The photographs are almost inconceivably hideous. Projected onto a small screen, they depict a man — barely recognizable as such — named John Merrick. His head is enormous, a grotesquely swollen tuber. His right eye is squashed beneath a protruding mass of bone, as if his skull had partially melted, and a similar bony stump juts from his mouth, distending his upper lip to create a drooling, unclosable hole. His short, cruelly twisted body is festooned with cauliflowerlike clumps of skin, and a large, putrid sac of flesh hangs from his back. His feet are rootlike knobs, his right arm little more than a club. Ninety years after his death, John Merrick, the reviled and celebrated Elephant Man, still exerts a magnetic repugnance.
Off to one side, a formally suited cellist bows a doleful therenody, while onstage, beneath a looming institutional superstructure of sooty, grayed brick and bare gaslight piping — the London Hospital of 1886 — a doctor ponders Merrick’s appalling case. As the slide show proceeds, a small scrim is swept aside, and there, wearing nothing but a rough cloth diaper, all wax-white skin and elegant bone, arms and legs extended as though tacked to a zodiac, stands David Bowie. Wordless and unmoving, he is nevertheless an electric presence. As the doctor details the particulars of Merrick’s affliction — an incurable infestation of bone, skin and nerve tumors known as multiple neurofibromatosis — Bowie’s sleek frame starts to sag and wither. His arm stiffens, his leg droops and curls, his spine crooks outward, and his head begins to bobble benignly. Provided with a cane and a tattered cloak, the character is complete, and as Bowie hobbles off downstage, every eye in the house stays on him. It’s an entrance that Ziggy Stardust himself might have envied, had he lived to see thirty-three.
Turning off South Michigan Avenue onto East Balboa, the long, dark Cadillac glides to a halt in front of the Blackstone Theatre, where the national touring company of The Elephant Man is ensconced for the month of August. Adjusting his sunglasses against the afternoon glare, David Bowie pops out onto the street, followed by his secretary, a bustling brunette named Coco Schwab. Together, we all head for the stage door at the rear of the building. For a guy who used to wear dresses and feign fellatio onstage, Bowie could now pass for Alvin Average in his faded-blue slacks, simple knit shirt and soft leather shoes. His straight, sandy hair is neatly clipped and combed, and he exudes an air of fitness and composure.
Coco ushers us into Bowie’s small but tidy dressing room with a flourish — “Legit theater,” she explains, indicating the lack of space to turn around in-and then discreetly disappears. Bowie settles into a stuffed chair and hikes one leg up over the arm. He flicks on an affable grin and volunteers that this has not been an entirely rewarding day. Recently divorced from his wife, Angela, David has been awarded custody of their nine-year-old child, Zowie; father and son have spent the afternoon sampling Chicago’s cultural delights. Bowie looks faintly pained. “I’ve seen aquariums and planetariums and that dreadful Museum of Science and Industry, which is like a paean to General Motors. Quite ghastly in its corrupt values—including its splendiferous Muppet presentation, where you pay $1.50 to get in, see fifteen stuffed Muppets in a glass case, and then that leads to a shop where you can buy merchandise! I mean, it was a fucking disgrace.”
The ethical crisis in a Midwestern museum aside, Bowie seems genuinely delighted with his life these days: his Elephant Man is a smash; his new album, Scary Monsters, has just been released; and in 1981, he hopes to exhibit some of his dozens of outsize acrylic paintings and experimental videotapes. “Over the last three and a half years. I’ve been getting happier and happier,” he says. “Not with myself and my situation, but happier in my realization that I can face up to things a lot better than I could when I was living a heavily rock & roll life in America. I feel happy that I can travel about in some kind of anonymity and circulate within cities I’ve always dreamed of going to see. More and more, I’m prepared to relinquish sales, as far as records go, by sticking to my guns about the kind of music I really wish to make. And I’m trying to stretch out, not just to be in there with music; trying to get involved in all the other avenues I once used to feel were part of becoming a quasi Renaissance man, you know?
“I’m happy that I am going the way I considered I would be going when I was eighteen years old, which is holding onto nothing, no one; continually in flux.”
Is this, at last, the real David Bowie — or just another mask? Bowie has shed so many styles and stances in his endless slithering toward artistic credibility that even at the height of his rock stardom, skeptics questioned whether there was an original talent behind his ever-shifting guises or merely the shrewd commercial instinct of a master molter. Four years ago, approaching his thirtieth birthday, he turned his back on the bizarre, drugged-out lifestyle he’d sunk into in Los Angeles and flew off to become a citizen of the world, permanently in transit, relocating first in Berlin, subsequently in Kyoto, Mombasa and New York City. In Germany, he collaborated with postrock conceptualist Brian Eno and seemed perversely pleased when the resulting albums — Low, “Heroes,” Lodger — failed to sell anywhere near as well as his earlier, more accessible work. Bowie had proclaimed himself an artiste — the genuine article. But outside of rock & roll, official annointment eluded him. And so, late last year, when director Jack Hofsiss offered him the title role with the road company of Bernard Pomerance’s award-winning play about John Merrick, Bowie sprang at the opportunity.
“I was familiar with his music, and I had seen him in concert,” says Hofsiss, who won a Tony Award in 1979 for his staging of The Elephant Man. “But the piece of work he did that was most helpful in making the decision was The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which I thought he was wonderful, and in which the character he played had an isolation similar to the Elephant Man’s. His perceptions about the part and his interest were all so good that we decided to investigate the possibility of doing it.”
This offbeat casting stratagem involved calculated risks on both sides. Bowie, of course, risked falling on his face: aside from a three-year stint with an avant-garde mime troupe as a teenager, and his opaque portrayal of a mopey, doomed alien in Nicolas Roeg’s haunting 1976 film, The Man Who Fell to Earth (and the long-unawaited Just a Gigolo), he had no “legitimate” acting experience. On the other hand, he does have natural charisma, and he knows how to move onstage. It was also no doubt noted that long-running plays are often profitably rejuvenated with the addition of a new and novel star-as was the case when Richard Burton joined the Broadway cast of Equus, and when Mary Tyler Moore took over the originally male lead in Whose Life Is It Anyway? earlier this year. If Bowie proved himself on the road, he would be slotted into the New York production in September. Big-time artistic credibility beckoned.
As it happened, Bowie was already familiar with the grim details of John Merrick’s life, which have been chronicled in several books: his early years in a Leicester workhouse, his morbid career as a carnival freak so repulsive that local authorities sometimes prohibited his public display, and his final four years of shelter at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, where, under the sponsorship of a sympathetic surgeon, Dr. Frederick Treves, and with the encouragement of such eminent visitors as Mrs. Madge Kendal, a noted actress, Merrick became something of an aristocrat’s pet before his death at the age of twenty-seven.
Upon accepting the role of Merrick, Bowie says, “My immediate reaction was to go to the London Hospital museum, which is still retained in a sort of 1840s brick building. And there, among all the other debris of mankind, was the plaster cast of the bits and pieces of Merrick, and also the church that he made [a wooden model of St. Phillip’s Church, which was visible from Merrick’s hospital room] and his hat and cloak. It made me aware for the first time how grotesque he was — the plaster sculptures are quite stunningly grotesque. And the cap itself is so sad, with this little mask down the front. It must have been a dreadful burden.”
Bowie’s affinity for the role increased when he realized that Merrick apparently spent much of his life in and around the tough South London neighborhoods where Bowie himself grew up. “I use what knowledge I have of London humor,” says Bowie, leaning forward to light a cigarette. “Presumably, Merrick was a Cockney, and there is an unbeatable and undiminishable sense of humor running through the Cockney spirit that seems to survive all calamity. I used that as a steppingstone into the part.”
Bowie joined the Elephant Man company in San Francisco, and after two weeks of rehearsals, made his debut at the end of July in a week-long stand at Denver’s 2400-seat Center for the Performing Arts. Local critics were immediately enthusiastic (“Bowie seems to have been sculpted to play the role,” “… an evening of theater magic”), and the engagement sold out to the tune of more than $186,000. In Chicago, the critics are equally effusive. Bowie’s sense of timing is both sharp and subtle, and he can be moving without lapsing into mawkishness. His stamina and sheer physical control in sustaining the illusion of Merrick’s distorted figure are remarkable. “I do preshow and postshow exercises,” he explains. “And after a show, you can’t just suddenly lean up out of that position — you’ll break your spine or something. I spend ten or fifteen minutes just straightening up. I’ve got to see a chiropractor every night.”
Considering Bowie’s grueling schedule — eight shows a week, including matinees — and the strenuous nature of his role, I wonder if the paralyzed pupil in his left eye, permanently dilated after a childhood injury, ever causes complications onstage, “I got used to it,” he says. “I don’t fall off the stage as much as I once did — ha! ha! ha! I do see the edge of it coming toward me these days. But yeah, it’s very hard to see with this eye when the lights are blazing. So onstage, particularly, I’m seeing with a sort of one-eye vision, which means that I’m walking through a photograph. There’s very little perspective. I have to be careful when I get near the edge….” Bowie pauses, then breaks out in that odd, barking laugh again. “In any circumstances, I always have to be careful when I get near the edge.”
“For those who try to pin David down and say what Bowie is, you have the practical problem that David is, of course, a number of different people,” says guitarist Robert Fripp. “There are many facets you can pick up on. He’s a very attractive, charismatic man and um … he’s a shrewdie who keeps his ass covered. I think it would be true to say that the Bowie-Eno-Fripp trio kind of share that in common.”
Brian Eno doesn’t appear on Scary Monsters, Bowie’s sixteenth album but Fripp plays spectacularly on six of the LP’s ten tracks. Bowie and Fripp have known each other since 1969, when they met at the Speakeasy in London one night during a gig by King Crimson, Fripp’s former band. (Coincidentally, it was the same night that David met Angela, his future wife: according to Angela’s soon-to-be-published, tell-all memoir, Free Spirit, Bowie sauntered up to her and asked, “Do you jive?”) Although Fripp’s scholarly, almost monkish personality would seem diametrically opposed to Bowie’s more freewheeling mentality, their ongoing collaborations have resulted in some of Bowie’s most stimulating music. Bowie isn’t exactly sure why this should be, but he accepts it as a workable relationship.
“I’m usually in some area vastly different from the Brians and the Fripps of the world,” he confesses. “They’re out there cerebrally, you know? And I’m just not out there. I sort of bludgeon along through their strange ways and paths, and articulate to the best of my ability what the fuck I’m tryin’ to put on a record. Fripp and I often talk about the mood and what we’re going for before we start. We theorize for quite a bit, and then all that goes out the window and he goes into the studio and blasts away on some rock & roll solos. But it’s a good chance to do a lot of chin-waggin’.”
For Fripp, Scary Monsters, recorded at the Record Plant in New York, is “Bowie’s decision to take his work in rock & roll seriously. Anyone who goes to New York takes his work seriously — the city certainly has that effect. So his return to a degree of involvement with New York, I think, is very healthy.”
Bowie arrived in New York last year to bear witness to the changing of the decades, and some of the songs on the new album are aimed directly at Manhattan’s glittery rock-disco scene. “Teenage Wildlife,” for example, takes a poke at “the New Wave boys” for being the “same old thing in brand new drag.” And Bowie admits that another song, “Fashion,” is “a bit disgruntled. It’s about the sort of grim determination that’s swept into modern ‘now’ culture — the high-tech thing, which I think is a farce. Forget your high-tech. We’re not gonna be prancin’ around in silver suits or anything like that. It’s all blood and guts from now on, mate.”
Scary Monsters is, in fact, a lamenting look at the renascent barbarism that Bowie sees engulfing the supposedly modern world. The album’s effects, however, are subtle — sometimes to the point of obscurity. Admirers of Japanese haiku will appreciate the seventeen-syllable construction of the chorus on “Ashes to Ashes,” but will anyone realize that the curious, ethereal thrumming in the background is actually Chuck Hammer’s guitar synthesizer overdubbed four times? Fripp’s presence at the sessions, of course, only complicated things. “On the song ‘Scary Monsters,'” he points out, “there’s a guitar break in which I play over the chords for the middle instead of for the chorus. In other words, instead of playing over the E and the D, I was playing over a D and a B — Bowie’s initials. Even more subtle.”
The album’s penultimate track, “Because You’re Young,” features the inimitable power chords of Pete Townshend. “He actually does jump up and down in the studio,” Bowie marvels. “I mean, that floored me.” As with Fripp, Bowie has known Townshend for over ten years. “The first time I met Pete was when I took him a record I’d just made called ‘Space Oddity.’ I said, ‘Scuse me, Mr. Townshend, would you play this at your convenience and tell me what you think of it?’ Funnily enough, when he came to the studio to work on this track, he said, ‘By the way, I’ve been meaning to tell you. About that single — I think it should do all right!'”
Bowie has now had to postpone the September promotional tour he’d originally planned for Scary Monsters until next spring. On September 28th, he brought his Elephant Man to Broadway. Reviewing his performance in the New York Times, John Corry wrote: “When it was announced that David Bowie would play the title role in The Elephant Man, it was not unnatural to think he had been cast simply for the use of his name. Dismiss that thought now. Yes, more young people in designer jeans and leather now show up at the Booth Theater than before, and yes, they probably show up because Mr. Bowie is a celebrated rock star. Fortunately, he is a good deal more than that, and as John Merrick, the Elephant Man, he is splendid.” Corry also intimated, however, that the Elephant Man is “an actor-proof part.”
This raises the question of whether Bowie can actually act, or if he’s simply the beneficiary of a well-made play in a role that demands practically no emotional projection. It’s a troubling question, but Concetta Tomei, the spirited actress who played Mrs. Kendal opposite Bowie in the touring production of The Elephant Man, has the answer.
“First of all.” says Tomei, “the Elephant Man is a wonderful role, and if you really are concentrated about what you’re doing, you almost can’t lose — unless you just can’t memorize lines and walk onstage. It’s a role in which you draw people to you to begin with. David apparently has no acting background to speak of, and consequently, he really has no ‘technique,’ as we know Gielgud and Olivier as having. But Bowie has the technique of magnetizing people, and that is something you just can’t learn in a school or out of books. The guy is an actor, and you can’t really water it down. He’s not a rock performer going into acting — he’s an actor.”
When I last speak to David Bowie, I attempt to draw an admittedly homely comparison between The Elephant Man and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Two grotesque stories of unconsummated love — a harmless observation. Bowie seems positively pixilated by the idea. “I think in all cases of monster and man, whether the monster be a legitimate monster or one perceived as being a monster by the society within which he is contained, there’s always that element of love lost, or love unrequited, never to be gained. In Merrick’s case, it was part true, uh…giants who fall in love with earth maidens…there’s always that element…King Kong. Yeah, I guess I can find a parallel between them. Hey, you give me any parallel and I’ll find some link — ha! ha! All channels are open for me!”