One evening not long after David Bowie died, my daughter—who was five at the time—looked at me across the dinner table and said absolutely guilelessly:
“Daddy, did you know David Bowie?”
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“Because you sure talk about him a lot.”
Ouch. The mouths of babes.
The departure of an icon always triggers a tsunami of nostalgia, regret, and kind feelings from the general public, with casual fans—and often even non-fans—suddenly realizing (or at least declaring) how much they loved the dearly departed. So it was, inevitably, with Bowie…..and more so than most, because he had successfully kept his liver cancer a secret from the public for the eighteen months since he was diagnosed. As a result, the collective shock at the announcement of his demise and the usual period of grief, mourning, and tribute were all intensified.
But even accounting for that, the outpouring of acclaim and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments speak to the outsized role Bowie played in Western pop culture for more than 40 years, and just how profoundly he affected the lives of his fans and society at large. For he truly did bestride this narrow world like a colossus, albeit one in platform boots and an orange mullet.
Almost as soon as Bowie’s death was announced, an ad hoc memorial—flowers and murals and offerings and the like—appeared outside the building where he lived on Lafayette Street, near Houston. I hadn’t even realized he lived there, a place I had walked past a bazillion times; in contrast to other downtown celebrities, I never saw him buying toothpaste at Duane Reade. (I did see Joe Jackson grocery shopping at the Dean & DeLuca on Broadway and Prince once. Only a rock star would do his everyday shopping at Dean & DeLuca.)
Bowie was also subjected to an especially severe case of what I call the Tito Puente Effect.
At the beginning of the movie Stripes there is a throwaway bit in which Bill Murray’s slacker character gets an earful from his irritated girlfriend over laying around the house all day doing nothing but playing Tito Puente records. In response, Murray deadpans: “Tito Puente is gonna be dead, and you’re gonna say, ‘Oh, I’ve been listening to him for years, and I think he’s fabulous.’”
This kind of emergence of bandwagon-jumping arrivistes claiming longtime allegiance to the deceased was especially egregious with an artist as groundbreaking and transgressive as the former Mr. David Jones.
There was also little doubt that a commercial rush to capitalize on Bowienalia would ensue: exploiting the recently deceased is of course de rigueur in all the arts, and pop music especially (and especially crassly). Morrissey— one of Bowie’s many descendants—said it well in the Smiths’ “Paint a Vulgar Picture’:
At the record company meeting
On their hands a dead star
And oh, the plans they weave
And oh, the sickening greed
Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!
Re-evaluate the songs
Double-pack with a photograph
Extra track and a tacky badge
Best of! Most of! Satiate the need!
Slip them into different sleeves
Buy both, and feel deceived
More honorable—and highbrow—was the recent exhibition “David Bowie Is, a brilliant survey of all things Bowie that opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2013—three years before Bowie died—and subsequently toured the world, drawing wall-to-wall crowds and wrapping up with a month-long run at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this year. My wife and I went on a Tuesday morning (we don’t have jobs) and it was packed.
But all this posthumous love obscures an important aspect of David Bowie’s life and career. The fact is, Bowie was a disruptive figure who—in his early years especially—inspired as much confusion, anger, and backlash as he did praise. Sic semper with the great innovators. We would do well to remember that, and the lessons that oft-repeated phenomenon carries for us…..
PEOPLE STARED AT THE MAKEUP ON HIS FACE
From the start Bowie was impossible to miss: musically, visually, culturally. I think I first became aware of him when “Young Americans” was a number one hit in the US in 1974, when I was eleven. He was one of the only stars to emerge in the hippie era who retained his cred after 1976 and the arrival of punk, because of course, he was one of its progenitors, and he continued to evolve and innovate long after punk burned out.
I distinctly remember seeing him on “Saturday Night Live” in 1979, playing “The Man Who Sold the World,”“TVC-15,”and “Boys Keep Swinging,” with the eye-popping duo of Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias singing backup. For an American teenager not well-versed in the avant garde, it was suitably mind-blowing. On the first song, Bowie had to be carried to the microphone because he was wearing a costume that looked like a tuxedoed nesting doll; on the second, all three singers were wearing skirts; on the third, Bowie’s head was superimposed on a marionette.
But I didn’t really become a Bowie fanatic until I was a college freshman, thanks to my roommate, who introduced me to “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” That LP came out in 1972; when I started listening to it in 1981 it was still in essence a contemporary record. (To give you some of idea, that’s the same interval between now and the xx’s first album in 2009.) I wore my copy out, soon followed by “Aladdin Sane,” and maybe the best of them all, “Hunky Dory.”
I would also like to put a plug in for “David Live,” a 1974 double LP recorded at the Tower Theater in Philly, and in my humble opinion unjustly disparaged, even by Bowie himself. (Special mention to the 1990 Rykodisc CD reissue, which included Bowie’s great cover of the Ohio Players’ “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” available on vinyl but not the initial compact disc.)
By my sophomore year “Let’s Dance” came out—the most musically accessible album of his career—marking the apotheosis of Bowie’s commercial success through a perfect storm of catchy, chart-topping hits, his most mainstream reinvention of himself, and the inescapable advent of MTV, for which a performer with his visual and theatrical sense was tailor-made. For me it marked the moment when I began to act all snooty about johnny-come-lately Bowie fans. (I was nineteen, with all of two years of serious Bowie-listening under my belt.)
Bowie would do some astonishing work in the 33 years that followed, but typical of most rock & rollers, that commercial pinnacle largely marked the end of his (uh) golden years. But no matter. By 1983 his place in the pantheon was long secure.
Looking back now, it’s simply inadequate to say that he led the way in glam rock, prefigured punk, and pioneered ambient music in collaboration with Eno. Bowie’s influence as a songwriter, recording artist, and performer is so pervasive and wide-ranging that it is almost impossible to pin down, threaded as it is into so much of the pop music landscape. Along the way he also delved into not only film and theater, but costume and set design, video art, painting, dance, mime, graphics, fashion, you name it. It’s almost impossible to catalogue the always-innovative, ceaselessly searching work Bowie did over the course of six decades, or to reiterate the unparalleled range of his work in so many different fields, or attest to his towering influence. I can’t do justice here to the sheer range of his artistic exploration, but just as a sampling, he played John Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway and the title role in Brecht’s play Baal; narrated “Peter and the Wolf”; starred in a one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time (Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth), and kissed Ann Magnuson, Susan Sarandon, and Catherine Deneuve in the vampire movie The Hunger, while featuring in other films ranging from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, to the Bridge Over the River Kwai-esque Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, to Zoolander.
His dance card was full.
And it takes nothing away from Bowie’s vast body of work to say that in his long, protean career, one of the best things he ever did was “Little Fat Man Who Sold His Soul” on Ricky Gervais’s “Extras.” Name me another mega-famous avant garde rock star who has such a light comic touch and good sense of humor about himself.
But in light of all this—the stellar career; the posthumous adoration and tributes; the sold-out memorial museum show that gave Bowie the same treatment as Picasso or Manet or King Tut (I think he would have appreciated that one) —it’s easy to forget that David Bowie was not always a beloved figure embraced across Western society. What self-respecting rock star was?
DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR PRESIDENT NIXON?
When I first became aware of Bowie around 1974, I distinctly remember hearing a DJ on my local Top 40 station in Washington DC playing “Young Americans” and then snickering to his audience, “That was David Bowie, a guy who takes the ‘L’ out of ‘flag’”
I’d like to say it’s the kind of remark that would be unheard of today, or at least get the DJ fired, but it really isn’t, at least not in big chunks of red state America. Anecdotal though it is, it’s a slur that represents how Bowie was viewed by a lot of mainstream America at the time…..and not just by “rock & roll is the devil’s music” troglodytes and other outliers. (This was a DJ on a Top 40 station in a major metropolitan area, the nation’s capital no less.) After all, an enormous part of Bowie’s impact was the transgressive nature of his gender-bending look and manner, so it was no surprise that it triggered homophobes and neanderthals of all stripes, from those afflicted with virulent gay panic to those who reflected the more conventional and commonplace bigotry of the era. The very things that his fans loved about Bowie were the same things that pissed off parents and squares and meatheads. That’s the point of youth culture.
But there were other examples of Bowie as the target of anger and abuse.
Also in ’74, some aging Beatles fans were put out that John Lennon collaborated with Bowie on “Fame” (and also Bowie’s cover of “Across the Universe”), revealing a generation gap even within the baby boomers. Conveniently, they seemed to forget how the Fab Four themselves were scorned and ridiculed when they first appeared—both by the older generation and by some retrograde youngsters too—specifically for their “girly” long hair.
Three years later, Bowie’s baroque appearance on a 1977 Bing Crosby Christmas special, dueting with Der Bingle on a mashup of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth”—still one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen on American network television—caused legions of Crosby’s fans to freak the fuck out. (Crosby himself had nothing but praise for Bowie.)
The next year, when Bowie appeared alongside an septuagenarian Marlene Dietrich in the film The Last Gigolo (1978)—her last screen performance—there was a similar outcry from the movie star’s fans, asking how she could possibly appear with “that freak.” Highly ironic, to say the least, given that Dietrich was herself a famously rule-breaking, cross-dressing bisexual, albeit from an earlier era that was duly scandalized by her behavior, but remained largely in willful denial about it. (Making it both more and less transgressive.) Like Bing, Dietrich—if I recall correctly—laconically dismissed the objection, praising Bowie for his daring and originality. As he had already transmogrified into the Thin White Duke and begun the famously inventive “Berlin period,” it’s hard not to see Bowie’s collaboration with Dietrich as part of that process. (Even if, as the story goes, they filmed their scenes separately and never met.)
I cite these examples only as reminders that David Bowie did not walk out of Brixton and into superstardom without some pushback, which is easy to forget in the warm glow of his demise and the attendant adulation. One has only to look at an artist like Boy George, who came along ten full years after Bowie and was likewise barraged with homophobic slurs—even as Bowie lit up the charts with “Let’s Dance”—to be reminded of how inhospitable the general public was toward transgressive artists in popular culture. (By that time Bowie was so acceptable to the mainstream that he was in an ad for Pepsi, co-starring Tina Turner, and using his song “Modern Love” with new lyrics advertising the soda.)
And it’s not limited to homophobia, though it’s certainly virulent in that arena. Accordingly, bear with me as I venture far afield to talk about a few other public figures who would seem to have little or nothing in common with Bowie, but actually represent similar—and similarly instructive—manifestations of this phenomenon.
THE SCREEN DOOR SLAMS
Strange as it may seem, when I consider Bowie’s legacy, one of the artists who I think most about is Springsteen.
I’ll admit it’s a leap. One could hardly name two more different rockers, in almost every way. But it’s not such a strange comparison as it seems.
At their core, both are about a yearning for freedom…..whether it’s the personal, sexual, artistic, space alien glam rock freak flag freedom of Bowie, or the wings for wheels, lonely cool before dawn, spot out ‘neath Abram’s bridge freedom of Bruce, where everything that dies someday comes back. In that regard, both embody very different but unmistakably allied visions of the very beating heart of rock & roll.
(For a rare intersection of the two, check out the obscure cover of “Growin’ Up,” included as a bonus track on the CD re-release of “Pin-Ups,” part of that same 1990 Rykodisc initiative. Bowie also has a mean cover of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” on the 1989 “Sound + Vision” box set.)
Bruce may be the most misunderstood and misappropriated artist in all of rock—far worse than Bowie. Homophobes and squares and general philistines may have rejected Bowie, but at least they knew what they were rejecting: it was there front and center in eyeshadow and skintight neon-hued bodysuits for all the world to see. But with Bruce, the message was easier to miss, coming as it did wrapped in a masculine, all-American, cars-and-chicks Jersey boy package. Trojan Horse style. (If the horse had a 396, fuelie heads, and a Hurst on the floor.) To attend a Springsteen concert is to be smacked in the face with this fact. The humanism was always there in Bruce’s work from the very beginning, but as it became more overtly and unmistakably political—channeling Woody Guthrie—a significant number of his fans, cultural commentators, and political figures who wanted to align themselves with him clearly missed the point. (Or if they got it, were annoyed by it.)
The ultimate example of course is “Born in the USA,” a heartbreaking song of betrayal and despair written from the perspective of a Vietnam vet that got usurped and turned into a fist-pumping jingoistic anthem. That’s an essay in itself. It didn’t help that it was the title track of the album that would be his big commercial breakthrough—Springtsteen’s “Let’s Dance.” But that was 1984, when Bruce was not yet a household, no-surname-necessary name (“Born to Run” and the twin covers of Time and Newsweek notwithstanding), and the general public didn’t really have a firm grasp of who this artist was. I think now, 34 years later, everybody knows where Bruce stands, and even “Born in the USA” is better understood. Which doesn’t stop idiots and assholes from appropriating it.
But while Bruce lost some of his right wing fans as his progressive politics became more apparent, weirdly, a much larger swath of them remained loyal to him as a musician while denigrating his activism, often in sneering terms (along the lines of, “Shut the fuck up and play ‘Rosalita’”). Personally, I don’t get that—it’s a strange kind of S&M Misery-style fan/artist relationship…..kind of like the George R.R. Martin fans who send him death threats for not writing fast enough.
There are other politically conservative Bruce fans who are less openly hostile, and somehow just ignore the disconnect, or have some rationalization for it. But that can get pretty weird too. How Chris Christie can square his undeniably genuine passion for Bruce’s music with a political bent that is diametrically opposed to everything his hero stands for is a mystery of cognitive dissonance for the ages.
But Bruce’s arc is unusual in that it represents the reverse of the usual path, going as it does from love to anger (in some quarters). For most public figures in the arts or entertainment who find themselves embroiled in controversy, it’s the other way around.
FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY
Today, Muhammad Ali is venerated as a national hero; not so much in 1966 when he refused to be drafted and go fight in Vietnam. Many people have conveniently forgotten—and young people may have no idea—that back then Ali (still called Cassius
Clay by many, who sneered at the name he took when he converted to Islam) was widely, widely attacked for that stance. I can tell you that in my Army family he was certainly not beloved.
It took many years for the wounds of that war to scar over (I won’t say heal) before Ali’s actions came to be seen as a brave stance of civil disobedience. In retrospect, when he quipped “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” Ali succinctly encapsulated multiple tragedies of the 1960s, and the hypocrisy of sending a disproportionate number of African-American young men (along with a lot of poor whites, immigrants, and others) to kill for the government of the United States that was actively oppressing that same community.
When I look around today, not much has changed.
(As with much history, however, the actual facts are tediously at odds with the myth. Evidence suggests that Ali never actually said those famous words any more than Cary Grant ever said “Judy Judy Judy.” He is reported to have said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” but even that is in question. But screenplay-ready quip or no, his refusal to be drafted and the reason why is the point. We are in “print-the-legend” terrain here.)
The inescapable contemporary comparison is Colin Kaepernick.
A president* who cynically pardoned Jack Johnson (two cheers) intermittently continues to carry on an equally cynical, demagogic campaign of racist attacks on NFL players who respectfully kneel during the national anthem to protest the epidemic of police killing of young black men. (Kaep himself, I’ll remind you, has been blacklisted by the league and hasn’t played a down in two years, despite certainly being among the 64 best quarterbacks available, if only as a backup. His civil suit against the NFL is pending.)
I’ve written elsewhere about the disgusting anti-Americanism of Trump’s racist attack on these NFL players’ protest, as have many others, so no need to rehash it here. (The same goes for the NFL owners’ own craven, shortsighted, greed-driven submission to the ogre-in-chief.) But I will say that as a veteran, I am appalled and insulted at the dishonest, shamelessly partisan Republican argument that this protest by NFL players somehow “disrespects” the troops, or is in any way un-patriotic. It is anything but. The people who are most upset about this issue typically are more motivated by their animus toward wealthy African-American professional athletes than by any sort of twisted patriotism, although the two are historically intertwined, as Ali’s story shows.
The point is that—agree with them or not—Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, Malcolm Jenkins, and the other leaders of this protest have taken a brave and bold stand, and for their courage and integrity are enduring widespread abuse, unfounded attacks on their loyalty to country, death threats, and the like.
Someday they will all be as venerated as Muhammad Ali is today.
WE CAN BE HEROES
So wtf does that have to do with David Bowie, who was never a particularly political artist, at least not in the conventional sense?
It’s easy to lionize people in retrospect. In the present tense, it’s harder to recognize heroes and trailblazers when we see them, and harder still to laud them for their boldness and courage and vision. Luckily, posterity is a lot wiser than we are.
Let’s go back to Morrissey one more time:
At the record company meeting
On their hands—at last—a dead star
But they can never taint you in my eyes
No, they can never touch you now
Actually, they can. More than ever, in fact. Consciously or otherwise, the mainstream society to which Bowie gave two fingers up (he was English, you know) would now like us all to believe that it embraced him from the start.
But don’t believe the hype.
Bowie is not here to defend himself, so we have to do it for him, in his honor.
Every artistic rebellion traces the same path, from iconoclasm, to co-opting by the mainstream, to mere fashion, to ho-hum absorption into the main body of culture, and ultimately to farce, until you’ve got Johnny Rotten doing butter ads and Snoop Dogg hosting the reboot of “The Joker’s Wild.”
So while I couldn’t be more pleased at the way Bowie has taken his rightful place in the pantheon—not just musically, but across our entire Western culture—part of what made him so great, and part of what we should remember when we honor him, is how brave he was, and the abuse and attacks he withstood without batting so much as a glittery, mascaraed eyelid.
Rest in peace, David Bowie, and thank you.