The baby Bowie of the sixties was dorky, earnest and notably uncool – exactly the opposite of everything we’ve come to associate David Bowie with. It was adorable. It was also odd that out of all the exciting things going on in music at the time, Bowie was writing twee little narrative songs in music hall style, probably the least hip possible direction to go in. It does show that he was already an iconoclast with a nose for the unexpected. He just hadn’t figured out how to channel that in a way that people actually liked. Of course it also means that, in his absolute failure to get attention, he really dodged a bullet. Imagine an alternate universe in which something like this (or worse, The Laughing Gnome) became the novelty hit of the summer. It would have been an absolute career dead end, not a reputation one could easily shake or move on from. We would then have enjoyed decades of David Bowie, composer of cute novelty songs and writer of middling West End musicals, perhaps with a lucrative sideline banging out power ballads for vocal divas. That’s not a world I’d much like to live in.
David Bowie may have been struck by inspiration watching his Middle Eastern neighbors in his Berlin neighborhood, but he really didn’t need to look as far as Arabia to find double lives and secrets. He was living in Berlin! If any city is haunted by generations of secret-keepers… Bowie certainly found the culture of the place to be simpatico to his own state of psychological unrest. The music he made there reflects states of manic energy, episodes of paranoia and depression, shards of hope and romantic longing, and, as always, diverse call-points of underground art and Hollywood fantasy. “Heroes” is a weird and bleak record in a lot of ways, but its highs balance out the koto instrumentals and fog horn-like saxophone solos, and it manages to go out on an almost humorous up note. It was escapist, and right, to evoke a Hollywood fantasy of mystery-shrouded Arabia, after a relentless journey through the secret life of West Berlin.
I went to David Bowie Is, now in its final days at the Brooklyn Museum, and saw – among many things – the famous Pierrot costume. It is a puffy wonderment. It is, of course, the genius of David Bowie to pinpoint a character that dates back to the 17th century and upcycle him as a figure of punk-era malaise. Rock and roll didn’t know it needed more sad French clowns, but it did. Bowie was well in tune with the times in 1980 – as always – and made a record that shakes with fear and anger. Which befits our unstable times as much as it did its own. Running scared feels like the default collective mood of right now: it’s all paranoia and insanity, everything feels like it’s cracking up.
“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.
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.
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.
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.