The ambiguous David Bowie

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I have been reading some of the books about Bowie in a languid fashion since he died, notably Simon Goddard’s Ziggyology and Hugo Wilken’s Low. I also read Simon Critchley’s collection, but I left it somewhere while travelling, with the notes inside. BBC4 documentaries have been watched. Dylan ]ones’ blockbuster, though, is a bridge too far.

Maybe it is in keeping with the subject matter, but Ziggyology, Simon Goddard’s “brief history of Ziggy Stardust,” lies somewhere along the line between the fairly eccentric and the absolutely barking. The concept of the book is that Ziggy Stardust is (was) real, pretty much, and that David Bowie is only a channel for him.

Somebody else

Accordingly, before he even gets to Bowie, he has worked through chapters on Beethoven, Galileo, Kepler, Gustav Holst, the Lakenheath-Bentwater’s UFO claims, Japanese kabuki, Stanley Kubrick and 2001, and the history of the British TV series Quatermass. I may have forgotten something.

But the central part of the story is about fame, the getting of it, the holding of it, the letting go. Or, in the parallel story of Marc Bolan, also referenced here, the living of it. Goddard is, I think, above all interested in the otherness of stardom: the question “What if you can become somebody else?” is a kind of refrain in the book.

Rock ‘n’ roll star

The speed with which Bowie catapulted himself from being a talented also-ran to being an international star through the medium of Ziggy Stardust is breathtaking. In January 1972, he and the band played Aylesbury Town Hall in front of a few hundred people. At the time Bowie had had just one hit single (“Space Oddity“). Roll forward to the last Ziggy Stardust concert just eighteen months later, when he pulled the plug on Ziggy live at the several-thousand seater Hammersmith Odeon, as was, and he had had another five hit singles, and significant album success. Aladdin Sane was at #1 in the album charts and he had been adding gigs to his tour schedule to meet demand.

Some of this was down to his manager, Tony deFries; some down to Bowie himself, and his willigness to absorb new ideas and to experiment with them. Not many rock stars worked with Lindsay Kemp to understand mime better.

Fear of flying

There are some other interesting elements at play here as well. Bowie had talent to burn. Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople was disbelieving when was told that Bowie, a fan of the band, was going to let the band have “All the Young Dudes” to record, and Bowie was equally generous in helping the careers of other artists he admired, such as Lou Reed (on Transformer) and Iggy Pop, even if Iggy was the more grateful of the two.

At the height of Ziggymania, in a world tour that takes in three continents, Bowie refused to fly, and so crossed the Atlantic by boat, and travelled back from Japan on a Russian steamer, the Felix Dzerzhinsky, and the trans-Siberian railway. According to Goddard, Japanese police were watching the airports after his fans had trashed a concert hall during a gig, while Bowie slipped aboard the Felix Dzerzhinsky in Yokohama. The trans-Siberian trip, and cross-country train trips in the US, might explain why the opening of Station to Station is so compelling.

Side-effects of the cocaine

Killing off Ziggy Stardust did nothing for Bowie’s psychological balance, which was always a little precarious. Young Americans and Station to Station were, famously, both recorded in a cloud of cocaine that was so dense it could easily have killed him. Instead, it just deepened his incipient paranoia.

His cure was to leave the United States to record Low and Iggy Pop’s The Passenger, initially in a French chateau, later in Berlin. Hugo Wilcken’s book on Low, one of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, actually starts with Station to Station, whose long title track can be thought of as a bridge between the white soul of Young Americans to the straight-up experimentalism of Low.

By Wilcken’s acocunt, both Bowie and Iggy Pop needed a change of scenery, and Bowie needed a change of inspiration as well. He had worked with the producer Tony Visconti before, but not with Brian Eno, whose records were becoming increasingly avant-garde. The three men made an unusual pact before they started: they agreed to work on Low with no guarantee that the record would be released.

Ears wide open

Bowie, ears wide open, had also been listening to the German electronic bands, forever labelled as “Krautrock” by those culturally tuned wags at New Musical Express. Neu!, Kraftwerk, Can and so on were not “blue jeans rock and roll”, as Kraftwerk put it, but nor were they traditional European music either.

There’s some good stuff in Wilckens’s book about Bowie’s working methods on Low, using his musicians–Carlos Alomar, Dennis David, George Murray–to get the most out of them. You don’t have to pay much attention to this to realise that he’d never have got the same new sounds out of the Ziggy band; Trevor Bolder and ‘Woody’ Woodmansey were rockers through and through. Some of the conflicts in the studio during the recording of Low were down to Eno simply not realising how good these musicians were; he’s on record as saying that until the Low sessions he’d never recorded with top-class musicians and didn’t realise what they brought into the room. In this they were spurred on by both Bowie and Visconti.

The refusal of language

Perhaps the reason why Bowie is such a compelling figure for our times is that he repeatedly embraced ambiguity: of sexuality, of course, but also culture (Europe and America) and aesthetics (art and rock). I was drawn to this thought by reading one of the last chapters in Hugo Wilcken’s book on Low, where he writes about the albim’s final track, “Subterraneans”. The lyric comes in late, and when it does, it is a string of  nonsense: “half Kurt Schwitters, half Lewis Carroll,” says Wilcken.

“The refusal of language,” he continues, “is the refusal of narrative, which is one of the themes of Low, and was one of the several contributions Eno made to Bowie’s career. “Eno got me off narrative,” Bowie said at the time. The use of cut-up as a lyric writing technique had the same effect. In doing this, Bowie was also moving away from the English popular music tradition of telling stories that he had grown up in (Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom), towards a European one. But: the refusal of narrative also leaves a space. And that space is big enough for everyone else’s stories.

 

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