Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Facing the Strange: David Bowie (1947-2016)

David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg's THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH.
Last Friday, as we all know, was David Bowie's 69th birthday. I had family plans that night, but the next day, I decided to spend some of my work day tapping my foot along to various favorite Bowie recordings. I listened to tracks from DIAMOND DOGS, STATION TO STATION and OUTSIDE, but chose not to listen to BLACKSTAR - just released the previous day - because I had work to do and knew that its unfamiliarity would tempt my attention away from where it ought to be focused. It deserved my full attention.

In the midst of my work day on Sunday, I couldn't find anything else I wanted to listen to, and because it was being hyped as a "jazz" album, which I find very easy to work to, I listened to BLACKSTAR for the first time, while editing reviews for VIDEO WATCHDOG 182 - perhaps as David Bowie himself  was breathing his last, or preparing to, somewhere in New York. I posted a Facebook note of my initial response to the album - saying, in effect, that while I thought it was a very good album indeed, knowing myself, whenever I felt in the mood for that kind of music in the future, I'd likely "turn to something by Scott Walker for the full dose." (One of my FB friends replied that he didn't think Mr. Bowie would begrudge me that option, and I agreed.) I subsequently broke for dinner, watched the restored version of Orson Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL to unwind, and then - feeling slightly unwell, with a sudden, bone-penetrating chill - came back upstairs in the early hours of Monday to the news that Bowie had died.

Naturally, I removed what I had posted on my wall about BLACKSTAR - not because I was ashamed of what I'd written, but because the album was suddenly available to a whole other context than was previously apparent. The album I'd heard while editing those pages of the magazine no longer existed. I am terribly grateful that I found time to listen to it when Bowie was, so far as I knew or know, still among us - that brief period of time when it was just new music.

The news of his death came as a great shock, particularly in the wake of his hit Broadway play, the new album, his birthday. I got very ill - some kind of stomach virus - and spent most of the next two days in bed, unconscious, unable to eat. I remember having a series of "either/or" dreams, in which I was shown things twice and had to come to a quick opinion of them. One of these was a bonus feature length film included as an extra on a DVD. The film consisted of a few unused scenes with the main feature's name actors, assembled together with other fractured, random material. The question posed to me was, Is this film a piece of opportunistic, consumer-milking, crackpot fakery, or is it a genuine work of art? The question was always posed to me with life or death urgency - as it should, if you're any kind of disciple of David Bowie.

I couldn't eat, I couldn't sit upright for very long, and I found it almost toxic to lie abed in the dark, scrolling past the endless repetitions and regurgitations of Bowie's death notices on my Facebook news feed. In those threads I was exposed again and again to a universal sadness and growing sense of despair, because Bowie was (it's hard to say "had been" this soon) more than an artist; he was barometer and avatar, especially to those of us who had followed him since the 1970s. Bowie is gone, where is gravity now? Of course, this is an exaggeration of feeling, an hysteria, a derangement, but what did Bowie ever represent if not an invitation to derangement? I soon found myself pecking out words in the dark, half-awake, lifting myself out of my own feverish delirium, as it were, to put this enormous cultural disturbance into perspective:

I. 
Perhaps the best we can say of any artist is that they took something familiar and made something new out of it, or made us aware of something new about or within it. Turn and face the strange. David Bowie had the almost unique ability to make experimentalism chic. Having established himself as rock's most inspired and inspiring front man, he went on tour with Iggy Pop as an unbilled piano player. One or two of his most revered albums are half-instrumental. He sold out. He retired. He came back to give us two outstanding albums recorded in absolute secrecy. And now his death lends unsuspected definition to BLACKSTAR and its video "Lazarus," an album released on his birthday, when he reached the age of yin and yang, 69, the year incidentally of his breakthrough recording. He always said that his adopted name was a truism for life, because the blade of the Bowie knife is double sided; it cuts both ways. So the symmetry of his exit is astonishing. Also, above and beyond music, we must remember that he turned us to face the strange in ourselves; he represented what was alien within us as individuals and as a society, and made it glamorous. His example - performance art or not, it doesn't matter - helped countless young people to embrace within themselves what parents, peers and priests told them was wrong. He entertained us, redefined us, gave us our most valid points of artistic reference, and he pointed the way to what was next for decades - and now, without him, we once again face the strange. What would Bowie do with that opportunity? What will you?

II.
For an artist as identified with life and vitality as David Bowie, his entire career was veined with melancholy, loss, death, even apocalypse. "Space Oddity" is a paen to isolation from all that is familiar, all that one holds dear. "Memory of a Free Festival" recollects a day when the world seemed at its best, now gone. "Letter to Hermione" is addressed to an unsustainable love. The "Savior Machine" is the story of a failure, "The Supermen" are not; they die. ZIGGY STARDUST itself is a tragedy set on the cusp of a preordained apocalypse, when a new messiah appears and must fulfill his destiny to be martyred. Even the ineffable pleasure of being embraced by "Lady Grinning Soul" will be "your living end." DIAMOND DOGS, his darkest and most dystopian work, thwarts the tradition of the bracing opening track with "... and in the death," and gets darker from there, facets of it telling the Orwellian story of a search for love and meaning in a world where politics have stifled all truth and beauty. What I am getting at here is that death has always been present with Bowie - "because of all we've seen, because of all we've said." BLACKSTAR is really the endgame of a conversation that Bowie has been having with us for decades. Without these bleak songs in minor keys, without the wistful ghostliness of "After All" or "The Bewlay Brothers", without the instrumental tug of war between exaltation and tragedy in "Life On Mars", Bowie would have been a far less meaningful artist. We mourn his loss not because he was upbeat with "The Jean Genie" and "Let's Dance", but because he dared to use the pop milieu to address us on a deeper level - "now we can talk in confidence" - because he had the vision and artistic empathy to remain with us not only during the teenage misadventures, the parties, but after the parties were all over, in the wastelands, in the car wrecks, in the bereavements, and now even in the hospital beds, in Heaven itself, when so many others will have deserted us. "You're not alone. Give me your hands."

III.
I haven't mentioned this, but when I was still a teenager and starting to write fiction, I took a lot of inspiration from Bowie's writing. I knew he was using Burroughs' cut-up techniques but what he was getting out of it worked better for me than Burroughs. When I wrote my first attempt at a novel - it was called THE AUDIENCE BECOMES FLESH (pre-Cronenberg, mind you), based on dreams - songs like "The Bewlay Brothers" and much of DIAMOND DOGS were like guiding stars to me. So, in my earliest days, he was as important to me as an example as any literary mentor because I really had not read that much at that time. I'm sure there must have been hundreds of other young people whom he inspired to express themselves artistically. There is no way around it - his death is a seismic shock. I've been finding myself thinking about how keyed into new technologies he always was, and thinking that anything new that comes along now will be "post-Bowie." What comes along next will be the tools he never used. I don't like the way this dates him. But he now has a beginning and an end, and he is an immense bloom pressed between the pages of time.

A personal note (as if this whole blog entry hasn't been!): Back in 1977, when I first heard that Elvis Presley died, I literally screamed - my reaction to the news was so primal, so hysterical, that it took even me aback. With Bowie, I'll always remember that I got mysteriously very ill and took to my bed for a few days, sleeping through the aftermath, reviving now and again to write little Facebook essays that might have needed far more editing had I written them when I was well.

As one of many Facebook tributaries has written about Bowie in the past days (my apologies for not taking note of their name), there are certain people whom we mourn deeply not because we knew them well, but because of how well they helped us to know ourselves. I daresay that, for many of us, few deaths in our lifetime will have this effect - and therein lies the proof of Bowie's most important creation.

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