(My previous conversation with Josh Durham, music contributor, was over the death of Lou Reed.)
Bowie in the Lazarus video.
“’My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety, all of the high points of one’s life.’ — Bowie 2002
W.H. Chong (Culture Mulcher): What a smart remark! You hear his dark tendencies, guess at a hard-won self-acceptance, redeemed by an English humour.
The first Bowie image I was aware of — and they seem endless — was on Lodger, last of the Berlin Trilogy in 1979. It had that fold out double cover (codesigned with pop artist Derek Boshier) with Bowie semi-formal in a black suit and white shirt, tie undone, crumpled on a tiled bathroom floor — like a broken doll — looking like he was pressed against glass with a squashed nose, eyes aghast.
I have danced to Lodger‘s ‘D.J’ and ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ for years but it’s that piss-taking foolery with his self-image that lit the way for me, so cleverly and provocatively bent.
Josh Durham: My first Bowie experience was in my year 5 class in Mt Barker Primary. I can’t member my teacher’s name but he used to get us to spread those old vinyl covered foam mats on the carpet and lie on our backs with our eyes closed while he played ‘Space Oddity’. This was the mid-70s for context. As a 10-year-old, the effect was somewhere between delirious and terrifying — ‘Ground Control to Major Tom, Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong, Can you hear me, Major Tom?’
WHC: ‘Space Oddity ‘is a young person’s song (Bowie was just 22), but five years old is hilarious! I always felt more in tune with Ashes to Ashes, the mysterious sequel. The unforgettable video came on one night on Rage. Eleven years between the two; these sticky lines of resignation:
‘I’m happy, hope you’re happy too …
I never done good things
I never done bad things
I never did anything out of the blue’
We read way too much into lyrics. It’s the mood of the sonics that does it, the groove: does it make you want to mope, or dance? And with Bowie, it’s the persona that informs the work, how we are to take it. (‘Ashes to Ashes’: scifi time travel sad clown) Madonna plays dress up in the mirror, but Bowie suggested identification with his roles, a character actor rather than a mere movie star. Which is to say, Bowie gave so many of us licence to like queer things, even if we didn’t have the courage to do or be them.
JD: I think the character thing is key with Bowie — we are mostly getting David Bowie as opposed to David Jones from Ziggy right through the 70’s. It gives his music an otherworldliness that we can hide in too — he’s not afraid why should we be?
It’s no surprise his first character was an Alien. It’s the theatricality of all of his constructs that allows him to remain an enigma to a degree — this sense that people attached an immortality to him reflects perhaps that he was never real to begin with. At least in presentation as he seems genuinely down to earth, thoughtful and warm in interviews. Contrast that with street talking Lou Reed who is remembered as a bit of a (god given) ass!
WHC: Bowie came between the end of flower power and punk. Blowing away dirty denim he arrived at his first public success as an oddity! He did look weird — he had those sharp-looking, well-separated teeth, sorta reptilian. And of course, amazingly one blue and one brown eye!
His choices were so audacious — to swan around in an androgynous jumpsuit in 1972 singing ‘Starman’; that could still get you bashed up in a pub.
And also he first wanted to write musicals — Andrew Lloyd Bowie! That English strain of theatre you also see in the Beatles. Playacting indeed. His musical Lazarus is still playing on Off Broadway.
JD: On reflection ‘Changes’ sounds straight out of musical theatre- the sort of ear worm you might find yourself humming in the taxi home after the show. It was probably the first Bowie song I liked (my older sister had a Hunky Dory cassette that we always played in the car) and has some intergenerational crossover with my daughter through its inclusion as a pivotal song in the Shrek 2 soundtrack!
Bowie in Labyrinth.
WHC: Odd to say but it points to his remarkable user-friendliness! People come to Bowie at different times of their lives and of his career. He didn’t quite make three score and ten but he had several acts, the illusion of longevity thru his distinct phases. Our friend M’s first memory of Bowie happened because her mother couldn’t get the family into some dickie Xmas movie and they saw Labyrinth instead.
In that non-xmas film Bowie’s costume and makeup looked like some ultimate glam rock god. She said it was amazing and life-changing — a “new combination of terrifying and alluring”, with a magnetism she never forgot. I don’t think the critics liked the film much!
Is it his music for you in the end? I love profoundly some of the songs, but only because it was Bowie who performed them. He was the context, he was the story. The music was the soundtrack of a poet-artist-musician moving through the times of his life and shaping pictures along a path.
JD: I think like a lot of people I lost touch with Bowie throughout much of the 90s and 2000’s. He was there of course, whether it be in the championing of bands such as NIN or Arcade Fire or in the theatrical vocal stylings of Dan Bejar’s Destroyer.
The weird concession I must make here is that it was the cover of Blackstar that got me interested enough to give it a listen — the first without David himself gracing sleeve (if you excuse Tin Machine 2).
The dark star motif and its deconstructions below hinted at something different this time round and indeed it is. ‘A solitary candle’, ‘Look at me I’m in heaven’ — and to think a lot of the early reviews suggested it was a reflection on Bowies relationship with Black music! I particularly like ‘Dollar Days’ and the way ‘I can’t give everything away’ rides in on a not quite there squall of harmonica that echoes (hauntingly) ‘A new career in a new town’ (!) from the album Low.
WHC: I’m getting into Blackstar. The sonics are pretty potent. But it’ll always be the Berlin stuff for me.
He wasn’t afraid of getting old — ahead of the curve! The videos for his previous album The Next Day showed his lined face unvarnished. And the superb discretion of his mortal illness is very impressive.
I saw the exhibition “David Bowie is…”. I was surprised to be disappointed by the visuals of the music videos with a scripted “story”, all except for the amazing ‘Ashes to Ashes’. But the filmed “live” performances — like ‘Starman’ and ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ with Kalus Nomi — are still hair-raisingly fresh, so much forward edge. And the costumes of course. Bowie kept remaking himself, he was the guru of changes.
And the ultimate one, being death, he saved his biggest trick for . . . absence. The inverted star, the inverted character, the dead star. And he played it out without actually being here. Are we finally seeing David Jones or the last incarnation of David Bowie? It is neither. We are left with nothing but the artist and his work.