The death of David Bowie in January 2016 tolled the bell on lives lived, personae affected, boys swung, stations stationed. It augured a twelve-month period when Maurice White, Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, George Michael, and closest rival Prince let their legacies breathe on when they no longer could. Worse, our experiment as a republic suffered a perhaps mortal blow on Election Day. In an oeuvre fascinated with apocalypse, first as a grotesquerie in itself that is a function of ahh-youth, then as a manifestation of a restlessness immune to cocaine and a happy marriage, Bowie’s albums taught me how a species of wanderlust keeps despair at bay and is itself despair. As much a so-called confessional songwriter as Lennon, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor, Bowie used his image manipulations as peeks into a psyche about as interesting as yours and mine. Above all else, I learned how The Real Me comprises the gestures, sentences, and obsessions thrown away or fussed over; the rest isn’t worth consideration. The young aesthete who sang “Planet Earth is blue/and there’s nothing I can do” was not indulging an echt-gloom: he stated a truth. Twenty-five studio albums set aflame a century’s worth of self-help pieties.
I want to turn to a couple of examples of how Bowie’s work keeps resonating. Someone at the A&R office must have had a laugh releasing “Up the Hill Backwards” as Scary Monsters‘ fourth single; the public responded in kind, keeping it from rising no higher than #32. When Bowie has players with whom he connects, they can find meaning in the elusiveness of his chord progressions and rhythmic shifts: this is a track that uses flamenco as a fan dance flourish for a Bo Diddley beat before coming to a thudding stop for the verses. Dennis Davis and George Murray as ever triumph. Robert Fripp uses his guitar like a divebomber strafing. “Fripp’s power, his aggressive tone, expand the song; he won’t let the other players settle,” Chris O’Leary observes. And the way Bowie refuses to peek out from behind the backup vocalists lends warmth to “Hill”s cut-up pensées. “A series of shocks,” the vocalists state, flatly, like deli employees calling your number. The shocks turn into sideways — backwards? — affirmations. It’s got nothing to do with you if one can grasp it. And: I’m okay, you’re so-so. And: More idols than realities. If these lyrics appeared in fortune cookies, they’d be more valuable than lottery numbers. One by one they come, Fripp’s harsh guitar underlining them, until the melody rises for the last line: “Up the hill backwards/It’ll be ALL RIIIGHT.” A balm the last few days.
Finally, as much as I find ★ inexhaustible, I turn to the demo of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” with greater urgency these days. For a musician who didn’t resist the opportunity to denigrate his much better than average abilities as a guitarist, keyboardist, and saxophonist, the skill with which he layers these parts astonishes me. Bowie’s sax honks are more crazed than Donny McCaslin’s finished lines; indeed, the studio band’s fidelity to the demo adduces what a cracker of a song Bowie brought them (in the old Never Let Me Down days Bowie bringing demos to the studio terrified old hands). A glorious churn, “‘Tis a Pity” amalgamates John Ford’s seventeenth-century tragedy and Lower Manhattan free jazz — classic Bowie, in fine (again, O’Leary’s explication du text is essential). Bowie undercuts the hook’s misogyny with the frilliest, girliest, most mincing vocal in years; the overdubbed harmonies mock those tragic pretenses. Meanwhile bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana don’t quit.
In other five years, should Planet Earth survive, other performances will continue unveiling surprises. So will Bowie himself. Rob Sheffield’s book includes an anecdote in which Dame Meditation and a woman share a cab during a mid ’00s NYC blizzard. I think about this scene often, shared it with relatives. Instead of hurling fan questions, the woman quite sensibly talked about her family life. Bowie listened politely — what else could he do? He said, “You have to forgive if only for your sake.” Up the hill backwards/It’ll be alright.