You’ve probably already heard about David Bowie’s cocaine spoon.
It’s one of the hundreds of artifacts from the rock star’s career that help make up the open-armed, headphone-insistent, steadily applauding show, “David Bowie Is,” newly mounted at the Museum of Contemporary Art for its only U.S. stop.
The spoon sits, without fanfare, in a case alongside Bowie sketches and journal entries and below the cover art for his 1974 album “Diamond Dogs,” a portrait of the artist as a partial canine.
And it’s shocking enough — this piece of narcotics paraphernalia presented as one more relic of a life in rock, just like the early guitar or the handwritten lyrics to songs that have become classics — that it’s difficult to visit the show and not talk about it.
Yes, the coke spoon may symbolize Bowie’s mid-1970s period of addiction to the drug, a situation he cannily mythologized with another in his series of personas, the Thin White Duke from the time of his “Station to Station” album. But it does not make a fitting symbol for the show as a whole.
“David Bowie Is” happens to be a lot of things, most of them very good: testament to the dogged effort that underlies most successful self-invention; compelling argument for the man’s musical greatness; visit to funky grandpa’s vintage high-end thrift store; nostalgia trip for teenagers of the 1960s and 1970s; foundational material for the selfie era; the hippest lost episode of “Hoarders” you could ever imagine; and pretty good rock ‘n’ roll experience, thanks to liberal doses of Bowie music beamed in through headphones you are issued upon entrance.
But it is not nearly as tough-minded about Bowie as the presence of a coke spoon would suggest.
The show was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in tacit cooperation with Bowie, or at least with his very well-stuffed archive, which he controls. Because of this, because the show sees itself as celebrating Bowie rather than critiquing him, it has nothing to say about the elephant in the exhibition’s concluding rooms, the marked decline in the music he made from, arguably, 1983 on. (Some would add that year’s chart-topping “Let’s Dance” LP to his streak of great records, but nobody is clamoring for a reunion of Tin Machine, Bowie’s late-1980s attempt to put the avant back in his garde.)
The show doesn’t have much to say, either, about his surprise onstage announcement that he was disbanding his potent “Ziggy Stardust”-era band, led by guitarist Mick Ronson. We don’t hear what the presumably stunned bandmates said about their public quasi-firing.
The show’s take is that Ziggy, character and band, was another persona the man had to shed, whatever the human consequences. At the same time, though, it’s clear that Bowie’s constant moving on was a foundation of his excellence, the reason he made so much memorable music in so many different styles, all of them linked by his underappreciated lyrical gifts, his crooner’s voice that could screech or sneer at the high end, and his sincerely experimental approach to the enterprise of being a rock star.
A quick, thoroughly incomplete, refresher: Between roughly 1970 and 1980, in albums that came at an astonishing pace by today’s languid standards, Bowie delivered, at the highest level, everything from lounge music (“Changes”) to grinding rock (“Suffragette City”) to soul (“Young Americans”) to funk (“Fame”) to post-Cold War anthems (“Heroes”).
The show is very detailed about the early years, in which Bowie, born David Jones, speaks candidly about buying challenging jazz and literature to appear cool, and then learning to like them. He seems, at this point, determined mostly to become famous outside of the bourgeois norms of the advertising career he rejected.
“I wanted to be well-known. I wanted to be the instigator of new ideas,” he says in a clip in the first room.
Bowie tried his hand at mime. At age 17, a news clip shows us, he started and spoke on behalf of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. He wrote a manifesto. But he also kept writing songs and performing them through a succession of bands such as The Kon-rads, the Delta Lemons and David and the Bowmen. He put himself out there, over and over, until at last people paid attention.
And then come the crowning moments that turned him from a wannabe into an is: the popular success of “Space Oddity,” when Bowie was still more of a folkie, followed by the shock of his appearance on the “Top of the Pops” TV show singing “Starman” in the persona of Ziggy Stardust.
In a video in the exhibit, Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet describes that “Starman” performance as personally and broadly inspirational, in the same way that people talk about Velvet Underground records from roughly the same era. Not every young Brit saw Bowie sing “Starman” on national TV, but the ones who really saw it, it sounds like, all formed bands.
Even now, that performance rivets; I found myself circling back to watch it, all of it, a second time. And there it is, the Bowie DNA exposed as if on a laboratory slide: the outlandish hair and costume, the playfully flirtatious behavior with Ronson, the direct eye contact with the camera and, backing it all up, an undeniable melody.
To the credit of “David Bowie Is,” the exhibition offers all of that performance, and it does so in a sort of mirrored hallway, cleverly hidden to serve as a surprise. The cotton-candy-colored costume he wore that day is perched in front of the screen.
There are deft curatorial touches like that throughout. The overriding one is the music, a superb technical achievement. It shifts automatically as you move to a new area, immerses you in the experience of the show and includes complete songs, rather than mere snippets. (In the few spots without sound, however, you almost feel lost, wondering if the receiver around your neck has gone bad. I actually tapped a fellow attendee’s shoulder, forced us out of our together aloneness, to find out if she, too, had silence.)
Another perfect touch: About midway through comes the delightful presence of simulated record-store bins. Thumb through them, as in the old days when I, for instance, was filling notebook sheets with the transcribed lyrics to “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” Bowie’s 1972 concept album about a rock band led by an alien and headed for mutiny. You can actually pull out and peruse the Bowie records, one after another of them stocked with future staples of classic rock radio.
In another room, more deft stagecraft: the presentation of a series of Bowie’s music videos — he was a pioneer of the form — on vintage TV sets. On a modern flat-screen, they might look dated. These pieces of equipment bring you closer to the original moment.
The MCA — which bet big in bringing the Bowie show to Chicago — made some tweaks to the show, which has been in London, Toronto, Brazil and Berlin before here. The museum presents a whole song, rather than just a sample, from his 1979 “Saturday Night Live” appearance because of its special relevance in the U.S. The MCA orders the show mostly chronologically, rather than trying to do it in the original manner, thematically.
The coming-to-fame story is the exciting part for most artists, who then settle in to what they will remain, more or less. But Bowie did keep changing, and this show, alas, is not as erudite as it ought to be on the evolution in his music. It documents the shifts better than it explains them, and it provides only brief nods to key collaborators, such as Ronson, early on, and Brian Eno and Iggy Pop in the Berlin era of the late 1970s, where Bowie went in part to kick cocaine.
Instead of digging deeper into the music, the show seems overly self-conscious about trying to justify its presence in art museums. So we get Bowie’s paintings and lots of his sketches of concert lighting schemes, as well as his storyboards for a movie set in “Hunger City.” (The wall card says his use of roller skaters presaged “Starlight Express”; more effective would have been to mention its anticipation of the current wave of dystopian fiction.)
And we get the stage outfits. Lots and lots — and lots and lots — of the stage outfits. They’re fun, for the most part, and varied enough to stay interesting. They certainly help make the case for Bowie as a gutsy, first-wave gender bender.
But so many costumes means so many mannequins, white forms that are meant to be generic and succeed entirely at it. Their blandness, their blankness, wears on you.
You can feel the curators straining at times. The overview pieces at each new section of the exhibit sometimes slip into sweeping generalization and unnecessary puffery. A life-size recording studio setting doesn’t justify the space it takes up, and a Bowie experiment in randomizing words hardly seems significant enough to be part of a too-brief discussion of his songwriting.
Amid the few misfires, however, there are scores of moments that are terrific: “Tissue blotted with Bowie’s lipstick, 1974,” for instance, or “Letter confirming the stage name David Bowie, 1965” or even the coke spoon. His apartment keys from Berlin hang on a wall, proof that Bowie held on to everything.
Just as the show begins losing steam toward the tail end comes the room that delivers a fresh jolt of electricity. In a big, open, almost concert hall setting, it shows footage of vintage Bowie performances as you hear the music pulsing around you, this time with your headphones off.
Soaking in those performances, you have time to think about what you’ve seen. “David Bowie Is,” ultimately, is a show about projecting oneself onto society’s canvas, a defining modern art form. Does this belong in an art museum? Even if the curators don’t make it explicitly, there’s a pretty overwhelming case here for Bowie, the totality of Bowie during his most fertile period, as one of the greatest performance art pieces we’re likely to see.
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