"Sincerely, your favorite fan", 1980s, actors, movies, music

David Bowie and The Elephant Man


In Chicago,1980, I saw David Bowie on stage as John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Without using prosthetic or make up, he contorted his torso and twisted his arm to imitate the Victorian freak show attraction. In Merrick, the head covered with fungal abnormalities held the bountiful dreams of the inner man. During the performance, I was in the third row pinching myself, because a short distance away from was the pop-icon. I held my breath; I was part of an audience that was silent, listening to words instead of the music. My admiration for Bowie as an actor superseded my appreciation for him as a musician. After multiple albums including The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Heroes, and Let’s Dance, I enjoyed seeing Bowie in a different light. As an actor, I was impressed.

Discovered in a freak show, John Merrick was rescued by a doctor who transferred the side-show attraction from the dark alleys of the Whitechapel District in London to the chandelier-parlors of the elite. John Merrick was a physical abomination. In the telling of the story, he shared an emotional connection with Mrs. Kendal, a famous actress and their link was obvious. Their personae was the only dimension anyone cared to see. I can see why David Bowie wanted to play this role. I have wondered about icons in general. They are larger than life and defined by their exteriors. What about the vulnerable, human inside? That love-hate relationship with the paparazzi? Did their dreams of fame become a curse?


Do you like David Lynch’s 1980 film?

In the notorious Whitechapel district in London, John (Joseph) Merrick appeared briefly in the Jack the Ripper story which starred Johnny Depp in From Hell (2001). 

How did Merrick inherit the name The Elephant Man? In Victorian days, “maternal impression” was a belief that the mother’s emotional/psychological perceptions transferred to the child. Supposedly, an elephant startled Merrick’s mother at a circus while she carried him. By the age of five, his skin and bone abnormalities presented themselves. The weight of his malformed head caused Merrick’s death. It’s a sad story.

David Bowie’s performance has stayed with me over the decades later. While Mark Hamill and Bradley Cooper have played The Elephant Man on stage, and I don’t know how well they did, I find it hard to imagine them outdoing Bowie’s performance. He understood the duplicity of appearance and reality. The facade of the freak show marvel vs. the private, gentle man who dreamed and possessed ideas like the rest of us.

35 thoughts on “David Bowie and The Elephant Man”

  1. I was enthralled by the film, especially with the performance by John Hurt. I thought some scenes were almost unbearable, like his delight when visiting the theatre. The book it is based on is very good as well.
    Best wishes, Pete.


  2. What a treat – I’d have loved to have seen him up close like that, and in such an interesting role. Quite fitting for a pop star whose whole career revolved around transformation, too.
    I only caught him once, at the Glastonbury Festival in 2000, and it’s one of the best live performances I’ve seen. It has come as such a shock, but great that there are more than 45 years of Bowie archives to enjoy.


  3. I didn’t pick up Bowie until Hunky Dory. It was a good – and unusual album. This guy was intelligent. He did things that defied logic and went against the grain – and succeeded – such as continuously changing his persona – which is usually suicidal in the entertainment business. In that sense he was like Dylan. He was an artist and refused to get pigeon holed. Some of antics put me off though – I couldn’t relate – and I couldn’t tell whether it was shtick or reality. Maybe that was his intent. He really did know how to manipulate the public – it seemed easy for him. In all this he still did some good work. And music. I can’t put him up there on a pedestal like many people are doing – and I think he’d laugh and poop on that too. But he was an original. I liked him.


    1. J.C. Your thoughts are similar to my own. I sure admired him, but I didn’t worship him. I liked how diverse he was and I appreciate his ability to reinvent himself. He was a unique individual and that uniqueness is what has earned my respect–it’s not necessary if I bought into every phase of his life. Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙂


  4. Very sad to hear about Mr Bowie’s passing. I listened to a tribute on him on NPR and was moved to tears. WOW you saw David Bowie on stage for the Elephant Man? Very cool! He’s one of those genius artist who were good in music and acting, a rare combination, plus he’s such a classy guy. I’ve been reading about his long marriage to Iman and it’s quite inspiring as well.


  5. Cindy,You are so luckyto have seen this performance. Do you know if it is available on DVD? I have always liked Bowie’s movies more than his records. Thomas Newton moved me way more than Ziggy Stardust. I finally got to see him in concert in 2004 and was sufficiently wowed. And is last record is pretty good, the video being exceptional, perhaps the best, performance of his life. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-JqH1M4Ya8. An anecdote: After a poetry reading in 1972, someone from the audience asked me if i had ever set my poems to music. i answered that i had, and he invited me to his recording studio to record them. He wasnt impressed with my musical work,. saying that my reading made him think I would have sounded more like David Bowie. And to this day, I think I would have been more successful in my musical career had I listened to more Bowie and less Dylan


    1. That’s a cool story. I don’t know a whole version, just this brief excerpt from a NY showing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHSQpdC_Y6E
      LOVE, LOVE the Lazarus video. I saw “The Stars Are Out” and was attracted to Tilda Swinton and David looking so much alike. An 80s vibe and video

      I remember your voice in the videos you have posted and I can hear how you sound like him–maybe you are right about missing out. I do know I enjoyed Bowie’s graceful reinventions . What a run he had!


      1. thanks for the links. i am going to check them out now. here is a partial recording of a song i wrote 7 years ago about the transfer of power from bush to obama…i was consciously emulating bowie in this one. https://myspace.com/billwhitemusic/music/song/flirting-birds-39022588-41313622
        by the way,a good frined of mine wrote one of the songs on the ziggy stardust album. i have no idea why bowie recorded and included it because it does not fit with the rest of the album. it is called “it aint easy” and was a big hit for 3 dog night”


  6. Back in the zingy pop era , he was walking around the down town mall where I was working at he time, I must have been all of 21. He and His entourage walked pass me, I was star struck, couldn’t even move.


  7. Hi Cindy! It’s been a while! I hope you have time to check out my special Bowie post. Fun story re my brush with Bowie and 2 hilarious videos. Let me know what you think:


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