Monday, January 11, 2016

Blackstar RIP

I switched on the TV this morning half way through a tribute to David Bowie whose death was announced overnight. I had spent much of the weekend listening to "Blackstar", his stunning new album. Every Bowie album before this one had Bowie's face on the cover, in a myriad of different versions of this "chameleon" artist, but this one has only a black star. This turns out not to be an artistic sleight of hand, but a deliberate ending. What does "Blackstar" refer to? critics had asked, wondering if it was Isis or something else sinister in the world - now we know, I think, that black star is death, his death, his cancer.

When he retired abruptly from performance a dozen years ago it was never really stated what the problem was - but after a return to large arena gigs to accompany the "Heathen" and "Reality" albums, it seemed like it must be serious. When "Where are they now?", the nostalgic single, and its accompanying album "The Next Day" dropped it was a return to form, a brilliant piece of marketing, and a relief that Bowie was still there, still making important music. In some ways, the news that "Blackstar" was coming out was less climactic - as we'd already had the avant-jazz track "Sue" and its b-side "Tis Pity She's a Whore", as his career retrospective "Nothing ever changes", apppeared last year. The new album is a beautiful piece of work - seven long tracks - musically inventive, with Tony Visconti proving once again at what a genius producer he can be, when adorning rock and roll artists with strings, brass and other instruments. Bowie's voice is fragile but strong. Three days after its release its almost unbearably poignant to listen to this valedictory statement - every song speaks of what we now know but which, enigmatic to the last he kept from us. Here, the performer of "My Death" and "Rock and Roll Suicide" has gone further into that unknown future than ever before - one can only marvel at the strength for this not old man to commit to tape these songs of finality. How can someone curate their own death? Well Bowie has managed it, with a dignity and a credibility that has always been his touchstone.

There will be another chance to annotate his career - this being his 25th album there is plenty to talk about. But for now I can only talk about the personal. This death feels too young, too soon. That Bowie as a personae should have been given a longer life. The documentary from the mid-seventies when the Thin White Duke is pale as death, a living embodiment of the alien he played in the Man Who Fell to Earth, sees an artist at the top of his game, but at some kind of bottom in his life. Yet a decade later he was a crowd pleaser, a pop start again, playing to arena size crowds whilst getting some acclaim for a variety of dramatic roles - from Elephant Man on broadway, to Baal on TV, to the 2nd world war drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. In reality Bowie the chameleon, the shape-changer, is overplayed. The two roles he will be most remembered for dramatically are the alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth and the goblin king in Labryinth, both fantasies which chimed with Bowie's own other worldy personality. For despite or because of all the costume changes, Bowie's "bowieness" always shone through. It had to in some ways. He'd spent the late sixties chasing down possibilities in various mod ensembles, not sure whether he was a cabaret act or a rock and roller. By the early 70s, attached to Hull's renamed Spiders from Mars, he had become the biggest star on the planet. Where Ziggy began and Bowie ended is hard to say.... the reinventions afterwards were almost always musical ones, whatever the appearance said.

I first heard "Space Oddity" when it was a belated number one in the mid seventies, but it was probably "Ashes to Ashes" which first won me over - this retread of Major Tom's life was also an iconic video latching onto the nascent new romantic movement. I had the "Very Best of Bowie", an exemplary K-Tel compilation which was an easy primer for new fans to get into this established artist. In a sense, Bowie as an icon was over at the point I discovered him, but here's the vital thing - for people of my generation, he became "ours" as much as the glam rockers ten years older than us. It was a confusing time - "Let's Dance" became his bestselling record, and the tours that followed were massive extravaganzas, but the Bowie albums I was playing time and again were his seventies classics, cheap on Nice Price editions, "Low", "Hunky Dory," "Ziggy Stardust" and "Diamond Dogs." The first time I heard the track "Ziggy Stardust" was actually Bauhaus's immaculate cover version, yet Bowie was already everywhere in my life by 1980-1. My friends didn't listen to old stuff, and here's the strange thing, though the whole world is mourning him today, I struggle to think of any friend who was a Bowie fan, at least not like I was a Bowie fan - liking the seventies stuff, but also buying "Tin Machine" on the day of release. It's easy to make a case for Bowie in the eighties and nineties as being another lost megastar - yet really there's only two albums, "Tonight" and "Never Let Me Down", both dreadfully produced and with too many cover versions that let him down. Around the same time one off film and TV songs like "Catpeople", "Absolute Beginners", "Underground", and "This is Not America" were far better than his concurrent album releases.

I finally got to see him live in the late 90s, when "Outside" had been followed by a new tour where he retooled old songs with his new band, and had toured the US with Nine Inch Nails and others. At the Nynex arena as it was called then, I had a close up view of my hero at last through a stunning set of old and new. It hardly matters that his post Scary Monsters work would always be in the shadow of what had come before - you can make a good case for nineties songs such as "Thursday's Child" and "The Heart's Filthy Lesson", as well as early 2000's album "Heathen" - the reality is that by this time the many ages of Bowie were unforgettable, so that playing "Hunky Dory" or "Station to Station" nearly thirty years after they were produced didn't seem silly - his music, out of time, has always sounded contemporary. You could argue that the records that might have dated a bit - "Aladdin Sane" or "Let's Dance" or "Black Tie, White Noise" were too close to the sounds of the day, whilst things like "Diamond Dogs" sit outside of time and fashion.

I've listened to these albums and more - swapping my favourites as the years go by - picking up golden era reissues such as live album "Santa Monica '72" or "Bowie at the Beeb" with more glee than "Earthling" or "...Hours." Since his golden era you can probably say Bowie's albums function in pairs - "Tonight" & "Never Let Me Down", "Tin  Machine I & II", "Outside" and "Hours", "Heathen" and "Reality".... and finally "The Next Day" and "Blackstar." For the casual listener their have been various greatest hits, singles collections etc. as well as reissues, boxsets etc. All the usual paraphernalia of vintage rock artists.

Yet now we see Bowie's career as a whole it seems more stunning than ever - a remarkable creative life lived and performed across six decades. Like many artists of his generation there's much more to him than the perceived popular image. If the Beatles had their love of Monty Python, one of Bowie's last TV appearances was on Ricky Gervais's "Extras", playing himself; he might have loved William Burroughs' novels but he also loved Viz comic. Oddly enough the most surprising persona was Bowie as family man, married to model Imam, with a young daugher - along with his son, the film director Duncan Jones - these are the ones who will be truly feeling the loss today and in the months ahead. His late 90s album "...Hours" is musically conventional but a song like "Thursday's Child" is amongst his most melodic and personal. The Bowie lyrics are generally enigmatic - the "space" theme continuing through much of his career. Yet even when he embraces alienation - on "Station to Station" or "Low" - its far from being a desperate state. There's always something too obviously knowing about Bowie's musical intelligence - the music as persona. It's what makes stage-y songs like "Five Years" brim with emotion or why a concept album like "Diamond Dogs" is not ridiculous in its dystopian trope. The songs tell their own story - or if they only tell half a story, then so what? He could be as simple and straightforward as "Fashion" or as oblique as "Breaking Glass."

For me, Bowie has always been there, and offered a way to live - a way to think. That it was never dogmatic (in the way that maybe Springsteen or U2 is), is half the joy of being a fan. Lots of people on the internet have been saying Bowie made it "ok" to be "other" - yet I'm not sure I agree with this entirely. The seventies Bowie, with his androgyny and his shocking identity changes is a different beast than the one I grew up with - urbane rather than mysterious. I've never seen people dressed like Bowie - he was too unique. I guess what I'm saying is that the hall of mirrors of Bowie's career enables us all to find a suitable place in relation to him.

So, today, tomorrow, the next year, he is gone and we have the music and all the other stuff to take an interest in. It seems hardly believable that this greatest of all British artists is no longer with us. I'm still processing the sadness, but also the personal investment I've made in "loving the alien" that is David Bowie since  was 12 or 13 years old. It may well be the best investment I ever made.


mistah charley, ph.d. said...

this is an intelligent and moving commentary - even though much of it is about your reaction to bowie it is much less narcissistic than camille paglia's essay

it makes me want to read the william james essay which you have chosen for your title

Adrian Slatcher said...

I'd recommend the Henry James essay to anyone -