David Bowie: Loving the Alien
At first I thought it must be some kind of mistake. Not just because he’d just released an album two days before, not just because the description of a courageous battle with cancer seemed to contradict the images of him at the opening of his musical, Lazarus, only a few weeks before, but because it didn’t seem possible. Although he himself had been an elusive presence for more than a decade, refusing interviews, living if not in seclusion (he was in New York, after all) then certainly out of the public eye, his music and the characters and imagery it gave shape to often seemed more present than they had ever been.
In the end it took a tweet from his son, the director Duncan Jones, to convince me. “Very sorry and sad to say it’s true. I’ll be offline for a while. Love to all,” he wrote, above a photo of him on his famous father’s shoulders as a baby. And as I read it I knew it wasn’t a hoax. The great transformer had managed one last metamorphosis, one last surprise.
I was in shock, I realise now, unable to process the news. Later I would give way to tears more than once, surprising myself. Nor was I alone. As the news spread social media and the internet lit up, people moving online to express their sense of loss and disbelief. At first I thought it was just people I knew, people of an age to have grown up with his music, but as the hours passed it became clear it was more than that. Late in the evening I opened Facebook on my computer and scrolled downwards for what seemed like minutes through screen after screen of people from all walks of life sharing articles, videos, personal reflections and snippets of songs, united in their grief.
In a way this sort of reaction is understandable. Music is one of the ways we remember ourselves, its rhythms and melodies connecting us to the people we once were, all those other versions of our selves that we bear within. This capacity to conjure forth not just memory but something both more profound and more fragile is the one of the secrets of its power, and part of the reason losing the person who gave shape to that music is to lose something of that connection to the people we once were, almost as if some part of us has passed out of the world.
That was part of it for me, but it was more than that as well. I discovered Bowie in 1980. It was a bad time for me. I was in my first year of high school, my parents’ marriage was coming apart and I was desperately overweight and so lonely it hurts me to think about it even now. And then, one Sunday, I turned on Countdown and there was the video for ‘Ashes to Ashes’.
It’s difficult to overstate the effect that encounter had on my 13 year-old self. The video and the song were like a glimpse of a world I’d only ever imagined, somewhere strange and beautiful and filled with adult feelings of regret and self-loathing I only barely understood. Yet they spoke to me in an intense and powerful way. Only a few days after seeing it I bought the album, blowing several weeks of my pocket money in a single hit.
In recent years critics have tended to regard the Berlin Trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger as the most significant phase Bowie’s career. Much as I love the three of them, and Low in particular, I’m not sure it’s a judgement with which I concur. Yet either way, this tendency has meant Scary Monsters is often treated as a sort of afterthought, a moment of stasis before Bowie made another decisive break with his past.
To my mind this is a mistake, and not just because Scary Monsters features two of Bowie’s best and most recognisable singles in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Fashion’, as well the glorious ‘Teenage Wildlife’ and the swerving ‘Because You’re Young’. Instead it’s a mistake because it’s the album on which the vision Bowie had been articulating in his Berlin years was distilled and then turned inside out, the elegant ennui and Steve Reich minimalism of Low’s electronic instrumentals cast away in the wailing wall of Robert Fripp’s guitar and the looping tapes of tracks such as ‘It’s No Game’, producing a record as ferocious and driven and passionate as anything Bowie ever recorded.
Either way, my 13 year-old self loved it, seduced by its drama and its steely elegance. And wanting more I moved on, first to Changesone: Bowie, a compilation that began with ‘Space Oddity’ and ended with ‘Golden Years’, transporting the listener from his first hit to to Station to Station (an album that I have come to regard as one of his most brilliant, not least because its expansiveness and precision are so at odds with his psychological disorder when it was recorded), and then its sequel, Changestwo, which supplemented these with more tracks from his early years and cuts from the Berlin albums and Scary Monsters.
In this age of instantaneous information I think it’s easy to forget how remote the wider world often seemed in the 1980s. You learned about music by listening to the radio and watching Countdown, hanging around record shops, or flicking through magazines in newsagents. The music you could hear was confined to what you could afford to buy, or the tapes we passed from hand to hand.
That meant that, at least at the beginning, my experience of Bowie was largely about an engagement with the songs, an engagement that only deepened as I moved out from my Changes compilations and began to buy the albums; first Ziggy Stardust, then Diamond Dogs and Heroes, or as with Aladdin Sane and the then-disappointing, now-delightfully loose Lodger, to tape the copies I glimpsed in the record collections of my friends’ older brothers and sisters. Each new one came as a surprise, as the songs I knew from it opened out into new worlds, glimpses of worlds of strangeness and urgency I hadn’t realised how much I wanted.
But as I grew older and began to watch late night music shows I began to encounter him in other ways as well, glimpsing videos of him in concert, of him performing songs such as ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Heroes’ and ‘Starman’, or in Nicholas Roeg’s (entirely baffling to my 15 year-old self) The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Looking at them now what strikes me about him is his delicacy and otherworldliness, the way he seemed to challenge our ideas of sexuality not just through his clothes and hair, but through his embrace of a particular kind of vulnerability and otherness. His beauty transcended gender, made him both male and female, human and alien.
This rejection – or transcension – of categories was a central part of his appeal in the 1970s and 1980s (as well as part of what made his sojourn in the relentlessly corporate and drearily macho Tin Machine so uniquely depressing). For by demonstrating it was possible to be both and neither, he made it possible to imagine other ways of being, ways that involved different kinds of sexuality, other kinds of beauty. Just as Morrissey would for another generation a decade or two later, Bowie offered people – and teenage boys in particular – a different model for masculinity, and more importantly suggested that being an outsider wasn’t something to be afraid of, it was something to be embraced and celebrated.
All these things mattered to me as a teenager, often profoundly. But Bowie did more than suggest other ways of being, he also opened the door to a wider world, one filled with glamour and danger and most importantly sexual and personal possibility. Nor was this possibility always imaginative, for as my awareness of his work expanded it brought me into contact with other musicians and artists, not just The Velvet Underground, but Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and in a roundabout way artists like Patti Smith and Talking Heads. Without Bowie my teenage self might never have encountered Reed’s Transformer, or understood that its evocation of the lives of New York’s demi-monde wasn’t the leering innuendo the macho DJs who played ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ on commercial radio took it to be but something delicate and beautiful and true, or experienced the wild exaltation of Patti Smith’s Horses.
After Scary Monsters Bowie retreated for a time. There were singles – the magnificent deconstructed gospel of his duet with Freddie Mercury and Queen, ‘Under Pressure’, his collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ – but for three years he was largely invisible to my teenage self.
Then, in 1983, he reappeared with Let’s Dance, the album that together with the tour that followed, turned him into a superstar. These days it looks like his first fatal misstep, the moment when he elected to transform himself into a conventional rock star, but in 1983 it was perfect, capturing the world’s desire to shuck off the confusion and darkness of the 1970s and the early 1980s, to embrace something colourful and glamorous yet uncomplicated (and after all what could be less complicated than his emptied out version of Iggy Pop’s ‘China Girl’, or the frankly dire ‘Ricochet’?). And I have to confess that even if there was a part of me that longed for the other Bowie I already loved, the one whose shifting identities and danger suffused records like Scary Monsters and Heroes, I was dazzled by this new version of him, so much so that at 16 I wanted nothing more than to be him.
The second half of the 1980s and the 1990s were a dark time for Bowie. In the aftermath of the success of Let’s Dance he was initially becalmed, and then, like a drowning man, began to flounder. The almost uncanny feel for the zeitgeist that had sustained him through the 1970s and 1980s seemed to have deserted him, his endless reinventions (dance music! drum and bass! rock opera!) suddenly seeming desperate rather than inspired, his conceptual language, its tortured painters and fascination with religion, hackneyed and faintly embarrassing. There were moments of brilliance like ‘Absolute Beginners’, but as the years passed they were fewer and fewer, so much so that when in 2004 he disappeared from view after a heart attack on stage in Germany it almost seemed like a relief.
In fact in the years before his retirement he had been staging a comeback of sorts, perhaps as a result of reuniting with producer Tony Visconti, recording not one but two albums in Heathen and Reality which, while not bearing comparison with his best work, nonetheless showed some of the clarity and purpose that had been lacking in the previous two decades, something that is clearly audible in songs like the wonderfully menacing ‘New Killer Star’. Yet in the years after his heart attack he chose not to return to recording or touring, choosing instead to retreat into what most people took to be retirement.
Perhaps because he had vacated the stage, the years after 2004 saw a growing interest in his work, and more particularly the significance of his achievements in the 1970s. There were of course the reissuing and remastering of old records that is the bread and butter of the legacy star, but alongside it there was an uptick in academic and critical interest, producing books of the calibre of Hugo Wilcken’s thrilling study of Low and leading, almost as if by design, to the V&A’s magnificent retrospective, David Bowie Is.
Yet there was little question that what was being curated by these writers and historians was not a living body of work but a legacy. Bowie the man had essentially disappeared, variously believed to be on the point of death, disfigured by strokes, or simply enjoying domestic life and fatherhood. Until, that is, 8 January 2013, when, without warning, he released a new single and a new video, recorded and filmed in secret, and simultaneously announced plans for a new album.
Unlike his work in the decades leading up to his retirement, which had often evinced a curiously uneasy relationship with his work in the 1970s, this new single deliberately invoked his best work, a connection that was made explicit by the cover of the album, The Next Day, which took the iconic image of Bowie that adorned the cover of Heroes and pasted the title of the new album over it.
This was clearly a new Bowie, one not beholden to the past but not afraid of it either, seeing it as something to be deployed and mined. For some I think this was disappointing, suggesting the sort of standing still Scary Monsters is sometimes accused of, the stasis that was always anathema to his best work. Yet I found it thrilling, not just for the way it engaged with his past without ever allowing it to overshadow the new, but for its lyrical focus and political fury, the ominous balance of regret and possibility that inheres in the title, its simultaneous suggestion of renewal and admonition. These are qualities that are given stark and terrifying power in the opening track, in which he chants “The body left to rot in a hollow tree/It’s branches throwing shadows/On the gallows for me/And the next day/And the next/And another day”, words that turn the promise of resurrection or reincarnation one glimpses in the image of the body in the tree into something horrifying and endless. But they are also audible in the circling motion of the brooding ‘Love is Lost’, its unsettling evocation of the transience of identity and the way violence shadows the rootlessness of modernity: “Your country’s new/Your friends are new/Your house and even your eyes are new/Your maid is new and your accent too/But your fear is as old as the world”.
The Next Day was also notable for the manner of its release. Not just the degree to which it came as a surprise to all, but by Bowie’s refusal to go through the usual rituals that accompany the release of a new album by an artist of his age and stature. There were no interviews, no exclusive features, no media performances. Indeed his only real engagement with the media was a list of ideas he sent to the novelist Rick Moody, who used them to sustain an extended riff on the album and Bowie’s oeuvre published a few weeks after the album’s release.
Whether this was a deliberate strategy, a way of forcing the media to focus not on him but the album (something it did very effectively) or a way of protecting he and his family’s privacy (or indeed both) it forced critics and the public to focus not on him but his work, and made clear he was no longer interested in the business of celebrity.
Fascinatingly it also signalled the beginning of a creative resurgence. He began work on the stage show, Lazarus, a sequel of sorts to The Man Who Fell to Earth, began recording another new album, and while he still avoided the media, insisting on his privacy, there was even talk by some of a possible tour.
That new album Blackstar, was released the Friday before last, its release timed to coincide with Bowie’s 69th birthday. Although I had been looking forward to it for weeks I held off listening to it until the Sunday afternoon, partly because my unexamined desire to own it in physical form had held me back from streaming it, partly because I wanted to be able to give it my full attention.
Despite my excitement I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of it. The pre-release publicity had emphasised his decision to record with a group of New York jazz musicians instead of his more usual collaborators, a concept I found unsettling, not least because I’m not usually enamoured of jazz, especially in its more experimental incarnations. And while I’d admired them I’d also found the singles that had preceded somewhat baffling, the videos that accompanied them cryptic and confusing, their imagery poised somewhere between nightmare and the overwrought parody of Floria Sigismondi’s video for ‘The Next Day’.
But by the time it was halfway through I was ecstatic. Here was something as strange and mercurially beautiful as anything he’d created in years. Gone were the grinding guitars and heritage rock of The Next Day; in their place was a free-floating, liquid ominousness, broken here and there by sudden flashes of soaring, melodic beauty like those that break through in the last third of the ten minute title track, or the gorgeous closing ballad, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’.
It was also, like The Next Day, an album that begged to be analysed, its meanings teased out. What were we to make of the image of the astronaut lying dead at the opening of the video for ‘Blackstar’, or the the English evergreens the narrator is running toward in ‘Dollar Days’? Why after so many years had he elected to produce an album without his image on the cover, opting instead for a simple graphic? Was this an album about beginnings or endings? About ISIS? About the end of the world or power of love? Or was it something more inscrutable than that, a piece of deliberately confounding late-Bowie gameplay?
In the end we only had to wait two days for the key to its mysteries, the realisation this was not just another album, but a swan song, a work created not just in the full knowledge of his impending death, but in the belief he would not live long enough to see it released, that it would be a message from beyond the grave.
We are taught to be wary of reading autobiography into art, if only to avoid the tendency to literalise it induces, thereby eliding the complex ways in which experience is transfigured by the artistic process, its constituent elements subsumed into something new, but with Blackstar that admonition feels pointless, for it really is a kind of summa, a work designed to be listened in full awareness of its creator’s looming mortality. Even the stark black and white of its cover suggests an act of self-erasure, as if the man behind it is eliminating himself, perhaps in completion of the process foreshadowed in the covering of his face on the sleeve of The Next Day. Likewise the image of the astronaut lying dead on some alien planet that opens the video for ‘Blackstar’ becomes almost impossible not to read as the final resting place of the trajectory his cosmic Major began in 1969 in ‘Space Oddity’, the dead planet and black star overhead suggesting a universe in the last stages of senescence. Even the album’s title took on new meaning once somebody made the connection to the song of the same name by Elvis Presley, the first verse of which – “Every man has a black star/A black star over his shoulder/And when a man sees his black star/He knows his time, his time has come” – underlines Bowie’s certainty about where he is heading.
There is something astonishing about this choice, the idea one’s own death might be a kind of performance. Like so much else that Bowie did, it is entirely calculating, a way of diverting the world’s attention to protect the privacy of his family. But it also turns these songs and more particularly the videos that accompany them into something simultaneously brilliant and self-effacing, a death haunted kabuki, a beautiful dance of disappearance.
And in so doing it reminds us with great eloquence of why Bowie mattered, and why he continues to matter. Not just because he had things left he wanted to say – one only has to look at the video for ‘Lazarus’, the way his shadow emerges from the wardrobe for a final burst of creativity while the real man, his face swathed in bandages, writhes in agony on the bed to see that. But because by turning his death into a work of art he reminds us one last time of the degree to which all our identities are, in some sense, works of art, performances in which death is really only the final transformation.
Yet in a way Bowie’s real genius lay less in his understanding of the liberating power of fantasy but in the music itself, the way it touches us. For while much is often made of his fascination with alienation and decline these qualities are counter-balanced by a deeply human yearning for connection, for the power of it to free us from who we are and make us anew. And it is this we respond to when we listen to songs such as ‘Heroes’ and ‘Starman’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me’, this that makes him speak to so many of us so deeply, this that means his passing leaves us with these mingled feelings of loss and gratitude. For as he promised us in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, he can help us with the pain, all it takes is to “turn on with me and you’re not alone.”
Beautiful piece, James. And nice that he brought you round to New York jazz,’ free-floating, liquid ominousness, broken here and there by sudden flashes of soaring, melodic beauty’. Exactly. (Check out Robert Glasper’s Black Radio album too.)
Thanks for this James, so much of it coincides with my own feelings about Bowie – I think I’m a couple of years older than you, so the first release of my Bowie fandom was Lodger, an album that as you say disappointed initially but now delights me with its eclecticism, faux naivete and travelogue theme. As for Scary Monsters, I confess to being a little lukewarm on the second half but the five-song whammy of the first side is truly breathtaking, surely among the best work he’s ever done (still struggling to refer to Bowie in the simple past tense).
I too listened to the new album on a loop that Sunday – in fact I was probably listening to it at the very moment he drew his last breath. I’m very glad I managed to immerse myself in it before hearing of his death, and was already able to come to the conclusion that it was great, a refreshing break from the neoclassic rock of the past three albums, and that the title track is probably up there with those other Bowie epics, Sweet Thing/Candidate and Station To Station. After all those attempts to reboot since the mid-80s, Bowie finally seemed in some way reborn…
For years I’ve had this vague idea to write a book or long piece about people who managed to turn their death into art (I’ve written a few pieces on Edouard Leve, you may have come across his Autoportrait and Suicide). That Bowie’s art and death should collide so dramatically is somehow both befitting and disturbing and I still don’t quite know what to make of it.
‘mingled feelings of loss and gratitude.’ This is perfect, James.
Because I discovered Bowie in the Heathen/Reality era those albums have some of the meaning for me that Scary Monsters does for you (agree, by the way, about SM’s distillation, some great songs). Heathen in particular deserves a revisit – it’s a good one for the grieving, such a sad album. ‘Nothing remains…’ Since his death I’m not sure why but I’ve been alternating between Blackstar, Heathen and Aladdin Sane. Whereas I’d say Low, Lodger and Diamond Dogs are my favourites.
Thanks again for a great piece.