Bowie: follow the changes
Brian Morton wonders whether Bowie’s decision to leave no headstone isn’t a message to the rest of us to shrug off indulgent mourning and get back to appreciation of the young and vital
David Bowie’s passing may have left you cold, but it can’t entirely have passed you by. It was the defining media event of the new year, aided by the happy synchronicity of Major Tim/Major Tom, and it got to that position largely because the generation that runs the English language media on both sides of the Atlantic grew up on Bowie, taking its first awkward steps toward the horizontal bebop – if not toward bop itself – listening to songs from Hunky Dory or The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. This particular generation also learned, not exclusively from Bowie but certainly at his feet, that sexuality was a more fluid thing than their parents had acknowledged and it took on board the modernist / postmodern lesson that the artist is a series of masks and stances, some of them easily followed with a little judicious, or a lot of injudicious, makeup; some of them requiring more dangerous imitations. So it was a generation that instead of merely sucking in its cheeks to resemble the Thin White Duke also hoovered up a good deal of white powder. It argued over the transition from Ziggy to Aladdin Sane; it looked away briefly when Bowie appeared to give a Nazi salute (can we start calling it a Roman salute again?) at Victoria Station; it largely ignored the very real and very deep spiritual echoes of Station To Station; and it affected to weep or sneer over Tin Machine, as if this wasn’t “real” Bowie and as if the title didn’t refer, quite pointedly, to us as well as to the group.
Any very Zeitgeisty passing always throws up a subgenre of journalism that ranges from the easy, first-person "David Bowie And Me" strapline to more ambitious but also more opportunistic examinations of David Bowie and . . . something very unexpected indeed. So you get quite serious accounts of the artist’s role in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. It was his home and inspiration for a while, after all; or in The Tablet, an examination of the cross- wearing agnostic’s apparent invocation of Catholicism in some of his mature work – you perhaps have to be a Catholic to sense a second meaning in Station To Station.
So far, to my knowledge, no attempt to write the "David Bowie And Jazz" piece. Which is perhaps not surprising. He grew up at a time when jazz was grouchily giving way to guitar pop. His early influences were Anthony Newley and Lindsay Kemp and not Mark Murphy and Jack Kerouac. He employed a jazz combo in the making of his not-quite-posthumous last album Blackstar, but didn’t have them playing any jazz. He wielded a saxophone for a time, but as a prop rather more than as an improvising instrument.
So what does Bowie’s career and legacy have to say to a jazz fan, and particularly to one who doesn’t have any great musical hinterland? At least a few reading the paragraphs above, if they got past a title that might have seemed a little out of place in Jazz Journal, might have murmured a few parallels between David Bowie and Miles Davis. Both were artists whose changes of dress – Miles going in the opposite direction from sharp suits to harem pants and little bolero tops – were discussed as earnestly as their music. Both were artists around whom a certain sulphurous unpleasantness gathered. And both were, crucially, seen as committed to an almost obsessive process of ch-ch-ch-ch-change.
This is the first point of real contact between the genres. If Bowie’s audience was genuinely androgynous (in the sense of attracting as many girl fans as boys) and if jazz remains somewhat masculinist in execution and certainly male in its market demographics, Miles Davis went some way towards breaking that down. The superior mood music of Kind Of Blue, the delicate latterday balladry of Time After Time and Human Nature opened him up to a mixed-gender audience that probably didn’t enjoy – because nobody much did at the time – Pangaea and Agharta, and which reacted rather badly to the splendid, but unquestionably hip-hop influenced Doo-Bop. But the successive evolutions of both artists conceal a fundamental truth: that the more both these artists “changed”, the more they stayed precisely the same. A Bowie song is a Bowie song. Miles Davis is still playing blues or gospel calls-and-responses, even if he is standing in the midst of an electrical storm, even if he is playing something by Cyndi Lauper. “Change,” which they both seemed to appropriate as a creative strategy, is often flipped into a critical terminology of evolution and development, fuelling the patient examination of whether this album is more advanced than the last, or a retreat, or a disastrous cul-de-sac.
The set text for this kind of thing is W. H. Auden’s great threnody In Memory Of W. B. Yeats, dated January 1939, and thus just a few troubled months before the byline of his now more famous September 1 1939. Like Bowie, Yeats “disappeared in the dead of winter,” but what Auden cheekily does is play with the clichés that always attend the passing of a great artist. In covert form, he trots out the familiar stuff about the work surviving its creator. We say this in self-consolation: a favourite artist may be gone, but “at least” the work is there, in a neat pile of CDs or books. And we can have some confidence that in the days ahead, the retrospectives, specials, repeats and reissues will begin to pile up, too. This is very much the condition of jazz now, with a vast ghostly army of the departed pushing and shoving its revenant sounds into the present, squeezing and sometimes drowning out the work of living artists still young and vital. Bowie’s records were reported to be selling in enormous numbers in the days after his death. It’s worth wondering whether the passing of Paul Bley (who made four times as many records – an obituary will appear in the February edition of Jazz Journal) led to a similarly belated awakening of interest.
We do this in part because the end of a creative life marks some kind of full stop, cadence or terminal verb. There used to be a joke among translators that you couldn’t start a simultaneous version of a German sentence until it was over, because of the habit of putting the verb at the end. It used to be the case that when a musician passed over, there was silence. As Dolphy said, the work was “gone in the air.” But that no longer applies to major artists, who are subject not just to reissue and repackaging but to the exposure of partial and rejected work, “alternate” takes, “bonus” material and studio chatter. And jazz criticism has become almost unhealthily obsessed with the Pompeian remains of great sessions, frozen in often ugly attitudes on old tape, preserved but under a layer of . . . what’s the appropriate Bowie tag here? . . . dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
The lines that jump out in memory from Auden’s deceptive poem come from its beginning and its end. The suddenly rhyming final section, which is one poet’s funeral blessing on another, asks that imagination be allowed to continue freshening our social desert. “In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.” The conflation of praise and obituary – of which we’re all guilty at one time and another – should be a reminder that we have to keep the language of praise and support fresh and alert to the new and not just in the service of the dead who don’t really need it any more. The other Auden lines that come back to me are the splendidly sour “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” An Irishman would have recognised that “modified” is a polite old country euphemism for something basic: children and townies who had stepped in the stuff were reminded that cowshit was merely “modified grass.” In Auden’s slightly sarcastic image, an artist’s work is quickly turned into critical flatulence. How many clichés did you manage to count in the BBC’s coverage? How many turn up, irresistibly, in our farewells – too many again this past year – to favourite artists? Maybe the only healthy response is to say a quick farewell and turn back to the living, whose guts are grumbling from want. In a real sense, an artist who is gone has “[become] his admirers.” He or she exists in the sum of responses to him. A living artist, if he or she is creative at all, always retains an identity quite apart from the things said about him/her.
A last line from In Memory Of W.B. Yeats jumps out: “The death of the poet was kept from his poems.” This wasn’t the case with Bowie, who sought to dramatise his own mortality in songs/videos like Lazarus (which is mannered but also starkly beautiful) and who dodged his “Ben Bulben” moment by not having a funeral and ordering the quiet disposal of his corporal remains. Do we hear much trace of jazz in the Bowie oeuvre? To be honest, no. Is it likely that in the weeks ahead we’ll hear earnest young piano trios announcing that he meant everything to them at 17 and here’s our arrangement of Starman, Kooks or Rebel Rebel? A racing certainty, I’d have said. But this isn’t the point. The death of David Bowie invites us once again to examine what matters to us creatively, to explore the relationship between taste and nostalgia (something of a crux in jazz criticism), and to rethink our relationship between the dead artist and the “living” (or is it any more?) art; and from there to wonder whether Bowie’s decision to leave no headstone isn’t a message to the rest of us to shrug off indulgent mourning and get back to appreciation of the young and vital
No full stop there . . .
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