David Bowie’s First American Fan Letter And His Evolving Views of the U.S. (1967–1997)

David Bowie’s rela­tion­ship with Amer­i­ca has typ­i­fied the outsider’s view: an ambiva­lence rang­ing from fas­ci­na­tion to fear that he expressed in a reply to his first let­ter from a U.S. fan in 1967 (click to read in large for­mat). The fan, intre­pid 14-year-old San­dra Dodd, had got­ten her hands on an advance copy of Bowie’s first album and writ­ten him to praise his work and offer to start a fan club for him state­side. Bowie’s response is very inter­est­ing. We’ve writ­ten before about his rise from obscure R&B and folk singer to Zig­gy Star­dust, which required him to shake off a nat­ur­al shy­ness to inhab­it his break­out per­sona. In the let­ter, the 20-year-old Bowie ini­tial­ly comes off as a naïve, slight­ly self-involved young pop singer. Then, after answer­ing the usu­al fan queries—what’s his real name, birth­day, height—he turns to the sub­ject of the U.S., a coun­try he had yet to vis­it. Bowie writes:

I hope one day to get to Amer­i­ca. My man­ag­er tells me lots about it as he has been there many times with oth­er acts he man­ages. I was watch­ing an old film on TV the oth­er night called “No Down Pay­ment” a great film, but rather depress­ing if it is a true reflec­tion of The Amer­i­can Way Of Life. How­ev­er, short­ly after that they showed a doc­u­men­tary about Robert Frost the Amer­i­can poet, filmed main­ly at his home in Ver­mont, and that evened the score. I am sure that that is near­er the real Amer­i­ca.

Draw­ing his impres­sions from movies, Bowie ref­er­ences two views. The first, Mar­tin Ritt’s 1957 No Down Pay­ment, is full of the banal­i­ty and melo­dra­ma we’ve come to expect from Mad Men, mak­ing inci­sive cri­tiques of mid-50s cul­tur­al prob­lems sim­mer­ing under the sur­face of the sub­urbs like alco­holism, racism, and infi­deli­ty. As one fan writes, the film depict­ed what “no one want­ed to see… a soiled Amer­i­can Dream,” or what Bowie cap­i­tal­izes as “The Amer­i­can Way Of Life.”

The oth­er view Bowie takes of the States comes from a film on Robert Frost—most like­ly 1963’s Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quar­rel With the World. Lit­tle won­der this film “evened the score” for the lyri­cal young song­writer, who choos­es in his let­ter to believe it rep­re­sents the “real Amer­i­ca,” a sen­ti­ment he would not hold for long.

Flash for­ward to 1984, and Bowie is an inter­na­tion­al pop star. Most fans would argue his best work was far behind him, but the 80s saw him break out into more main­stream film roles in The Ele­phant Man and Labyrinth that kept him at the fore­front of Amer­i­can pop cul­ture. His sound­track work was mem­o­rable as well, although the track below “This is Not Amer­i­ca,” writ­ten with Pat Methe­ny for The Fal­con and the Snow­man doesn’t get much atten­tion these days. Bowie’s impres­sion­is­tic lyrics–which Methe­ny called “pro­found and meaningful”–show him in mourn­ing for the coun­try that puz­zled his younger self:

A lit­tle piece of you
The lit­tle peace in me
Will die
For this is not Amer­i­ca

Blos­som fails to bloom
This sea­son
Promise not to stare
Too long
For this is not a mir­a­cle

And again, move for­ward to 1997, thir­ty years after Bowie’s let­ter above, and we find him in a jaun­diced mood in “I’m Afraid of Amer­i­cans” from his album Earth­ling (the song orig­i­nal­ly appeared on what may be one of the most cyn­i­cal films ever made, Show­girls). Bowie explained the gen­e­sis of the song in a press release:

I’m Afraid of Amer­i­cans’ was writ­ten by myself and Eno. It’s not as tru­ly hos­tile about Amer­i­cans as say “Born in the USA”: it’s mere­ly sar­don­ic. I was trav­el­ing in Java when the first McDon­alds went up: it was like, “for fuck­’s sake.” The inva­sion by any homog­e­nized cul­ture is so depress­ing, the erec­tion of anoth­er Dis­ney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so. It stran­gles the indige­nous cul­ture and nar­rows expres­sion of life.

The cul­tur­al homog­e­niza­tion that so depressed the young Bowie in No Down Pay­ment is now a glob­al phe­nom­e­non, and the well-trav­eled, world­ly Bowie seems to har­bor few illu­sions when he sings:

John­ny’s in Amer­i­ca
No tricks at the wheel
No one needs any­one
They don’t even just pre­tend

In the award-win­ning video, Trent Reznor plays a Travis Bick­le-like fig­ure, a men­ac­ing crea­ture of alien­ation and unpro­voked, ran­dom vio­lence and Bowie a para­noid out­sider run­ning from what he per­ceives as cit­i­zens attack­ing each oth­er on every street­corner. Stripped of the 50s veneer, it’s a coun­try where peo­ple “don’t even pre­tend”; the vio­lence and mis­an­thropy are now on full dis­play. It’s a view of Amer­i­ca that hasn’t dimmed since the mid-nineties. It’s sim­ply moved out of the city and spilled out into the once self-con­tained sub­urbs. These three arti­facts show Bowie’s evo­lu­tion in rela­tion to a coun­try that he hoped to find the best in, that near­ly always embraced him, and that came to freak him out and piss him off in lat­er years.

via Let­ters of Note

Josh Jones is a writer and schol­ar cur­rent­ly com­plet­ing a dis­ser­ta­tion on land­scape, lit­er­a­ture, and labor.

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