The Bowie phenomenon does not lack for collaborative energies. Outside forces, not always benevolent ones, also exert their effects on the Bowie arc. If we accept that TMWSTW has a heavy Ronson-Visconti imprimatur albeit under the Bowie aegis, the jumping of the arc at least becomes intelligible. Certainly where the arc confounds, some biographical peeks are allowed. Hasn’t Tony Visconti intimated frustration with Bowie’s chronic absence during the making of this album? And didn’t Colonel Parker-cum-Mephistophelean figure Tony Defries arrive at about this juncture, taking over from Anthony Newley-besotted Ken Pitt? You can hear it in the left track on TMWSTW; someone is playing Ouija board in Bowie’s ear, tempting his prowess. No? Try playing it backwards as backwardation is key, especially at this crucial period.
After stalking fame for years (and what a low-probability slog it is) the fix gets put in the game on ZIGGY STARDUST, a right proper ship-in-a-bottle. “If you want to be famous, you must first be famous.” All hail the mobius strip! Time’s starting pistol is silenced as the rise and fall gets presumptively co-opted into the product itself. The ravages of time are thus suspended via expropriation. To become a proper rock god Bowie flips the bird at fan club critical mass and erects his own temple where, within the space of a few tracks, he degenerates into washed-up rock messiah. Thus before he samples great fame, he’s on record (literally) as growing weary of it. Now that’s high-concept in service to power on earth. It’s also more than a little bit evil-genius. Some preemptive carnage is indulged first on TMWSTW where a crazed Vietnam Vet, acting alone, massacres his potential audience before they can idolize, then tear him apart, in a Dionysian frenzy.
So we have Mick Ronson in spades on TMWSTW — really the first mate stiffly rowing (riffly stowing?) aboard his captain’s portentous vessel, though perhaps one sonic wave ahead. These songs owe as much to power guitar as Bowie song-craft. At times the lyrics seem to drift atop a Led Zep sea like Pequod flotsam and jetsam. With TMWSTH, Bowie’s not so much ahead of the times as ahead of his own time; tinkering with the sales pitch only to put rock godhood back on layaway. While the album is no less potent for its time-confusion, we’ll sidestep the inevitable ‘best Bowie album’ debate here. TMWSTW is an album of destiny — a gateway erected midstream in an unfolding progression. An occult vibe hovers throughout this album. Once-subservient machines pitch in to steal a piece of man’s primacy. If it’s not jealous spirits it’s uppity microprocessors wanting a piece of the game. Pried wide open, once-shuttered eyes can behold whole ‘nother mansions of orgiastic wonderment.
From TMWSTW on, the prodigious and unparalleled bounty that flows largely uninterrupted for a decade is without compare in modern music. We enjoy the copious fruits of some delicious bargain with all the reckless compulsivity of too-good, killer sex. We are being shaken cold. Soon death will throw darts in lust-besotted eyes. Bowie repeals the exactitudes of time. We must suffer his arrival time and again.
Then suddenly without warning, the party ends to the screams of Yoko Ono eulogizing her dead Revolution and ours. A long-sought Target of Fascist contempt, the love-in’s original Couple lies forever de-coupled at the hands of Jung’s the Foreman’s recalcitrant shadow, his Big Gun blazing. The Bowie decade is stopped in its tracks by Pagan Silhouettes watching from Dakota shadows. Never again, sweet Yesterday, will life be such an easy game to play. It’s No Game is released in September 1980 on the album Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. John Lennon is murdered in December. Bowie repeals the exactitudes of time. We must suffer his arrival time and again. Imagine no more free steps to heaven. It’s hellish if you try. Little Richard may have gotten the originating address right. However today’s Hell has migrated to a street-level view where it thrives within our midst. Our demons, too long denied, are coming home to roost.
Larry King: The circumstances of the killing, what happened?
Mark David Chapman: …here’s another odd thing that happened. I was at an angle where I could see Central Park West and 72nd and I see this limousine pull up and, as you know, there are probably hundreds of limousines that turn up Central Park West in the evening, but I knew that was his. And I said, this is it, and I stood up. The limousine pulled up, the door opened…
–from ‘The Larry King Show’, CNN, September 30, 2000
Too often what we stalk is in the limo, that sleek, well-appointed deliverer of no tomorrows. The air is thick with portent. Spiritual time, stillness, is being invoked. A self-described God-devil dichotomy fully succumbed in this instance to the darkness, Mark David Chapman is an anti-Jungian Super Creep. He is the grim face on the cathedral floor (Rome, City of Saturn) forever charged with silencing the Good Men (Cathars) of Tomorrow. With dismal repetition, religious authority oscillates in perpetuity between Stone and Wax or, as Anthony Burgess termed it, the Augustinian and the Pelagian. No wonder esotericists try to duck the fight altogether by seeking refuge in subterranean lairs and madhouses.
The shepherd and his flock are a venerable trope of hierarchic design. Frankly what currency does it hold today when the pasture fence has been revealed to be a probabilistic wave collapse of quantum indeterminacy? The patriarchs are going mad because the paddock has been repealed — after all. Suicide bombers abound. Sermons bristle with impertinence and murderous design. No amount of stridency can drown out the terrifying impermanence of chords. The abyss lies not beyond the pasture fence, but within the children themselves. There is only the summit and the abyss. All souls must jump.
Stone is Newton, wax is Bohr, the physics of paralysis and movement, respectively. The Catcher in the Rye is a lame-brained anthem to arrested development, a stillborn farce really, at strict odds with Bowie’s guiding American ode to catharsis, Kerouac’s On the Road. Chapman’s adopted persona, Holden Caulfield, is frozen alright — in adolescent fear which soon metastasizes into evil. Chapman is prepared to enforce his static notion of the universe. Revolutionary energy will be curtailed with bullets if need be. Chapman is an assassin beholden to a dead, still center.
Salinger’s catcher is tasked with capturing children before they plunge into the very cavern that serves as the organizing principle for Bowie’s career. This is hardly a romanticization of Chapman. His undifferentiated darkness is however crucial to the story. Clearly his journey has descended into clinical, homicidal madness. Chapman’s divine symmetry is askew, given over to one side and antithetical to the notion of the devil’s equilibrating embrace, which is the only way the soul’s compass can acquire its proper bearings. In a classic instance of Jungian enantiadromia (simply put, we become what we most strenuously fight against), this once-and-future Jesus freak treads the arc leading away from his shadow-man only to collapse fully into the arms of his shadow-man. He is an erstwhile sojourner handed a circumference for an escape route; a skeleton-in-hieroglyph carved near the floor of the cavern, symbol of time run out.
Here we see the perilous circle whose width is prefigured on TMWSTW. If only Chapman had listened to the secret thinker within. But he looked, frowned and ultimately misread the monster seated by the tree. The monster is of course Malkuth located at the base of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Malkuth is not a God-emanation, but an emanation from man. The implication is: We are, each of us, our own scariest monster. The leap of madness is the leap of faith. There is only the summit and the abyss. This is the Jungian tract anyway to which Bowie conforms to again and again with remarkable consistency. He will contend again with Malkuth at a later station, long before the retail Kabbalah and spangled bracelets of Madonna and Britney Spears, it might be added. A walking still-point, this cat is all put together from the year dot.
Chapman, we learn later, harbors at least a double fantasy. Bowie is on his List of the Dead too. (The opening volleys of art-crime are preemptive attempts on the lives of the artists themselves perpetrated by frightened and reluctant followers. Bowie will later seize back the initiative on 1995’s Outside):
“At the time of Lennon’s December 8, 1980 murder outside of his Manhattan apartment, David Bowie was starring just blocks away on Broadway in the play ‘The Elephant Man’. “I was second on his list,” Bowie told me in the New York studio we shared near Madison Square Garden.” Chapman had a front-row ticket to ‘The Elephant Man’ the next night. John and Yoko were supposed to sit front-row for that show too. So the night after John was killed there were three empty seats in the front row. I can’t tell you how difficult that was to go on. I almost didn’t make it through the performance.”
–from ‘In the Studio with David Bowie’, by Redbeard
Thankfully barred from the event — though creepily implicated nonetheless — Bowie dodges a bullet by a matter of hours albeit in tragic and gruesome fashion. The Bowie blessing and curse, it seems, is to be perpetually once-removed. Both Bing and Bolan die within weeks of their last duet with the Dame. Suddenly the woozy output of the eighties takes on a survivalist edge. Who can blame a guy for moving towards the light with sunny pastels and a more pedestrian groove? Simon Magus morphs into Frank Sinatra. Understandably the what-might-have-beens among Bowie’s more astute fans stack up like lost highways. As for the bread-and-circus-crowd, cowards generally, they detest an undefeated gladiator; so much for that toxic confab, the rock star fan club. The cosmos may well harbor its own sense of equitable partition however. Zarathustra’s packhorses were lent out for an uncompromising assault on the summit. Survival is for pussies. There was a deal. Faustian retreat is not an option. You were not provisioned for Tommy Hilfiger ad campaigns and Manhattan soirees. There is only the summit and the abyss. Some affronted corner of the universe intones, bring us the Disco King.
The next stand-in bullet to the brain, for the purposes of this newspaper, strikes tragically in 1994, four months after Kurt Cobain reaches inexplicably to the back of the back of the rack, recording ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ on MTV Unplugged in December 1993. An indefatigable alchemy mints true believers. Many Grunge fans refuse to believe, even today, that it isn’t a Cobain song. In many ways it is. Kurt feels the end-times breathing down his neck. He directs the stage design in appropriate fashion:
“Cobain suggested that the stage be decorated with stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier. Cobain’s request prompted the show’s producer to ask him, “You mean like a funeral?”, to which the singer replied, “Exactly. Like a funeral.”
–from Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, by Charles R. Cross
Clues to the eerie clairvoyance that dogs this preternatural song are cemented in the lyrics themselves by way of The Momentous Handshake. The crucial turn in the Bowie corpus, the first risen stair above tin-pan-alley plateau (and ‘Space Oddity’ one-hit-wonderdom thanks largely to transformative arranger Gus Dudgeon), is this eponymous song — really, a self-listening dialogue brought to music. There is no more personal statement in the Bowie canon.
Lyrics are not always earnest reportage. They can allude to off-the-record accounts of privileged conversations (2003’s ‘Bring Me the Disco King’ reads like the epilogue to this transcript.) Such would be the timed-fixated conversation on the stair: “We spoke of was and when” is the demarcation for past failure and future success cemented, in the present. The shift from the “I” to “we” pronoun signals the consensual alliance.
This is an eternal moment, the mobius made flesh. Time stops like an Eliotan still-point. It’s worth noting that the Cane Hill clock faces on the Mercury cover are shot out. The world is sold on the immobility of time. The shot-through cowboy hat foreshadows a grievous head wound to a fair-haired man of the west. We are front-to-back and simultaneous all at once, voyeurs to a headlong plunge down a timeless shaft impervious to form or land. Reportedly the song arrives at the final hour of the album sessions (one could argue the near-final hour of Bowie’s rock star aspirations) representing, some have suggested, a hurried (though no less prescient) piece of automatic writing. Automatic: a cipher for the otherness, the alien and the preferred compositional mode of Bowie, Cobain and, in his mystical persona, Carl Jung.
There are journeymen demons and then there is Mephistopheles the most exquisitely refined. To the laughing gnome’s chagrin perhaps, Bowie at last reaches the crossroads even if HD had found him dithering for a spell. Indeed there is a shared transformative alchemy in the tales of Robert Johnson and Bowie; both are toiling, journeymen musicians vaulted suddenly into prominence. Bowie’s man on the stair performs the same initiatory rite as Johnson’s man in Clarksdale, Mississippi. We’ve pondered mightily the precise nature of this ‘man’. Perhaps it is the dark angel of Peniel.
What do we know before we know it? Perhaps everything, in which case backwardation or prescience becomes a frivolous exercise, literally a timewaster. In the ‘do as thou wilt’ world of rock and roll, the gun is the grail — iron will versus received grace. One pretender to the throne finds himself captured by the song only to be defeated by its labyrinthine implications. Cobain mistakes himself for an ascendant Minotaur when he is in fact one of the babes in the maze. There is only the summit and the abyss. Not all strivers are assured of reaching the summit. Fittingly, the song serves also as the final song in the final encore of the Roma Palaghiaccio concert on Nirvana’s 1994 tour during which Cobain reverses the order of the verses. The following week’s concert in Munich –the last Nirvana concert ever– is aborted before the encores due to Cobain’s ailing voice.
Time’s arrow is fashioned into the width of a circle. The speaker meets the figure on the stair in verse one only to commence searching for him in verse two. The grail is found. The quest begins. The backwardation of the song’s ‘progression’ anticipates Bowie’s ‘reminiscing’ about his communion-through-song with the ‘late’ Kurt Cobain. Yes I know. Did your timepiece catch all that? Admittedly, this would be a violation of the unidirectional feature of time’s arrow, but stranger things have happened — or are always about to. There in the still-point resides the fullness of time, to include the grunge movement spilling forth from Seattle, fog-drenched city overlooking the ocean. Courtney Love may even be the whore-consort Mary Magdalene, though for the love of Kether, could somebody please muzzle that yammering hole?
As the original Mercury dialogue bubble said (before being air-brushed out on the final cover), ‘roll up your sleeves and take a look at your arms.’ What more accurate, and accusatory, finger could possibly have reached through time to tap heroin-addicted Cobain on the shoulder? The ‘unspoken’ Mercury cover is an entreaty to enterprising spokesmen everywhere –regardless of dimension, regardless of time coordinate. Let it be said: Woe to those unmatched to the altitudes of their own audacity. The shotgun under the arm warns of the potential lethality of a failed quest. Cobain buckles under the portent of the song. How the mind can easily boggle at the bewildering scope of interlocking stairwell directives. Transformation is always won at some cost. Cobain was an appetizer, a Gen-X sacrifice to the song’s keynote status. Lulu, covering the song in 1974, was a laugh. Make no mistake. The covenantal keepers of the arc want the Disco King.
For now, it’s back to the blur-that-purports-to-be-Bowie; odd to say about Bowie but, slowing things down, the mystique acquires almost a pedestrian pallor. Maybe that’s because there was no passage of time after all. Indeed what strikes the mind’s eye is the eerie consistency of vision and purpose spanning a near-half-century. Change(s) can be a cagey hologram as there is a core axis playing way-station to myriad please-come-away’s. The prodigal son returns again and again to the child, timeless father of the image. Each creative spoke is a love affair with the alien, a trajectory of self-exploration. Departure-return, departure-return; the artistic modus operandi here involves coaxing a fresh chapter of strangeness, nurturing it, wrestling it for primacy and then pinning it, subdued, like an exotic butterfly to the roof of the psyche.
The Bowie project seems inconceivable outside a Jungian rubric. The psyche is a chorus to be treasured and explored, not a trauma-induced fragmentation to be restored to an idealized whole. To call Jung a controversial figure perhaps understates the case. In some quarters he is equal parts magus, occultist, madman, New Age icon and Satanic agent. Others consider him the crucial bridge between spiritual content and clinical therapy. The commonalities are there, particularly in Jung’s raw diary, the Red Book where he articulates his fear of madness time and acknowledges the reality of the many entities within his head. One man’s demon possession becomes another’s soul journey. Bowie is either the consummate bounty hunter of inner demons, or the manufacturer of fresh ones. Each new number-one-guy is seduced with his very own record deal. All the while Bowie employs — and dissipates — the new boy’s energy (neat recursive trick there.) The glare of stage-lights, the exhaustion of the obligatory tour, strips each persona of its capacity to lead an insurrection. For his efforts Bowie enjoys a daisy-chain of mini-catharses, or a series of harrowing mutinies.
Then there’s that unwavering self-possession. Bowie himself is always ‘one-back’ from Bowie; the carnival barker, never the bearded lady, conducting the elasticity. It was a fascinating spectacle, watching the-man-who-sold-the-world-on-standing-in-as-his-shrink sift his inner landscape for great wealth and psychic ventilation. The mind warp pavilion was a media fixture, the featureless green room. It will surprise the wardrobe aficionados and the chameleon-chorus, but with Bowie, we were always in the region of immutable soul.
Despite the main man’s best efforts to channel Howard Hughes in recent years, the Bowie mythos isn’t fading. What are we to infer from his extended silence? Disavowal? Exhaustion? Ailment? Boredom? Amnesia? Should it matter frankly what the progenitor now makes of his decades-long hold on the popular culture’s imagination? Perhaps not, though a penny for his thoughts would be a penny willingly spent. Normally pop music gets ravaged in short order. After all Halloween Jack is a bug beneath a magnifying glass, trapped in an elevator rendered forever inoperable at a mid-seventies recording session. Yet Jack may still be a prescient figure. As the modern banking edifice crumbles before our eyes, a Manhattan at last succumbed to an Escape from New York, forage-of-the-fittest cluster-fuck is not so far-fetched. Who’s really in front of whom?
Earworm dynamics play a role in our continued appreciation to be sure; we reprise a prior joy as much as we experience it authentically in the now. For older fans it would be a form of child abuse to subject our formative affections to overly harsh interrogation. I elect to confirm the child’s earliest suspicions. Call it laziness or sentimentality, but I maintain there is something irreducible here. One can get needlessly entangled in temporalities: with Bowie, we are always in the region of immutable soul – his and ours.
There are many ways to explain an artist’s staying power. Harold Bloom’s Freudian take on artistic emulation, subsumption and destruction is one. In due course, the children kill the father. No young artist relishes imitation so much as he is doomed to it by jealous predecessors. Some artist-fathers cast a shadow that has the pernicious effect of a death ray. Like Goya’s Saturn the young are devoured to vouchsafe the future for unyielding, forward-looking genius.
Let’s not forget that the Bowie canon was aided and abetted mightily by a capitalist-corporate juggernaut for the better part of a half-century. Can anybody say ‘rich uncle’? Kronos, Titan god of time, owed his improbably long reign to infanticide. Until some brave Apollo, actually Zeus, unseated the Titans and installed the Olympians. (As Gods cannot die, the Titans languish — wondrous beings chained to life — in the depths of Tartarus. Who’d want the unrepealable power of the gods?) We inhabit the age of Moloch. There is little a child can do but gaze on wistfully at his rapacious elders, hoping one day for his own stage, his own soul.
Coming next time, part 4 of 5… ‘FACELESS END’