Thank heaven for dear friends with spare tickets. I have been lucky enough to spend the evening with the essence of David Bowie at this Summer’s hottest ticket, the blockbuster V&A ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition. An overwhelming experience, I have been subsumed by fashion, photography, art, performance, poetry, theatre and music and music and music.
I own up to the fact I am not a massive Bowie fan, it is not a conscious anti-Bowie feeling, I am just (and I love to say this) a little bit young for Bowie. I was born in 1975, Space oddity – 1969, Jean Genie – 1972, Life on Mars – 1973, all hits before I was born. The Bowie that floats in my mind is the 1980s shoulder pads and pouting infusion of Bowie and Jagger and their ‘Dancing in the streets’ released in 1985. It took another two years before I bought my first single (Pet Shop Boys – It’s a sin, in case you were wondering). Bowie was always on the periphery for me.
For the first time I am desperate to visit an exhibition for the exhibition itself, not just the subject matter. The hype, the press, the vibe has won me over. Surely I was not the only one sauntering along the V&A’s hallowed halls congratulating myself for having made it to the most ‘happening’ exhibition of the year.
We were at one of the V&As special evening openings in the last week of the exhibition, there is always a secret thrill to visiting a museum after hours. This added a certain frisson to the evening and my heightened excitement almost made me forget my ulterior motive for visiting the exhibition. I must see the ‘Bromley Jacket’!
Bromley, the leafy green commuter belt where Bowie spent his formative years. Born in Brixton (much more street cred) but shaped in Bromley (not so advertised), Bromley Museum has lent a jacket from their collection to the V&A, a green corduroy jacket.
I remember the first time I got to go down to the store when volunteering one day at Bromley Museum. I was lucky enough to choose an item for our Autumn 2012 exhibition “A few of our favourite things”. So many strange and wonderful items to behold, the last of these an unassuming item of clothing next to the sparkle of a few original ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ costumes, it paled into insignificance. But as with so many museum oddities, it is only when the tale is told, the story revealed that the true worth of an item is garnered.
This green corduroy jacket was worn by Bowie when in his first band the Konrads and decorated by his own fair hand with stripes of blue cartridge ink, he later wore it in 1967 when in the Riot Squad. I am going to make you a bit jealous, I have touched this jacket, I couldn’t imagine trying to touch it in the midst of the V&A I would be thrown out! So there is a secret thrill to seeing ‘The Bromley Jacket’.
I had vaguely known about the Bowie-Bromley connection before I began volunteering at Bromley Museum. My interest once piqued by Bowie’s homemade creation led me to find more connections between my streets and Bowie’s life. The more I looked the more coincidences I found. We had both lived in the same road (alas not at the same time), my niece and nephew now go to his old school. I can pull more tenuous links out of a hat, but I think you get the picture.
All these connections have intrigued me. How did the boy from Bromley (and Brixton) transcend such neutral surroundings to hit the Brompton Road with such colour, vibrancy, creativity and life? Maybe this exhibition would guide me to the answers I was seeking.
I was certainly blown away by the whole Bowie experience, over 650 items, you couldn’t possibly take them all in. It was really a mini-museum in itself. Songs, lyrics, costumes, videos, music, influences, artworks, films, photographs, the list goes on and on. The audio soundtrack of music and words, much more than your usual audio guide, competed with the visuals and the ambient music of the exhibition and if I tried to read labels as well I became disorientated unable to take anything in. But early on in I became transfixed with the original 1969 Space Oddity video that I had never seen before. The music filled my ears and I became rooted to the spot, my eyes taking in a Bowie I hardly recognised. People wandered past but I must not have moved for what felt like an age. This young Bowie showed me the way, I didn’t try and read everything or look at every song lyric, item or art work. I lost myself in the music and the videos, those two amazing enough on their own but add the costumes, the icing on the cake.
Some costumes you couldn’t even imagine anyone wearing. They were so outlandish, the Kansai Yamamoto bodysuit a prime example, they make Lady Gaga look mundane. There were a number of items that I did get to that really stood out for me. I loved the photographs for the Diamond Dogs promotion by Terry O’Neill. Such a great picture, you get an appreciation of how hard it is to capture the perfect image, long before digital cameras, so hard to know whether you have captured the shot that sets the mood for a generation. Unlike today’s digital generation with instant visual gratification.
Anyone who has read any of my blogs knows I love anything hands on. The V&A doesn’t disappoint with an area you could flick through old Bowie records. I love this, it connects straight to your own history and yet this in itself, flicking through vinyl is fast becoming only a collectors past time.
The exhibition was not strictly chronological which I think I would have benefited from, I caught some themes and influences on Bowie but to a great extent I was overwhelmed with the sheer volume of items to look at. The costumes were a lasting impression for me, a visual time capsule of Bowie caught in a certain mood, a certain stage in his evolution. You struggle to find parallels in artists that have this power after 10 years of silence to still pull you in. The re-inventions more than just musical style and image, they are performances, a life dedicated to his art.
This was the Bowie I came away with. I rushed home and looked up old Bowie videos on YouTube, appreciated the lyrics, the costumes, his youth and passion. The more I thought about his enduring influence the more I found it all around me. A haunting rendition of Space Oddity in 2013 by Commander Chris Hadfield, 17 million hits on YouTube and still counting. A couple of nights after the exhibition I caught my husband listening to the New Zealand comedy duo – Flight of the Conchords’ Bowie tribute song. Bowie IS not just at the V&A, he is everywhere.
I went to the V&A in the first instance to see a jacket and a much talked about exhibition. Secondly I thought I might try and discover how Bowie, like his jacket left his Bromley home and reached such dizzy heights. I looked for answers but came away with more questions. A thirst to know more. That is the mark of success for a great exhibition. Not how much it is talked about before hand or how much you read about it in the press. It is how it makes you feel, what do you do straight afterwards? No exhibition can have all the answers no matter how many items they include. But if you can’t wait to do your own research and read more and learn more then that makes it a success.
So I have realised as I write these last words that I am wrong. I am not too young for Bowie, I just haven’t given myself the time to get to know him. The V&A exhibition ‘David Bowie Is’ has opened my eyes and made me a fan of Bowie for the first time and I really can’t ask for more than that. I wait with bated breath for the return of ‘Bowie’s Bromley Jacket’ we have a real connection now. For me the essence of Bowie is encapsulated in that jacket. When it returns to Bromley after touring with the V&A exhibition it comes full circle, if only Bowie might do the same and return to the mild mannered green streets I inhabit. We might grab a coffee and wander down the road we both lived at for a time, and I might even discover how these streets sent him on his Space Oddity that still shows no sign of coming back to Earth.
Bowie has now closed at the V&A and is touring,
for current locations and dates please check the website