This is NOT an obituary. Indeed this article was written on Friday Jan 8th and Saturday Jan 9th. It is clear now that the meaning of "Lazarus" on the new record cannot be reduced to the Thin White Duke persona, though it is clear that, of all of his personae, Bowie felt most comfortable staging his death – his final work of art – using the persona of the dying, emaciated mid-seventies iteration of his chameleon-like ch-ch-ch-changes. The very act of planning an album release – including a tremendously disturbing music video of a very sick Bowie – around one’s death seems of a piece with Bowie’s lifelong artistic project…
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The Ambiguity of the Thin White Duke
David Bowie’s got a new record out, Blackstar. It’s superb and dark, a full fledged and conscious return to the Thin White Duke persona. In these times of drones and popular alienation, Bowie gives us (musical) drones, lyrical ellipses, no obvious “hits”, indeed it is probably his least accessible album since Lodger. Saxophones screech like Eric Dolphy. Bowie, a sax player before he was a singer, has always incorporated the more disturbing elements of experimental jazz into his oeuvre alongside the more soulful style as on Young Americans. As opposed to the vaguely Scary Monsters-style use of older Bowie "hit" tropes (down to the album cover) of his 2013 “Comeback” album, The Next Day, this one hearkens to his darker work, the Berlin albums but especially Station to Station. It is no accident that the latter work was a premonition of the dark days of neoliberal restructuring and was part of a series of mid-seventies "serious" works that proclaimed a sense of hopelessness and resignation. The same theme is percolating in the best works of popular music right now, from Kendrick Lamar’s existential confusion to the resigned-but-angry tone on recent work by veterans like Mercury Rev, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and ex-REM guitarist Peter Buck, all tonics to today’s dreadful “indie rock”, uber-sincere faux-Americana, with or without synthesizers.
Yet neither on Blackstar or Station to Station is Bowie mournful. Rather, he’s playful, a trickster, gleefully fiddling at Rome burning. If the old Thin White Duke was a coke addled, sorta-kinda fascist alien, as in Nicholas Roeg’s Man Who Fell to Earth, Thin White Duke 2.0 or Lazarus (also the title of Bowie’s new Off-Broadway musical) is the same – but all-too-human. No longer making pretense of extraterrestrial origins, this new/old persona is human in form but alien(ated) in content, like the nameless Storm Trooper Finn (FN2817) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Aliens and “outer space” have been a constant theme in Bowie’s music, all the way from Major Tom to his mid-nineties industrial period and Earthling. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield famously sang "Space Oddity" from the International Space Station. Is it any more than a little wonder that socialists, those of us who see a future beyond all forms of alienation, may find much enlightenment in Bowie’s work, even as we tap our feet, nod our heads and sometimes in my case, annoyingly try and hit the high notes on "Quicksand"?
Bowie is not without controversy in these times in which the politics of artists are often understood as co-constitutive of virtuous behavior. Indeed, one could extend this point well beyond assessment of a given artist, but put simply, Bowie is, as they say, “problematic.” Politically, underneath all the personae, he is pretty much a standard bourgeois Englishman, self-proclaimed apolitical, a Blairite philantho-liberal who has the good taste to not be Bono. Just last year, he campaigned against Scottish independence. This in and itself wouldn’t necessarily render him capital “P” Problematic. Rather, it is what is taken to be his dalliance with far-right politics that brings him into this camp, in addition to the ambiguities in his personae, particularly the original Thin White Duke. Bowie’s fascination with Nazism was less political than akin to a teenager who discovers the rabbit-hole of the occult and Alesiter Crowley (with whom Bowie also had a short fascination).
Let’s remember, the guy was in his late twenties. He was famously photographed waving to fans in a sense that it looked as if he could have been giving a fascist salute, something he denied. He quipped to a Swedish journalist that Britain could use a prime minister like Hitler, and compared Hitler to Mick Jagger in an interview with Playboy. Nazi mythology permeates his lyrics until the late seventies, from “Himmler’s Realm” on Hunky Dory’s "Quicksand" to the “visions of swastikas” in "China Girl," written originally for Iggy Pop in 1976 and recorded on Let’s Dance (1983). Not unexpectedly, Bowie was condemned by far-left groups and musicians like the respected Maoist avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew. He was lumped in, what’s more, with the undeniably reactionary Eric Clapton, who, while hawking Black American and Jamaican music in a watered-down form, spoke admiringly of Enoch Powell and his “rivers of blood” speech. Bowie was, however, disabused of his fascist fascination when he moved from California to Berlin... “[In Berlin] I was in a situation where I was meeting young people of my age whose fathers had actually been SS men, That was a good way to be woken up out of that particular dilemma… yeah, I came crashing down to earth when I got back to Europe.”
Could Bowie, thus, be interpreted plausibly as having a fascist aesthetic? Using Susan Sontag’s classic analysis of Leni Riefenstahl, it would seem, most definitely not. Sontag lays down a set of axioms that describe what could be constituted as fascist art, none of which, even slightly, fit Bowie’s work. The dialectic of egoism and servitude is not there. Certainly there’s egoism, but Bowie has never been of service to anyone other than himself and his audience. Bowie’s chameleon-esque set of personae militate against Sontag’s framework, that, in fascist art “relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication of things and grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader figure or force.” One can argue that the pageantry in Bowie’s art has always turned things back into people, his personae are not fetishes but archetypes. They are never all-powerful or hypnotic, indeed they often “take it all too far”, even if they could play guitar. Against the glorification of surrender and death, Bowie has always attempted to humanize such processes, given his family background of mental illness and suicide. By incorporating his own death into the new Lazarus persona, right down to the death-bed music video, he could be accused of glorification were it not for the arch and over-the-top humor underneath the wide-eyed pose.
The point is, whatever, this dalliance with “problematic” imagery is used against Bowie like a cudgel, usually by those indisposed to liking his art in the first place, and his art could hardly be plausibly described as fascist, or even right-wing. That Bowie is a queer icon, one of the first major rock stars to come out, may be part of this. After all, it’s rare that folks remember that Elvis Costello once called Ray Charles a “blind and ignorant n*****r” or that the Kinks played Sun City. In turn, whatever the ostensible politics, a song like "Heroes," about love on either side of the Berlin Wall was less an anti-communist anthem than it was a song of pure longing, more relevant to Global Apartheid than some such Stasi lampooning. "I’m Afraid of Americans," appearing in the triumphalist mid-nineties, was a reminder of how even apolitical bourgeois Englishmen saw Clintonite America. Indeed, the interesting thing about Bowie’s fascist fascination is that it is part of the truly confounding, even method-acting quality of Bowie’s collection of personae, starting with the fictitious individual by the name of “David Bowie” – a pseudonym for David Jones, once using Davey but choosing a stage name when the Monkees hit the big time.
Scary Monster and Super Creep
Far more disturbing than the allegations of fascism are stories of Bowie being a sexual predator. Indeed, while part of a wider context in which sex between young teenagers and early 20s rock stars was not necessarily seen as rape – though there are other allegations well into the 1980s – Bowie cannot go unscathed by this. While there is always autonomy between the artist and the art, the more disturbing truth is that there indeed does seem to be an inherent connection between some of Bowie’s personae and his ability to adopt an attitude in which it is okay to have sex with teenagers. Bowie repeatedly uses the imagery, in his early work, of young fans, “pretty things… drive your mothers and fathers insane”. This quote simultaneously signifies an affirmation his fans living somewhere outside the region of hetero-normativity, and a subtle admission of his own predilections for young women and men. His early lyrics, in particular, have a disturbing fascination with young girls, not unlike Woody Allen’s Manhattan foreshadowed far more serious infractions by the filmmaker.
How can we hold Bowie accountable, as listeners, but still respect his achievement as an artist? There are no easy answers to this question. Bowie opened up aesthetic doors that one can walk through, in a sense, and critique him. As Margaret Corvid puts it, “The dirt was always there”. It would be oscurantist, on the other hand, to deny the reality of the experience of so many alienated young people and how we found solace and a glimpse of another world being possible, through Bowie’s art. While not accounting for the then-unknown stories of horrific domestic abuse, John Berger’s The Success and Failure of Picasso hits the right notes. It demythologizes Picasso’s genius by actually historicizing his innovation, which is quite apart from distasteful aspects of the artist's own day-to-day life (in Picasso’s case, gleefully cheering on the commodification of art and enriching himself). Bowie’s artistic achievements need to be recognized on a register of critical engagement with art, but that engagement cannot gloss over these uncomfortable issuses, and these issues actually add to the compelling quality of his art, though not in a positive sense whatsoever…
Golden Years: Bowie in Context
The character David Bowie started out as an English hippie with a certain degree of gender ambiguity, akin to the early personae of Peter Gabriel in Genesis. While the first album is a mixed bag, he had a classic run with the next four. Bowie came “face-to-face with the man who sold the world”, declared his filiation through independence from Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol, produced Lou Reed. He wrote "All the Young Dudes" for Mott the Hoople, and morphed into the far more flamboyant self-satire of Ziggy Stardust, though Ziggy himself morphed into Aladdin Sane upon visiting the United States.
This series of personal sublations matched the dynamic musical shifts, from vaguely folksy Nick Drake-type material, through to distorted guitars and tinkly upright pianos, finally to a bombastic, sax-driven “thick” sound. Hunky Dory was his first masterpiece: homoeroticism, the occult and Lennon/Lenin puns surround paeans to “the best selling show”. Between fist-pumping anthems, the Ziggy persona developed as a whole, wrote genuinely moving songs beloved by alienated teenagers. “Turn on with me”, sings Ziggy, using a euphemism for smoking pot, “and you’re not alone! Give me your hands”. He continued this theme on Aladdin Sane. Ziggy was now really the fantasy star of the Ziggy Stardust LP, a cracked actor, a lad, insane, combining English style blues rock with puns on Jean Genet. The end of the Ziggy era came in a covers album, Pinups, admittedly uneven but notable in what was left on the cutting room floor: a version of Bruce Springteen’s "Growing Up," available on reissued CDs or somewhere on the internets.
As Aladdin Sane stayed in the United States, he went from glam to leather, and ended up Halloween Jack on the dystopian, Orwell-influenced concept album Diamond Dogs. Halloween Jack was all urban swagger, using the wah-wah guitars from Isaac Hayes’ Shaft to signify 1984. This signified the beginning of his “funk” period, Jack was starting to morph into the Thin White Duke, but this time around, it was a lighter affair. Young Americans is a truly great funk album with co-writing credits from Luther Vandross and John Lennon, the latter of whom providing perhaps his all-time great rhythm guitar performance on "Fame." Bowie moved to L.A. and became the Thin White Duke, binging on cocaine and falling deeper into an occult rabbit hole in a matter so nonsensical that it would be laughable if it didn’t influence the best album of his career. His aformentioned fascist fascination existed alongside a veritable obsession with the Jewish mysticism of Kabbalah. Then there’s the E-Street Band’s Roy Bittan debuting a garish piano sound later perfected with the Boss: frenetic guitars, four-to-the-floor drumming and a song he learned from Nina Simone, "Wild is the Wind."
I’m of the rare opinion among Bowie fans that the Berlin albums are overrated krautrock tributes, an interesting set of collaborations with Brian Eno, who was really the star of the show, with the detoxing Bowie in the background. Though not without some fantastic tracks, these albums are a bit of a pause, the ego-loss suffered by the overlapping personae marking a retreat into studio wizardry and suddenly being marketed as “New Wave”. He returned, slightly and very artistically successfully to the pre-Ziggy “David Bowie” persona on Scary Monsters, even seeing a return to the Major Tom character. He coasted through the eighties with the odd great pop song, notably the Queen collaboration "Under Pressure" and the Stevie Ray Vaughan-accompanied and underrated "Let’s Dance." Like with many artists of the seventies, the eighties found Bowie confused and confusing, playing sold out tours but putting out underwhelming records. In the face of this, he put together Tin Machine, which was a band in its own right, and tried on anonymity, before returning to form in the nineties.
Bowie in the 90s is as good as he ever was. The Brian Eno collaboration Outside, a comic book-driven concept album, is superior to the Eno collaborations from Berlin. Following a co-headlining tour with Nine Inch Nails, Bowie worked with Trent Reznor on the classic Earthling, affecting a Ziggy-type persona once again while subtly but noticeably incorporating textures from Drum & Bass and other new forms of “Electronica”, as it was then called. Bowie continued this streak, affecting the mantle of “elder statesman” of the dominant trends in “Alternative Music”, into the early 2000s, with a particular highlight coming with his last album for a decade. Reality, featuring a dynamite cover of Jonathan Richman’s "Pablo Picasso," “who was never called an asshole”. But this “alternative” streak had to come to an end along with the stately, knighted gentleman, the man who sold the world and got in return everyone from Robert Smith to Boards of Canada.
Bowie returned in 2013, seemingly out of nowhere with The Next Day, though avoiding public appearances and vowing not to tour or play live. The image portrayed on the album’s artwork, particularly on the gatefold vinyl version, is as confounding as the music is interesting (if undeveloped). The cover of Heroes, often proclaimed Bowie’s masterpiece by mainstream pop critics who probably spun the dissonant side two once or twice, is embossed with a somewhat elevated white square with the album title. This was not Bowie trying super hard, but it was a fun and funky record, reminiscent of Scary Monsters or Aladdin Sane, as “Very Good” but not “Great” Bowie albums. The real return to form, of course, came with the most recent album: the aformentioned Blackstar.
Has Bowie revived the Thin White Duke, as speculated above? Perhaps. He no longer has to even try to get attention, but he has chosen an untrod path, making music every bit as experimental as at his peak, and far more original than the Berlin albums. At 69 years old, Bowie has provided a soundtrack to nearly half a century of social shifts, and at all points, his music crystallized the broader political and social relationships in which his work was embedded. Salvador Dali was once asked if he did drugs, and he answered “I don’t do drugs, I am drugs.”. In the same sense, Bowie didn’t write politics, he is politics, in a properly Machiavellian sense. As opposed to taming fortune with his virtue, David Bowie tricked fortune into coming along for the ride, proclaiming “Let the children lose it, let the children use it, let all the children boogie!”
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So Bowie is dead and it’s a God-awful small affair. Social media is redolent with reminiscences or reminders of his flirtations with fascism, or both. Thousands of stereos are blasting Rebel Rebel, Let’s Dance and Under Pressure. It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about indeed. Rest in peace, Thin White Duke. You ain’t got the power anymore… and perhaps that’s a good thing.
Special thanks to Sarah Kizuk for her help with this article.
Jordy Cummings is a critic, labor activist and PhD candidate at York University in Toronto.