Someday I’ll get my hands on a hard copy of Outside and immerse myself in whatever information is hidden there. In the meantime I’ll just immerse myself in David Bowie at his most disturbing. Outside was one of those records that smacked me right in my impressionable adolescent brain with its deep ideas and macabre aesthetic. It was the Bowie iteration most suitable for a kid who read and reread Helter Skelter. It hasn’t become any less relevant in the intervening years. I still ask myself just how much does human creativity balance out human depravity, and to what degree those things feed into each other. We’re also in a brave new media world that allows ritualistic displays of public suffering to become entertainment. I mean, the psychotic breakdown of Britney Spears wasn’t intentionally a piece of performance art or guerrilla theatre, but it was one of the definitive pop culture moments of the 2000’s, and that’s actually a fairly mild example of human sacrifice-as-pop-culture. We really need to ask ourselves a lot of questions about what we’re entertained by and at what expense. The way we’re going, ritualistic art murder is not just around the corner, it’s about to be the latest commodity.
Let’s come back to the Heathen years. That was, of course, David Bowie’s big post 9/11 album, written and recorded immediately before, during and after that historical event. Those were rough days for people with an already shaky faith in humanity. Was the whole world just descending into madness? Well, yeah, but no more than usual, as it turned out. What we can hear reflected in this music is the emotional contradiction that was so apparent at the time; the contrast between the incredibly inspiring display of individual human courage and compassion; and alongside, a bitches’ brew of religious fanaticism, institutional failure and political corruption that made a person not want to live on this planet anymore. It was a hard time to hold on to romantic ideals about the little human heart’s resilience. Heathen managed to be both bleak and uplifting, as if quixotic romanticism was the only redeeming virtue in a world that was already undeniably halfway fallen apart.
Nothing is more underrated than early-2000’s David Bowie. David Bowie, of course, never flies under the radar, but it does seem like the material he put out in 2002 is due for a rapturous posthumous embrace. It may be because these are the Bowie records I grew up waiting for and running out to the store to buy. It may be my own attachment feelings. But I do think that Heathen, for example, is record that really needs to be held up. It has an atmosphere of sustained melancholy, and yet an uplifting warmth and grandeur. And, of course, iconic visuals. Sometimes I forget how much I loved this record in 2002. We’re always too busy listening to Ziggy Stardust for the fifteen hundredth time, but sometimes Ziggy is just too addled and wired. Sometimes the leper messiah comes in floppy bangs, reminding us to keep our heads warm, even though the world might be slowly burning.
When David Bowie died, according to his wishes, his ashes were scattered in a Buddhist ceremony. He was never the kind of artist who makes a point of thanking God in his liner notes, or type to suddenly go off and join a church. Aside from sometimes wearing a cross, presumably for fashion purposes, he made surprisingly little use of religious iconography. As private as he was with his spiritual beliefs, we do know that the interest in Buddhism stretches all the way back to his student days. Something about the spiritual discipline of Buddhism appealed to him deeply. He continued quietly studying the philosophy throughout his life, and would sometimes make references to Buddhist writings in his more cryptic songs. This early song, a bold standout from an era of rather uneven output, is one of the Bowie’s most explicit explorations of the spiritual condition. The fascination is with the process of becoming a spiritual person. Enlightenment requires sacrifice, discipline, hard work; it doesn’t just happen, and although we all have the potential, not everyone is able to follow that path. Some people who could have followed the spiritual path choose instead to pursue a secular one. One wonders if David Bowie saw himself as the boy in the song. Being a gifted and charismatic person, someone like Bowie could have followed a path of spiritual leadership, but instead chose to use all that exceptionality in a secular field. You could – and many of us do – think of David Bowie as a spiritual leader in his own way, but the material life of a rock star could never be compatible with the abnegation of the material world that a fully spiritual life requires.
From the vantage point of today, why wouldn’t you want a bunch of feedback-laden, industrial-sounding songs about unsavory things from David Bowie and a bunch of guys with bad hairdos? Like, bring on all of those things. When you’re browsing for David Bowie songs, don’t you sometimes think “I really want something that sounds like Nine Inch Nails but have it be about Thailand’s child trafficking industry”? Here is David Bowie’s Nine Inch Nails-sounding song about child prostitution. Which, by the way, was a subject that came up because of the very legit activism of guitarist Reeves Gabrels and his investigative journalist wife:
“That song actually came out of an investigative magazine article that Reeves’ wife wrote on child prostitution around the world. And one of the places she went to was Thailand. Reeves had the rather unsavory job of hiring the children and then getting them out of the brothels to Sara, who could then interview them. We were just talking about those experiences one night. And I’ve also been in Thailand and witnessed the same kind of thing. The actual approach of how to write the song was quite devastating. ‘Cause it was so easy to slip into sensationalism. I tried all kinds of ways of approaching it … the moral point of view … and I just ended up doing it straight narrative. That seems to make it stronger than any other approach.”
Why this approach wasn’t met with wild acclaim in its own time, I have no idea. Maybe because 1991 sucked?
All critical consensus aside, I still unabashedly really love Never Let Me Down. Most critics have dismissed it as the nadir of cheesy eighties-ness, a career low for David Bowie. That’s exactly what I love though. It’s David Bowie trying to be the commercial artist he always could’ve been, if he’d been able to tone down his natural weirdness. The weirdness is still barely contained, but buttered up with all the trendy 80’s production gimmicks. I’m not the only one who suspected that the problem was just lazy production taking the sheen off of some actually pretty strong songs, and now there’s been some remixing done (for a box set, of course.) Listen to the same song with and without dinky 80’s canned beats, and at least chalk it up as a near-miss.
What does David Bowie know about the disappointments and frustrations of a mundane life? Probably not much, having escaped from it long ago, but he can empathize. This may a standout from Reality, which I’ve always thought was a very strong album overall. It’s a return to the plastic soul sound he perfected so well in his Young Americans days. It certainly tunnel-visions it back to the days of station wagons with faux-wood paneling on the outside and Soul Train on television. And it imagines the nagging resentment of a life lived on the wrong side of the Hudson River, a life of suburban dreams grown shabby and the paths to escape growing fewer over the years and the repetition of daily life becoming the only experience. That’s a life we all either end up living, or narrowly escape from.