On some level we all struggle to be relieved of the burden of who we are, certainly of who we are widely perceived to be. For the vast majority of souls, this is an aspirant’s errand: to sing above the crowd and launch up through the charts like a bullet. I’m special. You’re special. Though, maybe just maybe I’m a wee bit more special than you. Yet what undergirds the Bell Curve is that half of us are average—at best. Even so, what prince does not secretly yearn to be a pauper?
To the extent the rich and famous are different then surely Bowie is more different still. His peculiar brand of despair may conform best to the man on TV whose fame derives from running down streets screaming to anyone who’ll listen about Hell. Suddenly he’s spotted running down a real street seizing lapels and screaming ‘I’m going to hell and I’m pledged to take you with me!’
‘Look honey, isn’t that David Bowie — and he’s on about hell again?‘ one spouse delightedly jabs the other. Painfully observed and culturally over-determined, The Man Who Sold 140 million albums struggles, oddly enough now, to be heard. There’s a danger in becoming too consummate with your art since, should life ever need to imitate it, your real cries will be regaled only for their uncanny fealty to the real thing. Reality, such as it is, can get repealed by an artifice from Hell. The results are a Midas-meets-the-boy-who-cried-wolf curse of sorts minted in gold records. Refusing to interpret the white-knuckled grip for what it might imply (a typical response of the myth-blinded — ‘I’ll never dry-clean this suit again!’), one accosted onlooker after another greets this desperately famous madman with seventies-vintage platitudes: ‘genius’ – ‘great chord progression’ – ‘reminiscent of Aladdin Sane’. We love him to death even when he might be tearing pages from the ole songbook (a catalog of premonitions?) to build a search-fire on the beach. Alas no plane arrives, though a busload of tourists scoots by (there’s a coastal highway on the backend). Everyone says hi.
Madness as brand; Bowie is edgy by longstanding career design. Crying psychic wolf was always his go-to bread and butter. It’s a testament to his talent that people came running more times than not, propelled by a weird mix of fascination and fun. Ah, for the dull hum of anonymity and everyman desperation where all the telltale signs of madness are usually signs of, well, madness. We by contrast wear our plights squarely on our contorted pusses. There’s something reassuring about that, maybe even enviable to the man in the white mask. Bowie’s singular terror is his fortress-like success. Only Dylan may be further out (though he’ll be staying closer to home after his recent arrest for impersonating anonymity in public). It’s the ice no axe will break. The V&A exhibit has only tucked him further away. What would he have to do to signal primal distress and make a clean break from the cool wardrobe of persona? Bowie may be a dude at the end of his tether and we’re…applauding madly. Ouvre le chien.
Already I can hear the guffaws. Save you hankie for a good cause! Bowie’s running all the way to the bank! But forty years of running in that direction, any direction, and it becomes a dash that can easily slow to a mad and pitiless crawl. There are artless, flailing signs. By now, stigmata are sort of old Hollywood hat. Sure, his second-to-last video kicked up the obligatory head-shaking press releases from one Catholic League or another. So “The Next Day” went by, then the next, then another day until Valentine’s Day arrived. The main trope is an implied equivalence (guns = guitars) over which the video proceeds to batter us about the ears. As for the guitar and the gun, both are devices that can steal souls and alter generations. One is simply more honest about it. At times seeming to vicariously relish the violence, Bowie may be coaxing us to render some dire judgment upon him. But we can’t. He’s David Bowie. All we know is the one-way language of pop star hyperbole. The tautological death-grip lingers on. Nor can we hear him, certainly not every which way. He’s sold too many records. It’s a paradox but Bowie’s sonic reach reduces him to leaving anonymous notes in the park. It’s the only chance he stands of being heard.
The banner of this Bowie-Jung blog, created in December 2012, is replete with silent guns. No one’s funny Valentine, Adam Lanza appears followed by Lodger Bowie in his iconic sprawl though garnished in a pool of blood and surrounded by shell casings. Gun lover Uncle Bill is crouched and aimed at one scary monster or another, perhaps his wife’s nattering ghost. Kurt Cobain is having serious second thoughts about his meeting on the stairs, an internal dialogue which, the 27 Club reminds us, ends with a tragic bang. The rifle-toting Mercury man is still nursing Running Gun Fever and a near-miss bullet to the head. At least for the rest of time he’ll fare better than Uncle Bill’s wife. Why all this firepower at the top of a Bowie blog, I recalled wondering at the time. Then again, who am I to handpick imagery? As I see it, my job is just to shepherd things through. I elected not to disarm the banner. Perhaps the silent guns would speak in due course.
Weeks later, Bowie re-emerged with an album eerily lacking in cathartic resolution; i.e. not what one might expect from a gifted artist emerging out of a ten-year hiatus to declare a decisive next day. I mean, to my ears, it’s hermetic if not downright autistic. I’m not deriding thematic consistency over a long span. It’s just that I sense spiritual lassitude. My spiritual compass (of proven value to me, a cranky annoyance to you perhaps) decided early on that, some cool tunage notwithstanding, Bowie had gone exactly nowhere. If anything he’s dug in, his old compulsions and fears now flashing an exasperated intensity that old age seem to have relit with mortal urgency, if not palpable fear. Mind you, I’m never talking anymore about the music per se. My contemporary interest lies with what compels the music or the gnostic content it imparts even as I realize this causes many people to crank up their headphones in disgust. C’est la vie. We suffer in popular culture today an epidemic of Adorno’s ‘incurable sickness’ where, “[pop culture] must cost no effort and therefore moves strictly along the well worn grooves of association. The spectator must need no thoughts of his own: the product prescribes each reaction…” I insist on assigning prescriptions of my own. Moreover I feel a comprehensive appreciation of Bowie’s music demands a strenuous and engaged listener. At the same time, there would be no way to rationalize Bowie’s success with the mass audience unless his music didn’t work on a traditional pop level as well. In this sense, he drives a brilliantly bifurcated product.
But back though to the product-at-hand. Where’s the reflective satisfaction in a corpus that conquered and defined a culture? Ten years to digest a drug-fueled blitzkrieg of a career propelled in part by the excesses of youth and fast-throttling fame and you might imagine a 66-year-old bemusedly renouncing a 24-year-old’s consecration of a beer light-inspired Church of Man, love. There is none of that here. It’s been said before, no less by Bowie himself, that he asks the same questions continually. Suddenly I was struck by the abject stasis of The Next Day. To the extent life is an excuse for spiritual growth, there’s little sign of it going on here. The power to charm is slackening one white knuckle at a time.
Once upon a time this man hoovered up darkness like his soul depended on it. How many times can you empty yourself of whatever ill winds fill red sails? Does the darkness ever add up, catch up? Another telltale sign for me was how Bowie seems to be re-mystifying himself. Each new picture is hungrily pored over like it’s a Fragment of the Cross or a Savior Machine finally cured of it latent deceptions. He knows this very well. Why doesn’t he dissipate the Holy-of-Holies atmosphere with a flurry of silly snapshots? My God, has Bowie succumbed to believing in himself too? When the Omega Man starts showing signs of the disease, the news is finished boys and girls. His early century flirtation with regular guy affability gone (think the Ellen DeGeneres show where he broaches, in sunny pastels, a Satanist phase, surely a first for daytime American television), he’s making the mountaintop home. Perhaps the descent trail proved impassable. Perhaps he’s fallen down a permanently dark crevasse.
Hey asshole, aren’t you going to face the music even once? Oh alright, souls be damned. “Heat” is a whispered admission wrapped in an oblique confession, the closest you’ll ever get on this dimensional plane anyway to the valence of the Project by the Chief Proselytizer himself. Talk about the album’s last word sending a cryptic shiver and with shades of fellow boomer-gloomster Scott Walker to boot. “I can only love you by hating him more”. It doesn’t get more crystalline than that. You’ve got volition, intent, foreknowledge, affiliation and contempt all rolled up into one independent clause; the coda as capstone.
And so Bowie is a genius. There. I’ve been pointedly avoiding the music as it’s the single largest obstacle to the terribly more important spiritual impartation. Somewhere in that spiritual crosshair, with the songs riding shotgun (sorry), we hold him aloft with a peculiar violence, no doubt for our own lazy, selfish reasons. Our adulation is as inert as a bank of late winter snow. Ensconced at the roof of the world for the remainder of the gig, he shows no interest in dismantling our ridiculous promontory, even with irony. Indeed our favorite Zarathustra seems content with his New York mountain home or at least resigned to it. It’s one strange map he’s wandered onto. May his coattails not lead too many up a backwards hill.