January 8, 2018


Happy Birthday David Bowie! Like many teenagers in the early 1960s, David Bowie was inspired by American music. He took up the saxophone and guitar and formed a string of bands that played blues and rock covers for parties and local entertainment. As a keen student of graphic design, art, and mime (!), his Mod beginnings transformed over the years as he explored areas of musical and theatrical production that we can now recognize as era-defining (1960s Mod, poet, 1970s glam, soul, experimental, electronic, dance, 1980s pop, cyber punk, jungle, etc). If an artist is always in the state of becoming, Bowie spent a lifetime trailblazing the outer limits and sending back transmissions of things to come.

Bowie stayed in the fast lane for forty years, releasing albums and pursuing his acting career, until a heart attack on stage in 2004 made him take stock. There was a nine-year hiatus with few appearances, and it looked like the limelight had been traded for quality time as a stay-at-home dad. He surprised everyone in 2013, however, with an outstanding new album called The Next Day, which was released during a flurry of Bowie-related art shows and a massive retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A exhibit celebrating his career in music, fashion, graphic arts, fine art, and set design was captured in the illustrated book David Bowie Is. Catch the exhibit tour- now in NYC, I think. Bowie surprised everyone when he announced that he had recorded the new album in secret- his first record in ten years. The Next Day, quickly went to number one in charts around the globe. With few exceptions, the vibe of the album is energetic and experimental. Bowie also seemed to mine his Berlin period with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop in the 1970s by re-exploring the theme of Berlin in some of the tunes, most notably Where Are We Now? (does the mention to Potsdamer Platz reference his own time there or perhaps Wings of Desire by Win Wenders?). The cover image itself was a re-appropriated version of HeroesFans enjoyed spotting various references to Bowie's past, including a connection between Five Years (Ziggy Stardust/1972) and the track, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die. Besides its sweet echo of Presley's Heartbreak Hotel, the more interesting layer to this song was its thematic connection to tradecraft and the dirty business of espionage. Although some have speculated connections to medieval brutality, one cannot miss the spy references to dead drops, secrets, betrayal, and assassination. I can't help but conjure up images of Deighton's Berlin stories, Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and the dark sad truth of East Germany's network of informants and agents during Bowie's years in Berlin. Bowie starred in a video for the track The Stars (Are Out Tonight) with the wonderful Tilda Swinton, who also made the opening speech for the David Bowie retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Swinton herself had an artistic fascination with Berlin. She made an an experimental film study of the Berlin Wall in 1988 called Cycling the Frame. Twenty-one years later she starred in a marvelous and meditative film that re-examined the presence -even in its absence- of the Wall called The Invisible Frame (2009). The film invited the viewer to travel with Swinton by bicycle along the scars and remnants of the Wall, an experience that became a long portrait of the city and of the perceptions of identity and territory.

Feel So Lonely You Could Die
By David Bowie (2013)

No-one ever saw you 
Moving through the dark
Leaving slips of paper 
Somewhere in the park
Hidden from your friends
Stealing all they knew
Love is thrown in airless rooms
Then vile rewards for you

But I'm gonna tell
Yes I've gotta tell
Gotta tell the things you've said
When you're talking in the dark
And I'm gonna tell the things you've done
When you're walking through the park

Some night on a thriller’s street will come a silent gun
You've got a dangerous heart
You stole their trust, their moon, their sun
There'll come assassin’s needle on a crowded train
I bet you'll feel so lonely you could die

Buildings crammed with people
Landscapes filled with wrath
Grey concrete city
Rain has wet the street
I want to see you clearly 
Before you close the door
A room of bloody history
You made sure of that

Bowie followed with with the Backstar album, which was release on this day (his birthday) in 2016. He passed away two days later at the age of 69. The record was crafted as his sawn song, and except for a few collaborators, he had kept the seriousness of his illness (liver cancer) a secret. And mid-celebration of the new work, that skinny Mod kid  -who had dreamed as a kid of becoming Little Richard's sax player only to become the king/queen of glam, experimental oracle, actor, artist, designer, and cutting-edge pop star- was no more. No one could deny the message of his farewell video, Lazerus, in which he sang of mortality, and donning one of his old costumes, climbed into a coffin-like wardrobe and disappeared. He said goodbye to the persona of David Bowie, which he had created for his theatrical endeavors. And now David Jones was gone. I feel lucky to have seen him perform a number of times between the 1980s and the 2000s. I still can't quite understand a world without him, but I know his creative spirit lives on in his work. When Tilda spoke about him at the V&A, she talked about how he had been a kind catalyst for so many people to embrace their alternative identities and basically let their freak flags fly. I like to think his own courage and individual nature will continue to inspire young people to follow their own vision, whether it be about personal identity or about creative projects. In that spirit, maybe we really can be heroes.

For Spy Vibers who have never explored the fascinating career of David Bowie, you have a lot to look forward to! Although it is difficult to choose a short list of his work, here is my essential Bowie. If you are a fan of the more cabaret theatrics of Bowie's music, check out the remastered edition of his original Deram album from the mid-1960s and the Baal album.

Movies: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), The Hunger (1983), Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), Labyrinth (1986), Basquait (1996), The Hunger (tv/1999-2000).

Concerts/Videos/Docs: The Best of Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, Ricochet, Reality Tour, Storytellers, Under Review 1976-1979 The Berlin Trilogy.

Albums: Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Hunky Dory (1971), Ziggy Stardust (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), Pin Ups (1973), Station to Station (1976), Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Lodger (1979), Scary Monsters (1980), Baal (1981), Outside (1995), Earthling (1997), VH1 Storytellers (2001), Heathen (2002), The Next Day (2013).

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