Culture

David Bowie: Renaissance Man

Bowie in 1987 (Betrand Guay/AFP/Getty)

On January 11, the world awoke to terrible news: David Bowie, the creator of such culturally ubiquitous landmarks as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans, “Heroes,” and Let’s Dance, had passed away from liver cancer after an 18-month illness. Almost universally, Bowie was eulogized as one of rock and roll’s greatest stars — as a unique, evergreen talent who managed to keep his music fresh, relevant, and disarmingly weird for nearly 50 years.

These eulogies are wholly justified. And yet, amid the paeans and the praise, it’s easy to forget just how reviled Bowie was during the Seventies and Eighties, especially in the world’s more fashionable quarters. People who are different are often people who are disliked, and what set Bowie apart from so many others of his era was the very thing that made him so immediately polarizing during his heyday: his refusal to treat music as a simple end in itself, but rather as the leading facet of a life centered in all ways around art — and particularly the art (both classical and modern) of self-fashioning his identity through his work.

This led many critics (Americans in particular) to loathe him with a passion that was usually reserved for disease-ridden vermin and Republicans. His openly theatrical affectations, his emphasis on fashion and the visual arts as well as music, and his steady maintenance of a layer of ironic detachment from his musical subject matter (at least until the ice began to crack midway through Station to Station) were all at one point treated as a direct affront to the true, putatively working-class heart of rock music. And so, even as he was helping to revive the careers of several ostensibly more “authentic” artists (Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople, Iggy Pop), he was more often than not derided by American cognoscenti as inherently fake, or even worse, ghoulish: a pale Nosferatu-like creature insidiously feeding off of the vitality and essence from those more “real” than him.

Such critical misapprehensions (many of which linger on even now; the lazily reductivist line is that Bowie was a “musical chameleon”) were perhaps inevitable, coming as they did from critics who could not understand the world he emerged from, could not grasp the influences he drew upon, and could not comprehend the way in which he shaped his experiences into the fuel of his artistic aspirations. Bowie (born David Jones, a name he might have kept had not a certain Monkee beaten him to worldwide fame) came from a solidly working-class background in London, but he was always fascinated by both the beguiling rhythmic and sexual appeal of rock music and the intellectualized pleasures of the stage in equal measure. It is telling that, after years of fronting failed blues-rock bands in the mid-Sixties, he turned not to new musical pursuits but to developing his physical performance skills as a mime.

RELATED: Don’t Rewrite History: David Bowie Was a Humorous Rebel, Not a Social Activist 

As silly as the idea of David Bowie achieving stardom in the field of pantomime must seem now — videos do exist, and yes, they are quite twee to modern sensibilities — this willingness to pursuit art for art’s sake was precisely what would come to define him. Strictly speaking, the miming went nowhere. But his ability to retain and incorporate all of the lessons he had learned would, eventually, become his calling card. As a live performer, Bowie was transfixing — irrespective of the set design. Later in life, he would credit this to the physical control and body-awareness he had learned studying mime.

For Bowie, sexuality was an opportunity for transgressive public self-definition.

The infamous gender-bending of the “Ziggy Stardust” era is best understood along these lines. Most assuredly, David Bowie was an openly bisexual man. But the homosexual experimentation of the late ’60s and early ’70s represented not the sort of determined Identity Statement to which we have now grown accustomed, but a reaction to his artistic milieu. For Bowie, sexuality was an opportunity for transgressive public self-definition — an endless source that could be aestheticized and recontextualized into artistic terms. However it might look today, the playful gender-bending on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World or the Ziggy Stardust era was a statement that served multiple purposes, all artistic: the bold transgression of accepted mores; the expression of a personal comfort with alternate sexuality; and — by no means least important — the excuse to make a publicity-garnering stir in the musical press. This is why, when Bowie “went heterosexual” around the time of Let’s Dance (remember him frolicking in the surf with that Asian beauty in the video for “China Girl?”) and later married the supermodel Iman, the LGBT community’s cries of betrayal were so misplaced. Like so many others, they didn’t understand that Bowie’s original glam-rock homosexuality was as much an artistic decision — made for the purposes of selling an aesthetic vision — as a statement of personal belief.

#share#Which, inevitably, brings us back again to the question of sincerity that is never far from the center of any discussion of David Bowie’s art. The root problem with most Bowie retrospectives is that they inevitably treat his devotion to musical and aesthetic mutation as evidence that, like his brief “homosexual” phase, he was ultimately doing little more than putting on a mask. Depending on the provocation, the details of this argument change a little. But the thrust is always the same: Bowie’s “heart was never really in it,” his critics charge, “the whole thing was one pose after another.”

This, to put it bluntly, is sheer nonsense. The only time that Bowie could truly be said to have been playing a fabricated “character” was during the Ziggy Stardust years of 1972–1973, and even then Ziggy was half an artifice and half a very real reflection of Bowie’s yearning to achieve transcendent, culture-upending pop stardom. Beyond that, though, his work was invariably encoded with a deep and self-lacerating vein of personal confession that was more Neil Young than Neil Diamond. That this was inevitably filtered through the lens of Bowie’s relentless quest for new sounds — and, at times, through his esoteric literary, historical, artistic, and philosophical obsessions — should not disguise the essentially introspective nature of his music. Bowie wrote for the world, but he also wrote for himself, about himself, and in pursuit of the world around him. With the exception of a short period of pop complacency during the 1980s, he rarely, if ever, plucked random themes from the ether in order to rush an album out.

Bowie felt a need to retain control and to hold at least something back from his audience.

Although 1975’s Young Americans is often written off as a flabby “plastic soul” stab at American chart success, the record nevertheless hides a series of remarkably bitter, dark reflections on the toxicity of his lifestyle. (It is telling that the song that makes this theme explicit — “Fame” — was a last-second addition, an afterthought almost.) Indeed, from start to finish, the LP does its utmost to conceal its meanings. With “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” Bowie wrote a prescient song about his fear of the rise of Trump-like pop-fascism and then drenched it in Philly-style soul saxophones, bubblegum singing girls, and a title that would throw all but the most dedicated analyst off the trail. Clearly, Bowie felt a need to retain control and to hold at least something back from his audience: In “Who Can I Be Now?” he offered a naked confession of moral and mental confusion, and then dropped it from the record for fear of giving away too much.

The famous “Berlin Trilogy” (Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger, recorded between 1976 and 1979) is even stronger proof of the surprising balance Bowie struck between outward form and artifice, and inward confession. Those three LPs, which he recorded with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti while extricating himself from a crippling drug addiction, were transparent acts of musical therapy. Occasionally, Bowie’s need to withhold something of himself clouds the self-revelation, as on the cheerfully bouncy-sounding “Sound & Vision,” whose lyric is actually about the lonely search for inspiration while living as a convalescent shut-in, and on “Heroes,” one of Bowie’s most iconic songs. As its shimmering instrumentation makes clear, “Heroes” was intended as a soaring statement of triumph, and yet Bowie couched the song’s title in ironic quotation marks — perhaps as a way of suggesting that such triumphs are inevitably fleeting and usually purely personal. (At other times, however, he was willing to be frank: There are few more tidy lyrical metaphors for one’s repeated inability to avoid making the same mistakes as Low’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car.”)

The world of popular music — indeed, the world of art writ large — is indescribably poorer for his departure.

These were no accidents. With few exceptions, Bowie’s career operated along the lines laid out above: First, he drew a world of disparate influences together; next, he ruminated upon them obsessively; and, finally, he reflected them outward in music that revealed nearly as much as it concealed. That he was able to so frequently universalize this — to write about his own obsessions and yet make listeners feel as though he was speaking to and for them — is the greatest tribute I can pay him. Remarkably, even at his drug-fueled nadir, he never lost control of who he was, or what he wanted to be. He wore many faces, but he never lost his self-control or his self-possession.

And it is that simple truth that made Bowie’s death such a profoundly moving thing: He died exactly in the same way he lived his life. Many among us would be forgiven for announcing their terminal cancer and collecting the world’s accolades while we still had time to enjoy them. David Bowie did no such thing. Instead, he suffered in private, with friends and family, and he crafted a final musical testament.

The world of popular music — indeed, the world of art writ large — is indescribably poorer for his departure. He was, without doubt, one of modern culture’s last true Renaissance men — a man who dedicated himself to self-fashioning a whole and indivisible artistic legacy as a tribute to a life lived in service of the muse. Unafraid to experiment, fearlessly literary, and indifferent to the artificial lines that are drawn between highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, Bowie’s life stands as a testament to a man who refused to let himself be buffeted about by the winds of anything but his own inspiration. The quiet and dignified manner in which he took leave of this mortal coil was in keeping with the way he lived on it. We shall not look upon his like again for a very long time indeed.

— Jeffrey Blehar is an attorney and analyst with the Ace of Spades HQ Decision Desk. He lives in Chicago.

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