20 digressions on David Bowie (who is dead now)

David Bowie in the music video for "Blackstar"
David Bowie in the music video for "Blackstar" (Courtesy/Columbia Records)

1. As a teenager, I wanted to do all the things David Bowie did: He was brilliant but didn't totally take himself seriously and he fucked ladies and dudes and he did a lot of drugs and he pissed people off and freaked them out (by just being him and by doing priggish and reprehensible though also hilariously trollish shit such as seig heil-ing) and crafted thoughtful, witty, paranoid art that made so many people feel less alone in the world—the wiggly glam-rock albums (my favorite: "Aladdin Sane") and the moody, coke comedown ones (my favorite: "Low") especially.

2. Other great David Bowie albums: Japan's "Tin Drum," Kate Bush's "Hounds Of Love," Freur's "Doot Doot," Michael Jackson's "Bad," Talk Talk's "Laughing Stock," Hole's "Celebrity Skin," My Chemical Romance's "The Black Parade," Blaqstarr's "King Of Roq," Bat For Lashes' "Two Suns," Maxwell's "BLACKsummers'night," Future's "Pluto," Nicki Minaj's "Roman Reloaded," Kanye West's "Yeezus," St. Vincent's "St. Vincent," Sleater-Kinney's "No Cities To Love," and Dawn Richard's "Blackheart."


3. "The cocaine had me froggy. I saw the floor indicator stop at floor number two. I took the stairway to the lobby. I dropped the key on the desk and glided to the street. The cocaine had fitted wings on my feet. I felt cool, breathless, and magnificent. It was a balmy eighty degrees. I was glad I'd left the benny." -Iceberg Slim, "Pimp: The Story of My Life," 1967

4. That scene in 1981's "Christiane F.," an unflinching heroin addiction tale in which a group of geeked-up teens run through Berlin's Europa Center falling on top of each other, laughing, and busting shit up, all set to Bowie's 'Heroes.' It is as gorgeous and fitting a representation of youth recklessness as any.


5. There's lots of talk of Bowie as an "original" but I don't buy it. Originals do exist—Charlie Parker, Brian Eno, Arthur Russell, Björk, and J. Dilla come to mind—but Bowie was really more a glorious riffer and remixer than a visionary (recent riffers in the Bowie mold: Kanye West and Lady Gaga) and that's fine. But Bowie was far more magnanimous with his subculture-draining than others. Too often, when those in power pull from the more powerless for their art, the buck stops with them. This was not true of Bowie (Iggy Pop's "The Idiot" and "Lust For Life" are just two examples).

6. Bowie never bought into the rock 'n' roller archetype. Instead, he teased rock dick moves and indulged them enough that it had the effect of meaning so much to "outsiders" as well as appealing to the meat-head types who called the outsiders "faggots." That some of his songs are now everybody's songs highlights Bowie's appeal—as well as the cognitive dissonance necessary for normies to maintain rigid, conventional masculinity but hey, that's no surprise.

7. Bowie once described the experience of hearing Little Richard as if he "had heard God." It makes sense that Bowie considered the raucous rock of the 1950s God-like because his art rock has far more in common with the raw, uncooked mania of the '50s which he Talmudically reconsidered than the faux grit of white '60s rock proper. And it should be noted: As a teen, Little Richard was a drag performer under the name Princess LaVonne.

8. "There's more pressure to be famous for being yourself than if you're being a character." -Kim Kardashian being very Bowie-like to Barbara Walters in 2011

9. "In any case, Bowie's aura is not especially sexual; [Bowie guitarist Mick] Ronson is the turn-on of the group, and his attractiveness—platinum hair, high heels, and all—is very straight, if refreshingly non-macho. What Bowie offers is not 'decadence' (sorry, Middle America) but a highly professional pop surface with a soft core: under that multicolored Day-Glow frogman's outfit lurks the soul of a folkie who digs Brel, plays an (amplified) acoustic guitar, and sings with a catch in his voice about the downfall of the planet." -Ellen Willis, saying very smart and very incorrect things about Bowie in the New Yorker in 1972

10. The 1985 music video for Bowie and Mick Jagger's 'Dancing In The Street' is porn. In the video, the duo, ostensibly dressed like Patsy and Edina from "Absolutely Fabulous," writhe and groove around one another as their terribly limp cover of a Martha and the Vandellas classic synthetically humps along (and I mean "synthetically" here in a bad way, apologies to Bowie, a hero of the inauthentic). Nevertheless, the video hints at their younger years and of past chemistry—they are flirting here, with each other and with us. The two probably (hopefully) fucked at some point in the '70s and this is the closest we'll ever get to seeing that.

11. Kurt Cobain (who on occasion wore dresses) on "MTV Unplugged: Nirvana" in that cool-as-hell light brown sweater hunched over an acoustic humbly mumbling out Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold The World' (Bowie wore a dress on the 1970 album's cover) backed by, among others, guitarist Pat Smear, co-founder of the Germs (fronted by the frustrated, Bowie-influenced queer punk Darby Crash who died from an intentional heroin overdose in 1980). It is the best Bowie cover.

12. In the August 1998 issue of Vanity Fair, Bowie was given the Proust Questionnaire. To the question, "What is the quality you most like in a woman?," he answered, "The ability to burp on command"; b/w this line from 'Tis Pity She's a Whore' off Bowie's 2016 album "Blackstar": "Man, she punched me like a dude."

13. Pop music's best as a mindfuck and Bowie mindfucked everyone. Being very popular and very weird is very important, especially before the internet rolled up and flipped our shit around and alienated us and made us more connected in new, unprecedented ways. When Bowie jacked moves from folk, soul, disco, hippy rock, industrial, and more and made them his own, it never seemed as though he was dicking off, which is how so many artistic sea changes appear. He made a quick fling with subgenre or subculture seem like it was all that mattered.

14. Then there is the other side of the obsequious searcher and free spirit. As others have mentioned: Bowie sexually assaulting 15-year-old Lori Mattix (in her own words: "he escorted me into the bedroom, gently took off my clothes, and de-virginized me") in 1974; doing "Chinese person" eyes in the 'China Girl' video; aforementioned flirtations with fascism, whether it's the Nazi salute or demanding a "new Right" as he did in a rock rag in 1975. I'd add to this ignoble list the way much of his '80s output betrayed the queerness of his '70s work at a time when Reagan, Thatcher, and others ignored the AIDS crisis. It is arguably unforgivable (this is what the whole cotton-candy-haired, car salesman Bowie stand-in sequence toward the end of Todd Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine" is about). His embrace of electronic dance in the '90s and 2000s was not only a return to form but a nod to a new generation of freaks.

15. Bigger-than-life, heavy-hearted asshole-and-a-half Steve Zissou in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" smoking a J and considering a kid he had that he has completely ignored as 'Life On Mars' loudly soars; Shosanna in "Inglourious Basterds" putting on makeup, taking the necessary precautions before burning a bunch of Nazis as Bowie and Giorgio Moroder's 'Cat People (Putting Out Fire)' smolders in the background (Tarantino, king of multiple meanings and metatextual must have been thinking about Bowie's own fascination with fascism when he picked this song).

16. OMG when Bowie shows up in "Zoolander" tho


17. That scene in Leos Carax's indefatigably romantic "Mauvais Sang," in which Denis Lavant sprints down the street, contorting his body, freaking out, seizing, dancing, and backflipping to Bowie's 'Modern Love'—a perf expression of the excitement one gets when you're full of feelings for another person.


18. "Lost three aunties to this pussy-ass disease, why you keep beefing with my family?" -Lil Boosie, 'Cancer' off his 2016 album "In My Feelings. (Goin' Thru It)," released one week before "Blackstar"

19. "He started going out again, came out into the open with the crazy notion that by his speed and agility he would outdistance death, and that even if he were killed, death would simply pass through him. His courage was designed to dazzle and blind whatever it was that was threatening him." -Jean Genet, "Querelle," 1947

20. Bowie's music always has a kind of subversive exuberance to it—clearly illustrated on his latest, "Blackstar," a record steeped in jazz (all those drunk, noir-ish horns), hip-hop (those weighty drums), and the hard facts that Bowie's body was eating itself. He seemingly planned this final statement all out and that's bonkers, but it is also nothing new for Bowie because so much of Bowie's career was making shit work against odds often having to do with how body and self were perceived. The bedrock of most of his work is alien-ness, which he embraced and didn't let slow him down or stop him. Instead, it imbued everything he did with melancholy. There is so much melancholy on "Blackstar."

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