With the death of David Bowie comes the inevitable stream of tributes and remembrances.
Many will come from heartfelt fans who had a decades-long relationship with the Bowie’s catalog, his visual and performance work, and with his personae: Major Tom, Aladdin Sane, the Harlequin of Scary Monsters, et al. Some will come from those too young to remember the Thin White Duke as anything in anything other than the post-Let’s Dance period (after 1983).
It’s ok either way, because everyone gets their own Bowie, or Bowies.
Even so, there will be those who read Bowie’s career in the context of the traditional pop music) system. There, the best work is the most popular, and the most-challenging is the fringe that causes the lunatic to learn his limits and lessons all the better.
In this story, the wrong story, Bowie never recovered from the missteps of the late 1980s.
Accordingly, the first obit I read offered one particularly problematic narrative that falls into the “pop” group. Here’s the narrative: Bowie started out promising through the early 1970s, gets weird in Berlin, returns with mega-hits in the Let’s Dance period, and then produces little of musical value.
For those interested in Bowie’s music–and even among those who think “Modern Love” a darn great song (me too!)–the most interesting work happened in the antipodes of the story that says Bowie burned bright and then flamed out. It’s not the 1970s Berlin albums where things “went off track”; it’s not the post-Let’s Dance where everything lost its way.
For any artist brave enough to risk each success or misstep on the next possible mistake, there’s a lot of relevant Bowie hidden far beyond “Space Oddity” and “Let’s Dance.”
As the news spreads about the man who once sold the world, here are four tracks that to me, remain some of the most interesting Bowie work. I’ve picked one pre-Let’s Dance, and three post:
- “Word on a Wing“: The “heart” of the furious Station to Station(1976)–a record of soulful paranoia–“Wing” pours a regular Bowie strategy earnestness in an enticingly ironic container.”Word on a Wing” is liquid prayer for a whiskey priest. In isolation, the song is a paean to a particular type of metaphysical yearning: it’s a song of spiritual awakening for a post-1960s soundscape; it’s the morning after the Duke’s cocaine binge; the suggestive specter of future angels from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire(1987), praying in the slight falsetto. On it’s own, it’s a swirling and beautiful moment.
And yet when juxtaposed with the rest of Station to Station, “Wing” serves as a distorted hymn to the absence of calm within the Thin White Duke’s calculating chaos. For me, in the cut with the rest of the album, “Wing” suggests clear skies just before the arrival of the fascist storm:
“Lord, Lord, my prayer flies/Like a word on a wing/My prayer flies like a word on a wing/Does my prayer fit in/With your scheme of things?”
The persona singing these words is the slightly older and desperate narrator of “Quicksand,” from Hunky Dory (1971), where the occultist looking for “order” grows “closer to the Golden Dawn,” by “…living in a silent film/Portraying Himmler’s sacred realm/ Of dream reality.”
- “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” [sic]: Outside(1995) is Bowie-as-concept-hound. The theme of this long record is art crimes, and the tracks are sometimes Brecht-like, sharing DNA not only with the original “Alabama Song,” but also with Bowie’s snarling cover from Stage(1978). “Heart,” with its grotesque video directed by Samuel Bayer (of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” fame), offers industrial-vogue scenes of ritualized art mutilations that move the cheerleader anarchy of Nirvana’s video into the space of meta-mutilation.
Nirvana perform angst in the “Smells Like” video, whereas Bowie documents its stylized creation within the video space. “Heart” offers the same ritual echoed in the fantastic “Blackstar” 20 years later, with nightmarish guitar lines modified by RZA-meets-jazz club piano.
- “Sunday“: The lead track from 2002’s excellent Heathen is a funereal piece that finds Bowie at an Matins prayer. The song is part crooner and part chant, with the right amount of reflective vapor blown into the vocal: “Nothing remains/We could run/when the rain slows/Look for the cars or signs of life/Where the heat goes.”
We listen to another confession from yet another self-reflective Bowie persona caught in the gaze of our watching, and listening. “Sunday” is both Pentecostal and profane, equal parts sermon and Satan. “Nothing has changed,” he sings (and names a 2014 compilation after the line), but everything has changed. Check out: A Reality Tour(2010), for additionally searing guitar (2003 performance).
4. “Blackstar” (2015): The title track from Bowie’s last record, of the same name (2016), borrows elements of the song “Station to Station.” While “Station” moves as in a suite, from section to section–station to station, Christ’s station’s of the cross–“Blackstar” loops in a circle: “In the center of it all.”
In the video, the end-times preacher with his blackstar bible occupies the transition space between the opening and second sections. The second part opens with a verse straight our of “Word on a Wing”: ‘Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried/(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar).”
What follows is the arch come-on of a televangelist snake-oil salesman: “I can’t tell you why…,” who, pied-piper style, will take your “passport and shoes” and your “sedatives and booze.”
“Blackstar” is Bowie as burglar and mimic: he rehearses the past (the jeweled Major Tom skull in the video), yet closes the track with a return to the opening, where the ritual is repetition of the musical theme until the song breaks down in a series of loose saxophone notes, floating like free electrons after molecular collapse.
Much of it different and dizzying and expansive and unnerving and also, always, unafraid of failure. A few years ago I helped a group determine quotations for the library walls at Lake Forest College.
We have Plato, Toni Morrison, and also, Bowie.
Davis Schneiderman wrote this on Bowie and William S. Burroughs. He is Associate Dean of the Faculty and Director of the Center for Chicago Programs at Lake Forest College. His most recent work is the ink-stained novel, INK.