Critic’s Notebook: David Bowie and the Physiology of Taste

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The Argument

David Bowie’s recent death has closed a page on music history. On a more personal level, Bowie has been a constant in my life for decades. Beyond mere 80s nostalgia (Labyrinth) or 90s nostalgia (Lost Highway, Outside, and Earthling), Bowie has been instrumental to me personally as a taste-maker. He led me down strange avenues and provided the raw material for discovery and aesthetic experimentation.

Embryo

My fascinating with David Bowie began early. I can still remember the first Bowie album I bought, sometime in the Nineties. It was a CD of Tonight (1984), an album even Bowie found to be a commercial cash-in and utterly inconsequential. Despite its questionable provenance, I still enjoyed it. The album opened with “Loving the Alien,” and contained the danceable pop nuggets, “Tonight,” and “Blue Jean.”

tonight

But even before I bought my first Bowie album, I have to rewind further. Going back to the Eighties, my first encounter with Bowie was in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986).

Labyrinth

Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal remain my favorite Eighties movies by Jim Henson. When I first watched it, I didn’t watch it because Bowie was in it, but because it was a Muppet movie. Like many of my generation, I was raised on Sesame Street. Seeing Labyrinth represented a logical extension of that childhood connection with Jim Henson’s felt characters. But I also enjoyed the movie because of its atmosphere and set design. When Jennifer Connelly’s character enters the realm of the Labyrinth, we witness a dark Gothic place. Although it wasn’t too dark, since there’s comedy and musical numbers to leaven the setting’s bleak decadence.

labyrinth

Labyrinth had the trifecta of David Bowie, Jim Henson, and Jennifer Connelly. It’s why I continue to enjoy Decadent literature and arts (Joris-Karl Huysmans, Gustave Moreau, etc.), masquerades, and Jennifer Connelly. Labyrinth would lead to me purchasing more David Bowie albums, exploring the works of Jorge Luis Borges, and seeing more Jennifer Connelly movies (like The Rocketeer).

I’m Deranged: Bowie/Lynch/Haynes

I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the mid-Nineties, graduating in the spring of 2000. During college, I accumulated more Bowie albums, but also explored his influences and those he influenced. This happened unintentionally, since album accumulation was sporadic, non-chronological, and fickle.

At Madison as an undergraduate in the film and history programs, I discovered the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, NIN, and Tool. For those who remember, the Nineties were The Darker and EdgierTM decade.

Mostly the Nineties meant this:

Part of this discovery of darker, edgier stuff included film. During my freshman year, I had the opportunity to see both an Andy Warhol Film Festival and a Surrealist Film Festival. I experienced Chelsea Girls and Un Chien Andalou. Since this was in 1996/7, I don’t mention this as some callow hipster boast. (Hipsters hadn’t yet become a caricature of themselves.) I mention these two films as formative touchstones to a personal education. (Remember: Film student.) Much like a literature major reading Dickens, Homer, and Pynchon, I approached my education the same way. Roxy Music’s famous song about how “love is a drug” has a corollary here with film. Cinema was my drug. Secure in the darkened womb of the small theater in the UW-Madison’s Humanities Building, I absorbed multiple films by Andy Warhol.

Two other films became formative touchstones during these years. The first was Lost Highway (1997), by David Lynch, and the second was Velvet Goldmine, by Todd Haynes. Lynch’s neo-noir Moebius strip of identity, alienation, and violence included music by David Bowie, Angelo Badalamenti, NIN, and Marilyn Manson. The film presented the viewer with a challenging, dreamlike, and erotic narrative.

I saw Velvet Goldmine (1998) in a small Madison art-house theater. Like Lost Highway, its narrative was lush, lurid, and lustful. It also had a killer soundtrack. I discovered T. Rex, Roxy Music, and Iggy Pop. Todd Haynes created a fantasy world where Oscar Wilde might be a space alien and manufactures a rock biopic of a David Bowie-like superstar. The backbone of the film resembles Citizen Kane, different characters giving a reporter (Christian Bale) their own skewed perspectives on Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Davies). While it didn’t work as a straightforward Bowie biopic, it operated on another level: sexual politics. Slade’s dandy/folk musician/superstar represented an alternative direction for Britain’s youth, those misunderstood both by their Tory parents and hippie brethren. Along with the HBO miniseries, Angels in America, the film was a fabulous cinematic shout of gay affirmation. It showed how gender, sexuality, and style were fluid. It made sequins, go-go boots, and glam rock revolutionary.

velvetgoldmine

My Favorite Contemporary Films, By Year, as a Madison Undergraduate

The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996)

Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)

Escape from L.A. (John Carpenter, 1996)

Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996)

Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)

Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998)

The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)

Titus (Julie Taymor, 1999)

Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)

Office Space (Mike Judge, 1999)

cutup

I’m Deranged II: Bowie/Burroughs/Ballard

Bowie’s music was about joy and discovery. Sometimes those discoveries ran on parallel tracks. When I was high school, David Cronenburg released his film adaptation of Naked Lunch, the controversial novel by William S. Burroughs. At the time, I saw the movie, then read the book. Suffice to say, I was confused, but also thrilled. Captivated by the violent, hallucinatory, and explicit imagery, I continued to read more and more Burroughs. Later I found out David Bowie used a similar writing method to William S. Burroughs.

Bowie’s lyrics have a strange suggestiveness, as if he’s approaching something beyond the verbal. His lyrics exploded conventional songwriting. The cut-up method would help him create bizarre and memorable dreamscapes like those in Diamond Dogs and Outside.

diamonddogs

With discovery comes other discoveries. Through Bowie I discovered Iggy Pop and the Stooges. Hearing Funhouse and Raw Power for the first time changed my life. It was punk rock before punk rock. Raw, turgid, rough, and loud.

After reading William S. Burroughs, I became obsessed with the Beat Movement. This led in various directions, including J.G. Ballard and Samuel Beckett. In those undergraduate years, I saw David Cronenburg’s Crash. A movie to be forever confused with that other movie of the same title. Then I read the book and more J.G. Ballard. Although Ballard had been in the science fiction writing business for decades, I most associate him with his work from the Seventies and Eighties. The novels are tough, antiseptic, and violent. Gaudy experiments like The Atrocity Exhibition led to erotic dystopias like Crash and murderous ingots of alienation like the kid-shooters-gone-crazy novella Running Wild. Ballard’s short novel is worth far more than any hand-wringing thinkpiece. It disposes the usual middlebrow niceties to look at the phenomenon of gun violence in the face.

runningwild

Embracing the Darkness: Diamond Dogs, Station to Station, Outside

David Bowie’s albums represent a clash of contrasts, creating different musical personae, and lyrical world-building. The three strongest examples are Diamond Dogs, Station to Station, and Outside.

Loving the Alien

Bowie’s work has instilled in me a constant desire to seek the alien, the strange, and the bizarre. I’ve come to approach my critical attitude as rhizaesthetic, an aesthetic attitude melded with the rhizome theory of Deleuze and Guattari. In plain English, it means I accept my critical attitude will be random and non-linear, more free associative and sensual. As I’ve said before in other writing, my attitude is promiscuous and ecumenical. This would go hand in hand with Bowie’s practice of trying out new personae, releasing albums in a myriad of musical styles, and being more “and/both” than “either/or.” Bowie also brought the highest standards to whatever he released. He wouldn’t put out anything half-assed or half-baked. Whether his audience would “get it” played out through the years as seemingly blatant commercial cash-ins took on the retrospective qualities of essential, possibly transcendent, pop. While the blog format occasionally calls for a more informal, talky style, I don’t let that informality get in the way of working hard to put out the best writing I can.

My 5 Favorite David Bowie Albums

  1. Outside (1995)

The full title is 1. Outside: the Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle. Dystopian, baroque, and grandiose, Outside had David Bowie attempting a conceptual vision he couldn’t really achieve. The album follows the story of Nathan Adler, a detective attempting to solve the art-murder of Baby Grace Blue. It seemed reminiscent of a William S. Burroughs novel, with Bowie speaking in cut-up prose and the hero wandering through a landscape of aestheticized cruelty. The outstanding song set would include “I’m Deranged,” later to be used in the opening credits of David Lynch’s Lost Highway. But I’m also the kind of person who likes grandiose ambition, even if it isn’t quite achieved. I see Outside as the connective tissue between Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979) and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) by The Smashing Pumpkins. (Although Outside and Mellon Collie were released within a month of each other.) Outside is also spiritually akin to Prince’s much-maligned kooky concept album, The Rainbow Children (2001).

  1. Diamond Dogs (1974)

Following Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups, Bowie once again goes dystopian in an album meant for a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. But like Outside, it is a heroic failure (at least in terms of the musical never getting made). The eerie yet strangely compelling cover art and the cut-up lyrics gel into a perverse musical confection. Every song hits its mark. After an eerie spoken-word “Future Legend” and the catchy “Diamond Dogs,” the album switches gears with a 3-song medley (“Sweet Thing,” “Candidate,” “Sweet Thing (Reprise)”). The medley is by turns stately, snarling, and surreal. Then as “Sweet Thing (Reprise)” is about to climax, “Rebel Rebel” belts out. Despite the danceable rhythms and sing-along hits, Diamond Dogs preserves the decayed majesty of doom.

  1. Station to Station (1976)

Cocaine. David Bowie did a lot of it for this album. Slated to accompany the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, it is another example of rollicking pop and decadent synth apocalypse. As the Thin White Duke, Bowie presides over a 10 minute opener that mutates from hallucinatory jam to foot-stomping pop. The entire album has a coked-out energy, delirious and wired. It bridges the gap between the post-Ziggy glam rock era and The Berlin Trilogy.

  1. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

What can be said that’s already been said about this album? Ambiguous, androgynous, alien; bitchy, baroque, and ballistic. As an album, it stands the test of time, reflects the era in which it was produced, and holds up to repeated listens. And to a suburban kid and green Madison undergraduate, it showed that there was something more out there. It opened me up to further weirdness in literature and the arts. Finally, it stands as one of the greatest concept albums ever produced.

  1. Tin Machine (1989)

Bowie forming Tin Machine with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, bassist Tony Sales, and drummer Hunt Sales presents an asterisk to Bowie’s storied musical career. I first saw Tin Machine on Saturday Night Live, with Macauley Culkin as the host. It represented yet another case of, “Wait, this is the same guy?” With Tin Machine, Bowie went metal and industrial. From the standpoint of critical reception and chart-topping hits, Tin Machine is more a curiosity than pop icon. After The Glass Spider Tour, Bowie seemed like a complete sellout to his fans. Tin Machine became a way of artistic reinvention. It also became a means of creative destruction. The catchy “Let’s Dance”-era pop went down in flames while growled and snarled over heavy guitars and bashing drums. This is Outside in embryo. The cutup lyrics don’t quote gel with the metal-industrial sound, but that’s hardly a criticism. When it comes to Bowie, even failures are secret triumphs. With the Tin Machine group, he would later use the same talent (Gabrels and the Sales brothers) on Outside and Earthling. The Tin Machine debut album can best be appreciated less as a finalized product than a “poet’s sketchbook.” The sketches, while slight and nebulous, will become the raw material for future masterpieces.

David Bowie: Memories and Favorites

What are your memories of David Bowie? How has he affected your tastes? In music? In film? In art? In other media? Let me know in the comments section.

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