Jim Sullivan celebrates his history in conversation with the Thin White Duke
Five years ago, January 8th was a day of celebration in Bowie-land.
The artist formerly known as The Thin White Duke turned 69 and dropped a surprise album upon us, Blackstar, more than three years after his previous LP, The Next Day. Who knew he’d been working on it? It was one of those best-kept secrets in music.
Two days later came the greater shock: David Bowie was dead. Liver cancer. He battled it for 18 months. Who – outside of his very inner circle – knew he was that ill? Sure, we’d heard about his retirement from touring. There was a picture circulating that showed him unwell and there were rumors about illness. (Later, we learned he’d ended cancer treatments in October of 2015.)
Carlos Alomar, who played guitar with Bowie off and on from 1974 to 2002, posted this on Facebook: “Can’t sleep… It’s like my heart is frozen, and my gaze is fixed … Nothing comes to mind … Stunned. Not making much sense right now.”
Birthday/album release hoopla … and then death. The man always had a flair for the dramatic and theatrical, but Jesus … We were told it was coincidence, not orchestration and I believe that. But I also have to believe Bowie knew this was his swan song and people would be reading the tea leaves of his music – and the videos.
After the news hit, the shock having subsided slightly, I thought back to a line Bowie boldly sang on the title track of his 2013 album The Next Day: “Here I am, not quite dying!” Great! No new music for ten years … and then this fabulous comeback. Even if the declaration of life might have been shaded cheekily, maybe even a hint. Not quite dying.
In December of 2014, the video for “Blackstar” was posted – a spooky, meandering, jazz-inflected 10-minute song, with a mournful Bowie, bandages with black buttons over his eyes, singing about being “in the center of it all … on the day of execution.” Was this Major Tom, back again, dying? Or was it something more personal?
VIDEO: David Bowie “Blackstar”
Then, just before the album’s release, came the next video, “Lazarus.” I watched this the day before he died. It was chilling. Bowie in a hospital bed, same bandages, groping, elevating, leaving us. Bowie singing, “Look up here, man, I’m in danger, I’ve got nothing left to lose.” At the beginning we see glimpses of a dark figure – angel of death? – poking out of Bowie’s armoire and at the end, he gets up from his desk and his bed and jerkily backs into the armoire, as if being pulled in. Bowie’s hand reaches out to close the door. Did I have a premonition about Bowie’s imminent death? No, not exactly. It could have been a character – Major Tom again? – and we knew Bowie loved his characters.
In retrospect – very quick retrospect – we see Bowie’s music and video addressing to his own situation, intended or not.
VIDEO: David Bowie “Lazarus”
The cover of the Blackstar CD is white with a black star in the center. On the inside, it’s all black, a photo of a pensive Bowie during a sunset, above him a circular sunburst image. He’s half in light, half in dark, between two worlds.
After all that, I stepped back, as we do, as we must, recalling the many “wild mutations” (as Bowie put it in “Rock and Roll Star”) that he’d played over the years. The art-rock-folk years of Space Oddity and “Changes,” the glam years of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, the “plastic soul” period of Young Americans, the icy thin white duke of Station to Station, synthesizer-based Berlin-trilogy done with Brian Eno, the stadium-sized mainstream success of the mid-‘80s, the big swerve from solo star act to singer in the band in Tin Machine in the late ‘80s, the conceptual album Outside in the mid-‘90s about murder-as-art, the desire to keep making music throughout his life, right up to the end.
Bowie was nothing if not good humored about himself and his persona. I interviewed him several times over the years and found him affable, reflective, inquisitive and truly interested in conversation. Not at all like rock stars who had an agenda they stuck to, who didn’t truly engage in dialogue, but treated interviews as just a necessary aspect of the star-making machinery. Of course, self-promotion was in the mix for Bowie – these interviews were timed for album releases or tours after all. But never were our talks pro forma.
“I’m not without luggage,” Bowie told me in 1997, alluding to his checkered past. (Really, though, isn’t everyone’s past checkered?) He chuckled, admitting what might have been obvious, that he had had to groan over more than a few things he said and did, but he added an upside was, perhaps, that some of that luggage “makes travel easier. Plus, I just have this — I don’t know — unquenchable enthusiasm. I probably drive people around me mad with my enthusiasm.”
A few of the bags he carried: legend, star, pioneer, provocateur. Also, chameleon and stylistic thief. Bowie lived comfortably with all of these things.
I mentioned that an English interviewer had recently tossed a self-analytical question at Bowie and he had taken the bait. Bowie described himself as “a populist and a postmodern Buddhist surfing my way through the chaos of the 20th century.”
“Pretentious, moi?” said Bowie, with a hearty, self-deprecating laugh. “I’m not sure what to do with these things,” he added, sighing, of that quote in particular and his proclivity in general for making pronouncements and expounding philosophically. “I like dreaming them up, but they come back at me. Some people get them as what they are [poking fun at myself], and other people think that’s kind of what I really think. I’m not sure which side to go on because I half believe it’s true, that’s the trouble.”
“I do feel that that’s what I’m good at doing. Maybe I have this strange set of antennae that allow me to actually understand why — to a certain extent, maybe intuitively — why culture works and what the messages are and what we are sending out and receiving. That may be my contribution. I’m not a futurist. I’m very thoroughly sure-footed in the contemporaneous.”
Bowie observed. Bowie borrowed. He took from the outré and avant-garde and reconfigured, shaping and squeezing it toward the mainstream.
I posed this parodic fantasy to Bowie: There he is, this thin, handsome older man in a long leather coat, lurking outside a club, maybe incognito, notebook and tape recorder in hand, waiting to get inside in order to assimilate, process, and steal the sounds of the hippest music. Inside, the creators of the music hear of his presence, cower and cringe, afraid of the Pillager.
Bowie laughed heartily. This parody came to fruition, he said. “I’ve been featured in a long-running cartoon in Britain as being just that, a rather disengaged culture vulture. A bit of a mad pilot that kind of flies from avant-garde trees, making this nest out of glittering jewels that belong to other beings. Well, I guess that’s me.
“The thing is, I agree with all that, and I don’t see anything wrong in that. Yes, that’s what I do. I’m a contagious, infectious enthusiast. It’s what I like doing.”
The Bowie estate is not done with us and I’m fine with that. Last year, the six-song rarities and alternative versions EP, Is It Any Wonder? Was released. It’s good stuff, the highlight being Eno’s “live mix,” recorded in 1995. “I added some backing vocals and a sonar blip and sculpted the piece a little so that there was more contour to it,” Eno wrote.
There’s also the Brilliant Live Adventures (1995-1999) box set to come. Three of the limited-edition LPs/CDs have been issued already, three more to come this year. I don’t think Bowie will ever rival Jimi Hendrix for posthumous output, but I do think the Bowie fan base remains deep, wide and relatively well-monied.