The Hole in Bowie’s Soul
There are few music writers I admire more than Steve Turner, an esteemed British author and music journalist whose first gig was covering the Beatles in the late ’60s and who has since moved on to author biographies on Van Morrison, U2, The Beatles, Johnny Cash and even the musicians who went down with the Titanic. When I saw Steve’s reflections on David Bowie’s career, I asked him if we could repost his thoughts. He graciously obliged. Here’s a thought-provoking perspective on the style and substance (or lack thereof) of a true musical icon.
[Author’s Note: I wrote this piece after going to a preview of the Bowie exhibition at the V&A in 2013 but I never sent it to anyone. It contains a lot of what I felt about Bowie. I admired his skills and perception but felt that there was something lacking – something that he was aware of lacking. He was a symptom of an age where style was more important than substance and individualism more of an aim than community. Perhaps that’s why he can be admired by both David Cameron and Madonna.]
As I walked around a preview of ‘David Bowie is’ at the V&A Museum in London, the opening two lines of ‘Absolute Beginners’ kept going through my mind; ‘I’ve nothing much to offer/ There’s nothing much to take.’
Don’t get me wrong. Bowie has a brilliant imagination, has been an astute observer of his times and has undoubtedly influenced many people in many spheres. His knowledge of media manipulation is second to none. He’s also been adept at channeling ideas from high art and the avant garde into popular culture.
But after you’ve trawled through the artifacts it’s very hard to determine what he stands for other than, as the director of the V&A puts it in the catalogue “that we should be what we want to be” and that we shouldn’t depend on the views of others. We should all be leaders and not followers.
The cultural contribution hammered home most frequently in the exhibition is the example he set of gender blurring although I’ve never been sure whether he pursued this for moral-philosophical reasons or just sensed it would be the most convenient shock tactic to earn rebel credentials in the early 1970s.
I interviewed him at his home in 1972, just as Ziggy Stardust was birthed, and when I asked him about it he seemed to view himself as a mere product of the times and happy to be so. His skill, as he saw it, was to faithfully reflect changing mores. “I’m carried along,” he told me. “I’m carried along by the current of energy I feel in the environment in which I exist.”
He was very keen on the ideas of Andy Warhol who purported to want to distance himself from his art by eliminating personality and viewpoint. “It’s not what you are that counts,” Warhol once said. “It’s what they think you are.” Another time the artist said; “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
This very lack of opinion became, I believe, the key to Bowie’s art. Near contemporaries like John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend and Bruce Springsteen developed style that was consistent with their political, moral or spiritual substance. Bowie just developed style. He made such a virtue out the packaging that conversation about him centred on costumes rather than content.
He became a hero to a generation that was more preoccupied with brand development and image control than raising consciousness or changing the world. What people admired about him was his ability to sell himself, retain his integrity and stay ahead of the game. He was a marketing expert in a world increasingly controlled by PR; a makeover artist in a society given to reinvention.
His lyrics reveal little of what the author believes, thinks or feels. They are opaque not because of profound and complex poetry but because they are fragmentary and imprecise. In the mid-1970s he latched onto the cut-up method of composition pioneered by artist-poet Brion Gysin and beat novelist William Burroughs. This involved physically slicing up texts and putting the pieces back together in arbitrary sequences.
This suited Bowie well because it avoided the demands of linear logic and enabled him to bury his thoughts. He cut up his own lyrics and rearranged them in random order so that all of the original meaning was destroyed. In the 1990s he helped develop a computer programme ‘Verbasizer’ that performed the same function.
On the day in March that he took out full-page adverts displaying all the lyrics from his new album The Next Day, I was called by a newspaper keen to discover what Bowie was ‘saying.’ After at least an hour of intent perusal, I had to admit that I had no idea what he was trying to tell us, if anything.
Of course, not every performer has to make coherent statements in their lyrics but Bowie is one of the few generation-changing artists of the past 50 years and he was proud enough of his words to have them printed on posters.
His producer, Tony Visconti, when asked why Bowie had made a record after 10 years of silence, said that it was because he really felt he had something to say. He spoke reverentially of his immersion in medieval history and his keen intellect. But what exactly was it that he was burning to tell us?
The first single from the album, “Where Are We Now,” established expectations that the rest of the songs would answer that question. They didn’t. I fear that what his fans may interpret as enigmatic is merely evidence of an inability or unwillingness to articulate an argument. It’s clear from the exhibition that Bowie thinks deeply about each project and draws inspiration from a myriad of sources. He admires people who have strong points of view. It’s inconceivable that he’s not aware of the lack of revelation in his lyrics.
He has likened himself to a jackdaw trawling though the annals of culture, picking on whatever gleams the brightest and bringing it back to the nest of his art. What he discovers doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but at least it will look or sound good. His earlier investigation into religion led him to Buddhism, occultism, numerology and the works of magician Aleister Crowley, all of which could be cut and pasted into tantalizing songs. Politically, his only pronouncements have been unfortunate. He expressed admiration for Nazi aesthetics (great costumes, impressive rallies, nice photographs) and told Playboy that Hitler was the first rock star.
His ‘stands’ on issues tend to be incidental and populist. In 1983 he claimed he wanted his music to be “more hopeful and helpful.” When pressed to give an example of what he considered hopeful and helpful he said; “People shouldn’t kill each other and people should try to live together.”
One of the most telling pieces of work at the V&A exhibition was a single page torn from a 1995 notebook where he mused on the state of the culture. “Things have moved along quite rapidly since the pluralism of the seventies,” he wrote “We now have a young generation who are having to ‘surf the chaos’, so to speak, who are ‘scanning’ their way through events and images, reading life from its surface. There seems no time to develop depth.”
The tone is one of concern for these youngsters yet, as an artist, his predicament echoes theirs. Hasn’t Bowie surfed the chaos and scanned his way through images? Isn’t he the one who has constantly read from the surface of things and consequently had no time to develop depth? It may be that he’s cleverly commenting on the culture by simulating its vacuity or its obsession with sensation; reflecting back to it the hole in its soul. Significantly, perhaps, the cover of The Next Day is the cover of his earlier album Heroes but with a blank square where his face once was.
Or it may be that he was blessed with the gift of communication but not equally blessed with a message to communicate and that his preoccupation with style has been a prolonged tactic to conceal the emptiness at his core.
To Rolling Stone in the early 1970s he confessed: “I don’t feel I’m a person at all sometimes. I’m just a collection of other people’s ideas. The artist doesn’t exist. None of us. We’re in the twilight zone. We’re the original false prophets. We want all the adulation but we’ve got nothing to say.”