On the morning of 1/11 I was all geared up to plan my year, getting ready to launch my Nikola Tesla coloring book store the next day. Paul walked in looking serious and said ‘I’m so sorry about the Bowie news, I just found out this morning’ (He is usually the first to know when someone famous passes, he is subscribed to something called celebrity death beeper) I stared at him blankly, then it hit me like a freight truck- Bowie was dead, just two days after his 69th birthday!
I had no idea he was sick with cancer, and neither did anyone else. After a gut wrenching hour of personal grieving and soul searching I wrote to all my social media:
“This is a special message in honor of the passing of another creative genius in this world, David Bowie. David passed away Jan.10th, 2 days after his 69th birthday, and 3 days after the anniversary of Nikola’s death. The power of his art in music, performance changed the world forever. Like Tesla, Bowie was an iconoclast who broke all the molds of what was thought to be acceptable or possible. They were REBELS in their time, pushing the limits of human ability and consciousness. Bowie had a strong connection to Tesla, and played him in the film fiction film The Prestige. They have both been role models to me!! Bowie we celebrate you, so grateful for your magic and honoring of Tesla too!”
Indeed many people making the Bowie ~ Tesla connection, posting links on my timeline about The Prestige. When Christopher Nolan was casting for the part of Tesla, there was never any question it had to be David who played him. He flew half way round the globe to personally ask the eccentric Bowie to play the part, and it paid off. Oddly Tesla’s 73rd death anniversary happened a just few days before on the 7th, the day before David’s birthday. It had activated me to redouble my efforts to share my coloring book & bring his name into the light. Emotions roiled through me and
I wondered, “if this feels this intense so many years later, I wonder how it would have felt to lose him back then?” Now I know.
It’s true- Tesla and Bowie were both ahead of their time- electrifying, death defying men, pushing the definition of possible to the extreme, and changing the world with their great gifts! Both Bowie and Tesla left us a legacy of electric character and invention- but did the parallels end there? Why did these two figures in particular influence me (and the world so strongly)? (I mean besides their genius, stunning looks, and fabulous fashion sense) 🙂
I dug further into the story of these men, of their character and beliefs that might astonish you with the similarity. While separated by decades and geography (Tesla was an inventor Serbian descent, Bowie was an English musician) they have more in common than first meets the eye. Let’s examine some uncanny parallels and roll out the facts.
Both Tesla and Bowie were natural born performers. And not only that, they loved to shock people! In Tesla’s case quite literally!
Whether for a private group in his laboratory or in front of a crowd of hundreds at the 1893 Columbus World’s Fair, Tesla dazzled audiences by becoming a magician, achieving mind boggling feats electricity, as he created plasma lightning balls seemingly out of nowhere, and glowed with light as a quarter of a million volts passed through his body. He became notorious as a showman as much as a scientist, and it sometimes terrified people.
“Using his Tesla coil, he would conjure thunderbolts on stage and speak like a sorcerer. Famously, he would charge his own body from a Tesla coil, extending his arms so lightning and flames shot out through his fingers and head. The effect both excited and terrified audiences, and afterwards Tesla’s suit would continue to emit sparks for several hours.” from Nikola Tesla: A Legacy in Performance Art
Tesla knew very well his theatrics impressed people, and for better or worse- this was one of the greatest ways to get press and potential investors.
“My performances have got to be theatrical experiences for me as well as for the audience. I don’t want to climb out of my fantasies in order to go up onstage — I want to take them on stage with me.”~David Bowie
Similarly Bowie shocked audiences with his incredible stage presence, a convergence of miming skills, otherworldly personas, elaborate light effects and soul shattering music, overall transporting people to another dimension, just as Tesla did. He definitely set the tone for music performance of this type, the original freak artist, that so many have modeled themselves after- he was always ahead of the curve and really defined the performance art standard of multiple decades. Bowie pushed the outside of the envelope further than ever before with his final Album Blackstar- a mystical and dark exploration of death and the beyond, and goodbye to fans who had no idea he was on his deathbed. Once again, David Bowie shocked the world.
So their magical performances had the same boundary pushing, world spinning effects, and both were often considered alien because of it. No doubt there were some awesome off-world skills in these two!
In spite of all their onstage bravado, Both David and Nikola personified the same strange dichotomy of also being very shy and private. Besides being a strangely common trait of the creative persona, it also makes practical sense. No matter how introverted you truly are, you have to become highly visible for the purpose of meeting the right people to get investors and other movers and shakers to launch a career. Both Tesla and Bowie did this in exemplary fashion, making themselves large and loud the social circuits of their day and impressing key players, the media, and deep pocketed producers.
While Tesla was prone to alienating himself and was naturally quite soft-spoken, when he did engage in a social life he impressed people with his charm and geniality. Robert Underwood Johnson described him as attaining a “distinguished sweetness, sincerity, modesty, refinement, and generosity”.
At the height of his fame he dined in New York high high society’s watering holes of hotels and restaurants, turning heads with his elegant dress and impressive physique whether dining alone or in large parties. He regularly frequented Delmonicos and the Palm Room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where he also lived in New York. He even dined regular with John Jacob Astor (the Astoria half of Waldorf-Astoria) and his stunning wife Ava Willing, who was considered by some to be the most beautiful woman in the country at the time. According to some web sources Astor was himself an inventor, and shared Tesla’s interest in free wireless energy and extraterrestrials!
To complete his status in the elite, Tesla had a few very famous friends whom he selected carefully and held close. These included famed conservationist John Muir (who loved that Tesla’s hydroelectric power was a clean energy system!) financiers Henry Clay Frick and George Westinghouse, not to leave out the ever amazing writer Mark Twain, with whom he had a very interesting relationship indeed! These two were in huge mutual awe and respect.
Not that Tesla didn’t have enemies, rivals and detractors, mind you. He had his share of powerful menemies (yes I just made that up, along the lines of frenemy:) who were ultimately played key roles in his undoing.
Women were another story. He seemed tortured by the idea of having a relationship or even a liaison with the fairer sex, and was often pursued by some very high profile women but to no avail, much to their chagrin. It is speculated that he maintained a life of celibacy, at least for the large part, and he never was married. Still he had long lasting friendships with very few women (most famously Catherine Johnson, wife of Robert Underwood Johnson) and had a vicarious romance of letters. Left to his own devices, Tesla would have likely been a perma hermit, and for the last 30 or so years of his life as a forgotten former legend, he was just that- with only the company of pigeons and occasional meetings or reward ceremonies. No doubt his idiosyncrasies, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and extreme germophobia were factors which prevented him from getting much closer to people. He was very alone indeed living in his room 3327 in the top floor of the New Yorker hotel.
“The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. No big laboratory is needed in which to think. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.”
As a kindred loner, Bowie also found his creativity flourish in solitude. In a CD titled “Drifting into my Solitude” you will find the song, Sound and Vision, originally released on LOW, with the lyrics~
Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say
I will sit right down
Waiting for the gift of sound and vision
And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision
Drifting into my solitude
Over my head…
David had very similar characteristics of the social butterfly with an uber private life. Much as Tesla’s childhood traumas and emotional scars shaped his idiosyncratic personality later in life, David suffered from anxiety and extreme shyness from a very young age. He’s spoke out about these traits only very few times and generally avoided interviews because he had a hard time dealing with talking with people. This resulted in more than a few interviews gone awry. And so, like Tesla, the media were often turned off by his apparent rudeness and more than on one occasion drag his name through the mud.
He created new identities and would become absorbed into the characters he created that he would live out his life as a fantasy, vicariously (to him) overcoming his shortcomings and shyness living through them onstage or in public.
“As an adolescent, I was painfully shy, withdrawn. I didn’t really have the nerve to sing my songs on stage, and nobody else was doing them. I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn’t have to actually go through the humiliation of going on stage and being myself. I continued designing characters with their own complete personalities and environments. I put them into interviews with me! Rather than be me — which must be incredibly boring to anyone — I’d take Ziggy in, or Aladdin Sane or The Thin White Duke. It was a very strange thing to do.”
Throughout much of his career David maintained a reputation as a debonair socialite ( and often party animal) ever at the vanguard of the social and art curve. In his younger years he was not past flirting with influential people of every age and gender to get hooked up with big producers and press. Much like Tesla he defied his own shyness to mingle with the greats, surrounded himself with people to know. The late musician was never short on famous friends- From Paul McCartney to Mick Jagger to his wife and supermodel Iman. More ‘uber famous’ friends include John Lennon (who collabed with him on the Famed, FAME- how apropos!), Elton John, Martin Sheen, Liz Taylor, Dennis Hopper, Tina Turner, Debby Harry, and on and on.
Despite his super fame and notoriety, David kept a low profile In his later years as a married man with Iman in New York City. He had very few performances after his heart attack in 2004. He was rarely seen anywhere with his wife, Iman. And yet he was still prolific in creating new material. This was somewhat of a miracle in privacy- especially how he kept his cancer diagnosis and struggle secret in the last 18 months, even from very close friends and collaborators. Bowie made the absolute best use of his last days on Earth, embarking on his final great artistic project, the Blackstar album, which served as farewell and revealed the truth of his impending death and transcendence.
Here’s another factor that contributed to the incredible productivity of Nikola and David- Insomnia. No rest for the weary- or the genius! Tesla claimed at various times to sleep only 2 – 3 hours a day, sometimes less. Here is his candid quote on the subject~
“I sleep about one and one-half hours a night. I think that is enough for any man. When I was young I needed more sleep. But age doesn’t require so much. There are so many things to do I do not want to spend time sleeping needlessly. In my family all were poor sleepers. Time spent in sleep is lost time, we always felt.”
David has a very similar quote and work and sleep ethic, ie relentless.
“I probably work harder than anyone else I know. I also sleep less than anybody else I know.“Probably four, five hours max, which freaks everybody out.”
Both Tesla and Bowie were masters of invention, one in the realm of science and the other in art. Truly both men stood out in their categories a head above the rest, responsible for unmeasurable progress and influence in these respective fields. They changed humanity. What was the key to their incredible prolific careers and foresight? Imagination, and lots of it. And they both wanted to change the world.
What distinguished Tesla from other great scientific minds of his age was his ability to dream. Tesla had an uncanny ability to imagine how the human condition could be changed by technology. He had a super holographic visual power of concentration, such that he could invent, assemble, test, rebuild and optimize his electrical inventions before committing them to paper. In childhood Tesla would create motors using insects for power, and water wheels that were the forerunners to his hydroelectric generators at Niagara Falls.
David’s thirst for challenging the norm and creating new things also started at a young age. And playful about it too! At 17 he and his friends humorously formed The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. Along these lines he was the first to fight for the right to have long hair on national television in 1964.
But Bowie is best known for his abilities to synthesize new characters and unique sounds with uncanny originality. He pioneered whole new genres of music and performance. Bowie was the first celebrity to have continuously reinvented himself by adopting multiple personas throughout his creative career. And they were numerous, flowing in a seemingly endless stream of innovation- The space oddity, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke,
Bowie was also ahead of the curve in internet technology. In 1996, he broke new ground with the first internet-only release “Telling Lies”. He was also the first musician to create an internet service provider in 1998 with BowieNet. Oddly this is another vital connection to Tesla, who was also ahead of the technology curve, and who in fact predicted the existence of the internet and smart devices before 1900!!
“I didn’t want to be a rock star, I wanted to actually change the way that music was. I wanted it to be different, and I thought I was capable of creating a change, only because I found it so exciting. I saw that you could draw on other art forms and use those visual signals to develop a new kind of music that I wasn’t hearing.”
I had more key comparisons to write about these two, but frankly I was running out of room, and time! I wanted to get this blog done by today 2/11, one month mark after David’s crossing to honor his incomparable life.
Of course, there were stark differences between the two as well. For example, Tesla believed celibacy helped his work while Bowie notoriously bedded many men and women before his marriage to Iman. Tesla died a poor man despite his many patents whereas Bowie was an accomplished businessman who turned his success into a lucrative empire.
What is undeniable is that both men were incredibly inventive individuals who changed history and who, in my opinion, come together perfectly in the film The Prestige. I consider them both geniuses, with a touch of mad scientist in Bowie and a poet’s soul in Tesla. David’s musical revolution is every bit as rich and affecting as Tesla’s technological one, and vice versa. By pursuing their dreams with all their love and energy they both stretched the possibilities of what it is to be human, going beyond all previously known limits. And the Earth has been reinvented to a whole new sphere of beauty.