On Friday, January 8th 2016, David Bowie turned sixty-nine and his final album Blackstar, was released. I purchased it that morning, having waited for months. On the following day I sat for a black star tattoo straight from the album cover; a recent writing project was lousy with black stars and I felt more than ever that Bowie and I were on the same wave. After a weekend of listening to the album I was awoken Monday morning, January 11th 2016 by my wife, “before you look at your phone, Bowie passed away yesterday.” She was right, my text messages were as full as my Facebook feed with tearful and shocked notifications from friends, but I was glad I heard it from her first.
It took until December of 2016 for me to finally read Simon Critchley’s little book, Bowie (OR Books/Counterpoint, 2016). I’ve wanted this book since it came out in 2014 and I remember reacting, “a book by one of my favorite living philosophers on one of my favorite living everythings? Yes, please.” Luckily I put it off until this 2016 re-issue with extra chapters treating Bowie’s death and final album. Although most of the book was written more than two years ago it is hard not to read the whole thing eulogistically. His spirit goes on though, now more than ever, as the last dreadful year has come to a close. I lost of close friends and faith in my country, but now my thoughts turn back to Bowie with hope his art can carry me forward.
What have I lost in Bowie? For the most part, the same things we all have: the chance for more music, more movie appearances, and just the knowledge that he is out there being brilliant and dashing, making art, and giving a wry smile to a paparazzo. What have I lost personally? True confession time. I have always dreamed of knowing Bowie (I’ve never even seen him perform live), but more so, and more embarrassingly, I’ve always wanted him to know me. I’d hoped one day he would read one of my books and like it. That moment of mutual respect between artists, that bump to my sense of worth from an artist who has helped shape my understanding of the world, art, and myself.
This is why sometimes Critchley’s book feels like it’s talking to me or for me. I haven’t read much about Bowie. He is mine and my feelings for him and about him need not be mediated. Critchley’s book however is now added to a small list of my favorite Bowie books which also includes Hugo Wilcken’s Low and Steve Erickson’s These Dreams of You.
Critchley’s book praises Wilcken’s so I’ll start there and circle around back. Wilcken’s Low (Continuum, 2010) doesn’t need a book review; it’s kinda perfect (I say kinda since perfect is such a strong word). It’s one of the best 33 1/3s I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot. I’m a sucker for this series of tiny books on albums of music as I have always suffered from that most Cartesian of obsessions in regards to my most beloved art works, the need to know how he, she, or they did it. The reverse engineering of a work gives me faith that maybe I could also do or make something comparable. Wilcken’s Low is like the sweetest of candies; I wanted to devour and savor all at once, which is difficult with such a short book. Wilcken chose Low because it was a definitive turning point in Bowie’s body of work and during maybe the most beloved period in the myth of the artist. In 136 pages the reader experiences a thorough historical context for the album and detailed production notes for each song as well as each song. The most important moments I savor from this book are descriptions of his work ethic and the well-researched information about his time in Berlin.
After a teenage obsession with Ziggy Stardust, the Berlin years have always been my favorite period and that’s where Erickson’s These Dreams of You (Europa Editions, 2012)comes in, illustrating the Berlin years in the subplot of a larger novel. The book is about a white novelist, Alexander “Zan” Nordhoc, and his family. The narrative opens with the election of Barack Obama not long after their adoption of a little Ethiopian girl with gray eyes named, Zema (mostly called, Sheba). The structure involves small paragraph vignettes familiar from Erickson’s last Europa novel, Zeroville, but otherwise from the start of my first read I wondered, “is Steve Erickson actually writing a domestic family novel? Where is the trademarked weirdness I love so much?” My worries were for naught, for after about fifty pages it started getting weird, and oh so wonderfully weird. Ultimately it is a novel about race in America and therefore about America itself. On the second page, watching the first black president’s victory, Zan wonders, “Do I have the right… as a middle-aged white man, to hold my face in my hands? and then thinks, No. And holds his face in his hands anyway, silently mortified that he might do something so trite as sob.”
It is the only book by a white guy that I included in my African Diaspora Literature course, and only in a summer section to follow complementarily Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father. The book captures the spirit of Obama’s election, his place in history, but never directly names him. This is Erickson’s way of writing historical fiction since Zeroville, never naming names. But what does this have to do with David Bowie? We can only assume that he is the “British extraterrestrial in a dress” or “the man who sings the hero song [with] red hair” whom four year old Sheba/Zema is obsessed with. These Dreams of You is a complicated work that shows all of Erickson’s narrative deftness, the twisting, ellipsing Mobius strip orchestration of strands and timelines that all interweave and make total sense by the end. One of those twists that proves essential to the whole follows a black woman named Jasmine, who while working in the music business is assigned to assist a rocker who seems a lot like David Bowie. She accompanies him and his friend Jim (Iggy Pop?) to Berlin where they record music with a man called The Professor (Brian Eno?). In his not so covert way, Erickson depicts the recording of the albums Low and “Heroes” and all of the escapades of that period: the lingering Crowley occultism, the conviction to kick cocaine through copious amounts of alcohol, the transvestite clubs, the obsession with kraut-rock like Can, Neu!, and Kraftwerk. Moreover, Erickson captures what drew Bowie to Berlin, what first enticed him through the writing of Christopher Isherwood. Berlin was not just the City of Ghosts, it was the City of the Wall, both East and West, Old World and New, Weimar burlesque and pulsing kraut-rock. It was a time and place that inspired Bowie to create two of his greatest albums (and eventually Lodger, which is still pretty good) that both helped take “pop” music to a whole new place, along with great solo work from Iggy Pop (The Idiot and Lust For Life, both produced and co-written with Bowie). In the almost caricatured portraits by Erickson are a stylized ideal of the artists at work, inspired by this liminal space, the guards posted on the Wall just outside the Hansa studio windows. It is a space where maybe the most emblematic theme in Bowie’s work comes out: love as defiance. “I can remember/Standing, by the wall/And the guns, shot above our heads/And we kissed, as though nothing could fall/And the shame, was on the other side/Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever/Then we could be heroes, just for one day,” as he says in the song “Heroes.”
But now, what does this have to do with a book about race in America? The Bowie character in the book tries to explain to Jasmine why he’s in Berlin and what this new work is all about. “Look, the whole century has been about black and white fucking… New York Jews like Gershwin, Kern, Arlen cumming southern Negro music while Duke Ellington ravishes Nineteenth Century Europeans like Debussy,” he says. Erickson’s use of “Bowie” gets at the heart of another central theme in Bowie’s oeuvre, the embracing and merging of binaries.
This is why I chose the book for my class and why I believe the students responded so well to it. The narrator explains, “Zan began pondering race when he was younger only because he began pondering his country, and knew that it wasn’t possible to understand his country without pondering slavery and it wasn’t possible to understand slavery without pondering race. He considered how his countrymen from Africa were the only ones who didn’t choose to be there; Africans were compelled to come and only once they were made to come did they choose to stay. Did that make them, then, the true owners of the country’s great idea, by virtue of having accepted the country in the face of so many reasons not to? If the country is more an idea than a place then are those who were so compelled its true occupants, given how the country’s promise to them was broken before it was offered?”. This is to support a conversation Zan has about race in America a little earlier where he says, “what the zealot or the ideologue really believes in is the zealous nature itself, the devout embrace of hard distinctions—the crusade against gray.”
As this book illustrates, grayness is what Bowie was all about. This AND that. Andro and gyne. Like how gray is both black and white, Bowie was masculine and feminine, straight and gay, artist and pop star (one could be critical and declare that all of this grayness is aspirational and point out that Bowie never escaped being a white, straight male whose aesthetic endeavors were all rooted in privilege and appropriation, but right now I am most certainly here to praise Caesar). Bowie helped destroy binaries by embracing them. His place in Erickson’s wonderful novel helps express this. If you think Erickson might be alone in this sentiment some tangential support might be found in the Acknowledgements of the 2016 novel, Underground Railroad, where Colson Whitehead says, “David Bowie is in every book [of mine].”
It is especially the last duality, Artist and Pop Star, which always excited me most about Bowie. He was legit and fun. Dissertation-worthy and danceable. He was the first side of Low and the second. He was references to Greta Garbo and the Golden Dawn all in one song. Maybe this is what makes David Bowie the quintessential Pop Star to many people. In Low, Wilcken explains how “popular music as it developed in the fifties and sixties turns the cultural paradigm on its head. With pop, postmodernism always came before modernism. Pop culture didn’t actually need any Andy Warhol to make it postmodern. Rock ‘n’ roll was never anything but a faked-up blues—something that the glam-era Bowie had understood perfectly,” and then quoting Brian Eno: “Some people say Bowie is all surface style and second-hand ideas, but that sounds like the definition of pop to me.”
This now brings me back to Critchley’s book in which early on he describes the “inauthenticity” of Bowie. “The ironic self-awareness of the artist and their audience can only be that of their inauthenticity, repeated at increasingly conscious levels.” Bowie clearly understands this as is evidenced in his song “Andy Warhol” off Hunky Dory (1971) in which we find the line, “Andy Warhol, silver screen/Can’t tell them apart at all.” On this topic Critchley continues, “Art’s filthy lesson is inauthenticity all the way down, a series of repetitions and reenactments: fakes that strip away the illusion of reality in which we live and confront us with the reality of illusion;” and, “Bowie’s genius allows us to break the superficial link that seems to connect authenticity to truth.” Finally, after more Heideggerian digressions, he brings it all home with: “In my humble opinion, authenticity is the curse of music from which we need to cure ourselves. Bowie can help. His art is a radically contrived and reflexively away confection of illusion whose fakery is not false, but at the service of a felt corporeal truth.”
I might not have been able to express this better myself and that is why I’m so grateful Critchely did. He and I are of the same world, a world he describes “of people for whom Bowie was the being who permitted a powerful emotional connection and freed them to become some other kind of self, something freer, more queer, more honest, more open, and more exciting.” Critchley also helped me understand that what makes Bowie’s music so successful in reaching people is that what is at its core is a yearning for connection. For all of Bowie’s lyrics about tragic characters, dystopian settings, solitude, and loneliness, there is a romantic notion about the ability of love to triumph in some small way, to make us heroes even, just for one day. The song that ends the album Ziggy Stardust (1972), that ends the eponymous tragic character’s narrative, is called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and it sure hit a nerve with me as an angsty teenager. It can still bring a tear to my eye as the pleading bombast of final lyrics (which Critchley writes about in a short chapter titled, “Wonderful”):
Oh no love! You’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone
Just turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on and be not alone (wonderful)
Gimme your hands ’cause you’re wonderful
Gimme your hands ’cause you’re wonderful
Oh gimme your hands.
Critchley’s little book is heartfelt and thoughtful. I’ve read it twice now—almost as many times as the other two books—and it is another element in my connection to a great artist that I will never know but always love. What these three books reinforce to me about David Bowie, the thing I take the most away from him after sheer aesthetic pleasure, is a deeply committed artistic discipline. Critchley dwells on the fakeness and inauthenticity of Bowie’s artistry, and while I like what he makes of that philosophically, I’ve always understood this about Bowie to just be professionalism. Bowie wasn’t some bright shooting star of a rocker, burning himself out and dying young, although he did get to experience that with his Ziggy Stardust personae. David Bowie was a consummate artist who mostly worked in the medium of popular music and created great work until the end of his life, a year ago today.