Tuesday, January 19, 2016

“Trans/ition”: Deceased Artiste David Bowie (part 1 of three)

It was surely one hell of a life, and his music (and acting, and fashion sense, and advocating for this cult heroes) will live long on into the future, to be savored, championed, derided, argued over (“Al B. Sure — what was he thinking?”), remixed, repackaged, restored, built upon, torn apart and, most important of all, encouraging young people to feel it's okay to go to all the weird places and embrace their inner freak and misfit.

Bowie accomplished so much in his four and half decades in the spotlight. He went wide of the mark with certain albums and looks (second and last mention of “Black Tie White Noise”). But the great albums will last for a long time to come and his dozens of looks and personas will remain in the films, photos and, without question, the trendsetting music videos.

He didn't behave like his heroes — not for him the openly obnoxious “journalists are my enemy” stance of Lou Reed or the intense (and sometimes creepy) introversion of Scott Walker. Bowie was an artist and entertainer first and foremost, but also a damned good promoter of his work.

The strangest period of his life found him living a bizarre existence on a diet of merely red peppers, milk, and a shitload of cocaine. The incredible 1975 UK TV documentary Cracked Actor seems like a bizarre blueprint for the fiction film he made with the sublime Nicolas Roeg the following year (you know, about the man who fell...).

The documentary is a fascinating portrait of a “doomed artist” who wound up recovering from his insane, alien-like existence to become the blond heartthrob of MTV and a very normal individual. For 53 minutes, though, let us rejoice in Bowie at his absolute strangest:

So at the height of his fame (at one specific point of that fame — it did last a damned long time), Bowie was definitely living his “character.” Several years earlier, in 1967, he had released his first album, which contains no glam rock (or even mildly hard rock) but offers a blueprint for the cultural “sponge” that Bowie was to become. On that topic, a little quote from critics Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray:

Unquestionably, Bowie is a dilettante. However, he is the most brilliant dilettante to work in rock, and it is precisely this dilettantism that makes him interesting.... Plagiarism and dilettantism are two of Bowie's most vital artistic tools.... Bowie's artistic method has been to absorb every idea or device that intrigues him (whether it's rock and roll or not), play with it, let it mingle with all the other ideas and devices in his mental in-tray, and drop it when he no longer finds it useful or stimulating.... (Bowie: An Illustrated Record, 1981, p. 12)

In the span of his first LP he delivers songs that fit into a number of pop genres and shows off a weird and eclectic array of influences and artists he was none-too-subtly pilfering from.

But there's no Syd Barrett influence, no Lou Reed decadence, or Iggy Pop kick-ass rock here. There is instead straightforward pop-rock, a goofy novelty number (the Chipmunks-like “Laughing Gnome”), a creepier uncategorizable spoken piece (“Please Mr. Gravedigger”), Jacques Brel-like “character studies” in song (“Maid of Bond Street,” “Little Bombardier”), and an extremely Tony Newley-like love tune (“When I Live My Dream”).

The closest thing to the lyrics about the paradises and dystopias he'd be writing just a year or two after that is “We Are Hungry Men,” about overpopulation and cannibalism: 

[Spoken:] Achtung, achtung, these are your orders/Anyone found guilty of consuming more than their allotted amount of air/Will be slaughtered and cremated/Only one cubic foot of air/[Bowie sings:] I have prepared a document, legalising mass abortion/We will turn a blind eye to infanticide.

But let's return for a second to most unlikely name I mentioned above, that of Anthony Newley. It's been wondered by Bowie cultists for years if his early ballads had sold well, would he have stayed in that mode for several years and not turned into Ziggy Stardust?

We have no idea, of course, because his early ballads did have limited appeal. But I am utterly fascinated by the notion that the most prominent glam-rock icon was influenced by Newley's West End/Broadway sensibility (I've since learned that his agent at the time, Ken Pitt, encouraged him to pursue this direction, since he felt Sixties rock was going to lose ground quickly, and the Newley MOR direction had a longer show-biz lifespan).

It makes perfect sense if you consider Bowie's theatricality and “packaging” of his albums and live shows (in an interview with Jeremy Paxman he said his initial hope was to write musicals for the stage). It also taps into his depressive side as a songwriter. His most Newley-esque number, “When I Live My Dream,” is a sweet little tune that is at once corny as hell and charmingly romantic.

It's also one of the two Bowie tunes that was beautifully visualized by filmmaker Leos Carax. Carax has done absolutely gorgeous work with music in his films, and the artist he enshrined first was Bowie, using one tune by him in each of the first three of his films. Thus this gorgeous moment from Carax's first, extremely New Wave-influenced Boy Meets Girl (1984) set to “When I Live My Dream.”

Probably one of the most interesting things about Bowie as a rock phenomenon is the fact that so many of his lyrics are bleak and depressing. Sure, there are the “Suffragette City”/“Rebel Rebel” rockers and “Heroes” and “Changes” anthems that stuck with most casual listeners, but his first big hit is about an astronaut floating alone into outer space, and on the same album that showcased that song he was moving into grotesque territory:

I'm a phallus in pigtails/And there's blood on my nose/And my tissue is rotting/Where the rats chew my bones/And my eye sockets empty/See nothing but pain/I keep having this brainstorm/About twelve times a day/now, you could spend the morning walking with me, quite amazed/As I'm Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed 

Most of the obits that have chosen to talk about Bowie's lyrics have talked about his wonderfully inclusive moments, songs where he encouraged unity among freaks and misfits, as in the refrain of “Rock 'n' Roll Suicide”: “Just turn on with me and you're not alone/Let's turn on and be... not alone/Gimme your hands cause you're wonderful...”

What is equally interesting is how many times he evoked failing societies (and their inevitable by-product, alienated individuals) in his work. The biggest, best example is the Diamond Dogs album, which he intended to be a musical version of Orwell's 1984, but from his first album through the last (with the mention of the oligarchs inhabiting London in “Dollar Days”), he invoked social chaos and emphasized the individual's loneliness. (A quote from that period: “The world is doomed! We're not capable of making it any better; people just aren't going to have reasonable destinies.”)

In an unaired 60 Minutes interview he discussed his lyrics and noted some common themes in his work. They included, he said, loneliness, isolation, a spiritual search, and the need to communicate with others. In a fairly philosophical interview for French TV, he said with a laugh that “all my albums are negative.”

Now I'm not going to turn this piece into an analysis of his lyrics, but I did find it interesting in re-listening to his albums chronologically that the “classic septet” of LPs, which even naysayers will admit are pretty excellent records (from Space Oddity in '69 to Diamond Dogs in '74), contain a number of songs that say goodbye to the Sixties and herald a new era.

In that regard, Bowie is unique. In the early Seventies, some singer-songwriters behaved as if the Sixties were still unfolding (which, for all intents and purposes they were, until Nixon left office); others simply fashioned something new without acknowledging the era that had just ended, on notes both low (Altamont, Manson) and high (Woodstock, the moon landing — oh wait, we already know what David did with that...). Bowie's lyrical approach was thus unique, and truly catchy as hell.

It also must be remembered that he was a young man when he wrote the songs on these albums (from the ages of 22 to 27), drawing on influences as disparate as Jacques Brel and Lou Reed. Much has been made of his many physical transformations and exotic costumes, but surely one of the most interesting things about his career is the fact that he built up an incredible mythology in his lyrics and stage shows over a 45-year span — most notably, sending Major Tom adrift in '69, making him an addicted madman in “Ashes to Ashes,” and then having his skull worshiped in the recently released “Blackstar” video. Many artists have changed their look from album to album (several of them were inspired by Bowie), but few took the time to *name* the fucking characters and include them in their lyrics.

And about that sense of loneliness — I'm not alone in thinking that one of Bowie's best-ever, most evocative songs is “Life on Mars?” I don't care if it sounds corny as hell, but that song really spoke to me as a movie-mad teen who “lived” at the movies. There's also something incredibly majestic about the piece, something the singers who've covered it have totally overlooked.

Since I can always dig up a Godard reference when discussing great art, I will simply say that Bowie's lyric “but the film is a saddening bore/since she's lived it ten times or more” is incredibly like the scene in Masculin-Feminin where Leaud laments that “This wasn't the film we'd imagined, the perfect film that each of us carried within, the film we would have like to have made, or perhaps even to have lived.”

The song clearly was a favorite of Bowie himself, since he sang it throughout his career. One of the most touching renditions of it happened at the otherwise shallow “Fashion Rocks” ceremony in 2005, a year after Bowie had suffered a heart attack on stage (and was quickly moving toward the retirement that he maintained between 2006 and 2013). He looks unwell, and most likely was.

“Life on Mars?” has indeed become one of Bowie's most beloved songs (it reached No. 3 on the UK charts but was never released in the U.S. as a single). He swore at the point that he did his “Sound + Vision” tour that he would never perform his older songs again, but that promise was broken just a few years later when he toured again (the same thing happened when he said the would never play with the “Spiders,” and then worked with them on the “1980 Floor Show” back in the early Seventies).

He knew the value of his best work; he in fact knew the value of a lot of things, as he proved by offering bonds against his future income (called “Bowie bonds”; details are here), and starting a specialized ISP to his fans.

Let me praise him on one last count before I move through the wonderfully entertaining clips that are circulating on the Net. Bowie took his work seriously, but he also had a sense of humor about himself and his image. When Lou Reed died, I noted that it seemed as if he felt that he *had* to be abusive to journalists and fans. Even in his “mellower” later years, he was known for being abrasive and insulting to those he felt were beneath him.

The main charge leveled against Bowie was that he frequently “dropped” friends and colleagues over the years. But he definitely seemed to be able to make fun of himself and many stories exist of him being friendly to fans (including some “Bowienetters” that he wound up quietly corresponding with). He also wrote deftly amusing lyrics, as with “Boys Keep Swingin.'” (“When you're a boy/You can wear a uniform/When you're a boy/Other boys check you out/You get a girl/When you're a boy...") Lou had amusing lyrics, but they were always somehow abusive to someone somewhere. (The bit about the “human tuinal” comes to mind.)

And speaking of Lou, what did the best rock-journalist ever – the man whose reviews of some of Lou's albums were better than the albums themselves – Lester Bangs, have to say about Bowie? Frankly, he hated him... at first. Then, for some reason, Young Americans turned him around. He viewed the album as “the bridge between melancholy and outright depression, an honest statement from a deeply troubled, mentally shattered individual who even managed for the most part to skirt self-pity” (Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, p. 162).

Lester went on in the same piece to say that Station to Station was the best Bowie album he'd heard to date. He noted that “[the lyrics] bespeak a transition from the deep depression of the best of Young Americans... to a beautiful, swelling, intensely romantic melancholy in which the divided consciousness may not only have kissed and made up with itself but even managed to begin the leap toward recognizing that other human beings actually exist! And can be loved for something besides the extent to which they feed themselves to the artist's narcissism.” (ibid, p. 163)

Part two to come...

1 comment:

Sara said...

Thanks, Ed. This is lovely.