I went back to the Bowie exhibition. I had to. I couldn’t stand that feeling of unfinished business – and I’m so so glad I made the effort, because I’m now even more in love with him than ever. Which I didn’t really think was possible.
This time I got there early and the crowds were much less intrusive. Then I sped through the first two rooms which had irritated me so much last time.
I still found the headset maddening as it kept slipping in and out of spoken word and music, but I soldiered on and found myself fascinated. First by a computer program Bowie has developed to do his random cut up lyrics digitally, rather than his earlier William Boroughs inspired analogue version with bits of paper and scissors.
But the thing which really stood me still was a notebook with his tailor’s measurements. In 1972 his waist measured 26 and a half inches. Next to that was a highwayman’s coat of tattered Union flags, which was made for him by Alexander McQueen.
It was amazing, but what really moved me was to see the note Lee McQueen had written to Bowie, apologising for being a bit late with it.
Imagining what it would have meant to McQueen – the gay son of brutal father, who grew up in London’s tough East End – and to start a letter, ‘Dear David…’ brought tears to my eyes.
The next great thing, as with my first trip to the show, was just standing and watching a video of the man, doing what he does. It was Boys Keep Swinging, from 1979 – and I’d forgotten how amazing it is. The way he dances! Soooo sexy. And the way he dressed as three women. One of them clearly an aged Marlene Dietrich.
I watched it three times, constantly thinking: ‘1979! He did this in 1979!’ It would be fresh if somebody did for the first time right now. He did it thirty four years ago.
The next area had more video of him performing and more costumes, which was all pleasing – but then I got to the really good bit: the Berlin room.
That was the one section of this exhibition which was more than the sum of the parts. Using a mixture of artefacts, Bowie’s own paintings – including one of Iggy Pop – and a brilliantly randomised mash up of film footage, including Bowie talking about why he moved there, stills from the session for the Heroes cover, clips of 1930s Berlin – created a sense of total immersion.
Without knowing any more details of his life there, I felt as though I had, just for a moment, been there with him (and Iggy…). It gave me the flavour, the feeling – without destroying any of the mystique. Brilliant.
Being able to stare at the Thin White Duke’s actual trousers, helped too. And I didn’t even mind seeing the keys to the apartment… They were properly Berlin-y looking keys and I’d rather see them than pictures of the rooms.
Next to that was the other triumph of the expo. A cathedralic space where, with some delays between transmission, to build expectation, they showed footage of Bowie live, on huge screens, with the actual costumes displayed around – backlit, with the lights going on and off so now you saw them, now you didn’t.
We gathered, lounging on the black benches, and shared the experience, which was a triumphant antidote to the competitive jostling to scope the tawdry micro-memorabilia of the first two rooms. And they played each track in full and really really LOUD.
I stayed until I had seen it all through twice and even then found it hard to tear myself away. In one clip – I think it was from the Station to Station tour, but I can’t remember which song it was – as he shrugged off his trench coat, standing high on a gantry, I couldn’t believe anyone could have such sexy shoulders.
A fairly early film of Jean Genie was captivating and I had to hold my legs down to stop myself getting up to dance. What would have happened if I had? I wondered. Would anyone have joined in?
I just might have to go back and find out…