David Bowie, who had many connections to New Zealand, sadly only toured here four times, but for fans there was a rare opportunity to experience his genius again today at the WORD Christchurch Festival through an extraordinary and rousing performance by the academic musicologist and Bowie aficionado, and author of the book Experiencing David Bowie: A Listener’s Companion, Ian Chapman. Ian was brilliantly accompanied by Liam Donnelly on piano and Pania Simmonds on acoustic and electric bass, and sounds they made together were sublime. Those lucky enough to be there were treated to a wonderfully entertaining celebration of eccentric creativity, a trait that Bowie and Chapman clearly share in abundance, and which Ian refers to as the art of being different.
The trio played two mesmerising sets of early Bowie songs, which bookended a remarkable talk by Ian who explained to us exactly why David Bowie had such a profound impact on so many people’s lives, not least his own. This is perhaps best illustrated by comparing the two alternative covers of the 1970 album The Man Who Sold The World. The British version features a picture of David in a full length dress and boots reclining on a chaise longue. This being a bit too gender-bending for the Americans at the time, the US release features a cartoon version of a scene set in front of a rather imposing gothic building, which is the mental hospital where David’s brother Terry was incarcerated. The British cover symbolises David’s ever-changing persona and his compulsion to explore all aspects of his creative self, continually reinventing himself anew by inhabiting different identities; as evidenced by a comment on the back cover of the album Hunky Dory, David considered his performance to be an act rather than a reflection of his true self, whatever that may be. The American cover represents Bowie’s embracing of the outsider, rooted in his relationship with his troubled brother. As Ian told us, someone once described Bowie as “a flame towards whom dysfunctional moths flew”, which David was more than happy to make a virtue of.
The second part of Ian’s talk was much more personal and we heard what David Bowie’s music meant to Ian after things went terribly wrong for him as a child when his life was turned upside-down by a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, a message that Ian now takes to schools to empower young kids and address the issue of bullying. In the end, what we were treated to was a tour de force on the transcendent power of music and performance to lift us out of our everyday existence and, if only for a brief moment, to take us to another place entirely (brilliantly captured in a picture taken by Mick Rock that was eventually rejected as the cover image for the Bowie-penned single All The Young Dudes by Mott The Hoople). We may have been sitting in a dark room in a college building on a late winter’s day in Christchurch, but for me at least, for an hour or so this afternoon I was transported to the heady days of glam rock in 1970s, and nothing else seemed to matter. This was a wonderful tribute to a much loved, and much missed genius, by someone who delighted in sharing his obsession with us.
Before I go, I’d must give a shout out to whoever was operating the lighting. Nice work! It really added to the atmosphere.
Ian Chapman is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Music at Otago University and Head of their Programme for Performing Arts. His doctorate was on David Bowie, and he has published many academic articles as well as several books about glam rock and the New Zealand music scene...
For more about David Bowie, check out these two excellent online resources, which are available free to Christchurch City Library members...
A favourite book of mine that touches on the darker side of some of the themes raised in Ian’s performance is All The Madmen (which interestingly, also features two of the musicians we heard playing before and after Ian’s show – Ray Davies of The Kinks, and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd).
As well as Ian’s books, you can find dozens of others about every aspect of Bowie’s life and work on the shelves of your local branch of Christchurch City Libraries, as well as CDs of his music, including my own personal favourite Bowie album, Hunky Dory.
What’s your favourite?
More music at WORD Christchurch Festival 2018
A Date with Dylan at The Institution at tonight's New Regent Street Pop-up Festival,Thursday 30 August 6pm
Philip Matthews, Adam McGrath, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, and David Slack talkin' bout Bob Dylan.
Soundtrack Or, Dancing about Architecture Sunday 2 September 11.30am to 12.45pm
Featuring Philip Hoare, Pip Adam, Chris Tse and Nic Low, hosted by Kiran Dass.
Samuel Flynn Scott: On songs Sunday 2 September 2.45pm to 3.45pm
More about Ian Chapman: Read Kim's interview with Dr Ian Chapman: The Dunedin Sound and a passion for music