Within the meticulously staged anti-establishment model of the rock world, David Bowie led a kind of anti-anti-establishment. Mostly, he disdained the brooding introspection of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, or Bruce Springsteen, and
the political posturing that accompanied it. Instead of digging deep, he kept creating more surfaces, rolling out new editions of himself like a crazily inconsistent magazine. Rather than urging us to recognize his authenticity, he reveled in theatricality. “I was always quite a shy kid and I didn’t come alive on stage, I got even shyer,” he says, in an interview captured in the new HBO documentary David Bowie: The Last Five Years. “I found I didn’t get so shy if I sort of adopted a character. So it was a convenience as well as a very bright theatrical idea.”
Although in the 1980s Bowie stopped posing as a gloomy harlequin or albino aristocrat and settled on the look of a hip CAA agent, his restlessness infused him with enduring youth. He was every faddish teen who dons new personalities as though rifling through the racks at the costume store, insisting, “I reject your labels. I’m simply and defiantly me.” To a certain kind of arty youth in the 1970s, he was something like the intergalactic, androgynous rock Pope. As much as anyone, he touched off what is now a 40-plus-year obsession with gender fluidity in the arts.
Two years after his death, though, it’s still hard to pin down the person beneath all those personas. The Last Five Years, which is composed mainly of chats with bandmates and archival footage, including old interviews with its chief subject, moves us a bit closer to understanding the man. But only a bit. Even in death, Bowie remains inscrutable, partly because of the one trait all rock stars seem to share: an obsession with image control. The bass player from his 2011 album The Next Day says that when she was invited to work on it she was told, “If I said anything about it, I would be in big trouble, legally.” The graphic designer for another album says that when he and Bowie discussed the work on the phone, it was agreed the record would be referred to as “the table,” lest anyone listening in discover the secret that a musician was making more music. It seems clear from the doc that Bowie’s hired sidemen didn’t know him well and are slightly skittish to open their mouths even now. One remarks matter-of-factly that Bowie didn’t look good when he performed in Hamburg on June 25, 2004, and recalls watching as an ambulance came to collect the artist after what turned out to be his last full-length concert. He had suffered a mild heart attack, and would all but disappear from public view for the next seven years.
Despite occasional exceptions, such as his 1980 addiction confession “Ashes to Ashes,” Bowie resisted the rock-star imperative to bare his soul. Vaguely defined alienation was a favorite theme, but it often came across as another pose, a pretext for his runway-show eccentricity. Perhaps the most quintessentially David Bowie music video ever made is not “Ashes to Ashes,” starring the rocker as a strung-out Pagliacci, but the achingly funny spoof “Bowie’s in Space,” by Flight of the Conchords. Bowie’s galactic-wanderer shtick, whether set in the heavens (the 1969 song “Space Oddity”) or on terra firma (the 1976 movie The Man Who Fell to Earth), came to seem like a hopelessly fixed futurism.
On his last two albums, The Next Day (2013) and Black Star (2016), as well as the off-Broadway stage musical Lazarus, whose December 2015 opening marked his last public appearance, Bowie finally shifted his gaze inward. It turned out that some of his fondest memories were of Berlin in the 1970s, when he luxuriated in a break from celebrity while living anonymously in a Turkish neighborhood, and of an early girlfriend, Hermione Farthingale, who left him for an actor she met while making a film called Song of Norway. In the single for his 2013 song, “Where Are We Now?” Bowie wears a t-shirt that reads “Song of Norway.” So the world’s most fabulous rock star had a Charlie Brown-style fixation on his own Little Red-Haired Girl. At 66, he was less alien than ever before. And the most relentlessly forward-looking, obsessively youthful of artists discovered, like most of us who live past 50, that the pangs of nostalgia won’t be denied any more than the joint pains.
By the time Black Star and Lazarus were launched, nearly simultaneously, there was little left to say but goodbye. Bowie shot his last music video, for the song “Lazarus,” in October of 2015, the same week he learned that nothing more could be done about his cancer. The video finds him blindfolded in a hospital bed, wailing, “Look up here, man, I’m in danger.” In the musical play, loosely adapted from The Man Who Fell to Earth, a celebrity alien’s death frees his soul to wander from this planet. It’s a lovely parting image of Bowie, but perhaps the epitaph that closes the documentary is even more suitable for a man who had glitter running through his veins: “I’d love people to believe,” Bowie once said, “that I really had great haircuts.”