by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
London is in the grip of Bowie fever these days. His first album in 10 years is top of the charts, and a V & A museum exhibition, “David Bowie Is,” devoted to all things Bowie and drawn from his personal archive, is the greatest thing that this august establishment museum has ever put on: double the ticket sales of any previous exhibit in its 160-year-long history.
Selfridges has pop-up stores where you can buy Bowie T-shirts and stuff, and there's a makeup kit for you to Bowie-make-over your quotidian visage. His album is tipped to win the Mercury prize. Not a day goes past that there is not a Bowie pic or article in the popular press. There's even been an April Fool's joke about Bowie opening a pet shop called Spiders from Mars, which would sell some of his favorite spiders as pets.
How has this happened? Well, credit the marketing of no marketing. No publicity buildup. Bowie dropped his album The Next Day out of the blue. After a decade of silence. Surprise, surprise. The subsequent impact may also bespeak the paucity of any great popstar breakout in the last twenty years, since the era of rock titans of the sixties, seventies and eighties. We don't seem to have such titans today. Beyonce, maybe. Social media — so democratic, so pervasive, so accessible — have led to isolated monad pockets of excitement; nothing ranging wide across the entire culture. Frank Ocean is hardly a hugely impactful phenom, even if he's a black guy who admits to being partial to other guys. Lady Gaga is the closest thing we have to a recent high-and-wide-impact popstar, but if she weren't such a good songwriter, her meat dress and other performance-art Haus-of-Gaga stunts would've relegated her to New York's underground scene — just another Klaus Nomi figure, of which Manhattan has had plenty.
Well, what can one say about Bowie Resurgent?
Number one, there hasn't really ever been a popstar worthy of a museum exhibit, except for Bowie. After all these years, the man is eminently intellectually respectable. And why is he so museum-appropriate? Because of his chameleon personas, and the way his personas venture forth from strictly music to engage fashion and other trends. The popstar as persona. The mask as public figure. Before him, public figures worked at creating an enduring single persona. Even actors did it — John Wayne as avuncular cowboy; Clara Bow as vamp; Cary Grant as the ideal gentleman date; Humphrey Bogart's cynical tough guy covering up a morally upright soft heart (when he started off as an upperclass white-tie fop on Broadway). But Bowie said, nope, I'll create a new self every now and then. In his public personas, Bowie exemplifies the psychological theory which says we consist of various self-states, who need to make peace with one another. Except his self-states are so various, there's no way they could be integrated.
To enumerate some Bowie self-states:
1. He burst upon the scene as some kind of cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich clone — a drag queen esthetic lies behind The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory. Little Richard, with his camp behavior, and wild makeup, was Bowie's predecessor in this area.
2. His big break-through album, Ziggy Stardust, featured his first character, a bizarro sci-fi alien. This was the introduction of Glam Rock, later taken to its nadir by the LA Hair Metal bands. Before Bowie, there had been no such thing as a popstar changing characters, an act that has only been exploited by Madonna since. Almost more important, Bowie was the first rocker to resonate with up-all-night club kids — that interesting melange of gender-fluid drug-sodden dressing-up fly-your-freak-flag mixed-up teen misfits as a tribe, who later flocked around Madonna, and who were totally emblemized by Boy George, and who these days are the “little monsters” who form the core of the Lady Gaga cult. Bowie could be said to have discovered this demographic; maybe he even created it. He was also one of the first art school-type rockers — along with Glam Rock folks like Roxy Music. He also bent gender in a way more upfront manner than the androgynous figure introduced by Mick Jagger. At the time, Bowie said flat out that he was bisexual, when it was still a shocking thing to admit; at that point only French actor Alain Delon had made that daring claim. Later on, Bowie demurred that this was a big mistake, and that he'd always been “a closeted heterosexual” — a statement which kept alive the whimsical, teasing way in which he played with sexuality.
3. Then there was “plastic soul,” introduced by his Young Americans album. He went from Brit art-rock to a sort of artificial American soul funk dandy thingummy.
4. Then there is the Thin White Duke, who came about with the Station to Station album. Variously described as “a hollow man who sang of romance with agonised intensity while feeling nothing,” “ice masquerading as fire,” “a mad aristocrat,” “an amoral zombie,” and “an emotionless Aryan superman” (and by Bowie himself as “a nasty character indeed” and “an ogre for me”), he was a man stripped of all previous artifice, of all feeling whatsoever, a numbed-out creature of cocaine (which was true — Bowie was doing drugs by the bucket then). In fact, the chilly distance of the Thin White Duke really nails the wall behind which Bowie has always shielded himself from us in his personas. Around this time he also starred in the mindbending sci-fi classic The Man Who Fell To Earth, surely the most brilliant casting decision ever (besides Sean Connery as James Bond).
5. Then Bowie became the reclusive Berlin Krautrock expat, a creator of rigid art, saying nay to any vestige of commercialism, produced with the avant-garde pop avatar himself, Brian Eno. Low, the first album in the trilogy, dominated by no-vocal instrumentals, inspired Philip Glass to use its themes for his first symphony. How arty and intellectually respectable is that?
6. Next a return back to earlier days with the albumScary Monsters, when Bowie recalled Major Tom fromSpace Oddity in his Ashes to Ashes song, also an extremely influential video, for which he gathered as actors a number of folks from the new Romantic Brit pop movement. Scary Monsters was quite widely hailed, so much so that every subsequent album has been called “his greatest album since Scary Monsters.” Around this time he also did a three-month stint in the title role of The Elephant Man on Broadway — as far as personas go, pretty extreme.
7. Then he came out with maybe his lousiest album, Let's Dance, as some kind of disco sophisticate person, an album which was ironically maybe his biggest personal success, because amidst the forgettable dross, it had three big hits on it, the mega Let's Dance produced with Nile Rodgers, and the charming China Girland Modern Love.
After that, there were a number of albums, including one as Tin Machine, when he tried to bury himself in a band, a persona too small for him. Good albums, but not great, except for Outside, another Brian Eno collaboration. If you liked Bowie in the beginning, but lost touch afterYoung Americans, there are two albums to take another listen to: Lodger, the third of the Berlin trilogy, andOutside.
Outside is Bowie's most ambitious album yet, with a big concept and a dizzying refraction into many personas. Having been frustrated that the Orwell estate did not allow him to use 1984 as a basis for a musical extravaganza (stupid mater fornicators), which left him with the shards for his Diamond Dogs album, Bowie now went all-out with his own concept of a dystopian future in which a detective investigates art murder, where pieces of human beings are displayed as art. Subtitled The Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A Non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle, the album incorporates a few straight songs with a melange of avant-garde noise outings, and many gorgeous piano pointillisms by Mike Garson. Not even Radiohead goes this deep into sheer art for art's sake. It may be Bowie's masterpiece, although my view of it might be compromised by the fact that I was, while allowing it a first serious listen, pregnant with a huge turd, bravely fighting relentless peristaltic spasms. I might be giving it more credit than I should because of my intense degree of suffering while absorbing it, since the experience totally prevented me from bestirring my agonized self to the nearest porcelain receptacle.
Here's Bowie holding forth about the album:
“Overall, a long-term ambition is to make it a series of albums extending to 1999 — to try to capture, using this device, what the last five years of this millennium feel like. It's a diary within the diary. The narrative and the stories are not the content — the content is the spaces in between the linear bits. The queasy, strange, textures … Oh, I've got the fondest hopes for the fin de siecle. I see it as a symbolic sacrificial rite. I see it as a deviance, a pagan wish to appease gods, so we can move on. There's a real spiritual starvation out there being filled by these mutations of what are barely remembered rites and rituals. To take the place of the void left by a non-authoritative church. We have this panic button telling us it's gonna be a colossal madness at the end of this century.”
“Perhaps the one through-line between some of the stuff in Outside and the coming millennium is this new Pagan worship, this whole search for a new spiritual life that's going on. Because of the way we've demolished the idea of God with that triumvirate at the beginning of the century, Nietzsche, Einstein and Freud. They really demolished everything we believed. 'Time bends, God is dead, the inner-self is made of many personalities'… wow, where the fuck are we? … I wonder if we have realized that the only thing we could create as 'God' was the hydrogen bomb and that the fall-out from the realization that as gods we can only seem to produce disaster is people trying to find some spiritual bonding and universality with a real nurtured inner-life. But there is also this positivism that you find now which really wasn't there at the end of the last century. Then, the general catch phrase among the artistic and literary community was that it was the end of the world. They really felt that in 1899 there was nothing else, that only complete disaster could follow. It isn't like that now. We may be a little wary or jittery about what's around the corner, but there's no feeling of everything's going to end in the year 2000. Instead, there's almost a celebratory feeling of 'right, at least we can get cracking and really pull it all together.”
As a side-note, it's kind of interesting that all of Bowie's personas were seriously non-macho. Bowie is the perfect metrosexual. Ain't got a butch bone anywhere in his sylph-like bod.
And now he's back with The Next Day, which consists of two great ballads —Where Are We Now? and You're So Lonely You Could Die — and some good rockers, Not a great album on first listen, but certainly a good one. Who knows, maybe his best album since Scary Monsters.
Be glad he's back. Tilda Swinton is. A bit of a persona switcher herself, she gave an introductory speech at the V & A exhibit addressed to Bowie in his absence, and I quote:
“I think the thing I'm loving the most about the last few weeks is how clear it now is — how undeniable — that the freak becomes the great unifier. The alien is the best company after all … When I think of what it used to feel like once, to be a freak who liked you, to feel like a freak like you — a freak who even looked a little like you. And then I think of the countless people of every size and feather who are going to walk through this trace of your journey here and pick up the breadcrumbs … And how familiar and stamped you are into ALL of our our collective DNA … And you brought us out of the wainscotting like so many
freaky old bastards … Like so many loners and pretty things and dandies and dudes and dukes and duckies and testicular types. And pulled us together … you, Dave Jones, every alien's favourite cousin.”
I'm with Tilda on this. And I think it's going to be good growing old with Bowie, as it has been growing old with Bob Dylan. Dylan is still out there, the hardest-working man in rock today, an inveterate tourer a la James Brown. So it's good growing old with him. But he's made his rut, and we know where we stand with him.
With Bowie, we'll never know where we stand with him. There ain't no rut for this dude. Maybe he'll invent another persona. Maybe we'll get to know him qua him. Maybe he'll face death in some very Bowiesquely compelling way. I personally, well, I need a guy like him around. Jeez, we're living in the dying embers of the Western capitalist moment. Our big banks, mired in massive fraud they're free to get away with, have deprived us of any moral center, and made fairness an outmoded concept. Our President is prepared to cut Social Security benefits, suffused with a bizarre desire to make nice with the crazy Republicans in a Grand Bargain of deficit cutting, which nobody needs, ferchrissake. Fuck Obama. He's no savior. We ain't got a Savior Mechanic, to paraphrase Bowie.
That's why I needs me some cultural fun and games. I needs me some Weimar amidst the rise of financial fascism. I needs me some happy surprises from some individual public figure out there.
I needs me some David Bowie. Because who knows what he'll be doing for our collective next day? So this then is my shorn last-ditch-like hope: it will be exciting growing old with David Bowie. Such are the small mercies of the contemporary wasteland we call post-modern life.