MEMORIES OF A BOWIE CONFERENCE: 19. I’d rather stay here with all the madmen

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Richard Mills Anti-Heroes: The Influence of Vince Taylor and Syd Barrett on David Bowie’s Music and Lyrics

SPEAKER Richard Mills is Programme Director in Cultural Studies at St Mary’s University College, London and writes on Irish themes

SYNOPSIS Taylor and Barrett’s rise to stardom and their decline into physical and mental collapse was the basis for Bowie’s damaged and fallen rock star archetype Ziggy Stardust, the central character of his concept album of excess and insanity. This paper examines the importance of these two figures to Bowie’s art; and how Bowie’s professionalism left us with art and (after Judith Butler’s concept of performativity) a performance of madness.vt

KEY POINTS Black Leather Rebel, Vince Taylor’s legacy to Bowie’s work was not only the figure of Ziggy, but a succession of broken characters. Taylor’s image resonates through a continued fascination with pop stardom and madness: two central themes of Bowie’s life and work. Bowie’s work is ‘the traumatic subject as a performance’. Like Barrett and Taylor there is real anguish in his work, but Bowie’s professionalism and his robust constitution translates this fear into a performance of trauma. Being in this show biz tradition, he never succumbs to the prolonged psychosis of Barrett/Taylor; he learns from these cracked actors serious lessons in the art of performance. Barrett and Taylor left us with a very small canon of work and plenty of psychotic incidents. Whereas Bowie has left a huge canon of superlative work which concurs with Foucault’s dictum, ‘Where there is art, there is no madness’. Barrett and Taylor’s legacy is just the opposite. There is plenty of ‘madness’ and a small artistic legacy.

David Jones with his brother Terry / Vince Taylor / 'All the Madmen' live at the Veterans' Stadium Philadelphia, 1987

KEY QUOTE ‘… it is not the paeans to madness which are the key to th[e] album[s] [Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane]; it is the line from Cracked Actor ‘You sold me illusions for a sack full of cheques’. Again, here is the self-conscious and post-modernist recognition that art is a performance, and the role that Bowie adopts in these two albums is the cracked pop star, the lad insane: but the artist behind these albums is self-aware about an ‘illusion’ which pays in ‘a sack full of cheques’’

Syd Barrett's 'Arnold Layne' (1967) performed by Bowie and David Gilmour Live at the Royal Albert Hall 2006 

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NEXT UP You’ve got what you wanted but you’re on your own. William Garvin
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