Postmodern Conservative

Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 114: David Bowie and the Songbook

As you all know, David Robert Jones, commonly known as David Bowie, passed away earlier this week.  My sincere condolences to his loved ones. 

There is a lot to say.  One is of course free to enjoy, or to ignore, his work as simply that of one pop-star among many; but, if one engages with that work more thoughtfully, one cannot but admit that it was attempting to make various statements about our times, and one is likely to conclude, as I do, that the songs and the extra-musical aspects of his career do add up to a significant body of work, and even, to a significant mytho-poetic symbol.   Through a very postmodern artistry of pop-music and of pop-publicity, Mr. Jones crafted for us, and in sense himself merged with, the persona of David Bowie.   And that persona was, in my judgment, one of the most vivid and comprehensive symbols of the Cultural Revolution of the 60s/70s that has so shaped our times ever since. 

I notice that a number of conservatives are limiting themselves, in the wake of his death, to a commentary of mere enjoyment, and mere compliment.   Things along these lines:  “The man wrote catchy songs that I like.  He was a giant.  He did these and those nice and classy things.  It is a shame that he died when he obviously still had so much artistry left to do.” 

All true.  But, it’s sort of like saying that Beethoven was swell, or that Emerson was one smart dude. 

He was not quite in their class, but Bowie mattered.  And social conservatives, part of the reason he mattered is that he was our opponent.  A classy, beautiful, intriguing, attractive, articulate, and poetically potent opponent, but all the more damaging to our vision of the good life because of those qualities.  And while I would never deny that the seedy or otherwise pretty disturbing aspects of Bowie’s story at the height of his 70s super-stardom are irrelevant to evaluating his significance, these cannot properly be used as some social conservative ranters or fire-and-brimstone preachers might like to, as bludgeons with which to dismiss or define him.  The temptation to respond that way, perhaps a more understandable one given the way not a few who identify with the LGBT communities tend to glorify him as their champion in a way that steamrolls over the subtlety of his art and the complexity of his own sexual persona/practice, ought to be resisted.  But nonetheless, social conservatives have to admit and face the fact that this man stood against us.  He evinced a certain reticent politeness towards us, but he was our opponent. 

There are two big subjects:  the life of the man, in which the biographer would have to disentangle the man from the symbolic persona and then reweave them into a coherent whole, and the life of the career, in which the development of the symbolic persona “David Bowie” is largely taken on its own terms. 

I would also suggest that the task of the tackling the career probably has to be divided into two halves:  1) from its beginnings in the mid-60s forward to the last big popular success with 1984’s Let’s Dance, and 2) back from Bowie’s latest artistry with the album Black Star released only a few days before his death, to somewhere in the 80s when Bowie began to realize and accept the character of his more “marginal” and elder-statesman-of-rock career role.  I have really not kept up, only fully engaging with 2002’s Heathen album, but I have never felt it would be a waste to time to try to, as my sense is Bowie has had, and especially in terms of lyrical themes, a more interesting and reflective “out-of-the-limelight” portion of his career than other aging rock stars.  In it we find reflection about the connections between the man, the symbolic persona, and our times, whereas in the first half of his career we find a younger man letting the developmental demands of that symbolic persona driving most everything in his art, and the key things in his life also, several times taking him to the brink of personal breakdown or even extinction.

And now I have to be personal myself.  My essay series Carl’s Rock Songbook might never have existed without the prodding of Bowie’s artistry.  In the late 1990s, I was on one hand plunging into the riches of the American jazz and blues traditions, spurred by the swing revival of that time and by the impact of reading books like Martha Bayles’s Hole in Our Soul and Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues, and on the other hand, beginning to more seriously explore classical music, prompted in particular by what my reading of Aristotle, Plato, and Allan Bloom was teaching me about the connections between music and psychic health.  I should indicate that I was more receptive to that teaching due to what my Christian faith had already taught me, and I should mention again that there is not necessarily a clear path from that classical teaching about “psychology” to classical music, and of course no path to all forms of it. 

You might say I was just one Generation-Xer among others disgusted by grunge and much of the 90s development of Rock generally, and just one early-30s adult among others belatedly growing up in his musical taste, but you can also see I had taken it a bit further and grounded it intellectually.   So it was that I was in the full grasp of this double-angled (“blues”-based and philosophy-based) reaction against Rock, and much contemporary pop, when my wife brought home a David Bowie best-of CD. 

I did not welcome that purchase.  I had recently watched the ballyhooed PBS documentary series on Rock n’ Roll, mainly shaped by rock critic Robert Palmer, and the one episode that had really annoyed me was the one which had made so much of David Bowie and glam-rock.  Informed by someone like Bayles, it was obvious to me that Bowie/glam meant very little in terms of musical development(at least of the sort I favored), and indeed, seemed to be the moment when the many non-musical aspects of the rock phenomenon began to finally overtake interest in the music itself.  The blame for MTV and such was rightly traced back to the likes of Bowie.  To my mind, Palmer’s fawning attention to him was part and parcel of the whole self-congratulatory boomer rock-critic narrative about “rock n’ roll” that we had to get past. 

And yet, as I listened to the songs, most of which I had previously enjoyed in the usual half-attentive radio-listener mode, I could admit that the music, with reservations about certain of its aspects made, was pretty good and at times even brilliant; but more importantly, I began to notice that lyrically, a lot was going on.  One aspect of this was an interplay between the pop-star persona Bowie had developed, and many of his lyrical themes, but another was the way the lyrics were continually inviting thought about the times, that is, the situation.  And so, in a period in my life when I had turned against rock, upon musical grounds but also upon deeper disappointments with its overall development, Bowie’s lyrics were helping me to understand what part of me had always known, and what I would later articulate in Songbook No. 17:

…at its best, rock has an almost unmatchable facility for catching, expressing, and even questioning the passing collective moods of present-day life, whether these are “in the air” or flowing through subterranean channels.  Since it is a more immediate form of expression than the grand canvases of the novel or motion picture, and since, unlike poetry or the visual arts, it attracts a lot of attention, it is not surprising that artists tuned to the fluctuations of the zeitgeist gravitate towards it.

By the 1990s, rock’s musical inferiority to the forms of American music it had developed out of, and its failure to progressively develop in the way so often promised by its champions from the late 60s up through the late 80s, had become pretty obvious.  But what I was beginning to see, with Bowie’s help, was that regardless of all that, rock was and would for a long time remain one of the main artistic forms by which the Middle-Class type expressed himself.  In terms of music and musical persona, the Middle-Class type was the one who could not solidly ground himself in the old down-home all-American blues-swingin’ musical tradition spanning from soul to country, but who could also not ground himself in the fine arts traditions, whether the literary ones once taught by the English departments, or the musical ones connected to the Western “classical” tradition of orchestral and chamber music. 

Or as I put it in Songbook  No. 19:

…the creation of the rock sound and identity was partly a response to a new social situation.  The fact that this situation holds today helps explain the ongoing popularity and recycling of the various rock forms, even though they have long since lost all plausible claim to freshness….  Although oddly enough, rock’s timeliness, particularly in terms of its lyrics, seems to remain a strong suit.  Again, I say this without exactly being a fan.  Considered en masse, there is no question that rock has given us a fairly weak musical middle in exchange for a neglect of fine-arts music, and a near-desiccation of our once-glorious and widely-practiced traditions of Afro-American music.  Rock’s best moments cannot make up for this, but they do remain genuine achievements which stand as the poetic sign-posts of our era.  As such they are worthy of the sort of philosophical-cultural consideration I am asking us to give them…

Some readers might quibble here about my connecting Bowie so strongly to Rock.  He played with style upon style!  He did the blue-eyed soul thing!  The “Elton John” piano-pop thing!  The Berlin sound thing!  And on and on and…   Well, he did.  His ears were more open than most, and one result is that major aspects of the “New Wave” sound, ones taken up by rockers, rock n’ roll revivalists, and others still, trace back to his musical influence.  But he undeniably began within rock, and the range of his early eclecticism (67’-73’)—from folky singer-songwriter (say, “Andy Warhol”) to baroque-rock mixture (say, “Major Tom”) to Broadway-esque piano-pop (say, “Is There Life on Mars?”) to hard rock (of the standard, and of a Lou Reed-influenced, type) was pretty closely leashed to it.  He was a pop artist musically most grounded in sounds integral to rock, and a star marketed within the whole extra-musical phenomenon of rock fame.  He was a major figure in the story of rock.  And a major figure in the story of pop-music marketing.  (So I admit it:  Palmer was right!)  But it is telling that musically speaking, he was no figure at all in the story of soul, disco, etc. 

That last link, incidentally, is to one of my few Songbook numbers that touch upon Bowie.  I also wrote the very brief number on “The Prettiest Star,” and the one on “Sunday,” from 2002’s Heathen.  “Sunday,” a very wake-of-9/11 song, is the place where we see Bowie fearing the socio-cultural success of his opponents, the religious social conservatives like yours truly.  

For those new to the Songbook, which of late has suffered from several seasons of neglect (largely due to my own job-turmoil), the basic road-map to it is in No. 100, linked above in my first mention of it, and one summary discussion of what I’ve been up to is here

Bowie’s untimely death forces me back to the Songbook, because just as he was key to its inspiration, I always figured it would culminate in and perhaps conclude with a series on Bowie-songs, and particularly “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things!” and a few others from Hunky Dory.  To my mind, to grapple with rock’s significance eventually requires one to grapple with Bowie’s.  

Parts of my thinking on those songs, and upon Bowie’s significance generally, were developed prior to the Songbook’s first being unleashed back in 2011.  I had a grand yet incomplete essay written in 2007 that I never submitted anywhere called “The Democratic Changeling in Modernity’s Wasteland:  Ruminations upon David Bowie as an Archetype for Our Times.”  Part of what I envisioned for that (Plato-Tocqueville-and-Bénéton-haunted) essay, and later on for the Songbook’s culmination, would be to compare Bowie’s Hunky Dory take on what fully-arrived “modernity” requires in response from us, with the very different take found in The Modern Lovers, the (only later-released) work by the other key Velvet-Underground-influenced rock artist of those 1970-71 times, Jonathan Richman.  The 90s rock band Blur also figured in there.

Well, I might write all that up eventually, and maybe with further study of what light latter-day Bowie songs shed upon it, but it seems important now, in the wake of his passing, and with greater realism about how much of my own energy I can throw into the Songbook, to get a few of my main thoughts about his career out there.  So later this week and next, I’ll give you the key parts of that essay, including analyses of a couple of songs. 

It is commentary that is going to concentrate upon Bowie the artist/symbol, and upon the first half of his career.  But again, I offer my condolences to those connected through friendship or relation to David Robert Jones the man, the man who was the sum of an entire life, and apologies for the inevitable ways my commentary, like most such, will miss not a few things about him.

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