'Sometimes I Feel like the Whole Human Race': Lord Byron and David Bowie Consider the Question of Identity

By Bernhard-Jackson, Emily A. | The Byron Journal, July 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

'Sometimes I Feel like the Whole Human Race': Lord Byron and David Bowie Consider the Question of Identity


Bernhard-Jackson, Emily A., The Byron Journal


David Bowie is perhaps the only rock star ever to have modelled an outfit on the heroes of Lord Byron's Eastern tales. He is certainly the only rock star who, while thus attired, uttered the line, "Allo, Vic, 'ow you doin'?', then a few minutes later asked his director, 'Are you calling me clever-clever?', before loudly complaining about the Band-Aid on his nose.1 But such were the experiences of twentieth-century genius in Janin' for Blue Jean, a short promotional film made during what one might call, considering the arc of Bowie's career, his Relatively Normal Period in the mid-1980s.

Aside from his blink-and-you-miss-it cameo in the disastrous Yellowbeard (1983), Bowie's dual role as Screaming Lord Byron and sign-hanger Vic in Janin' for Blue Jean (1984) is probably his least-discussed foray into film. It is also the one that connects him most overtly to the English Romantics, and to Lord Byron in particular.2 But Janin' for Blue Jean is not Bowie 's only link to Byron. This essay considers the ways in which Bowie descends from and builds on him in one specific area: the exploration of self. Both Byron and Bowie interrogated the idea of the stable self, and in remarkably similar ways. Bowie's explorations, however, take Byron's assertions to a more radical end.

Because both 'David Bowie' and 'Lord Byron' are elastic concepts, let me begin by outlining some parameters. The David Bowie this article considers is the David Bowie of the years 1972 to 1983. Although this period constitutes less than a quarter of Bowie's career, it remains the one with which he is most associated, and it is his most creatively fecund. Moreover, the article primarily concerns itself with Bowie's performing self, treating it as a text in its own right since, as Adam Trainer has observed, 'David Bowie as a phenomenon is primarily about performance.'3 When I discuss this performing self, I use the present tense; when I discuss remarks and actions made by Bowie the person, I use the past tense. My discussion of Byron also deals with his public self, but it does so largely by engaging with his poetical works, since what Bowie expressed on the stage Byron usually expressed on the page. No matter the mode of communication, however, both men use their work to undermine the concept of a single, stable 'self', and Bowie builds on what Byron began.

Whether this building is intentional, or even conscious, is difficult to say, since there doesn't seem to be proof either way. But there is certainly an argument to be made for what one might call 'osmotic intention.' Lee Marshall has argued that 'popular music [...] is the contemporary cultural arena where traits of Romanticism are perhaps most prevalent',4 and the symbols of rebellion and sexual freedom often associated with Romanticism, and specifically with Byron, remained vivid and potent in the cultural imagination in the hundred and fifty years between Byron and Bowie. Marshall's description of the 'Romantic stereotype'-'sold his soul to the devil, womaniser, heavy drinker, mysterious'-is essentially a description of the way Byron lingers in popular cultural memory even today. In addition, certain sartorial choices associated with Byron have come to have specific cultural resonances, and continually appear as signifiers in popular music imagery.5 Bowie draws upon these, whether or not he knew they originated in Byron.

David Buckley has asserted that 'before Bowie [...] nobody had ever before conceived of his or her career as the adoption of a succession of masks and alter egos.'6 Romanticists, of course, know that somebody had. Almost from the beginning, Byron's career was a self-admitted series of masks: in the preface to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II he may have written that his remarkably Byron-like protagonist Harold was 'the child of imagination', but this insistence weakened as the Harolds progressed and as he created a series of Tales based on his own experiences, then ended by fashioning a clutch of different versions of himself in Don Juan. …

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