Jack Hanson on the legacy of the Thin White Duke
CYNICISM—OR, AT the very least, skepticism—is an easy response to the outpouring of emotion that usually follows the death of a celebrity. In most cases, it is also the right one. But in the case of David Bowie, who died last week after a long and wholly unpublicized bout with cancer, the public display of grief feels at once sincere and completely appropriate. Although it’s hardly necessary to say so, it’s worth remembering just how firmly Bowie has implanted himself in the popular imagination over the past fifty-plus years. In the course of his twenty-six studio albums, twenty-one film appearances, and countless tours, among other spellbinding productions, he rendered himself ubiquitous, even necessary. Whether or not one was a 'fan' was irrelevant: wherever one was, so was he. It makes sense then that so many mourn him, and that the usual snarky, anti-bandwagon counter-reactions simply do not apply: we are all trying to find a way to still be with someone who has always been with us.
So, is it strange or is it similarly fitting that, in my own reckoning with his departure, I have found myself listening not to Space Oddity, “Heroes,” Hunky Dory, or even Ziggy Stardust, (masterpieces though these all are) but to Lou Reed’s Transformer, Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, even Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures? These albums played a central role in my adolescent universe, and, though at the time I assumed this was my own imagining, they seemed to form a kind of unit, situated between the punk music I knew and something else that I didn’t. They each had a way of turning their backs on the world, yet the occasional glance and wink welcomed anyone to go with them. It was an intoxicating mix of intelligence and playfulness, detachment and charisma, tinged with a controlled aggression indicating that, if provoked, they could roll heads as easily as hips.
It was like someone had decoded the genome when I first began to pay attention to David Bowie. Here was someone, it seemed to me, who possessed all the traits I cherished, admired, and envied in Lou, Iggy, and others, and fearlessly employed them toward whatever it was he saw was his mission (and, clearly, he had a mission). The songs were extraordinarily well-written (more meticulous, more precise, more joyous than almost anything I’d heard before) and all the while, that same mixture was present, which drew me out of the uncompromising aggression of basement punk shows and helped turn anger into interest, frustration into curiosity.
It was—cliché, incoming—a revelation. And yet I somehow felt prepared.
This was because, I was soon to discover (later than everyone else, naturally), Bowie was indeed wrapped up in the DNA of these albums I loved so much. Having built an impressive reputation off the backs of his first few albums, culminating in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, the young rock star offered to produce Lou Reed’s second solo outing. Reed, who was in dire straits following his departure from the then-still-obscure Velvet Underground and an unsuccessful solo debut, took him up on the offer and the two, along with guitarist Mick Ronson and a host of talented session musicians, produced Transformer. The album shot Reed into the mainstream and included, among other classics, “Perfect Day,” “Satellite of Love,” and Reed’s calling card, “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.”
Bowie’s relationship with Iggy Pop was perhaps even more monumental, both for the older singer and the course of popular music in the coming years. With the Stooges dissolved and a rapidly worsening heroin addiction, Iggy Pop was subject to what can only be described as resurrection at the hands of Bowie, who brought the singer to London, reformed the Stooges, and produced their greatest album to date, Raw Power. Following the album’s relative success (it peaked at #52), Pop descended back into addiction, and while the music he and Bowie had created played a large role in inspiring the birth of punk rock, he checked himself into a mental institution. Bowie was a frequent visitor—and himself an enthusiastic user of cocaine and other substances—and when the pair decided to dry out for good (following a joint arrest for marijuana in 1976) they went together to Berlin. Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy” is well known and bears the stamp of his other great collaboration of the time with Brian Eno, but the period could be said to have begun with Iggy Pop’s solo debut The Idiot, an extraordinary collection of industrial pulsation and peculiarly demonic versions of introspection, which Bowie co-wrote and produced.
While neither of these artists were dependent on Bowie for talent—their respective reputations are testament enough to that—it took the younger performer’s drive, intelligence, and vision to bring it to fruition, and to help reset them on the path to their now-legendary statuses. Perhaps it is because Bowie’s extraordinary talent for songwriting was matched (and perhaps exceeded) by his eye for originality, intelligence, and, ultimately, significance, that his influence (as in Joy Division, Nirvana, and—here another cliché rings true—countless others) can seem as much his doing as his collaborations (with Reed, Pop, Eno, and how many others?).
This element of these relationships and connections, how Bowie managed to remain at once virtually invisible and absolutely present, must be counted as among his most brilliant abilities. The Idiot does not sound like a Bowie album, ditto Transformer, and neither do any of his endless progenies, but they all bear his mark. How amazing it is that the performer who for so many and for so long stood ten-feet-tall, decked out in sequined, futuristic garb and grinning into the face of disrupted conventionality, was just as adept at stepping back, becoming almost absent, and working as if from behind a veil to help produce something that would bring joy and consolation. How amazing that he is doing that now.
JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan.