David Bowie’s Shaman Eye

The first time I saw a photograph of David Bowie and his amazing left eye, I remember thinking. . . .aah, he’s got a shaman eye.   Somewhere back in my childhood I had been told that when someone has an eye that’s distinctly different from the other eye – this was the mark of a shaman.  But, what does that really mean?

Life on Mars Screenshot

Screenshot from “Life on Mars” video

David Bowie was born with blue eyes – but, after an injury as a teenager, he ended up with one blue eye and his left eye, with a permanently enlarged pupil, appeared brown or green depending on the light.[ref]David Buckley, Strange Fascination. David Bowie: The Definitive Story, (London: Virgin Books, 1999), 21.[/ref]

Although visible birth marks and birth defects are sometimes considered shamanic markings – people who suffer from hardships and traumas in their early lives – like family tragedies, accidents, illnesses, or even rejection from the tribe – are also likely candidates for shamanhood.  These experiences become part of their initiation process – forcing them to become familiar with the spirit world. By withstanding these trials, they build the strength and courage necessary to ultimately be transformed into a shaman.

David had injured his eye during a fight in high school and it nearly cost him his sight.  He describes how “the pupil was paralyzed. It started bleeding. I was in hospital for months. I was very near to losing the sight in both eyes. They operated and saved my right eye but my left eye is still very dodgy.” [ref]Ibid., 5.[/ref] He was left with a paralyzed and permanently dilated pupil.[ref]Ibid., 21.[/ref]

This ordeal – and the other injuries and hard times he experienced growing up – set the stage for his initiation.  His inspired music and theatrical performances were full of channeled messages from the dreamtime.  He ultimately became a master of transformation – inviting his audience right along for the ride.

For more on the hard times in David Bowie’s early life, see my article,  David Bowie – Shaman’s Apprentice.

What Makes A Great Rock and Roll Star?

Patti Smith performing at the Orpheum Theatre 2015

Patti Smith – Orpheum Theatre – 2015

While there are lots of opinions on what makes a great rock and roll star – my documentary, The Shamans of Rock & Roll, puts forward the proposition that there’s a magical potency to great rock and rollers – with fans who seem to almost worship them  – because they are, in fact, the shamans for their tribe.

We look at the early lives and music of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, and John Lennon from a shamanic perspective.  And, while the shaman archetype is by no means limited to just these four artists – nor is it limited to just men – I’ve been called out more than once for not including a woman among the four artists that are highlighted.

While I can appreciate that people have differing opinions on which artists they consider worthy of analysis – I consider comments suggesting that my documentary will be viewed as anti-woman or that I’m intentionally excluding women to be shortsighted.  After all, I’m a woman; I have an anthropologist as an adviser who’s a woman; and she’ll be interviewed along with other musical artists that are women.

Bottom line, I’ve chosen to focus on these 4 guys because they had the biggest impact on my life. As a teenager growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, they inspired me and informed my worldview in a way that other artists have not. That’s not to say that I didn’t love and appreciate lots of other singers and rock & roll artists. But, for me, these guys rose above the fray.

And, it seems that I’m not alone in my experience.

During a recent conversation about her new book, M Train, Patti Smith offered insight into how she sees herself as an artist. She said that she doesn’t consider herself to be a great singer or a musician – she considers herself to be a writer who performs rock & roll. And when she performs, she “grabs for the performer that informs the work” that she’s doing. Adding,

I just modeled myself after the ones I related to . . . and let’s face it, our greatest rock stars have been men . . . I’m sorry, but I haven’t seen a girl yet as great as Jimi Hendrix.

She admitted that it’s a tricky thing to talk about. And, that although she loves women,

When I was young . . . when I thought of rock & roll stars . . . coming up through the 60’s and early 70’s, I gravitated toward our male performers . . . Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan.

Patti went on to say that as an artist, from an early age, she “staked the right to not have to be fettered by gender.” She knows who she is. And, she doesn’t like the idea of being labeled a “female artist.” Do people say that Picasso was a white, male artist? Artists shouldn’t have to be identified by their sexuality, their race, or their gender.

I hear you, Patti – and, I couldn’t agree more.



“An Evening with Patti Smith. M Train. Reading and conversation with Jonathan Lethem.”  Hosted by The Library Foundation of Los Angeles at The Orpheum Theatre.  November 16, 2015.  http://lfla.org/event/an-evening-with-patti-smith-2/

David Bowie – Shaman’s Apprentice

“If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now, I’d either be in the nuthouse or in prison.”[ref]Barry Miles, David Bowie Black Book, (London: Omnibus Press, A Division of Book Sales Limited, 1980), 43.[/ref] David Bowie, 1972.

Shaman's Apprentice David Bowie 1967

David Bowie, 1967

It’s not uncommon for shaman candidates to have suffered from events or traumas like a family tragedy, accidents, illnesses, or rejection. These experiences become part of their shamanic initiation process. . .forcing them to become familiar with the spirit world. By withstanding these trials, the shaman candidate builds the strength and courage that’s necessary to be transformed into a shaman.

While on the surface it may appear that David Bowie had a happy, suburban, middle class childhood – a deeper look reveals that he experienced suffering, trauma, and alienation while growing up in post-war England.

David Jones (who changed his name to David Bowie in 1965) was born at home in January of 1947 – with his midwife purportedly announcing,  “this child has been on earth before!”[ref]David Buckley, Strange Fascination. David Bowie: The Definitive Story, (London: Virgin Books, 1999), 13.[/ref]  His parents married later that year. His father had 2 daughters from a previous marriage (although one was put up for adoption) – and, his mother already had a son, Terry, who was almost 10 years old when they married.

David grew up in Brixton, London – a poor, working-class area crowded with families whose homes had been destroyed during the London bombings of WWII. He later told an interviewer, “I never wanted and never went hungry but I saw people deprived all around and I wanted them to have better.”[ref]Miles, David Bowie Black Book, 5.[/ref]

When he was 8, he and his half-brother Terry went to live with their paternal uncle in a farmhouse in Yorkshire. The farmhouse was in the countryside surrounded by cattle and sheep – however, they were never really happy there. They returned to live with their parents who now lived in a small, but comfortable house in the suburbs of London.[ref]Ibid.[/ref]  Speaking to a journalist David commented

I’ve seen pretty well the best of both (worlds), from the terrible slum area of Brixton, with a heavy Black population, to right up in the country on the farms. I’ve been a child through both so that both halves of it really influenced me and produced a schizoid attitude in life. I think that’s what confused me.[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

Biographers also allude to the “sub-zero emotional climate in the Jones’ house.”[ref]Buckley, Strange Fascination, 14.[/ref] They write of “the austere, non-physical nature of his relationship with his parents” that may have left a mark on Bowie.[ref]Ibid.[/ref] Evidently, Terry was forever arguing with his mother – while his dad was “often in a state of quizzical, melancholic withdrawal.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

David shared a bedroom with his teenage brother, Terry, throughout his school years and the two became very close – with Terry becoming a great influence in his life.[ref]Ibid.[/ref] Terry had read Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and spent a lot of this time at late night jazz clubs. According to David, “it was Terry who really started everything for me. He was into all these different Beat writers and listening to jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.”[ref]Miles, David Bowie Black Book, 6.[/ref]

However, Terry was prone to bouts of depression and would ultimately be diagnosed with schizophrenia. “Aural and visual hallucinations, images of bright, searing lights (heavenly) and flames (hellish) would increasingly blight Terry’s life. . . He would often hear the ‘voices from God.'”[ref]Buckley, Strange Fascination, 20.[/ref] His increasingly erratic behavior “was horrifying to Bowie.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

Adding to the difficult circumstances in his early life, Bowie was plagued with a score of physical injuries. He claimed to have been

Under a doctor’s care during much of my youth not because I was sickly but because I was accident prone. I broke a hand and then after it healed I broke a thumb on the same hand. . . Then I ran over myself with an automobile. I was cranking the car with it in gear and it ran against me breaking both my legs. That time I very nearly lost my masculinity entirely and to this day I have a large scar on the inner side of my leg.[ref]Miles, David Bowie Black Book, 6.[/ref]

At 14, while in high school, David had a fight with a friend over girl and that single punch nearly cost him the sight in his eye. According to David, “The pupil was paralyzed. It started bleeding. I was in hospital for months. I was very near to losing the sight in both eyes. They operated and saved my right eye but my left eye is still very dodgy.”[ref]Ibid., 5.[/ref]He was left with a paralyzed and permanently dilated pupil. Born with blue eyes, he now had one blue eye and his left eye, with the permanently enlarged pupil, appears brown or green depending on the light.[ref]Buckley, Strange Fascination, 21.[/ref]

It was while David was in the hospital recovering from eye surgery that Terry, the brother that he looked up to and adored, was committed to a mental institution. David and his family would visit him every two weeks.[ref]Miles, David Bowie Black Book, 6.[/ref] One can only imagine how this impacted David.

In fact, “the taint of ‘madness’ in the Jones’ family terrified the young Bowie – not only was Terry profoundly disturbed but many of his extended family on his mother’s side had psychological or mental problems, too.”[ref]Buckley, Strange Fascination, 19.[/ref] One aunt, a schizophrenic, died in her late 30’s after enduring electric shock treatment and internment in a mental institution. Another aunt also had schizophrenic episodes. And, a third aunt had been lobotomized in order to treat her nervous disposition. And, his grandmother also claimed to be a “madwoman.”[ref]Ibid, 20.[/ref] It’s not surprising that the young Bowie felt society’s stigma against the mentally ill all around him.[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

Unfortunately, in 1985, at the age of 47, Terry killed himself after lying down on the railway lines at Coulsdon South station, London. He was killed instantly by a passing train.

These dramatic experiences in David Bowie’s early life – the multiple injuries; his family’s mental illness; his brother’s descent into madness; and, the possible alienation and lack of emotional support in his family environment – all set the stage for his initiation into shamanhood. Through it all, he developed a strong connection with the spirit world – along with the strength, courage and perseverance to overcome these obstacles – ultimately laying the foundation for him becoming a true shaman.

You Might Say I’m A Dreamer. . .

Anthropologists suggest that a significant factor determining whether or not a person becomes a shaman is that from an early age they are dreamers who have out-of-the-ordinary perceptions.  Their dreams connect them with the spirit world – which, ultimately, is the source of their power.

Like a shaman candidate, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, and John Lennon were dreamers who saw the world differently than most people.

Cave drawings on Sicily - Learn about John Lennon's Connection to Shamanism in the new John Lennon Movie - Shaman's of Rock and Roll

Cave drawings in Sicily

As a child growing up in Minnesota, Dylan recalled staring at the snow and having “amazing hallucinogenic experiences doing nothing but looking out your window.”[ref]Howard Sounes, Down the Highway. The Life of Bob Dylan, (New York: Grove Press, 2001), 17.[/ref] Later, in a “Rolling Stone” interview he commented that “I live in my dreams. I don’t really live in the actual world.” [ref]Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stone Interview, January 26, 1978.[/ref]

Jimi Hendrix was also a shy, dreamy kid – who spoke with a stammer. He claimed to see colors, not notes in his head as he played his guitar.[ref]Charles Cross, Room Full of Mirrors. A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, (New York: Hyperion, 2005), 133.[/ref]  “I used to dream in Technicolor that 1966 was the year that something would happen to me.”[ref]Ibid., 118.[/ref]  And, in 1966, Jimi went to London and everything changed.

John Lennon said that “psychedelic vision is reality to me and always was. Even as a child. When I looked at myself in the mirror . . . I used to, literally, trance out . . . seeing these hallucinatory images of my face changing, becoming cosmic and complete.”[ref]David Sheff, All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko One, (New York: Playboy Enterprises, Inc, St. Martins Press, 1981), 158.[/ref]

And, in his song ‘When I Live My Dream’ David Bowie declares that: “It’s a broken heart that dreams.” He acknowledges that he’s a “dreaming kind of guy.” And, he promises: “Nothing in my dream can hurt you.”[ref]From the album The World of David Bowie released in 1970.[/ref] This is just one of Bowie’s many songs about dreams.

These artists were definitely in touch with the dreamtime. It was a source of their creativity and it gave them the power to transform their lives.  And, for those who were listening . . . it showed us a way of connecting with realities far beyond our normal experience . . . opening us to the possibility of connecting with the source of our power.