Monday, January 11, 2016

Dead Bowie

A Google search for "Bowie" and "reinvented" gets approximately 101,000 hits. I'm surprised it didn't get many more. It's the one thing everyone says about Bowie. So it must be true?

I was a huge fan of David Bowie in my teenage years and bought every one of his 1970s records. Actually, the first two that I was aware of—Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust—came out when I was 12- and 13-years old respectively and I had no money to buy them. I remember that he became a star and the record stores put all his records on racks at the store entrance. In those days I didn't have enough money to actually buy records so I used to go listen to them at the Ottawa Public Library. They had a music-listening section where you could request a record and they'd give you headphones and you'd sit at a table that had five jacks. The librarian would write what was playing on each of the five channels on a little blackboard and you'd plug into the appropriate jack to hear your selection.

And so I spent a good portion of the confusing years of adolescence listening to David Bowie records while doing my homework at the library. Bowie wasn't my absolute favourite. I much preferred the Doors and the Rolling Stones but Morrison was dead and Keith may as well have been by 1972. Bowie was still making records and I went to the store and bought them as soon as they came out, without even waiting to hear them. And I'd get them home and be disappointed. But I took that as a sign of their genius. Operating on the medicine theory of culture in those days—it has to taste bad to actually be good for you—I worked and worked to enjoy them. And I always managed to right up until 1980, by which time I was in university, when I brought Scary Monsters and Super Creeps home and tried very hard to like it but found it empty and shallow and no amount of trying could change that.

Bowie was a charlatan. That's not an original observation. A Google search for "Bowie" and "charlatan" gets only a slightly smaller number of hits than "Bowie" and "reinvented". He never actually reinvented himself, he just repackaged the same folk-rock music in increasingly exotic trappings all his life. To the very limited extent that he managed to produce blue-eyed soul, electronic and ambient music, he did so by bringing in high-priced help to make the sound credible.

When you enter "Bowie" in the search line at You Tube right now, the top option autofill gives you is Kooks. He wrote the song shortly after his first child was born. He was, he later told an interviewer, sitting at home listening to Neil Young. It's a cute song very much in a Neil Young style. It's not worth listening to but here are some of the lyrics to give you a notion of the kind of thoughts he had when his son was born.
We bought a lot of things
to keep you warm and dry
And a funny old crib on which the paint won't dry
I bought you a pair of shoes
A trumpet you can blow
And a book of rules
On what to say to people
when they pick on you
'Cause if you stay with us you're gonna be pretty Kookie too
Well, another reason they might pick on him was because Bowie named the poor boy Zowie Bowie. It's worth noting that even at the time he was writing this, in some ways charming, song to his son, Bowie was also calculating how he could get the maximal promotional value out of the child.

His next record, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, seemed like a radical departure. Seemingly all glam rock, if you listen to it carefully, you can hear it's just folk rock with some, for the time, weird trappings. At base, though, these are acoustic-guitar-driven singer songwriter tunes.

Take out the references to "electric eyes" and "ray guns" and you're left with what may as well be a lost Neil Young song.

Here's how "Kooks" ends:
And if the homework brings you down
Then we'll throw it on the fire
And take the car downtown
This was music for a generation that didn't want to grow up. Bowie wrote songs about kids who wanted to hide out in science fiction rather than face reality and he pretended to be gay while doing it. If you felt like an outsider in high school because of the weird new feelings that adolescent sexuality was giving you, David Bowie was your man. And if you were a typical high school kid, it probably never occurred to you that every other young teen in history had struggled with exactly the same issues. Bowie told you that your time and your struggles were unique. No one else had ever had to face anything like it.

The popular term for that attitude is "narcissism" but it isn't really. Self-absorption is probably a better term as there is no pathology related to it and, this is really important, no real shame in being a teenager who imagines his rather mundane struggles in heroic terms.

What is weird, and genuinely pathological, is to still be doing it in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and sixties. And here what ought to trouble us is not Bowie himself (as a rockstar he lived his entire life in a fantasy world) but the rest of us.

Just this morning an adult self-righteously shared this image of Facebook:

Only a few hours earlier, the same adult was wallowing in self-hatred.

But this person is hardly unique. Every day, you meet people just like this person. I wonder what is missing from their lives? Here's another image that showed up in my Facebook feed this morning.

Do yourself a big favour, grow up and stop listening to kiddie music.

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