See the mice in their million hordes

In Bowie, Celebrities on April 23, 2013 at 2:55 pm



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…

  1. I think my kids are sick of me saying that Bowie did everything 30+ years ago (and better). Sounds wonderful

  2. Ah …I would now LOVE to see the exhibition ( having passed up the chance a couple of weeks ago) however have now made peace with my inner self and am enjoying reading about it instead ( and watching a lot of DB on YouTube )

    God bless you as I’m sitting in my tin can, far across the world, planet earth is screwed and there’s nothing I can do ( apologies to the word ‘blue’) … Insert guitar rif here

    • Yes, it’s in my head… (the guitar riff). The clips were the main thing of it and the only thing that made them more special in that environ was a) the size of them and b) the collective experience. Just as seeing a band you love live is amazing because you’re sharing it with so many other people – total strangers – who get it too. Looking around that room and knowing all these other people were having golden moments too. That’s why I want to see what would happen if anyone got up and danced.

  3. glad you went back…any mention of McQueen makes me so sad ! what a loss

    • Sigh…. yes, me too. Some of his fashion shows were cultural moments as big as the Bowie film clips. He dwelled on that higher plane. I feel very priveleged that I saw all the really famous ones. And I was so glad to know there had been a connection between them. I’d like to think Bowie had seen one of his shows – he so would have appreciated it. x

  4. Yay Maggie! Now, I am really excited about seeing the exhibition.
    Reading about the note from Lee McQueen gave me goosebumps.

    • I’m so so glad you got that. It brought big tears to my eyes. xxx ps let me know what you think when you see the show.

      • Hi Maggie
        I am back in the Land of Oz after visiting London to see the Chelsea Flower Shower, English Gardens and a flying visit to Paris. So, lets shake off that first day of jet lag and go to the David Bowie Exhibition at the V&A. I loved it, not because it was beautifully curated ( I would have done something like a Pope Alice Luke Roberts type of exhibit with that debris of everyday living) but the costumes, album covers and the musical videos made me so happy! The exhibition did give a context for my adoration of David Bowie, which continues. I am listening to “Lets Dance” from his “Serious Moonlight” tour which I saw all those years ago. It is still fabulous and it brings tears to my eyes for my long lost youth, and it stills speaks to me. Yes, I think he is genius! In summary, not a great exhibition but a fabulous subject.

  5. Maggie, I am a smidgen younger than you, and fell in love with Bowie at 14 when he released the Let’s Dance album. It belonged to my (rather cool) dad, but I wore the grooves bare. China Girl was so sexy, I didn’t know what to do with my adolescent self.

    Thank you for sharing 1970s Bowie with us in a way that couldn’t have been done back then. Watching clips and reading your retrospective is far more powerful than hearing my dad say, “Yeah, but you should have see what he was doing a few years ago.”

  6. So enjoyed my visit to the exhibition (apart from the pushing and shoving at the beginning ) and like you stayed at the end till I had seen it all through twice on those magnificent huge screens…. I wasn’t going anywhere and ‘claimed’ my position on a bench! S x

  7. Love that article Maggie ! My daughter is visiting London in May. Will she be able to get a ticket for the exhibition? Sounds like it may be a sell out! Mr Bowie never fades. No one like him.

    • There are tickets to buy on the day – she would need to get there early to avoid a long queue. It was great to consider his work as a whole.

  8. I’m so pleased to read your post about your repeat visit as we are coming to Britain from Australia soon for our daughter’s wedding. We definitely will make time to go to the Bowie exhibition. I can’t promise not to dance mind you! Looking forward to seeing that magnificent McQueen jacket. Anything striking like this with a Union Jack makes this ex-pat teary!

  9. Go back & dance!

  10. Bowie was my hero in my last term at boarding school. After lights out, my 3 best friends & I would play Hunky Dory on an old turntable in our small dorm. It was an old record then that we’d ‘rediscovered’ (1979) and thought we were so avant-garde. We all LOVED Life On Mars and made up a dance to it (we were dance students) that we did every night, singing our hearts out. Ibeza to the Norfolk Broads. Thanks for reviving the memory!

    • My 10 year old daughter is now obsessed with that song which is so pleasing, as I was at nearly the same age. True art never loses its appeal..

  11. When ” Where are we now?” was released my husband arrived home with more of a spring in his step than I’d seen in yonks. What a poignant song and video: looking back and then stating the bareness of what’s really important.

    Your comment on the “dance” room (which you MUST go back and do) reminded me of the Melbourne Arts Centre ACDC (ahem) exhibition a while ago. Late in the evening, a few of us elderly types were grinning inanely and emphatically head nodding as “Dirty Deeds” was cranked up.

    The music of our youth is forever powerful. You see people with dementia respond word perfect to THEIR music, when they can’t remember what they ate for breakfast. Maybe in 30 years, some of us will be still head nodding to Bowie. Can’t imagine it any other way.

    I just checked the V&A website: the exhibition is on till 11 August, so maybe we could be naughty and sneak over for a couple of weeks in late June…

  12. Oh Maggie….. you absolutely MUST go back & dance – I’m supremely confident you will only be dancing alone for a very short time!

  13. Great review. Thank you. So touching that McQueen wrote apologising. Space Oddity is the soundtrack of my first proper kisses with boys, at a party at Pearl Beach on the Central Coast, just north of Sydney. Wish I were in London.

    • It has made me appreciate Bowie all over again. He’s been part of my life since I was 11 and it was good to stand back and look at him as a whole.

  14. Maggie, thanks for these great posts on the Bowie exhibit. I have been trying to wrack my brain on how I could get to London to see this, the Annie Lennox exhibit 2 yrs ago was quite good, but I think this is much bigger and broad ranging, for obvious reasons. Still it was good to live vicariously through your experience.

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