Why Lady Gaga is wrong about David Bowie
So the Thin White Duke is with us once more, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes, pursuing his interest in the Gnostic myth of the Fall, bridging the gap between Philly soul and the motorik sounds of Kraftwerk and Neu! and subsisting on a diet of milk and cocaine to the point at which essaying a Nazi salute on the platform of Victoria station might feel like a good idea… Swastikas? Is that what they mean by “the X factor?”
Or to put it more prosaically, David Bowie’s Station to Station from 1976 has been reissued in new packaging (together with a previously unreleased two-disc live set, which highlights that even without Earl Slick on lead guitar, he never had a better band), and this week it entered the top 30, sandwiched at No 26, between Hands All Over by Maroon 5 and the Script’s Script – the sort of drab company that you wouldn’t wish on anyone, let alone Ziggy or the Dame, as later wags would call him. But still, never mind.
Suddenly Bowie is everywhere: the recipient of a cover story in the NME, in which younger turns line up to discuss the old chameleon’s influence, with some of these acts also appearing on a covers compilation, We Were So Turned On, the proceeds from which go to the charity War Child: here are Warpaint with a faithful “Ashes to Ashes” and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros with “Memory of a Free Festival”, alongside (incongruously) Duran Duran’s “Boys Keep Swinging” (no, you don’t!) and Carla Bruni as a game ingenue on “Absolute Beginners”.
What to make of “the more credible end of pop… rediscovering Bowie’s big ideas and grand themes”, as the NME puts it? Lady Gaga, Janelle Monáe, Mark Ronson, Brandon Flowers and even (incongruously!) Paul Weller all testify in the hope of seeing some of that stardust rub off on them. Inevitably, Gaga is most brazen, saying: “I look at Bowie as icon in art. It’s not just about the music. It’s about the performance, the attitude, the look; it’s everything. And that’s where I live as an artist….”
It’s here where she really misses the nub, of course, and likewise the NME writer who claims: “Bowie invented the idea that having a pseudonym was only one degree of separation: that beyond that, you could in fact remake yourself into a walking, talking, living doll that would effectively become the canvas for your work.” Because where would Bowie himself have been without the likes of Billy Fury – star of David Jones’s youth, born plain Ronald Wycherley – or for that matter, Bertolt Brecht? Yes, image was crucial to Bowie, but it wasn’t just his look that mattered; through the invention of multiple, subsequent personalities, he invited a different perspective on his art – his music. Perhaps put it this way: Lady Gaga can change outfits umpteen times in the course of a show, but the pop she produces, for all its slick attraction, bears little relation to any sense of an evolving identity. It just, you know, sounds quite enjoyable.
In this context, Station to Station is actually of especial fascination because the Thin White Duke was the last of Bowie’s alter-egos, and the album represents a sloughing off of those skins. Even if he never looked more striking, with cheekbones like razor blades, there was nothing very pretty about his coke addiction or his dabbling in the works of Aleister Crowley (interestingly, in the new reissue there’s no place for the photo that appeared in the 1999 reissue of Bowie drawing a cabbalistic tree of life). The record that followed the superficially glamorous but mysterious and darkly unsettling Station to Station, recorded in Los Angeles, was the first of his Berlin records, Low, and as the critic Ian MacDonald once wrote, the transformation between the two “was an inner one, not a career move. It happened to Bowie himself, not to Bowie the actor.”
It all adds up to this question: in today’s pop climate, so bereft of real ideas, where is Dave when he’s needed most? On which note, this week, shockingly, also brought succour. Almost nothing has been heard of Bowie since his 2004 tour, when he was hit in the eye by a lollipop on stage in Oslo and suffered a minor heart attack in Germany. But news has just leaked – then confirmed on the official website – that a book is due next year: Bowie: Object, which will feature “100 fascinating items that give an insight into the life of one of the most unique” etc, etc. Bowie will provide the text and one object could well be something called a “kirlian photographic device”.
Again, we can say not watch this space but watch that man.
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