gender play

I spent a year as David Bowie – and had some very strange days

It was July 2015, and I was in an airport hotel with hair the colour and cut of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, circa 1976.

I woke up in Los Angeles. That was fine, except I was meant to be 8,000 miles away. I was supposed to be in Melbourne.

I was supposed to be in Melbourne to give the opening talk at the international David Bowie conference, in about 24 hours. The flight time from LA to Melbourne is 14 hours. I didn’t have a flight booked. I didn’t have any luggage.

It was July 2015, and I was in an airport hotel with hair the colour and cut of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, circa 1976. I had nothing else except the clothes I was wearing – a suit from 1973 – and a small black carry-on bag.

It had all gone wrong the day before, on a flight from San Diego to LA. The flight was meant to be a short hop, taking an hour. But it took three hours, and so my connection left without me, and my luggage was lost.

Image Credits: Will Brooker
Image Credits: Will Brooker

Technically, it had gone wrong. But in a way, it was all going perfectly. I embraced the sense of lostness, of being dislocated out of time and space: the wandering around LAX airport, the glossy anonymity of the airport hotel. I rode the shuttle buses in loops around the 1961, space-age architecture of the Theme Building, the airport’s Futureland-style flying saucer.

Staring out of another window at planes taking off and landing, I noticed that a wall was stencilled with the message “GROUND CONTROL”. It was literally a sign. I took it as a good sign. I was doing it right.

I was one month into an immersive research project, which would ultimately lead to a book. It had started as an attempt to enter into the experiences of David Bowie – to surround myself with the culture he had engaged with, to gain some understanding of his thought processes, and how they shaped his art.

I was listening to nothing but music from the early to mid-1970s, reading the novels of Evelyn Waugh in paperback, and wearing only vintage clothes. The 24 hours in LA gave me an opportunity to consume nothing but coffee. I walked down long, empty corridors, seeing where my sleepless, caffeinated thoughts fell. I sat down and recorded them as fragmented snatches, on scraps of paper tucked into the back of Vile Bodies.

Play

Bowie, after all, had written Jean Genie on a Greyhound bus, the rhythm of its wheels between Cleveland, Memphis and Manhattan driving the blues riff. Drive-In Saturday was inspired by a glimpse of silver domes from a train at 2am, somewhere between Seattle and Phoenix.

Bowie’s songs of the period span America’s states and states of mind, from the “New York’s a go-go” of Jean Genie through Panic in Detroit to the Hollywood highs of Watch that Man. His LPs of the time are travel albums, snapshots of a man stranded and allowing himself to go a little insane: a man abandoning his previous, English self in the new world, a man watching through windows. His own LA period was a spiral into paranoia and hallucination, fuelled by stimulants and insomnia. I let myself explore how it felt to be lost in Los Angeles, if only for a short while.

Next morning, I woke up on a plane. I say “morning” but I’d long since lost track of time and its zones. The plane landed in Melbourne. An academic drove me into town, to my hotel. “Get changed,” he said, “and I’ll be waiting outside”. He wanted to drive me straight to the university, to give my first lecture.

I washed my face, unpacked a cream linen suit. I drank a few cups of coffee. Half an hour later – 90 minutes after landing – I stood in front of a hundred strangers and strung sentences together. They clapped at the end.

He drove me back to the hotel. “I’ll pick you up at five,” he said. “You’ll want to sleep.”

I thought I wanted to sleep, but it turned out that I couldn’t. My body clock was too screwed up. So I sat on the bed. It wasn’t a glamorous hotel. It wasn’t glamorous at all. It had white walls, a kettle, metal clothes hangers on a rail. After a few hours, I stood up and began to get ready. I unpacked my red wig, my blue suit, my turquoise eyeshadow, my orange blusher. The bathroom was little more than a closet.

When I was finished, I went out to the hotel reception to wait for my new friend, the academic. I was now in full regalia, a tribute to the Life On Mars video of 1971. The guy behind the counter looked at me. “I’m going to a David Bowie thing,” I explained.

“Fair play, mate,” he nodded.

Play

The academic drove me to the opening of the David Bowie Is exhibition, in downtown Melbourne. It was evening now. I realised it also was winter now; it had been summer the day before. I switched from coffee to champagne. People immediately came up to me asking for photographs. I obliged, of course.

A strange thing happens at moments like this. They know you’re not David Bowie, but they want to pretend you are, and they want you to pretend you are. They want you to be an avatar. So you find yourself doing the poses, the pouts. You find yourself preening and standing in an angular fashion, and performing in an airy manner, with an exaggerated version of your own London accent and a pronounced laugh, like he did. The same way he adopted the style and delivery of Anthony Newley: strutting like a peacock, declaiming like a grown-up urchin from Oliver! or an early-70s incarnation of Oscar Wilde.

They know you’re not Bowie, but you’re the nearest substitute at the time. And you act it, until you almost believe it. After a few more glasses of champagne, it becomes easier for everyone to believe it.

Later, I woke up and didn’t know where I was. I searched for my phone – I was cheating, still using a smartphone – and found it somewhere in the white cell of my hotel room. It was still July, and I was still in Melbourne. In an hour, I was due to give two radio interviews. I drank a few cups of coffee. My blue eyeshadow was a strong pigment: it had lasted overnight. I didn’t need to reapply it. I successfully strung together sentences, somehow.

I gave another lecture, this time in mid-70s Bowie drag. It was a big lecture to a big audience, in a big theatre. Afterwards, lots of people knew who I was, though I didn’t know them.

When I tried to get away from the crowd, to have a coffee on my own, people would come and sit with me, starting conversations – or just carrying on conversations, as if they’d been talking to me beforehand in their heads. I don’t know if they expected me to know who they were. These strange things happen; these strange dynamics of almost-fame, borrowed celebrity. I didn’t get any peace or privacy. Maybe I asked for that. I didn’t get much sleep. After a while, I stopped trying.

After five days, I caught another flight. It took me via Dubai where, once again, nobody knew me at all – it was a relief.

I woke up. It was still July. It was summer again. I was in London. It was 2015. It was 1975, in my ongoing year of David Bowie. Planning ahead, I booked my tickets for Berlin.

Will Brooker’s year of immersive research into David Bowie resulted in the book Forever Stardust, published on January 8 by IB Tauris, and the documentary Being Bowie, published in NECSUS.

Will Brooker is the Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.