“Bowie worked the title line from ‘Over the Rainbow’ into a verse of ‘Starman’. The audience responded …riotously applauding at the beginning, end, and in some cases in the middle…”
—from Alexander Stuart’s review of the Aug 19, 1972 Rainbow Theatre concert
Many disciples in Bowieland worship chameleonic light over gnostic heat. The thicker the make-up, the better the gig. This misplaced reverence is reinforced by a venerable feedback loop. For the umpteenth music journalist tasked with yet another ‘Bowie piece’, the African lizard with the stereoscopic eyes is a stock trope. Deadlines must be met, ya know?
All right, maybe the eyes have it. But the skin color changes? Barely skin-deep. A mullet here, an eye-patch there and in no time at all, molehills acquire a mountainous swagger. The continuum of images, the atomistic blur, not any discrete image, is the message. This doesn’t repeal the necessity of a deterministic arc. Somewhere beneath the far-flung affects, a human soul traverses its fated stairway, tread by tread. In music there are few sustained accidents. One album begets the next with the ruminative silences in between every bit as important as the disks themselves. The artist’s life is punctuated by occasional dreams that can, alas, exhaust themselves before death’s release. (“Soon there’ll be nothing left of me, nothing left to release” – ‘Bring Me the Disco King’.) This sequence is anything but randomly composed. Certain things must happen to allow other things to commence. Should his work conclude before his life, the artist gives up his red weekend on Mt. Parnassus and acquaints with the drab, gray valley below. That the artistic inclination will ‘breath through the years’ is not a given. Midstream abandonment is commonplace.
Death can be the shrewdest career move. A determined afterglow often attends serious stars that fade out prematurely. The aborted arcs of James Dean, Federico Lorca, Duane Allman become open-ended trajectories wrapped in furtive speculation. As Dorothy can attest, the rainbow’s end, vanished into the clouds, possesses the power to excite the popular imagination unceasingly. The mind-altered children, those pretty things, will know not to believe this as so much of it is true. Often too, the unseen arc eclipses the observable product. Where — or whether — it reacquaints with the earth, or completes itself in a parallel universe, becomes the province of pure imagination, a veritable pot of gold.
Occultists escape the grimness of reality by vouchsafing a special compartment of knowledge. The rainbow, for them, is a dream-reality continuum — one foot in, one foot out. Along this spectral conveyor, the Earth’s most damaged children forever tread. The Himmler’s of the world, Minotaurs of the first rank, have no compunction eating the young in order to forestall their own demise. Prosthetics imagery (as represented on the adjacent Nirvana cover) symbolizes a half-eaten victim, literally the present dining on the future. The Oz-like appeal of the Illuminati and their theosophist cronies derives from confusing dream with reality. Power and evil advantage the confusion. The disguised insect in the middle is as clever as a fox while the monarch butterfly, recruited to herald false-metamorphosis, presides over the resultant soul-carnage. As we move through this very strange exploration, a striking affinity between Bowie and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain will, we hope, become more apparent.
Nirvana, the band, is about as ironic a name as Hunky Dory the Bowie album. Cobain’s spiritual state is streets below the salvific condition of transcended suffering. Indeed, as we shall see, the former stalked Redeemed Redeemer status, but failed to achieve the redemption implicit in that role. Moreover the misnomer is too stark to be merely accidental, and presents something akin to a false-flag operation. (Of course nirvana has, in Hinduism, a nihilistic element, what Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary calls, “a blowing out, or extinction, of the flame of life.” Cobain, God help him, certainly achieved the extinction part.) For the moment, this paragraph will strike the reader as being almost gratuitously cryptic. As our inquiry moves forward, we will endeavor to make the case for a strong and preternatural Bowie-Cobain connection.
When the occult is joined with art an even stranger alchemy ensues. For the moment, pity the conflicted artist as his waxen wings must bear all manner of terrestrial freight. He flies towards the sun-machine with Sagittarian audacity hoping to plant a momentous arrow, the landscape below dotted with expended flint tips. There is only the summit and the abyss. Success, even at its fullest, never consummates complete arrival. Art faces the near-impossible task of straddling time’s two-faced stratagem of contemporary relevance and eternality — one foot in, one foot out. ‘Pop music’ artists have it even harder, their medium all but defined by effervescent transience. Therein lies the timeless clash of time horizons. Enmeshed in the Orphic bid to live forever (the ultimate will-to-power), each album is wed to (weighed down by) its appointed hour; appointed — not a moment too soon.
Which brings us to that deus ex machina, THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD. Here, the Bowie determinology flashes a mystifying non sequitur. I’m going to be insistent here. TMWSTW should not fall between SPACE ODDITY and HUNKY DORY. Developmentally it puts a stake through the introspective singer-songwriterly vibe of SPACE ODDITY-HUNKY DORY. The invitation is red-letter. On ‘The Width of a Circle’, Bowie is a Jungian insurgent charged with wresting divine prerogative away from the yellowed prayer of imposed convention. He is a nebulous body shining outward with gnosis. Bowie is Carl Jung’s star apprentice in a lineage traceable to Simon Magus the magician.
TMWSTH is also John the Baptist, the Great Preparer to ZIGGY STARDUST’S leper messiah. Much as the Ancient Mariner gazes into the assembled crowd with foreknowledge of who will carry his tale forward, the man on the stair, timeless emissary of momentous destinies, arrives to alchemize and elevate a sorcerer’s apprentice. Every quest is balanced against an attendant risk. Where would life get its dramatic tension otherwise? The troll under this particular bridge is the protagonist’s palpable fear of madness to which a series of vignettes are posed. The voices in Bowie’s head, insistent little buggers, are petitioning for travel papers of their very own. Jump, they say.
Though Bowie finally accedes, and indeed builds a career obliging these voices, his fear at this juncture insists on prefiguring only nightmares. Later, ALADDIN SANE (no careless pun intended there) will chronicle descent into the clinical condition itself, certainly if the stories from this time are even half-accurate. Bowie was not doing crazy-man pantomimes. He was flat-out bonkers. Indeed Aladdin Sane is the ashen hulk of a flamed-out Ziggy. The lesson? Given complete run of the joint, dictatorial demiurges have no problem evicting the primary tenant
Imaginal beings notwithstanding, the need to get things done requires keeping one’s head fastened on. The Cane Hill Asylum has already cast its pall over the Jones household. Older brother Terry is there. To a perceptive and doting younger brother, officialdom’s designation, madness, already betrays an ambivalent, self-serving veneer. A harbinger of the schizophrenic rights movement, ‘All the Madmen’ seems to suggest that insanity is a legitimate orientation. In fact institutionalization might be a shrewd lifestyle choice, even a rationally-conceived refuge, from the pervasive madness that lurks beyond the asylum gates.
The various madness vignettes on TMWSTW also serve as test runs. Striking the ground (in a gesture of overt will), Bowie makes a cavern appear similar to Jung before him. He is girding himself (in warlike leather belt) for an Orphic journey through Hade’s shadow-forms and saturnine muck. In this instance madness becomes a tactic, an adoptable point-of-view and a cautionary tale all at once. Clearly this gig can dissemble into Cane Hill residency in a flash. Beyond some stone, wax and string, what really separates one Bewlay brother from another? For those wishing to traipse along, the entreaty is to provision your packhorses and prepare for some hazy, crazy scenes atop the black rock gold mine:“Jung’s soul visits him in the madhouse:
“Words, words, do not make too many words. Be silent and listen: have you recognized your madness and do you admit it?” The professor calls him “quite a character.” Although no Mad Hatter appears, a fool complains about Jung, “My God, why does my family always shut me in with crazy people? I’m supposed to save the world, I’m the savior.” When the sun rises, Jung sees that it’s a cross with a serpent draped languidly over it.”
–from ‘Jung’s Red Book: Healing the Faustian Ego’, by Craig Chalquist, PhD
There is no more divine symmetry than a serpent-draped cross. No, things don’t get copasetic all of a sudden on HD, a darkly ironic title if ever there was one. The crisis has simply entered a more ruminative phase. Perceived changes, as opposed to lurid breaks with reality, are the mainstay here. There is residual anxiety, but with it the sense of a survivable core — a stream of warm impermanence (if that’s not too paradoxical an image.) The cavern now plays host to a meandering flow of life-sustaining water. This can only be a way-station for there is only the summit and the abyss. A more subdued Nietzsche is still hanging around with evolutionary leaps to homo superior on the cards. Not yet quite hell-bound, the pretty things are still being fashioned in fa-fa-fascist laboratories amidst hints of Himmler’s not-so-sacred realm of eugenics and his infamous Lebensborn breeding program.
Adroit songwriting notwithstanding, HD follows TMWSTW like an overly ruminative sore thumb. The prior preoccupation with madness is skirted altogether except perhaps in that cautionary tale to solipsists everywhere, ‘Quicksand’. TMWSTW’s cavern is a straddled abyss between the light and dark, whereas quicksand offers a more languorous descent. Earlier intrepid explorers — Warhol, Reed, Rose— beckon like a fraternal welcoming party. Yet why does our explorer continue to pore over the maps? An enduring sense of unclaimed destiny pervades. Anticipating many things, there is no better working title for 1976’s STATION TO STATION than a portrayal of Himmler’s sacred realm, dream-reality. The shadow man, amply introduced, has not yet been fully embraced. This cat’s all put together. When will he jump?
Kicking off side two of HD, we get a valiant attempt at a fresh bright start. However Biff Rose’s greeting card sentiments on ‘Fill Your Heart’ are unsustainable as we dissolve into eerie Warholian self-referentiality. Nervous studio banter reminds us this is all just a movie. We are alienated anew. The planet is reprising its abject blueness like a sleepy whirlpool. Then, in droll cockney and laid-out walking shoes, ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ elaborates a second departure when ‘The Width of a Circle’ was our boy’s proper initiatory passage. What caused the promised messianic ascent from TMWSTW to mire?
Sometimes fear can take an album or two to be completely shaken off. Streets ahead of SPACE ODDITY’S precocious yet stricken teenager (really a testament to raw, unleavened talent) and with all the rude portent of Kubrick’s obelisk, TMWSTH is a Luciferian invocation laid down by a horny young man who’s beginning to feel his oats in the dark folds of rock, and within those folds the endless bob of blow jobs — sweet head indeed. When he’s not comparing his girth with gods or mocking the interminably bad joke they must endure (eternal life, poor bastards), he’s receiving the rites of ascension from some erstwhile, decrepit savior. Some full-throttle Nietzsche with Crowleyan sex-magick gets tossed in for bad luck. Fellow glam-juggernaut Mark Bolan is playfully stalked as well.
The quest for a comprehensive ‘buttoned-up’ meaning is a perennial temptation. Legions of bric-a-bracticians delight in throwing a Kether at a Crowley at a Bradbury at a Lovecraft, forgetting that the Rosetta stone they stalk has all the permanency of paraffin wax. The grand allusionists also tend to forget that, before there was a Diabolical Project, a desperate young art-school collagist was throwing everything at the wall in the hopes something would stick i.e. not so much T. S. Eliot as the English dancehall equivalent of P.T. Barnum. Whether the artist is an opportunist or the opportunist stalks artistry is the province of endless cocktail chatter. The mobius strip asserts both can be true, so why not? Combine a mind predisposed to esoterica with decades of media immersion and Bowie-the-Rorschach-test allows anything of the intrepid English Lit major. We’ll try here not to luxuriate in overwrought literary analysis, though some cultural touchstones are unavoidable.
Besides, the coat’s the thing — the flitting Technicolor dreamscape mere show-biz affectation. Bowie’s mercenary nature (the craven inclination to don almost anything, as opposed to the donned article itself) suggests the scariest monster of all. Indeed how he sells himself with such promiscuous abandon — that heat-seeking emptiness as opposed to the imagery that comes to rest atop it — seems certain recipe for an acutely (exercised, if no
t) imperiled, soul. For the purpose of this burgeoning treatise, suffice to say that som
ething will seize a vacuum, and in this case something did. Open invitations attract all manner of guests. Rock ‘n roll may be, after all, an instrumentality in s
ervice to a nefarious agenda, as we shall explore next time in greater depth.
Coming next time, part 2 of 5… ‘HEADLONG PLUNGES DOWN MINELESS SHAFTS’