In 1971, around the time David Bowie was nurturing his space-cadet beatnik persona for the career-overhauling Hunky Dory album, a bored New York psychologist called Luke Rhinehart was exploring the notion of divided personality, that "there are as many selves as groups to which we belong", in his best-selling novel, The Dice Man. Despite what society tells us, we don't just have one personality, but several, claimed Rhinehart, before proceeding to surrender his free will to the roll of the dice in an effort to test his theory. "OK," you might have thought, if you were an astute second-division singer-songwriter reading The Dice Man at the time, "that's a bit daring to try out in real life, but if I just twisted it around a bit and applied it to a pop career. . ."
I can't find any firm evidence that Bowie read The Dice Man in 1971, but he and Rhinehart are the two most potent indicators of the sea change where the hippie generation stops posing as some fraudulent all-sharing mass and begins applying its progressive ideas to its own ego. Not "How can I use my fame and status to spread goodwill and harmony among the people?" but "How can I escape from myself and simultaneously revel in my own aura and become rich?" This is where the "me" generation begins in earnest and the chasm between audience and star widens - except the me is not me at all, because it's more of a hedonistic thrill to pretend.
If you'd been David Bowie in 1967, a half-arsed slip of a mod with a ghastly Anthony Newley vocal style, you probably wouldn't have wanted to be yourself either. Bowie, over the years, has been clever enough to rub an atrocious debut LP (released on the same day as Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) out of the pop history books. You won't find David Bowie by David Bowie in EMI's latest Bowie reissue campaign, or EMI's previous reissue campaign, because David Bowie doesn't want it reissued, and you don't see it in career overviews provided by rock guidebooks. How many artists have the power to erase their own waste from musical history?
For all the star-sailing vibes of Space Oddity's Memory of a Free Festival and the gender-bending sleeve photo of The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust are the true birth of renaissance Bowie, the first time he sounds dizzied by his own roleplay. He'll never quite replicate the giddy starburst of Dory's Changes - "So I turned myself to face me, but I never caught a glimpse" - because it's impossible to be struck twice with the initial, amazing realisation that, on a stage, in front of a mike, you can be exactly who you want to be.
Bowie was finding out that it's not so much being real that counts as pretending to believe that what you are at any given moment is real. The style is the man. Ziggy Stardust proved Bowie was a shrewd manipulator of youth trends, but when he hijacked a bandwagon he strived to be assessed outside it. Over-familiarity and over-reverence doesn't dull Ziggy's sparkle - it's still the album next to which all glam must be judged.
I listened to Hunky Dory and Ziggy Star- dust about a hundred times between the ages of four and five, from a battered Boots cassette, before setting eyes on their creator - a gentle, batty man in the sky, I'd imagined, who sang songs for kids. "How does David Bowie send his records down to Earth?" I asked my mum ingenuously, even though I'd long stopped believing in aliens. Bowie's quilted suits, platform shoes and mascara were nice extra touches, but his music was high-flown and preposterous enough to evoke the glam alien image on its own.
Bowie had the imagination of an arty five-year-old, the vision and self-belief of an entrepreneur, the courage of an Arctic explorer and the work rate of a rampant yuppie. Each project represented a fresh start, and even if he was a hard, cool, calculating chameleon by the time Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke were born, every new album was stamped with the sensation of borrowing someone else's life. Other musicians get one chance to "find themselves" on a groundbreaking debut album; Bowie got nine, from 1972's Hunky Dory to 1979's Lodger (1973's nostalgic curio, Pin-Ups, is discounted). He never had "difficult second album" syndrome until 1980's Scary Monsters, from which point on Major Tom seemed to be blandly fulfilling a professional duty. , even when he was changing.
Sifting through the 1970s Bowie catalogue, what's remarkable is how captivating the errors and imperfections are, the glints of far-sighted genius in the moments which were at the time perceived as deliberate attempts to alienate the public. 1976's Station to Station has been written off as imitation disco, but in fact picks up on the vibe of the late-1970s American dance floor early on, and compresses it into a whiter-than-white futuristic robo-genre all Bowie's own. "I'm so eclectic that vulnerability is involved. I thrive on mistakes," Bowie said in 1978. "If I haven't made three good mistakes in a week, then I'm not worth anything." It might sound hackneyed, but it's probably one of the most intelligent things a pop star has ever said.
The difference between Bowie's mistakes in the 1970s and his embarrassments in the 1980s and 1990s is that the former always seemed like a journey past the pretentious en route to the rhapsodical, and the latter often seem like aimless, restless, tokenistic flirting with fads. But the precise fact that Bowie is (or once was) the sort of artist who realises that you have to leave yourself open to disaster in order to push forward means that genius might always just be an inspired, risky makeover away. It hasn't happened with the oversugared hours. . ., but it could have done.
When Bowie makes a gaping leap to drum'n'bass from 1980s stadium rock or from drum'n'bass back to middle-aged ballads it's so much less dramatic and intrepid than the subtle musical shift from Ziggy Star- dust to Aladdin Sane, where Bowie, like Rhinehart, seemed to be investigating the idea that the human character is manifold: the kind of difficult concept that could still be explored at a time, unlike today, when the charts weren't monopolised by patronising artists terrified of not being understood. Taking advantage of an audience which wasn't yet too cynical to pretend along with him, Bowie succeeded on two levels: as a manic pop thrill and a conceptualist you could spend hours of fun attempting to decipher.
He moved too quickly for even the sharpest musical mind. He was a fake, perhaps, but not quite as fake as the musician who jadedly plays out a passionless role designed by someone else or follows the beaten-back path for fear of being tomorrow's hasbeen. You're not the same person you were last year, or even yesterday, Bowie pointed out, so why do you have to act like him? What's the point of an ego, if you can't make love with it? You've felt a little alienated from your fellow humans four or five times today, so why can't you be a little alien?