Apropos. While women gather at the weeping wall to bewail their burden, yet again, here is David Bowie with his two cents. From beyond the grave, a reminder that he, the original woke one, pinpointed domestic violence as one of the evils of the world way back in 1979. Just one more ugly side to the infinite-sided prism of everything that’s fucking bad and wrong about mankind, as comprehended by a humanoid alien from Mars. Everything is bad and wrong, and the only redeeming things in the world are art, and those fleeting moments when two people somehow find the means to actually feel connected to one another. In that order. And not everybody even has that. The most harmful and tragic thing is those people who don’t know how to connect to someone without hurting them; they are literally souls trapped in hell.
I’ve pondered why Lodger, in my book and it critics’, never quite gets the accolades of its nearest siblings. It’s just never been my favorite David Bowie album, and it’s never been the most acclaimed David Bowie album. Why is that, besides the unattractive cover? It’s one of David Bowie’s punkest albums. It’s got big hits. It’s got iconic videos. It’s got bold experimentation. It’s got things to say. Well, obviously, following on the heels of Station to Station, Low and “Heroes” is no enviable task. We’re nearing point when the jaded expatriate character gets towards the end of his arc and needs to retire. But, pondering it more deeply, I realized – after a lot of listening to this song in particular – that underneath all of the serious things, there’s a lot of…silliness. Like, childish silliness. I mean, this could almost be a children’s song, but with more feedback. Listen to the way he sings about sailing off to the hinterland “It’s far, far, far, far, far, far away….” Those are some Muppet-level lyrics, and it slides by only on the sheer conviction of being David Bowie and therefore impeccably cool. You can’t question David Bowie’s coolness or artistic seriousness. You didn’t question it when he was playing with instrumental soundscapes, and you don’t question it when half the songs are in gibberish or in Turkish. Of course, there’s still depths of meaning to be plunged into, the requisite existential angst, esoteric reference points, gender-bending nonconformity, everything we ask our god to provide. But there’s that element of silliness that suggests that the artist was about ready to head out to lunch.
What David Bowie giveth, David Bowie can take away. Yes, this is the same song as Iggy Pop’s Sister Midnight. (Which we’ll discuss more deeply in due time.) Bowie originally wrote the tune for Iggy, then rewrote for himself, wiping out all of Iggy’s lyrics except part of the chorus. On one hand, understandable; Iggy’s lyrics were about Oedipal lust. Incest and murder are uncomfortable and depressing, even for an artist who likes to skew pretty dark. But why Bowie felt inclined to take the tune he’d written for Iggy’s album and make it into a completely different song doesn’t make much sense, except as a deliberate dick move. Maybe they were in a fight? David Bowie could be a real dick sometimes, especially during the cocaine years. As it happens, Sister Midnight is a really great song, while this iteration is merely somewhat great. I think Bowie realized that, because in later years he made it a setlist staple – and performed it Iggy Pop’s way.
With that David Bowie blew our heteronormative minds wide open. Again. It was shocking. It still is. There are still a lot of kids out there today – though hopefully not quite as many as there were in 1974 – who desperately need to hear the message that it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl or if you can’t commit to being either; there’s a place for you and someone to love you. And Quaaludes. Dudes and Quaaludes all around for the kids who walk all over the boundaries of gender. Rumour has it that Bowie wrote this sweet love missive for a flame: Jayne County, punk singer, Warhol superstar, cult icon, transgender activist, and very much still alive. I don’t know if that’s true, since County apparently isn’t the type to pursue fame-by-association with someone better known than herself. I’d like to think so, though. Either way, it’s well established that Bowie wasn’t just posturing when he promised to love you no matter what kind of a freak in the eyes of the world you were. He’s the man who knowingly torpedoed his career in America in solidarity with a movement that was just beginning to dare speak its name.
David Bowie looks at the abstract concept of reality. “Things that [they] regarded as truths seem to have just melted away, and it’s almost as if we’re thinking post-philosophically now. There’s nothing to rely on any more.” he said in 2003. Well, there’s nothing more post-philosophic than talking about how reality has become sless real, and this is coming from a man who founded his own internet service. Reality, in the broad scheme of things, is just as nebulous and slippery as it ever was, and the idea that technological and societal changes have altered it in any substantial way is a philosophical discussion as old as time. Fortunately for fans who don’t necessarily want to have that discussion, Bowie’s Reality album wasn’t actually about philosophy. It was more about the artist’s own reality, and the reality of real people feeling lost and small in the world. In this case, the artist looks back at himself as a young man, and sees a cosmic joke. What happened and why? He’s not sure, but all he can do is look back and laugh.
“Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief”
Feel free to Google along if you want to follow all of the references. Being a David Bowie fan comes with a lot of homework. He consumes and repurposes culture of every stripe -a prodigious amount of culture – and he doesn’t bother to provide footnotes. Bowie, like many of his rock star peers, attended a technical arts school and he carried the persona of the earnest art student for many years afterwards. (As I understand it, at that time, English art schools served as a dumping ground for students who did poorly on their exams or had disciplinary issues i.e. John Lennon, Keith Richards, et al.) In fact, if the ever shifting nebula of Bowie personas could be boiled down to an essence, it would be that of the prodigious student. The brilliant student who shows off with his scope of knowledge grows into the confident academic so at ease with his many points of reference. On Hunky Dory – and this track in particular – we catch Bowie as the student who still feels the need to mix in ALL of the references just to show that he knows them, like an amateur cook going crazy with the spice rack. Do you really need to namecheck Greta Garbo and Heinrich Himmler? And Churchill? And Crowley? And Nietzsche? We get it, you’re an intellectual. From anyone else less brilliant it would be insufferable, of course, but it’s Bowie, and he built his stature on his ability to appeal to those people who feel at home with occult references and many level’d depths of meaning, people who feel underserved and understimulated by lowest-denominator entertainment. Just as he validated and inspired sexual outsiders with his androgyny and glamour, he attracted intellectual outsiders and dissidents with his book smarts and ambitious ideas. If David Bowie was an object, he’d be a bookshelf covered with glitter.
In which David Bowie steals – “with love!” – The Velvet Underground’s light and heat. Stealing with love, of course, has been David Bowie’s mo throughout his career; it’s what he does. And he was certainly better qualified than anyone to dip into Lou Reed’s narrative bag of drag queens, hustlers and various wild side characters. Lou Reed, though, was a journalist with a guitar and he wrote about real people and their real lives, as he saw them. David Bowie wasn’t all that much interested in reality, except possibly as an existential concept. In his interpretation of the same milieu, the element of fantasy replaces the element of grit. It’s like a Lou Reed song performed by one of Lou Reed’s characters, which I think is exactly the intention.