The Thin White Duke

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This article is about the David Bowie persona. For the electronic music producer who uses this title for remixes, see Stuart Price.
Bowie as the Thin White Duke at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto 1976
At the O'Keefe Centre

The Thin White Duke was David Bowie's 1976 persona and character, primarily identified with his album Station to Station (released that year) and mentioned by name in the title track, although the 'Duke' persona had begun to be adopted during the Young Americans tour and promotion. The persona's look and character are somewhat based on Thomas Jerome Newton, the titular humanoid alien played by Bowie in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth.

At first glance, the Duke appeared more "normal" than Bowie's previously flamboyant glam incarnations. Wearing a simple and impeccably stylish, cabaret-style wardrobe consisting of a white shirt, black trousers, and a waistcoat, the Duke was a hollow man who sang songs of romance with an agonised intensity while feeling nothing, "ice masquerading as fire".[1] The persona has been described as "a mad aristocrat",[1] "an amoral zombie",[2] and "an emotionless Aryan superman".[3]

While being interviewed in the persona of the Thin White Duke in 1975 and 1976, Bowie made statements about Adolf Hitler and fascism that some interpreted as being pro-fascist.[4] The controversy deepened in May 1976 when, while acknowledging a group of fans outside of London Victoria station, he was photographed making what some alleged to be a Nazi salute. Bowie denied this, saying that he was simply waving and the photographer captured his image mid-wave.[5] As early as 1976, Bowie began disavowing his allegedly pro-Fascist comments and said that he was misunderstood. In an interview that year in the Daily Express, he explained that while performing in his Thin White Duke character, "I'm Pierrot. I'm Everyman. What I'm doing is theatre, and only theatre... What you see on stage isn't sinister. It's pure clown. I'm using myself as a canvas and trying to paint the truth of our time on it. The white face, the baggy pants - they're Pierrot, the eternal clown putting over the great sadness."[6] In 1977 (after retiring the persona), Bowie stated that "I have made my two or three glib, theatrical observations on English society and the only thing I can now counter with is to state that I am NOT a Fascist".[7]

In later years, Bowie called the period from late 1974 until early 1977 which culminated in his Thin White Duke persona "the darkest days of my life", and said he did not remember the recording of Station to Station in Los Angeles in late 1975 due to an "astronomic" cocaine habit.[8] He blamed his erratic behaviour around his Thin White Duke period on his addictions and precarious mental state.[9] "I was out of my mind, totally crazed."[10]

As his drug habit ate away at his physical and mental health, Bowie decided to try to reduce his cocaine intake and phase out the Thin White Duke persona, whom he had come to see as "a nasty character indeed",[11] and later, "an ogre".[12] He left Los Angeles and settled in West Berlin in late 1976. He would live there for almost two years, moving on from the Thin White Duke era both musically and personally with his "Berlin Trilogy" albums (Low, "Heroes", and Lodger) in collaboration with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti.


  1. ^ a b Carr, Roy; Murray, Charles Shaar (1981). Bowie: An Illustrated Record. New York: Avon. pp. 78–80. ISBN 0-380-77966-8. 
  2. ^ Buckley, David (2000) [First published 1999]. Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story (2nd ed.). London: Virgin. p. 58. ISBN 0-7535-0457-X. 
  3. ^ Pegg, Nicholas (2004) [2000]. The Complete David Bowie. London: Reynolds & Hearn. pp. 297–300. ISBN 1-903111-73-0. 
  4. ^ Borschel-Dan, Amanda (January 11, 2016). "From ‘Heil Hitler’ to ‘Shalom, Tel Aviv,’ the many incarnations of David Bowie". The Times of Israel. 
  5. ^ Paytress, Mark (January 2007). "The Controversial Homecoming". Mojo Classic (60 Years of Bowie): 64. 
  6. ^ Jean Rook, "Waiting for Bowie, and finding a genius who insists he's really a clown", Daily Express, May 1976
  7. ^ Allan Jones, Goodbye to Ziggy and All That, Melody Maker, Oct. 1977
  8. ^ Buckley, David (1999). Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story (1st ed.). London: Virgin. pp. 258–75. ISBN 1-8522-7784-X. 
  9. ^ Carr & Murray (1981): p. 11
  10. ^ Sandford (1997): p. 158
  11. ^ Wilcken, Hugo (2005). Low. New York: Continuum. p. 24. ISBN 0-8264-1684-5. 
  12. ^ White, Timothy (February 1978). "Turn and Face The Strange". Crawdaddy. 

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