David Bowie once mentioned me in a complimentary way from a stage, in New York City, in the later nineties. This was one of the great unlikely moments of my professional life. It was in the did-I-hallucinate-it category. It was in the did-that-actually-happen category. I was alone at the show that night, and so it was impossible to discuss the turn of events with anyone in the aftermath. I will leave it to the collectors of bootlegs to verify. In fact, I bring this incident up now only because there may be those who imagine in what follows that I am saying what I’m going to say here because I am somehow obliged to David Bowie or because I have an obsessive-compulsive fixation on Bowie’s work, owing to the fact that I was once mentioned by him from a stage in New York City.
But I am not writing these lines for these reasons, but out of a delight and surprise shading into an unmistakable conviction. I am writing these lines because The Next Day, the recent album by David Bowie (released recently on Iso Records, and available almost everywhere), is the unlikeliest masterpiece of the recent popular song, the best album by an otherwise retired classic rock artist in many, many years. It kicks the shit out of that recent spate of albums by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, it is better than anything the Stones did since Tattoo You (which is mainly good because of Sonny Rollins anyhow), better than anything Van Morrison has done since Avalon Sunset, better than anything Dylan has done since Time Out of Mind, better than anything Brian Ferry has done since Mamouna (nineteen years ago), better than anything Joni Mitchell has done since Mingus, better than anything Jimi Hendrix has done since Electric Ladyland, better than anything Elvis Costello has done since Blood and Chocolate, better than anything Paul McCartney has done since Run Devil Run, better than anything associated with the Who since Who By Numbers.
It’s a remarkable and completely unpredictable masterpiece by a guy in his later sixties, an album that doesn’t sound like anything else happening in 2013, except that it sounds, in some ways, like a lot of the very best work David Bowie has done (though let us not engage in the ridiculous job of figuring out what was the last all-but-perfect David Bowie album–after the period in which Bowie was unassailable and shipped a lot of units, he was a whipping boy, though many of the albums that critics loved to dislike have great material on them, the first Tin Machine album is far, far better than anyone was willing to admit at the time, and Outside is far better than anyone admitted at the time, and Black Tie, White Noise is far better than anyone thought at the time, indeed it was all but overlooked, and Reality and Heathen both are better than anyone really adjudged them to be), and while most people think that the high period of David Bowie ended with the improbable domination of Let’s Dance in the thirty years since there has been a lot of great music by David Bowie, much of it underrated, and inadequately understood.
Which implies that: David Bowie is an artist who has to land just right with culture and history. He has to release the right album at the right time, and he has to, alas, vanish from the court of public opinion in order for us rightly to appreciate him.
In the present environment, the environment of Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber and One Direction and Maroon 5 and Lil’ Wayne’s lackluster new album, David Bowie sounds like a titan, like a behemoth of song, but it’s not only because of his context, it’s because he made a great album, which has more passion in each composition than most people manage in entire albums; wait, that’s not only it, David Bowie made an album, when most artists these days make a few singles, or a couple of YouTube videos.
And anyway, the vanished-for-ten-years thing is a little bit overstating the case, because I believe Bowie last appeared on stage in 2006, so that’s more like seven years (or the same amount, roughly speaking, between appearances by Fiona Apple), and the guy had angioplasty, and probably thought he was going to die, and may well have had a reasonable expectation of dying, that is, he collapsed onstage according to some accounts, had to leave the stage, and he probably really doesn’t want to get back on a stage, and who can blame him, and anyway the whole issuing-bonds-on-future-earnings part of the Bowie story means that Bowie is relatively secure and didn’t need to make an album, he doesn’t have alimony to pay to a brace of ex-wives, and so why did he have to make an album at all, he didn’t have to make an album, there’s nothing to prove; as the Isolar press office has indicated, his feeling is that he doesn’t want to make an album these days, unless he has something to say, and, apparently, now he has something to say. Indeed. He seems to have a great deal to say, and a lot of it is befitting the preoccupations of a man who had a brush with death (in this way, yes, not unlike Dylan on Time Out of Mind), namely a lot about war, lost love, failure, romantic struggle, the heavy burden of the past, and so on, on an album like one of those extremely dramatic days where the gray of the horizon is indistinguishable from the sea, the wind howls, and there is a glimmering of longing that permeates the half-light.
Now, Bowie, the artist who no longer has anything to prove, has indicated that he is unavailable for comment about The Next Day, because there is only the work, and anything beyond the work is sort of what this album is about, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” viz., in which a preoccupation with celebrity is some kind of devastated pathology, one with which Bowie feels oddly sympathetic in the song (and the video, which you have to see, because it’s like a little movie it’s so good), despite having formerly been a “star” himself. Onto the “stars” we project our confusions and desperations, onto the “stars” we project the lives we do not lead. Ergo, there is only the work now, and the silence is part of the work, the work is otherwise complete, the way it is complete with Thomas Pynchon, and the way it was with J. D. Salinger, but, that said, and I can hardly believe it is the case myself, I have somehow persuaded David Bowie to part with a few words on the subject of this album.
I mean, I persuaded Bowie, somehow, to give me a sort of a work flow diagram for The Next Day, because I wanted to think about it in light of what he was thinking about it, I wanted to understand the lexicon of The Next Day, and so I simply asked if he would provide this list of words about his album, assuming, like everyone else waving madly trying to get his attention, that there was not a chance in hell that I would get this list, because who the fuck am I, some novelist killing time writing occasionally about music, and yet astonishingly the list appeared, and it appeared without further comment, which is really excellent, and exactly in the spirit of this album, and the list is far better than I could ever have hoped, and it’s exactly like Bowie, at least in my understanding of him, impulsive, intuitive, haunted, astringent, and incredibly ambitious in the matter of the arts; Bowie is a conceptual artist, it seems to me, who just happens to work in the popular song, and he wants to make work that goes somewhere new, and this is amply demonstrated by the list.
What I propose here is that I use the list to make a few observations about the incredible excellence of The Next Day, as a way of explaining what I think he’s after, or as a way of collaborating with the ideas in play, and in this way will a really great album be illuminated, given the opportunity to blossom further, later into the season, etc.
So here’s what David sent me (and I should thank him for doing it, and so I fervently thank him here):
Bowie’s list was left-justified, but probably because he didn’t want to take the time to center justify, and also his list was purposefully double-spaced, and so came with the same amount of white space that you’re seeing, and, you have to admit, it’s an incredibly provocative list of words for the album.
I was really excited to speak to this list, and to apply this list to the songs of The Next Day, but the very first thing I had to do was simply to enjoy the list, because it’s a great list, and it has the word chthonic on it, and this is one of my very favorite words, and you have to admit, additionally, chthonic is a great word, and all art that is chthonic is excellent art, and art that has nothing chthonic about it, like, let’s say, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” that is art that’s hard to withstand.
But in this case, when Bowie says chthonic, it’s obvious he’s not just aspiring to chthonic, the album has death in nearly every song, and Bowie, after the angioplasty, can deploy his word choice with a newfound sense of confidence, though we can wish that this were not the case, we can wish that the artist didn’t have to suffer. But confidence is always a good thing as regards the intricacies of lyrical composition, and so chthonic has personal heft behind it, as does isolation, which is a word a lot like Isolar, the name of David Bowie’s management enterprise, and there’s also vampyric, succubus, violence, funereal, effigies, and burial, just in case the chthonic part were not clear enough, as well as hostage, manipulation, traitor, and the incredibly grim resettlement.
And there, near the close, is the difficult if not impossible to use word tragic. But I’m jumping the gun a bit.
One thing that is beautiful about The Next Day is David Bowie’s face. David Bowie’s face is a thing that has often been written about, and which has been often fetishized in the context of his work, especially in the period between ’72 and ’77 or so, when he was more than beautiful, when he was radiantly beautiful and oddly casual about how beautiful he was (what else could he do). The David Bowie of The Man Who Fell to Earth was so beautiful that it was almost hard to look at, but his beauty was remarkable enough to lend him a certain amount of power that he might otherwise not have had, a power that he was penalized for in certain circles (some of Lester Bangs’s carping about Bowie, in those days, seems to me to be about Bowie trading on the perfection of his beauty). Having interviewed him myself once (I think it was 1995), I can say that in middle age (he was younger than I am now as I write these lines) he was still startlingly good looking, but he was no androgynous naiad. He was an older guy who looked great. What he is now, meanwhile, is a man in his sixties, and there’s no point in disputing that, though he is as beautiful as a man in his sixties could be and looks years younger. Still, the package of The Next Day casts off the earlier Bowie. And the jacket of The Next Day, which uses a cocktail napkin, a white square, to block out the David Bowie of “Heroes,” lies in wait for those who would make the mistake of looking for David Bowie the fetish; likewise, the highly stylized photograph of Bowie in the package makes him look about as haunted and rough around the edges as he could possibly look, and it’s the beautiful Bowie that seems like an albatross now, even to Bowie himself, it’s the whippet thin androgyne from outerspace wearing a g-string or a dress that’s the effigy, or all those suicidal coke-addicted paranoids who can’t even remember making Station to Station, who gave interviews high saying things much regretted later on, those effigies are bodies left to rot in a hollow tree, and the challenging part of the metaphor is that Bowie can still, apparently, feel the too-famous-for-his-own-good young man back there, in the wreckage, and feels him like a sequence of ghosts informing what he has to write, and he keeps trying to kill them off (like on the back cover of Scary Monsters), the effigies, the undead, they keeping coming back, because everybody has to come to some compromise with the early work, you know, when it’s produced in public, and the effigies, here, haunt the enterprise, in the lyrics and occasionally in a wafting of melody of texture from the past, which drifts over the dark landscape . . .
The papal kind, I think we’re talking about, because there’s nothing indulgent on The Next Day, which is a rock and roll album ex post facto (when there is really nothing left of rock and roll). And unlike, say, Earthling or Black Tie, White Noise, there’s little that’s programmed about this album, it sounds mostly like two-guitars-bass-and-drums (when I interviewed him in 1995, Bowie said: “I don’t trust high tech,” even though he’d just worked with Eno on Outside), and that alone is remarkable, because there just isn’t that much of that Velvet Underground ensemble approach to be heard in the world these days. I have a theory that the later life recordings of an artist often revert to some of the earliest music an artist will have encountered, so that John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll sounds like the late fifties and early sixties, and Paul McCartney’s Kisses On the Bottom sounds like the big band sound, or there’s the recent Van Morrison skiffle and jazz releases, or Rod Stewart’s standards albums, and so on. Bowie has a reputation for being a la mode, up to date, but in this post-historical period of Bowie, he no longer feels a pressure to be a la mode, and as a result there is only rock and roll here, with a bit of chanson (which is a word that Iggy Pop used to describe Bowie’s music once), and a bit of art rock, and some strange noises, mostly courtesy of Gerry Leonard and David Torn (on experimental guitars) and Tony Levin (on fretless bass)—but mostly just rock and roll. How do papal indulgences cohere with the album? Is it because of the power dynamic of the papal indulgence? In which the wealthy and powerful can purchase their way to enlightenment? The injustice thereof? What kind of world is it in which indulgences can be purchased? Is this the dystopic world that Bowie has so lovingly detailed year after year (“Cygnet Committee,” from Space Oddity, e.g., or Diamond Dogs, or Outside)? The world in which all is power and powerlessness, and woe upon you if you’re on the wrong side of that equation?
The military conflict theme on The Next Day is unmistakable. There’s the witty and also deeply disturbing “I’d Rather Be High,” which begins with Nabokov on the beach, and ends with a much grimmer verse: “The Thames was black, the tower dark/I flew to Cairo, find my regiment/City’s full of generals/And generals full of shit/I stumble to the graveyard and I/lay down by my parents, whisper/Just remember duckies/Everybody gets got . . .” It’s not the warm, faintly comical pop stylings of “Modern Love,” nope. Not only do we have a great lyric here, but Bowie’s hatred of a rhyme, which has been in evidence since the Berlin trilogy, if not earlier, frees him up to say what he means instead of being hemmed in by the end rhyme (which, you know, is not native to English language verse anyway), but it’s also true that the military cast of The Next Day does not necessarily imply anarchist in the sense that Bowie is perhaps using the term, as in opposed to government in all cases, it implies violence, funereal, traitor, et al. I can only think, when seeing anarchist in a musical context, of John Lydon rhyming anti-christ with anarchist by making the last syllable of anarchist have a long i sound. The pronunciation (in the Lydon model) is as anarchic as the music. And maybe there’s a way that this kind of anarchist applies (I believe I am not shrinking from the annotation of war and military imagery in the album, we’ll get to that)—in that Bowie overturns the applecart with The Next Day by making a racket as no one of the pensioners age should be capable of making a racket, with two guitars, bass, and drums, all while John Lydon is making a killing in Los Angeles real estate (not bothering, ever again, to write another song with the Pistols, and trying to reform PiL without any of the original members of PiL). Bowie, who outlasted the Year Zero of punk by making Low and “Heroes,” is more anarchist than the anarchists of that bygone time, but even more so he is anarchist about what the popular song is in 2013, making songs without choruses, songs without hooks, and without end rhymes, so that the anarchism is not only in the violent uprising of the themes, and in the music history impact of the album, but in how it thinks about song structure, which is that it resists pop song structure at almost every turn . . .
The violence is obvious. There is an abundance of violence.
The song “The Next Day,” which starts with a smart drum snap and which immediately gives way to a snappy glam guitar filigree, which song does, to some degree, have a hook (“and the next day, and the next day, and another day”), is about martyrdom, and has an early Christian extremity to it (“they whip him through the streets and alleys there,” or: “they chant for his death”). It isn’t allegorical in a Christian way, it doesn’t map onto the Passion exactly, but it has resonances. Especially in the hook, which is, after all: three days. The hook features the very number of days between martyrdom and resurrection. The three days in which, if you are a student of this particular story, Jesus of Nazareth is supposed to have traveled down to hell for a look-see. What’s more chthonic than the harrowing of hell? A song about shooting guys on the beach? Again: death in almost every song on The Next Day, no matter how tuneful and engaged the music, no matter how beautiful, there is death, but instead of the whole album being excessively dark, it is somehow by turns outraged and elegiac, in short, it isn’t accepting about the chthonic here on earth, and this can only be as a result of Bowie’s hard times on the way to making this record, and the paradox is almost Nietzschean (like thoughts of suicide have gotten me through many a lonely night), an album about death becomes Bowie’s most animated and lively album in decades. I remember a period in which Bowie allowed the desperation to be buried in the mix (try listening to “Always Crashing in the Same Car:” I was going round and round in the hotel garage), when his desperation was in inverse proportion to his muted tones, but, as they say, no atheists in the trenches, and this reminds me: it is, apparently, frequently the case that patients in the cardiac unit suffer with depression after cardiological intervention, not, perhaps, simply because nothing says impending demise like a heart problem, but also because there is something about the process that effectively gathers up and inaugurates the depressive symptomology like few other bodily complaints, and so it is perhaps not inexact to think of The Next Day as a manifestation of this post-cardiological syndrome, but in this case the post-cardiological transcends the inert qualities of the depressive.
Is it we who are meant to be intimidated? Or is Bowie a bit intimidated too? By the scale of his ambition? By the material? By the high body count?
David Bowie misdirects autobiographical interpretation, often, by laying claim to reportage and fiction as songwriting methodologies, and he cloaks himself, further, in the cut-up. When I interviewed him, he observed that he worked somewhere near to half the time as a lyricist in the cut-up tradition, and he even had, in those days, a computer program that would eat the words and spit them back in some less referential form, and with this in mind it’s possible to overlook the singer-songwriter in Bowie the better to concentrate on the conceptual artist and art-rock stylist. Thereby we might chase down all the references in The Next Day, noting, e.g., that Bowie was reading, during recording, according to Tony Visconti, about medieval British history, about kings and queens (by which we suppose, perhaps, that he was reading Wolf Hall), and finding in the feudal, a political template for all the blood and gore. Vampyric seems to allude to a feudal era, until we gather that it refers, perhaps to “How Does the Grass Grow?” and its couplet, “How does the grass grow?/Blood blood blood,” or “Waiting with my red eyes/And my stone heart,” a chilling concoction to be sure, even with those poppy ya ya yas that serve as its refrain (somehow suggesting, to me, the days when Bowie had Warren Peace as his backing vocalist often), you could go down this road, and you could fail to remember how almost all art is autobiographical, even ostensibly reportorial work is autobiographical, and even the cut-up can be frankly autobiographical, and that even when Bowie was most third-person, most objective in his work in the past, there was a way that he was expressing himself, and I for one do not entirely believe that when we say vampyric here that we are talking just about Middle Europe and about actual vampires with motor scooters and fashionable clothes, but also about Bowie’s recoiling from the landscape of popular culture, and about how that feels, about the blessing of recoiling, no more making the rounds of the late-night talk shows (which he did for the Reality Tour), no need to hit the stage again, no dealing with the tour managers, and the band, and the record company (Iso Records, as I understand it, is Bowie’s own label, and he licensed the recording to Columbia, which means, in effect, that this is self-released), and fans, and the last time Bowie did it, he not only had a heart attack, but he got hit in the eye by a “gift” lobbed from the front rows. (And a lighting guy fell from the scaffolding and died before a show.) I’m sure this stuff happens on a lot of tours. But when the end comes and you can let go, let go of the vampyric part of being a famous musician (and Robert Fripp, Bowie’s guitarist on a couple of records, used exactly this word vampyric to describe the relationship between performer and fan), there is a real freedom in that relinquishment. Reminds me of a famous writer friend of mine who said to me once: They have no idea how easy it would be to stop. Still, this neglects the loss you would feel about retirement. Ian Hunter, Bowie’s acquaintance, and for whom he once wrote “All the Young Dudes,” had a song on this subject, on his comeback album, called Rant (2001), the song being “Dead Man Walking,” (“What am I supposed to do now?/Crawl down the hole of monotony?/The silence is deafening/The phone never rings . . .,”) in which this schematic of retirement is laid out with especial poignance. The incredible thing about vampirism is how much we long for vampirism, for the attention of the vampire, and for how delightful the bite is going to be, all of that Twilight bluster, it’s not necessarily about teenagers who are inconstant in their celebrity relationships, it’s also about wanting the endless relevance of the vampire . . .
A simple task to talk about a pantheon of Bowie influences, like Anthony Newley and Nina Simone and Tom Verlaine and Lou Reed and Marlene Dietrich and Little Richard and Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland and James Osterberg and Brion Gysin and Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol and Florian Schneider and Robert Zimmerman and Mick Jagger and John Lennon and Charles Mingus and Bette Davis and Martha Graham and Willem DeKooning and Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs and Walt Whitman and George Orwell and Yoko Ono and Scott Walker and Black Francis and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and when we list them like this, they are like the overwhelming and ancient temple in Rome, the one with the MacDonald’s franchise right across the street—overpowering, indelible, kitschy.
It’s interesting to think about Bowie’s relationship to the love song, especially in this period in which, by all accounts, he is exceedingly happily married, and probably far from the time in his life in which temptation or inconstancy were everywhere around him. He was always accidentally a writer of love songs (“You’re a such a wonderful person/But you got problems/I never touch you”), or perhaps love was admixed with other concerns, more vital concerns, as in “Heroes,” which is about Berlin and the Wall and about how love may not, in the end, be enough to protect us from the political problems that gave us the Wall in the first place. “China Girl” is another worthy example, we assume that the middle eight (“I stumble into town/Just like a sacred cow/Visions of swastikas in my head/Plans for everyone”) is Bowie’s eruption about power in relationships, also a sort of regretful repudiation for some things he might have said when younger and less astute about politics, but it completely changes the picture of what appears to be a conventional love song. That said, there are some apparent love songs on The Next Day, or, at least, the girl is never long absent from the equation. Among the best of these is “Boss of Me.” Let’s note, in passing, that it is often an endearing and excellent thing when Bowie apes an American idiom (as in “boss of me”), and deploys this idiom like a native, despite his quintessential Britishness. Second, it’s really possible that this song is in part about being a father and a husband, and about how in the process of being a father and a husband, no matter your age, no matter how celebrated you are, you are remade as a supplicant, and servant of the enterprise, a teammate, a subject; moreover, in this track, “a smalltown girl like you,” when applied to Bowie’s wife, or his daughter, would be ironic, and well within the parameters of Bowie’s point of view, a point of view known for understatement, irony, and dramatizing in a Brechtian way. But it’s also possible that I have totally got this one wrong, and really “Boss of Me” is, in fact, about a succubus and the bridge with its weeping and lost blue sky and its small town dying is about the way that a relationship with a succubus, a passionate relationship with a succubus, is important as an archetype for the difficulties of a long relationship, the sense of loving despite everything. It reminds me that Bowie, for all the talk of his sexuality and the hard periods of his life, has basically been married twice, and, in each case, for long stretches, and it’s very probably, actually, that he’s a committed and loving and stable guy, and the songs come from an equal and opposite place, or perhaps the romance happens in a way to stabilize Bowie, who is otherwise kind of vulnerable to the material and its rather menacing parameters, and “Where Are We Now?” is about this, too, the single, and n.b., that producer/engineer Tony Visconti, himself, expressed some curiosity about “Where Are We Now?” as the single, because it’s a ballad, but to misunderstand how important this song is is to misunderstand Bowie a bit. “Where Are We Now?” frankly recalls the era of the Berlin trilogy (German place names, e.g.), and it frankly recalls a love from that time, a kindling of love in a very challenging time, especially evident with the “walking the dead” refrain. Where are we now is the question about what happened to the decades, what happened to all that we thought we were going to do, and the implication is that there’s grief associated with this question, and Bowie’s lovely controlled reading of the melody brings this grief to the fore, especially in the big one-four section “as long as there’s sun, as long as there’s rain, as long as there’s fire, as long as there’s me, as long as there’s you,” well, the refrain does in fact ratify a reliance on other people, and there’s a great guitar solo by Gerry Leonard, and there’s some really good drumming, and as far as I’m concerned, this song does exactly what a pop song should do, which is make me rethink my certainties a little, it makes me feel a little bit, it causes me to admire songcraft, and it never feels particularly ironic, at all, and it never feels, at all, like Bowie is in the rear of the image, but actually, contrarily, it feels (sad in its summoning of the past) like he is passionate to reach out, and this reaching out does not feel artificial, or merely professional (as it did, let’s say, on the albums immediately following Let’s Dance), but specifically genuine.
(See Violence, above)
Transference and Identity
I’m taking these two together, because they seem like related ways of speaking to the same problematic. They relate to an instability of ego in the David Bowie subject, as constructed in the work. For example: remember when Bowie used to complain that he had trouble getting out of character after doing Ziggy Stardust? And then, despite the fact that he wanted to get away from Ziggy, wanted to shuck Ziggy, there were further characters, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke, and so on? Remember all these characters? Here’s the obvious point: David Bowie is that legion of personages. In fact, who the fuck is David Bowie? David Bowie is a made-up name, a name to hide behind because David Jones is not exactly a reliably professional avatar, and every phase of the David Bowie performance art piece is an adoption of a character because of this insufficiency of self, or because, let’s say, of an admirable wish to protect himself from the onslaught of the vampyric audience, but in either case, it is safe to say that Bowie, had he read Deleuze and Guattari, would have understood his approach to be something like schizo-identity in L’Anti-Oedipe, an instability of self (“the monster was me,” from “Width of a Circle”), we have assigned clever pseudonyms to prevent recognition, why have we kept our names, purely out of habit, in which identity does not mean any fixed thing, and whereas identity is dependent on the overcrowded society in which one finds oneself—who I am is who I am with a particular person—Bowie’s schizo-identity is fixed only by his relationship to particular moments of music—he is remade by the project. The question would be, I suppose, how much of this is willed (I remember that Nicholas Roeg warned Bowie about The Man Who Fell to Earth, that he would have trouble letting go of the character), and how much is involuntary. One of the blessings of the later seasons of life is how much more settled we get, how much more imperturbable, and it is true that Bowie seems, now, more secure than he has been at any time in his life, downright smart and affable and reasonable, not the vulnerable and melodramatic and impossible beauty of youth. And yet: is there a way that the subdivision and spinning out of repetitions of conflict and loss on The Next Day, martyrdom, political instability, vampirism, is another example of the musical schizo-identity, a frank acceptance of the fact that this is who this guy is, this is the guy who is not one guy, but a platoon of guys, and on this album, this platoon of guys is dug in, and they are holding guns and knives, and trying rather desperately to stay alive.
How does transference figure in this? Well, first I have to say that I am delighted that this word is on Bowie’s list, because it’s a big can of worms, and it indicates a facility with the terminologies of analysis, and I for one really want to believe in a David Bowie who is well acquainted with the terminologies of psychoanalysis. The question is what kind of transference are we referring to. To get to that question, I have to engage in ekphrasis, and describe a photograph I saw of Bowie in the studio during The Next Day sessions. It’s crazy to think, but I was going around my business in New York last fall, teaching class at NYU, and so on, and only ten or fifteen blocks from me, David Bowie was going every day to the studio, and nobody knew about it, nor did they know that this masterpiece of a record, with its almost Rilke-ish level of imagistic madness and density, was right here in our midst. Anyway, there’s a photo of Bowie from the studio, and there he is, David Bowie, not exactly shaven, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Now, I happen, this morning (because right now, in order to write this piece, I am eating and sleeping and breathing David Bowie), to have watched a video of Bowie and Annie Lennox singing “Under Pressure” at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert (which also features a spellbinding, if bizarre, performance of “We Are the Champions” by Liza Minelli), from 1992, when Bowie was in his mid- or late forties at that event, and he was, well, an incredible specimen, in his perfect suit, and his perfect hair, and in the context of this performance he did the Tony Bennett thing, very smooth, until the end of that song (that is a very very very very good song, in my estimation, it has everything going for it, a great bass riff, a great verse, some really nice handclapping, and then just when you think you’ve got the message worked out, and it is not significantly deeper than “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” it gets to the bridge, which is not exactly a bridge, but a song within the song, maybe, “because love’s such an old-fashioned word/And love dares you to care for/The people on the edge of the night/And loves dares you to changes our way/Of caring about ourselves,” and this is maybe the first time that you ever thought David Bowie indisputably had something profound, urgent, necessary to say about love, and the song takes flight, and offers you the challenge it alludes to in the lyrics), at which moment Annie Lennox kind of stole the show a little bit, it was Annie Lennox who realized how important it was to inhabit this lyric, Bowie didn’t want to risk it, wasn’t willing to go that far (he still hadn’t entirely learned the lesson of 1992, of “Let’s Dance,” viz., that if you can’t save some lives with your art, what is the purpose of your art?), but still they got somewhere by the end, and Lennox put her arm around David, and you aren’t sure if they scripted it, and you aren’t sure if they are doing it for Freddie, but suddenly the song was incredibly moving, the song was about how if we don’t get to this exploration of love somehow before the end of our time here, we have wasted our time, it’s a truth that cannot be ignored, and when it was over, this performance, it looked like Lennox wiped a tear from her eye as she left the stage, but not Bowie, Bowie was wearing the suit, and he was about to get into “All the Young Dudes” with Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson (truly one of the great guitar players ever), and he was cool, and he didn’t risk it, he sang great, and did his thing, ever the professional. How to square these two things? David Bowie at the Freddie Mercury tribute, smart and professional and smooth and perfectly turned out, and David Bowie at the studio in the Village wearing jeans and a t-shirt, looking like a studio rat (the same look, the electric effigy, is briefly on display in Tony Oursler’s video for “Where Are We Now?”. You can say that jeans and a t-shirt are what one wears in the lightless and intensive space of the studio (some awful things can happen in there, and you need to stay flexible, responsive), or you could say it was simply a bad day, and Bowie didn’t have anything else to wear, or you could say that something has happened. (I love the way Joseph Heller used this phrase in the novel of the same name: something happened. A novel is a piece of art made out words in which something happens. A film is narrative made out of celluloid, or ones and zeroes, in which something happens. An album of songs is a sequence of musical expressions in which something happens. And a life is a sequence of days, weeks, months, years, in which something happens.) I’m going to say that when Bowie uses the word transference to describe The Next Day he’s talking about the phenomena of something happening, for a lack of a better way of putting it some kind of maturation ritual. Something happened that may or may not have to do with leaving the stage with chest pain in 2003, and while it would be unwise to assume that David Bowie will never perform again (he has “retired” from performance before), I am going to say that something in the transferential way of things is what has taken place, and that Bowie has gone from understanding himself as a performer to understanding himself as, I suppose, part of the audience for the performance. That’s why “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is so unsettling, because Bowie seems to understand, from inside, the audience, and without judgment. “From behind their tinted window stretch/Gleaming like blackened sunshine.” What’s required to perform a stadium show? To play a stadium show you have to look at the audience like it’s not a human environment, like it is absolutely free of the human, of the individual, like there is not a person out there, just a seething mass of emotional predictability, and in some ways this traversing of the human is costly (I assume it’s part of why musicians get so fucked up on the road). But Bowie has migrated, through transference, to a new relationship with the audience, in which he understands the audience again, and feels himself to be part of it. I admit there are some strange formulations that result: “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” seethes with resentment of the stars, too, it understands how the idols get erected simply so that we can consign them to their twilight, but that doesn’t mean that Bowie has not done something miraculous and rare for a rock and roll musician, he has spoken honestly (without romanticizing) about the condition of the audience for the popular song. And he was thrown in with that audience, the people on the edge of the night.
This item on the list seems designed to trip up the incautious exegete. There is certainly a town in Germany by this name, and given the general political upheaval leitmotif on The Next Day, as well as the patently autobiographical references to Berlin in “Where Are We Now?,” it is perhaps no surprise that a German reference of this kind occurs on the Bowie’s catalogue of intentions and pretexts for the album. In a way we might file this reference under mystification, which comes at the end of the list, and which is a sort of a point of origin for Bowie’s work as a whole, were it not for the fact that he mentioned mauer once before (during a similar list of words that referred, I believe, to the album called Heathen). What is it about Germany, in general, that seems so germane to Bowie’s work? We can speak to the Wall, because mauer is German for wall (and this is summoned up by the Potsdamer Platz reference in the aforementioned “Where Are We Now?”), and to the schism and impoverishment and destitution and disaffiliation of Germany at the time that Bowie lived there (with roommate James Osterberg), we can speak to the fascist glimmerings in any and all Germanic reference, and Bowie’s later life anti-fascist tendencies (and this reminds me, in no specific way, of Heimrad Bäcker’s Transcript, a truly magnificent appropriated text consisting of nothing but textual ephemera from the Nazi era, in particular from the holocaust, which is meant as the commencement of a never-to-be-completed atonement for Bäcker’s own teenage participation in the Nazi Youth); Berlin was where Bowie began to work his way out of what ailed him psychically, and where he did his best work (up until, let’s say, Heathen/Reality/The Next Day, which are albums of bittersweet retrospection), and it is also a resurgent country, a reunited country, a country that is obligated to try to keep the EU together in the present moment, all of which is properly ironic, in the context of the Berlin that Bowie knew and loved, and if all of that is not enough, in the metonymy of “Mauer,” there is also the fact that Mauer, in Germany, is the site of a certain proto-hominid excavation, namely the homo heidelbergensis, who as I understand it shares a certain common ancestor with homo sapiens and the Neanderthal, but it is noteworthy for its larger brain. It would be reasonable to assume that Bowie is alluding to his time in Germany, to the Wall, it would be reasonable to assume that Bowie is commenting on the politics of Germany, it would be reasonable to assume that Bowie is referring to a specific battle in Mauer that I, by virtue of incomplete education in European history, cannot properly grasp, but I believe it would be unwise to assume that he is not also referring to the proto-hominid of Mauer, homo heidelbergensis, and its larger brain.
Interface and Flitting
(See Indifference, below)
There is perhaps no more potent subject in the canon of David Bowie. It is also one of the two most powerful subjects in the popular song: there are two subjects in the popular song: love and isolation. The songs that are about longing (“Tears of a Clown,” “Til I Die,” “In My Life,” “Gimme Shelter,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together Again”) are really about isolation. The music does two things. It either celebrates moments of union, or it details moments of apartness. And given that Bowie has not often written unalloyed love songs, his songs are more often about isolation and apartness. At least, this is the case if my dialectical reasoning is appropriate. The Next Day is, it’s fair to say, his most isolated record in a long time. I am not referring, by saying so, to the isolation of two years making the album in secret in the Village, but more to the concerns of the album, which do not amount to a concept-album’s unified field (there are not, after all, very many concept albums in Bowie’s output), but which do suggest thematically where he’s at now, and where he’s at now, whether musing about history or creating astringent confections of a precisely Bowieish sort in “Valentine’s Day,” is in a landscape of perturbation and mass-murder and loneliness. Indeed, one of the of the most memorable songs on the album (which deliberately recalls both “Five Years” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” from Ziggy Stardust), is “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” which borrows a line from The Beatles, and which has that harsh second person of “Positively Fourth Street,” in which Bowie, the reasonable adult, seems to be excoriating a certain devastated acquaintance “I can see you as a corpse/Hanging from a beam/I can read you like a book/I can feel you falling/I can hear you moaning in your room/Oh see if I care . . .” The singing is heartbroken, passionate, the treatment has a bit of gospel (like “Five Years”) to it, and the second-person direct address is so outrageous, so vicious, that it simply cannot be possible that this is a constructed response to an actual person (“Oblivion shall own you/Death alone shall love you”). No one is this bad. And so: there’s no conclusion that satisfies but that Bowie is speaking either to a class of people, metaphorically, or that he is speaking, somehow, to himself. The latter would be more dramatic, more singular, more artful, more lasting, more arresting, and so I choose to believe that he is speaking to himself, yes, and therefore with perfect knowledge of isolation.
The above (isolation) leads naturally to the question of revenge. I have often argued that revenge is a bad motive for art-making, because it naturally inhibits the free play of human emotions, and that free play is essential to the unpredictable qualities of art. “Positively Fourth Street” is a good example of revenge gone wrong. Whatever the folk music promoter said that enraged Robert Zimmerman so profoundly, however wrong was the point of view of this fellow, it did not merit the bile of the lyric, and frankly if not for the excellent melody and the mid-sixties perfection of the arrangement, we would not rate “Positively Fourth Street.” The first line is great, and the song goes into steep decline thereafter. Revenge, if it is really about trying to lay waste to one’s enemies, is a shallow impulse indeed. Perfect for the playground, and nowhere else. Having compassion for the desire for revenge, however, for the desperation of the impulse, is interesting, and is an advanced form of honesty. “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is very close to a revenger’s tragedy, unless it is a lacerating example of self-examination. “If You Can See Me,” meanwhile, is also a harrowing and apocalyptic song, and full of some dark feeling that is not so far from revenge, but which perhaps has too much sorrow, and too much moral outrage, to be simple-minded in the way of revenge. It seems to me to be written from the voice of America itself. It has one mangled, portmanteau’d line: “American anna fantasticalsation (sic)” which is perhaps the strangest line on all of The Next Day, and not necessarily the line I would quote if I were to single out the album’s most felicitous and memorable lyrics, but which nonetheless indicates the mutant DNA of the song, which seems of Bowie’s cut-up style. “If You Can See Me” does not resolve into any easily interpretable meaning, until it gets to its dramatic zenith, “I will take your lands and all that lays beneath/The dust of cold flowers prison dark of ashes/I will slaughter your kind who descend from belief/I am the spirit of greed a lord of theft/I’ll burn all your books and the problems they make.” After which the song, and its skittery syncopations, its synthesizer pulsings, gives in to some lovely bass fulminations from Tony Levin. Revenge? Revenge on the horrors of the United States of America, occasional home of David Bowie? Payback for the grim politics of its nation of origin? If yes, what a fitting subject for revenge, and Bowie has not done such a good job of it in a long time (since Young Americans, e.g., or “I’m Afraid of Americans,” or “This Is Not America”). Bowie goes back to this mid-Atlantic anxiety on “I’ll Take You There,” one of the bonus tracks, which is catchier, and just as outraged, but perhaps somehow less revolutionary than “If You Can See Me.” But in either case one feels inspired to sing along.
There are many layers to the osmotic qualities of The Next Day. For example, it seems to me that Bowie, by largely refusing to perform the songs, or talk about the songs, is asking that the media apparatus come to understand the songs through osmotic means, a spontaneous net movement of solvent molecules through a partially permeable membrane, attraction rather than promotion, and in this Bowie has been not only exactly right, but right in way that is astonishing, because in this day and age, which is the day and age of American Idol, e.g., he is managing to create the environment in which the album makes its case without blunt force trauma, the rank lattice-work of deceits and fabulations that is promotion. In this sense, yes, we get the thing by osmosis, and by no other means (and for these reasons, it should be obvious by now, it is likely in my interpretive zeal that I am frequently wrong about the subjects of these songs). But I would like to speak to another layer of osmosis here. And that is the way the music feels less anally compulsive and overly controlled than most music sounds these days. It’s as if the musicians, many of them longtime participants in the Bowie canon (Visconti goes back forty-five years, Earl Slick goes back forty, Gail Ann Dorsey goes back fifteen years, and so on), have utterly absorbed the back catalogue osmotically, so that the touches of Bowie emerge from the skein of textures—here’s the drum part of “Passenger,” here’s the drum part of “Five Years,” here’s the an e-bow part that sounds like Robert Fripp on “Heroes,” here are backing vocals startlingly reminiscent of Lodger—but never in a way that seems to trade on past triumphs, rather to build on past triumphs. No example, better indicates this supplementarity of the osmotic approach than the baritone sax stylings of Steve Elson. Bowie himself was known to play saxophone in the old days (a primitivist saxophone that was nonetheless texturally fascinating and kind of sexy), but on “The Dirty Boys” and elsewhere Elson recreates Bowie’s very simple sax parts, and surpasses them with a deftness that is delightful. He never sounds like one of those David Sanborn/Clarence Clemons sax players who reduces everything to a simulacrum of R&B; if anything Elson sounds a little bit like a refugee from a Mingus or Sun Ra session, and he improves every song he plays on (he gives “The Dirty Boys” its Weimar Republic vibe and recalls both Aladdin Sane’s excellent “Time,” and “Sweet Thing” from Diamond Dogs). If this is how osmosis works, through non-verbal reproduction, through a partially permeable membrane, then it is working very well indeed.
The Middle Eastern kind, I think, the religious kind, the inadvisable kind, the kind where tens of thousands of Europeans have to travel into Byzantium overland and beyond to try to keep the infidels from seizing control of Jerusalem only to botch most of the crusade. Many lives are lost.
Tyrant and Domination
(See Violence, see Hostage, above, see Traitor, below)
(See Interface and Flitting, above, and Glide, below)
The nearest dictionary at hand gives the following example for miasma, “a miasma of despair rose from the black workshops.” And this does seem to describe The Next Day exactly, even before I remind you that miasma specifically refers to a “highly unpleasant of unhealthy smell or vapor,” and that it comes from the Greek for defilement. No album of popular songs has as yet exactly recreated the sense of smell, the olfactory, and few try, but maybe The Next Day tries to be synesthetic in this way (and thus a Nabokov reference, as he is the celebrated example of synesthetic tendencies), to make a musical analogue for an unhealthy vapor, and thus likewise the Balkan conflict (see below), the Transylvanian countryside and the undead thereof, the destitution of American experiment, the WWII, and so on. Death everywhere. All about finding the right way to suggest the unhealthy vapor, but then rendering most of it in rather agreeably melodic settings that induce you to breathe deep the unhealthy vapor, without knowing exactly what is taking place. It would be an appropriate undertaking for a conceptual artist who is capable of working across platforms (and it reminds me of a Brian Eno interview I heard in the early nineties wherein he said that most of his deep thinking, at the time, was given over to perfume), and into new terrains.
We are not referring to the literary magazine from Butler University, nor to the Irish music ensemble from Portland, Maine, nor to the children’s television program on British television (although remember that Bowie does have a daughter of just the target age), but actually the original term: the gang of under-assistant thugs tasked with impressing into military service young men abroad in the land. As in that melancholy and extremely moving song covered by the Fairport Convention on Liege and Lief (an album that has a lot of impact on me, and though Bowie, in managing the triumph as a glam icon, in the early seventies, suppressed some of his folksiness, which was much more present on Hunky Dory, e.g., and Space Oddity, than on Ziggy Stardust, it may have had some impact on him as well), “As I was out walking along Radcliffe Highway/A recruiting party came beating my way/They enlisted me, entreated me/Until I did not know/And to the Queen’s barracks they forced me to go.” The pressgang is the reservoir of force that insures that military power has an endless supply of personnel. It’s a fascinating and sinister part of military life, and it’s an even better word, one of those classic Anglo-Saxonisms, and apparently dates to 1690. One thing I admire about Bowie is the simplicity of a lot of his word choice. Like a line like “boys, boys, it’s a sweet thing, sweet thing . . .” Not a lot of syllables there, totally singable, very Anglo-Saxon sounding. And maybe it’s the language itself that is the pressgang, implying a certain kind of oversimplification, one that threatens to overpower the veiled and sinister allusiveness of the Bowie canon. Even when he’s trying to be especially sinister, there’s often a melodramatic and performative quality, though perhaps melodrama isn’t accurate, and if I were post-structurally inclined, I would create a coinage to especially render the weird, dark campy quality of the early canon of Bowie: malodrama: “And in the death/As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare/The shutters lifted in inches in temperance building/High on Poacher’s Hill/And red mutant eyes gaze down on Hunger City/No more big wheels/Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats/And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes/Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers/Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue/Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now legwarmers/Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald/Any day now/the year of the diamond dogs/this ain’t rock and roll this is genocide.” Not only is the opening of Diamond Dogs, the proem, closely related to the destructed landscape of The Next Day, with its perfume of military casualty, but it also features the kind of Old English reliables that often animate Bowie the lyricist: shutters, wheels, fleas, rats, cats, tribes, glass, mink, fox (flea is actually proto-Indo-European, which means there’s almost no older word, and rat goes back to Sanskrit), only peoploids seems to post-date Chaucer, and in this environment, this environment of word choice simplicity, pressgang is actually a late bloomer (1690), because it has to wait until there, is, e.g., a English Civil War or a Glorious Revolution.
Displaced and Resettlement and Traitor
Given Bowie’s very adult attention to realpolitik and the inevitable appearance on this album of international conflict, it makes sense that there would be extremely subliminal reference to the troubles in Israel and Palestine. Let me stress that there is probably no one beside the writer of these lines who would resort to Israel and Palestine and the displacement and resettlement, and absolutely no evidence that any lyric on the album specifically deals with this subject, and no evidence that Bowie has a position on the subject that he has issued publicly (though some people think that “New Killer Star” from Reality is similarly inclined), but he is married to a Somali and has a half-sister married to an Egyptian, so it would be hard to imagine that he is impervious to the Middle East, and as there is a radical compassion on The Next Day, a compassion for the victims of power and politics, it is not such a stretch. Whether the displaced population is Bosnian Muslims, or Egyptian Coptic Christians, or Malian musicians, unable to practice their craft, the album has an odd and virtuosic ability to find a welcome analogy for the suffering, on “How Does the Grass Grow” and “If You Can See Me,” and “Love Is Lost,” to such an extent that the first-person “I” of the conventional pop song vanishes, upon scrutiny, and Bowie seems to be emptied out of The Next Day (which is perhaps part of the purpose of the effacement in the front cover), in a way that is related to the Emersonian model. Bowie becomes so involved in the nature around him, not a wholly admirable nature, it’s true, but a nature nonetheless (a nature of impoverishment, a nature of loss, a landscape of privation, a landscape of suffering, a nature of schism, a landscape of isolation, a landscape of grief), so involved that he is swallowed up, and the “I” becomes analogy, is almost completely free of the facts of David Bowie, in a way that we associate with more spiritually informed writers, with Emerson or Gary Snyder or Emily Dickinson or Robert Creeley, but maybe this is the growth that has taken place in the seven years of silence, and during Bowie’s recovery from heart disease. Bowie is swallowed into concepts like displacement and resettlement, and he sees how the witch-hunting follows, and the use of such an ugly, painful word as traitor. And this chain of signifiers goes with the chain above that includes violence and hostage. And below with funereal and burial.
Word known to all men.
Funereal and Burial
(See commentary above on angioplasty and lineaments of international conflict, see chthonic, see violence, see hostage).
There has to be a word on Bowie’s list that runs contrary to all the other impulses, or else the album would be completely explicable, and possessed of a unitary purpose, and not only would this be unlikely for David Bowie, its unlikely for anyone at all. If Bowie were available for press, his representatives could make clear to him this word doesn’t belong on the list, because there’s nothing here that sounds like it glides, nor is there a gliding aspect to the music, which is too thorny, eruptive, and vulnerable, to glide. I associate gliding with Bowie’s reggae version of the Bowie/Pop composition “Tonight,” from the album of the same name. It’s hard not to imagine that Bowie was shocked and miserable during Tonight, that he was, perhaps, rendered impervious to his own music, such that he would agree, if pressed by a producer, to allow a xylophone solo on the title song, in order to give the title song that extra special Caribbean feel, and some fancy strings and horns of the Philly soul variety, and of course, a duet with Tina Turner. Now, let me say that I happen to approve of the glide in this song, “Tonight,” especially because the song contains the lines: “No one moves/No one talks/No one thinks/No one walks tonight,” which perfectly captures the period of its release. I do not aim to criticize what could easily be a metacritical performance, an unvarnished conceptual take on whatever a rock and roll album, a pop album, was alleged to have been at the time. I do not aim to criticize, but rather to indicate the possibility of the glide. Or what about Never Let Me Down, with its gated reverb on the drums, and the rumored appearance of a David Bowie electric guitar solo? The material is inconsistent there, and even the artist himself considers it a nadir, but it resulted in Tin Machine (whose first album, as I’ve said above, is a great album as far as I’m concerned). Never Let Me Down it is an artifact of glide in that it does not compromise insofar as it does not bother about the art in art rock. The glide, then, is a kind of career approach, and it is the antithesis of The Next Day and its structural intensity, its rejection of careerism, which is so admirable, so overpowering, so revolutionary. But there’s no such thing as an artistic project that doesn’t sketch out its opposite, and perhaps The Next Day is sketching out is opposite here.
This is one of the really powerful words on Bowie’s list, and one about which it is easy to have a lot to say. What kinds of traces do we imagine we hear on The Next Day? First we imagine we hear a lot of traces of Bowie as he has created his unique vision elsewhere. There are the guitar-based pop songs of the Spiders from Mars period on “Valentine’s Day” and “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” and pop-punk songs of the Lust For Life period on “Dancing Out in Space” and “I’ll Take You There,” the experimental art song of Scary Monsters in “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” the further-out weirdness of Lodger on “Dirty Boys” and “Love Is Lost,” Low makes an appearance on “Plan” and in “I’d Rather Be High,” but these are just traces of what came before, not full-on intertextual obsession, or self-parody. And there are traces of the contemporary, too, of things happening now, that would otherwise appear to be completely absent from the album, like the click track and the drum programming that sometimes animates the percussion section, that keeps it from having the light, human touch that Bowie drummers past have been so good at, likewise the advanced guitar textures, the ambient guitar, which can only come from a period of digital effects that were alien when Mick Ronson was doing his thing on the early Bowie recordings. There are the traces of Bowie’s advancing years. (Much commented on has been an alleged charge of vocal weakness on the album, but I will say that I hear nothing of that. On the contrary! If you want to hear some vocal weakness, listen to David Live, when constant touring really diminished Bowie’s range. On The Next Day, it is my belief that Bowie has quit smoking and suddenly can sing in ways he has not sung in decades. He has all of the David Bowie singing voices past, the boy cherub of Hunky Dory, the crooner of Station to Station, the soul singer of Let’s Dance.) There are traces of the wisdom-of-advancing-years in the set of concerns taken up by the album, but not at all in the muscularity of the performances. There are hints of Europe and hints of America. There are strings on the album, arranged with particular excellence by Tony Visconti and Bowie himself in some cases, and these are wonderful, and they run in crosscurrents against the melodies of the verses creating George Martinesque instances of counterpoint that are as beautiful, in terms of arrangement, as anything I have heard in recent years. The seriousness of string arrangements somehow exists as a trace but not as a pretension. (These also recall, e.g., Mick Ronson’s unforgettable string arrangements on Ziggy Stardust and on All the Young Dudes and on Transformer.) And as with all Bowie albums, there are hints of the future, because he is never so much concerned with what’s happening now as he is with what’s going to happen, whether it’s the numerology of 1984 or of the millennium. I could go on and on and on about the gnomic qualities of the lyrics, how fragmentation and allusion make it almost impossible to arrive at any certainty about the album. So that the trace, of which Derrida spoke at such length, seems to be the art of this album, as if a residuum is all that we can speak of, fragmentation and trace and residuum are the way, because there is no uncontested truth and no uncontested narrator of the truth. We are speaking therefore from a post-dialectical residuum, a presence and an absence as in the following: “The trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself. The trace has, properly speaking, no place, for effacement belongs to the very structure of the trace.” There is no real meaning to the contemporary discourse, and in Bowie’s songs, the meanings exist like a wash of references, these songs are about a flux of meaning, a collision of meanings, or: they are composed of traces.
Balkanization, too, goes with the trace (above). Balkanization is the nature of all present things, all unities break down into constituent elements, and all constituent elements break down into further constituent elements, and the process of observation changes the elements under scrutiny, so that their nature is unfathomable. In Europe they understand Balkanization, because Balkanization is next door in Europe, Balkanization is part of Europe, is at one margin of Europe, and Balkanization exhibits the contamination principle, which is to say that it is unwise to rule out Balkanization, because Balkanization is liable to emigrate into your work force, in, e.g., the little canoes and flotillas that the Albanians used to traverse the Adriatic in search of employment in Western Europe. I have seen “Balkanization” used to refer to the Internet, and nowhere, these days, has quite the Balkanizing instantaneity of the Internet, where an audience, as soon as it is identified, is immediately divided and conquered, so that no audience, nor the possibility of substantial audience is ever again possible. But the Balkans are also a dividing line, a mauer, whether metaphorical or actual, between Eastern and Western Europe, between the traditions of the West, and the traditions of the “Orient,” between Constantinople and Istanbul, between Austria-Hungary and a great array of disorderly neighbors, the Serbs, the Russians, the Italians, etc. When Tony Visconti says that Bowie was also reading about history while writing The Next Day, you can imagine that he is, in part, also referring to this Balkanization. Imagine the pressure of Franz Ferdinand, upon going visiting in Sarajevo. He was, it seems, an unpleasant guy, given to dark prognostication, and he liked to shoot animals, trophy hunt, and off he went, at odds with Franz Joseph, emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire, as always, and the Black Hand tried to lob a grenade at him at first, and when that didn’t work, they shot him and his wife. You can read the dialogue between them, he and his wife, upon finding that they had been shot. The opening bell in the great carnage of the First World War.
As in backward masking?
Bowie has a reputation for carefully controlling his surroundings, and for being an astute maker of his own myth, and there has never been a moment, really, when he has not made the album he wanted to make, to the best of his ability. Does that make him a manipulator? It does not take a genius to see the incredible creativity in the way he rolled out The Next Day. Album finished, without record company input, recorded for two years in New York City, in secrecy, videos made without leaks, a viral marketing campaign based on the negations of the album cover in which other iconic images were covered over with the white cocktail napkin of the album cover. It’s all incredibly smart, and, from a media-related standpoint, well played. When I interviewed Bowie in 1995, I did notice (while being, it’s fair to say, so nervous that I could barely talk) that Bowie never answered a question he didn’t want to answer, seemed to have his answers well prepared, knew exactly what information he wanted to convey to the New York Times, for whom I was writing at the time. He taught me a lot, that day, when he was probably thinking he was just talking to an irritating cub reporter. He taught me a lot about how to be a professional with respect to what you make, and to believe in it, and to do the best you can in terms of making sure the work gets some of what it deserves. I think manipulate kind of has too many negative connotations to refer to what Bowie does here, on this album, or in his career as a whole, but it’s also fair to ask: how does the artist react to the industry in which he works? It is the industry, in the end, that manipulates, and it’s up to the artist to try to preserve a space in which he can work unmolested, as much as this is possible at all, by opposing the machinations of multinational industry.
Origin and Text
These two terms go together like revolver and stylus, like magnetosphere and death ray, like meat scraps and papyrus, like arbitrage and gouache, like rotundity and bubo, like altimeter and wind shear, like manatee and sample sale. If there is no origin, there is no text, or so it would seem, but how exactly do we define an origin? If the history of recent revolutions in the Far East have taught us anything, it’s that an origin can be rejiggered, reinterpreted at any time, reconstituted with a heavy wind and a few vanishing calendar pages. With the cocktail napkin front cover, Bowie gives notice that no particular origin will be respected, that the unmoored continental version of the story, in which there are only the traces of what we have in front of us to interpret, will be the version of the story today. It’s a very Anglican theology, if we were going to think of the album as a sort of Anglican text: we accept no outside authority as regards our relationship to the work, only the text itself, no purple-headed priest, just the book, the album as a text of a kind, and we left to engage with it without interference, without the history of rock and roll weighing us down, without the David Bowies past, without the characters of David Bowie past, without the record company, without intermediaries at all, just the book, the text, the album, and our relationship to it, the assumption is that there is text, that’s the Anglican version of the thing, but if the destabilized, origin-free version of the David Bowie album, the radically post-modern version of the thing, is what we’re really engaged with, then the mistake is to think of the album as the sole province of textual analysis. That is, after all, the point of the Next Day viral marketing campaign, that the effacement, the defacement of The Next Day, can be worked out on some of the other excrescences of contemporary society: just place the white cocktail napkin over the offending image, and proceed to make your work with silence, exile, and cunning. There is no text, really, or everything is the text, and there is no artist, because he prefers not to clutter up your relationship to the work by being present in it. There is a textual basis, and there is an origin, for this work that appears to have no origin and no text. Or: the textual analysis of The Next Day, that masterpiece, should not be confined to The Next Day, because the technique and themes of The Next Day expand outward beyond the confines of the album itself.
Another of the great Anglo-Saxonisms of this project, a word which gets its shape because of a certain defilement of standard English usage, in this case American, at least if you believe the first in-print occasion authored by William Dean Howells: I was led away, and I got my come-uppings, or the other fellow’s come-uppings, for I wa’n’t to blame any, and I always said so, and I guess the judge would say so too, if it were to do over again. That’s from the late 1880s, and it signals the Mid-Atlantic anxiety of The Next Day, as well as the theme of retributive restitution (comeuppance, it is said, refers to appearing before a judge), unless you accept the nearly coterminous Cornish version of the thing (comeuppance referring to being flogged), —in actual Cornish dialect—which is then brought to the U.S. by Cornish immigrants, where the word takes root in the sense that we have it now. Unclear, because this is the way of The Next Day, whether the album delivers the comeuppance or whether the artist is himself recipient thereof, and that is part of the paradoxical sense of the whole. The would have to be a perceptible difference between album and audience, between theme and lyricist, for us to have complete command of comeuppance. And there is not.
Tragic and Nerve
We come to the end with tragic and nerve, though there is no end here of the traditional sort for a number of reasons that are very contemporary and (by now) very routine, viz., there is no one end of the album, because there are various albums, different bonus tracks, depending on which version you buy in which country, these once meant to reward certain buyers, but now meant to suggest that there is no canonical text; furthermore the rumor mill already opines that there is another album’s worth of material leftover from the Next Day sessions. So there are many redactions of The Next Day, guises and disguises of The Next Day. One deluxe edition ends, it’s true, with “I’ll Take You There,” and the line Who will I be in the USA?, which line repeats themes we recognize elsewhere in the album. And yet one ending, a most harrowing and ominous ending is to be found in “Heat,” the “actual” “ending” of the album if, e.g., you buy a vinyl edition of the thing, the end of side two. The last song. “Heat” calls forth the specter of Scott Walker. Astute fans of Bowie will recall not only that Bowie covered Scott Walker’s “Nite Flights,” back on Black Tie, White Noise, and that he acted in the role of producer for a documentary on Walker, but the mutual contamination goes further than this, as Walker himself was influenced in a significant measure by Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, and the palpably transitional Walker composition “The Electrician,” on the last Walker Brothers album bore many of the birthmarks of Bowie’s Berlin methodology (you can almost hear “Warszawa,” from Low in it); moreover, Bowie commented at one point about a girlfriend in the late sixties who allegedly preferred Walker’s voice to his own; there’s also a lot of a mutual influence from the likes of Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill. Bowie and Walker are cut from a similar piece of cloth, and Walker’s recent albums, with their uncompromising anti-pop veneer, their dense and impenetrable lyrics, their shards of melody set against fields of non-musical cacaphony, some of it incredibly dark, perhaps even more than dark, seem to orbit around Bowie, as Bowie himself, in his most European modality, sounds a bit like Walker. Walker’s albums have a remarkable and stifling aspect, like they are teased out of some fold in Dante’s Malebolge where the suffering is in the shadows and the murmurs are barely perceptible. For me, Walker has an absence of melody—he seems to be improvising melody over the samples of industrial machinery and unearthly drones. The feeling is tragic. At least, it’s tragic if we can reanimate the word a little bit, so that tragic doesn’t feel as depleted as it sometimes feels.
Bowie starts “Heat” with a sort of a two-chord drone, fashioned mainly from some synthesizers and a lovely bass part by Gail Ann Dorsey, and his singing, in the lower part of his register, recalls the croon of Lodger, but with an indebtedness to the Walker of “The Electrician.” The lyrics, too, with the allusion to Yukio Mishima’s dog in the first line (“Then we saw Mishima’s dog/Trapped between the rocks/Blocking the waterfall”), have the high-art ambitiousness of Walker. The lyrical allusion here is to Spring Snow, by Mishima, part of a long multi-volume saga about the effects of Westernization called The Sea of Fertility. Spring Snow deals mainly with the years just prior to the First World War, which would imply—given Balkanization (above), and the WWII footage in “I’d Rather Be High” (which alludes to Nabokov’s The Gift)— that The Next Day constitutes a kind of anthology of songs about the world at war, the world at war is, in effect, the purpose of the album. And what is nerve, in this case, but a statement of the scale of the ambition of the album, and its web of global conflicts, most of them tragic. But even considering that this is the case, we still have not dealt thoroughly with the remainder of “Heat,” which in due course gives birth to its refrain, “And I tell my self,/ I don’t know who I am, and I tell myself,/ I don’t know who I am,” and then to, “My father ran the prison/My father ran the prison/But I am a seer/And I am a liar . . .” Do these lines allude, in the post-industrial Scott Walker murk of the song, to Spring Snow, and to a specific Mishima narrative? Are they meant to be taken as crypto-autobiographies by an artist who almost always hides behind a character? Or maybe they are larger commentaries not only on The Next Day as a whole, but on the larger body of song that is David Bowie’s work. Here is the skepticism with which we ought to greet that narrator (seer and liar) of the popular song, here is the lineage of that narrator (whose father is a prison warden, whose growing up is in a prison). I keep thinking of in terms of Jameson’s Prison-House of Language, as if the narrator of the “last song” on The Next Day, the dark, threatening dirge that ends the album, the masterpiece of an album, is a narrator who allegorizes the impossibility of a “narrator” who could confess about love and his life, but does not, who is a questionable narrator in just about every way, a subject of considerable torment, friction, pain, violence, terror, who is either seer, or liar, or both, and whose only linguistic utterances are inside of a tradition of imprisonment. The hard-to-fathom truth of The Next Day is that it manages to be all these things: harrowing, dark, violent, uncompromising, and a career summary of a kind, while being tuneful, even singable, on a great number of tracks. How many records do you buy these days where the entire thing has this kind of walloping impact? There are so many unforgettable songs on The Next Day that it is hard to stop playing the thing. The more attention you give it, the more layers it delivers. At first I didn’t get “Where Are We Now?” It seemed too sweet. But then it seemed anything but, and I loved it. At first I thought, “If You Can See Me” was a little Goth, but then I loved its syncopations and its backwards reverb and phasing. At first I didn’t get the incredibly infectious chorus of “Dancing Out In Space,” but then I couldn’t stop singing it, and in no case, at all, did I realize how strangely the words would unfold over the course of repeated listens. Never has an album been quite as resistant to interpretation as The Next Day, and rarely confident and unapologetic. It just doesn’t happen. Not these days. On the part of the exceedingly gifted artist who made it, it did require a lot of nerve. It certainly did.
Mystification and triumphalism. Mystification and populism. Mystification and reification. Mystification and conflict. Mystification and hazards in psychoactive drugs. Mystification and reproduction. Mystification and other tales. Mystification and ambiguity in European literature. Mystification and reality. Mystification and social agent absences. Mystification and Fear. Mystification and repugnancy. Mystification and the origins of money. Mystification and secrecy. Mystification and tumor suppressors. Mystification and delight. Mystification and the scapegoat. Mystification and the unnecessarily sultry. Mystification and aesthetics. Mystification and social control. Mystification and the Russians. Mystification and better nutrition. Mystification and demystification. Mystification and crime. Mystification and catastrophe. Mystification and urban geography. Mystification and reasonable assurance. Mystification and morality. Mystification and coy sentiment. Mystification and creationism. Mystification and the simple solution. Mystification and misrepresentation. Mystification and the yellow dragon. Mystification and ideology. Mystification and irrationality. Mystification and false consciousness. Mystification and indeterminacy. Mystification and unjustified paternalism. Mystification and our victim experience. Mystification and perversion under the veil. Mystification and xenophobia. Mystification and hope.
 A friend has challenged me to think anthologically about the later Bowie, as a way of indicating in how many gems lie there unexamined, and so here at the close I have come up with a fictitious Bowie anthology from 1990 to the present, called Outsider Artist. It’s in chronological order (because to do otherwise is to exert more art on these great songs than they require), and its track listing is as follows, and perhaps these notes could serve, in part as liner notes. Go back and listen to these songs, the old as well as the new, they deserve the attention.
1. “Crack City,” from Tin Machine
2. “I Feel Free,” from Black Tie, White Noise
3. “Jump They Say,” from Black Tie, White Noise
4. “The Buddha of Suburbia,” from The Buddha of Suburbia
5. “The Hearts Filthy Lesson,” from Outside
6. “Hallo Spaceboy,” from Outside
7. “Strangers When We Meet,” from Outside
8. “Little Wonder,” from Earthling
9. “I’m Afraid of Americans (Nine Inch Nails Remix, V1), from Earthling
10. “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Stigmata Film Version), from ‘Hours’
11. “Slow Burn,” from Heathen
12. “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,” from Heathen
13. “New Killer Star,” from Reality
14. “Try Some, Buy Some,” from Reality
15. “Bring Me the Disco King,” from Reality
16. “Five Years (Live), from A Reality Tour
17. “Under Pressure (Live),” from A Reality Tour
18. “Breaking Glass (Live),” from A Reality Tour
19. “The Next Day,” from The Next Day
20. “Where Are We Now,” from The Next Day
21. “Valentine’s Day,” from The Next Day
22. “I’ll Take You There (Bonus Track),” from The Next Day
Photographs of David Bowie © by Jimmy King.