Today, we mourn the passage of the great David Bowie. The best commentators in the world have already weighed in on the impact of this incredible musician and performer, but we at Nevins Library would like to take a minute and recognize him as a literature hound. An avid reader, Bowie was a fan of William Burroughs, George Orwell, and Heinrich Harrer, and much of his work bore a debt to Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Niezsche. What we’re saying is that David Bowie was smart and he liked books. Without any more ado, here are just a few of the songs that reflect the legendary artist’s literary tastes.
They’ll split your pretty cranium and fill it full of air/And tell that you’re eighty, but brother, you won’t care/Beware the savage jaw of 1984.
Did you know that Bowie intended to write a musical based on George Orwell’s classic 1984? He never managed to pull it off (Orwell’s widow objected) but if you listen to his 1974 album “Diamond Dogs,” you’ll catch references to Orwell’s most famous dystopian work in the songs Big Brother, 1984, and We Are the Dead.
Oh! You Pretty Things
Look out my window and what do I see/A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me/All the nightmares came today/And it looks as though they’re here to stay.
One prevailing rumor suggests that this song was inspired by Ayn Rand’s classic Anthem. Since David is “thinking about a world to come/Where the books were found by the golden ones,” this seems possible. However, it seems at least as likely – or more so – that the lyrics reference the works of Aleister Crowley, a British occultist; and Friedrich Nietzsche, an influential philosopher.
Silly Boy Blue
Mountains of Lhasa are feeling the rain/People are walking the Botella lanes/Preacher takes the school/One boy breaks a rule/Silly Boy Blue, silly Boy Blue.
When David Bowie was 19, he was inspired by the works of Jack Kerouac to become a Buddhist. But it was Heinrich Harrer’s book, Seven Years in Tibet, that inspired this song, which was one of the pop artist’s firsts.
The Man Who Sold the World
Though many people think of this as a Nirvana song, it’s actually a cover of Bowie. Here is the first verse:
We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when/Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend/Which came as some surprise I spoke into his eyes/I thought you died alone, a long long time ago.
And here is the first stanza of Hughes Mearns’ 1899 poem “Antigonish:”
Yesterday, upon the stair,/I met a man who wasn’t there./He wasn’t there again today,/I wish, I wish he’d go away…
If you notice a few parallels, that’s because Mearns inspired Bowie to write this song!
If this list has you wishing that you could listen to some David Bowie right now, be sure to check out his discography. Many of his albums are available through Nevins or the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium:
- David Bowie (also released as Space Oddity) (1969)
- The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
- Hunky Dory (1971)
- The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
- Aladdin Sane (1973)
- Pin Ups (1973)
- Young Americans (1975)
- Station to Station (1976)
- Low (1977)
- “Heroes” (1977)
- Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)
- Let’s Dance (1983)
- Never Let Me Down (1987)
- Outside (1995)
- Earthling (1997)
- ‘Hours…’ (1999)
- Heathen (2002)
- Reality (2003)
- The Next Day (2013)
- Blackstar (2016)
Ever the showman, David Bowie also appeared in a number of films. Check these out for a sample of his ouvre:
- The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) as Thomas Jerome Newton
- Yellowbeard (1983) the sailor wearing shark fin – The Shark
- Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) as Maj. Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers
- The Hunger (1983) as John Blaylock
- Into the Night (1985) as Colin Morris
- Labyrinth (1986) as Jareth the Goblin King
- The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) as Pontius Pilate
- Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) as Phillip Jeffries
- Basquiat (1996) as Andy Warhol
- Zoolander (2001) cameo as himself
- The Prestige (2006) as Nikola Tesla