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Sunday, December 3, 2023

The book that inspired David Bowie’s ‘The Thin White Duke’

David Bowie was a man of many faces. Throughout his career, the artist took on several different forms, giving new sounds a whole new identity. There was the glam-rock of Ziggy Stardust, the alien-like Aladdin Sane, or even the invention of Halloween Jack for the 1974 record Diamond Dogs. During that same decade, Bowie took inspiration from the literary world for an entirely new character: The Thin White Duke.

As Bowie embarked on his Young Americans tour, his character began to change. The glam-rock get-up of his previous releases was starting to slip away as he ventured towards something much more suave. The Thin White Duke entered the scene.

The glitter and leotards were ditched in favour of suit trousers and waistcoats. His wardrobe came back down to earth, dressing him up as a gentleman more than a star man. He borrowed from the traditional cabaret-look, with formal attire cut to exaggerated or oversized shapes for a strange silhouette.

It didn’t stop at just the clothes, though. By the mid-1970s, Bowie’s TV appearances also seemed to be led by his Thin White Duke character. His interviews quickly became controversial as the Duke appeared to offer pro-fascist sentiments, leading fans to speculate whether or not Bowie himself believed the things he was saying. The musician put this to bed quickly, though, claiming the comments were purely “theatrical”. To him, The Thin White Duke was a character that was “a very Aryan, fascist type; a would-be romantic with absolutely no emotion at all but who spouted a lot of neo-romance”.

Later, Bowie would come to reflect on his Thin White Duke era as the “darkest days” of his life due to his “astronomical” drug use. Describing the character as “nasty” or “an ogre”, Bowie explained: “It was a dangerous period for me. I was at the end of my tether physically and emotionally and had serious doubts about my sanity”.

It makes sense, then, that the origin of The Thin White Duke came from one of literature’s most famous drug users. In 1973, David Bowie met William S. Burroughs, the famous 1960s beat writer best known for his highly experimental and highly intoxicated writing.

Bowie was heavily inspired by Burroughs and his ‘cut-up’ method of using unconscious creative processes. Burroughs’ novel, Naked Lunch, is the clearest example of this as he uses mish-mash, largely unrelated passages to tell a kind of story. He also refers to semen as a “thin white rope”, which people believe is where Bowie may have gotten the character’s name from.

Passing influence from one infamous drug user to another, you could say that the Thin White Duke was a beat poet too.

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