David Bowie stays true to himself

by Mark Lepage / The Vancouver Sun

11th March 2013

Time takes a cigarette … And that was one long smoke break. He must have had it in one of those fancy silver holders.

Ten years after his last album, the officially semi-retired David Bowie took a deep breath and blew the rock world’s mind, reappearing on radar with a single, Where Are We Now?, released on his 66th birthday and the promise (now delivered) of a full album. If only he had a sense of drama …

It seems he’d been ghostwalking around Soho for two years, sequestering musicians in the Magic Shop studio with a binding agreement that speaking to the press or anyone else about this exciting new secret mission was verboten. For two years. And they did so.

Never mind that he could manage that feat — who else would bother? Who else avoids publicity?

Cue the global amazement. Should we have been amazed? Perhaps — but there is another automatic response that deserves a good looking-into, a resilient reflex from the rock commentariat to anything that comes under the ‘Bowie’ heading: the “chameleon” has done it again! Rock’s most protean, shape-shifting slyboots has pulled another fast one, another costume change.

This is meant as praise … but is it? A chameleon, assuming new colouring to blend into his surroundings, for camouflage. That’s a cack-handed compliment if ever there were one, the drawing-room politesse version of “phony.” Chameleon has been the most persistent label associated with him. Despite Bowie’s senatorial stature today, he was dogged throughout by charges that he was not genuine. And it wasn’t long ago that Keith Richards went with the thought. ”It’s all pose. It’s all fu—ing posing,” Richards said. “It’s nothing to do with music. He knows it, too.”

Funnily enough, there was someone else who could go with that thought, or at least address it — Bowie, in a pair of interviews I conducted during the ’00s.

He was beguiling company, as one would imagine, a gentleman offering to get you tea or a glass of water in the absence of the “handlers.” Looking like a million bucks, looking like only one guy looks. Back then, he was hitting the live clubs at least twice a week to “catch everybody who comes through. New York is so great for that — at some point or other everybody comes through. When you have a situation where the Charles Mingus Orchestra just works down the road …”

Over the course of those two chats, he would make in-depth mention of Lou Reed, Neil Young, Arcade Fire, Gene Chandler, Coldplay, Stars, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Wolf Parade and Hangedup — those last four being Montreal indie bands whose minds were doubtless blown to see themselves mentioned. He would praise others because “I much prefer to talk about other artists than myself. I’m not that interested in me. I love music an awful lot.” But then, after praising Montreal (“probably my favourite gig in all of Canada. Still is, I must say. Audiences in Montreal, absolutely, they get it”) he’d also laughed when the issue of “purism” was raised: “The charlatan lessons have paid off!” He’d bristle briefly about those early critics who’d magisterially advised him “to either be completely ‘authentic’ and do one thing, or get off the stage!”

So it was on his mind. The issue is whether or not it should be on ours. And as the Next Day dawns, I think he’s much more extraordinary — and ordinary — than that tired chameleon label would allow.

Certainly, the first key decade or so presented us with a pop figure so new as to render the twinned compliment/calumny perfectly understandable. Think of the haircuts and sonic reconfigurations from the Philly plasticity of Young Americans to the avant-Berlin of Station to Station to the omnivorous Scary Monsters to the megapop Let’s Dance — in 8 years …

Bowie did bring a kind of overt cynicism to rock. Rock deserved and even needed it after the hippie sincerity carpet-bombing it had taken, but there were still plenty of those guys around in 1973 to hate where he was taking the music and culture, and brand him an empty changeling with no agenda other than fame and controversy themselves.

Their semi-slur stuck. What a bunch of … squares. Their problem was in perceiving rock/pop as something linear in its expression. Instead, think of pop music as a triangle, with each point representing an archetype figure: the Originator, the Purist, the Copycat. David Bowie is none of those, really. He’s obviously the Anti-Purist. Originator? There’s a (possibly apocryphal) quotation that he was lucky to “always be the second man with an idea.” And for every idea inherited, refined, snatched — whatever — there was a new element, in content and style. So Bowie is in the centre of that triangle. And when you confuse people accustomed to easy or convenient brands, when you seem to be a new, mutable figure, they can just label you anyway. Early on, I did as well.

David Bowie can be blamed for some things. He did bequeath our culture the notion that if you really, really want to be a star, you can and should be. Which is bad. Luckily his stardom had as much content as form, which is good. And it’s worth remembering that Bowie wasn’t a global arena superstar, really, until it suited him to be one. And that was in 1983, with Let’s Dance. You’d have figured he’d simply have milked the most usable persona dry, unless he was up to something more substantive. The “changeling” label implies — no, baldly states that he’s just about the personae. It denies him an essence. And that’s simply incorrect.

For all the provocateur moves, he’s always been nostalgic, and more. He assumed a certain chumminess with the big names right from the get-go. Song for Bob Dylan, anyone? He even covered Bruce Springsteen (!) at his most earnest. He’s still doing it in the lyrics to (You Will) Set the World On Fire. Those aren’t particularly avant-garde or slippery moves. They’re pretty traditional. And there was another “colleague” who saw he wasn’t some changeling or unknowable mask. Bowie himself reported that John Lennon had told him his music “is great, but it’s just rock’n’roll with lipstick on.”

And it’s not the lipstick that matters. How real is David Bowie? The first bars of the single Where Are We Now? arrived so steeped in baffled melancholy that in those first few listens, it was hard to make it through them to the payoff chorus. “You’re 22 / the voice of youth / the hour of dread” or “Your fear is as old as the world” — you couldn’t write those lyrics if your concerns were not deeply human. Indeed, his central concerns — alienation and ambient dread — are uniquely plugged into an overwired, overmediated era.

It’s striking to think that before The Next Day landed, nobody could swear they knew precisely what it would sound like. An adult had re-entered the rumpus room. For five minutes, you didn’t have to hear or think about the TV song-contest assembly line. Somebody weird was going to make music that you couldn’t immediately slot in any category other than the guy’s own category, the category he alone occupies. The Bowie slot. And while it’s not impossible, it’s counter-intuitive for a guy who’s his own category to be a mountebank.

How real? Let’s mention the things he hasn’t done. Ten years off — he might have strung together a few quickie Greatest Hits tours for half a billion bucks or so. He might have sold the catalogue to Walmart or Chevy. He did make a few ads, but in every sense, he’s spared us the ugliness of a hack’s cash-grabbing getaway.

On that balance, he’s the opposite of a chameleon. He’s spent the career assembling ideas, alchemizing them, emerging with something new. That’s reconfiguring his surroundings, not adapting to them. That’s asserting your identity, however complex it is. The remasterer of the universe, and one of the few pop artists who at least attempted to play the culture itself like a song.

Ultimately, looking back on the ’70s cocaine binges and human-coat-hanger physique, the loincloth and eye patch and tangerine mullet and space pyjamas, he looks like the rare actor who struck a pose not for pretence or posture, but to get at the truth. He looks and sounds like one of the realer things on the pop music landscape.

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