Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Knowledge Comes With Death's Release

Shortly after I moved into an apartment, my first apartment, with my wife (then my gf), she brought home a cat.  We already had a rescue cat and I wasn't interested in getting another pet at that time.  I promised her though if she found one that was "fluffy and white with six toes on its paws and blue eyes" that we could consider it, thinking this an unlikely scenario.  I returned from work one day to find this mystical alien cat in my house.  My wife declared that she was rescuing him from a young child who was going to name him Cinderella or something, but to me he resembled a fanciful Thin White Duke with snow white tan, equal parts gorgeous and ferocious. So, of course we called him Bowie and he's still around 10 years later.

On a long card ride to somewhere when I was about 12 or so, our family made a pit-stop at some middle America strip mall to stretch our legs.  One store was a giant emporium with an impressive collective of bargain cassettes in the back where I was able to score dirt cheap copies of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Low, and Lodger.  I'd already had the Rykodisc hits collection ChangesBowie on CD, but the journey into deep catalogue Bowie absolutely changed me.  Nothing could have been further from "Ziggy played guitar" than the second side of Low (of which nothing appears on ChangesBowie), but this the point.  There was no real David Bowie.  It wasn't about getting to some existential core, but finding out the ways in which we've become alienated from culture's central rot.  It was a key to bringing the weirdoes closer together.  I still felt isolated and outside, but here was a transmission that served as a point of entry to something grander percolating in the realm of art.

Sophomore year of high school, a girl asks me to make her a mixtape of David Bowie songs.  I like to think that my careful curation of this mixture of hits and deep cuts had something to do with the fact that we'd eventually date for some time and remain friends to this day.  Noël would expand my horizons greatly beyond the raw pulp I'd assembled so far from magazines and peer endorsement, introducing me to the Beats (who had greatly inspired Bowie, particularly Burroughs) as well as the surrealists (ditto) and broadening my range on punk/new wave/synthpop (which, it can't be understated, wouldn't have existed without Bowie).

Freshman year of college, a girl I'm trying to impress brings me back to her dorm room, which is littered by Bowie ephemera.  I try to convey how pivotal he is to my life as well, but she refuses to call him by his name.  She only refers to Bowie as "God".  She remains unimpressed with me and I don't blame her.

October 17th, 2008, I dance with my wife to our wedding song, Cat Power (who covered "Space Oddity") and her cover of "I Found A Reason" by The Velvet Underground (a band assembled in part by Andy Warhol, who David Bowie portrayed in the film Basquiat, and led by Lou Reed, whose best solo albums Bowie produced). "Soul Love" also plays at the cocktail party.

2012.  Our daughter is learning to talk, roaming about eyeing the framed LPs hanging above the shag carpet and vinyl panelling in on own basement, a preserved model of an 80s hang space from the previous owners.  "That's David Bowie!" she proclaims, pointing to Aladdin Sane.

Summer 2007. The wife and I volunteer to do face painting at music festival put on by a friend's guitar store.  In the midst of the fun, I get the Batman symbol on my head and my wife does the Aladdin Sane zig zag.  We return to our recently rented apartment in Philadelphia, the only white faces on a predominantly black street, where a block party is being held.  We introduce ourselves to our new neighbors with sloppy sweat-soaked paint on our faces, looking like maniacs.  They refuse to believe that we don't do this every day.  "We don't care what you do.  We accept you however you are".

1972.  Bowie says, without equivocation; "I'm gay, and I've always been".  He later downgraded assertions that he is "bisexual" and then "a closet heterosexual", but all disputes aside it's impossible to deny the impact of this inital statement, whether it was Bowie or Ziggy or some cypher or troll talking. Bowie, a major pop star dressing in drag and calling himself Lady Stardust, had created one of the first mass safe spaces for the LGBT community within the sleeves of his LPs.  Years later, coked out of his mind, he'd argue on TV that America was not a very homophobic place with a TV host who obviously thought he was nuts.  But Bowie seemed to believe it, like he'd just time travelled to some distant future where gays could live, love, and marry in dignity.

Years previous, on an album sporting a Johnny Rotten haircut, he'd send himself to space just a year short of the apollo moon landing. When Punk actually happened, Bowie was away in Germany inventing the next decade of music.  It was only when Bowie made the excellent Earthling album that he seemed slightly behind the curve, embracing jungle a couple years too late. But then again the lead single from that album was the world's first download-only MP3 single and he raved about how we didn't even tip the surface of what the internet was going to do to us as a people.

1999-2000.  A gaggle of stoned friends frequenting diners at the graveyard shift habitually put on David Bowie's "Fame" when we come in, which skips as it plays in perfect loop.  We measure how long it takes the tired, overworked staff to notice. David Bowie will never die.   His fame, his infamy, loops on eternally.

January 8th, 2015.  Rumors spread for years after David Bowie "retired" from music that he was sick, but now he was back, releasing his second of album this decade on his 69th birthday.  He had already released an insanely good 10 minute video and single with yet a new moniker, Blackstar, a term for an unknowable force- the annihilation of dark matter or the destruction of elimination of light, depending on how you think about it.  He signs off an email to his old friend Brian Eno with yet another moniker "Dawn".  David Bowie knows he is going to die, that he is going to become a blackstar, but this is not for us to know. It's all part of the performance.  A bedridden, ill David Bowie is not the real David Bowie.  He exists somewhere else, in the virtual realm, in the public imaginary.  In the anticipation of the incoming album, somewhere on the plain of music to come.

On the same day, he releases what is likely his last video single; "Lazarus", a biblical reference to the man Christ rose from the dead by the man who once played Pontius Pilate.  David Bowie may be gone, but he is not done with us.  He has given us a spectacular death and spectacular blueprints for a future past, receded present, and previously unthinkable future.

Feb 26th, 1966, Melody Maker.  A "nineteen-year-old Bromley boy";  "I want to act. I'd like to do character parts.  I think it takes a lot to become somebody else.  It take some doing...As far as I'm concerned, the whole idea of Western life...is wrong.  These are hard convictions to put into your songs...The majority just don't know what life is"

We don't, and neither did that cocky little 19 year old either, but he found out.  And we will too.

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