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Looking back on David Bowie

In life, David Bowie – who died in January – was both celebrated and reviled for his lack of a stable artistic personality, a hard center of self. Fans loved him, and some critics hated him, but they often read him the same way: as a series of more or less cynical gestures surrounding nothing. (So who picks the gestures, then?) This reading now appears almost monumentally wrong, an error on the same level as thinking Bob Dylan a protest singer, or Frank Zappa a dangerous intellectual.

We all mourn in our own way. I mourned Bowie, whose music I have loved since a cool older buddy played “Starman” for me one day at the gas station where we all hung out in high school (yes, really), by listening back through his incomparable ‘70s discography, while reading Rebel Rebel (2015), Chris O’Leary’s superb song-by-song critical examination of Bowie’s catalogue from the beginning of his career through 1976. What I found – or what O’Leary found for me – was a set of artistic preoccupations as stubbornly there as any in pop music history. His styles and collaborators changed, sure – this became its own form of consistency, after a while. But whether he sang spacey folk music, heavy metal, Stones-y hard rock, “plastic soul,” Germanic disco or covers of old movie themes, Bowie mined the same themes: the joy and terror of transformation, the ugly allure of power, and the obsessive, doomed search for gnostic and occult knowledge, all followed by a final, humiliating return to love in its humblest forms.

Bowie, born David Robert Jones in 1947, grew up the favourite child in a blended family. His older brother, Terry, was his idol and a prototypical Cool Older Brother, introducing him to free jazz and existentialism before falling prey to the serious mental illness that had long shadowed Bowie’s family history. Biographical readings are a no-no in academia, but seriously: is it any wonder that Bowie explored the mutability of the self when he spent so many years in terror of going insane? And is it any wonder that, as an artist, he chose to embody that terror by shuffling through persona after persona on his records (Major Tom; Ziggy Stardust; the Candidate; the Thin White Duke), while writing not one but two oblique tributes to Terry, whose loss of self Bowie could only dramatize?

The first of those tributes, “All the Madmen,” appears on 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World, an album that comes close to being Bowie’s first masterpiece. “I’d rather stay here/with all the madmen/than perish with the sad men roaming free,” sings Bowie, at this point still using a voice that resembles the love child of Robert Plant, Johnny Rotten and Katharine Hepburn. Having made his choice, he spends the rest of the album exploring images of obsession, self-harm, self-displacement; the album only seems to celebrate these themes because guitarist Mick Ronson and producer/bassist Tony Visconti wrote a large portion of the music, and they invest it with the male-adolescent fist-in-the-air defiance of early heavy metal.

The same thematic preoccupations appear on Hunky Dory (1971), his first agreed-upon masterwork. This is where you get Bowie the songwriter: Ronson’s guitar theatrics are toned down somewhat, and it’s the gorgeous arrangements that prevent us from noticing the nihilism. Take “Quicksand.” A true cafeteria spiritualist, Bowie throws in references to every flavour of fake occult insight available in the average late-’60s paperback collection – Tibetan Buddhism, Aleister Crowley – before concluding: “Knowledge comes with death’s relief.” He doesn’t sound relieved. O’Leary instructively compares “Quicksand” to 1971’s other great nihilist ballad: “‘Imagine’ . . . flatters its listeners by inviting them to be part of the elect, those who have no need of God or countries, those who have transcended the pettiness of life. ‘Quicksand’ offers no such assurances and has no community.” The album ends with “The Bewlay Brothers,” a gorgeously troubled song with some of Bowie’s most notoriously convoluted lyrical imagery. Interviews confirm that it’s his other tribute to Terry.

Transgression for its own sake is probably not the worst, but certainly the stupidest effect of late capitalism, which needs us to get out there and find some tasty new sins (call it “market research”). Bowie’s next two albums, which more or less defined glam rock and made him a star for life, partake pretty thoroughly of the Stones-Zeppelin-style hedonism of the early 1970s. Given where this essay will appear, I should clarify that, when I say “hedonism,” I’m not talking about his bisexuality, which he first disclosed, with typical overstatement, around this time (“I’m gay and I always have been,” said the future husband of supermodel and noted woman Iman). Every magazine cover on which his makeupped face appeared probably stopped a hundred closeted kids from jumping in the river, and God bless him for that. I’m talking about the flirtations with nihilism, with decadence and violence, drugs and meaningless sex, which stretch across The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) and Aladdin Sane (1973). On Ziggy, Bowie’s dark obsessions and the hard-rock energy of his band – Ronson, bassist Trevor Boulder and drummer Woody Woodmansey – counterpoint each other beautifully, and the album ends on the lovely redemptive note of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide,” which, despite its title, is a plea for community: “You’re wonderful!” Bowie screams to his audience, as if this is the thought that will stop him from pulling the trigger. Any lingering hesitation is resolved by the song’s sweet, sudden resolution into a D-major, the key Bowie often shifts to at his most hopeful. Ziggy has put down the gun.

The Ziggy-Aladdin diptych also questions the sources of the rock-star’s power, sometimes likening him to a false messiah, even a proto-fascist figure, who uses a kind of magic to achieve problematic control over other minds. (Bowie was fascinated by the then-current, now-debunked theory that Hitler was a practicing occultist; cf. also Raiders of the Lost Ark.) Diamond Dogs (1973), a great, nightmarish album, continues this theme, even likening the rock star to Orwell’s Big Brother. Bowie’s fear of what he’s becoming is palpable. It is even more so on 1974’s Young Americans, one of the handful of convincing soul records ever made by a white person. Bad white soul singers – the worst ones all seem to be ponytailed men named Michael – simply roar every line, like politicians pounding a table; they think to be heard for their much speaking. Bowie, with his voice thinned by drugs and overwork to a hoarse croon, doesn’t (can’t) pound the table; he traces a single longing, desperate, obsessive finger along it. He sounds naked, afraid.

He was. By the time of Station to Station (1976), he’d been living for months on cocaine and milk (some sources add peppers to this list). He was now virtually certain that fascism was coming to England (so were a lot of people – read up on GB75 sometime). He’d predicted and feared such a turn of events for so long that he started to long for it, as a hospice patient longs for death. He created a new character, the Thin White Duke, a conflation of Aleister Crowley with the aristocratic fascists of the ‘30s (think of the young Oswald Mosley), to give this fear/fascination an object, and Station to Station’s majestic title song spends its first five minutes slowly predicting this figure’s emergence over a monotonous funk riff. “The return of the thin white duke/throwing darts in lovers’ eyes,” Bowie sings, and the song floats briefly from A-minor into D-major – but it’s done this once already, so we expect a return to minor. This time, though, the music slows to a crawl as a keyboard figure travels up to a high F-sharp. It pauses there. Suddenly the drums pick up, then the whole band shifts into high gear, as if finally rebelling against the Duke, and Bowie, his voice a strangled yelp, joins the insurgency: “Once there were mountains and mountains and once there were sunbirds to soar with and once I could never be down,” he gasps in one breathless phrase. “Got to keep searching and searching and oh what will I be believing and who will connect me with love?”

By the third track, he’s found out who – or Who. “Word on a Wing” is shockingly and unmistakably hymnlike: “Sweet name, you’re born once again for me”; “Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing.” Is this just another persona, the soul-scarred rock star trying on evangelicalism, as Dylan would a few years later? Except for his famous impromptu recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at a tribute concert to Freddie Mercury, I know of no evidence whatever that Bowie took Christianity especially seriously, and plenty of evidence that he didn’t. But Station to Station and the albums that follow do show him turning toward something – searching and searching for who will connect him with love.

He moved to Berlin, quit the drugs, and probably saved Iggy Pop from overdosing. Within a few years, the old libertine would be pleading on record with an unnamed woman to “Be My Wife,” as if loyalty suddenly mattered more than sensation. He would record “‘Heroes,’” the most life-affirming song in the rock canon. (The scare quotes are only there so we’ll take him seriously.) His last great song, by my reckoning, is “Under Pressure,” his mighty duet with Queen: “Love’s such an old-fashioned word/and love dares you to care for/the people at the edge of the night,” he sings, in an even, controlled tone. Nobody here is kidding. Nobody here is wearing a mask. I have heard these words thousands of times on the radio; repetition has never dulled the shock that I feel at hearing such counsel from a rock star. You may or may not agree, as I do, with Jack Hamilton, who wrote in Slate the day after the man’s death that these are the “most unabashedly moral” lines in the history of rock. But the man who sang them deserves to be remembered as more than a chameleon.

  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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