‘From now on, I’m really going to speak my mind!’ declared Nigel Farage earlier today. In the long run this might be considered good news, given that it presumably means that from now on Mr Farage is going to be almost entirely silent apart from the occasional belch, but that’s for the future. This morning he certainly had plenty to say. I’m not here to talk about what he said – it was the same discourteous, self-aggrandising, weapons-grade arseblurting with which we are all wearily familiar – no, I’m here to talk about his choice of soundtrack. Because, for his farewell speech as Ukip leader, Nigel Farage elected to bow out on stage to the strains of David Bowie’s “Heroes”.
So now, like Mr Farage, I’m going to speak my mind.
For a xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, anti-immigration extremist politician to appropriate the music of David Bowie of all people is so acutely grotesque, so extravagantly warped, so olympically insulting and so colossally stupid that it fair takes the breath away. Do you know anything about David Bowie, Mr Farage? Anything at all?
Hey, hang on a minute, says a passing ignoramus. Wasn’t the Thin White Duke himself a bit of an old fascist back in the day?
Er, no, actually, he wasn’t. However, in order to head off what will otherwise be an inevitable torrent of ill-informed comments from Ukip supporters, we must now pause for a moment to address one of the facts that people who don’t know about David Bowie think that they do know about David Bowie. That thing about him being fan of Hitler and doing a Nazi salute and all that. That’s true, isn’t it? Must be true, I read it somewhere.
Now then. I freely admit that I don’t know much about football or cars or telebiogenesis, but trust me, one of the subjects about which I do know rather a lot is David Bowie. So, just for the avoidance of doubt, here is a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to everything you ever wanted to know about whether David Bowie was ever a fascist, but were too afraid to ask:
- Was David Bowie ever a fascist? No.
- Did David Bowie ever give a Nazi salute? No.
- Did David Bowie ever voice support for the National Front? No.
- Did David Bowie ever say that he was a fan of Hitler? No.
- Did David Bowie ingest a prodigious quantity of cocaine in the mid-1970s and go extremely peculiar for a little while, during which period he spouted all sorts of nonsense including a couple of naïve and irresponsible comments about fascism which were blown out of all proportion in a tabloid feeding frenzy one week in May 1976, comments which he immediately disowned, revoked and apologised for, before unequivocally describing far-right politics as ‘an answer to an idiot’s dream’? Yes.
There we go. If you’d like to read a full and thorough account of the whole episode, you can find one in my book The Complete David Bowie, of which a new expanded and updated edition just happens to be due for publication next month. But for now, I think we can move on.
David Bowie is famed for his ‘changes’, but beneath that celebrated and ever-evolving experimentation in musical genres, his subject matter remained remarkably consistent. One of his pet topics was our disturbing tendency as a species to succumb to powerful and dangerous people and their twisted ideologies. Lyrics about the perilously charismatic lure of demagogues and dictators, tyrants and false messiahs, run like a seam through Bowie’s fifty years of songwriting. Have a listen to 1967’s ‘We Are Hungry Men’ (‘Why do you look that way at me, your messiah?’), or 1974’s ‘Big Brother’ (‘Someone to claim us, someone to follow’), or the ranting despot in 2013’s ‘If You Can See Me’ (‘I am the spirit of greed, a lord of theft, I’ll burn all your books and the problems they make’). Take a look at the baby-kissing, media-savvy politician on the rise in 1975’s ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’, a song so entirely about Donald Trump that one wonders whether that telephone box on the back cover of the Ziggy Stardust album was some kind of Tardis. And talking of Ziggy – ‘like a leper messiah’ – there’s another one. There are plenty more.
Bowie was never a party man, not of any kind – one feels that he subscribed to the old Marxist apophthegm (Groucho, not Karl) that he wouldn’t have wanted to be a member of any club that would have him as a member. He declined civil honours on at least two occasions – yes, the Dame turned down a knighthood – and he never made a secret of where his sympathies lay. He despaired of George W Bush and the Iraq War (at a UK concert in November 2003, during Bush’s behind-closed-doors ‘state visit’ to Downing Street, Bowie tartly dedicated his song ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’ to ‘our visitor this week’ and earned a thunderous response), and in 2008 he greeted the election of Barack Obama as ‘a great day’.
David Bowie shone a light into millions of lives, and not just with his sublimely brilliant music. In the dark ages of the early 1970s he made life a whole lot better for gay kids. He spoke out about racism at a time when doing so was by no means de rigueur. He championed civil rights and equalities of every kind. He worked for HIV charities, homelessness charities, women’s shelter charities, refugee charities. He wrote a famous song about the possibility of harmony between Christianity and Islam (the inattentive thought it was a song about spacemen, because he called it ‘Loving The Alien’). In short, David Bowie was everything that Nigel Farage and his squalid cabal are proud to despise.
If you have four minutes, have a click on the link at the end of this paragraph. It’s not perhaps the most nuanced song that David Bowie ever wrote, but that’s the very point. He meant it to be direct, because he was angry. It dates from 1989, and it’s about the rise of far-right politics. It’s about the kind of people who end up joining the English Defence League, or Britain First, or Ukip. ‘Washing their heads in the toilet bowl, they don’t see supremacist hate / Right-wing dicks in their boiler suits, picking out who to annihilate…’
So, Mr Farage, you go ahead and speak your mind all you like. Play “Heroes” again if you want to. It doesn’t matter. David Bowie had the measure of you.