Tuesday, January 12, 2016

David Bowie and the Resurrection of Lazarus

A couple of months ago—November 19th, to be exact—when I saw the video for David Bowie’s eponymous single from his new album “Black Star,” I remember being shocked and thrilled and puzzled. The video and its music were inexplicably creepy and dark in a sort of American Horror Story way. I emailed a couple of friends and fellow Bowie fans to remark on how amazing it was that the artist—nearly 70 years old now—was still capable of surprising us and making such interesting, challenging, unconventional works.

“Bowie hasn't lost his edge, he keeps reinventing his image and his characters,” I remarked. “This one has a dark passenger. I think there might be a Major Tom riff in there too, with the space suit containing the bejeweled but long-dead skull.”

Yesterday, with the sad and shocking news of David Bowie’s death—and the release of his new video, “Lazarus,” on his 69th birthday, just two days before his death—the dark and unsettling aspects of "Black Star" that puzzled me when I first saw it suddenly made a whole lot of sense. For a year and a half, David Bowie had been struggling with cancer—something he kept private from the world—and knew he was dying. His last album was a carefully planned meditation on death—and life—in all its mystery, glory, pain, pleasure, and wretchedness.

In the new video for “Lazarus,” Bowie’s ailing character—blindfolded, with buttons where his sightless eyes should be—lies in a hospital bed, singing:
Look up here, I’m in Heaven
This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me

For half a century, David Bowie constantly reinvented himself, his music and his career by creating and inhabiting characters and stage personas, and using these characters to comment on the absurdities and challenges of human life and society. Ziggy Stardust. Aladdin Sane. The Thin White Duke. The Man Who Fell to Earth. Pierrot the sad clown. Jareth the Goblin King from the film Labyrinth. The nameless, suit-wearing hipster who toured the world filling stadiums and brought us a series of funk-inspired pop hits throughout the last two decades of the 20th century.

Bowie’s characters were rarely, if ever, easy pills to swallow. They were fiercely crafted commentaries on addiction, fame, greed, fashion, vanity, sexuality and gender, the absurdity of human behavior, and the suffocating nature of society’s norms. Bowie’s characters were much more than the passing fashion statements of a pop star (though he also remained a fashion icon for half a century, as well). They were carefully constructed, always defiantly weird and unconventional and creative, and he embodied them so deeply that David Bowie the man sometimes became indistinguishable from his character.

One of the most common themes I heard yesterday from friends around the world—aside from the profound grief they felt at his loss—was how David Bowie had always made them feel it was "okay to be weird," okay to be yourself, okay not to fit into society’s cookie-cutter molds. Another common theme expressed by many friends yesterday was the feeling of shock at being suddenly reminded that David Bowie was, in fact, a mortal human being just like us—not some kind of god or space oddity.

And now, as his parting gift, he leaves us with Lazarus. Lazarus is Bowie’s final character, and a fitting one to articulate the supreme questions of life and death that we now know he was wrestling with in his last year. Lazarus is an unsettling vision, a man at the mercy of ultimate forces beyond his control, helpless and blindfolded, surrounded by symbols of death and reminders of the ephemerality of all his creations. But Lazarus is also a character who—to borrow a famous line from Dylan Thomas—refuses to go quietly into that good night, but rages against the dying of the light. Lazarus twitches and levitates above his hospital bed; in his lyrics and his vocal performance, he alternates between anger, fear, gratitude, peace, and transcendence. Lazarus sees his life and his creations slipping from his hands, and refuses to stop creating. In the video, as Lazarus lies in his hospital bed, another version of Bowie—Bowie the performer, Bowie the ambitious artist—emerges like a wraith from a dark wardrobe closet, frantically scribbles his inspirations onto paper, delighting in his own creations, and then retreats with a puzzled expression back into the darkened wardrobe at the end of the video.

This too, Lazarus tells us, is part of the experience, part of the performance. It may not be pretty, it may even be frightening and creepy at times, but it’s an essential part of the dance of life and death. We mustn’t look away from it. In fact, if we look at it carefully, it may even reveal treasures that we didn’t know were there. “Look up here,” he foretold, “I’m in Heaven.”

Those who know the story of Lazarus from the Bible know that Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus four days after his burial. We now know that David Bowie’s entire last album was carefully planned and its release apparently timed to coincide with his 69th birthday and his death two days later. In playing out the theme of Lazarus and his resurrection, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if David Bowie has more messages in store for us in the coming months.

Thank you, David Bowie. It was a fantastic gift to have you on this planet. You will be greatly missed and never forgotten.

One of the last known photographs of David Bowie, released on January 8th—his 69th birthday and the day he released his 25th studio album, Black Star—and taken by his longtime photographer Jimmy King. Bowie passed on January 10th after an 18-month battle with cancer.


Unknown said...

I really appreciated this thoughtful writing on Bowie. Thanks. It's inspired a rather long series of reminiscences. Maybe they'll do something for some folks.

I'm going to risk blasphemy in this comment, blasphemy to the hallowed hosts of Bowie fandom. I've been following—assiduously, passionately following—others' writing in the aftermath of the announcement of Bowie's death. Newspapers, blogposts, Facebook (yes, I came out of a pleasant and productive (!) winter FB-hibernation to snoop around again), all the usual media conduits that connect us all these days. So I engaged, maybe in some sense I even had to engage. But I didn’t really feel sad, and I didn’t really feel a loss, and I didn’t really feel like Bowie is forever, that he’d never be forgotten. Hell, I’ve forgotten almost everyone I’ve lost in this life, or more precisely, I’ve allowed, sometimes actively allowed, their memory to wither or to morph beyond recognition. The micro infidelities of having my own ego to maintain, I suppose. I have my little rituals of commemoration, but ultimately little to no control over memory, so I won’t make that claim. What I have experienced in all this reading is a vague sense of camaraderie. Vague, because I don’t feel “connected” to Rob Sheffield or Hilton Als in the same way I feel connected to you, Dennis, or to my long-ago friend Lane in Austin or to my little sisters, whom I shamelessly initiated into the queer worlds of Bowie when they were too young to know better. Bowie, once I knew his name, was someone whose songs you passed around to people you trusted, like passing a talking stick or a joint or a bottle of faux-sanctified wine round a camp fire in Crete. So Bowie’s death for me isn’t about Bowie very much at all—though I think of his daughter Lexie a lot these days. Lexie knows loss right now. It’s about the tendrils of filiation, call it friendship if you need a name for it, that his music was occasion to foster. So I guess it’s in honor of those human connections that I’m coming out now to write.
What’s become clear to me in the three days since I heard of Bowie’s death is that I’m not much sad. Such sadness as I am experiencing is muted, a distant plaintive near-vocalization—not even a moan, nowhere near a howl or keen. More like a heart murmur. I’d fallen out of touch with Bowie, I’d long since ceased to see his personae as a model for living my life, for anything other than transformability. Yes, mutation/adaptation is a model, a profound one, for living, and it’s good it has its champion in Bowie. But not one that says, Be a lawyer, be a plumber, be an academic, don’t be a high-brow, be an activist, be a glam queen, be a Buddhist monk, be an artist. It wasn’t the model of sustained mentorship. And yet he did sustain me, he has been there in a sustained way throughout my life, and there was never any shame in looking back to the time he loomed larger in my life than he seems to now. (Though frankly, quite frankly, these words belie that fadeout effect; they testify to the subtlety of the changes my relationship to him have undertaken.) At some point, I wanted to get on with life, such as it was, and I left that sheltered world of music, of my white, middle-class, U.S. teenage indulgence in listening to music all day long to the exclusion of actually accomplishing or learning anything, regardless of its use value. I took to the road, then, reluctantly, went to college. I’m a bad Bowie fan. 1/3

Unknown said...

The last Bowie LP I even listened to with care was Heroes. Lodger and Scary Monsters and Super Creeps never caught me, though I caught them in the sense that I didn’t miss their release. By the time they’d appeared, I’d been hitchhiking throughout Europe, East and West (there was a wall then), and had sold my record collection to subsidize that journey. So I’d in a way given up on sedentary music listening and just went with whatever came my way for several years. I don’t know Heathens, or Tin Machine, or Outsider, or anything really since the last brief flirtation with Scary Monsters, listening to which I experienced more as bending to peer pressure: “You’re a Bowie fan. You just gotta listen to Scary Monsters. Now he’s singing that Major Tom is a junky. Trip, man.” So I don’t feel like a good Bowie fan. And I can’t honestly relate, though I want to at some level, to the many testimonies I’ve been reading that liking Bowie has to be a lifelong obsession, some no-holds-barred teeth grinding obsession that expresses itself in listening to Blackstar all weekend. I don’t make the grade on that count, and I’m okay with that.
Which complicates my mourning, frankly. I spent all of Monday reading stuff—starting at 3:15ish a.m. EST after my lesbian partner Y woke me up to tell me the bad news, and starting again at about 9:30 a.m. when I woke up for the day. All day reading articles, blogs, tweets by celebrities, whatever I could find online. I watched a couple of great interviews (Iggy and Bowie on Dinah Shore) and performances (Bowie and Ava Cherry—hoot man, that’s a lesson in groove!—on Dick Cavett) that I’d never seen. (Youtube ’em, you’ll be happy you did.) I’d like to see more and listen to albums. Just not now. I’m writing now.
Now that I’m writing, writing my thesis, writing this, I see that the issue isn’t so much Bowie as that I’ve loosened up on that aspect of my past. And I hold a curious and skeptical stance toward idols. I don’t need to read others’ tributes or hero build-ups. I’m not a member of the club. Anyway, Heroes was really about disestablishing external heroes (romantic, political, parental, whatever) and becoming your own person—maybe not even a hero. Maybe just a person, another in the ranks—or hosts—of all the young dudes yearning for snappy street love and trying to turn a dollar. Like one of the many I’s in Whitman, the one that belonged, for a spell, to you and you alone; and then it didn’t any more. In that project of disestablishing heroes (and phoney heroic locales: remember, Heroes was recorded in a divided Berlin still occupied by U.S., British, French, and Soviet troops), Heroes aimed at what psychoanalysis aims at: scrutinizing the identifications that are useful at a certain point in one’s life and dismantling others, especially the ones that are no longer useful, definitely the ones that are doing harm. It’s about recognizing change and unplugging idolatry. In a weird way, it’s about radically cultivating the plastic-elastic attitude of childhood in order to grow up—if that makes any sense. 2/3

Unknown said...

For a time, when I was a teenager, “Changes” was everywhere to be heard. I didn’t know who sang it, but you could hear it everywhere. I had a radio beside my bed that I’d listen to a lot. It must have been on that, though I have no concrete memories of hearing it there. I remember this, though: it was in the car too. The tinny radio in that old, decrepit wasted-looking red VW bug I had back then played it. So it’s driving around with me in Houston and I can almost feel myself changing and it describing that changing as it’s happening. That’s a feat. And still, I’m hearing the song without really knowing, or caring, who made it. Or who’s changing. You just kind of sing along, y’know? Then, a couple of years later (and years are eons when you’re a teenager, remember?), I get the LP and delight finally to know the name, Bowie, and to own the song on that LP, and to love the LP which is uneven yet fabulous in its threadbare coherence. (It’s that coherence that for me makes Hunky Dory his first real album rather than an assemblage of singles.) The music was always more important than the words or the names or the authors. That’s how I experienced it. — It takes so long to catch up to yourself, to know you’ve been what you are before now, even if you couldn’t acknowledge it. Queer, buddhist or postbuddhist, middle-class, poetry geek, vagabond, whatever. Seeing the suppressed affinities, and catching this song, this LP, that vibe alone in my room with the radio, and seeing this all now, I know, “Yes, that’s what I am, for the time being at least.” That’s what this music does, what it recognizes. It’s older than me and I’ve been born into it. Its familiarity is as familiar as its unfamiliarity. That’s all I’ve got to go on, it’s the closest I’ll come to knowing before I die. “Knowledge comes with death’s release,” he sings on “Quicksand.”
But it isn’t the song or the songs, it isn’t the scenes or the new looks, it isn’t who you are fucking or what you stand for or whether you have heard the latest Bowie release. It is the passing. It is passing on to someone you thought just might get it, now or somewhere down the line when you’re just a faint memory. Passing on isn’t an achievement or a product, it’s a communal activity grounded in a kind of love. Passing on is how we weave who we are becoming, together.

Thanks, Dennis, for the inspiration to write. The length is all on me. As the master says, Love on ya!

Unknown said...

Well though-out essay, Dennis! — Mooneyham

Perry said...

Nicely written. Never knew you were a Bowie fan...quick, what's the correct answer to "Beatles or Stones?".

Of course, it's Lou Reed.

Unknown said...

Pretty awesome account of your trip😃