Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Dancing with the Goblin King

Don't front. You weren't there at the Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973. Chances are good that if you grew up in the United States in proximity to the 1980s your early exposure to David Bowie came from one of two sources: 1983's Let's Dance LP or the 1986 film Labyrinth. The first was ubiquitous, the second something of a flop that nevertheless managed to make a significant cultural impact. Labyrinth's initial failure was reportedly one of the darkest moments in Jim Henson's career, but he lived to see the movie redeemed as it found its audience on home video.

Even though musically the period was a nadir, Bowie's performance in Labyrinth was excellent. Many stars in his position wouldn't have had the patience or the generosity for a kids' movie like that - this was before the success of Elton John's score for The Lion King, after all. (The stage adaptation of The Lion King recently became the most profitable anything in entertainment history, though, so you better believe people followed Elton's footsteps.) Soon enough it would be de rigeur for pop stars of all stripes to write songs for children's movies, but that day was still to come in 1986. I'd wager, though,without even bothering to look it up that David Bowie did Labyrinth for the same reason he did anything else - he wanted to work with someone, in that case Henson.

For all the talk of him as a singular visionary perhaps Bowie's greatest skill was his humility as a collaborator, an instinct for sniffing out the best talent paired with a willingness to let them do what they did best, with the understanding that if they looked good, he would look good too. As dramatic a moment as it is on film and record, I've always thought that breaking up the Spiders onstage without informing the rest of the band in advance was one of the all-time towering dick moves in rock history. But he spent much of the rest of his career being gracious to his collaborators and bandmates, and reaped the benefits. Rock stars aren't usually very good at collaboration - just think about how often superstar team-ups yield shockingly poor dividends. And then think about the fact that David Bowie recorded a song with Queen that had every right to be a colossal train wreck and yet somehow managed to be one of the best songs in either of their catalogs. How the fuck did he do that.

(Of course, he also did this, so . . . pobody's nerfect!)

I never had the same kind of visceral emotional connection to David Bowie that so many other, very eloquent people seem to have had. I came to Bowie relatively late. I inherited a lot of great music from my parents but, other than a cassette tape copy of Let's Dance that got a lot of play in the car when I was a kid, he was a blind spot. In terms of formative influences, he wasn't there for me. I came to him when I was a little bit older, after I'd already made some Opinions of my own. As with many people, my first proper Bowie album was a "Best Of." I listened to that quite a bit, but it had the perverse effect of not making me seek out more for a surprisingly long time - his singles are deep enough that just a one-disc LP of his best songs can seem like a universe unto itself. But I got there, eventually.

I spent my early twenties getting into Bowie an album at a time. I wasn't in any hurry. I remember getting my copy of Ziggy Stardust and just sitting on it for a while, listening to it occasionally and slowly letting it seep in. I had time, and I didn't feel a lot of pressure. But I got there, eventually.

One of the aspects of Bowie that made me want to keep him at arms' length even as I became more knowledgable and enthusiastic about his catalog was, frankly, Bowie fandom. One of Bowie's great accomplishments as an artist was understanding the significance of mythmaking in the perception of celebrity. Even in the mid-70s when he was blitzed on coke and doing and saying some of the worst things conceivable - or maybe, especially during those years - he understood how important it was to be bigger than life. Nerds eat this kind of shit up, and Bowie attracted nerds like the Legion of Super Heroes. He made sci-fi concept albums that were cool in a way that, say, Tarkus wasn't (although I'd argue, with the wisdom of maturity, that Tarkus is pretty cool, too). He had alter-egos and vacillated between good and evil. He saved the world and went mad and came back from the dead just in time. He was, essentially, Grant Morrison's Batman made flesh.

Rock critics still use Bowie's vocabulary - we talk about artists having "Berlin periods." Bowie's career trajectory throughout the 1970s is even more iconic, in its way, than the Beatles'. This was because Bowie was part of the first generation of rock musicians who had grown up as rock fans, just as the idea of fandom as we know it today was being defined by the Baby Boomers. He spent his teenage years listening to the Beatles, wanting to be the next Beatles. He understood how big a deal that was and wanted his name in lights. Contrast this to the Beatles themselves, who spent the early part of their career thinking they were still going to have to find real jobs once this rock fad (or rather, it's second wind) ran its course. The Beatles were a tragedy because none of them had a clue what they were signing up for, and probably wouldn't have wanted it if they did. Bowie wanted to manufacture a tragedy out of whole cloth because he knew how awesome it looked from the cheap seats - a will to cataclysm that found outlet in a discography defined partly by frequent reference to disaster and dystopia. You could make an analogy between Jack Kirby and Roy Thomas - the transition between the classical Silver Age of rock to its decadent Bronze - except Roy Thomas never recorded "Rebel, Rebel."

Bowie was always "cool," and I've always been skeptical of that. Every persona had a look and every look was perfect. Of course, that was the point. I've always been drawn towards artists who made hay out of the embarrassment of being bodied. Part of me still loves to see rock stars show up to play dressed like they just walked off the street to punch a time clock, and even towards the end of his life when he had settled firmly into Cool Dad mode that was still the absolute antithesis of everything David Bowie was about. I hate the fact that my spirit is inflicted with the indignity of being attached to this lumpy sack of rotting meat beset by troublesome urges both quotidian and cosmic. That's my damage, I know. But that's where the urge for transcendence comes in, the desire to surpass the limits of embodiment. That's something Bowie did understand. Sometimes, as with the best house music, Bowie could almost make it seem like being a spark of consciousness in a rapidly deteriorating flesh heap wasn't the worst thing in the world. His queerness was one of the most important aspects of his music and his image, and a huge part of his legacy - helping people become more comfortable with themselves by communicating the idea that it's OK to be weird, and furthermore, what the fuck is "weird," anyway? I'm not on that wavelength. But sometimes when I listen to David Bowie I can be, for a little bit.

I spent the last 48 hours of David Bowie's life listening to ★ and just not getting it. I'm not as well-versed in late-period Bowie as some - what I've heard hasn't impressed me much yet, even if do look forward to one day making a more rigorous examination of the evidence. It sounded weird and squawky - he's doing some reedy warble with his voice that sounds a bit goofy. I'm not a fan of the otiose Scott Walker vibe he seemed to be channeling - seems to be a kind of default mode for older musicians who lose their ear for melody and listen to a lot of Steve Reich. And worse yet, the lyrics appeared to be some sort of self-parodic sci-fi junk. I just wasn't feeling it. And then of course he has to go and die on us, and suddenly all those opaquely affected lyrics are laid bare as being literally about his own death and act of dying, and the futuristic ★ is as real as a cancer lesion. He was about to die and he was trying to tell us it was going to be OK, even if he couldn't stand the fuss of actually saying goodbye. He was up and about, smiling for the camera just days before he died. Of course I feel like the biggest asshole in the world, but he probably doesn't care. He'd probably think it was funny. Dying was easy, just like starting a new career in a new town. He didn't need that body anyway, it was just holding him back.

Labyrinth is a great film because Bowie refuses to water down his performance even though he's surrounded by dancing Muppets. He's every bit menacing, melancholy, and dignified, a perfect super-villain. He's also a perfect creep. It's a movie about growing up, specifically about young women growing up and facing a world filled with predatory male images of sexuality - occasionally flattering, even seductive images, but all the more dangerous. If he had never made it as a musician he could have been huge as an actor - the camera loves him. He's a credible figure of immense evil, but infinitely charismatic. He made it all look so easy, at least when the camera was rolling.

According to Last.FM the Top Ten artists in my playlist are:

The site only records what I listen to on my computer, so it's not representative of a lot of what I hear, but in broad strokes that's a pretty accurate representation of the artists who form the bedrock of my musical taste - at least, the stuff I come back to over and over again. That's a pretty predictable, you might even say boring selection - gah, another middle-aged white guy who listens to Bob Dylan, I know. But I guess that, my protestations to the contrary, Bowie is a pretty big part of my musical diet. He may not have been formative for me in the same way that, say, R.E.M. or Elton John or Blonde on Blonde were, but he's been there pretty much consistently since I started listening to him.

The one advantage I have over some of the bigger Bowie fans is that I've still got a while to go. I've heard a lot of people say over the last couple days that there'll never be new Bowie music again. Well, maybe for you. I'm still here, taking my time. There's a ton of stuff, whole albums I've never heard. I'm a big believer in patience. I went through a period in my early twenties where I read everything Dostoevsky wrote, but I stopped short before I got to The Brothers Karamazov. Why? Because I was a little bit burnt out by then, but also because I knew you only get one opportunity to read The Brothers Karamazov for the first time. I've still never read it. Some day I will. It's nice to have something to look forward to. One of these days I'll pick up a copy of Heathen or Tin Machine II, when the mood strikes me. It'll be brand new, and I'll get to love it or hate it or be confused by it for the first time. He'll be living with me for a while yet, and I am confident he's still got some surprises up his sleeve.

(PS - Check out the top pinned tweet on my Twitter homepage.)

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Good post. Man, my brother and sister and I watched Labyrinth a ton when we were kids. I watched it lately with my own kids--they loved it, and it held up reasonably well for my me. And my wife had never seen it!

As for Bowie, I've had Changesbowie (singles) and Ziggy Stardust for years, and never felt the need to venture beyond, though I've run into many people whose musical opinions I respect who are huge fans. Maybe I'll pick up Station to Station or the new one.

I know what you mean about holding back on art you really want to take the time to enjoy. I was in a John Coltrane stage for a couple years after college, but I didn't get the Love Supreme until recently for exactly that reason. Also, I did the same with Moby Dick, which I've always been intrigued by. I read it last year because I decided I wanted to read it before I turned 40. Wow. I can promise you the next time I read it won't be 40 years from now.

--Thelonious Nick