David Bowie: The Ungloved Hand

by Franc Gavin / Rock Around The World, Issue 18

1977

Look at the hands. They’re a dead giveaway. The typically collarless boehme-kraut style leather jacket. The wan austere features, waxen with no particular expression outside of a sort of a dislocated puzzlement. But the hands – the focal point of the picture. Their stiff, mannered pose belies the anxiety behind the stretched tendons. Rigid, yet expressive like the hands in the expressionist works of Kokoschka, to which this photograph bears a strong resemblance.

Expressionism perhaps being the key word in the deciphering of the “real Bowie,” the title of his most recent incarnation. The way, however, in which the present Bowie differs from all the preceding reflections in his hallway of mirror devices in his use of point-counterpoint with regard to personality and music. Obviously Bowie has always been a very visual head. But whereas in past worlds of the Sensitive Folkie, The Intergalactic Anti-Christ, the black/white eleganza of a Man Ray disco-cool, the music was an extension of the image. Now the image is an extension of the music.

Sound treater Brian Eno is responsible for more than just a small part of this transition. Present in both name and spirit on “Low” and “Heroes,” his own music has taken on an increasingly tropistic nature in both substance and execution. “Another Green World” his last LP, was more a catalogue of possibilities and textural diagrams than anything else. His new album, “Before and After Science,” is a bit less outre in parts, but Eno is so fond of the visual projections that his sonic scenarios create that he has taken the time to include four nominally related offset lithographs within the jacket of the new LP that were done by an associate of his, Peter Schmidt.

Bowie has certainly incorporated a great deal of the philosophical stance of Eno into his own music. In a manner of speaking it is history repeating itself. Starting in the London of 1910, Ezra Pound influenced almost every major poet of the century, yet was never really able to get his own complex, mood oriented verse to as large an audience as his proteges. He was a “poet’s poet.” So it is with Brian Eno and his “oblique strategies.” Chances are his music will never reach the sizable audience that has been afforded Bowie. But beginning with Bowie, his ideas have already begun to diffuse, and will continue to do so. Bowie has always been a translator of ideas. When he began his exuberant quest, his music smacked of clever imitation. It became apparent that he had a way of catering to the audience while still utilizing an occasionally original touch, one that he would usually insinuate upon the audience through a cult of personality that eventually became a veritable propaganda machine. As is usually the case in which a staged situation revolves around the public image of a strong character, real or imagined, we were given privy to all aspects of the disguise that he oft-times wore. He seemed to have an opinion on everything, and usually changed them with the same frequency that most people change their socks. He had fun with the image manufacturing, press releasing paid for the return of 1973. That in itself is a reflection of the state of rock audiences and the music per se.

A lot of mixed reviews have been the basic critical reception for “Heroes.” The album, to paraphrase Max Ernst, “Intensifies the irritability of the mental faculties.” The Fripp guitar on the first two cuts of side one is both well placed and inarguable, like a stainless steel hieratic head centered in a stark white plaster gallery. The title track quote/Heroes unquote, is the showpiece of side one. It keeps a low, intense profile while it cruises steadily like a Lotus Sprint flat out on a long stretch of Autobahn, hugging all the curves beneath a rain-cold sky. Bowie’s to-do-it-rationalizers for a while.

His toying with the odd illusion in and out of direct-vision of the public eye, reflected certain truths. People believe whatever they choose to believe. Give them both a smorgasbord of music and a handful of separate realities from which to pick and choose and they will most likely put together a composite picture that they somehow feel is just right for their own attitudinal decor. Thus he took the translator of ideas a step further than had the Beatles. While their transitions were a direct reflection of the forefront of social change, Bowie turned the politics of image into cubist art and while remaining aloof from it all, proved that one need only a short term image for purposes of conveying all the rest.

Now there emerges according to the star-making machinery, the “real David Bowie,” as if in open admittance that there had never been a “real: David Bowie. since reality at best, is only temporary, this new attempt at retail-rationale is at best laughable. Since the man has already answered the question of “Who cares about the image?” with “quite a great number, in oh so many ways,” and since the press continues to find fascination with such earthshaking factota, as Bowie drinking beer, right from a can, already, the question remains “who cares about the music?” While critics founder over the possibilities of a no-image/image, Bowie seems to answer the question quite simplistically in this case, which is not at all. But since he has been able to make a large segment of our population care about his music simply on the basis of what he says and does, it seems quite plausible that he can make them care about it by what he does not say and does not do.

He has made a break. While working along the conventional linear terms of attack and proceed as prescribed long ago by Western culture, he was music via theatre. Now his music is quite blatantly a subjective image, and it is what is said what is does say that is the most desired result, rather than just How. This has already alienated, quite increasingly, a great number of diehards that still yearn voice is centered like a driver in the cockpit, occasionally switching the toggle-switch of emotion for a littler supercharge. Fripp’s guitar literally soars like a jet-stream, and Eno’s monotone harmonies only serve to underscore the intense, desperate quality of Bowie’s voice as he implores the lady not to leave, not to take the easy way out… It is the idea of taking a chance in what appears to be a dying world, one in which the first step toward The End or Absolute Zero is the death of love. It is an appeal to the inhabitants of an Age that demands a saviour on whom it will wage nothing. It is perhaps the most magnificent bit of rock and roll he has ever committed to vinyl.

It is also a precursor to side two. Kind of a preparatory mantra for the onslaught. Nothing is quite as intense as “Heroes,” but one suspects this to be stuff of his dreams. “V-2 Schneider” is a fast moving tribute to Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk-fame and his Pynchoneque “Gravity’s Rainbow” posturings. The next three tracks, “Sense of Doubt,” “Moss Garden” and “Neuköln” are the core of the second side. “Sense of Doubt” fluctuates with the heaviness of teutonic purgatory, a side-stepping close-up shot of Northern Man and his anxiety. “Moss Garden” moves with a wafer-like delicacy like a trout pausing in the sunlit shallows of a mountain stream. Its airy Zen pastel of color and light combines Japanese koto with a synthesizer that diffuses slow, sensual textures like an aerator diffusing perfumed aether. “NeuKöln” is just that. Just as expressionist like Ernst, Pollock, and others used Koln as a crossroads of ideas for creating new plateaus of anxiety prior to the terrible release of “The War,” so has Bowie taken these high tension elements off canvas. He translates them aurally with an Ornette Coleman-esque sax that is ugly and disparaging as it is painfully, beautifully, existential. Lastly, there is “The Secret Life of Arabia” which rings like the last scene of a tragedy set amidst The Desert in which as the son says, “…the heroine dies…” Romantic, eh? Valentino meets Camus.

“Heroes” is Bowie’s journey into the interior. Sometimes it is sweepingly majestic, other moments are unbelievably depressing. But so is most honest-to-God-art, and “Heroes” is more than a kind of period piece. It is a flawed masterpiece.

With “Heroes” Bowie has apparently made a decision for the future. It is a future rife with possibilities for real change, the kind of trial and error any artist must make if he is to survive both as an artist and a person.

The question remains, will he take the gamble? Or will he let the less-than-phenomenal sales of “Heroes” deter him? It would be refreshing to the extreme to see him put it all on the line, to be a hero “just for one day,” but word has it that his set for the upcoming tour will be the same as it was for “Station To Station,” something which he has agreed to with a certain reluctance. If he has any cojones at all he’ll change his mind. He has it within his power, right at the moment, to change the face of music. But maybe he’s still lying to us. (Then he’d better not stay).

He can negate himself forwards and backwards, but “Heroes” still makes sense. With or without him. The cry seems pure enough, the pain genuine. The suffering amidst one rose thorn plea is absolute. If it isn’t the truth, it ought to be.

Rock Around the World

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