Shuffle glibly through David Bowie’s commercial highlights – ‘Heroes’, Changes, Let’s Dance etc – and you won’t come away with the image of a songwriter whose principal thematic ingredients include crippling paranoia, isolation, totalitarianism, dystopia, Nietzchian supermen, the occult, various shades of emotional anguish and madness. In Bowie’s darker work, the last one has proved to be a particular preoccupation. As a boy, the young David was close to his half-brother Terry Burns, a charismatic jazz-buff who introduced Bowie to the scratchy improvisations of Ornette Coleman and was influential in shaping his brother’s later avant-garde proclivities. Terry was also schizophrenic.
Close proximity to his brother’s experiences of mental illness left Bowie with a long-standing fear of insanity – that somehow he himself would be genetically predisposed to the conditions suffered by his half-sibling. Terry spent much of his life in institutions, and attempted suicide several times before finally throwing himself in front of a train in 1985. Bowie was so upset that he couldn’t bring himself to attend the funeral.
‘All The Madmen’ from 1971’s The Man Who Sold The World was Bowie’s expression of solidary with his brother, and the all the other marginalised outsiders confined to ‘mansions cold and grey’ – the notoriously grim Cane Hill asylum, Coulsdon in Terry’s case. It’s also a defiant statement of Bowie’s own perpetual outsiderdom: that he’d ‘rather play here/With all the mad men/For I’m quite content/They’re all as sane as me’.