Amazon Ziggy, Aladdin, Halloween Jack, the Man Who Fell to Earth, the Thin White Duke, Major Tom, the Goblin King, The Dame, the Mid-Life Crisis Soul Patch, and all the rest, there was the Mask. In 1969, when David Bowie was just another struggling London songwriter desperate for a break, he shot a promotional film to showcase his particularly dramatic brand of performance. Along with a handful of songs-- including an early version of "Space Oddity" in which a tinfoil-helmeted Bowie is seduced by a couple of space sirens-- the reel included an original mime piece called "The Mask". It shows Bowie, looking like the least intimidating pirate of all-time in tight white tights, a frilly top, and a pageboy wig, stealing an invisible mask and proceeding to charm his family, co-workers, and eventually entire concert halls by simply placing it on his face. "Autographs, films, television-- the lot!" he says, in voiceover, describing the opportunities afforded by his mysterious new facade. "Had a very strange effect on me, though." The mime ends with the white-faced "star" giving his biggest performance yet-- and then he can't get the mask off. It strangles him. "The papers made a big thing out of it," he continues, "funny though, they didn't mention anything about a mask." Even before David Bowie gained a smidge of notoriety, he was well aware of its pitfalls-- and his own susceptibility to the lure of disguise.
To put it mildly, this self-aware attraction to reinvention has served him well. In the 1970s, he rifled through looks, genres, and band members without hesitation, from space-age glam, to cocaine funk, to harrowing ambience, to name a few. In more modern terms, consider Radiohead's whiplash transformation between OK Computer and Kid A... and then consider how Bowie pulled off equally radical shifts at least five times between 1970 and 1980 alone. This malleability astounds because it runs so counter to the way most of us think and behave. It's non-conformist, uncomfortable, and irrational, without any of the detrimental consequences that are supposed to come along with such rule-breaking. Granted, a stupendous coke habit nearly killed him and he wasn't able to be a present father to his young son during that time, but even those disappointments led to the despondency that fueled his oblique Berlin trilogy. While many artists claim to despise the status quo, only a few have discarded previous successes with the abandon of Bowie, especially during that flawless decade-long stretch. "Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming," read the tagline in an ad for 1977's "Heroes". It was anything but hyperbole. Back then, Bowie may have had many masks, but he knew exactly how long to wear each one.