The author of Hot Milk considers David Bowie in this exclusive piece from literary magazine Five Dials
There was only one subject we wanted to discuss with novelist Deborah Levy. The death of Bowie was still fresh in our minds, the sadness was still pooled all over New York and London, the graffiti on the tribute walls still fresh. Levy took our Q&A questions and used them to pay tribute, but also included some advice for writers and spoke of the necessary risk – the risk Bowie knew well – of estranging the audience to further the art.
Five Dials: What were your first memories of Bowie? How were you introduced to him?
Deborah Levy: Bowie crashed into my front room in West Finchley when I first glimpsed the starman on Top of the Pops. I think I was thirteen. Glimpsed is the wrong word – more like gawped. There were crisps all over the carpet and I was arguing with my older brother who was nineteen with hair down to his shoulders, wearing a Che Guevara hat and the sort of khaki coat worn by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army. It was apparently my job to hoover up the crisps. Yes, Aristotle told us that all politics start in the family. So I was in the throes of hoover rage when Bowie appeared on the screen to tell me there’s a starman waiting in the sky, he’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds. His voice was slightly hysterical, which I was too. Look out your window I can see his light, if we can sparkle he may land tonight.
Please, starman – fly me away from my life in West Finchley; listen, don’t worry, you can blow my mind, THAT’S JUST WHAT I WANT.
Ohhh. In twelve seconds Bowie, in the guise of a cool, sexualized, alien human, had lifted me far far away from the atmosphere of my brother’s beardy maleness and replaced it with spiky red hair, a catsuit, make-up, other-worldly eyes – and he was more or less snogging handsome Mick Ronson,who was wearing a gold satin suit. Bowie even lifted up his thin arm and pointed at me (via the camera) when he sang, he’d like to come and meet us. It was my desire to be lost and found by a starman who knew I was dying in the suburbs! Please, starman – fly me away from my life in West Finchley; listen, don’t worry, you can blow my mind, THAT’S JUST WHAT I WANT.
Five Dials: Why did he become important to you? You write a homage to him in your new novel, Hot Milk.
Deborah Levy: Well, in a way, Bowie told the truth in a voice we had not heard before, and he told it in the most hip and flamboyant way possible. What was the truth? We were alienated. Girls and boys were so pinned down in the seventies.There was a lot of anxiety about the ways we were told to be feminine and the ways we were told to be masculine – we wanted some space in-between. He opened up an imaginative space that was inside us anyway, and we were inspired by his artful personas. It was so thrilling to have found a pop star that our parents could not understand. It’s complicated, because despite his apparent androgyny and bisexuality, he was a man who clearly adored making love to women.
Despite his apparent androgyny and bisexuality, he was a man who clearly adored making love to women.
My male friends in their late teens wore ice blue eye shadow and kohl. Bowie gave them a space to freak out and subvert the rigid masculinities their own fathers had grown up with.
Five Dials: Was there mystery to him? Did you fully understand his personas?
Deborah Levy: No, I never fully understood his personas and that’s just how it should be. Bowie knew that full comprehension is not what art is about. Why would we gaze endlessly at a painting or a photograph if we totally understand it? I always say to students who want to be writers, ‘today write something you don’t understand, tomorrow start chasing it. Search for something you wish to find.’ And if we do find ‘it’, the writing becomes lighter and it becomes deeper. That is the pleasure of Bowie’s lyrics – they are light and deep and dark and darker and a bit mysterious.
Five Dials: Did Bowie give you licence to do something or become someone?
Deborah Levy: Yes, in a way he gave me license to experiment, to be playful with my own personas. Look at his difference to Mary Hopkins and Donny Osmond, who were also around at the time. It started with Bowie because of the intensity of teenage longing and all the rest of it. Later, I felt the same excitement about film, literature, performance, philosophy. Reading Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers was as thrilling as listening to ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’; so was discovering Edmund White’s biography of Genet – what a phenomenal labour of love. And, of course, Bowie references Genet in ‘The Jean Genie’, and he trained with the dancer Lindsay Kemp, who adapted Genet’s novel for his thrilling one-man show ‘Flowers’, which I saw at the Roundhouse, London. So there are all these cross-references. Bowie was an artist of the highest order. I’m thinking now about his difference to Marc Bolan, who also has a special place in my heart. I still love his ‘Life’s a Gas’, but at the time I didn’t believe that Bolan truly believed that life was a gas – perhaps because he was quite a nervous performer. But I remember the words:
I could have loved you girl / Like a planet / I could have chained your heart / To a star / But it really doesn’t matter at all.
Bolan’s intonation was slightly American whereas Bowie’s was south London, which felt closer to home. I enjoyed the way Bolan sang the word ‘gas’ – gassssszzz – with that impersonation of an Elvis wobble, but he did not have Bowie’s intense, delirious, imaginative reach.
And then, of course, in my late twenties, I set about inventing my own writing personas. When I wrote my first novel, Beautiful Mutants, at the age of twenty-seven, the only training I’d had to write a novel was as a reader. There was no one saying to me – always show, never tell, never start with more than three characters, etc. No, it was more like – slip paper into the typewriter, lift right hand, fingers on the keys, tap, tap, tap, and the first line emerged: ‘This is the age of the migrant and the missile.’ Did I understand those lines? Sort of. But the point is, I was making a statement that was bigger than myself. I was making a voice via the avatar of a character that could speak for me – a literary persona – just as Bowie had found Ziggy to speak for him. My 2014 short story ‘Stardust Nation’ (from the collection Black Vodka) is an oblique homage to Bowie’s personas.
Five Dials: How would you listen to his music? What kind of stereo did you have? Was it yours? Where would you buy the albums?
Deborah Levy: I bought the albums in Camden Town – perhaps at Compendium Books, which I think had a record shop downstairs. It was a big deal starting my own record collection. I played ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ over and over again in my bedroom in West Finchley. What kind of stereo? Um, yes, sorry to disappoint, but I reckon I played the vinyl on Auntie Molly’s record player – which had somehow been given to me. How did Aunt Molly come to have a wooden record player with matching wooden speakers? I used to lie on the bed with my feet on the pillow and my head sort of dangling towards the floor, singing oh no, love you’re not alone, you’re not alone, let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone, while six joss sticks smouldered in a milk bottle.
Five Dials: Did you ever see him live?
Deborah Levy: No! I don’t know how that happened, because I saw Mick Ronson live.
A few years ago, I had cause to meet Bowie’s official photographer from the early seventies, Mick Rock, who also directed the video of ‘Space Oddity’ in 1972. Mick was partly responsible for one of my best-ever birthday presents – a black and white photograph he took of Bowie and Ronson wearing sharp suits with extreme lapels, eating lunch on a train. Do you know what happened to that photo? When I moved house three years ago, it was accidently packed with stuff I stored in the garage, so it got damp and it’s ruined. I love Mick Rock’s photos from that time – he just got it – with Bowie in particular, he manage to convey introspection as well as sexual energy and all the rest of it.
Five Dials: Which were the lyrics that most spoke to you?
Deborah Levy: There are so many, but it’s the early and most recent lyrics. When things go wrong in my life, I still think of the words from ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, Oh no, not me, not me.
It is ‘Space Oddity’ though that can make me cry. I don’t know why – maybe something to do with feeling as a teenager that I too was lost in a tin can, far, far away. I’m aware there are all sorts of narcotic narratives knocking around to explain that song, but I don’t want to be told how to interpret it. For me,‘Space Oddity’ is all about the deadpan tone. Queen Bitch’s bipperty-bopperty hat always cheers me up.
She’s so swishy in her satin and tat / In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat / Oh God, I could do better than that.
And then, to skip over the decades to ‘Where Are We Now’, Bowie seemed to be asking the same questions that I was asking of myself. This is an older, more melancholy voice; most of the theatricality has been erased. Bowie sounds nearer to himself in ‘Where Are We Now’, as if the starman has finally landed and is looking at the view.
Its chorus, the moment you know, you know, you know, is such an alluring mix of the ethereal and matter of fact. Tony Oursler’s genius film, in which we see the faces of Bowie and the artist Jacqueline Humphries (their bodies have been disembodied) serenely looking out, just sort of breathing and thinking – that was perfect, it’s actually very hard to achieve that sort of quiet, reflective presence, but they all pulled it off. As for the final work, Blackstar and ‘Lazarus’, I am still taking it in.
Five Dials: You refer to ‘Space Oddity’ in Hot Milk.
Deborah Levy: Yes. But that is to be discovered and I don’t want to explain it away. The title Hot Milk refers to many things, and one them is the galaxy, the Milky Way. This novel is full of shattered stars.
Five Dials: Did you understand his choices as an artist? Or were you ever mystified?
Deborah Levy: I was sometimes mystified and that is fine by me.
Five Dials: Did you ever become estranged? Did you listen consistently to his new work?
Deborah Levy: I never became estranged, though his alter egos and music in the eighties and nineties were not so interesting to me. All the same, it was entirely necessary for Bowie to kill off his most successful alter ego. Ziggy was holding him back, but in my own imagination, Ziggy will never die, no way, he stepped into history and I met him at a too-impressionable time. But I understand that his creator had to move on. There was more work to do and Ziggy was too crazed to help him move forward.
I understand that his creator had to move on. There was more work to do and Ziggy was too crazed to help him move forward.
All artists have similar problems.We have to take the risk of estranging some of our audience. When I read from my books at various events and festivals, I am sometimes asked by a reader, if I think my writing ‘has changed’. The implication is that he/she prefers the earlier books. It’s a fair question, because in current work I am using narrative strategies that are not available in earlier books. I still have some nostalgia for J.G. Ballard’s early short stories, particularly, ‘The Day of Forever’. All the same, I was not estranged when Ballard moved on to a more subversive project in his later novels – he took his surrealist imagination and his psychological acuity and his hard-edged critique of contemporary movements and moments to the fragile utopias of sun-tanned ex-pats in Spain and to the shopping mall of Britain. In this sense he was a true avant-gardist and not a faux-surrealist or a faux-modernist. I have pinned up a Ballard quote on my study wall :‘I believe in the beauty of all women, in the treachery of their imaginations, so close to my heart.’
Likewise, I believe in the beauty and treachery of all Bowie’s work.
Five Dials: Is there a place – London, Berlin – that reminds you of him or that feels particularly Bowie-esque?
Deborah Levy: It’s London of course, though he made his new life in America. Yes, it will always be London. Memories of soggy chips wrapped in newspaper, walking in our flares and platforms through the snow in shivery satin halter-neck tops. When the starman from Beckenham, in all his freakishness, lifted his hand and pointed, via the camera, at myself aged thirteen, I was hospitable to his provocation because he reached out to my need to express my own freakishness, my difference from the story that had been written for my gender. This is a story of great complexity and I have attempted to shake it up in everything I have written so far.