Tuesday, 12 January 2016

How I learned to love David Bowie

My first thought when I read that David Bowie had died echoed Metternich’s apocryphal response to the death of Talleyrand: “And what did he mean by that?”

My second was that the whole production and release of his new album, Blackstar, and the preceding singles and videos had been an elaborate piece of theatre designed to frame his death in the most dramatic and climactic way possible. Bravo, sir.

Creeping in behind these two thoughts was a gradual, sickening realisation that I was truly, genuinely in pain at the news.

The social media tributes that inevitably gush forth upon the death of a well-known musician always make me feel a little uncomfortable. I will sometimes give a little online salute to an artist who had an effect on me, and I certainly don’t wish ill of anyone else who does the same. Everyone experiences music in their own way and who am I to judge their feelings for an artist invalid, but at the same time, the very individuality of that experience is what can make the collective expression of grief at these moments feel so strange and jarring with me.

Music exists at a strange nexus between individual and collective experience, which often manifests itself in a sort of tribalism. You seek something that speaks to you personally, but at the same time, this process of identification grants you membership of a group or tribe, which then further channels your sense of identification towards certain kinds of artists.

When people say they aren’t influenced by this kind of stuff and just “like what they like”, it is usually because the tribe they are members of is so dominant that they rarely encounter its edges except as a curiosity they are easily able to ignore, dismiss or compartmentalise.

David Bowie confuses all those boundaries. He is (I still cannot think of him in the past tense: his presence fills everything right now) an artist who inabits so many worlds and has touched so many people in so many ways that the possibility of some kind of universal collective experience feels completely impossible to me.

Nick Currie (aka Momus) in his moving reaction to the news described Bowie’s death as “our Diana moment”, but who is “us”? For Currie, Bowie was the flash of light that illuminated grim 1970s Britain, the “best and only friend” for a generation of misshapes and misfits. To me growing up in the ‘90s, the misshapes were just another clique I wasn’t cool enough to hang out with; meanwhile Bowie was an elder statesman of classic rock, and everyone loved him, even as they tried to pretend his more recent work didn’t exist.

To the Britpop generation I was growing up in, the ‘80s had ruined Bowie, and his contemporary work was a musical mid-life crisis: an interesting but misguided attempt to reclaim his edge. Still, the height of the era, when the NME polled musicians on their greatest influences, Bowie came top, towering over The Beatles, Stones, Dylan.

And it made sense. No one after about 1970 ever made any interesting music under the primary influence of The Beatles or Stones, but nearly all my favourite bands growing up had Bowie deeply embedded in their DNA – Blur, Super Furry Animals and Pulp of course, not to mention the sweaty glam swagger of the defiantly un-Britpop but nonetheless contemporary Earl Brutus.

Like many kids my age, I’d grown up with Let’s Dance on my parents’ turntable, and the film Labyrinth on the TV. This wasn’t such a bad way to encounter him really, but it was through these British ‘90s bands that I started investigating his albums in earnest.

Honestly, I didn’t get it. I couldn’t identify with the freaky personas he adopted, growing up in an era when being a gender-bending alien pop superstar was normal to the point of being banal for the UK charts. I liked Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs fine, but they never clicked with me. They were better than other classic rock, but they were still classic rock, and like Led Zeppelin, The Who or Jimi Hendrix, I wasn’t quite able to find my own way in. I could take the bus tour with all the other tourists, but I had too limited a map of my own identity to be able to navigate my way; I lacked the tools to unlock my own individual path in. Heroes, meanwhile, was just plain terrifying: a cold, scratchy, metallic panic attack of an album built around a single elegaic rock anthem. It intrigued me, but I rarely had the courage to listen to it: it was too much too soon.

Bowie went onto the backburner. When I moved to Japan, Ziggy and Diamond Dogs came with me just in case I needed them, while Heroes stayed at home. I didn’t buy any others for a long time.

In the meantime, however, I’d fallen deeply in love with postpunk bands like Wire, The Teardrop Explodes and XTC, and my experiences in the dark, smoky live halls of Tokyo had brought me face to face with what felt at the time like impossibly uncompromising and avant-garde bands such as Nisennenmondai, Saladabar, Panicsmile and bands I started working with myself through my own label, like Hyacca – some of which made Bowie’s most experimental records sound ridiculously timid (and these bands were themselves by no means extreme by the standards of the scene). It wasn’t always music that translated well to record, but those experiences in a live environment worked quickly, training my ears and body to respond to sounds far removed from the pop and rock conventions I’d been used to.

Part of that is the Stockholm Syndrome of being in a dark room with no easy escape, forced to experience horrible sounds at oppressive volume – you start to find pop appeal in even the tiniest crumbs the artists decide to cast your way. That doesn’t mean that those crumbs are any less real though, and a realisation grew in me that music was at its most magical an experience when the process was collaborative: where the musician did not simply provide a service to the audience, but actually demanded some work of them too.

Those experiences in the Japanese experimental underground, those hours upon hours watching bands and their audiences in this subtle psychic courtship, also taught me to look inside the music, cracking open the case and looking at the gears and springs inside. I don’t mean this in a strictly technical sense – I’m every bit the non-musician I was when I started – so much as in how I analysed and related to the creative process. Why did they put this bit here, and why did they repeat that bit? Why is he making the guitar go skronk instead if squeeeee?

The artists I liked from the punk era were mostly ones who made music simple enough that the gears and springs were easily visible. Even if their lyrics were impossibly opaque, Wire’s music in particular was an open toolkit, with the creative decisions laid out for anyone with a passing acquaintance with punk and rock’n’roll to see. This was music that even as it seemed to push you away with its confrontational rejection of pop appeal, simultaneously invited you to poke around in its most intimate internal workings. Writing about music helped too, of course, forcing me to engage with music on the level of the creative intentions behind it as well as simply whether I liked it or not. Together, British postpunk, Japanese avant-garde rock and my own music writing helped give me a new way of thinking about music, with this attempt to engage with the process at its core.

It was around this time that I found my way back into Bowie with a vengeance, and the album that finally cracked him for me was Aladdin Sane.

The opening track, Watch That Man, is a pretty straightforward Rolling Stones strut. Bowie was always a better Jagger than Jagger ever was though – both more masculine and faggier all at once, a freewheeling sexuality allowing his lyrics to travel to more fantastical places for their lack of grounding in what, for all his transgressiveness by ‘60s standards, remained Mick Jagger’s standard meat-and-two-veg. So far, so Ziggy, except for the moment a few minutes in where the beat starts to break down and the honky tonk piano strays from its clomping chords and begins to wander hither and thither all over the final section of the song.

It was only in the next song, the album’s title track, that I really started to understand what this meant. The way it combined the metronomic, repetitive bassline (borrowed from The Kinks' Tired of Waiting for You) with freeform jazz piano that took the meanderings that Watch That Man had hinted at as a starting point to leap completely out of the world of anything I understood as conventional rock music. The wailing sax in the background brought back to mind the farting hamster sounds I had mocked as a teenager on the track Neukölln from Heroes, an album I was now starting to regret leaving behind.

Panic in Detroit was a masterpiece that was both a magnificent rock song and like absolutely nothing I had ever heard, and where Bowie had bettered Jagger on Watch That Man, he slayed him stone cold dead on his spiky, proto-new wave cover of The Stones’ Let’s Spend The Night Together.

At around this time, I was playing with my friend Grant in a band called Rizla Deutsch. Grant was at a similar stage in his own journey into Bowie (in his case working backwards from Scary Monsters), and hanging out with him we gave each other elaborate sales pitches for the opposing ends of of the '70s (read Grant's own reminiscences here). It became clear that I needed to reacquaint myself with those late ’70s albums that had previously felt if not exactly intimidating, at least fairly inessential, and now that Aladdin Sane had given me the key, I suddenly found myself able to explore them with a new freedom. Suddenly, songs like Golden YearsSound and Vision and “Heroes” felt less like rare successes on otherwise inadequate albums than like poppy excursions from the real business of the record, like when Wire would casually toss a Mannequin or Outdoor Miner onto one of their albums just to show how easily they could do proper pop songs if they wanted to.

It was these albums, with their deconstructions of pop and rock song structures, with their willingness to show you a glimpse inside the process, that finally gave me a joy I could call my own with David Bowie’s music – that I was able to find something that felt like it had been made just for me. And then once in, I began to find in the quirks and flourishes those same patterns, the same mind at work in his other albums. Music that I had before found merely great now felt personal.

The way Bowie’s now-final album, Blackstar, came together, choreographed to first cryptically announce his death and then to serve as both his headstone and resurrection, hit me harder than I could have ever expected.

While I had finally found my own way into his music, I knew I had to share him with so many other people, all loving his work in their own ways, many of whom hated his weird Berlin records as arty and inaccessible, or considered their experimentalism juvenile and pretentious, or lamented his exploitation of more genuinely innovative German musicians of the period. People who loved him for Ziggy, for Let’s Dance, for his late-‘60s hippy folk albums, his plastic soul, for his ‘90s industrial albums, his Davey Jones mod records, they all have a claim on him.

Part of his importance as an artist was the way he forces listeners out of their comfort zones if they want to stick with him. To be a fan, you have to be openminded enough to listen to and find enjoyment in all kinds of stuff. At the same time, though, there’s always going to be one album, one period, one act in his theatre that feels like home for you.

If there is one thing the news of David Bowie’s death has really taught me, it’s that my favourite album of his is Heroes. It’s a naive album in many ways – an avant-garde work by someone clumsily coming to terms with the tools of avant-garde music – but this is its appeal to me. Songs like Joe The Lion and Blackout, which I found impossibly claustrophobic as a teenager, now fizz with energy for me, the way the vocals run ramshackle over the song, Bowie himself mimicking with his voice the freeform piano that woke me up to Aladdin Sane, the songs constantly seeming on the verge of total collapse. The sax on Neukölln still sounds ridiculous to me, but now it feels impressive in its fuck-you audacity.

“Heroes” itself is the only song that doesn’t really feel belongs to me. I’ve stood outside the Hansa Tonstudio building where it was recorded, and looked across at where the Wall would have run, and I can’t see the entwined lovers, feel their passionate, desperate moment. I can’t step inside the song and fully feel the cold edge of reality: instead I feel a soft, velvet-coated anthem to vague and intangible sentiments. It’s a great song and one I’m happy to enjoy together with the world, but somewhere inside me I know it’s too perfect, too creamy: I can’t see the gears.

The sudden appearance of the ten-minute Blackstar in November of last year should have given me warning of what was to come: it blew apart all my expectations and left me feeling lightheaded for the rest of the day. Sure, it wasn’t really as original as all that – Bowie was never an innovator so much as a very imaginative thief – but that couldn’t diminish the thrill I felt on hearing it. It’s a track that would have impressed me coming from anyone, but coming from Bowie it felt like a special gift just for me: a belated first experience of what I imagine every week must have felt like back in the ’70s; a tour round some of the finest moments of the years 1976-79 that importantly retained the same restless urge to keep stepping forward onto new ground. I had never expected a new David Bowie song would have the power to affect me in such a way.

One of the most incisive critiques of Bowie’s work I’ve ever read came from one of his biggest fans, Nick Currie/Momus. Not having the exact phrase to hand, I hope you’ll forgive me paraphrasing, but the essential point I took was that Bowie’s instincts were at heart pretty conservative, and that he only really flirted with the avant-garde when his back was up against the wall, faced with the choice between change and irrelevance. The tension between those two urges – Bowie’s career is a constant balancing act between the individual and the collective experience for himself just as much as for his audience – is part of what makes him such an exciting artist, but ever since reading Momus’ remarks, I’ve always kept a curious eye on the circumstances surrounding any of Bowie’s turns into the leftfield.

That he chose to take one of those left turns so decisively with his final album feels significant. He didn’t want to be remembered with a contented, crowdpleasing, commercial sounding coda. Many took The Next Day as a sign of him coming to terms with his past and legacy, but Blackstar returns to some of the claustrophobia and panic of Heroes, without the sweetener of the torch song title track.

I delayed buying the full album on its day of release and it’s a decision I will always regret, because I’ll now never have had the experience of listening to it free from the knowledge of what it portends. What would I trade just to have that experience of listening to it through in a state of innocence? Three days’ worth of memories? Easily.

But here it is, and it is what it is. I’m listening to the last album David Bowie will ever make, and I’m devastated. But at the same time, I’m selfishly elated. He made an album for me, and he did it in my lifetime. Not only that, but he made it his farewell to the world – his bid for resurrection and immortality – and disappointed thousands of people in the process. A little part of me glories in that: I feel chosen.

Of course David Bowie left us with an embarrassment of riches by which to remember him, and my social media timelines have been swamped with tributes of all kinds, from all kinds of people, all kinds of fans. I don’t know that I agree with Momus about this being the “Diana moment” for all the misshapes – there are too many Bowies, too many ways to remember him, and even if we pool our cathartic tributes across all our Facebook walls, we will still be alone. At the end of this 3,000-word essay, neither you nor I will not be any less alone.

Yesterday as I sat watching the tributes crawl past the screen in front of me, still trying to come to terms with the fact that I even had the capacity to be left this stunned and bereft by the death of a 69-year-old pop singer, I got a text from a friend suggesting we go out to karaoke. Singing along to a couple of dozen parping midi versions of his hits with a small group of friends felt right in the end – a balance of the individual and collective experience that filled a need I didn’t know I’d had.

1 comment:

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