Stardust Memories: Biographer Marc Spitz on David Bowie’s Pop Culture Legacy

Recently, when a friend mentioned that her boyfriend was going through a David Bowie phase, we had to laugh. You, see we went through a Bowie phase of our own, beginning sometime in high school. Ten years later, while we no longer solely date guys who wear makeup or pore over the collected works of Nietzsche, that “phase” shows no sign of subsiding. Such is the nature of Bowie fandom.

Marc Spitz, author of the new biography Bowie, knows this first-hand. Scattered throughout his absorbing, thorough and exuberant book are instances from his own life as a Bowie fanatic: for example, the moment when a college-aged Spitz bragged to his extended family that he’d kissed a man. In writing the book, he wanted his admiration of Bowie to be clear. “I think all these British [biographers] really pretend they’re not a fan, but they would shit their pants if they got to have a beer with him,” he says. “I just wanted to throw it out there that I would shit my pants if I got to have a beer with him.

Of course, there are hundreds of thousands of people who feel the same way. And perhaps that helps to explain why Bowie has had such a massive influence on pop culture. After the jump, we talk with Spitz about the erstwhile Ziggy Stardust’s lasting impact within the musical realm and beyond.

Flavorpill: These days, every other band cites David Bowie as an inspiration. When do you think he started to become a major influence on pop music?

Marc Spitz: It was as early as the late ’70s, when the first wave of kids who were really influenced by Bowie started their own bands — Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunnymen. They saw him play “Starman” on Top of the Pops and decided that’s what they wanted to do, too. It was their equivalent of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. There were also the bands that were influenced by Bowie’s Eno records, the whole synth-pop wave: Human League, Soft Cell.

When you say, “The Killers were influenced by Bowie, or Of Montreal was influenced by Bowie” — they’re basically doing a Ziggy Stardust pastiche. Three decades on, these are the most recent examples of a 30-year-long impact the guy made on rock ‘n roll and culture. I think he’s still as influential as he ever was. He’s just not releasing new music.

Below: Bowie miming, 1968. Photo by Ray Stevenson

Miming 1968, Credit Ray Stevenson

FP: Which other current artists do you see taking cues from Bowie?

MS: I look at people in the culture now, and I see a really basic, raw, straight line of influence, to Bowie. Look at Lady Gaga or Adam Lambert — who I think did a Bowie medley every night on his tour. Just that he’s able to wear eye makeup and be androgynous, and put it over in a way that is acceptable to the mainstream… he should pay David Bowie a tax or something.

FP: When we talk about someone as being “Bowie-esque,” so often we’re talking about this static, Ziggy Stardust figure. Are there artists out there now who embody his sense of constant transformation?

MS: In the late ’70s, people like Martin Fry of ABC were literally “doing Bowie.” But Kanye West, in his pursuit of the new, whatever’s biggest, whatever’s next, recording with Daft Punk — that’s very Bowie-esque. I think the bridge between Bowie and people like Lady Gaga and Kanye is Madonna. She came in the early ’80s and picked up that idea of constantly searching and co-opting trends, making something her own and, in the process, more interesting than the street trend ever could be. I really wanted to interview her for the book, but that didn’t happen. Someone should sit down and interview her just about Bowie’s influence.

Below: Bowie in the makeup chair. Photo by Andrew Kent.

Makeup Chair - Credit Andrew Kent

FP: Do you see Bowie as continuing to impact pop culture — even outside the realm of music — after the ’70s?

MS: He wasn’t as much of a trailblazer as a recording artist [beginning in the ’80s]. But the music video, as an art form, owes a lot to Bowie in the ’80s. And now it’s commonplace for artists to use the Internet as a venue for cultivating fans. David Bowie wasn’t just the first rock star to do that but the first celebrity. Even ringtones — the notion that there are various streams of income for one pop song. We’re talking about really revolutionary ideas. Some of them have to do with rock ‘n roll, and some of them don’t.

In the ’90s, there were visual artists, photographers and music-video artists who used “sensation” but then backed it up with real ideas. That’s very Bowie. I’m thinking Damien Hirst. His influence in fashion, on people like Alexander McQueen, is just massive. There’s this idea that the only thing that is really required is thinking of something, then having the courage to put it on and sell it — a pair of knee-high, red patent leather boots or the famous Ziggy “rooster” haircut or the peach-colored zoot suit.

FP: Why do you think Bowie’s later albums have been so much less culture-changing than what he did in the ’70s?

MS: I don’t know that there are people who are influenced by, you know, Earthling or Outside. But that feeds into the theory that Bowie started jumping on various bandwagons, ceased to be a leader and became more of a follower, the way he was in the ’60s. I don’t know that that’s true. I just don’t think he had anything to prove after a point and would embrace things that excited him — like computer technology or industrial rock. But that’s what he always did. It was just easier for him to synthesize Syd Barrett and The Velvet Underground and Jacques Brel and Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan and Scott Walker and Andy Warhol and gay culture in the ’70s, because nobody else was doing it. It’s like he’s been competing with his own legacy ever since. Earthling was in a post-Bowie culture and Ziggy Stardust wasn’t.

I bet if you asked him, he wouldn’t apologize for any of [his later work]. You can’t really expect an artist to justify whatever road they’re taking. In 1997, he couldn’t have done anything else but what he did. I know it’s popular and easy to say that he became a follower on those records. I think he just shook up the culture so much in the ’70s that it became impossible to do that every decade.

All photos courtesy of Crown Publishing Group