Thursday, December 16, 2010

Legitimum Non Carborundum.

[ Last night—which, honestly, I remember scant little of, having been awake for 30+ hours writing term papers—I apparently took a break by writing this. Huh. 

Best of luck from me to you, collegiate fizz-brains. This too shall pass. ]

I've spoken here before about my mother's penchant for instructing me in three-word tidbits of Latin wisdom, &, like last time, today's phrase is born of her education—though now it's the institution, not the subject matter. Indeed, illegitimum non carborundum, so I've long been told, is the chorus of the unofficial Harvard fight song—which she (& I, honestly) find delightful, because, in contrast to its austere linguistic appearance, what it means is, "don't let the bastards get you down."

It's a useful phrase to have handy—when, say, a professor unjustly cuts you off, or a troupe of drunken frat boys feel the need to share their slobberous jibes. In such instances, having taken (or, been forced down) the path of least resistance, I can walk away with head held high, imagining it sung by a full-on "Ode to Joy"-style chorus, with surging orchestration & grandiose chest-puffing: illegitimum non carborundum!, on into the sunset. 

However, there are certain downtrodden occasions for which the phrase isn't quite fit—when what's getting you down is, in fact, the most legitimum of them all.

For example, as a (very, very) amateur guitarist, it is perilously easy to look at this video & say, "My fucking Christ! What is her hand even doing? I will never, ever be able to play like that. Oh well, it's cool, I needed some kindling anyhow," & proceed to perform some punk-as-fuck instrument smashing. 

Indeed, it's tempting to enact a similar process (re: the rending / burning / dragging to the "Trash" icon of documents) after re-reading even the opening paragraph of Lolita:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

… or watching Holly Brewer sing …

… or, really, witnessing anyone who is truly, painfully, uniquely talented do what they do best. Of course, no one can expect to be this good at everything (or, thanks to genetics' reproductive Russian Roulette, to be nearly this good at anything), but still, it's sometimes disheartening to watch your heroes & know, point blank, that you will never measure up—difficult not to just pack up & head home.

Still, there's a way out of the inert pit, I've decided—one equally as useful (though perhaps not so snappy) as its Latin counterpart—& that is to take a step back from the specifics & recognize the passion with which each one of these mavens imbues their work. In fact, it seems silly to call it "work" at all: as is characteristic of the best artists (messianic Ginsberg, Tarantino in his homaging glee), every talent I envy is the kind that, in each act of skillful dispensation, loudly broadcasts the joy that person finds in their chosen medium. Even as I write it, I know it's true: while I appreciate, say, Pynchon in all his intricacies, his cold cleverness, I've never experienced those hopeless pangs reading V. that I do with even a sentence-long dip into Nabokov's ecstatic prose.

Viewed this way, the challenge becomes not to match your predecessors in technique (because, seriously, what is her hand doing?!), but rather in exultation—in taking & perpetuating pleasure in what you do; even as I celebrate a tenuous mastery of the bar chord, I might still call myself a peer of the impossibly talented Gabriela, if only because the way she looks in that video—head bent, rapt, body swaying uncontrolled—is the way I feel plucking out even the most simplistic of Smiths covers. 

This, then, is the yardstick by which we ought to measure: love for the simple act of creation, so strong it shakes you down to your fingertips. Because, sure, the play's the thing—but the play would be nothing without the passion of the pen behind it.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

(AKA, the song in the above video.)

I could pretend otherwise, but I've really been listening to almost nothing else these past few days; though I've long known about Rodrigo y Gabriela, I only recently sat down & explored their breathtaking repertoire. More than anything, I can't help but be awestruck by the fact that all of this sound—rich & full, percussive, explosive—is coming from two people with two guitars, one of whom doesn't even use a pick. Really & truly incredible.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Why My Love for David Bowie Flows Unparalleled: A Palimpsestic Exploration.

[ WARNING: This post is CRAZY-LONG—of course, to encompass so much love—but it's written in sections which, though certainly (carefully) ordered, won't lose much if skipped around between.

Also, much like the brilliant work of cinema Velvet Goldmine—which, by the way, is impossible to watch when I'm around, because I inevitably point out every last one of the trillion subtle allusions—this post is littered with really stupid Bowie puns. If they pass you by, all the better, but if you catch them, just know that I'm sorry. I couldn't help it. ]

As I have learned through the months spent pecking at this entry, it is incredibly difficult to empirically classify a preference. Meaning, it's much harder than you would think to explain why you like something in terms other than "I find it appealing." There is, therefore, a large chunk of this post that can never go beyond my own brain—that reads, simply: I love David Bowie, as a musician, a writer, a man, a concept—a voice that sings for the parts of me that can't; sounds that echo off my skull rattled out through someone else’s throat.

Still, the (now not so) recent debut of this Bowie Tribute album, We Were So Turned On—which joins the ranks of about 1,000 others before it—reminds me that I'm not alone, that perhaps examining the Greatness That Is Bowie can be worthwhile—or, at the very least, that it's a damn good time.

— _ — _ —

After configuring
that Round-Up so very many Friday/Saturdays ago (seriously: that's when I started this thing), I was poking around the internet for new music, as I'm wont to do, & I found an acoustic version of a Metric song I had never heard before: "Front Row"—which, at least to me, is one of those songs that hurts just a little—plying your sinuses, tensing your stomach, veins tingling with endorphins—because it articulates succinctly & beautifully, in tone & in word, exactly how I feel about all my many musical idols, especially Bowie:

He's not perfect, he's my hero: / smashin' a piano / spittin' on the front row / chronic confrontation / psychic conversation / radical compassion / louder than the action of all of us.
Burn-out stars, they shine so bright.
... He's not perfect: he's a victim / of his occupation / social insulation / secret intervention / charged him with possession / I just wanna watch him / make a break & beat them, all the stars.
Burn-out stars, they shine so bright...


I hope I'm not wrong in assuming that the basic Bowie knowledge of every American man, woman, & child at least includes the standard "Best Of" fare: "
Let's Dance," "Fame," maybe "Space Oddity," perhaps "Ziggy Stardust," but absolutely "Changes." Everyone has got to know "Changes." (I mean, please—the lyrics are at the beginning of The Breakfast Club.)

What strikes me perhaps most about the song, aside from its eminently catchy hook & subtle metaphor (seriously: the stream of warm impermanence?), is how early on in his career it falls. It always surprises me that a song about reckoning with age & success should appear on Hunky Dory, before his career even officially took off: before Ziggy, before Berlin, long before the first wrinkle. & still he talks about how the others must see the faker, how the days float through my eyes, but still the days seem the same; it seems prophetic, if not damning. Ooh, look out, you rock 'n' rollers, he cautions, & it's hard not to wonder if he's calling out to his own idle future.


I began my Bowie journey with Hunky Dory—half-cheerful, half-soulful, part Dylan, part Reed—bopping & jiving along to "Queen Bitch," lungs surging in time with "Life on Mars"—& it's true what they say: you never forget your first. To this day, I consider it my Comfort Album: songs to turn to in times of strife, tracks waiting like deep pools, pillows inviting a languid dive.

For example, in my junior year of high school, faced with the typical Modern Teenage Dilemmas of complicated friendships & a serious unrequited crush—compounded by familial strife & a computer crash that wiped away years of words & work—I must have listened to that album several hundreds of times, quite literally. Bathing in its innocence, I suppose—its openness & hope: "
Fill Your Heart" & "Kooks" & "Song for Bob Dylan" floating in & through my frustrated flesh, rearranging particles just so in pleasantness.

Unlike those around it—
The Man Who Sold the World wrought with mythic darkness; Ziggy Stardust spattered in showmanship & glitter; Aladdin Sane jaded, cracking—Hunky Dory manages to retain a kind of simplicity & sincerity, a belief that happiness is a viable emotional state, that even tragedy can be spun back to beauty; songs pulse & quake but don't yet slice, don't come apart around the edges. That's for later.


There is no denying that David Bowie is, above all else, a truly gifted songwriter, melding hooks & melodies with surreal images to produce a quality of music that's hard to come by in the modern industry. Even those rarely regarded as classics, the B-sides on the in-between albums, pack a punch simply incomparable to, for example, a certain Ms. Gaga. Though debates on taste will always inevitably end "to each his own" (at least while I'm one of the debating parties), I think it's undeniable that, regardless of whether dance-pop or bizarre-o rock is more your thing, the award for delightful (& delightfully unobtrusive) complexity in progressions, melodies, & especially lyrics has to go to my Main Man.

Whereas Iggy is expert at parsing down emotion to its minimum word count, Bowie seems to revel in language—dripping adverb upon adjective with relish, rambling for minutes at a time, often nonsensically, just for the joy of verbiage—to which he owns up, admirably: "I'm always amazed that people take what I say seriously." Of course, this is partly because Bowie was known to indulge in the Burroughs-esque "cut-up method" when composing. In his own words:

I'd failed to obtain the theatrical rights from George Orwell's widow for the book '1984' and having written three or more songs for it already I did a fast about-face and recobbled the idea into Diamond Dogs: teen punks on rusty skates living on the roofs of the dystopian Hunger City; a post-apocalyptic landscape. A centerpiece for the would-be stage production was to be "Sweet Thing / Candidate / Sweet Thing," which I wrote using William Burroughs's cut-up method. You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects creating a kind of story ingredients-list I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five word sections; mix 'em up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or if you have a craven need not to lose control bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.
While this assessment certainly highlights such years-long barely-rhyming adventures as "Sweet Thing," even his shorter compositions twist tongues. Try singing along to "Young Americans" or "Watch That Man" sometime; though seductively simple-sounding, their verses are packed to bursting.

Because, at his core, he's a storyteller—
a curly-haired balladeer—&, consequently, his songs are riddled with characters: Shakey threw a party that lasted all night, Billy rapped all night about his suicideZiggy played guitar.


"I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human.
I felt very puny as a human.
I thought, 'Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman.'"


Ask any moderate fan—or, for that matter, any pop-oriented academic—about David Bowie, & the first thing you'll hear is, "Oh, Ziggy Stardust!" It was the act that catapulted him to fame—&, of course, that threw him down again in the end, spat out by his own postmodern creation, proof that fiction plies equally at fact. But there I go, tumbling ahead of myself as usual:

In the beginning, there was an amateur novelty musician named Davy Jones & his band the King Bees, soon renamed the Lower Third. For them, he wrote songs like "Maid of Bond Street" & "Join the Gang"—inconsequential, chipper ditties with sound effects & hand-clapping & lyrics like "Uncle Arthur still reads comics."

Then, with the advent of the stylophone, came Space Oddity, a wispy, lyrical folk record: weaving through lengthy mumbles & mounting acoustic chords (e.g., "Cygnet Committee")—a record that, despite its attempt at Zeitgeist relevance (Major Tom & his eponymous botched moon-landing) never quite broke.

A different approach, another shtick: this time, a boy with flowing hair & gown, reclining on a couch, covering an album of songs that only pop in brutal irony—a joyful ditty about PTSD, a surging epic for the asylum-bound—& otherwise brood, steeped in apocalypse & seventh chords. Next, a couple of kooks, a baby, & everything flows Hunky Dory—but still, no success, nothing more than a minor following. As producer Tony Visconti points out, despite being more than four albums deep, "he couldn't get arrested. The music business & journalists just weren't looking in his direction for the next big thing. ... [T]he industry was still scratching their heads. David had to pull up his socks big time & invent his Ziggy Stardust persona."

Oh, Ziggy. Let me come clean: I'm reluctant to write at length, in depth about this particular topic—which is, I think, a large part of this post's delayed posting—because, not only has it been done so often, but I've done it so often: in academia, & even previously on this Blogling. So, that said, if you're curious about the historical specifics of Ziggy Stardust, the man, the myth, I suggest browsing around this site—or, if you're really interested, I can send you a copy of the paper in which I analyze Ziggy through Velvet Goldmine & the concept of artistic plagiarism (or you can just read the excerpt from it already posted hereabouts).

Suffice it to say: the music is incredible (truly, if you'll pardon the pun, stellar)—the intellectual's take on classic rock chords—simplified, popularized, but in no way dumbed down. Moreover, to me, the Ziggy Stardust story—of a man who pretended to be a self-destructive star & thereby became one—is a reminder of the horror inherent in the power of fiction, the stomach-drop sickness of realizing there is no higher plane, no grand Dreamers of Dreams. We are the ones who make ourselves great—who dress up & are stars tomorrow. It's empowering, sure, but it's also grounding—damning—drives you crazy the more you think about it. Fame sprung from a lie—no matter how convincing or beautiful or close to home—erodes the stable truths, swapping character with self, fiction with fact & back again until not nearly enough is certain. Glamour & artifice only go so far—but once you've reached the edge, they're all there is.


At the tender age of seventeen, I was initiated into the fast & loose world of rock 'n' roll—for one night, at least, & that night was Halloween, 2008. For their second annual Halloween show, Boston band
Sidewalk Driver (who are wondrous; seriously, click), in keeping with their penchant for Bowie covers, planned to play through the entire Ziggy Stardust album. This was, of course, my dream show—but, as so often happens in puritanical Boston, I was too young to go, just 364 days shy. But, with a bit of luck & finagling—an in from my dad, & because I already knew the whole album by heart, harmonies & all—I was invited to perform with the band, singing back-up vocals in a backwards attempt to attend the show. (If you look, you can see one of the big black Xs permanently markered onto the backs of my hands: the not-so-scarlet letters of the Underage.)

Sparkly outfit, dangerous shoes, heavy silver star earrings that whapped, hard, against the sides of my head, as I jived & snapped, unsure of where to put my hands, lost in the haze of fucking fantastic rock music—&, for the first time, I was part of it. I could hear my voice crackling through the monitor—hazy, maybe not cosmic, but there all the same—loud & part of the show. It was the best birthday present a girl could ask for—my Disney Movie Climax actualized—affirming, terrifying,
a wild mutation—& a damn good time.


Somewhere, sometime, I read that Bowie was so theatrical in his early days—made the Ziggy show such an event, with mime & costumes, et. al.—because he was convinced that people would be bored if he just stood & sang; he thought his voice couldn't go unsupplemented. This is, of course, hilarious, because David Bowie has one of the most beautiful, heart-wrenching, emotive voices of any human being born with a functioning larynx. Capable at once of cheeky-high falsetto & Scott-Walker-ish baritone crooning, nasal flights blending to throat-wrenched war cries, soaring whispers, acid speech—couched always in his not-quite-classless accent, harsh vowels & trills fleshing out an otherwise dull phrase—it's the kind of voice that's impossible to mistake & immediate to resonate, honestly irreplaceable.

The evidence is everywhere—in all the songs I've posted here, in all the songs there are to post—but I think one of the most concrete examples is on an ancillary recording I've tracked down in my obsession: a warped version of "The Man Who Sold the World," performed via avant garde Weimar & synthesizers on SNL in 1976, with the help of Klaus Nomi. Though the whole song is really worth a listen, as it's a fantastic & telling reinterpretation, I'd like to direct your attention to the last bit—the part that was always my favorite in the original recording: the "aah"s (starting around 2:20).

Because, from a technical standpoint, Nomi is schooling him: Bowie's vibrato warbles sluggish, while Nomi's pings with the frequency of a pinball trap; Bowie is resting safely in tenor range, while Nomi is scraping the heights of the human vocal cord with glass-like elegance, on & on. But dammit if that man doesn't have panache: he's yelling, almost literally, closer to Tarzan than anything—losing breath, scrunching eyes.

There's something at once endearing & disturbing about a voice that can only reach those heights with seams showing—that edges so dangerously on failure, on breaking, but somehow reins it in. It plies your heart strings a bit, reminds you of the mortal behind it—an aspect lost in that impenetrable soprano. Here, for 40 seconds, he & Nomi belt & belt, & together, technique grated against emotion, they form something really remarkable.


The precise moment I fell in love with Flight of the Conchords was about 8 minutes into the episode entitled "Bowie," when Jemaine, dressed (in delicious accuracy) as Ziggy, responds to Brett's query about the Novelty Music Paparazzi: 
Oh, the media monkeys & the junky junkies will invite you to the plastic pantomime. Throw their invites away.

This is perhaps the most hilarious, excellent Bowie parody I have ever heard, ever—because, as always, the better the satirist knows his subject, the better the joke. I have no doubt that the Conchords are serious fans, especially after hearing this live (extended, compared to the one on the show) version of "Bowie's in Space": the odd flights of dissonant falsetto, easing into his warbling sotto bass, lifting the last third directly from "John, I'm Only Dancing" (an old single/unreleased Ziggy B-side)—& oh, so much better for it.

In fact, I've tuned into a number of artists I would probably have overlooked upon catching a glimpse of their Bowie reverence. The most radical flip, I think, came with Marilyn Manson, whom I had always supposed a vulgar shock-jock, until I saw the music video for his song "The Dope Show," which is an undeniably excellent, intelligent homage to Bowie's rockstar-alien mash, achieved primarily by references to Nicolas Roeg's
The Man Who Fell to Earth.


I'll admit: I'm going to skimp a little on talking about Bowie the Actor—because, really,
Jareth's eye make-up speaks for itself—but there's one role I would be remiss to gloss over, not in the least because it supplied the image for two of Bowie's album covers.

Thomas Jerome Newton, alien protagonist of the above mentioned Nic Roeg film, seems to have been for Bowie One of Those Roles, where the spirit gum sticks too tight, leaving bits of mask attached & removing chunks of skin—One of Those Roles that reinterprets its actor as much as the actor is attempting to interpret it.

In brief: the movie opens on what appears to be a man—petite, pale, & out of place—wandering aimless in the vast, idyllic scenery of the American West. From these unexplained & humble beginnings, our hero rises up to success—through unprecedented photographic technology as opposed to
hazy cosmic jive—&, by the time we discover the truth (his alien origins, his desperate earth-bound mission), Newton is too far steeped in gluttonous Americana (televisions upon televisions) to return to his home planet. Finally, when at last the earthlings find him out, the trials of various scientists to peer below his disguise inadvertently seal the alien into his human exterior—never to be free of the role he once assumed.

I could spend a few paragraphs beating you over the head with this story's symbolic parallels to its star's, but in the interest of Word Count, I'll just quickly mention Bowie's years-long self-imposed exile in America, fueled by tomato paste & cocaine psychosis,
drifting like a fly in milk, "a foreign body" in Los Angeles—that ever-glitzy graveyard, crowded edge of European expectation. Ziggy was dead, & in his place, a lad very nearly insane was battling a serious drug problem (hallucinations of occult monsters gnawing, ever, at the brain stem)—& beyond that, a more serious identity crisis.

There's a picture I have, poster-size & glossy on my wall, of Bowie mid-Aladdin Sane tour, literally taking off his mask—&, underneath cartoonish white plastic, a face: pallid cheekbones lethally sharp, giving way to deep, dark hollows, propping up empty eyes, topped by fading orange froth. It's an awkward expression—a private moment, a composing inhale, a slipping of all kinds of facades—&, of course, therefore, it's my favorite. Because this image, un-poster-worthy as it appears, is indicative of a crisis I find eternally evocative: the struggle between the self as constructed & not—the fear that fiction may run rampant & stamp out what's real. It's a perilous vortex of a concern, at least for those such as I & the Bowie on my wall, who can't help but wonder, ever nail-biting. Speaking even from meager personal experience, that kind of spiraling panic can be too much to take sometimes—especially, I would imagine, when so sped up
you forget where you're recording—& it's thus that we arrive at the Berlin Period: absconding with an equally drug-addled colleague to find a new career in a new town, running emphatically (if unsuccessfully) from Thomas Jerome Newton in his indulgent self-captivity—running toward any stable concept of the man behind the faker.



"I find that I'm a person who can take on the guises of different people that I meet.
I can switch accents. In seconds of meeting somebody I can adopt their accent.
I've always found that I collect. I'm a collector."


"I'm sort of inventing me at the moment."
"You mean reinventing?"
"Yes. Self-invented. ... Jolly uncomfortable."


When I first came to school in New York City, I found myself listening almost exclusively to the album
Low. Something about the bleakness of it, I think—the stark electronics that lend themselves so well to walking, aimless, through concrete & glass. Upon picking up a copy of the 33 1/3 Series book, I found I wasn't alone: the author, Hugo Wilcken, describes a similar experience, suffering through an ex-pat semester in northern France: "In winter, the northern, pewter skies hung oppressively low, & the drizzle was constant. My French was approximate & communication difficult, accentuating the sense of isolation that is the natural state for a fifteen-year-old boy. Of course, Low was the perfect soundtrack."

There's another, of course, who agrees: the chanteur himself, self-exiled to the backstreets of Berlin with Iggy in tow, fluctuating from recording to bingeing to quitting—nightclubbing & always crashing in the same car. At the moment, I'm looking guiltily at a book on my shelf, one entitled Bowie in Berlin, which promises to chronicle & illuminate this particular period, but which I still haven't been able to bring myself to read—in part, I think, because I fear it'll all sound too similar. Urban loneliness is plenty romantic until it's actually your everyday, & the comfortable anonymity among strangers turns to half-desperate half-manic longing that someone, anyone, in the crowds of thousands might know you're there.

Then, of course, comes the necessary next step: days, weeks, indoors, hiding.

So deep in your room / you never leave your room / something deep inside of me, yearning deep inside me / is talking through the gloom...
But then somehow it's all better—or, if not, then at least comforted—knowing that Bowie's been there, too—that maybe you're the little girl with gray eyes (at least in archetype) to whom he's straining.

His is a humbling story—proof that even the best can fall, age-old Icarus tumbling to the sea—&, of course, it's equally inspiring: out of such unabashed self-destruction came one of the most influential electronic albums of the 20th century. To listen to these songs is to recognize the human in the divine, the mess within the rock star—& the creativity that lingers still in the ashes of despair, from which to construct even the most makeshift phoenix.


"I just wonder if you get tired of, um... of being outrageous."
"I don't think I'm outrageous at all."


You know you've reached true Fanaticism when you love Bowie not in spite of "
The Laughing Gnome," but because of it.

Really: I think a large & necessary part of this process is recognizing his totally bizarre sense of humor—&, in fact, his totally bizarre sense of most things: the aspiring novelty musician lurking always behind the rockstar. Take, for example,
this "video birthday message," in which he calls himself "Uncle Dave," & insists that "if you play this tape, every day, then one of these days, it'll be your birthday." It makes no sense—is, in fact, the opposite of logical—but there's a way in which that loopy, right-brained quirk is vital to even his least Gnome-ish of songs. The tripping, trippy lines of cut-up imagery certainly wouldn't have been possible without it—no portrait in flesh that trails on a leash. There would never have been an eyepatch—no Goblin King.

Indeed, perpetual oddity—ever falling unabashedly out of step—is one of the qualities that I think best distinguishes Bowie from his contemporaries. Who else, given a whole language to choose from, would list "my mother, my dog, & clowns," or "boys, toys, electric irons & TVs"?—would think to start off his power-chord rock anthem, "I'm an alligator," then follow up with lines about a "pink monkey bird"?


It's hard—impossible, in fact—for me to choose a favorite Bowie song—not only because there are so many I love, but because there are so many ways something can be favorite: to sing in the car, in the shower, to dance to, to cover, on & on. There are several, though, that stand out above the rest, on some separate plane—strike just below the skin in that way songs can—require reverence when put on the stereo: closed eyes & goosebumps, a hush over the room. They are as follows, in no particular order:


Towards the end of my senior year of high school (already
a rollicking good time, of course), a classmate died, tragically, suddenly, in a way that couldn't not jolt the entire school out of orbit for those miserable remaining months. By pure coincidence, I had been scheduled to give a speech that same week (routine—a traditional rite of each senior: one every weekday morning, fifteen minutes on any topic, complete with entrance & exit music). Utterly shaken for about 90 different reasons, struggling even to perform basic functions, let alone go to class, let alone write, I panicked over what I could possibly say—until I remembered the night I found out, before I found out, waiting, alone, in a friend's car, so tense I could scream—but instead of screaming, I sang, loudly, Bowie. So, I started writing:

Until recently, my plan was to play “Queen Bitch” by David Bowie [as exit music], one of my favorites of his—the rationale being ... that “this song, no matter what’s going on around me, makes me feel just plain happy.” And I suppose that’s still true, though maybe not to the extent that I once thought. Because ... I realized that there’s no masking my sadness, no silver bullet. When I imagined those first few major chords echoing on the chapel walls, they sounded so insistent and plastic in their cheeriness. It just wasn’t right anymore. So instead, I turn to another Bowie song, a live version I’ve been obsessed with since I found the concert CD this fall. It’s no downer, to be sure, but unlike “Queen Bitch” in all it’s “oh yeah”-ing pep, what I love about this version is how exhausted he sounds – how worn out and how passionate and alive, so achingly human. Maybe that’s why it’s what I’ve been insistently putting on all of my friends’ mixes and what ends up more often than not on my own—what I chose to wail along to, part sobs and all panic, sitting alone in Will’s driveway in the Sunday dark, the song that brought me at least that momentary catharsis. Though it’s an unusual pick, I hope that it might for you, too—but if it doesn’t, then ... find a song that will, a song that grabs you by the stomach and won’t let go, that cuts past skin and scales and strikes a chord on heart strings. Because no one can ever take it away from you. No matter where you go, you can always carry it with you in a hum or on some cerebral CD. You can etch a song like this into your soul, like record grooves, and then it never has to leave you—you can never get truly lost.
It stayed in the speech, as its conclusion—& it stays true to this day. I will always love this recording.


If you look up this song online, you'll see plenty of references to Bowie's schizophrenic brother, Terry—but about a billion lyric clues prove that interpretation to be a simple scrape at the title's surface.
The Factor Max that proved the facts has melted down, woven on the edging of my pillow: boyfriends in make-up, who wore the clothes, sneaking out while the world was asleep to our latent fuss. The production is dreamy, deep & wavering, ripples running over black pools—surging, hard, then spreading, quiet, breathless.

his own words:

The only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay. It was a common item in the late Sixties and for this song I used Bewlay as a cognomen—in place of my own. This wasn't just a song about brotherhood so I didn't want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn't know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It's a palimpsest, then.
The circumstances of the recording barely exist in my memory. It was late, I know that. I was on my own with my producer Ken Scott; the other musicians having gone for the night. Unlike the rest of the Hunky Dory album, which I had written before the studio had been booked, this song was an unwritten piece that I felt had to be recorded instantaneously. I had a whole wad of words that I had been writing all day. I had felt distanced and unsteady all evening, something settling in my mind. It's possible that I may have smoked something in my Bewlay pipe. I distinctly remember a sense of emotional invasion. I do believe that we finished the whole thing on that one night. It's likely that I ended up drinking at the Sombrero in Kensington High Street or possibly Wardour Street's crumbling La Chasse. Cool.
Cool, indeed. In fact, a tattoo is in the works—to be placed, perhaps, on a shoulderblade:
Such a quirky, violent image—followed by perhaps the most lovely metaphor I've heard for hope-lost perseverance—then oblivion, musical & complete. It's not definite, of course, but I'm seriously considering it.

Frustrations upon frustrations: apparently the version I seek—from Bowie at the Beeb, a collection of various 60s-70s BBC live sessions—simply does not exist in video or full mp3 format anywhere online. So, I've linked to a clip, which is mighty unsatisfactory—but, in one small glimmer of Luck, this painfully short excerpt does begin directly on that soaring two-voice harmony, warbling out over the edge, stripped even, for a moment, of its sole acoustic accompaniment. Tragic complexity, strange mad celebration, which this utter musical bareness augments so well—& still, this is the one version I've found that pares down even that customary pre-chorus surge, electricity & drums, leaving it pleasant eons from the overwrought synth of the album version.


From early on—acoustic, wispy, unsuccessful—& maybe that's why it's perhaps his simplest, his most sincere. It's a letter, a love song, full of lovely, raw words, unobscured by pomp & alliteration. Voice hoarse. It barely even rhymes.

[ NOTE: This actually isn't the version I had in mind—but it'll do. ]

&, speaking of stripped: just the chanteur & his guitar, microphone-scratchy, echoing thin off silent stadium walls. The ooh-aah doo-wops of production fallen away, this song gains back all the sincerity of a living room: strumming, earnest, sweet. Talent, plain & simple.


Every time I hear this song, I have to stop, savor the pins-&-needles fuzz that curdles in my chest. Especially during those surges: TIME! in Quaaludes and red wine... Written after the death of Billy Murcia (AKA, Billy Dolls, former drummer of the New York Dolls) while still on the road with the Spiders from Mars (we should be on by now), & every time I listen, I can’t help but think about that sort of lonely fame: the sanitized interaction, ultraviolent fan-love that Ziggy’s all about, headache flash bulbs & sweat-worn skin—&, of course, the drugs drugs drugs.


Though I've already praised this track
hereabouts, I'll just say again: I'm a sucker for surges, & nothing (read: nothing) beats that full five minute build—chugging in, literally, on train tracks, through to slow, surreal dissonance—until, suddenly, once there were mountains on mountains, & once there were sunbirds to soar with, & once I could never be down. I've got to keep searching & searching, & oh, what will I be believing, & who will connect me with love? Rambles from the depths of a drug binge—desperate, disconnected, & powerfully heartfelt. As he puts it, half-ironic at best: it's not the side effects of the cocaine; I'm thinking that it must be love.

[ NOTE: Again, not the version I wanted. As you can hear from his little speech, this one's from Madison. ]

If I had to choose a song that, in more than just the fact of its existence, epitomizes the love I have for Bowie, it would be this one—a rarely regarded B-side off of Diamond Dogs (which is, I think, a perilously underrated album). Though one might consider "Lady Stardust" a more apt anthem—written, as it is, from the point of view of an adoring concertgoer—& though I do often admire his animal grace, smile sadly for a love I could not obey, there's something naive (if wonderfully so) about asserting the song went on forever—because, as we all now know, it can't. Rather, in my case, me, I'm out of breath, but not quite doubting I've found the door which lets me out: when you rock 'n' roll with me, there's no one else I'd rather be.


There are plenty of people, of course, who hate David Bowie. Or, even if they don't hate him, they would never in a million years give him this much praise. & I'm not talking about internet trolls or tasteless bores; plenty of people I adore & respect think none too highly of him.

For example, in my Bible,
Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk, he's described as a "wimpy little south London art student" who "knew he could never achieve the reality that Iggy was born into. So he thought he'd buy it." In the documentary The Nomi Song, about his onetime SNL duet partner, Bowie is accused of borrowing Nomi's schtick as an act of trend-hopping, then essentially kicking the dying man in the teeth by never calling him back. He's frequently painted as unoriginal, callous, calculating; even Velvet Goldmine makes the point, through identity theft metaphor, that Bowie ultimately betrayed his queer fans by going clean-cut in the 80s.

Perhaps the hardest critic for me to bear is Morrissey, whose music is ever-vying for second place alongside Iggy's in my head—frightfully different, of course, but brilliant all the same. The Smith opened for Bowie for a fraction of a tour in 1995 before defecting, christening him "Showie"; "a human vampire"; "a business"—spitting, "He is no longer David Bowie at all. Now he gives people what he thinks will make them happy, & they're yawning their heads off. & by doing that, he is not relevant. He was only relevant by accident."


You're worn, broken, hallucinating & not quite right, with a voice that breaks like waves over my shore. & there's the bright, the bubble gum & suits, but behind your mismatched eyes is the boy who bites his nails & grows his hair & tells fairytales to the night—who woke up naked with a rockstar in your bed & didn't have time to tune. Haircuts, highlights, bright red—maraschino & someone's blood, but no one will say whose. Stale beer on your platforms; feather boas shedding fast; thighs too thin—bend & they scream. Angels touch your eyelids, turn you sour, & charge extra. Alienation. Alien nations. Blue, blue, electric blue & a few film roles you could do without. Watching skin sag underneath the silver—picking up the old acoustic—picking up a kid or two, these children that you spit on.

& you wonder if tonight's the night they'll do it, as the crowd pulses, lewd, your own private beast of sweat & glitter. You reach without wanting, they pull 'cause you told them—stitches come undone. One boy makes it up & rolls off, like rain. You're waterproof. You're Nathan Adler. Your rice is running low & the sun won't rise, so roll another dollar bill because some corners in Berlin still wail just right. Because everything has to be right: the mirror & the rockstar, who died one morning when you couldn't feel your face. Heil Paris, with a grin that cracks your lip, just enough to sting. I can break my arm, I will do me harm. The keys are gone, & someone won't stop knocking on your skull because it's Tuesday night & the fire's catching. Newsprint hands & scissor teeth—next town by tomorrow.

A vision: it's you, reflected in every welling eye, each one a mirror, until you're pieces, everywhere & nowhere & somewhere there's someone who still won't take your phone calls. The sun is tepid—room sterile—no reason to try. Age lines, life lines, your picture in a drawer.
Have I stayed too long?, croons the prettiest star, as the last lock clicks shut.
—notebook scribblings from 4/13/10


I've been listening to a lot recently (& playing, as best I can) "Heathen (The Rays)," the mostly eponymous track off of Bowie's second-to-most recent album: 2002's Heathen, the one that re-rendered him a critical darling & gave hold-out fans a burst of hope. Though I've had the album for a while, I finally really listened to it after reading
this 2002 interview he did with Livewire:

It's odd, but even when I was a kid, I would write about "old and other times" as though I had a lot of years behind me. Now I do, so there is a difference in the weight of memory. When you're young, you're still becoming, now at my age I am more concerned with being. And not too long from now I'll be driven by surviving, I'm sure. I kind of miss that becoming stage, as most times you really don't know what's around the corner. Now, of course, I've kind of knocked on the door and heard a muffled answer. Nevertheless, I still don't know what the voice is saying, or even what language it's in.
Strangely, some songs you really don't want to write. I didn't like writing "Heathen." There was something so ominous and final about it. It was early in the morning, the sun was rising and through the windows I could see two deer grazing down below in the field. In the distance a car was driving slowly past the reservoir and these words were just streaming out and there were tears running down my face. But I couldn't stop, they just flew out. It's an odd feeling, like something else is guiding you, although forcing your hand is more like it.

Because this is what I find most tragic-beautiful about Bowie: that he burned out, then kept burning & just can't seem to quit. There are ways in which longevity is harder than a short-lived career, the wrinkled shell worse than the good-looking corpse: Rock 'n' Roll is a game for the young, & now a whole generation of stars—
Iggy, Patti, Lou—are doing their best to age gracefully, bleeding stones dry for decades more innovation than anyone ought, just to stay relevant, to keep fighting—not to fade. & so becoming turns to being turns to surviving, hiding in the past, fearing what's to come.


"I mean, if I've been at all responsible for people finding more characters in themselves than they originally thought they had, then I'm pleased, because that's something I feel very strongly about—that one isn't totally what one has been conditioned to think one is, that there are many facets of the personality, 
which a lot of us have trouble finding,
& some of us do find too quickly."


It's a remarkable career, to be sure, even as it starts to flag—a wounded bird, a paper airplane tired from gliding too long. Not only does his impossible prolix span decades, it spans genres, subjects, bands & solo, electronic & acoustic—brilliant & painfully perfunctory. More than that, though, Bowie has succeeded in becoming the stuff of myths: the fairytale he set out for himself: the Platonic ideal of the Doomed Rock God—a parable told, album by album, in the most public of eyes.

In terms of time, too, he chronicles perfectly the hum of 60s idealism through to cynical, plastic 80s—& correspondingly, there's a Bowie album for every part of growing up: naiveté to dumb fun to jaded, crippled, grasping. The availability of this downfall, present as it is in the fiber & progression of his songs, is incredibly seductive—& still, it's a tease.

The moment you allow that feeling—the illusion that you somehow "know" Him—to manifest in any real capacity, you have to
see the faker, to recognize what you're holding as a cardboard cutout, nothing like the vast & sinister head that dreamed this fiction into being. It's an endless game of cat & mouse, tripping over tied shoelaces; he's at once closer than skin & miles off, a mirage ever-sliding through fingertips outstretched.


There's another excerpt from that Livewire interview—the line that comes directly after the part I pulled, actually—that hit me, hard, the first time I read it:

On the other hand, what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts.
Because, as usual, Bowie has articulated a part of my brain better than I ever could.

Often, when I'm trying to explain how I feel about music—when I'm trying to justify why, given the choice, I'd pick blindness over deafness, concert tickets over food, an afternoon strumming amateurishly over almost anything—the best I can come up with is, "Music... hurts." Of course, this makes no sense to anyone not inside my skin, & in fact makes me sound by turns maudlin & masochistic—but perhaps, with Bowie's help, I can start to describe it better.

Music makes certain neurons fire right, &, though I have no real synesthetic response, something starts to go haywire: muscles seem to swell & shrink, organs rev to overdrive, & my whole head floods with a sensation so intense, so close to physical, its only quotidian point of comparison is pain. If you could somehow remove the sting of a nasty cut & focus on the nervous rush through your veins, the endorphins desperately compensating across your brain, then you'd be close, I think—which is why that was always my go-to metaphor. But it's something more than that, too, & different—something necessarily emotional, bound up, I think, in this idea of awakening ghosts:

It's the pain of being confronted with something you'll never quite have—of knowing this perfect, divine connection between you & the air—the ripples of sound that shake you, if slightly, mold you, vibrate your atoms—are happening once, only once, now—but even as you articulate them, they pass, impossibly ephemeral—& still, you're just so fucking overjoyed to have been there—in harmony, literally, with something outside your own head—even for that one fleeting moment—& then the next one, & the next one, slipping out of your grasp like butterflies, phantom shadows at the edges of your vision—& then it's done. So, you restart the track, frantic to reclaim it—only to play each perfect second past again, a carousel ever-spinning out of reach. For me, music is the pain of loss before it happens, Tantalus ever-straining for his grapes—
a death which cannot choose, but weep to have that which it fears to lose—glossed by the bittersweet resolution that this is how it has to be, that the beauty is in its passing: shading impermanent chords—waltzing, endless, with the ghosts.

& there again, he saves me—Superman catching tumbled Lane—from sounding like a total dolt:

I had to resign myself, many years ago, that I'm not too articulate when it comes to explaining how I feel about things. But my music does it for me, it really does. There, in the chords and melodies, is everything I want to say. The words just jolly it along.

It's always been my way of expressing what for me is inexpressible by any other means.

Every once in a while, I cast a net for new Bowie music—new to me, that is: some remix, remastering, a live version played on the 24th instead of the 25th. About a month ago, I was surfing iTunes, & I found this: "Rebel Never Gets Old"—a mash-up of "
Rebel, Rebel," a hit from Diamond Dogs, & "Never Get Old," a song from the 2003 album Reality, Bowie's last studio effort to date.

There is something patently tragic about this track: the follies of youth spelled out by one no longer youthful; new, ironic words slicked over old melodies; a sad & subtle reminder that these probably were the thoughts behind that clanging riff:
I'm never, ever gonna get old. Moreover, in Bowie's trend-hopping fashion, this song seems at once a desperate plea to stop trying & a desperate buy-in to the latest mash-up fad. It smacks all over of Age—despair too afraid to speak its mind straightforward.

But somewhere beyond that, couched perhaps in the spliced title, there is this sense—
talking through the gloom, standing tall in the dark—that, fuck yes, you can still be a Rebel at 63: it's a wavelength, a state of mind—an ever-attainable goal to live through the hard bite of guitar as it rips, once more, through your chest. When a friend asked me what it was like to see Iggy Pop earlier this year, the first description that came to mind was "faith-affirming"; to watch these titans of sound & vision refuse to grow up & out of their strange fascination—to continue, always, doing what they love—just reminds you what you always knew:

Music is always worth it, & I'm never, ever gonna get old.



So, this is David Bowie—formerly Davy Jones of the King Bees, Ziggy Stardust & Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke & Major Tom; mime student, Goblin King, addict, apocalyptic rockstar—as filtered through my brain, at least—& even that's left wanting—& even the way he says it towards the end of 2003's Reality Tour CD—"I'm at the front, therefore I must be David Bowie"—cleaves man from myth, renders the showman an ill-fitting suit, separate from the flesh & blood & brain that lag somewhere behind stardom—
how the others must see the faker—& all of this, all at once, layer bleeding into layer—each surging, receding in waves—coming at you through the stereo—to be played at maximum volume.

& burn-out stars, they shine so bright.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

Anneliese's Recommended Bowie (Re)education Course.

The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars (& bonus materials).
Hunky Dory.
(Live, Santa Monica, '72.)
Aladdin Sane.
The Man Who Sold the World.
Space Oddity.
(Bowie at the Beeb.)
Diamond Dogs.
(David Live.)
Station to Station.
Scary Monsters.
Let's Dance.
(A Reality Tour.)

Also: the song "Young Americans," the soundtrack to
Labyrinth, "Heroes" in German (AKA, "Helden"), & his covers of "Across the Universe," "Debaser," & "Friday On My Mind."

&, once you're done with all that:

We Were So Turned On.
—especially Duran Duran's "Boys Keep Swinging," A Place to Bury Strangers's "Suffragette City," Lights (NYC)'s "As the World Falls Down," &, yes, Carla Bruni's "Absolute Beginners." (It's actually really pretty.)