“Rock has always been the devil’s music, you can’t convince me that it isn’t. I honestly believe everything I’ve said—I believe rock and roll is dangerous. … I feel that we’re only heralding something even darker than ourselves” –David Bowie, 1976
“When silence/Blooms in the house, all the paraphernalia of our existence/shed the twitterings of value and reappear as heraldic devices.” —Robert Duncan, Letters, XVII
‘Herald’ is a startling, non-accidental word. Bowie typically exhibits an eccentric though careful vocabulary. Robert Duncan, an early Beat poet, is no slouch in the diction department either. Duncan’s heraldic devices are a bid to ‘keep it real’. A constructive de-commoditization effect is being encouraged. Bowie on the other hand is suggesting he is the commodity itself, the glittery facade heralding a bad deal. Caveat emptor.
In today’s climate of unthinkingness, people are quite content not to pierce the veil of superficiality. However image stripped of implication and motive force is a decadent form of myopia. Heraldry always points beyond itself, or is it behind itself? The spectator would do well then to understand the full extent of his participation as forces of indeterminate patrimony propel him forward to destinations unknown. Only a fool restricts his inquiries to all that appears before his eyes. Even Bowie is not fooled by his renowned penchant for surface manufacture. There is, he posits, a dark energy behind it.
The heraldic device is a frontispiece, not a comprehensive understanding. When Duncan speaks of shedding the twitterings of value (decades before Twitter), he could be remonstrating rock music twits for selling their own souls to better vacuum up the souls of others. But sell to whom or for what, and literally or figuratively? Here we find an impulsively struck communion of non-explicit intent. No one seems clear on the particulars of the deal. Nor have blood-signed documents ever been produced.
There is a tendency to write it all off to the lurid imaginations of bored teenagers i.e. KISS is no more than a 3D Marvel comic book. So leave the kids alone as, mostly, they’ll be alright. The industry scoffs at deeper implications. No one wants to play earnest theologian when there’s so much money to be scooped up. When the going gets light, light loafers befit kings. A confederacy of dunces will never outwit a learned council of elders. However in an unthinking age the former is at least unencumbered by weighty reflection. Superficiality is a virtue in an age that clings to surface. Suddenly the world no longer rests on the backs of an infinite array of tortoises because Photoshop can’t go down that far. The difference between superficiality and non-existence is always one mouse-click away. We are all candidates for erasure in the Age of Airbrush, a corollary nightmare of Heidegger’s world-picture where the very notions of psyche and soul are challenged by pixel-hounds and paparazzi. Subterraneans bewail a gnostic and esoteric tradition driven further underground.
Jung the foreman would be mortified at a world turned so inhospitable to soulful content. Image, at its most decadent, becomes the heraldic device of superficiality. Surface is as surface does. In an age when image is over-determined and asked to carry more than its girderless frame should bear, a commensurate tendency of asking far too little of ourselves and of others acquires sympathetic currency. Few of us interrogate surface assertions for anything other than visible content. The heralding function alluded to by Bowie skirts by, criminally unexamined. Nobody’s thinking, warns Heidegger. And why not, with much more fun stuff to do? Atala, situated in the hips, is the lower chakra of fear and lust, source of Elvis’ pelvic gyrations. Dark ironic Eagle, Don Henley, employs 4/4 time to chide America’s propensity for perpetual dance. Red shoes become the rage.
Where culture and meaning once rose thick, there the ruins will be most pronounced. The speed of light ‘moves faster’ across a horizon stripped of brave Apollo’s elevating structures. Indeed it’s shocking how quickly our cities fell to the rock ‘n roll onslaught—little ole sound waves versus bricks-and-mortar, whoda thunk? Though the quantum cosmologists assure us there was never all that much to solid forms anyway. Quick as a flash, our great cultural depositories became backdrops for urban dreamscape façades. The rock tour is now a venerable industry segment unto itself. Show-biz scaffold can be erected at breakneck speed. Some enterprising rock ’n roller discovers the world can be traversed at a faster clip with a tear-down soundstage decamped one town ahead. Yes, Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour boasts two complete Hunger City’s. Outstripped by the cool efficiency of warm impermanence, City Fathers relinquish their keys to this itinerant, coke-fueled English scarecrow with post-apocalyptic, leap-frogging Manhattans in tow. Urban renewal accepts dystopia as the new waterfront plan. Soon, young Americans will awaken in a panic to charred urban landscapes. Today’s Detroit was prefigured in yesterday’s Hunger City.
This was not a prophecy however, but a directive ushered in by the death rattle of rock and blues. Our culture may be possessed. The Anglo-Saxon world, ignoring the well-considered remonstrance of the Black Southern Church, anointed the devil’s music, Negro Delta Blues. These white-faced pantomimes moved veritable mountains like nothing Robert Johnson could have managed on his own. Detroit’s auto factories turned an oily brow to the Motown Hit Factory. Who needs the dull thud of pistons when you have The Miracles? When Smokey sang, we forgot everything.
Great Britain became a financial basket-case whose proudest boast is now rooted primarily in geriatrics: 1970’s-era rock godhood exportation. Brave contrarian of the Daily Mail, Jan Moir, questioned the near-manic reception that attended the 2013 ‘Where Are We Now?’ single:
“Has everyone taken leave of their senses? At least two national newspapers put huge photographs of Bowie on their front pages. You would think he had been kidnapped and tortured by Justin Bieber, instead of being a semi-retired pop star who had just released a record.”
It’s not Bowie’s fault that he’s turned to with such terrific force. He is merely a surrogate–or a lifeboat–within the current vacuum. Nonetheless the desperate strength of the adulation is disturbing. What lies ahead, in a larger context, is just so damned bleak. Or the bankers’ sinking edifice will crumble and a new order will commence. For now, consumption, the economist’s fancy world for over-indulgence, has buried exertion and production well beyond Khrushchev’s wildest dreams. To this fait accompli, we offer nihilistic resignation. Let’s dance—then later, when the flames confound even the most strident deniers, let’s dance through the fire.
Artists are the too-sensitive brothers in our midst—the first-alert systems for monoxide-poisoned canaries perched at city limits. They are also impulsive children. No reasonable person would think to build a city from their blueprints except that, spilling out of nightclubs at 4 a.m., we abandoned reason and handed Elvis the keys. Ed Sullivan did his best to avert our gaze, but Atala’s downward tug ultimately proves too strong. Today’s world-picture is sex-drenched because the camera couldn’t resist gravity’s prurient rainbow. We are the blind led along by seeing-eye dogs at a pace no wise man would dare attempt. Purposelessness allows for a staggering velocity. But then, so does free-fall. Where went our gray-haired wise men?
These are huge implications to have to drop on the bony shoulders of our men-in-spandex. How could they have known how catastrophically their teen rebellion would be joined? For all their regal trappings, rock gods are glorified stalking horses who, on their best days, might manage a convincing parody of soul-mastery. The pageant is the thing. Mostly they seem as perplexed over their end of the bargain as we do our role as rapt, attentive spectators. No human is driving this train which says nothing of uppity disembodied entities. The record is replete with pedestrian pilots:
“There are black magicians who think we’re acting as unknown agents of Lucifer.” –Keith Richards
“It happens to us quite often- it feels as though I am not playing my instrument, something else is playing it and that same thing is playing all three of our instruments.” –Ginger Baker (formerly of Cream)
“It’s amazing, ’cause sometimes when we’re on stage, I feel like somebody’s just moving the pieces. … I’m just going, ‘God, we don’t have any control over this.’” –Stevie Nicks
“…get stoned and worship Satan.” –Kurt Cobain
Sometimes it falls to the beer-light to guide us. Small spiritual comfort comes from knowing that many of our cultural spokespeople experience their Gethsemane moments as drug-addled, impressionable teens. Adolescent theologies morphed into fearsome cash machines can be the hardest temples to de-commission. Confabs like Ozfest serve as the embalming fluid for rusted metalmen when the latter, unaided by economies of scale, would otherwise drift (thank god for tender mercies) into the vocational fields of auto-detailing, PC repair and bartending. Thus long after their appointed time, fraying bands of black-clad cockroaches manage to rain hell’s bells down upon their minions’ last remaining cochlear capacity.
Rock gods are merely front-men after all, seduced from behind by an irresistible backbeat. Passing through them, the wave proceeds to smash us in the face in stadiums designed to manufacture mass consent and subvert soulful misgivings. No one probes the origin. Everyone is carried along. The general seediness of the impresarios, so luridly on display in the current Jimmy Savile scandal, suggests all that sex, drugs and rock n’ roll claptrap was an elaborate grooming project put on by a bunch of middle-aged pervs. Rock ‘n roll –a euphemism for fucking and promoted shamelessly by hand-selected pretty-boy idols– was the lure. Drugs made the kiddies’ knickers more navigable. Sex was the endgame.
They always had a Stiff Man, often the school principal in those goofy 50’s-era American International Pictures (Tagline: Rock ‘n’ Roll vs. the Squares). A Socratic figure suddenly conscripted as an object of ridicule, he battles the pedo-trap to the best of his powers. Alas it’s pointless. In the final scene, he slips into a tortuous, groovy dance, black dress-tie wrapped defeatedly around his forehead. The little girls dance around him approvingly as he gets with the groove, man. Go Dionysian Daddy-O! One more City Father succumbs, handing the keys to the pedo-ring. An entire culture gazes on, taking fevered notes.
So, there was no cultural Age of Aquarius, dumb-ass. To his credit, Bowie always saw through the Hippie flower-power bullshit. The social movement of sexual liberation was all about copping a feel. Top of the Pops was a televised schoolyard. Savile was a track suited Rasputin, a leering Svengali with zippable trenchcoat. My God, the UK has fifty years of cultural hijack to reconsider. Think of all those creepy OBE’s. They had Mick ‘n Keef nicked at Redlands in ’67. But someone had to wax on about breaking butterflies on wheels. The quarry fluttered away on Luciferian wings.
Adding economic insult to spiritual injury, T-shirts cost a fortune at the venue. Thirty-five dollar baseball caps are one more souvenir commemorating vacated reason. “Ride the snake to the ancient lake”, Jim Morrison once inveigled his stoned, immaculate followers. Confirmed Dionysians finish first, often at age 27. Whereas Bowie offers calculated excess like a clever old soul. The voodoo Loa is a more than capable arbiter of its own agenda. Nor is it unversed in masquerading behind other religious artifacts. African slaves routinely syncretized their deities with Christian saints in order to avoid persecution by their masters. St. Peter is thus a heraldic device for the Haitian Loa, Papa Legba. Robert Johnson sold his soul at the crossroads to Mr. Legba.
We can speculate endlessly on the valence of this force. Moral tonality may be a laughably off-key measure. Lorca’s duende, one recalls, was neither angel, nor devil, nor muse. We could simply be up against noise, that is, an agnostic propagation of waves. Noise can register a sinister vibe especially after a long period of silence. One is eager to hear a pin drop on the heels of a prior god’s departure or after the protracted incommunicado of a current occupant. In the dead of night, empty houses creak like arthritic ghosts. We are not above constructing palpable fear from dumb wooden rafters.
How ominous though that we understand so little about what slouches towards us in the wake of these heraldic majorettes, assuming of course there is indeed something behind the walls of sound. Have we been dulled into dispiritedness? Have the shopping malls succeeded in un-whetting our spiritual appetites? Where is the palpable sense of soul-peril that gripped Elvis’ early record-burners? How interesting that the Mississippi Delta’s onward Christian soldiers have been reduced to laughing-stocks and in relative short order by our thoroughly modern urbane cultural arbiters. Early on, a project was launched to ‘demonize’ these rapt believers. For many, suspicions of a studious and diligent campaign of evil are being amply confirmed. Yes, evil ba-ha-hah.
Unshakable conviction has been shaken by a half-century onslaught of profound confusion on all sides. Some assuage their confusion with daggers drawn on all who still believe in something. Satan, the original nihilist, relishes confusion. You don’t have to believe in him. You simply have to accede to no belief at all. Frankly we ask more references of a neighborhood cat-sitter than we ever demanded of cultural game-changer Little Richard who, in one of his ministerial episodes, offered up this rather unambiguous confession: “I was directed and commanded by another power. The power of darkness …that a lot of people don’t believe exists. The power of the Devil.”
Asked what compelled him to enter rock, Bowie offered, “when I heard Little Richard, I mean, it just set my world on fire.” You had to say fire, didn’t you David? And this: “Hearing Tutti-frutti…I had heard God.”
Oh righteous brothers, get thee behind this pronouncement from an ostensible devil’s disciple’s disciple. In a Jungian sense, God and the Devil are two sides of the same coin, an Abraxian duality inspired by Janus, the god of thresholds, fresh journey and duplicitous bastards. So maybe Bowie is having his cake while eating it too. Surely the heraldic vanguards of our culture herald something, even if that something happens to be nothing at all. There is nothing that insists they must explicitly acknowledge their personal Jesus in order to serve him. There is nothing even to insist there is a god behind their heraldic exertions. All idols could be false. We could be rootless bits of flotsam registering ambient sparks with zero spiritual content. Nonetheless something within many of us, a soul perhaps, fancies there’s something more out there than the stone ear of empty space. We could be wrong. We try to hedge. The slimmest prospects of pitchforks and brimstone keep us dancing like cool cats on a hot tin roof.
Do we ignore His presence with eyes wide shut? Have we been conducted into profound spiritual blindness? You couldn’t invent a more direct, ear-splitting project than the music of Black Sabbath. If Mozart delivers us to Hell, verily it will be on the backs of angels. Teeth-gnashing in this instance will be warranted to which I will happily lead the incisor-choir. However Satan’s masterstroke, in the heavy metal genre, is his reliance upon disarming honesty to capture his prey. There is no subtlety or subterfuge in Megadeth announcing, “I am the devil’s advocate, a salesman if you will…Come join me in my infernal depths…” How someone can read these hell-bound directives only to express complete surprise at his final destination, if such destination proves to be an actual place, is a study in heraldic lunacy. My, what a cunningly devised trap. The infernal depths was ellipsis for…the infernal depths. Cagey bastard, that Prince of Darkness. This is not subliminal, backwarded mischief. Rob Halford need not take the witness stand because Judas didn’t betray us at all. We will have betrayed ourselves. The lyrics, couched in the Tarmac tropes of eighth-grade English, were duteous heralds of the soul’s final condition. There was no simile, there was no metaphor. Head-bangers were being unceremoniously kicked in the head by their future gatekeeper. Unfazed, they persisted in raising devil’s horns to the klieg lights. The black iron prison must be resisted. Turn down that infernal noise and you can hear the damned’s endless prattle. It emanates like a broken record from earnest Ouija boards the world over. Oh how the undead whine like self-pitying banshees. Hey, get a life in death you guys. We, the living, retain the prerogative for still trying to sort things through.
Scoff then if you dare at the uncoaxed admissions of our hapless Pied Pipers. Where was our circumspection on matters so grave as to carry huge import beyond the grave? The music was too loud by nefarious design. Led Zeppelin’s percussionist John Bonham drummed out our better angels with interminable solos that seemed to mock the very notion of eternity. Clearly his timekeeping was otherworldly. We must strive to give these most precious, if still highly controversial, vouchsafes the benefit of every shadow of a doubt. No, not our death metal record collections, silly. I’ve been waging a pitched, rhetorical battle for our goddamned souls. Next week, we’ll explore perilous rites of passage, Bowie’s psychic stairwell and Kurt Cobain’s failed quest for the flaming dove.
Coming next time, part 3 of 5… ‘STANDING ON THE STAIRS: MAYDAY, MAYDAY‘