Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Thin White Duke Returns

(There's been some talk on the subject of David Bowie.
Let us join the fun in progress.

Let me tell you a story about a man.

He's a man with many faces. There's the face he gives to the world, and the secret face inside - the name his mother uses and the name the world uses. And then in addition to these names there are various multiple identities that go along with these names - changing identities to fit every situation and happenstance, changing mood and thoughts and body language to match every change in the world around him. He's a chameleon, from back when being chameleonic had any meaning. He's got as many different answers as you've got questions, and a different suit for every day of the week.

So what happens to the man who tries to incorporate so many different, disparate and mutually-contradictory attributes into some kind of single gestalt personality? He starts to lose it: things fall apart, mind-altering chemicals are introduced, and in general life gets a hell of a lot weirder. Finally, however, with the most Herculean effort our man overcomes these terrifying existential crises and emerges on the other side of his ordeal leaner, meaner and maybe even more deadly - with a focused, integrated personality and renewed sense of purpose.

Who am I talking about - Bowie in the 1970s or Grant Morrison's Batman?

It is absolutely no surprise that Bowie is so popular among nerds. Of all the canonical rock stars, his life and career are the most mythic of them all - intentionally so. From the very beginning his personae were as integral to his presentation as the music itself. This was an interesting and perhaps inevitable step in the cultural growth of pop music. Since the advent of the genre, rock music had risen on the strength of strong, charismatic personalities - the obvious inception is Elvis Presley, but every other significant star from the first generation of rockers was similarly outsized in one manner or another - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, etc. The Beatles and the Stones accrued mythology in direct proportion to their popularity, and the idea of celebrity in time became as integral to the conception of rock and roll as the music itself. Bob Dylan was a rock star long before he plugged his guitar into the wall.

Bowie came out of the first post-Beatles generation, kids who grew up during the British Invasion (or, as it was called in Britain, um, I dunno) with the express ambition of being not merely musicians but actual honest-to-God Rock Stars. The idea of being a rock star didn't even exist a decade earlier - you had Elvis, certainly, and Frank Sinatra and other hugely popular singers - but as the sixties got under way the idea of "rock stardom" as a specific phenomena cemented itself in the public's mind. Rock stars were different, strange, outre, sexually outrageous, enigmatic. The accumulated trappings of rock stardom were a product of the fame and celebrity that resulted from being a really popular musician - and at some point the trappings and by-products became the main event. Bowie, along with exact contemporaries Elton John and Queen, wanted to be a famous rock star almost as much or more than he wanted to be a musician.

In order to be a rock star, David Jones had to become David Bowie, and in order for David Bowie to become a rock star he had to change even further. He used the public's insatiable appetite for rock star iconography to create his own mythology - he essentially tricked the world into believing he was the biggest rock star in existence by merely asserting the fact in as straight-forward a fashion as conceivably possible. It doesn't really matter that it took him the better part of a decade to hit lasting success - once he hit big he hit for good.

I am uncertain, after listening to Bowie for decades, as to what exact value his variable identities possess. There is something very profoundly juvenile in his constant costume changes, and I don't necessarily mean that in a pejorative manner: he's young, nascent, unformed, trying on a new identity with every new mood that hits. One day he's a glamorous transvestite, the next a sci-fi savior, a burnt-out vampire martyr, a wobbly American soul singer, a hollowed-out revenant haunting the ghost of Old Europe . . . all this in the space of about five years. It usually takes Batman longer to change identities so completely. If Batman can be both Adam West and Frank Miller, then Bowie can be both Afraid of Americans and Jareth the Goblin King.

The problem is that Batman isn't real, and David Bowie - at least in theory, is real. He's even got an apartment in New York across the way from Moby.

So, it comes as no surprise that he's popular with nerds. He's Batman in human form. Batman blew his mind out in an isolation chamber and needed the (maybe) imaginary figure of Bat-Mite to guide him on a quest to regain his will and purpose; Bowie snorted a metric ton of cocaine and needed the (probably not but you never know) imaginary figure of Brian Eno to guide him to Berlin. Instead of killing the devil with a God-Bullet, Bowie wrote "Heroes" instead - same difference.

More to come.

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