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Bowie waving (or saluting?)
Diamond Dogs set design
A painting by George Grosz
A painting by George Grosz
The Thin White Duke, who Bowie described as “ A very Aryan, fascist type; a would-be romantic with absolutely no emotion at all but who spouted a lot of neo-romance.”

#18 Worst Decision in Rock History?

Rolling Stone has become as much an online publication as a physical magazine, if not more, and like many such publications, it likes its lists. A recent one listed the 50 worst decisions in rock history. Most lists that have anything to do with rock music includes something about David Bowie, and this was no exception. Coming it at # 18 was what the magazine called, “David Bowie sort of suggests he’s cool with Nazis, 1975.” It was around this time that Bowie was at his low point in life, said some things that were admiring of fascism, modeled his Thin White Duke character after something out of a Leni Riefenstahl movie and, oh yes, was photographed apparently giving a Nazi salute. Bowie emphatically, for the rest of his life denied the part about the salute, claiming that the photo was simply of him giving a wave. On the other hand, “China Girl” included the line, “I stumble into town, just like a sacred cow, visions of swastikas in my head, plans for everyone…” (and then later lines about a blue-eyed man who wants to rule the world…)

I kind of think Bowie, not in a right state of mind, was thinking about how Hitler presented himself and about Nazi imagery. The set of the recently concluded Diamond Dogs tour was inspired in part by a German artist who characterized Berlin in the 1920s named George Grosz. While Grosz was not a Nazi at all, and in fact fled Germany in 1933, his imagery evoked Germany at the time right before the Nazis came into ascendency. The 1974 album, Diamond Dogs, was partially based on 1984 which was about totalitarianism, if not actually fascism (of course, Bowie introduces the album by announcing, “this ain’t rock and roll, this is genocide”). Bowie toyed with a similar theme with the song, “Somebody Up there Likes Me” on his 1975 album, Young Americans, which Bowie described as being about a Hitler-like political figure (Nicholas Pegg points out the the lyrics “could just as well describe any celebrity”). And it wouldn’t be too long before Bowie absconded to Berlin.

So all this was swirling around— early 20th Century German design, demagogue as rock star and vice versa, fans as followers, even black and white as a motif. None of this excuses saying anything that can even be interpreted as admiring about Hitler and Nazis, but the older, wiser, sober Bowie repeatedly demonstrated an aversion to racism and just about everything else Nazis were for. So, I’d agree with Rolling Stone’s assessment, that this episode was an embarrassing mistake.

Here’s the text from Rolling Stone:

Cocaine is one hell of a drug. The white powder is responsible for a great many bad decisions in rock history, and led to epic disasters like the 1997 Oasis LP, Be Here Now, and much of Elton John’s Eighties output. David Bowie somehow thrived on the drug, and it fueled his 1976 masterpiece Station to Station. But it took a tremendous toll on his mental health, since he was staying awake for days on end. His unique sleep schedule may have been one reason he offered up this notorious gem to a Playboy interviewer in 1976. “I believe very strongly in fascism,” he said. “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.” Right around this time, he was also photographed giving what appeared to be a Nazi salute at London’s Victoria Station. Bowie has denied this, of course, and it does seem like Salutegate was simply an unfortunately-timed photograph of a wave to fans, but it added up to some very toxic press. Here are some lessons: Don’t do cocaine, don’t publicly pontificate about the glories of fascism, and don’t wave to fans in a way that looks anything like a “Heil Hitler” salute. It’s just never a good look.

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