It is an unusual artist who will take their own death and turn it into a performance piece. It’s an act of someone who is either unusually narcissistic, or very ruthless, and in David Bowie’s case I’m inclined to go with the latter.
The Guardian’s music editor cautiously asked last night whether Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, released on his birthday four days ago, possibly referenced his own impending death, which just goes to show that music critics are often as thick as they come. If a black star isn’t an obvious enough symbol of death (as well as a possible musical reference to the Clash’s strange track ‘Death is a Star’), then an album written and recorded by a man who was dying, released as close to the day of his death as he could manage, on what he knew would be his last birthday, is probably a clue.
The release of Blackstar is also evidence of a sense of humour as impish as it is mordant. Bowie released Blackstar knowing that we couldn’t possibly make full sense of it until after he died, again emphasising for me that he was a man who often seemed to be making jokes about jokes, in infinite regress, and who took the same attitude to his multiplying identities, each a comment on the other. David Bowie was nothing if not a hall of mirrors.
On the other hand, anyone who discovers the early Bowie albums when they are young knows that Bowie has the gift of speaking very directly and unambiguously to young people as though they are real actual persons. When punk arrived and bands like the Who and the Stones suddenly looked like the tedious, self-obsessed parodies they had been for some time, Bowie still had real cred. In my world that cred was upheld by my gay, lesbian and feminist punk friends – insane party animals, despised homeless outcasts and street intellectuals one and all – who insisted that Bowie was the real deal. He wasn’t full of shit. Not only was he smarter than everyone else, but he knew what was what, and that gender wasn’t the nailed-down binary bullshit script that was being peddled by everyone else. And if gender wasn’t, then neither was anything else.
Bowie announced his take-no-prisoners credentials on Hunky Dory I think with his ‘Song for Bob Dylan’ in which he sings:
here she comes again
the same old painted lady
from the brow of the superbrain
which is as brilliant a criticism of Dylan’s boring misogyny as you’ll ever hear, and even manages to out-Dylan Dylan with a classical reference to Aphrodite and Zeus. It is a taste of David Bowie’s ruthlessness, his own opinion of himself and his fanatical dedication to his work.
Station to Station is my favourite Bowie album. It is still a fantastic dance album, with superb songs and brilliant lyrics and performances, but written and delivered by a man then inhabiting frequent states of intense paranoid psychosis. It would take phenomenal – almost supernatural – drive and a bizarre dissociated awareness of one’s own paranoid state to turn out work under those conditions. And the man who can do that isn’t going to be fazed by the prospect of his own imminent death.
Still, as the decades went by, Bowie passed out the occasional conservative chestnut – for example, publicising his support for the ‘No’ vote for Scottish independence. He was a fan of A Country Practice and The Office, and in his latter years had English newspapers delivered to his house every day. Maybe it’s just the little reactionary weirdness we all play off with, especially as we get older: our love for The Biggest Loser or Game of Thrones or Who magazine. If I heard that Bowie had pie and chips for breakfast every day I wouldn’t be surprised. On the other hand, I can think of it as yet another Bowie identity – that of Dave the Dad, slippers on, Times in hand, cup of tea on the arm of his chair, giving his young daughter the appearance of a normal, unexceptional life, with a normal unexceptional dad.
Whatever. When my neighbour called out to me yesterday arvo that Bowie had died of cancer, I had a genuine sense of shock and loss, and a sudden memory of sitting in the back of a ute, an aeon ago, in a drive-in at a time of some crisis in my life with a woman I had an immense crush on, watching The Man Who Fell to Earth while working our way through a large number of spliffs. It was an experience of intense anxiety (my unremitting shyness being then, as now, an immoveable object), alienation, and just general weirdness: all states that Bowie knew intimately and wrote about incessantly, until his last breath, in fact. I also had to slap down a quip that began to poke its gurning head into my thoughts and wanted to be a smartarse about death and the side effects of the cocaine. Which just goes to show that when we are faced with some irretrievable loss – in my case, the past – some histrionic and hard-faced defence can often kick in.
Bowie had a wide and idiosyncratic knowledge of literature and I also imagine that Lacan would have made an interesting fit with his intellectual preoccupations. Bowie and Borromean rings seem like natural buddies. It was one of the things about being a semi-homeless outcast with pretensions to literature and a love of Bowie: you felt you had to know about everything, because Bowie obviously did; Noh theatre, anti-psychiatry, German expressionism, astrology. When in a frenzied chemical-induced epiphany I worked out that Jean Genie was actually a reference to Jean Genet, I knew that Bowie and I were both – at the bottom of our grubby thieving hypocritical freakish depraved Genet-loving souls – kindred spirits.
That was hogwash, of course. There’s a saying that you know you are getting old when you go into a major supermarket and think the music they are playing is really great. My local village supermarket is more likely to – and does – tend to play the Dead Kennedys, so possibly my life isn’t yet as moribund as it often appears. Though even David Bowie’s artistic ruthlessness and integrity won’t preserve him from the voracious, savage brutality of the neoliberal surveillance state, which is quite capable of tipping all of us, however freakish or weird we feel, into a state of permanent desperate precarity, to a soundtrack of Station to Station or Aladdin Sane.
And it’s a good time for me to bail out too. This is my very last piece for Overland, so with a weak joke that the suburban Englishman in Bowie would undoubtedly remember and understand: it’s goodnight from him, and it’s goodnight from me.