Saviour Machine

“Please don’t believe in me, please disagree with me”

David Bowie imagines a dark future, as usual. The technology we rely on and worship will someday turn on us and destroy the society it was meant to improve. He wrote this in 1970, when artificial intelligence was a sci-fi pipe dream and the internet was barely a glimmer in anyone’s eye. Little did anyone know that those things would very soon become driving forces in the fabric of everyday life, or that the possibility of a technology-driven societal downfall would be a very real worry. Basically, this song would not be out of place in a musical production about the upcoming Singularity, which is yet another thing that’s gone from being purely hypothetical to highly probable in a scarily short amount of time. Whatever shit happens, just know that David Bowie probably predicted it with his Martian space vision.

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Sacrifice Yourself

The Tin Machine revival you’ve been waiting for hasn’t come yet. Maybe it isn’t coming at all. As of this writing Bowieologists still agree that Tin Machine was a lot more fun for David Bowie than it was for his fans, and that in knowing that, he was just basically being a dick. Tin Machine basically functioned as a means to slough off some of the mainstream pop fans who had bought Let’s Dance and wanted more of the same. Which makes Tin Machine more of a narrative device than a group. We should still reexamine the music, though. I’ve always had a soft spot for the second Tin Machine, but found the first one a bit too uninviting. Not being a big fan of garage rock or post-punk or noise or grunge, I never felt that those genres needed a David Bowie-branded contribution. But if you are into those things, here is the David Bowie diffusion-line for  you.

Running Gun Blues

Every good songwriter eventually runs out of love songs and starts writing about killing people. Even David Bowie. It’s a long and star-studded playlist of songs about blowing people away with guns; or beating them to death with hammers; or cutting up their bodies and putting them in the freezer; or just vaguely threatening them with violence. It certainly wouldn’t be complete without a David Bowie entry. It’s also an increasingly problematic topic, but that’s hardly the writer’s fault. Obviously, this fantasy of bloodshed was written in a very different place and time from our own. Bowie was referring to news stories of violent and delusional veterans who commit crimes because in their minds the war never ended. It’s a song about PTSD and ties in with The Man Who Sold the World‘s theme of mental illness and psychological distress. No one knew that it would play very differently a few decades later. No one knew that shooting dozens of unarmed strangers for funsies would become our time’s quasi-acceptable violent bile-letting, akin to what lynching and burning down the neighbors’ village used to be. Not something to write lighthearted songs about.

Rubber Band

If at first you don’t succeed… maybe think about getting a better haircut. I have so much love for David Bowie’s eccentric early material, but I know it’s a hard sell for rock fans. Nobody was listening to music hall tunes in the 1960’s, but at least people knew what that was and could understand the concept. Today this sort of thing sounds more alien weird and out of touch than any Martian-messiah fantasy. I mean, are there people still alive who cherish the memory of old English music halls? Those cultural institutions were already dying when Charlie Chaplin was still a kid. As were boater hats and songs about going off to fight in the First World War. Also, nobody buys a David Bowie record for the tuba solos. Bowie is the definition of iconoclasm; he’s made his legacy on changing just ahead of what’s cool. This, on the other hand, is uncool in the bloody-minded manner of an aggressively pretentious arts major whose uncoolness is their only gimmick. It takes a while to learn the difference between being ahead of the curve and merely just outside of it.  It is, however, very cute.

Rosalyn

I barely recognized this as David Bowie the first time I put on this record. It’s not very often that David Bowie sounds so…unhinged. Well, Pin Ups is a covers record, and he made a point of picking weird and unexpected songs. This one is from The Pretty Things, one of the first garage rock bands, and the original sounds like it was recorded inside of a large dumpster. Which is the opposite of the usual Bowie approach, and which is what makes for a weird selection. It is, of course, trailblazing, because hardly anybody was doing cover records in 1973. It almost feels like a novelty record, because it’s very very campy, almost too silly. But fun.

Rock’n’Roll With Me

Once again, in a tableau of social and mental breakdown, amid paranoia and prophesies of doom, comes the leper messiah with a promise of redemption. Your life is saved by rock’n’roll. Lou Reed said it as a blunt statement of personal fact. David Bowie spun the idea into an allegory, a showstopping act of musical theatre, and a lifelong literary thesis. Is he speaking of rock’n’roll as a metaphor for sex, and by extension, romantic love? Or is rock’n’roll the stand-in for all of human artistic endeavor and self-expression? It’s both, as all of those things can be life-saving and redemptive.

If there’s one thing people outside the fandom don’t get about David Bowie, it’s that underneath the feathers and the literary allusions and the messiah complex, he was a desperate romantic. Why crawl out of your cocaine batcave if not in a quest for love? Amid the apocalyptic imagery, the self-professed alienation, the theatrical alter-egos, the despair of addiction, there was always a beacon of romantic hope, the desperate desire to be loved and understood and to do the same. Resulting in an underrated oeuvre of Broadway-worthy grand love songs. (And, off the stage, the late-life reward of a grand and lasting romance.)

The other, equally important, thing about David Bowie and his genius, was that he grasped, better than most, the real-world implications of artistic disruption. The idea that Art is Important is familiar, and the idea that self-expression is redemptive is familiar, almost to the point of cliche. It’s a rallying cry for young people trying to establish their identity, and a nifty marketing tool aimed at those same young people. It is also an abstract concept of intellectual discussion; how do changes in the art world reflect or affect our real lives? What can high art do for the lives of the masses? In a broad socio-political context, does art really matter at all? That’s a conversation that happens in mostly academic circles, not so much in the world of rock music, where the question tends to be, does art get you laid? David Bowie was one of a very few who saw the role of a rock performer and of rock music in general as something more than a means of becoming a more sexually appealing and financially autonomous individual. He was also one of a very few who took an interest in what went on in less liberal societies than his own. There was a reason, besides the desire to escape the toxic environment of the American music industry, that he spent so much time hanging out in the Eastern bloc. He was interested in the role that art played in highly repressed societies, and knew that in authoritarian states, artists were considered as dangerous as any military threat or political sabotage. Art can undermine political regimes, and to treat that as an abstract concept is a privilege of living in a liberal society.

Rock’n’roll, in this case and others, may be a metaphor for liberating and redeeming yourself on a personal level, sexually and romantically. It’s also, literally, a means of liberating and redeeming yourself within the political structure of the society in which you are living. Rock’n’roll and by extension, all art, lets us be heroes. We can be heroes to ourselves, in our own little lives, and we can be heroes in the world.

Rock & Roll Suicide

Happy freaking holidays, I guess. Nothing says festive like Ziggy Stardust. All that soul wrapped up in all that glitter. David Bowie is the gift that keeps on giving. David Bowie is my emotional support spirit animal, for lack of a more nuanced wording, and it’s performances like this one that show why he still fills that role for so many people. On a very serious note, though, for those of you not having a festive holiday time for whatever reason this year; you’re not alone. You’re not alone and you’re wonderful.