Song Of The Day 1/15/2016: David Bowie – “Absolute Beginners”


Just by virtue of how disrupted and distracted I've been this week, I'm starting to think David Bowie's passing is the most significant celebrity death in my lifetime, at least to me. The other big ones were John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, and neither of them laid me out this long. I was back up and running fairly quickly. Well, I had no choice with Lennon; I couldn't exactly stay home from school for that. Same with Kurt, but it was in college. I drove up to Seattle for the memorial the following weekend so I couldn't have been that useless. But with Bowie there was too much work to do. Too much processing, as I'm sure you realize via this series. (It wraps tomorrow.) Not counting songs for a mixtape I'm currently working on, I've listened to nothing but Bowie songs since Sunday night. On Monday I put the entire Bowie discography on shuffle and just walked away. My 3-year-old son John seems to like it, as he walked into the room and asked "What's this music?" I said "David Bowie. You like it?" "Yeah!" And he started dancing. The song was "Let's Dance." I didn't have the heart to tell him about Bowie's death, or explain that "Let's Dance" wasn't really where he should start in the catalog. We have time for that. Or maybe we don't, I have no idea anymore.

After we'd been removed from his halcyon years by a good two decades or so, I'm supposing we began boxing off Bowie's most notable character changes, put them in our mental museum cases next to Cher's costumes and Jimi Hendrix's guitars. It wasn't yet necessary to put them in context or explain them. Why everybody now looks back at him fondly — but also how it was different for those of us who invested a little more time into his art. You can't define how a head-over-heels Bowie fan is, what they look like or represent. You see that in what celebrity musicians have been paying homage to him the last few days — everyone from Madonna to Kanye to Ozzy has checked in, and they're all right about why he was important. But what about the ones who weren't famous? The kids I talked about in Part 2, my current social circle in Seattle, my bedrock friends in Olympia? My buddy who has a huge tattoo of Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth on her back?

I couldn't find an immediate link, so I had to tramp around the internet for ideas. And I found one. In almost everything Bowie made in his most acclaimed era, through all the alterations and shifts in character and tone, there was one theme he kept coming back to: Isolation.

Rock and roll was invented for the misfits and outcasts, so that part of it wasn't novel. It seemed like a Great Society was emerging during the '60s centered around music, love, freedom and organic dried goods, but the openness let some forces come through and rot the movement from within. Right at that point is where Bowie started plying his wares.

Bowie's relationship with the outcasts was unusual because he approached it from all angles. Defending them against hostile forces in "Changes"; preparing his family for the reality of alternative lifestyles in the very lovely "Kooks" ("You won't be sorry, 'cause we believe in you"). Analyzing uncomfortable firebrands on the entire second side of Hunky Dory. Ziggy Stardust arriving to save the world through his unheard-of code of mores, until he gets eaten up and commodified by forces that wouldn't know what to do with him unless they consumed him. The subtly hostile Thin White Duke, the artiste who wandered away to Philadelphia to make a single R&B album, the vagabond who disappeared to Berlin for three albums that dealt with various stages of alienation. The lovers in "Heroes" who are separated by a wall and unified through overhead violence.

And of course Major Tom (twice). And Aladdin Sane. Hell, we could even make a case for that goddamn laughing gnome if we wanted to. They're within their own walls, or cast out by themselves into a trackless void. They have moments of sparks with others, and sometimes try to make their personal codes a part of the greater collective, but ultimately they go back with themselves. Bowie knew that would always be the default, the end result. Ziggy almost became a man of the people — if only he hadn't started "making love to his ego." Despite the outlandishness of some of his characters, despite their larger-than-life stances, there was a quiet moral certainty or ground to all of them: They all knew what it was like to be alone. Maybe lonely, too, but definitely alone. That's the place where they got their best ideas or the weapons of their self-destruction, and bringing them out to other people who were alone — and certainly lonely — was what he did. Eventually some of those lonely people met others who were the same way, and guess what.

In the last song on what turned out to be his last album Bowie sings, "Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That's the message that I sent." We could parse that for days. It's a yin-yang statement, something older people make when they can sense terminus ahead. The sum of our contradictions. If nothing else, that lyric perfectly explains why in order to convey a message about humanity, he once turned into an alien.

If I were to write what I think David Bowie would have said to his audiences had he dropped the fourth wall and had a message, I guess it'd be this: "Don’t worry that you’re an outcast — you didn’t choose it, did you? So what? Why worry about your not fitting into the mythology of mainstream culture? Build your own myth! You’re at the wheel of your own mythology; nobody else is going to claim this story, nobody else can finish it."

For David Bowie that story worked perfectly. Until the next album. Then he’d start over. “Hey, finished with your myth yet? No? Well, no rush. Here, I’ve got another idea. Maybe this'll help."

Used by permission of model.

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