VILE BOWIES

Something popped up on the Evelyn Waugh Society site a few months ago that piqued my interest. The suggestion of a solid connection between the two prime inspirations of my adolescence, Evelyn Waugh and David Bowie. And I'm ready now to investigate how
Vile Bodies fed into Aladdin Sane.

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Jeffrey Manley at the EW Society provided a link to the blog of Dan Shepelvay who in turn provided a link to a
Ziggy Stardust Companion site which in turn features a piece by Howard Bloom that was originally printed in the music magazine Circus in July 1973. Howard Bloom went on to write some ambitious books - scientific and philosophical - as you can see from his Wiki entry.

Anyway, this is what Bloom observed first-hand in December 1972:

'David Bowie sat in an overstuffed armchair in his suite aboard the ship Ellinis, returning to London from his first triumphal tour of the States. His delicate brows knit in a look of perplexed recognition as he read Evelyn Waugh's
Vile Bodies - a 40 year-old, futuristic novel about a society of "bright young things" whirling through lavish parties in outlandish costumes, dancing, gossiping and sipping champagne. Suddenly David lowered the book to his lap, picked up the spiral notebook and pen sitting on the small mahogany table at his side, and began to write the words to the title song of his new LP, Aladdin Sane.'

Did I say a solid connection? Rock solid evidence of the impact of one creative talent on another. And Bowie remembered the debt he owed. In 2013 he placed
Vile Bodies in his list of Top 100 books. Also on that list was A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. The montage below was put together in 2013 by davidbowie.com. The central image shows Bowie, on the left, wearing a Clockwork Orange t-shirt, photographed with a chum back on the American tour of 1972. The surrounding books are from Bowie's Top 100 list of books, including Vile Bodies (top right). Another of the novels, George Orwell's 1984, was a primary influence on Bowie's 1974 album, Diamond Dogs.

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While on that tour of America, Bowie wrote the single 'The Jean Genie', a tribute to Jean Genet. In other words he liked to inhabit books and writers, not just read them. A trait I can readily identify with.

Before we look at the lyrics to 'Aladdin Sane', let's say something about the parallel between Bowie's and Waugh's position as they were writing
Aladdin Sane and Vile Bodies, respectively. In 1929, Waugh was returning to England from a cruise of the Mediterranean on a ship called Stella Polaris. Once back in London he immediately went off to a pub in Oxfordshire to begin his new novel, which would be titled Vile Bodies, and which begins with his protagonist, Adam, returning to England from the continent on a ship... So there we go, David Bowie, Evelyn Waugh and Adam Symes all travelling on ships coming back to England. That's enough of a biographical parallel to be going on with, though there's more to come. Here are the lyrics to the first phase of the 'Aladdin Sane' song:

Watching him dash away,
swinging an old bouquet
- dead roses.
Sake and strange divine
Uh-h-h-uh-h-uh -
you'll make it.

Passionate bright young things,
takes him away to war -
don't fake it.
Saddening glissando strings
Uh-h-h-uh-h-uh -
you'll make it.

Who'll love Aladdin Sane?
Battle cries and champagne just in time for sunrise
Who'll love Aladdin Sane?

OK, the end of this first section of Bowie's song places us firmly in the last chapter of Waugh's book. Adam finds himself 'on the front line of the biggest battlefield in the history of the world'. Adam is in a Daimler with 'The Drunk Major', now a general, who is seducing a woman called Chastity with the help of a bottle of champagne. The last line of the book is: 'And presently, like a circling typhoon, the sounds of battle began to return.'

I should mention that the phrase 'bright young things' does't crop up in
Vile Bodies itself, though that's what Stephen Fry called his film of the novel. Waugh did talk about 'bright young people' in the manuscript's preface, but that was replaced by a couple of quotes from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass prior to publication.

'Aladdin Sane' goes on:

Motor sensational,
Paris or maybe hell
- I'm waiting.
Clutches of sad remains
Waits for Aladdin Sane
- you'll make it.


That section of the song may reference the longest chapter in Vile Bodies, the motor race that takes place in an unspecified city. The race that ends with reserve driver Agatha Runcible crashing her car and ending up in a nursing home where Adam visits her.

The song concludes:

Who'll love Aladdin Sane?
Millions weep a fountain,
just in case of sunrise.

Who'll love Aladdin Sane?

We'll love Aladdin Sane.
We'll love Aladdin Sane.

The above seems to allude to the central concern of the book. Will Nina love Adam Symes? Adam, a madman? Adam, a lad insane? Things might turn out all right for Adam (just in case of sunrise), on the other hand they probably won't (millions weep a fountain). Ultimately, we, the readers, will surely love him - or his creator - come what may.

Howard Bloom does not make explicit or specific links from the novel's words to the song's lyrics, just suggests they are there. Instead his article goes on to say:

'"The book dealt with London in the period just before a massive, imaginary war." David would later confide, touching one finger, with its green-painted nail, lightly to his chin. "People were frivolous, decadent and silly. And suddenly they were plunged into this horrendous holocaust. They were totally out of place, still thinking about champagne and parties and dressing up. Somehow it seemed to me that they were like people today." But who was the frivolous, romantic young man Aladdin Sane? At first David merely cupped his hands in a fragile cage and said: "I don't really think he's me."'

So the 27-year-old creator of
Aladdin Sane, born in 1947, and the 27-year-old author of Vile Bodies, who was 12 when the First World War finished, both belonged to post-war generations. In each case a generation that was determined to throw all its energy and talents into hedonism, though it remained fearful that another war might be just around the corner.

I would just add that the threat of war in
Vile Bodies is pretty well confined to the last chapter. Throughout the bulk of the book's pages little shadow is cast on the self-indulgent enjoyment of Adam and his peers, except from mundane concerns such as - in Adam's case - how to find enough money to marry Nina.

Back in London in 1973, Bowie put his energies into recording the songs he'd written while touring America. Celia Philo directed the album cover shoot for
Aladdin Sane and she describes her experience on a page of The Stylist's website. The shoot took place at the flat of the photographer, Brian Duffy. Bowie came along on his own and with his hair red and striking. This is the iconic image they ended up with:

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Celia Philo: 'There are lots of versions of the story about where the famous lightning flash make-up came from. RCA Records had sent us the songs from
Aladdin Sane to listen to before we did the shoot. On the day, we already knew that our main references would come from the song 'The Jean Genie' and also from a famous 1973 Pirelli calendar Duffy had worked on with the pop artist Allen Jones and the airbrush artist Philip Castle. We also knew that we wanted the cover to show David’s torso with no clothes on. Had we not come up with the lightning flash idea, I think the image would have portrayed David in the guise of a genie.'

It's possible that the lightning flash idea came from Bowie describing the cover of
Vile Bodies which Evelyn Waugh had come up with himself back in 1929. Especially if it was an early hardback copy of the book that Bowie had been reading on the ship, rather than a 1970s Penguin paperback which lacked the jagged Waugh woodcut which I've reproduced here:

vilebodies

But back to Celia Philo's account: 'Duffy – who sadly is no longer with us – had been heard to say that the lightning flash was inspired by a symbol that was on the little electric cooker in our studio. But I recollect all of us sitting round the studio table with a big pad of paper, talking through ideas, jotting them down. We knew that David had appeared wearing costumes with a lightning flash on them in the past, and Pierre said, "Let’s put the flash over his face". I remember thinking, "That sounds a good idea," and so we went with it.'

I'm still happy to contemplate the possibility of Waugh's handiwork as inspiration. Here is more
Aladdin Sane cover art work:

350721

The next thing I'm wondering is if Bowie had the copy of
Vile Bodies to hand throughout the American tour. In November of 1972 he wrote 'Drive-In Saturday' while travelling in a train from Seattle to Phoenix. It's opening...

'Let me put my arms around your head
Gee it's hot, let's go to bed
Don't forget to turn on the light.
Don't laugh babe, it'll be all right.'


...puts me in mind of Adam's wooing of Nina near the beginning of
Vile Bodies. They travel to a hotel on the south coast of England to spend their first night together. In the morning, Nina comments:

"My dear, I never hated anything so much in my life... still as long as you enjoyed it that's something."

Then a few pages later, when they're watching a film together at the cinema:

"All this fuss about sleeping together. For physical pleasure I'd sooner go to my dentist any day."

Yeah, don't laugh babe, it'll be all right. In 'Drive-In Saturday', Bowie goes on to sing:

'His name was always Buddy
And he'd shrug and ask to stay.
She'd sigh like Twig the Wonder Kid
And turn her face away.
She's uncertain if she likes him.
But she knows she really loves him.
It's a crash course for the ravers.
It's a Drive-in Saturday.'


It's the first three songs in the album that seem to have
Vile Bodies overtones. 'Aladdin Sane', 'Drive-In Saturday' and the song the LP begins with, 'Watch That Man', which was written the day after Bowie and his band had played their Ziggy Stardust set for a hip New York audience at Carnegie Hall. Howard Bloom wrote about the gig:

'Sashaying down the aisles toward their red plush seats were silver-lidded creatures with short sheared hair dyed rainbow shades of green, pink and blue. Top-hat and tail wearing gentlemen with green lipstick and yards of frosted white hair stomped on balloons that scuttled along the carpeted floor. As the house lights went black and strobe lights from behind the stage flickered over the faces of the crowd, Bowie stepped onstage with the Spiders From Mars and caught a brief glimpse of two familiar figures in the front rows... Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, the king and crown prince of decadent flash.'

Fair enough, but in the middle of writing
Vile Bodies - which has a running joke concerning men about town in green bowlers hats - Waugh went to several bohemian events. He specifically didn't attend the party that Bryan and Diana Guinness threw at their Buckingham Street townhouse, where the theme was 1860, but he was told about it by Harold Acton. Here is how Waugh's wife dressed for the party:

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As I've said elsewhere on this site, later that evening She-Evelyn went on to another party on board the Friendship where a photographer caught her up close with John Heygate with whom she would soon be falling in love with.

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Cut to New York, 1972, and the party immediately following the Carnegie Hall show. As Howard Bloom wrote: 'That night the "passionate bright young things" destined to populate
Aladdin Sane gathered in David's hotel suite overlooking Manhattan's brightly lit Plaza Foundation. While a few privileged New York groupies lounged by the sweeping draperies, and one or two hand-picked RCA executives sipped champagne on the long couches that lined the room, trans-sexual singer Wayne County, dressed in high-heeled shoes, a long sweater and dangling loops of beads, danced with former Warhol starlet Cherry Vanilla.'

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'And David watched with utter fascination as his white-and-pink haired wife Angie whirled through every dance step from the waltz to the twist with a luscious Marilyn Monroe look-alike in the centre of the room.'

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Now Bowie wouldn't have known of the parties taking place in the summer of 1929 except, possibly, via the pages of Vile Bodies. Here's how the first one starts:

'At Archie Schwert's party the fifteenth Marquess of Vanburgh, Earl Vanburgh de Brendon. Baron Brendon. Lord of the Five Isles and Hereditary Grand Falconer to the Kingdom of Connaught, said to the eighth Earl of Balcairn, Viscount Erdringe, Baron Cairn of Balcairn, Red Knight of Lancaster, Count of the Holy Roman Empire and Chenonceaux Herald to the Duchy of Aquitaine, "Hullo," he said. "Isn't this a repulsive party? What are you going to say about it?" For they were both of them, as it happened, gossip writers for the daily papers.'

Perhaps one of the high-born gossip writers wrote something approaching what David Bowie wrote decades later:

'Shakey threw a party that lasted all night.
Everybody drank a lot of something nice.
There was an old-fashioned band of married men,
Looking up to me for encouragement.
- It was so-so.'

"Oh, how bored I feel," said Nina, at party number two in
Vile Bodies. At several of the parties described in the novel, the Jesuit, Father Rothschild, Prime Minister Walter Outrage, and Lord Metroland, a press baron, are talking together. Looking up to someone for encouragement? No, but they looked askance at the man wearing a false beard who was trying to overhear their conversation - Lord Balcairn aka Mr Chatterbox of the Daily Excess!

Earlier in the evening, Waugh tells us: 'It was a brilliant scene into which the disconsolate angels trooped two minutes later. Margot Metroland shook hands with each of them as they came to the foot of the staircase, appraising them, one by one, with an expert eye.
"You don't look happy, my dear," she found time to say to Chastity, as she led them across the ballroom to their platform, banked in orchids at the far end. "If you feel you want a change, let me know later, and I can get you a job in South America. I
mean it."'

'The ladies looked bad but the music was sad.
No one took their eyes off Lorraine.
She shimmered and she strolled like a Chicago moll,
Her feathers looked better and better.
- It was so-so.'


Back to party two in
Vile Bodies: 'Then Mrs Ape stood up to speak. A hush fell on the ballroom beginning at the back and spreading among the gilt chairs until only Mrs Blackwater's voice was heard exquisitely articulating some details of Lady Metroland's past. Then she, too, was silent and Mrs Ape began her oration about Hope.
"Brothers and Sisters," she said in a hoarse, stirring voice. Then she paused and allowed her eyes, renowned throughout three continents for their magnetism, to travel among the gilded chairs. (It was one of her favourite openings.) "
Just you look at yourselves," she said.

'Yea! it was time to unfreeze
When the Reverend Alabaster danced on his knees.
Slam! so it wasn't a game
Cracking all the mirrors in sh-hame.'


'Watch that man!
Oh honey, watch that man.
He talks like a jerk,
But he could eat you with a fork and spoon.'


Back to
VB: 'There was a famous actor making jokes (but it was not so much what he said as the way he said it that made people laugh who did laugh). "I've come to the party as a wild widower," he said. They were that kind of joke - but, of course, he made a droll face when he said it.'

'Watch that man!
Oh honey, watch that man
He walks like a jerk,
But he's only taking care of the room.
Must be in tu-une.'


How is Evelyn's party getting on? 'Standing near Vanburgh by the door, was a figure who seemed in himself to typify the change that had come over Pastmaster House when Margot Best-Chetwynd became Lady Metroland; an unobtrusive man of rather less than average height, whose black beard, falling in tight burnished curls, nearly concealed the order of St. Michael and St. George which he wore round his neck; he wore a large signet ring on the little finger of his left hand outside his white glove; there was an orchid in his buttonhole. His eyes, youthful but grave, wandered among the crowd; occasionally he bowed with grace and decision. Several people were asking about him.'

'A Benny Goodman fan painted holes in his hands
So Shakey hung him up to dry.
The pundits were joking,
the manholes were smoking,
And every bottle battled
with the reason why.'


Benny Goodman, though an American, was active in the 1920s. Not that Evelyn Waugh would have been aware of this. Waugh was not interested in music and rarely refers to it in his novel. Instead:

'Two nights later Adam and Nina took Ginger to the party in the captive dirigible. The airship seemed to fill the whole field, tethered a few feet from the ground by innumerable cables over which they stumbled painfully on the way to the steps. These had been covered by a socially minded caterer with a strip of red carpet. Inside the saloons were narrow and hot, communicating to each other with spiral staircases and metal alleys. There were protrusions at every corner, and Miss Runcible had made herself a mass of bruises in the first half hour. There was a band and a bar and all the same faces.'

'The girl on the phone wouldn't leave me alone,
A throw back from someone's LP.
A lemon in a bag played
the Tiger Rag
And the bodies on the screen stopped bleeding.'

The Tiger Rag is a jazz standard from 1917. It could well have been playing in the London parties of summer 1929, with Waugh oblivious to it. Instead he was alert to something else, as he makes clear in one of the most quoted passages from Vile Bodies:

'“Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.”
(…Masked parties, savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Russian parties, circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St. John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and nightclubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris - all that succession and repetition of massed humanity. … Those vile bodies….)'

'Yeah! I was shaking like a leaf
For I couldn't understand the conversation.
Yeah! I ran to the street,
Looking for information.'

Howard Bloom implies that Bowie was only reading
Vile Bodies while on ship and not before. And I'll assume he was right about that. So the rough parallels between the lyrics of 'Watch that Man' and the party action in Vile Bodies are coincidental. But when Bowie read about all those Twenties parties he spotted the connection between Waugh's concerns and his own recent observations.

This is how Bloom puts it: 'It is little wonder then, that when David sat in his stateroom aboard the ship Ellinis and began to read in Evelyn Waugh's
Vile Bodies about 20-year-olds caught up in a "mad and illogical whirl of extravagant parties and other pointlessly important social affairs," he saw an image that summed up everything he had seen in North America..and everything he had written into his songs. It was the image of Aladdin Sane, the "passionate bright young thing" who would learn to really live only when the cataclysm of war forced him into it. And paradoxically, it was the image that would give an album life.'

OK back to 'Aladdin Sane', the single. Let's try it this way:


Passionate bright young things,
takes him away to war -
don't fake it.
Saddening glissando strings
Uh-hu-hu-hu-hu-hu
- you'll make it.

100-best-novels-scoop-019

Who'll love Aladdin Sane?
Battle cries and champagne
just in time for sunrise
Who'll love Aladdin Sane?

aladdin2

Motor sensational,
Paris or maybe hell
- I'm waiting.
Clutches of sad remains
waits for Evelyn Sane
- you'll make it.

aladdin3

Who'll love Evelyn Sane?
Millions weep a fountain,
just in case of sunrise.

Who'll love Aladdin Sane?

We'll love Evelyn Sane.
Love Evelyn Sane.

After all that, I should point out the contrast in emphasis on this webpage from the others concerned with Vile Bodies on this site. Basically, Bowie's relationship with the book is completely different from mine. He'd just been to a lot of decadent parties in America circa 1972. He'd been right in the middle of it all, just as Adam Symes is at the centre of London's bright young party scene in 1929. And so Bowie was struck by the climax of the novel, when Adam suddenly finds himself amidst a battlefield, making everything that had happened to him up to then seem slight and unreal.

Bowie knew nothing of the circumstances in which
Vile Bodies was written, since none of the Waugh biographies had been published by 1972. The fact that She-Evelyn (effectively Nina) left He-Evelyn when he was halfway through writing the book had an enormous impact on the book's subsequent unfolding. And, as an author and a man, that's what fascinates me. Pointing out the parallels between Adam/Nina and the Evelyns is what I've put a lot of effort into.

That last chapter is not a prediction of a new world war. Rather it's a vision of cuckolded He-Evelyn Waugh's personal hell. The book ends with a Daimler, such as the one that took Adam and Nina to the hotel where they first made love, sunk up to its axles in the mud of a wasteland. While inside the Daimler Adam has to put up with a woman whose name used to be Chastity being seduced by another man.

A year or two later and Bowie's personal hell would be not altogether different. Do I mean this?

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Well, no. From his earliest days as a rock star Bowie could get sex with whoever he wanted. Rather his relationship with hard drugs got out of control. If in 1974 Bowie found himself in the back seat of a Daimler while another couple made love it was because he only had eyes for his 'valuable friend', cocaine. Actually, the only person that David Bowie would have shared the back seat of a limo with in 1974 or 75 would have been his drug dealer. And he would only have stepped out of the car when he was as high as a kite.

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So David Bowie loved
Vile Bodies because it reminded him of all the crazy parties he was going to in 1972, and interpreted it's ending to be a warning that society could be about to go down the pan again. And I love Vile Bodies because, yes, Evelyn Waugh wrote vividly about the crazy parties of 1929, but also because he managed to turn personal disaster into a stunning metaphor.

So who is right?

Evelyn's right. Because he wrote
Vile Bodies.

David's right, because he composed
Aladdin Sane.

And I'm right, because I'm posting this to the web from a stranded motor car whilst simultaneously reading a first edition of Waugh's masterpiece and listening to u-know-who blasting out from hidden speakers.

Ha! See what I did there?

'And presently, like a circling typhoon, the sounds of battle began to return.'