Ask me in a year or two if I’ve finally vexed the Main Man to sleep. Yes, time still serves some residual function. Where would procrastination get its game otherwise? Then, just as you think the tent’s folded for good, a Heroes coda arrives like an errant Lodger postcard. In fairness this letter had to transit from the future which is a much more problematic origination than Kyoto’s matted ground. Thus Bowie surprises on his 66th birthday with a present of his own. All things can be true at the same time. Where Are We Now is the vanished quarry’s counter-appeal to VH1’s televised search-light, Where Are They Now. (Some clever soul also pointed out it’s one of the first lines in son Duncan’s movie, Moon.) Former rock-star, now a man officially lost in time, reports that The Day After is a series of pedestrian moments framed in the elemental denouements of sun, rain and fire, hopefully undertaken beside a comfortable old shoe, namely you. In short, he’s just like us, dying day by day beside a loved one or two, which is another way of saying he’s taking it day to day. He’s living.
As I write this (the day after The Day After’s single release, January 9), the Western world is understandably abuzz with chatter and excitement. The UN has yet to weigh in but of course that’s coming. The obligatory question is repeatedly being asked: Is the song good? I dunno. Is song-craft really the issue here? Receiving a communique from a lost relative, does one nitpick the penmanship? My God, he’s alive and sentient and you want Rebel, Rebel on top of it? Greedy bastards! Industry crank Bob Lefsetz was thus onto something, albeit with drone-like focus on business paradigms and product delivery modes, when he complained the song was more announcement than substance. Well yes it is. Yet it happens to afford me the oddest comfort just to know Bowie’s sensibilities have had to process Mitt Romney too. That’s right. He’s suffering right alongside us. Misery loves company. The more astute the company, the better the misery.
Themes? Dismantlement, iconic white-out, effacement, de-immortalization, unironic endurance. It seems God was a young man after all, like my back needed reminding. He’s an old Man now which makes all the Lucifer-talk sound rather silly. There’s the gentle, anti-heroic admission in the first verse (one fancies to ever-present, daily grind-slayer Coco Schwab, especially to the recently divorced Bowie of the late 70’s; every ‘hero’-artist needs a Coco to pour the bath and pay the electric bill!) that he once surreptitiously planned a train ride in Germany all by himself. Look mummy! No hands! Is this maybe a half-camouflaged love letter? The video’s Hermione clues may mouth an elliptical whisper in Coco’s direction. Reportedly rather inept at the small administrative details that are the bane of so many mortal lives, Bowie with his confession reveals a faltering, childlike quality: rock icon scours train schedule, emerging victorious, ticket in-hand and all-too human. The hero is being dismantled, literally painted over on the cover with an inverted obilisk, a de-arrival as if by Kremlin airbrush. Meant only for one day anyway, its provisional status has overstayed into Olympic sing-along and X Factor go-to anthem. One of the most imaged artists in the history of humanity is a stay-at-home dad. Lord knows, we’re all prisoners of the Berlin Trilogy mythos, he no less than us: Los Angeles refugee and dead man walking walks life back into his thin white frame in that erstwhile city of modern death, Cold War-era West Berlin. Freedom is an ironic condition forever stalked by anthemic mortar and the bracketing irony of punctuation. Keep your fingers crossed though. Some Little Dictator’s always sawing off one end of the rope-bridge.
Of course there’s death, the ultimate bitch to freedom. So maybe we should just kibosh all the moaning. Mortality, perhaps brushes with it, has stripped the grand metaphysician of his breezy, youthful postulations. No more queries about death’s release and what lies behind the door. The sound of a door opening? Perhaps. You’ll know that when you know that and not a moment before. Right now, it’s just great to share another sunrise with you, honey. There’s always one more log on the fire until there isn’t.
T. S. Eliot’s London Bridge crowd is visible in the 20,000 lumbering over Bose Brucke, dead, faceless men walking the dead, fingers crossed (‘I had not thought death had undone so many.’) Eliot has London Bridge falling down, as the Wall eventually does too—so much for the solid-state hegemony of statues, bricks and mortar. In a collapsing world, the provisional figure (or face-to-the-fore icon) is king. Then he takes a queen. Let’s give love one more chance, kiss as though nothing will fall. As for death, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
But that’s the Bowie in me, forever making light of time. There’s no doubt chronometry heightens reality’s strangeness. A function of my own advancing years perhaps, I’m all for loosening time’s strictures. There are mornings I would be Saturn’s slave for an extra hour of sleep. The alarm clock is designed after all to instill a state of alarm. Is time really slipping away? Only time will tell.
Erring on the side of self-meaning may be the most pernicious time-trap of all. And yet, we seem wired to believe time is spooned out with deterministic purpose. The days fall on their knees, always with their wee small hours leaning toward a brighter future. From this implied progressivity — day in, day out — it’s a hop, skip and jump, they say, to that great Timekeeper in the Sky. We should be so lucky to reconvene, fully-formed, at time’s end. As for now, the one-way arrow, time, is a one-sided affair.
In his Theory on Tragedy, Aristotle ranks plot above character and for good reason. Without us, plot would be a featureless field of play much like the rock-strewn plain that opens 2001: Space Odyssey’s ‘Dawn of Man’. Labyrinthine twists and turns, the vagaries of human nature, bring forth the rich texture of journey. We remark how some lives seem larger than life and, in the end, larger than time itself. These transformative advances are in marked contrast to the vast preponderance of ‘mere’ lives laid dumb across a silent age.
Characterization makes of life a real story. Personae are strands of Ariadne’s loosely-wound thread. Bowie was more than a real character. He was an unraveling ensemble of them. Changes, the song, is Bowie’s Ode to Heraclitus who warned that the same stream of warm impermanence is never crossed twice. Indeed every fairy tale has the ravenous crows dining on the breadcrumbs that might otherwise conduct us back to the forest-edge. That’s because the labyrinth is an alchemical vestibule. The moral of the story is that there are no fairy tales. ‘Once upon a time’ can never be reprised. To quote an ardent Bowie colleague, Trent Reznor, ‘the only way out is through’.
In order to live large, courage is required. A proxy for David Jones, the David Bowie project started nobly enough. The task was to engage the former’s personal Minotaur (or demons if you prefer, we all have them) along the dark corridors of the psyche. How Jones-Bowie fared within his labyrinth is not for us to know. The steeper the narrative arc, generally, the greater the peril. For one thing, Ariadne’s thread can snap. Cane Hill, the threat of madness, is one such cul de sac within the labyrinth. All lives weather change through time. The Theseus in victory is an entirely different animal from the Theseus who sets sail from Athens.
Another danger is that a darker alchemy can embargo the journey. The bull can defeat the higher man with the result that the hero becomes his Minotaur. The superego succumbs to the id. The poet becomes the beast. Interesting then, and reminiscent of Picasso, that the later Bowie repeatedly identifies with this mythological figure. Hollywood, with its penchant for heroes, casts a distortive lens. Victors of the quest regale the Cineplex. Far less publicized are the skeletal remains littering the cavern floor. The chants of these ever-circling failures echo throughout the haunted chamber. Counted among their number is the lost trapped soul of Kurt Cobain.
There is method in the serpentine path of the labyrinth. Eliot suggests the timed-release-action of time has something to do with man’s inability to ‘bear much reality’ at any given time. As a divine favor, the gods mete out indignity by the hour, or by the turn. Old souls seem to escape undue ensnarement in the quotidian scheduling of events. Perhaps there are more of them there at all times. As for Bowie, rock’s ripest clockwork orange, he was too formed, too early to ever kill much time forging a patently false trail. Nobody’s time card puncher, Bowie is a brave Apollo.
Verily, I came to debunk what I find I can only praise. So doing, I belabor time beyond its appointed hour. The truth is, my teenage suspicions are holding up. Was I less half-formed than I thought? Because I swear on a stack of sundials it was only yesterday that I sat, a 14-year-old, listening to this world-weary 27-year-old (a perilous age for his chosen profession), crooning ‘We Are the Dead’ with more than a wistful longing for time’s end. Hermes the trickster! My birth certificate serves to assure me I’m 49. No political interest has risen to challenge it. I listen — the time is now — to this precocious kid (my creeping age has only made him younger) who himself contends with the present at the pensioner’s ripe old age of 66. No doubt the new album will furnish more clues. Time, you wanking whore, you! So it is with time. We never know whether we’re coming, going or permanently installed. Where did the time go? Perhaps it’s still here.
That the music hasn’t embarrassed itself with age offers a pregnant clue. Emerson said authentic poetry stands up because it ‘existed before time was’. But don’t listen to my ears as they’re tainted with adolescent echoes and a jealous yearning for the past. What will new ears make of this music? I’d love to be around to find out. But that would defeat time’s strange prerogative and intrude upon the cruelest arbiter of all, eternity. Let the children boogie. Let the future choose its legends. –Norman Ball
Coming next time, part 5 of 5… ‘A FINAL CODA’