Friday, February 12, 2016

“Knowledge comes with death’s release”: the “later” music videos of Deceased Artiste David Bowie (part 3 of three)

“We’re learning to live with somebody’s depression/And I don’t want to live with somebody’s depression/We’ll get by, I suppose…” — “Fantastic Voyage”

To close out my tribute to Bowie, I wanted to discuss his music videos (and by extension his music), post-1980. I do this in response to the notion that everything he did up to and including Scary Monsters was terrific, and all that came after — with the exception of a handful of songs — isn’t worth listening to.

Before I get into the best of “late Bowie,” I should spotlight three items that underscore Bowie’s eclectic musical interests. The first is a disc that was given away with an issue of Mojo magazine. The disc, titled DavidHeroesBowie, is a wonderful assortment of tracks from Bowie’s many heroes, from Little Richard and Chuck Berry to Jacques Brel, Anthony Newley, and Nina Simone. It can be found here.

Bowie was asked by Vanity Fair to compile a list of his 25 favorite albums for the Nov. 2003
issue of the magazine. One helpful soul has reprinted the piece — with links to most of the albums
here. His choices range from the obvious ones (a Little Richard compilation, the first VU album, Syd Barrett), to soulful icons (James Brown, Toots & the Maytalls), to higher-toned items (Steve Reich, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well..., Harry Partch, Mingus, Stravinsky), time capsules (The Last Poets, The Fugs, The Incredible String Band), largely unknown artists (Koerner, Ray & Glover, Daevid Allen, Tom Dissevelt, Tucker Zimmerman, George Crumb) and wonderful trash (Florence Foster Jenkins).

The third item is a 1979 radio show called “Star Special” in which Bowie was asked to play whatever music he wanted. He slid in a few of his own songs, but for the most part he played artists that had inspired him (Elgar, Philip Glass, the VU, Iggy, King Curtis, and even Danny Kaye!), were his contemporaries (T. Rex, Roxy Music), or newer acts whose work he loved (Talking Heads, Blondie).

I noted in the second part of this blog entry that I became a Bowie fan when I saw the trio of Lodger videos. His command of that medium was sublime. He had been doing “publicity films” (the original name for music-vids) since Love You Till Tuesday and always seemed to be a frustrated filmmaker; we know from my interview with Howard Kaylan that he definitely was an aspiring screenwriter. He discussed his interest in wanting to direct a film starring Susan Sarandon as Diane Arbus (!) here.

David Mallet's music-vid collaborations with Bowie did what good cinema (and video-art — think Ernie Kovacs' final ABC specials) has always done for music — it redefined the songs, confronted the viewer with a steady flow of memorable imagery, illustrated (or played against) the lyrical content of the songs, and, in the really top-notch work, played with the form itself. The notion of a work that acknowledges itself is as old as Don Quixote (and, later, Bowie's fave Herr Brecht), but to today's audiences that self-referential quality is somehow deemed quaint (better to steal, er... pay homage to other artists' work, a la Tarantino).

Although the viewers of today are supposed to be the most sophisticated in history, given their techno-savvy and awareness of clichĂ© and tropes, they still cling desperately to the “reality” of the cultural items they watch/read/listen to, as is reflected by the nearly-pathological “no spoilers!” sensibility.

A lot of Bowie’s best work called attention to the medium itself — this is no surprise given his interest in Brecht’s work (upon meeting David, the noted Brecht expert and translator John Willett is said to have remarked to a fellow Brecht-o-phile “[Bowie] knows more about Germany as a whole — and Brecht in particular — than anyone we know!”). Thus his music-videos were truly radical for the late Seventies, as well as the more jaded Nineties and Aughts.

Fans of his work can debate which of his videos is the “best,” but I’d nominate “Ashes to Ashes” (directed by David Mallet and Bowie) as the most important, primarily because — besides the fact I like it a lot — that it pretty much mapped out the music video equation with style and imagination, and this a year before MTV signed on the air. Along with Chuck Statler’s “The Truth about Devolution” and Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” (directed by Godley and Creme), “Ashes to Ashes” is a seminal video because it showed the potential for all-out visual innovation (and plain old weirdness). All three of the aforementioned also were the antithesis of what became the dominant model, the kitschy-when-they-were-new (and quite awful) “story” music-vids of Bob Giraldi.

Of course, Bowie himself went straight for the mainstream and became an MTV staple in 1983 with the release of the Let’s Dance album. From that point until 1995 and the release of his 1995 reunion with Eno, 1.Outside (the return to greatness for most hardcore fans), he was making jukebox music. Some of the songs were catchy and enjoyable, many were instantly forgotten (even by the artist himself, as he indicated in several interviews).

He summed up that period (which lasted more than a decade) in a recently reprinted New York Times interview, saying, “I was going through my middle-age crisis smack on cue…. I felt awful with myself as an artist. And I probably started working on the visual side of things really quite desperately to find some salvation as an artist.” He’s referring to his painting here, but we can equally extend that to the music-videos, which is in some cases were better than the songs they visualized.

The oddest musical move Bowie made between Scary Monsters and 1.Outside was to create the band Tin Machine with Reeves Gabrels and the Sales brothers. Bowie tried to subsume his identity within that of the band, but he remained the central attraction throughout its nearly four-year, two-album lifespan. I like the hard-edged music of Tin Machine, but don’t relisten to it (I did so right before writing this, for reference). The songs on the two studio albums by the group are wildly uneven —a good number (“I Can’t Read,” “Goodbye, Mr. Ed”) will often be followed by an abominable one (like “Crack City,” with perhaps Bowie’s worst-ever lyric: “Corrupt with shaky visions/and crack and coke and alcohol/They’re just a bunch of assholes/with buttholes for their brains”).

The single best thing about Tin Machine is that it gave Bowie a musical “enema” that woke him up and made him ready to create 1.Outside and Earthling, the really challenging and innovative albums he produced in the mid/late-Nineties (yes, there was one other solo album between the Tin Machine period and 1.Outside, but the less said about that, the better).

Bowie fans argue the merits of the music made by Tin Machine (Bowie himself said “When it worked, it was unbeatable, some of the most explosive music I’ve been involved in or even witnessed. But when it was bad, it was so unbelievably awful you just wanted the Earth to open up and take you under”). 

One thing that experience did for Bowie was to keep him creatively energized so he didn’t slide into the torpor of Jagger & Richards and Daltrey & Townshend (touring oldies forever) or Billy Joel (a pathetic figure who hasn’t written a new pop song in two decades now, but packs oldster fans in for nostalgia-fests at MSG) or, worst of all, Paul McCartney, who continues to release new albums that do nothing but tarnish his old reputation. (In more recent years, when Bowie felt he had nothing new to offer musically, he seemed to follow the same course as George Harrison — step away from the microphone, stop touring, and don’t release unnecessary albums.)

Now onto my final (for the moment) celebration of Bowie’s work, a look at the best videos that came after “Ashes to Ashes” (shortly after which he became blonde-male-model Bowie in the lackluster music-vids for the Let’s Dance songs).

“Loving the Alien” (1985), directed by Mallet and Bowie, does still feature male-model Bowie, but it is oddball enough to qualify as a kind of “Ashes to Ashes, Jr.” Filled with peculiar symbols, elements taken from fine art, and memorably offbeat images (the wedding image where he poses with a Muslim woman with money pinned to her dress) and creepy ones (a brief final image of Bowie floating through space in a bed, with a sizzling soundtrack that “breaks” the  song down entirely).

Yes, this video approaches self-satire, but Bowie spoke in interviews about how he felt parody was an essential element of what he did, through all the stages of his career.

Skipping to the album that I try not to mention (coughcoughBlackTie,WhiteNoisecoughcough), Bowie’s next visually arresting video was “Jump They Say,” (1993, directed by Mark Romanek). Yes, he’s still male-model Bowie (that didn’t go away until he grew a goatee and went back to a darker hair color), but this video is a gem, blending an alternate-present corporate culture with imagery directly nabbed from Alphaville and, most prominently, Chris Marker’s La Jetee. It’s a brightly-colored upbeat nightmare scenario:

Moving forward from the years he spent in the creative “wilderness,” we wind up with the return to form that 1.Outside represented. The album is a wildly creative and unique creation, in that it is the single longest Bowie audio creation (running 75 minutes), has a bizarre but somewhat linear narrative (more linear actually than Ziggy or Diamond Dogs), and contains a harder, industrial sound than anything Bowie had done in the past (including the more raucous moments on the Tin Machine albums).

Nicholas Pegg, in The Complete David Bowie, also gets right to the heart of the matter when he notes that “Noticeably, 1.Outside was the first album since Scary Monsters on which Bowie… reveled once again in the artful unwholesomeness that was the stock-in-trade of his 1970s work. This is a triumphantly queasy, deliciously unpleasant album, and by the time of its release Bowie… was once again prepared to explore areas of moral complexity.” (Pegg, p. 391)

The perfect couple:
Bowie and Eno
Pegg quotes Bowie saying in an interview: “‘I’m not suggesting for one small minute that you rush out and get your junkie kit together,’ he told one interviewer in 1996. “‘Not at all. It’s just interesting that people who make those explorations, if they go through the cusp of those experiences, they do tend to come out the other side in a way better people for it, you know? That’s a dangerous thing to say, but it’s true in my case. I’m glad I did everything I did. I really am.’” Pegg adds, “He would never have said anything like that in the 1980s.” (p. 391)

1.Outside is indeed a dividing line, where the Bowie beloved by his diehard fans returned — the one who wove interesting experiments that resulted in spellbinding albums (filled with catchy songs, no matter how depressing or debauched the lyrics might be). The plot, such as it is, concerns a criminal committing “art-ritual murders” (at the time, Bowie was becoming interested in the creepier performance artists who harmed themselves in the course of their shows).

The video for “The Heart's Filthy Lesson” (1995, directed by Sam Bayer) is a truly creepy affair, with tribal, pagan, blasphemous, “incorrect” imagery that makes it far more confrontational than the Seventies gender-bending performances and publicity films, which look extremely quaint in comparison. The setting is an art studio inhabited by a collective of people creating and worshipping mutilated sculptures.

The editing is much quicker than it was in the Mallet vids, but it perfectly fits the song, which is an assault on the senses. And yes, male-model Bowie is now in the past — he was sporting his tiny beard by this point. He performs erratically and seems to be mocking the viewer and also the totem-like objects he and his group are creating. It’s a total redefinition that was as radical for its time as the glam/Thin White Duke/Berlin personas were for their eras.

Bowie always was absorbing new music genres and then trying to incorporate them in his work. He liked the wave of techno music that flourished in the Nineties, and thus began to weave fast-paced sensory assaults like “Little Wonder” (1997, directed by Floria Sigismondi). The somewhat mangier, eyepatch-wearing, goateed Bowie plays a frenzied collector of curiosities, who is counterpointed by younger actors dressed as his earlier personae.

Sigismondi was as good as David Mallet at visualizing Bowie’s music (both directors shared Bowie’s crazed and fertile vision for quick, memorable imagery). Her direction here is kinetic, confrontational, and willfully abrasive, which is absolutely perfect for the song, with its intentionally trivial lyric. 

The dream/nightmare imagery is potent (using the subway as the locus of nightmares is always a wise decision), and the decision to use Gerard Oursler’s “electronic effigies” (projections of film onto dolls and other inanimate objects) was a masterstroke (Oursler first worked with Bowie on his 50th birthday concert and continued to supply amazing imagery to his music-videos and concerts up to and through the videos for The Next Day).

The fact that David was 50 years old here should give inspiration to those of us “of a certain age.”

“Dead Man Walking” (1997, directed by Sigismondi) is a totally abstract video, in which Bowie and various figures perform random actions. Among these figures is bassist and all-around Cool Chick Gail Ann Dorsey, who not only was Bowie’s regular bassist for his last few tours (and several albums), but also makes a fine “devil girl” here.

Bowie used to show Un Chien Andalou by Bunuel and Dali before his concerts (a nice light prelude to a night’s entertainment there) and he clearly favored surrealism throughout his career. Here it’s ecstasy-flavored surrealism with the same sense of self-parody that always fueled Don Luis — especially when a gent tries to retrieve a side of beef from a staircase.

If I was asked to pick my favorite post-’80 Bowie video, it would probably be “I'm Afraid of Americans” (1997, Dom and Nick). The song it visualizes is catchy as hell, and it’s socially significant without being preachy. Bowie loved living here in NYC in the two decades of his life, but he was right to be wary of the gun violence that consumes our society. Instead of writing a pro-gun control song, he came up with this (that phrase again) nightmare scenario.

Of course the video is ripped right out of Taxi Driver, but since Scorsese has long since left that sort of gritty stylization behind (in favor of trying to refashion Leonard DiCaprio into a number of adult parts he isn’t quite versatile enough to excel in), so it’s all up for grabs. Trent Reznor makes a very good (younger) Travis Bickle and the emphasis on random New Yorkers pointing imaginary guns at each other is a masterstroke (it also enabled the video to be shown on music-video channels and shows — by this point gangsta-rap videos with guns in them were being banned).

Bowie’s recognition that Reznor was just about the best thing happening in American music at that time was also quite perceptive — again, with the exception of hip-hop (Al B Sure?), Bowie continually made the right decisions about which artists to “borrow” from, namecheck in interviews, and collaborate with.

The video is as vibrant and scary as the song, and for NYC residents, it also offers a great view of downtown in the late Nineties (replete with several views of the now sadly defunct Pearl Paint).

Bowie’s last two albums are filled with all kinds of songs about age, the passing of time, and death (but then again, one must remember that in his 20s he was singing about “Time” and “My Death” on a nightly basis). Back in 1999, though, he began his music-video meditation on age with “Thursday's Child” (1999, directed by Walter Stern), a moving piece that finds David at 52 thinking about his youth.

In an interesting reversal of the scene in The Hunger where he grows older, here we see him growing younger and, as in “Little Wonder,” we see a younger counterpart for Bowie, who studies himself in the bathroom mirror.

Over the years, Bowie either downplayed his acting talent, or noted that his acting career was always going to run a distant second to his interest in music. He was a very good actor who (for the most part) made very smart choices in taking roles — later in his life he was wise enough to just take showy supporting parts and stay far away from starring in anything. In this video he clearly conveys the angst and “what might have been?” aspects of aging.

The wistfulness of the video and the catchiness of the tune make it an important transition in his music-video work. It might seem like a step backward from the above nightmare-frenzy sessions for him to make a piece that has a linear narrative, but to shine a light on his own aging was a very brave move for a former king of the pop charts.

In the last part of this blog entry I mentioned the song “Slip Away” from the 2002 album Heathen. Bowie made the very interesting move of not making any music-videos for that album, saying in an Entertainment Weekly interview, “There’s a certain age you get to when you’re not really going to be shown [on TV] anymore. The young have to kill the old… that’s how life works…. It’s how culture works.”

He did do a few videos for his next album, Reality (2003). “Never Get Old” is a great lyric about the vows made by youth (as seen by an older man), but the video is just a stylish lip-synch, as is “The Loneliest Guy.” Far better is “New Killer Star,” (directed by Brumby Boylston), an oddball “all-American” reverie done as a series of lenticular images. Lenticular imagery isn’t meant for video (since it’s about making static images “move,” which is already the province of film and video), but this video is interesting  because the song is so damned hook-driven and the images are so “wholesome” as to be creepy, which was surely the intent.

One detects the influence of Jim Blashfield’s earlier music videos in this bit of animated weirdness. See what you think.

The same man who swore in 2002 that he no longer wanted to make music videos was by 2013 a bit of an enigma: an NYC resident who had stopped performing publicly, rarely appeared in films and on television, and (to most folks’ knowledge) had stopped recording music. Thus, the appearance of The Next Day really was a bit of a surprise (as was his next, and last, album). Thankfully, it was a pleasant surprise, as most of the songs were excellent.

The most touching song, and most moving video (until the final pair) was “Where Are We Now?” (2013, directed by multimedia artist Tony Oursler). A definite stock-taking by Bowie, the lyrics evoke his famous “Berlin period” by recalling locations in the city, while offering us the vision of a crowded artist’s studio inhabited by a pair of dolls — the faces of Bowie and Oursler’s wife Jacqueline Humphries projected onto them.

Bowie’s voice is at its most plaintive, and the piece on the whole is beautifully contemplative. Oursler’s video matches it emotion for emotion, as we again see “older David” (now 66) unsmiling as he looks directly in the camera (this is not the cocky glam king of the Seventies or the male model of the Eighties). It’s a wonderful piece of work that is incredibly sad and incredibly exciting to watch — not just because of the fact that Bowie was still making music (albeit very quietly, out of the public gaze) in his reportedly “retired” period, but that he was making such beautifully emotive music.

If “Where Are We Now?” wasn’t proof enough that Bowie was back at full strength, I need only point to the absolutely *delightful * video for “The Next Day” (directed by Sigismondi), which finds Bowie with tongue planted firmly in cheek playing a Christ figure entertaining at a “gentleman’s club” inhabited entirely by lecherous priests (led by Gary Oldman) and call girls (led by Marion Cotillard).

Bowie discussed religion a lot in interviews — constantly noting that he had no interest in organized religion but that he believed in some kind of god (this in the last 20 years). At another point in the last two decades, he noted that he had “an abiding need in me to vacillate between atheism or a kind of Gnosticism.” (Pegg, p. 394) Whatever his beliefs were in the final years of his life, this video is wonderfully blasphemous and, as such, is a joy and pleasure to watch (over and over again, if you’re an ex-Catholic, like this reviewer).

Honorable mention should go to “Valentine’s Day,” in which directors Indrani and Markus Klinko wind up studying Bowie’s face. Having had some health problems, he looks quite different than he did a decade before in the Reality videos, but he clearly wanted the camera to see for once the “real” Bowie (in the last few interviews he did, he would refer to his existence as now being more a matter of David Jones — his real name — than the iconic and always-plugged-in Bowie).

John Schaefer, the host of the great "Soundcheck" show on WNYC wrote an article that decoded the video, declaring it an anti-gun piece (producer Tony Visconti has revealed that that was Bowie's lyrical intent). Best of all, Schaefer pointed out (this insight was later noted in the British music press, two weeks later) that one pose Bowie strikes is eerily (intentionally?) reminiscent of the famous image of Charlton Heston raising his gun at an NRA convention ("... from my cold, dead hands...").

The “Hello Steve Reich” remix done by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy for the song “Love is Lost” inspired this video directed by Bowie himself (he finally *did* become a director!), which again features Oursler’s projection-on-dolls  technique. The video is damned creepy, as it features the face of the aging Bowie superimposed on a Pierrot doll (with definite visual and aural refs to “Ashes to Ashes”), as we see the real David at the bathroom sink again (he clearly saw that as the locus for people confronting their wrinkles).

A creepy blonde-Bowie dummy takes the whole thing into the Twilight Zone. Both the Pierrot doll and the dummy were created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop for a never-made video for another song. Bowie proudly maintained that the video cost a total of $12.99, the price of the flash drive he saved it on. (So presumably this video was shot somewhere Chez Bowie – or was it?)

Tilda as Bowie.
Tilda Swinton has spoken about how she grew up loving Bowie, so her costarring performance in the video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (directed by Sigismondi) must’ve been especially mind-blowing for her. She was chosen clearly not only because she is a great actress, but because she is a chameleon (rumor has it Bowie hated that label, a lot) who looks a wee bit like  Mr. B.

The video is a narrative one, with Bowie and Swinton as a boring middle-aged couple who are haunted by two celebrity alter-egos (played by two young women) and a red-haired Bowie lookalike (played by a young woman incarnating the “Cracked Actor” coke-years David). The video meditates on fame (that old saw), privacy (something Bowie was very intent on keeping intact in this period – and so he did), and a familiar theme he had pretty much deserted, sexuality.

Bowie released the jazzy ballad “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” to promote yet another greatest-hits collection (Nothing Has Changed). The video is an evocative piece, with the song illustrated by b&w images of NYC tunnels and subways (this time not used as a setting for horror). We see Bowie recording his vocal imposed on the walls of the tunnels, as the words of the song appear onscreen.

I could’ve done without the karaoke-like magnified lyrics, but otherwise it’s an interesting video (directed by Tom Hingston and Bowie house photographer Jimmy King).

Bowie's last two videos have probably been seen by more people than any new music videos he's done since the Eighties Let's Dance MTV blitz. The first one, “Blackstar,” (2015, directed by Johan Renck), brings us back to the barrage of signs, symbols, and general weirdness that characterized the video for “Ashes to Ashes.” This piece is more complex, as it is longer and the piece of music it is visualizing has been described as a combination of avant-garde jazz, a Gregorian chant, and drum and bass. 

There were no in-depth interviews with Bowie after his Reality period, so we will never learn what eloquent, ambiguous, and self-effacing things he might've said about this very curious (and surprisingly long, for him) video. Many articles on the Net have tried to “unpack” the imagery, starting with the obvious question (that's Major Tom's skull, right?) to the exact nature of the oddities on display (from the tremor dance of the female celebrants to the “Buttoneyes” character Bowie plays early on). I can offer no solutions or even valid interpretations (all interpretations for ambiguous symbols are correct, in some formulation).

One thing is for sure: this was during Bowie's health crisis, and he looks terrific (he pulled off “greying” hair beautifully). And yes, although this is a deadly serious song, and a melancholic video, the song itself relies on some pretty goofy puns (our narrator reminds us he's a blackstar, not a porn star, a “gangstar,” and the curious “flamstar”). In any case, the best single passage in the song is at 4:40 (the “Something happened on the day he died...” interlude). And, yes, the crucified scarecrows are pretty much up there with the creepiest image in any Bowie video.

Now, for the final curtain. It was clear that Bowie "stage-managed" his death, hiding from the public, but providing a beautiful farewell in the form of the Blackstar album and these two videos. I thought I'd close out (before we reach the very last music-video of all) with some quotes from David about his mortality. 

After he turned 50 he began to speak more and more in interviews about his age and his feelings about being in rock as a middle-aged man (he had a far more practical take on it than the leaders of bands that tour endlessly, playing the oldies for the rest of their wizened existences). On the subject of aging, he said (in a promotional interview for Heathen):

“I didn’t want [the album] to become pathetic, either, like, you know, ‘Here’s an old man’s recollections’ or something. Still, I had no embarrassment about expressing the thoughts and experiences of an old man…. I wanted to give some sense of what happens when you arrive at this age — do you still have doubts, do you still have questions and fear, and does everything burn with as much luminosity as it did when you were young.” (Pegg, p. 408)

Bowie was quick to talk about death. In the quickie paperback biography Presenting David Bowie by David Douglas, there is an interesting passage: “Bowie’s dramatic statement, ‘I know that one day a great artist will killed on stage, and I can’t help feeling that it might be me,’ stems from an authentic fear that he might someday become the first pop star to be assassinated….

“According to [his former girlfriend Ava Cherry], after a while he didn’t even want to talk about the subject for fear the negative energy might increase its likelihood.” (p. 74) It has been reported in more than one source that the reason he didn’t extend his run in The Elephant Man on Broadway was a result of fears brought up by the killing of John Lennon (among Mark Chapman's possessions was an Elephant Man playbill; also, Bowie's name was purportedly on his list of targets).

At points he sounded like a character in a Bergman drama (or, conversely, a Woody Allen comedy). He plainly stated (at the “middle” age, mind you, of 51), “What I need to find is a balance, spiritually, with the way I live and my demise. And that period of time — from today until my demise — is the only thing that fascinates me.” (Pegg, p. 394)

So he carefully kept his life under wraps in the last decade-plus, and the private nature of his death befitted a man who had always lived his characters to the full. His final character (and, aside from some studio work with Visconti, his final performance) was indeed “Buttoneyes,” who is also featured in the “Lazarus” video.

The video speaks for itself, but I will note that the image of Bowie at his writing desk coming up with ideas as his strength runs out is an inspiring one. Seeing David do some dance moves two months before his death is also pretty damned inspirational.

A final quote: “Our expectations of an ending or a conclusion… learned from repeated story-film-narrative culture, gives us a completely unjustified set of expectations for life.” (Pegg, p. 392). This clearly was something that bothered Bowie — people wanting decisive endings. Despite his disliking clearcut conclusions, he certainly provided us with a hell of a finale to his life as a performer, musician, visual artist, and “idea man.” 

Note: The title for this piece comes from “Quicksand” on the Hunky Dory album.