By any measure, David Bowie was a superstar. He first rose to fame in the nineteen-seventies, a process galvanized by his creation and assumption of the rocker-from-Mars persona Ziggy Stardust. In the following decade came Let’s Dance, on the back of which he sold out stadiums and dominated the still-new MTV. Yet through it all, and indeed up until his death in 2016, he kept at least one foot outside the mainstream. It was in the nineties, after his aesthetically cleansing stint with guitar-rock outfit Tin Machine, that Bowie made use of his stardom to explore his full spectrum of interests, which ranged from the basic to the bizarre, the mundane to the macabre.
This suggests a good deal in common between Bowie and another high-profile David of his generation: David Lynch, long one of the most famous film directors alive. “There are many obvious, surface connections and intersections between Lynch and Bowie,” write film critics Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. “Both have dabbled in film and music, as well as painting, theatre and performance art. Both are actors — Bowie slightly more conventionally so than Lynch.” Lynch would no doubt agree with Bowie’s insistence that “my interpretation of my work is really immaterial,” that “it’s the interpretation of the listener, or the viewer, which is all-important.”
These words appear in López and Martin’s analysis of Twin Peaks, the television series Lynch created in collaboration with Mark Frost, and Outside, the album Bowie created in collaboration with Brian Eno. When it premiered on ABC in the spring of 1990, Twin Peaks became a minor sensation by conjuring a familiar yet deeply strange atmosphere such as no one had never seen on television before. It also pioneered what López and Adrian Martin call “the Dead Girl/Woman genre, which traces out a labyrinthine mystery from the discovery of a young female corpse.” What brings Special Agent Dale Cooper to Twin Peaks, Washington, we recall, is the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer.
What brings Nathan Adler, a detective in the Art Crimes unit, to Oxford Town, New Jersey is the murder of the fourteen-year-old Baby Grace Blue. Thus begins the Twin Peaks-inspired storyline of Outside, Bowie’s own 1995 entry into the genre of the Dead Girl/Woman. Like Lynch and Frost’s show, Bowie’s album has a cast of eccentrics: Adler and Baby Grace, but also the likes of criminal “outsider” Leon Blank; Algeria Touchshriek, dealer in “art-drugs and DNA prints”; and a sinister figure known as both the Artist and the Minotaur. All are played by Bowie himself, who makes use of various accents (a technique practiced with his appearance in the 1992 Twin Peaks movie Fire Walk with Me) and voice-processing techniques.
At the time this 75-minute “non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle,” as Bowie labeled it, gave his listeners a lot to take in, to say nothing of the major media outlets attempting to publicize it. “This new project is all about sex, violence, and death,” says the CBC’s Laurie Brown in a typical piece of television coverage. But it also deals with the merging of those human eternals with art and popular culture, a process that fascinated Bowie more and more as the nineties progressed — as did “the re-emergence of Neo-Paganism, ritual body art, and the fragmentation of society,” as he puts it in Outside‘s official making-of video.
Bowie and Eno intended Outside (officially 1. Outside) as the first in a series that would ultimately constitute “a diary in music and in texture of what it felt like to be around at the end of the Millennium.” In one press conference, Bowie hinted that “the narrative might fall by the wayside,” much as Lynch and Frost originally intended to leave Laura Palmer’s death unsolved. That the second volume never appeared only underscores the tantalizing incompleteness of Outside, which López and Martin highlight as another similarity to Twin Peaks: “Both works are serial and multiple, existing in various official and unofficial forms, in spin-offs, outtakes” — not least the never-properly-released “Leon suites” Bowie and Eno recorded before the album itself — “and in numerous fan commentaries.”
A kind of circle closed in 1997 when Outside‘s “I’m Deranged” soundtracked the opening credits of Lynch’s Lost Highway. But the work continued to hold out possibilities until the end of Bowie’s life: “We both liked that album a lot and felt that it had fallen through the cracks,” Eno said. “We talked about revisiting it, taking it somewhere new.” Despite his Lynchian resistance to interpretation, Bowie did acknowledge even in 1995 the thematic importance of mortality itself. Outside‘s first single was called “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” and “the filthy lesson in question is the fact that life is finite.” For him, “knowing that I’ve got a finite time in life on Earth actually clarifies things and makes me feel quite buoyant.” Bowie knew — or learned — that life is too short not to follow your fascinations to their limits.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.