Body of Work: David Bowie Is @ MCA Chicago [part 2]

MCA-dogsThe exhibition here is unique in that it represents a life as art, but there are few people that can pull off such a conceit as well as David Bowie. His childhood development was covered with the requisite baby pictures and tales of his family, but the curators, opted to also dwell on the shadows that covered the young Mr. Jones’ family, with its histories of mental illness and suicide. Audio files of Bowie frankly discussing his recognition of this suggest the lad was striving to avoid the tortured ends of several family members through a process of reinvention of self. He opted instead to build his identity from materials that were available in the gray, post-war Britain he grew up in. Beatniks, artists, and the dawn of rock and roll were the grist for his [self] creative mill. By the time he was done with school at 16, he had moved into the commercial art field, only to give it up for a shot at the post-Beatles British beat boom.

The early days with the Konrads were well represented here, with several pieces of ephemera showing one of his earliest band efforts. The Lower Third got some star time as well, with the [rather good] single “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” getting an airing on the audio channels. How it must relieve Mr. Bowie that his first ever released single is such a good one! But fear not. If one ever wanted to view the original lyrics to “The Laughing Gnome” it was there for the world to see! That Bowie had kept his notebooks from boyhood made an exhibition on this level possible. The level of transparency at which he has maintained his creative career has been admirable. He was never one to give his influences and muses short shrift, and many of them figure in the curation of this show.

The “Space Oddity” era was represented both by the more familiar, 1972 Mick Rock video as well as the earlier clip for the version that eventually surfaced in the short film “Love Me ‘Til Tuesday.” I had never seen the latter clip, but one viewing convinced me that Flight of the Conchords must have, since their brilliant “Bowie’s In Space” video seriously referenced this more obscure clip! Other clips of the pupal Bowie surface with excerpts from The Image” and a full mime performance, “The Mask” being included in the show.

While there were lots of artifacts and notebook pages with original lyrics on view, where the event really hit the nights was in the multimedia stagings that involved still and video projections happening in vibrant stagings along with original [or in some cases, replicated*] costumes on Bowie-masked mannequins. The “Starman” exhibit was stunning, incorporating the Top of the Pops video performance that made him an overnight star [after seven years of scrambling]. The costume he wore, stood between two mirrors at an oblique angle to seemingly spread into infinity while the video performance was kaleidoscopically mixed behind it. It’s in these set pieces that the whole of the exhibit reaches a level that can’t be rendered into two dimensional forms like books or online photos. You simply have to be there to appreciate it.

Kansai Yamamoto

Kansai Yamamoto

The costuming of Bowie is given a large portion of the spotlight here. The imperial period of his career [’69-’80] comes off the best, in no small part due to the brilliant costuming that Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto developed for the now Superstar artiste. This exhibit goes further, to show the hair and fashion precedents that Bowie picked from to make of his own. In many cases, earlier Yamamoto fashions were adapted for new use with Bowie and even his famous spiky red Ziggy cut was shown as being inspired by an earlier femme cut used by a Yamamoto model. Suzi Ronson [neé Fussey] was the hairdresser who actually wielded the famous scissors. The willingness to give credit where it was due was appreciated.

Next: …sound and vision

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9 Responses to Body of Work: David Bowie Is @ MCA Chicago [part 2]

  1. Simon H says:

    Glad you enjoyed it Monk, I was fascinated to see the acetate of the first VU album and to find Bowie was covering songs from the album live in the UK before it was even released! IIt’s remarkable that he kept all this stuff, even during his more ‘strung out’ phases!


  2. Brian says:

    This sounds so good, and now you’re entering the really fascinating period for me. So, Monk, I’m relatively new to your blog, and I followed a long string of your related posts on Bowie this weekend. Let me just say I really appreciate the second- and third-level thinking you put into your observations. It’s quite obvious you know your stuff, and the passion is infectious. Thank you.

    So, you will be shocked to learn I like Bowie’s ’80s albums. Please resist the urge to stop reading. This explanation probably needs more than a brief comment at the bottom of a post, but I think in part it comes down to our age difference, which I think is quite slim in the big scheme of things but potentially huge in the world of music. I was 13 years old when Let’s Dance came out. My only point of reference was a vague recollection of the Boys Keep Swinging video as seen on Night Flight or Night Tracks. My tiny town didn’t even have MTV when Let’s Dance had its world premiere. When I heard the single on FM radio, it was like manna to a starving child. This was the same moment you and your college friends, whom had already experienced the Berlin Trilogy and much more, turned off the TV in disgust. Let’s Dance grabbed me in a way that made me want more. So, I rode my bike many miles to a Kmart and bought the Fame and Fashion compilation on vinyl. From there I started acquiring the old stuff you already knew was great before Let’s Dance but which I didn’t know existed.

    I have such memories of lining up to buy Tonight, running to the TV for the World Premiere of Jazzin’ for Blue Jean and searching for the 12″ of Loving the Alien and the blue vinyl of Blue Jean.
    My love for all of this now is mere nostalgia. I know this because it is clear to me this is the artist’s weakest period… but I can’t help but love it anyway. If I had been just a little bit older or had an older sibling with taste, perhaps I would have passed on Let’s Dance. Just wanted to let you know how a person could possibly love ’80s-era Bowie.


    • Brian Ware says:

      If I may offer a quick reply to your comment, we’d like to welcome you to our very special music clubhouse. As a friend of Mr. Monk for nearly 30 years, I consider myself most fortunate to share my time on earth with this gentleman, scholar, and all around swell guy. I’m probably a bit older than most of you readers, which certainly informs my perspective, and while I’m not a steady commenter, I always enjoy the free-wheeling conversations week after week. I’m still waiting for my opportunity to buy a PPM t-shirt and coffee mug…


      • postpunkmonk says:

        Brian Ware – Actually, I welcomed the other Brian to the comments back in April, but I appreciate your stepping up to the comment plate while I am buried in work! Brian’s cogent comment certainly hits the target for me and I was immediately formulating a response to his words that will take me more time than I have available right now. As for the T-shirts and mugs… we’ll see. I’d hate to monetize PPM with such coarse tchatchkes, but as I’ve said many, many times, if I can’t be bought, I’m willing to be rented.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Brian – Thanks for your kind words. I’m not so modest not to swoon intellectually when I hear someone accusing me of “second-and-third-level thinking.” I totally understand the pull that the 80s Bowie would have for one born just seven years after I was. For example, I saw Star Wars when it came out in 1977 at the age of 14. Seeing it then, I was struck by two things, other than the state of the art special effects: the art deco design of the air shafts in the Death Star were stunning, and wondering why George Lucas asked Carrie Fisher not to wear a bra in her scenes as she was being marched to meet Darth Vader*. I enjoyed “The Empire Strikes Back” quite a bit, but when “Return Of The Jedi” was released, I was in college and my friends and I were profoundly disappointed in the finale of the [then] trilogy. I didn’t concern myself with Star Wars too much going forward.

      By contrast, a friend of mine several years younger also saw Star Wars in 1977. To an eight or nine year old, Star Wars in 1977 was a whole different phenomenon! That’s the age to play with Star Wars toys and to wear the costumes for halloween. The thing manages to sink its fangs deep at that age. This person as of 15 years ago was editing a Star Wars fanzine and was still involved with SW fandom, though the modern SW films [that made Return of the Jedi seem like oscar-bait in retrospect] eventually snuffed out that passion.

      So I get it. My friend will really get it. Then again, it takes all kinds. Every thing out there, no matter what I think of it, is some being’s favorite thing. Marvel at this fact like I do all the time. At least you rode your bike to K-Mart to buy albums just like I did! We can bond now – in spite of our age differences!

      * It was 1977 and I had until then, successfully avoided the “jiggle trend” that was spread far and wide on the television… on purpose. Lucas was the director. I blame him.


  3. Brian says:

    Thank you, fellas. I know I’m on shaky ground with the likes of Let’s Dance, Tonight and Never Let Me Down. I would take Bowie’s last three albums before the ’80s material, but listening to Let’s Dance is more about trying to capture a 30-year-old feeling.

    Oh, and now I have caught up with your posts on Associates. Brilliant. One of my absolute favorites.

    As for the Bowie installation, my family is from the Chicago area. You have almost made me consider going home for the holidays… almost. Great series, sir.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Brian – The only Bowie album of the last 34 years that captured the pre-“Let’s Dance” feeling for me was “Buddha Of Suburbia.” As good as some of them are [“The Next Day” is flat out excellent], that was the only one that matched the artistic standards of his late 70s material for me.


  4. Brian says:

    Buddha is wonderful. I was working in a record store when that one found its way to our shores. Really an undiscovered gem… at least over here. Played it in the shop often. Outside of an odd song here and there (for some reason Something in the Air grabbed me), Bowie lost me for a very long time. I sort of found him again from Heathen to the present. Obviously, I can’t argue any of it is as good as Scary Monsters on back. Haven’t decided if the Sue 10″ will find its way to me later in the month.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Brian – I bought the ludicrous “Jump” CD-ROM because I had just bought my first Macintosh [Quadra 840 AV] when it was released. The part where you could edit the “Jump They Say” video was amazing for 1993, but the rest of it was the usual CD-ROM embarrassment; apart from the music, which sounded pretty good to me. I eventually got “Black Tie, White Noise.” About half of it was quite good, but when “Buddha Of Suburbia” surfaced six months later as an import-only OST, I was not convinced. My loss. After buying “…hours” and really liking it, getting the Bowie albums I didn’t already have became a thing. BOS floored me. It still does. It’s his most adventurous album post “Lodger.” I thought “The Next Day” really was excellent. To my ears it really is as good a collection of songs as “Scary Monsters,” except that it lacks Fripp. Drop Fripp in the next Bowie album and we’ll have a contender. I want “Sue” [and its B-side] but I may opt for a DL. 10″ Vinyl is a hassle and the comp CD is overkill for one who has all of Bowie’s albums*.

      * Apart from the quasi-boot “Santa Monica ’72” live album… which I still lack.


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