Bowie by Simon Critchley

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David Bowie is the king chameleon of pop music. In the first half of the 1970s he centered albums around characters of his own invention, with a unique (and unusual) look, background, and vocal style for each leading man. Ziggy Stardust. Aladdin Sane. Halloween Jack. The Thin White Duke. Bowie never landed for long—Stardust, for example, lasted about a year before Bowie “retired” him. He switched musical genres just as quickly, from folk-infused rock ditties (1969’s David Bowie), to Rolling Stones-style rockers (1974’s Diamond Dogs), R&B inspired “plastic soul” (1975’s Young Americans), and instrumental electronic music (1977’s Low, in particular side two). His output was Beatlesesque. Over the course of 11 years, from 1969 to 1980, Bowie released 13 solo albums, toured four times, starred in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, and produced work by Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, among others. He lived in London, New York City, Los Angeles, Berlin. For a time, he was addicted to cocaine. He married, had a child, and divorced.

His musical eclecticism continued even when his pace slowed in the decades that followed (see, for example, 1997’s drum & bass inspired Earthling). Though Bowie delivered powerful performances in some (if not all) of his incarnations, there can be something standoffish about his peripatetic approach, especially the Brechtian way in which his wry smile seems to indicate that he is fully aware he’s putting on an act for our benefit. Authenticity in music is key, but Bowie’s career rejects authenticity. He is the artist as visitor, just passing through. He can feel slippery, like a handsome televangelist, a charismatic charlatan. Born David Robert Jones, even his name is phony. What’s he after?

This question is the subject of Simon Critchley’s thin volume Bowie. Critchley, a philosopher who teaches at The New School and moderates the New York Times‘s philosophy column “The Stone,” may seem an unlikely source for an exegesis of Bowie’s art, but he stakes his claim in the book’s first line: “no person has given me greater pleasure throughout my life than David Bowie.” Critchley first saw the star in a career-defining performance on the British TV show Top of the Pops, where Bowie sang “Starman” while sporting deep orange hair and a catsuit of many colors. He was, Critchley writes, “At once cocky and vulnerable. His face full of sly understanding—a door to a world of unknown pleasures.”

Watch the appearance and you’ll see this is no hyperbole. At about 1:30 Bowie points at the camera when he sings, “I had to phone someone so I picked on you-ew-ew,” and even today, within the small window of the YouTube player, my heart skipped a beat. Me? This ravishing creature, possibly half-alien himself with his smooth skin, crystal eyes, and sharp canines, choose me? Later, Critchley hears the single, which features the propulsive rock classic “Suffragette City” as the B-side. “I was twelve years old,” he says. “My life had begun.”

After this personal beginning, the book largely eschews biography, providing only bits and pieces of both the author’s life and his subject’s. Critchley addresses this head-on, positioning himself against the memoirist’s impulse to build a narrative out of life’s “episodic blips.” Such stories, he assures us, are fabrications. “As David Hume established long ago, our inner life is made up of disconnected bundles of perceptions that lie around like so much dirty laundry in the rooms of our memory.” Critchley believes in “decreative writing that moves through spirals of ever-ascending negations before reaching… nothing.”

The author postulates that Bowie approaches his work in a similar fashion. Since the early seventies, Bowie has penned lyrics by the cut-up method, slicing lines into random bits with scissors and then reconstructing the fragments. (Bowie borrowed this from William S. Burroughs, who himself got it from Brion Gysin.) Critchley thinks that this deconstructive assemblage “gets so much closer to reality than any version of naturalism.” After Bowie adopts the technique, his lyrics leave behind the straightforward storytelling of a song like 1969’s Space Oddity, becoming “much more fragmentary, imagistic, and modernist. Bowie’s words become synechdoches, parts that convey wholes but also the holes in those wholes.”

This somewhat-automatic writing process is mirrored in the “planned accidents” approach that now-legendary producer and musician Brian Eno brought to music composition. Eno and Bowie began working together in 1976 in Berlin; Eno would be involved with all three of Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” albums: Low, Lodger, and “Heroes”. When Bowie accidentally played his sax on the offbeat while recording “V-2 Schneider,” they didn’t re-do his part, but instead went with the mistake and allowed it to influence the song’s structure.

Inviting outside elements—chance, even error—into the process is the mark of an artist trying to keep loose and avoid becoming overly precious. These practices complement Bowie’s approach to his career as a whole, in which he dices and reconstructs his influences into work that’s surprising and uncanny, but then, rather than staying in that spot for very long, moves to something different. At times, Bowie has changed gears abruptly: Young Americans‘s R&B sound was a shocking departure from the gritty glam proto-punk of Diamond Dogs, just as the two raucous rock albums Bowie put out with the band Tin Machine in the late 80’s and early 90’s shattered the smooth, oversized pop star image he cultivated after 1983’s Let’s Dance. At other points, he’s pivoted more gradually. Even in its title, the 1976 album Station to Station presents itself as a transition from one sound to another (specifically, plastic soul to electronic).

Simon Critchley

Simon Critchley

Critchley suggests that by his ever-mutating nature Bowie presents us with a model of identity, one that is constant only in its fluidity. Bowie’s embrace of, to quote one of his most popular songs, changes, is another way of promising freedom. Feeling stuck, unhappy? Change your hair, your tune—even, as in another fan favorite, “Rebel Rebel” your gender: “You got your mother in a twirl / She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” This partly explains, Critchley says, why many people have been profoundly moved by Bowie’s work. “Bowie was the being who permitted a powerful emotional connection and freed them to become some other kind of self, something freer, more queer, more honest, more open, and more exciting.”

Fittingly for a philosopher, Critchley tries to pinpoint how exactly this connection happens. In a word: voice. Singing, speaking, chanting—creating sound by pushing air through a larynx—broadcasts our inner psychological state in a fundamentally physical way, and, because of that, it’s a communication that prioritizes emotion and sensation over reason. The truth to Bowie’s art is corporeal, it’s “a moodful truth, a heard truth, a felt truth, an embodied truth. Something heard with and within the body. The tone of the singing voice and music is felt in the tonus or musculature of the singing body. Musical tension is muscular, rising or falling, in progressive wave-beats of pleasure.”

Critchley goes on, in chapters that span only a few pages, to tease themes out of Bowie’s lyrics, jumping about Bowie’s decades of work not to connect the dots into a story, but to paint a portrait of the artist—a portrait large, abstract, and maybe a bit messy, like a Francis Bacon. He reveals a man who yearns for the release of love, but is aware of impending death; an intellectual distrustful of religion and horrified—in some ways fascinated—by war; a near madman whose paranoia, in his darkest visions, turns sex into a source of violence and pain. And yet Bowie’s dystopians are never hopeless. His songs “set us free in relation to a civilization that is petrified and dead. One does not fix up a house that is falling off a cliff. Bowie’s dystopia is utopian in equal measure.”

Almost always, Critchley keeps his eyes on the text. He doesn’t wax poetic about Robert Fripp’s fuzzy feedback effects on “Heroes,” or geek out about the clever way Tony Visconti set up the mics for that song so that the louder Bowie sang the more his words were doused in reverb, drowning in the mix. Instead, Critchley brilliantly observes that the lovers Bowie sings about in “Heroes” may be the same couple in “Let’s Dance,” desperate with “fear tonight is all.” His close reading turns Bowie into Critchley’s twin, an artist as deeply concerned with the question of what it means to be human as any philosopher. Bowie’s philosophy seeks wisdom over knowledge: it “is that love of wisdom that comes before and after science.” (Note the allusion to Brian Eno’s amazing album Before and After Science. Critchley hides many such Easter Eggs in his prose for the attuned Bowie fan.)

In Bowie, Critchley does for the artist what Bowie does for the realities of modern life: he observes closely and with sensitivity, revealing the omnipresent underlying tension in the material at hand, the light in the darkness and the darkness in the light. “There is no final reconciliation and no final peace,” Critchley writes about life, though he could also be describing Bowie’s best work. “This is why we are restless and scared. But this is also why someone like Bowie, without finding false solace in sham Gods, can go on asking questions, go on making, go on constantly surprising and delighting, today, and the next day, and another day.” (There’s another allusion, this one to the title track of Bowie’s most recent album, The Next Day. (And if you haven’t read Rick Moody’s amazing essay about that album for his Swinging Modern Sounds column, built around a list of words Bowie provided him to describe the album, you really should.)

Embracing the fear of death, the angst of one day becoming nothing, means realizing that there is no bedrock to our identities other than what we experience moment by moment, station to station. We are but a collection of personas, which can be terrifying, yet also fun and exciting. Critchley’s slim volume (or is it a long love letter?) reveals the philosopher in the pop star, the truthsayer in the vaudevillian, and the human in the freak. For Critchley, David Bowie models a lust for life and, if not an optimism, then at least the resolve to keep swimming while adrift at sea, that we would all do well to follow. Or, if we can’t follow him, we can simply turn up his music really loud and dance the pain away.

Brian Gresko is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York, and the editor of When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk about the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. You can find him online hosting The Antibody, a virtual reading series started during quarantine, and at More from this author →