David Bowie Offers Advice for Aspiring Artists: “Go a Little Out of Your Depth,” “Never Fulfill Other People’s Expectations”

Jan­u­ary 10th, 2017–David Bowie died one year ago today. Revis­it­ing my own mem­o­ries of him, it so often seemed impos­si­ble that he could grow old, much less pass away, even as we all watched him age over the decades. He did it much bet­ter than most, that’s for sure, and grew into the role of elder states­man with incred­i­ble poise and grace, though he also didn’t let that role be his last one.

What else should we have expect­ed from the artist who wrote “Changes”—the defin­i­tive cre­ative state­ment on fac­ing time and mortality—at the age of 24, before he’d even achieved the inter­na­tion­al super­star­dom that Zig­gy Star­dust brought him? Bowie was always an old soul. “It’s not age itself,” he told the BBC in 2002. “Age doesn’t both­er me. So many of my heroes were old­er guys.… I embrace that aspect of it.” And so, in his lat­er years, he became an old­er guy hero to mil­lions.

In 1997, after his drum and bass-inspired Earth­ling, Bowie gave an inter­view in which he offered the time­less wis­dom to younger artists in the clip above:

Nev­er play to the gallery.… Nev­er work for oth­er peo­ple in what you do. Always remem­ber that the rea­son that you ini­tial­ly start­ed work­ing was that there was some­thing inside your­self that you felt that if you could man­i­fest in some way, you would under­stand more about your­self and how you co-exist with the rest of soci­ety.… I think it’s ter­ri­bly dan­ger­ous for an artist to ful­fill oth­er people’s expec­ta­tions.

It’s advice we’ve like­ly heard some ver­sion of before—perhaps even from one of Bowie’s own old­er-guy heroes, William S. Bur­roughs (here by way of Pat­ti Smith). But I’ve nev­er heard it stat­ed so suc­cinct­ly and with so much con­vic­tion and feel­ing. We nat­u­ral­ly asso­ciate David Bowie with art­ful inau­then­tic­i­ty, with a suc­ces­sion of masks. He encour­aged that impres­sion at every turn, even telling a grad­u­at­ing Berklee Col­lege of Music class in 1999, “it seemed that authen­tic­i­ty and the nat­ur­al form of expres­sion wasn’t going to be my forte.”

But in hind­sight, and espe­cial­ly in the rapt, posthu­mous atten­tion paid to Bowie’s final work, Black­star, it can seem that his embrace of pos­es was often itself a pose. Bowie has always been can­did, in var­i­ous moments of self-reflec­tion, about his mis­steps and excess­es. But not to have tak­en the risks he did, not to have placed him­self in uncom­fort­able sit­u­a­tions, would have meant impov­er­ish­ing his work. “The oth­er thing I would say,” he goes on, “is that if you feel safe in the area you’re work­ing in, you’re not work­ing in the right area. Always go a lit­tle fur­ther into the water than you feel you are capa­ble of being in. Go a lit­tle bit out of your depth. When you don’t feel that your feet are quite touch­ing the bot­tom, you’re just about in the right place to do some­thing excit­ing.”

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Bowie Gives Grad­u­a­tion Speech At Berklee Col­lege of Music: “Music Has Been My Door­way of Per­cep­tion” (1999)

The Sto­ry of Zig­gy Star­dust: How David Bowie Cre­at­ed the Char­ac­ter that Made Him Famous

Pat­ti Smith Shares William S. Bur­roughs’ Advice for Writ­ers and Artists

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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