbolist Death

Bowie’s aforementioned “Please Mr. Gravedigger” track is a significant marker of the symbolic centrality of death that permeates his career. In this strangely dramatised a Capella tune he sings as a child murderer haunting the churchyard where his victim is buried, planning in his world of twisted vengeance to kill the old gravedigger who dared snatch a locket from her grave. In this story of a murderer killing a thief (possibly set in the real West Norwood Cemetery, where V-1 bombs hit the chapel during World War Two), the bombing of the churchyard speaks of the death of the spiritual and the sacred, of memory and ritual; deathly layer upon deathly layer as fall dogs bombed the tombs.

The Death of the Grave Digger
” La mort du fossoyeur (The Death of the Gravedigger)” by Symbolist Carlos Schwabe, 1895

    There’s a little churchyard just along the way… tombstones, epitaphs, wreaths, flowers  all that jazz / till the war came along and someone dropped a bomb on the lot / And in this little yard, there’s a little old man …He seems to spend all his days puffing fags and digging graves …Yes, Mr. GD, you see me every day, Standing in the same spot by a certain grave/ Mary-Ann was only 10 and full of life and oh so gay / And I was the wicked man who took her life away, …No, Mr. GD, you won’t tell / And just to make sure that you keep it to yourself / I’ve started digging holes myself, And this one here’s for you. (“Please Mr. Gravedigger”, David Bowie, 1967)

The song could almost be a creative interpretation of Carlos Schwabe’s [xiii] 1895 Symbolist painting La mort du fossoyeur The Death of the Gravedigger – an evocative image of an old man cowering with his shovel inside a freshly dug grave while a dark angel of death coolly steals his soul. Indeed, his career so deeply aligns with the tradition and tone of the 19th Century symbolists and their mythopoeic fascination with mysticism, esoteric spirituality, mortality, ideals, dreams and symbols that it is easy to see synchronistic manifestation of their thematic concerns throughout his work, particularly in the quest to transcend duality – spirit/flesh, male/female, life/death – through the integration of polarities [ix].

The iconic cover of Diamond Dogs (1974) that showed a naked Bowie morphed with a dog, for instance, has curious parallels with Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff’s 1896 image of the hybrid Leopard Woman in “L’Art ou Des Caresses” or “The Caress” – a painting filled with erotic overtones, androgyny and hermetic symbolism. (Khnopff was a close collaborator with the poet Joséphin Péladan, grandmaster of the Rosicrucian Mystic Order of the Rose + Croix, a society exploring esoteric spirituality and ritual that had once fascinated Bowie). Painted by another Belgian artist, Guy Peellaert in 1974, both Bowie’s Dog-man and Khnopff’s Cat-woman are theriomorphic figures, human-animal hybrids that appear throughout history as symbols of mystery and magic. The androgynous figures in these images seem to reflect the symbolic conjunction of sexual opposites, evoking an unsettlingly seductive tension. Diamond Dogs was the first album on which Bowie utilized the chaos magician William Burroughs’ infamous cut-up method to allow for the unconscious creation of lyrics. When Bowie sang “Oh caress yourself my juicy” on “We are the Dead” one can almost imagine the sphinx in Khnopff’s “Caress” purring this to the youth with the magic staff.

The Caresses, 1896 1ac davidbowiediamonddogs-front

19th Century Belgian Symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff’s 1896 painting L’Art ou Des Caresses contrasted with contemporary Belgium artist, Guy Pellart’s Diamond Dogs Cover eight decades later.

The fascination with the interior, unconscious world of dreams and ideas that arise and percolate in artists like Bowie – who deeply resonate with the ideas of Carl Jung (Stark, 2014) – often sees them drawn to and reflecting the themes of the Symbolists. When Bowie slipped in a reference to Belgian Symbolist poet and writer Georges Rodenbach (who wrote of murder and melancholy, doppelgängers and death) [x] on 2013’s The Next Day album, he gave an unmistakable acknowledgement to this arts movement with its strong parallels to the content and processes of his creative life.

We Need to Talk About David

There is a deliberate dissonance permeating Bowie’s reappearance in 2013.  The Next Day brims with dead men hanging, walking, packing guns and Bibles, surrounded by swirling ideas of death and resurrection, possession, deception, judgment and retribution.  It’s Death as catharsis, as symbol, as mystery and revenge, but so often wrapped in beautiful sounds that belie their dark content: such as the disturbing “Valentine’s Day, a sway-along song about a deluded shooter who has confided in the singer his dreams of massacre and dominion. “Valentine told me who’s to go / Feelings he treasured most of all / the teachers and the football stars … Valentine told me how he feels  / If all the world were under his heels / or stumbling through the mall  … It’s in his scrawny hands, It’s in his icy heart” (Valentines Day, The Next Day, 2013).

It is not the first time Bowie has sung of the macabre, visceral reality of slaughter and assassination.   On 1970’s “Running Gun Blues” (The Man Who Sold the World) for example, Bowie sings as a Vietnam veteran who unleashes his violent demons upon society on his return: “… the peacefuls stopped the war / Left generals squashed and stifled … I’ll slip out again tonight cause they haven’t taken back my rifle / For I promote oblivion And I’ll plug a few civilians I’ll slash them cold, I’ll kill them dead I’ll break them gooks, I’ll crack their heads I’ll slice them till they’re running red”. He soaked up vicarious TV violence on Tin Machine’s Video Crime” (Tin Machine, 1989): “… Trash Time Bundy, Death Row Chic (chop it up) Haunt this street from half past ten … Blood on video-video crime … Late night cannibal-cripples decay, Just can’t tear my eyes away”.

1987’s “Day In Day Out“ (Never Let Me Down) culminates in a woman contemplating her own gun crime, worn down by abuse and injustice before a mysterious angelic intervention shoots her down instead. “She’s gonna take her a shotgun – Pow, spin the grail spin the drug, She’s gonna make them well aware she’s an angry gal” Bowie sings as the film clip shows him playing a ‘headless’ guitar-as-gun as he would do again in the “Valentines Day” film clip 25 years later.

  [5/8/15 Update: see Rolling Stones 1976 intriguing Cameron Crowe interview with an archetypally inflated and unbalanced Bowie: ” “I have this dream. I’d like to host a satellite television show and invite all the biggest bands onto one stage. Then I’d come out with a great big wheelbarrow of machine guns and ask them, ‘Now how many of you are gonna do anything? How many are going to pick up a gun and how many of you are gonna cling to your guitars?'”]

Death psychopathically stalked Bowie in the video to 1997’s I’m Afraid of Americans (Earthling) where Trent Reznor, an assassin with spiritually dark undertones, relentlessly pursues a paranoid Bowie through the streets with a virtual gun, before finally appearing in the guise of Christ on his way to crucifixion in a strange Mexican Day of the Dead like procession.  But perhaps the most cryptic corpse was on 1995’s 1. Outside: the Ritualistic Art Murder of Baby Grace – a Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle, a conceptual detective mystery set in the future where murder is a legitimate form of artistic expression.   Woven through song, video and liner notes, Bowie confronted his audience with bizarre themes of detachment, derangement and bodily desecration, decapitated minotaurs and mannequins, dark pagan rituals and Bacchan last suppers:

“The Limbs of Baby were then severed from the torso [xi]…The limbs and their components were then hung upon the splayed web, slug-like prey of some unimaginable creature [xii]. The torso,by means of its bottom-most orifice, had been placed on a small support fastened to a marble base…It was definitely murder – but was it art?” (Diary of Nathan Adler – 1. Outside 1995.)

 Bowie would describe the macabre project as an exploration of society’s spiritual hunger for meaning and authentic inner spirituality. “The one continuum that is throughout my writing… is a real simple, spiritual search,” he confessed (Bowie in Ill, 1997).   Bowie’s search, however, was hardly simple, as many have pondered (see Cinque, 2013; Dery, 2010; Savage, 2010; Ball, 2013) and the album brought his God and Death complexes to the fore. On Outside it appeared he was ritually dismembering old religious strictures and social restraint, metaphorically burning them to ashes, singing of “a fantastic death abyss, It’s the hearts filthy lesson”.  Amongst the gruesome layers, Baby Grace arguably alluded to the Holy Child of grace, who own body was also violently impaled through crucifixion.

In an article by Ian Penman, “The Resurrection of Saint Dave” for Esquire Magazine (October 1995), Bowie said:

 My input revolved around the idea of ritual art—what options were there open to that kind of quasi-sacrificial blood-obsessed sort of art form? And the idea of a neo-paganism developing-especially in America-with the advent of the new cults of tattooing and scarification and piercings and all that … people have a real need for some spiritual life and I think there’s great spiritual starving going on. There’s a hole that’s been vacated by an authoritative religious body—the Judeo-Christian ethic doesn’t seem to embrace all the things that people actually need to have dealt with in that way[xiii]—and it’s sort of been left to popular culture to soak up the leftover bits like violence and sex.

Bowie’s linking of violence, spiritual belief and death, and the lack of contemporary, culturally resonant frameworks to meaningfully process these powerful energies explored on Outside is intriguing, particularly when considering why people are attracted to violent expressions of belief, such as “Islamic State”. (Bowie had previously explored the ancient clash of religious ideology in his 1985 song “Loving the Alien”, singing of terror and torture from the crusades through to modern times: “Watching them come and go, the Templars and the Saracens
…Torture comes and torture goes
 …terror in the best laid plans…Christians and the unbelievers, hanging by the cross and nail”).

Grace’s corpse on Outside seemed the end result from the convergence, subversion and dysfunctional channeling of these primal drives. Bowie sang in several guises across the 1995 album, from Detective Nathan Adler, who had undertones of a cryptic “Grand Inquisitor” figure (Dostoyevsky, 1880), [xiii] to murder suspect, Leon Blank, a reversal of Noel, herald of emptiness, a Holy Fool cutting esoteric zeroes into the fabric of time and perceiving hidden mysteries through These Architects Eyes, a name for God in the mystery traditions. [xiv] Deliberately ambiguous, the project possibly intimated the Detective himself could be the Minotaur serial killer who murdered Baby Grace, a theological implication perhaps cryptically reflected in “The Next Daysingle and film clip with its contempt for exploitative religious leaders who “work with Satan while they dress like saints” and corrupt institutions of power that exploit and destroy the Grace they should protect and illuminate.

Shadows of The Next Day

Bowie and Burroughs Back to Back. Image: Jimmy King
Three Men in Hats. – Bowie, Burroughs and Bowie. Image: Jimmy King 2013

For several years prior and subsequent to the release of The Next Day in 2013, Bowie remained as silent as Rosenbach, giving no public interviews or appearances to promote his latest work. It was unsurprising then that like some virtual vivisection, Bowie’s digital resurrection was forensically picked apart for meaning in symbol and verse in the notable absence of a real body.   The iconoclastic title track “The Next Day” which emerged like a nine-inch nail to the eye was carved up in all its histrionic glory as many conducted spiritual autopsies on the controversial film clip temporarily banned by YouTube.  Yet, there are also very interesting subtle visual nuances in the iconography and cryptic images around Bowie’s latest incarnation. For those whose imaginations are “not quite dying”, it seems Bowie has been perpetually confronting us with the mysteries of mortality and death even in the still photography

The first photograph to appear in 2013 was “Three Men in Hats”, a black and white portrait by Jimmy King of Bowie seated under an earlier Terry O’Neill portrait of the artist as a young man, back to back with synchronistic beat poet and chaos magician William S. Burroughs.

 It was Burroughs who infamously coined the (literally) seminal phrase the Thin White Duke Rope in his 1959 book Naked Lunch that would morph into one of Bowie’s more sexually alluring yet emotionally detached personae. The stark black and white portrait portrayed Bowie presiding intensely from an oroborous ring of steel, hinting at mysteries of circularity and prescience, casting shadows between two columns, recalling the two pillars Jachin and Boaz from Solomon’s Temple seen in Khnopff’s “The Caress” (Fig.2) that feature heavily in esoteric mystery traditions (2 Chronicles 3:15-17). The three heads evoke associations with three-headed ‘Chronos’, or ‘Father Time’ of Ancient Greece mythically connected with the birth of Chaos, the Prima Materia and magical semen, something Bowie may have synchronistically alluded to as he infamously sang ‘Time… falls wanking to the floor’ (“Time” Aladdin Sane, 1973).

The image emerged with the launch of “Where are We Now” (The Next Day), the ghosts of Bowie’s Berlin bringing the circularity of his life to the fore. Released on his 66th birthday, it always seemed as interesting that the “… man lost in time near KaDeWe, just walking the dead” shared his birth date with Stephen Hawking, that intellectual master of chaos that is quantum theory, as much as he does with the King of Rock n Roll, Elvis Presley. The Tony Oursler-directed film clip was a cornucopia of archetypal imagery, the double-headed mannequin suggesting the sacred marriage of opposites, Heiros Gamos; the diamond of the Self, a Philosophers Stone. Sun, Rain, Fire, You, Me – the alchemic mysteries of the inner journey literally spelled out on screen.

 Death’s Door

Time is Waiting in the Wings. Image credit: Jimmy King
One of the most profoundly prescient images of Bowie’s career, captured in the Magic Studio by Jimmy King 2012

Shortly after the release of the 2013 album, another fascinating image by Jimmy King appeared, this time taken in the Magic Shop studio in New York where the album was covertly recorded.

It’s a stunning portrait of a glowing, white shirted Bowie full of vitality, standing over the ground mixing controls.   But this image too, continues the theme of the eternal cycle of life and death, for if one looks closely behind David’s left shoulder there is a ghostly pareidolic image of a skeleton formed by the grain of the wooden door, Shroud of Turin-like, with a claddagh crown.  It brings to mind Bowie’s iconic rendition of Belgian Jacques Brel’s My Death’ the night he killed Ziggy – a song sung by one who lives in the knowledge of mortal fragility and the other world behind the door:

My death waits like a bible truth At the funeral of my youth … My death waits like a witch at night / As surely as our love is bright / Let’s not think about the passing time…But what ever lies behind the door / There is nothing much to do, Angel or devil, I don’t care / For in front of that door, there is you…My death waits there among the leaves / In magician’s mysterious sleeves / Rabbits and dogs and the passing time (My Death, 1973)

In light of “The Next Day” film clip, with its contempt for duplicitous religion, the specter of a Holy Relic in this photograph is as elegant as the camera angle that creates the illusion Bowie holds a Faustian homunculus in his hands as time itself, symbolized by his watch, disappears up a ‘magician’s mysterious sleeves.’

The Angels of Life and Death, that most classic duo of Symbolist iconography, recur throughout the decades in Bowie’s work, foreshadowing liminal spaces and transitions; New Angels of Promise, Angels of Lead, Angels in these Golden Years, Angels for Life, Angels that have gone. In “Look Back in Anger” (Lodger, 1979) the Angel of Death seemingly comes to Bowie, heralding his mortal end: “You know who I am,” he said / The speaker was an angel / He coughed and shook his crumpled wings …”It’s time we should be going”/ Waiting so long, I’ve been waiting so, waiting so …” But the Angel of Death didn’t take Bowie in 1979; the visitation was yet another dispassionate reminder of the inevitability of his eventual demise. If a deal had been struck, someone across the years apparently reneged on the terms.

In “Bring Me The Disco King” (Reality, 2003) Bowie laments his slow drawn-out ending, addressing one who had lead him through trails of money and sex to an impotent dark ending. It was arguably the same crumpled winged Angel of “Look Back in Anger” watching over a life reduced to a worthless crumpled paper in “Bring Me The Disco King: “You promised me the ending would be clear / You’d let me know when the time was now / Don’t let me know when you’re opening the door / Stab me in the dark, let me disappear … Life wasn’t worth the balance or the crumpled paper it was written … Don’t let me know we’re invisible … Spin-offs with those who slept like corpses … Close me in the dark, let me disappear / Soon there’ll be nothing left of me / Nothing left to release …”(“Bring Me The Disco King”, Reality, 2003).

A hauntingly beautiful film clip[xv] accompanies the track; Bowie standing over his lifeless body in a dark twisted forest after a desperate search for water. Often mystically associated with the spirit (living water, baptism, rebirth, chaos) this quest for water is a recurring symbol for spiritual sustenance or thirst in his oeuvre, a theme exemplified in “Looking for Water” (Reality, 2003): “Take my hand as we go down and down / Leave it all behind nothing will be found / I’m looking for water”[xvi] (2003), in the frantic search by Bowie’s tiny Glass Spiders for spiritual nourishment in the face of maternal abandonment – “Gone, Gone the water’s all gone / Mummy come back ’cause the water’s all gone / If your mother don’t love you then the riverbed might” (“Glass Spider”, 1987) – and Mishima’s black dog that blocked the flow of the waterfall in “Heat” (The Next Day, 2013) – a stunning metaphor for the dark psyche that can impede spiritual nourishment.

Bowie’s search for water in the chthonic earth is a stark counterpoint to his ungrounded space jaunts. Frustratingly, the water he uncovers quickly transforms into a thousand fractured “Reflectors” – a mirrored disco ball, its shards of light tauntingly hinting at gnostic release of the pneumatic sparks of life… but not quite. It is a concept that will reappear visually and conceptually a decade later in his collaboration with Arcade Fire [xvii], another band navigating the turbulent seas of mystic spirituality.

Intriguingly, in the closing moments of the film clip to Bring Me The Disco King” we see Bowie in a recording studio, candidly remarking on an apparent paranormal experience around death, with knowing assurance: “…you hear all these sounds that have just emerged since we started talking about the supernatural? That’s the sound of death … that’s what it sounds like when you’re dead … doors opening.” **

There’s a distinct familiarity as he speaks of Death as a doorway, evoking Janus, the ancient Roman god of beginnings and ends, change and transition, the keeper of gates, doorways and the passage of time, hauntingly evoked in King’s image.    Bowie and the twin-faced god looking eternally to the future and the past seem well acquainted. Yet, as dark as Bowie’s death complex seems, swirling with fears of being forgotten and invisible, perhaps the enduring presence of death can be as much a force for liberation as melancholic burden. According to Carlos Castaneda, the famous 20th century anthropologist turned mystic, Yaqui Seers believe that to fully grasp life one must live knowing death stands eternally behind your left shoulder, only ever a backwards glance away (Castaneda, 1968). The skeletal apparition of Death on the Magic Studio Door behind Bowie’s own left shoulder seemThe Mask of Cain and the Ghost in the Curtain. NME feature 2013, images: Jimmy Kings a profoundly uncanny manifestation of this precept.

The haunting shadows continued in the still images.  Jimmy King’s bizarrely striking Silver (death) Mask portrait created for NME conjured up Bowie’s early mime performance “The Mask” (from the 1969 promotional film Love You till Tuesday), the tale of an actor who dons a persona for his audience until it subsumes his underlying self, smothering his identity with its unrestrained dominance and kills him. This reference seemed to signal the enduring struggle with persona and shadow seen in his creative work, foreshadowing archetypal manifestations such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke so seemingly disintegrated they split off and took on lives of their own. Inside the magazine, a dimly lit Bowie stood beside a material veil, the hint of a negative image evoking a ghostly skull behind his left shoulder. Once more Bowie was accompanied by an ethereal doppelgänger, staring back from the pages like a glitch in the material matrix. [xviii]

A Corpse Hanging from a Beam

Undoubtedly one of the most disturbing corpses in Bowie’s recent work is the one hanging from a beam in the vicious invocation of suicide found on “You Feel so Lonely You Could Die” (The Next Day, 2013). With chilling contempt Bowie, possibly singing as a dark Angel of Death, seems to be sociopathically willing a soul into the abyss, his dark, wolverine lyrics cloaked in a disarmingly accessible sheep’s-clothing ballad:

I see you as a corpse, hanging from a beam / I could read you like a book, I can feel you falling / I hear you moaning in your room, / Oh, see if I care, Oh, please, please make it soon / Walls have got you cornered / You’ve got the blues my friend / And people don’t like you / But you will leave without a sound, without an end / Oblivion shall own you / Death alone shall love you / I hope you feel so lonely you could die   (“You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” 2013)

 His swinging corpse brings to mind yet another 19th century Symbolist, Belgium painter James Ensor, whose creative expression abounds with the same archetypal images that fascinate Bowie: masks and skeletons, mannequins, pierrots, corpses, death, Christ and religious iconography.   In Ensor’s “Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man”, painted in 1891, Death itself is split as “ever-circling skeletal” figures fight for “… a corpse hanging from a beam” while a crowd of grotesque archetypal theatrical characters watch fixated from behind opening doors. As Bowie had so assuredly observed at the end of “Bring Me the Disco King”: “…that’s the sound of death … doors opening”.

tanja stark ensor bowie
“Skeletons Fighting for the Body of a Hanged Man” James Ensor 1891

Significantly, Ensor’s corpse is marked with the word Civet – a dish of stewed Hare. With hares / rabbits a traditional symbol of Easter, scholars have noted Ensor was associating this corpse both with the persecuted Christ (Acts 10:39 ‘’[Christ slain] and hung on a tree], and the artist himself (Vervoort, 1990). Ensor’s convergence of Christ/Hare/Corpse symbolism throws up interesting comparisons with Bowie’s most recent corpses and mirrors the Ziggy/Hare/Corpse dynamic seen in the incarnation and crucifixion of “leper messiah” Ziggy Stardust in his Yamamoto jumpsuit emblazoned with a white hare [xix].

In one way, “You feel so Lonely You Could Die” could be the tortuously dark shadow to Ziggy’s “Rock n Roll Suicide” forty years earlier, whose passionate declarations of support against the horror of loneliness, alienation and abandonment in 1972 were the counterpoint to the tormented, lacerating voices coldly spat out in the later song:

Oh no love! you’re not alone / You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair / You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care / Oh no love! you’re not alone No matter what or who you’ve been / No matter when or where you’ve seen / All the knives seem to lacerate your brain I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain / You’re not alone Just turn on with me and you’re not alone … Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful [“Rock n Roll Suicide”, 1972]

All who have stared into the existential abyss of self-annihilation have heard the tormenting voice in “You Feel so Lonely You Could Die” or the baying crowd taunting the suicidal in “Jump They Say” [xx] (Black Tie White Noise, 1993) desperately craving the salvation offered in “Rock n Roll Suicide”.   But things may not be this simple when attempting to discern the difference between incarnated projection and spiritual direction.   What if aspects of ourselves, like some of Bowie’s personae, need to be integrated or killed in order for us to be released or resurrected? Is it co-incidental the abandoned costume beneath Ensors’s hanged man includes a white mask as Bowie had adorned in 1969 and 2013?

Curiously, the corpse Bowie sees “hanging from the beam” in 2013 was lyrically prefigured by punk band Scaterd Few in 1990’s Kill the Sarx” [xxi] singing of Bowie’s persona Ziggy Stardust. “Like Weird and Gilley wasting away, In the trance of their chameleon’s Messiahcal gaze / The spirit is willing the flesh is still weak / Corpses lay rotting corpses still reek … Kill the sarx, Kill the sarx, Hang him from your rafters” (Kill the Sarx, 1990). Three years later Bowie reflected:

“There was a theory that one creates a doppelganger and then imbues that with all your faults and guilts and fears and then eventually you destroy him, hopefully destroying all your guilt, fear and paranoia. And I often feel that I was doing that unwittingly, creating an alternative ego that would take on everything that I was insecure about” (Bowie, Arena 1993).

In this way, the instinct behind the carnage is an attempt to manage powerful shadow forces before they subsume the light both on the personal and collective level.   Could the corpse hanging from a beam in “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” who “stole their trust, their moon, their sun” – images with archetypally spiritual and hermetic connotations – then arguably be representative of the shadow self, as well as the deceptive figures in “The Next Day”?

Quid Est Veritas?

Years earlier, Bowie had played Pontius Pilate in “The Last Temptation of Christ” a movie exploring the dilemma of discerning truth when darkness masquerades as light. Handing Christ over to his own crucifixion, his character asks Christ to perform a miracle, enquiring whether this is “good magic or bad magic?”. After a lifetime of shadowboxing, Bowie was still exploring spiritual dialectics, closing his 2013 album with one of the most tortuous songs he has written. “Then we saw Mishima’s dog
 / Trapped between the rocks / 
Blocking the waterfall / 
The songs of dust / 
The world would end / 
And night was always falling / 
The peacock in the snow / 
My father ran the prison…
I can only love you by hating him more / 
That’s not the truth, it’s too big a word
 / He believed that love is theft … And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am … 
But I am a seer, I am a liar
(Heat, The Next Day, 2013).

The Peacock in the Snow. David Bowie photographed by Jimmy King 2013
The Peacock in the Snow Image: Jimmy King 2013

 It’s a song that seems to come from a lifetime staring deep into the abyss “… waiting for something, 
looking for someone, Is there no reason? 
Have I stared too long?” the lyric from “The Rays” 2002 echoing symbolist Odilon Redon’s 1896 painting “St Antoine: What Is the Point of All This? The Devil: There Is No Point!” It’s the death of surety, the “Quid est veritas?” – what is truth? – Pilate remarks confronting Christ in the Gospels, “the horror of knowing” that perceptions may only be projections, reflections, or self-delusory deception.

It’s the seer’s curse, that lies can bleed truth; the gnostic dilemma, trapped in the black iron prison of matter by the wrong god; or is that yet another illusion? Its a Mobius strip of confusion as many see symbols but read them so very differently.[xxii]. Which brings us to yet another intriguing Jimmy King image of Bowie overlooking New York like Mishima’s peacock in the snow.

He salutes, fingers hinting, again, of the Latin Benediction gesture he displayed in his prison cell Pieta. Performed with the right hand, this iconic gesture is associated with the Papal Blessing seen in religious paintings and statues; performed with the left, it can be indicative of the Left Hand Path of esotericism that so intrigued Bowie’s portrait companion, William Burroughs. Inverting the image his scarf apophenically functions as a hangman’s noose emblazoned with Rorschach-like inkblot skulls – an ever-circling skeletal family around his neck – an archetypal Hanged Man swirling with themes of death and resurrection.

Synchronistic shadows often seem to swirl around Bowie, but they are only one part of the whole. Look again at King’s balcony photograph searching for light and, with a dash of imagination, it seems the angels haven’t gone. Death may lurk behind Bowie’s left shoulder, but in King’s image a serendipitous snowflake gives the illusion of an angel on his right one – a tiny “word on a wing [xxiii]”.

As Fyodor Karamazov wondered: “Was it symbolic of something, or what?”[xxiv]

Everybody gets got

Seek and you will find” promises the old spiritual principle [xxv]. If we look for death we see her everywhere and Bowie is confronting us, as she confronts him, with all her guises. Death stalks us all and “everyone gets got” in the end (“I’d Rather Be High”, 2013).   But Bowie’s corpses are but one polarity, for where there is shadow, there is also light. Where there is crucifixion there can also be resurrection.

In Bowie’s tumultuous dance with religion, death and mysticism, his art wrestles with the possibility, and impossibility, of worlds and concepts beyond the material veil.   As Saint-Exupéry’s fox in “The Little Prince” wisely observes “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye”. When the ever-circling skeletons approach and Death finally opens the door, may the wisdom of mystic St John of the Cross transcend angels and devils, and in the evening of life may we be judged on love alone.

Tanja StarkChrist_of_Saint_John_of_the_CrossThis essay is published in “Enchanting David Bowie : Space Time Body Memory” edited by Toija Cinque, Christopher Moore, and Sean Redmond and published by Bloomsbury Press 2015 – details below.


Ball, Norm. Red Book Red Sail,, 2013 (*I am indebted to Norman Ball, with whom i have often thrashed about ideas around theology and philosophy.  It was Norm who directed me to Bowie’s comments on Death and the Supernatural at the end of ‘Bring Me the Disco King’ in light of my ideas on death and doorways.)

Bowie, David. Interview by Tony Parsons, Arena Magazine, Spring/Summer 1993

Bowie, David. “What I’ve Learned: David Bowie,” Esquire Magazine, February 29, 2004

Bowie, David. “Diary of Nathan Adler”, CD Liner notes, Outside, Arista/BMG, 1995

Burroughs, William S, James Grauerholz, and Barry Miles. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove Press. 2001

Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1968 / 1996

Cinque, Toija. (Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia) – Editor of Enchanting David Bowie, a forthcoming book in which this essay appears. 

Dery, Mark. “Leper Messiah: A Jesus Freak’s Search for the Meaning of Bowie” in (see also

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. (trans. Constance Garnett). BrothersKaramazov. Wordsworth Classics, Hertfordshire, 1880 / 2007

Ill, Paul. “The search starts with a simple abundance of enthusiasm”, Music Paper, March1997, (10 February 2014).

Kierkegaard, Soren. Trans by Edna Hatlestad Hong, Howard Vincent Hong, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses. Princeton University Press, 1844 / 1992

King Cole, Nat. Nature Boy. Record. Capital Records, 1948.

Mishima, Yukio. Spring Snow. New York: Random House, 2010.

Penman, Ian. “The Resurrection of Saint Dave.” Esquire Magazine, October, 1995.

Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de, and Richard Howard. The Little Prince. 1st ed. San Diego: Harcourt. 2000

Savage, Steele, The Hearts Filthy Lesson / David Bowie, Alastair Crowley and Holy Grail 2010

Stark, Tanja “Crashing Out with Sylvian: David Bowie, Carl Jung and the Unconscious” in Eoin Devereux, Martin Power and Aileen Dillane (Eds.) David Bowie: Critical Perspectives.Routledge. 2015

St John of the Cross, and Kathleen Jones. 2001. The Poems Of St John Of The Cross. 1st ed. Tunbridge Wells: Burns & Oates.

Vervoort, P. “Reinforcing the Image : Ensor’s use of signs in works 1886 to 1896” in Verbal/ Visual Crossings, 1880-1980, Theo d’ Haen [editor]. Rodopi. Amsterdam. 1990


[i] Recalling the poisoned, stained fingers of the monks in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, (1980) who worked on forbidden manuscripts.

[ii] Time he’s waiting in the wings / He speaks of senseless things / His script is you and me, boy …Oh well I look at my watch, it says 9:25 and I think Oh God I’m still alive (‘Time’, Aladdin Sane, 1973)

[iii]I took this walk to ease my mind / to find out what’s gnawing at me / wouldn’t think to look at me, that I’ve spent a lot of time in education / It all seems so long ago / I’m a thinker, not a talker, I’ve no-one to talk to, anyway… And the world is full of life / Full of folk who don’t know me …And my hands shake, my head hurts, my voice sticks inside my throat I’m invisible and dumb / And no-one will recall me” [‘Conversation Piece’, 1967]

[iv] Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella “The Little Prince” (Saint-Exupéry and Howard 2000) and “Nature Boy” – a Jazz standard from 1948, covered by Bowie in 2001 – are two tales of mysterious encounters between enchanted wanderers and wise strangers that seem to have some overlap with the concepts in “The Man Who Sold the World” [1970]. The magical Little Prince from another planet who falls to Earth on a curious search, seeking water (a spiritual metaphor) and wisdom, learning the mysteries of life, love and death also parallels Bowie’s far more detached character in “The Man who fell to Earth” [1976] – an alien on a quest for water. The lyrics of “Nature Boy” too, speak of a strange enchanted boy wandering afar till “one magic day He passed my way, and while we spoke of many things, fools and kings this he said to me / the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

[v] Kate Bush also sang of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale on “The Red Shoes” in 1993. Her film clip features Lindsay Kemp, Bowie’s (and Bush’s) early mime teacher as a demonic trickster; a cautionary tale about the seductive “power to charm” of the dark side and the heavy price one can pay for dancing with the devil.  Note the Papal Red Slippers Bowie dons in the Pieta image.

[vi] Despite severing her own legs to stop the red shoes dancing, the dismembered limbs in Anderson’s tale continued their cursed dance, blocking the little girl from getting “…to the church on time”[vi], – a concept referenced in “Modern Love”, leaving her alone, pleading for mercy.

[vii] “Teenage Wildlife” “Scream Like a Baby”, [Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, RCA, 1980] (*mis-credited in the original – picked up by Nyk Hall in Bowie Fascination Facebook group 2022)

[xiii] Almost a homonym for CoCo Schwabe, Bowie’s long term friend and assistant.

[x] Rodenbach’s opus was the novel Bruges de Mort, a tale of death, melancholia, and a fatal obsession with a doppelganger that results in a deranged murder – all themes touched upon by Bowie in his work.

[xi] Echoing the severing of the legs that wore the cursed Red Shoes in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale.

[xii] Does Outside’s unimaginable creature overlap with 1987’s Glass Spider? “…A glass-like spider / having devoured its prey it would drape the skeletons over its web in weeks creating a macabre shrine of remains … One could almost call it an altar.“  [Glass Spider, 1987].  Interestingly, Bowie had once referred to his Glass Spiders as Jungian, mother figures.

[xiii] See Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor from his novel The Brothers Karamazov.

[xiv] While the song cites famous building architects The Great Architect – is often a reference to God in mystery and masonic traditions etc.

[xiv] The original film clip from the Reality promotional media suite.

[xv] The Old Testatment also speaks of Hagar desperately ‘looking for water’ for her dying son Ishmael, Islamic patriarch.

[xvi] The film clip to both songs feature black and white imagery of the woods at night, fractured pieces of mirrors and disco balls scattering rays of light, and hints at conceptual ideas of gnostic mysteries, psyche reflections, shadows and paradox.  The  singers blackened eyes also mirror the blackened eyes of the Pieta corpse on Bowie’s lap discussed earlier.

[xvii] recalling the Kirlian ‘energy’ photography that once fascinated the Duke, featured in the Station to Station tour material, and again in the film clip to “Seven Years in Tibet”.

[xix] Animals traditionally thought to be hermaphradites.

[xx] “…. My friend don’t listen to the crowd / They say ‘Jump’ / Got to believe somebody / Got to believe.” [Jump They Say, 1992]. Said to be influenced by his brother’s suicide, the song has interesting parallels to Satan tempting Christ to throw himself from the temple found in the New Testament. Death and God appear once again.

[xxi] Sarx : Greek for flesh.

[xxii] Bowie may be “a seer” and “a liar” but perhaps some of the tumult in Heat is in part, rare confirmation of Picasso’s intriguing observation, We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” (Picasso “Picasso Speaks,” in The Arts, 1923).

[xxiii] Lord, lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing…does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things? [“Word on a Wing” Station to Station 1975]. Bowie has referred to this song as a psychological salvation that emerged amidst a very turbulent and dark time.

[xxiv] See Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor from his novel The Brothers Karamazov. [xxv] Luke 11 v 9

This essay appears as a chapter in Enchanting David Bowie, published by Bloomsbury Press, 2015

postscript 2017.
Salvator Mundi, a painting by Leonardo DaVinci of Christ holding the fingers of his right hand in a benediction gesture just became the most expensive painting ever sold.

Christie’s Auction House


26 thoughts on “Confronting Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses

  1. I dealt with corpses in first year medical school. Dissecting the head and eye area is the most disturbing. It makes you confront your own mortality. The smell of formaldehyde still hits me like an olfactory hallucination when I see anatomy pictures.

  2. I’ve never done anatomy, but it must be strange and slightly surreal at first. (Speaking of surreal, your comment brings to mind Bowie’s surrealist chant “Zane zane zane, ouvrez le chien” of All the Madmen and Buddha of Suburbia, which i have a few theories about as well, but thats in another paper).

    Confronting a corpse is an important aspect to living and I think the West has done us a disservice by sanitising and closeting death from us, in general terms. But more importantly, while yes, the absence of life is disturbing in a corpse, it is far far less confronting than the absence of life in the living.

    May we never be those who live for 20 years and die for the 50 more ahead.

  3. I had to look “apophenically” up and am glad i did, but thought there, regarding the scarf’s ‘meaning’, you over-reached (for me anyway) in the Camille Paglia style, which a friend says she does intentionally as a form of feminist over-drive. I mean did you interview him? (joking aside…) Am actually gobsmacked at finding your writing (through speaking in a fan interview that Bowie’s followers reminded me yesterday of Jungs’, and that maybe they were reaching into the same level of under-consciousness) .. so i googled, and found your work, then realised you were included in the forthcoming Enchanting Bowie compliation launched at the Melbourne Symposium last Friday.

    The essay A Flash In the Sky I coldnt believe what I was reading… I’ll finish this one first as I started halfway through.

    Gobsmacked : thank you

    1. Creative over-reach. I can pay that 😉 I’m intuitive with a very creative mind.
      The magic studio skeleton though… hmmm. Curious. Your thoughts?

      1. Yeah I hadnt noticed that before … I can see something now; very like sci-fi / dr who pharoah emerging figure … I’ll check in daylight ! Just listened to ‘Conversation Piece” for the first time ever … thanks to you ! Thank you … just digesting and cross-referencing for a while lol … 🙂

  4. It brings Rene Magritte into play, and Bolan’s obsession with his 16th September painting that seemed to prophesy his death and the phase of the moon at the time, the same moon phase seen in BMTDK.

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