I'm sitting in Pavement Coffeehouse, my favorite cafe near Fenway. Bowie's "Five Years" is playing and I'm looking around at kids who wouldn't look the way they do without Bowie, conceivably who couldn't be the way without his work, without him. For that matter, I'd say many of my contemporaries would be more constrained without his having been here.
What happened to my generation? We could have been beautiful and left the world in better shape. We had, arguably, the benefit of the sixties' lessons; both the good and the bad. We saw a corrupt president driven from office and if we weren't the idealists of our old brothers' and sisters' years, did we have to descend into such utter cynicism?
Bowie could build a dystopia like no one else, but I don't think he was ever cynical. At his most nihilistic, there still felt like there was a glimmer of light.
We're on "Starman" right now and I may just lose it. This could be his epitaph ("let all the children boogie" included, for sure.)
Admittedly, my-my-my generation was called the Me Generation for a reason, given to self-help books, encounter group therapy, and naval gazing that would shame the best (worst?) narcissist. On the other hand, we kind of wised up to the dead end, or some of us did, of solipsism. We started to glimpse that the self isn't what we think it is and that there are more ways we're connected that short-circuits the idea of billions of little islands out there in existence.
I owe Bowie a reassessment of my influences. We both read Nietzsche. I wasn't a fan when my friend Andrew asked me to read the lyrics to "Oh! You Pretty Things" and he asked me if it sounded like Bowie understood Nietzsche. I replied fairly non-committally, if memory serves. I seem to recall saying that without really talking to the guy, I couldn't say, but sure, why not throw in some allusion here and there. If I could go back in time to the pretentious teen fuck that I was, I'd tell my younger self that Bowie was probably living Nietzsche. Screw reading him! (Besides, the better question is: you're sixteen, punk...you know Nietzsche?)
Yeah, I appreciated Bowie, more than actually liking him for most of the seventies. His public image and eccentricities seemed to overshadow what was doing and I was too stupid and unsophisticated to get it, anyway. I was into serious artistic brooding, not this effete affectation of retro rock cabaret that I took to be the sole extent of Bowie's creativity.
That changed quickly around 1977 when "Low" came out and I realized just how big an idiot I was. In the space of a few weeks, I devoured his back catalog. It didn't hurt that Eno's cache helped enormously with this. I was in Massachusetts when "Heroes" came out and I realized that I lived in remarkable times. I got back to Houston the following year and within a day or so of having returned, found out that Bowie was playing at the Summit, where the Houston Rockets played and where I'd seen the Who two years before. I think my ticket was 7.50. I walked right up to the box office and experienced what remains the finest concert of my life. From the first note of "Warszawa", I was treated to some of the most remarkable music ever performed. But more than that, it was the first time I felt the love of the performer for the audience. It's arguable that that's simply projection, but for the duration of the concert, I felt like I was in one of the most honest, intimate relationships an audient can have. And simply put: Bowie fucking kicked ass. There's a YouTube video (well, audio) of the concert out there and I promise I'll check it out someday, but my memory is what it is and I'd rather not have it overlaid with a secondhand view.
Around this time, Bowie had cleaned up and was on his way to the eighties ahead of the rest of us. A lot of what I thought about was that the world was grim, but there was grace and joy abounding, that we weren't really divorced from what is good and true and beautiful. Then Reagan sailed into office and John Lennon was murdered and oh, God, how incredibly fucked up the world got.
We swung to the right and drew the sabers. The Cold War escalated to ridiculously shrill levels. By this point, the paranoia from David Byrne to William Burroughs was palpable. The rise of greed and the supremacy of market driven policy was only just beginning. Bowie's "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" was an appropriate response. The anger and frustration in "It's No Game, Part One" mirrored mine and everyone else I knew. "Up the Hill Backwards" painted the Sisyphean tasks ahead of maintaining the dignity Bowie had mentioned on "Lodger" in "Fantastic Voyage."
Between the Clash and a handful of other politicized musicians, music held a relevance that kept despair in check. When "Let's Dance" came out, I remember a bunch of us artists were dancing in a congo line in Frank Williams studio in Houston. It was the fluffiest album Bowie could have made, but Jesus, it was fun! And not without weight, but the gears had shifted into Fun and maybe that's the prescription Major Tom decided we needed. Plus, Nile Rodgers never met a groove he couldn't use to good effect!
On the subway, I write.
At this point, Bowie seemed to be omnipresent in a way he'd never been before; embraced by the mainstream. Yet, unlike other artists, it didn't feel like selling out so much as vindication. As Sean O'Neal points out, the issue is more complex than that, but however we look at it, a broader swath of society at large was finally recognizing one of its most vital and influential artists. Acceptance into the broader popular culture only meant that he was legitimized, not defanged (and we'd see evidence of that throughout the rest of his career) and he didn't cease subverting cultural norms or speaking up for rights of others. Despite his dalliance with the trappings of fascism in '76, it's unlikely he genuinely believed what he was spouting. He was too much at the forefront of bending gender norms and social convention to be convincing as a true believer of National Socialism.
The 80s were, nonetheless, an interesting time for a Bowie fan. He was multimedia; acting on Broadway, in films, and even acting in music as "just a band member" in Tin Machine. From what I gather, the Glass Spider tour was a remarkable, if calculated (some say soulless) affair, but it brought him to an even wider public if such a thing was possible.
In the meantime, his musical descendants were all over the map. From the pretty boy neo-glam New Romantics like Duran Duran to less memorable bands like Icehouse, the baritone croon and gated drums were aped and repurposed to varying quality and dubious meaning. By the nineties something gave.
When Bowie married Iman, we got a lovely present in the form of "Black Tie, White Noise", an entirely too much overlooked gem. It's got some clunkers, but it shows him regaining control of his music. Sorry, Bowie could never be just another band member. Soon enough, he'd be back to absorbing new trends, trying them on for size and if not completely reinventing them, coming close enough. If nothing else, he explored enough to show others what could be done.
His forays into jungle, with bass and dub, and even with the Reznorian electronica he helped create weren't always successful, but when they were, ooooh, baby. There are singles on each album in the nineties that shimmer; and if, say, "Outside" isn't quite the revelation we'd hoped for (after all, Bowie + Eno = not boring), I defy anyone to not fall in love with "Strangers When We Meet" or "'Thru These Architects Eyes." Oh, and "I'm Deranged" and "The Heart's Filthy Lesson".
"Hours..." boasts some beauties, as well ("Thurday's Child" is one damn song that makes me break down and cry); and to be sure, it seemed that if his work seemed less urgent, it was the voice of a man now on the other side of fifty taking stock of his mortality. There is a poignance in his work that begins around here unlike anything else in his oeuvre.
The next day: "Heroes"
Back at Pavement and "Heroes" is playing (not nearly loud enough and why isn't everyone here either weeping piteously or dancing their asses off?)
Here's a quote from Julius Kassendorf at The Solute (in the comment thread...the article is lovely.)
"I spent a bit of my day today looking over the various tributes and I was really taken aback by the breadth of Bowie's influence. A lot of artists have a relatively narrow audience, but Bowie is one of those who seem to have spanned across generations and cultural barriers. Vibe had an article of 12 Rap Songs that Sampled Bowie. I retweeted Guillermo Del Toro's response last night. I saw a lot of friends with very conservative tastes lamenting the loss. Queer people saw him as an icon bending the rules of sexuality with a confidence and ease. I saw men and women equally sharing their favorite aspects of his work. On MTV's posting of that infamous "why don't you show black people?" interview, so many people said that was a key moment when they really took notice of him as a person and an artist.
There are few artists who seem to have reached the universal range that Bowie was able to reach. Not that he reached every single person, but his fans seemed to include somebody from most walks of life. Losing that is heartbreaking."
It's not just that we won't see his like again; it's that we need more now. What to do? Try to be "heroes"; write a poem or a play, volunteer like a boss, take your passion and nurture it. Make some music, we can't have too much. Make love, it's in short supply sometimes. Maybe if we spent more time just trying to care for each other, we'd see a more heroic world.
After the heart attack and what seemed like retirement, it still felt like the cracked actor would surprise us one more time; at the very least, it was enough that he was still with us. "Heathen" and "Reality" were each heralded as his strongest work since "Scary Monsters" and then, silence. Sure, there were a couple of appearances, but the silence was noticeable.
Seemingly from nowhere, in 2013, "The Next Day" hit. There was a the video of "Where are We Now" and the album itself dropped. Tony Visconti and the band worked in utmost secrecy and one of the finest works of the decade comes out. It was a vast piece of work for me that I needed to unpack over the year. It yielded its cosiderable pleasures slowly and would leave me shaking at its audacity and import. It's not a young man's work, though it it's as energetic as anything a twenty year old could come up with (if that twenty year old was possessed of genius beyond his years); it's ripe with a worldliness and a kind of dizziness at the reach of a vista of a life. I wonder if Bowie himself was dazzled by what lay in his wake.
It's dark, but again, with Bowie, the darkest aspects point to something else.
Then, another surprise. The Bowie exhibit at the Albert and Victoria Museum traveled to Chicago, which I found revelatory, and seemed to herald a new chapter in the man's life, at once valedictory and celebratory and we hoped, promising more work.
Who knew? A few days ago, an even greater work sees the light of day and then, a few days later, the light goes out.
Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the light has returned home; it's still shining and in some ways, more brightly. I haven't choked up that much because all this seems like a perfect whole. Bowie wrapped everything up very nicely for us; here, he said, one last parting gift.
During the interview with Robert Fripp for "David Bowie: Five Years" (2013)
...a question was asked, answered, and edited out of the documentary.
Q: Why was Bowie so influential? (paraphrase).
A: He spoke on behalf of what is highest in all of us.
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