Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: David Bowie's Books Part II - Behind the List

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Dr. Kathryn Johnson

When she was hired by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Dr. Kathryn Johnson likely wasn't expecting that part of her job would include being handed the original, hand-written lyrics to David Bowie's "Space Oddity". But in her role curating all things book- and lyric-centric in what turned out to be a hugely popular exhibition, David Bowie Is, iconic musical mementos — near relics to some fans — became part of everyday work.

David Bowie Is opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario on September 27 to widespread acclaim after its first run at the V&A. To help spread the word, the curators released a list of David Bowie's Top 100 Books, which was originally published on Open Book: Toronto. The list became something of an internet sensation as fans and music critics jumped at the chance to read like Bowie and — perhaps even more exciting — read into the list as a sort of literary autobiography of Bowie's artistic influences and evolution.

We were thrilled to have the chance to speak to Dr. Johnson, who incorporated the list into the exhibit. She tells us about Bowie almost becoming a MadMan, Bowie as a short story writer, Bowie and Warhol and the 1984 musical that almost was.

Grace O'Connell for Open Book:

Tell us about the book list and how it was treated in London.

Dr. Kathryn Johnson:

It came from the David Bowie archive... we asked them to tell us which books he felt had influenced his work and been creative influences. We also asked them to tell us which editions he had, when he had bought the book. It's a cosmic soup of influences... [different artforms are] mixed together, that's how he works, in this magpie way.

GO:

Can we talk about some of the lyrics sheets? How did you select these particular songs?

KJ:

You have to have the lyrics for "Ziggy Stardust" if you've got them... but we also have notes from when he was planning the album... He talks about 'out-hipping' the queens, being even cooler than gay subculture...

Original lyrics for "Ziggy Stardust," by David Bowie, 1972.
 Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

GO:

I wonder if that will make its way into the lexicon, 'out-hipping'. About Bowie's writing process though, what can you tell us about his relationship between lyrics and music?

KJ:

I think it really varies from album to album, but especially in the earlier days, it's more narrative-focused... In the 60s, he used to write short stories and it seemed quite easy to set them to music and so they became songs.

GO:

He said he used to write short stories?

KJ:

Yes and that if he hadn't been a musician, he might have been a writer. But once he got into the studio and worked with other musicians, his process became more collaborative and improvisational... there's a transition to something that's a bit more playful.

GO:

It's just amazing to see his actual handwriting. It must be a wonderful moment for fans.

KJ:

It really gets you so close to it. The three Berlin albums were quite improvisational... in the studio with Brian Eno, they used to play with lots of techniques, like the oblique strategies cards that you can see over here... when you hit a creative block you pull out one of these cards... Brian Eno created them with an artist called Peter Schmidt. Brian Eno gave this set to Bowie for his birthday.

GO:

It's almost like a writing exercise. Do you see it that way?

KJ:

It is a sort of a creative tool... You can buy them on Brian Eno's website. [Dr. Johnson points to a card that reads "Swap Instruments"] They really used these, they did that, making these very experienced musicians change instruments. I don't know if they all took to the idea! There's one that says "Do the washing up" too though... But then for Scary Monsters, which was next, he went away and thought about it a lot more before going into the studio. So it really does vary from album to album.

Also, have you seen this verbisizer he mentions?

GO:

No, what is that?

KJ:

These lyrics are generated by computer program when you put in words or sentences taken from newspapers or something similar he had it made with a friend in San Francisco. It was custom made for Bowie.

Cut up lyrics for "Blackout" from Heroes, 1977. 
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

GO:

One thing I've been getting from the exhibit is how conscious Bowie is in crafting an identity.

KJ:

Oh, I think incredibly. From the beginning... I think it's part of his art, he's almost a performance artist. Bowie is a fiction, just as much as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke and any other manifestation.

GO:

How did you choose which books to feature as the oversized books?

KJ:

It's partly aesthetic, but we chose the quotes and the covers for particular reasons... I felt it reflected the way Bowie brings together beauty out of disjunction and contradiction. He's always positioning himself in the middle of a contradiction in one way or another. And 1984 is a very well known influence on Diamond Dogs. Basically in 1973, Bowie had an idea that he wanted to make a musical adaption of 1984. His last show in the guise of Ziggy Stardust was called "The Ninety-Eighty Floorshow"... But Orwell's widow, Sonia Orwell, wouldn't give him the rights as she had seen another adaptation of it and said 'never again'.

GO:

Still I wish we all could see the Bowie 1984 musical. Are there other books in the exhibit you feel are thematically essential?

KJ:

Well, you'll see in one area an image of the book The Hidden Persuaders... Bowie's first and sort of only proper job was in an advertising agency. Just for a few months; he found it incredibly boring. He thought it was going to be like Madison Avenue. The Hidden Persuaders is a very interesting book about the power of advertising and Bowie was reading that in the 60s. Then there's Frank Edwards' Strange People and that's where Bowie first came across the Elephant Man, who he later played on Broadway. He was always interesting in freaks and isolationists — that's the phrase he used... Also, if you listen to the audio sequence, you can hear Bowie mentioning buying books when he was younger that were way above his head, so he could put them in his pocket on the tube and look deep...

GO:

That sounds like a universal teenage impulse. Let me ask you a little about your experience with the exhibit. How did you react when you were confronted with the enormity of the archive?

KJ:

Well, we knew from the beginning we wanted the exhibit to be thematic rather than chronological, and that his creative influences were key, and that's why they form the central section of the exhibition... I really like seeing the extra artworks here from your collection, especially the Warhol. [The AGO has loaned thematically linked pieces to the exhibit while in Toronto.]

GO:

Warhol and Bowie had a complicated relationship I understand.

KJ:

The AGO has loaned us the Warhol factory video [amongst other items]. It's an interesting episode. Warhol used to just put people in front of the camera, which would be uncomfortable for anyone. [Warhol also reportedly disliked the song Bowie wrote about him.] But apparently they hit it off over their shoes. Bowie had these yellow strap shoes, sort of like dolly shoes, and Warhol liked them. So the story goes.

GO:

You were not even thirty when you started working on the exhibit in London. How did you come to the V&A?

KJ:

My background is actually in literature — literary criticism. That's what my doctorate is in, with a focus on youth culture and adolescence in the inter-war period in Britain. So there's a connection to the exhibit there. I love working in a museum because it's a great mix of design and research and communication.

This interview has been edited and condensed

The AGO has extended hours for the exhibit due to popular demand. David Bowie Is... runs until November 27, 2013.

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