Tuesday, January 12, 2016

More on David Bowie

When not working on my Tax Policy Colloquium (which starts next week) or my book on literature and high-end inequality (I'm currently having fun with Stendhal's The Red and the Black), I've found myself mulling over David Bowie's career and death, and what he meant and means to me - at this point, more than any surviving Rock God from days of yore, apart from Dylan, who is obviously very different.

Herewith a few random reflections:

1) "A whole new school of pretension" - Bowie in 1973 or so famously said that he had already authored a whole new school of pretension. I didn't hear about this quote until some time later, but it was part of his image from the start.

I didn't naturally have a huge interest in the theatricality and the characters, but what I did find striking from early on was the commentary on / contrast with the rock 'n' roll ideal from the 1960s of being totally "authentic." This was a credo I thought I believed in. But someone like Springsteen, who carried it forward in the 1970s so resolutely and reverently, I found less interesting and provocative than someone like Bowie, who audaciously challenged it.

One could think of the Beatles as having pioneered the idea of pop music staying fresh, and changing from album to album, by reason of the writers' organic evolution.  Bowie, in a sense, made a mockery of this, by instead making disjunctive stylistic jumps from one album to another.  But again, despite my liking the prior model, I also liked its being transformed or subverted in this way.  Of course, it helped that Bowie did so many of his new styles so well.

2) "To be played at maximum volume" - Those words appeared prominently on the back of Ziggy Stardust, and were no small part of this album's eventual appeal to me.

Again, as a Beatles-Stones mid-1960s classicist (although I was  young for this role), I had thought things got less interesting with the rise, say, of groups such as Creedence Clearwater Revival (although I liked them OK) and CSNY.  I also was left cold by the prog rockers such as Jethro Tull and Yes.  (I remember a debate with a prog rock-loving friend of mine regarding whether the best new song on the Beatles' Yellow Submarine album was "It's All Too Much," his choice, or "Hey Bulldog," which I liked much better.)

Bowie may have toyed with intellectual pretension (albeit to his artistic benefit, overall), but he was much less prone to windy musical pretension.  His early-70s music often matched the urgency and directness of great 1960s forebears, and thus (like the punk and new wave music that started coming out later in the decade) was very easy for one with my musical foundations to embrace.

Obviously, another huge part of Bowie's image in those days was the exploration of different sexual roles and gender identities.  I was too straight-laced, as was my milieu insofar as I knew, for this to matter to me as directly as it did to all those people, and I know now that there were many of them, who felt personally validated and empowered by it.  But again, it meant to me that he was interesting and creative and different.

It also importantly saved Bowie from a particular niche that I probably would have disliked even then. A big part of the appeal of an album such as Ziggy Stardust was that it spoke to teenage, and to a considerable extent teenage boy, angst. I thought of it from early on as the type of thing kids who feel alienated from school or the parents or the culture play "at maximum volume" in their rooms, with the door closed.  But loud music for teenage boys can be too bro / jock / frat boy to hit the dissident gene unless there is something there that feels outrageous or transgressive, which Bowie of course had.  Again, I think of Springsteen, decent joe though he always was, as the contrast that I found less interesting despite his classicism, authenticity, compassion, etcetera.

3) Catch-22 and beyond - In those days, unless radio stations or roommates' / neighbors' / friends' record collections came to the rescue, I had a Catch-22 issue with buying new records by artists I wasn't familiar with.  I didn't want to buy new records unless I'd like them, but I couldn't know if I'd like them unless I bought them.  (I think this was a combination of limited budget, not wanting to make a "mistake," and figuring there was just too much out there to know which things to try first.)  So I'd heard about Bowie, but I didn't take the plunge until 1976 when his first greatest hits collection, Changesonebowie, came out.

This I did partly because Tom Carson, a writer on pop culture who was always in the college newspaper, a couple of years older than me and clearly a hipster in waiting, kept writing these raves about Bowie.  (I knew who Carson was, as he was a prominent campus figure, but I didn't know him personally.) It got to be funny.  Not only did he rave about Bowie when he was writing about Bowie, but it seemed like he would write, in effect, "What a beautiful sunny day. It reminds me of how great all of Bowie's albums are."  (Only so much snark is intended here, however - I did regard Carson as someone to take notes from.)

I finally figured: OK, fine, I'll give up and actually buy a Bowie album, especially now that I can cream-skim via the greatest hits.

I liked Changesonebowie right away (although soon, of course, I transitioned to buying the actual albums), and for a while was continually playing it in rotation with another record that I got at the same time, Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy.  These, you might say, are the two records that really got me ready for the punk / new wave movement when it hit the next year (via Television, the Talking Heads, Blondie (first album), the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Elvis Costello - to name the ones I liked best at that time).  So thanks in part to Bowie for all that.

BTW, I couldn't resist checking online what Tom Carson might have to say now about Bowie's death.  (I figured he'd have some expressive vehicle at hand, and it turns out he's on Twitter.)  Sure enough, he had tweeted the following: "I only have one request for the gods today: let David Johansen outlive me. Bowie I can (barely) handle, but never David Jo."

Watch it there, Tom - this wish could be fulfilled in multiple ways, some of them better for you than others.

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