Search
  • blackbordello

‘Ain’t that just like me?’: violence, psychedelia and the reincarnating self in the work of Bowie

Updated: Oct 11, 2018


David Bowie is an artist renowned for his experimental, extensive and theatrical oeuvre. His work spans over many decades and reflects the socio-political landscape and context of multiplex generations and societies. The ability to extend his music into his quotidian routines and environment whilst also subverting notions of normality with regard to identity, sex and politics makes him a prime example of a popular modernist. Popularisation of previously excluded and criticised elements of otherness unites similarly isolated and disenfranchised people together and also draws him into dialogue with radical characters of the past. Furthermore, his work considers violence, fascism and mental illness, perhaps by cause of his upbringing.


Bowie used his body and identity as a means of extending the boundaries of art. This was employed by many ‘dandies’ in the post-war world of pop music. In philosophical terms, the treatment of the self as a work of art boils down to the rejection of tutelage- the blind acceptance of another person’s authority. In ignorant cooperation, one is likely to lose their critical eye in their failure to acknowledge the world around them. By focussing on the self rather than following by societal example, one obtains the ‘presentness’ necessary in order to be modern. Baudelaire developed the notion of ‘the dandy’- a walking embodiment of both art and modernity. ‘In Baudelaire’s texts, the dandy serves as the creator and object of his art. The aesthetic cultivation he practices on his body is meant to transform his art into an art of living, and his style into a personal style of living.’ If we then apply these understandings to the work of Bowie, what we see is a person who reinvented his character so as to construct himself as a layered artwork. He and his work become inseparable; a nebulus of eternally modern artistic renaissance and self-referential narrative.


‘well okay I think I am a person who can take on the guises of different people that I meet and switch accents… within seconds of meeting somebody I can adopt their accent. I’ve always found that I collect, I’m a collector… erm, and I’ve always just seemed to collect personalities… ideas. I have a hotch-potch philosophy which really is very minimal.’


Bowie began his musical career formally in a folk club in Foxgrove Road, which soon became the Beckenham Art’s lab. In the early late 60s and 1970s, the psychedelic post-war afterglow of the 60s was rife in London, and David’s place of habitation and creative arts was often frequented by ‘young, long-haired, dope-smoking, acid-dropping flower children and freaks...carrying assorted musical instruments.’ At his gigs, the ‘atmosphere of psychedelic was rife within the air. His involvement with this culture was purely a reflection of the space within which he existed, and although the Beckenham arts lab seemed something of a lysergic wonderland, Bowie himself was not swept away by the ‘glamour’ of the hippie movement, all too aware of the darker undertones that sat beneath it. Mary Finnegan, his friend, colleague and part-time lover was surprised to hear that unlike many of his comrades he had never taken LSD. He hinted that he was frightened of losing control, mentioning his brother Terry: ‘He’s schizophrenic and it probably runs in the family’. Bowie chose to further his experiences of psychedeIia through Buddhist means, a theme which ran throughout his music. Tibetan Buddhism became a ‘hip craze’ in the late 60s, but Bowie took an unlimited interest in the religion and its political backdrop, bearing attention to the destruction that China had inflicted on the country and campaigning for its emancipation with songs like China Girl. It has been understood that popular modernist icons, both in the realms of film and music, must dialogue with their surrounding spaces in such a way that creates a sort of tension. Many critics have commented on Nicholas Roeg’s portrayal of warped spatiotemporal landscapes with relation to Buddhism, meditation and psychedelic, astral thought. The use of sequences, patterns and subtle, peripheral scene-setting in Roeg’s cinematography certainly feels like a post-meditative mindset, acutely hyper-aware of fragile use of colour and sound. Roeg’s intelligent understanding of the limits of human knowledge lends itself to trust subconscious thought: “I think I always somehow, subconsciously sensed that nothing is what it seems.” Both Bowie and Roeg, in conjuring a fragile feel for the uncanny, allude to the potentiality for religious thought, beyond death. It is understandable therefore that he should choose Bowie to star in his film, The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Roeg creates nothing quite like a formal pattern, then, but at the same doesn’t simply tell a story.[...] Talking about the presence of soy sauce bottles in a scene from Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, Branigan in Screen magazine notes “thus objects (and persons) in Ozu are seen not as subordinate to, or reflecting, a theme or ideological stance, but a complex organisation of space that reveals not meaning in the ordinary sense, but geometry and symmetry in a state of tension.”


Fairly soon, with the swift development of the technological age, Bowie began to change the direction of his music from organic corporal psychedelia towards the synthetic world of technology. Fabrication and the synthesis of human and machine became themes in his work which mirrored the rise of mass-manufacture and commercial capitalism. Artists like Kraftwerk embodied the mechanical and the fake, with lyrics like ‘we are showroom dummies’ that encapsulated the phenomenon of dehumanisation. The sense that humans were being imitated, replaced or even superseded by machines was omni-present in an universally uncanny atmosphere. This threatened popular music icons whose artwork was founded on the natural capabilities of human body and identity: ‘the bourgeois ego is drowned in the icy waters of inhuman labor’. Attempts to compete with the unbeatable modernism of the mechanical age would only come across ‘fake’, and with the rise of mindless consumerism, inspiration was sparse.


'A pop person is like a vacuum that eats up everything, he’s made up from what he’s seen. Television has done it. You don’t have to read anymore. Books will go out, television will stay. And that’s why people are really becoming plastic, they are just fed things and are formed and the people who can give things back are considered very talented.’


But what if anything could be a machine? After all, with Deleuze in mind, the ‘machine’ is only a means of converting one energy into another. Thus, just the self can be rendered a machine just as it can an artwork. In something that resounds with Heideggerian senses of die Stimme(voice) and die Stimmung(mood), Bowie’s voice and the atmosphere that surrounds it are two separate figures that demand different things, but can be made to work symbiotically to convert internal and uncharacterised emotions into outward rhetoric.


‘Bowie permits a kind of deworlding of the world, an experience of mood, emotion or Stimmung that shows that all in the world stimmt nicht - i.e. is not in agreement or accord with the self.’


The ‘discord’ between man and machine could be evoked simultaneously within art as the Music became a platform to express imaginations of cyborgs, humanoids and robots. This created an interesting dichotomy in the identities of pop characters, where one’s mechanical ‘art’ character would have to communicate with one’s organic and inexposed ‘human’ character. Bowie expresses the depth of self-reflection exquisitely in Changes:

‘So I turned myself to face me

But I never caught a glimpse

Of how the others would see the fakers

I’m much too fast to take that test’


These ontological developments were being reflected in the music of the time, and as though prosthetically, certain mechanical recording devices would replace or interfere with parts of the human body, like the use of fashionable synths like the Moog or Vocoders, where the voice would be generated by the machine, operated by the human. This is particularly evident in Bowie’s albums Station to Station and Low but also in later hits like Donna Summer’s I Feel Love (1977) or Zapp’s Computer Love (1985). These were also mirrored by films such as Electric Dreams (1984), where a man invests in a computer which develops sentience and self-awareness and begins to dominate and overrun every part of his life. Kraftwerk were prolific in such considerations, and famously sent robots to conduct interviews in place of their actual selves. Their lyrics, however, in their involvement with the mechanical world, always return to the sense that one must address the self in order to make use of the machine. This excerpt from Hall of Mirrors echoes Bowie’s Changes:


‘The young man stepped into the mirror

Where he discovered a reflection of himself

Sometimes he saw his real face

And sometimes a stranger at his place

He fell in love with the image of himself

And suddenly the picture was distorted

He made up the person he wanted to be

And changed into a new personality

The artist is living in the mirror

With the echoes of himself…

Even the greatest stars live their lives in the looking glass’


In moving with the times, Bowie created his most synthetic and contrived manifestation of himself yet. Ziggy Stardust was a total rejection of the ordinary, organic self. He was a character described in Bowie’s own words as a ‘Martian messiah who twanged a guitar’. Not only was this character subversive to the rigidly established societal roles of the time, but he was a vibrant demonstration of the glorification of the Other. Ziggy – a dolled-up, orange-haired, Kabuki-esque alien creature fallen from Mars – was timid and confident at the same time, rejected capitalism whilst being glamorously commercial and was hugely compassionate and ‘down-to-earth’, despite emigrating from millions of miles away.


‘He was the outsider, the alien, the visitor (the latter was the name Thomas Jerome Newton gave to his album - a message in a bottle back home - when Bowie played him in The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976). Here was Ziggy in his suicide song reaching out to us in our dumb, tangled up, self-lacerating confusion and saying we were wonderful.’


Aside from being something strange of a pop icon, he was also a living protest against institutional race and gender discrimination (which was rife following the Vietnam war) and capitalism, as he created an easily consumable spectacle that, dowsed in Bowie’s rich sense of English irony, highlighted the disparity between spectator and alien; institution and individual; majority and minority. For many, Ziggy’s stark disruption of societal norms became a medium for those similarly disenfranchised to group together:


‘Those of us who understood [David Bowie] seemed to find each other. It was the first time (of many) that music I listened to defined me – the first time I was part of a community formed by music outside of the norm’


Bowie’s understanding of the dystopian potential that the commercial music industry held was manifested in his work. Michael Moorcock’s The Condition of Muzak depicted a numb, dumb musical landscape where ‘muzak’ existed solely as background music to embellish retail spaces, soporifically disintegrating popular music and its culture. Musicians like Bowie and Eno capitalized on their fear of this kind of reality by making music that seemed to embody or imitate their ideas of it.


‘For Rushkoff, it was Eno who inspired the whole genre of “cyber music” by taking the emphasis away from structure and placing it on texture. [32] Eno was inspired by Muzak to the extent of using similar techniques but for different purposes.’


The album Young Americans (1975) featured jolly, commercial, soul-filled, big-band hits that were so jovial in nature that the dark demonstrations of racist and fascist realities were almost unintelligible. His political message was so strong that he was one of the first musicians to be asked to perform on the Soul Train, in 1975. The album’s title track Young Americans was aptly used in the credits of Lars Von Triers 2003 depiction of Depression-era America, Dogville. Bowie described the album as the ‘definitive plastic soul record. It's the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white limey


Post Young Americans, Bowie continued to embody his politics through his work.

In acquiring a great deal of fame succeeding the album, he had grown increasingly paranoid and alienated and would often isolate himself in his drug-addled world of solitude. The history of mental illness prevalent in his family had always worried him, and in playing Thomas Jerome Newton in Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie found it increasingly difficult to separate himself from the character (and arguably never managed to). Newton ‘[projected] an otherworldliness [that was] already there in the alienation that’s the result of rock-star fame, drug abuse and a romantic conception of the creative life.’ Bowie would find himself ‘wearing Newton’s clothes and striking his poses’. Whilst touring Station to Station, Bowie had assumed the fascist-admiring persona of the Thin White Duke, who was an embodiment of his anguish and isolation.


‘Bowie himself performed dressed in the style of a dissolute pre-war aristocrat. He was playing the role of the thin white duke referenced on Station to Station’s title track - “a very nasty character indeed,” Bowie admitted later… he was a chilly, Aryan elitist with Nietzchean overtones, and the morbid self-absorption of a nineteenth-century German romantic.’


Bowie had, it seemed, fallen into a misanthropic pit of inert, drug-infused emotional turmoil, and as with all his work, seems self-referential as images of Major Tom floating into space reflect his growing alienation and disillusionment with society. A Durkheimian awareness for death sees Space Oddity as a ‘successful suicide attempt, which leaves Major Tom finally inert, holding onto nothing.’ In this light, his oeuvre seems constantly aware of his own death and renaissance, with references to Hamlet’s first line (‘That the Everlasting had not fixed his canon ‘gaist self-slaughter’) resonating with his symbolic motif of Yorrick’s skull, repeated throughout his music right up to Blackstar, the ‘last’ album. The music video for his later 1980s hit Ashes to Ashes features a self-referential harlequinade, comparing the many facets of his ‘Low’.


Ashes to ashes, funk to funky

We know Major Tom’s a junky

Strung out in heavens high

Hitting an all-time low’


Blackstar, which is an album built upon the artist’s knowledge of his own impending death, combined with his embodiment of the character Lazarus is a piece of work so imbedded in Bowie’s life that it is very difficult for Bowie fans to listen to the album without becoming emotional at the knowledge of its context. The artist knew he had only a few months left to live as he worked on the album with jazz musician Tony Visconti. It was released on the 8th January, 2016, just three days before Bowie’s death. The lyrics on this album are unequivocally linked to the artist’s sense of dying and it is clear he intended them to break through to the audience after he himself had broken through the threshold of life. Lyrics like ‘look up here man, I’m in heaven’ and the repetition of the phrase ‘I’m dying to[o] show Bowie seemingly for the first time talking lucidly about his own feelings, rather than through the voice of a character. However, glimpses of Lazarus are still present, a character representing the continuation of the story of The Man Who Fell to Earth, based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel. Thus, Bowie’s self is so inextricably tangled up in his art that it’s almost impossible to separate one from the other. He teases: ‘Aint that just like me?’ in Lazarus as it becomes clear we have no idea what Bowie is, we just know what he’s like.

‘Although Bowie seems to be addressing us directly from beyond the grave (“Just like that Bluebird / Oh I’ll be free, he is also still ventriloquizing, still working indirectly, still speaking in character until the end. For example, Bowie sings, “I was looking for your ass.” I hate to break it to you, but I doubt that David was looking for your, or anybody else’s, ass in his final months and weeks. He is speaking through the persona of Lazarus. The clue here is in the repeated line, “Aint that just like me?” Sure, it is just like Bowie, but it is still not Bowie in some pure metaphysical essence. The strategy of his art is, until the very end, oblique.


Bowie created a seemingly divine narrative voice that seemed to belittle the finality of death. His death appeared as just another exciting feature of his artwork, as though he has not died, but just shifted into a different form, resonating with Buddhist teachings of the cycle of Samsara. At the start of this year, (2017), exactly a year after Blackstar, Bowie fans were shocked to receive a post-humous video release of the EP, No Plan. It depicted a shop on Foxgrove Road (where Bowie began his career with Mary Finnegan) called Newton Electrical with a window full of TVs glowing a clinical blue, referencing Roeg’s The Man who Fell to Earth. The voice describes a scene from beyond the grave: Here, there's no music here/I'm lost in streams of sound’. His work and his posthumous ‘self’ become like shapeshifting characters in a science fiction film, constantly morphing into one another and drawing subtle references and ‘fragile geometries’, like the red coat, the television screen, the yellow object in the corner of the shot in Roeg’s scenes. Even Bowie’s Will is an extension of his art- his shares in the company ‘Opossum Inc.’ were kept deliberately kept open to the public to draw speculations about what this seemingly non-existent company is and the uncanniness in its referencing of an animal famous for playing dead. Like a magician that never reveals his tricks, Bowie’s magic could make even the most logical cynic question whether the wonderland that lies beyond the grave, stage, page or television box is really there after all. Behind this glamour, glitter, fakery and clownish comedy, there's truth, divine truth. And when we finally see it, it ‘calls us to dissent from the world, to experience a dissensus communis, a sociability at odds with common sense. Through the fakery and because of it, we feel a truth that leads us beyond ourselves, toward the imagination of some other way of being.’


‘the physiognomy of his work combines that of the clown with the physiognomy of an upper-level civil servant. His work plays the fool, thus offering its own grimace for practical purposes. It bows mischievously before the crowd, removes the mask, and shows that there is no face under it, but only an amorphous knob.’


Even after his final album, we never get a sense of David’s human self, and even as he removes the mask we aren’t sure what to make of what lies beneath. He claims in a 1979 interview ‘I never wanted to appear as myself on stage, ever.’ It is then understood that Bowie’s oeuvre is paramount in understanding the self as a work of art. His success as a popular modernist comes from ‘his strategy of art [being left] oblique, until the very end’.



WORKS CITED:

-Anita Seppä, Foucault. Enlightenment and the Aesthetics of the Self, (Volume 2, 2004), available at: http://hdl.handle.net/202/spo.7523862.0002.004

-Benjamin Noys, Malign Velocities, (Winchester: 2013), Zer0 Books

-Chris O’Leary, Pushing Ahead of the Dame: Seven Years in Tibet, (2013), Wordpress, available at: https://bowiesongs.wordpress.com/tag/buddhism/

-David Bowie, Changes, (1971)

-David Bowie: Interview with Mavis Nicholson, (1979), available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwTFW4kfHl4 , 1:07

-David Bowie: Interview with Playboy, September 1976

-David Bowie: Interview with Russell Harty, 1973, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZtHxP4EMV0

-Deleuze, Capitalism & Schizophrenia: Anti Oedipus (Paris, 1972), Les Editions de Minuit, xix

-Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1976, Galaxy Books, pp.1-15

-Hugo Wilcken, Low (2005), Contiuum, The Visitor

-Immanuel Kant, What Is Enlightenment (1784), in ‘The Art of Art History: a Critical Anthology, (Oxford: 1998), pp.70-75

-Kraftwerk, Hall of Mirrors, (1977)

-Mary Finnigan, Psychedelic Suburbia: David Bowie & the Beckenham Arts Lab, (Portland: 2016), Jorvic Press

-McLeod, Ken, Space Oddities: Aliens, Futurism and Meaning in Popular Music, (Vol. 22, No. 3, 2003), Popular Music

-Michael Moorcock, The Condition of Muzak, (1977), Allison & Busby

-Nicholas P. Greco, David Bowie In Darkness: A study of 1. Outside and the Late Career, (2015), McFarland

-Ronald M. Radano, Interpreting Muzak: Speculations on Musical Experience in Everyday Life, (Illinois: 1989), University of Illinois Press, Vol. 7, No. 4, pp.448-460

-Simon Critchley, On Bowie, (London: 2016), Serpent’s Tail

-Theodore W. Adorno, Alienation as Objectivity, in Philosophy of Music, (London, 1987), Continuum,

-Theodore Gracyk, I Wanna Be Me: Rock Music and the Politics of Identity, (Philadelphia: 2001), Temple University Press

-Tony McKibbin, Nicolas Roeg: Fragile Geometries, available at: http://tonymckibbin.com/film/nicolas-roeg

-Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, (London: 2008), Penguin Books

MISC. CITINGS, (in order of chronology):

-Quote from Andy Warhol in John L. Wasserman, Conjurer’s Dream from Pop World, (San Fransisco: 1996), San Fransisco Chronicle

-Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour designed by Kansai Yamamoto

-Front Cover for Michael Moorcock’s The Condition of Muzak (1976)

-An excerpt from the published probate development from Bowie’s law firm Jux, available at: https://jux.law/fixing-david-bowies-will/

44 views0 comments