November 24, 2016
David Bowie on Thanksgiving: Waiting in the Sky
by JW McCormack
Editor’s note: When JW McCormack—electric ghost of literatures forgotten and yet-to-come—originally agreed to let us run this piece, we were thrilled, because nobody writes like JW, and, for that matter, nobody knows Bowie like JW. We scheduled it to run the day after we published David Bowie: The Last Interview — November 9. That date, we now know, was to live in infamy; in the election’s aftermath, it seemed inconceivable that anyone might find the time or spirit to read it. With regrets, we pulled the piece.
Today, the madness that has overtaken our politics continues its campaign of unwavering distraction and enervation. It’s also Thanksgiving. It’s the 140th birthday of Ameen Rihani, the 157th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the 55th birthday of Arundhati Roy. The world continues to make and un-make itself.
We’re wishing a restorative holiday to all who celebrate today, strength to all who struggle, and, hopefully, some commonality between the two. At Melville HQ, we’ve got the day off, and, as a break from the unrelenting media fart cloud that trails Donald Trump from room to gilded room, we instead offer this. Count David Bowie as one more thing Donald Trump cannot take from you.
And here’s to a dawning season of courage in America.
When David Bowie passed away in January, it was possible to discern, beneath the outpouring of hysterical grief, a second tragedy brought about by our longing to keep the famously mercurial writer and singer with us a little longer, a futile-as-it-was-inevitable impulse to sum up, define, praise, enshrine, and, in the process, flatten the complexity of his life’s work. To coax the intangibility of his image into an aspirational catch-all. Suddenly Bowie was, alternately and depending on who was speaking, a pioneer of gender fluidity, an accomplished art collector, an ur-male-model fashion plate, a prophetic futurist, or an outspoken critic of MTV’s early embargo of black musicians.
Of course, he was all of these things, and much more. But to insist that David Bowie continue to reflect everything we’d like to see in ourselves and charge him with the custodianship of our groovier natures is a disservice to David Robert Jones, who was born in Brixton, named himself, improbably, after a knife, and created one of most impressive and diverse bodies of work in the history of the world, all while being perfectly capable of the occasional bad call, delusion, prejudice, dilettante-ism, vanity, superficiality, silliness, and telltale frailty of any particular human being. Bowie, of course, wears fantasy very well—this is the same man who made “put on your red shoes and dance the blues” a credible lyric—but to impose a myth on our departed hero in lieu of recognizing the eloquence with which he expressed his humanity does a violence to the very specific, idiosyncratic, and restlessly individual artist that Bowie was, is, and will always be. To discuss Bowie means describing not a costume or even what Simon Critchley has referred to as his “radical inauthenticity,” but rather to explore the ways he presents, like most of us, a series of costumes with a person underneath. Part of what sets him apart is how restlessly he documented each stage of his life, how each album dramatizes nearly universally-felt transitions — from alienation to acceptance, arrogance to vulnerability, selfishness to love. Recognizing this is the key to rescuing his legacy from a diffusive romance about spacemen and goblin kings. It’s tempting to identify with one of these characters instead of the man. But fortunately, dead or alive, David Bowie is quite capable of speaking for himself.
This month, he speaks to us again. First, there’s The Last Interview, which collects ten magazine pieces from 1966 to 2006 and, second, there are three new, posthumous songs released as part of the cast recording of Lazarus, an eccentric Bowie revue that’s also a sequel to Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, where he played disenfranchised extraterrestrial Thomas Jerome Newton. The interviews catch a larky young Davy Jones speaking as chairman of ‘the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men,’ an amusedly daffy Ziggy telling William Burroughs about his experiments with ‘black noise’ and how holograms will replace television in about seven years, a better-adjusted Bowie on the verge of his absolute worst album (1987’s Never Let Me Down), a plummy retrospective of his movie roles, and a charming turning-of-the-tables in which Bowie interviews Alexander McQueen, opening with a straightforward “Are you gay and do you take drugs?” The humanity and early intellectual insecurity of the discourse here—opening into a genial patience for interviewers like Kurt Loder, to whom he affirms, “Wide shoulders are the flared trousers of the Eighties”—are massively grounding, especially compared to the enigmatic pose Bowie strikes in the multitude of TV interviews you can watch on YouTube (refusing to lift his gaze from the bottom of his pimp stick after performing “Young Americans” on the Dick Cavett Show in 1976, or telling Henry Winkler that“I’m a great fan of Fonzie” on Dinah Shore). It is good to try and remember that life is so expansive and rich in variation that the twenty-six-year-old weirdo who theorizes about a conspiracy between Hitler and the Catholic Church will one day become the contented well-to-do husband offering up relationship advice like “the differences between you will be the key to love, as they will become more apparent as the relationship grows.”
The songs are, naturally, a bit harder to decipher, but it helps that they are excellent, even placed beside the cumulative field report that is Blackstar, the hearteningly deliberate farewell album Bowie released as a final bow just before dying. “No Plan” is an almost glacially cool sax number that finds crooner-Bowie meditating on the accidents of “all the things that are my life.” Desires, beliefs, moods, and even physical space are nothing but chance encounters, passing acquaintances that we mistake for permanence. Not only is there no destination, there’s no point of origin; to be in life is to be in the middle of nowhere, in the “not quite yet.” This is Bowie at his most disarmingly existential, which is striking because the melody bears a ghost of “Ashes to Ashes” from 1980, the song in which he confronted the pageantry of his seventies output and laid at least one of his premiere personas—junkie cosmonaut Major Tom—to rest (though others revived him, for better and for worse)
We see him back in character for “Killing a Little Time,” which features Grand-Guignol-Bowie leering, “I get some of you all the time, all of you some other time.” It recalls the lyrics to “Time” off 1973’s Aladdin Sane — in fact, there’s even some piano glissando toward the end that recalls Mike Garson’s solo from that album’s title track. The earnestness that characterized most of Blackstar meant leaving out the “evil song” that we usually got at a rate of at least one per album (“Beauty and the Beast” off Heroes, “Love Is Lost” from The Next Day, “Scary Monsters,” virtually all of Diamond Dogs). Here it is, with the narrator reveling in the “sound of an empty room,” promising songs to “sting your soul,” which recalls the “black noise” Bowie postulated with Burroughs, just as another lyric about love’s “phony pain” revisits a goofy bit of bleakness from the same interview where he huffed, “I’m not at ease with the word ‘love’… It’s like two pedestals, each wanting to be the other pedestal.” It’s a clear-cut rock song with a deliberate melodrama worked into the production and a reminder of how Bowie doesn’t so much discard old guises as keep them in reserve. This is the song it is hardest to feel sad about because it’s so clear that Bowie continued to enjoy himself even in his last suite of songs. I mean, there’s a climbing Bernard Herrmann riff during which Bowie rhymes “bled,” “dead,” and “head.”
Which brings us to “When I Met You,” probably not the last unreleased Bowie song we’ll ever get, but the last one we’re likely to get for a while. An instrumental for its first minute, it winds up with two vocal tracks overlaid in a desperate declaration of love that sounds wracked by gratitude for the power to change and be changed. “When I met you,” he sings, “I was too insane… I was filled with truth / It was not God’s truth.” This sounds like the cracked actor from the earlier interviews, possibly the cocaine-powered dabbler in the black arts who kept his bodily fluids safe from witches by stowing them in the refrigerator in 1976 Los Angeles and warned us not to look at the carpet. But the Bowie we got in the end, and the one we’re left with now, is a variation on Brian Eno’s mantra to “honor thy error as hidden intention,” where everything deserves to be honored as hidden intention. It is in multiplicity that truth is finally revealed; death is one transfiguration among many. In the meantime, we can take comfort in the certainty of change, as Bowie beautifully demonstrated, and take him at his self-reflexive word when he sings, “You actually become the center of my world / The seams of my life / The streams of daydream / Like the wounds of a friend.”
It was as a friend that David Bowie left us, and it is in friendship that we continue to reinvent Bowie just as he reinvented himself time and again. As for last farewells, these songs and interviews are probably just the beginning; but the best, and most succinct, is still what Bowie told the audience at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973, his last performance as Ziggy Stardust: “Bye bye, we love you.”
JW McCormack is a writer, editor, and holy innocent whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Vice, the New Republic, Conjunctions, Bookforum, the New Inquiry, n+1, and elsewhere.