“When a man dies, he becomes a teacher to his friends”. So wrote Jacob of Serugh, one of the most important liturgical poets in the history of Christianity. He must have meant, at least in part, that a unique lesson can be drawn from a person’s life by those who care enough to look (his friends) when it can be seen as a whole. You can’t know where the boat sailed to until it has reached its final destination.
Let me pay my respects to Bowie in a brief meditation on his music: what was the nature of his artistry? In what ways has he become a teacher for us? Bear in mind that when I evaluate the music, that I am only offering my opinion. There is no objective test for “good music”.
Bowie was searching, and although he found very little of substance as opposed to style, he never became apathetic, he never threw his search in the too-hard basket and became cynical, and he never made himself his own god and became a hedonist. He could have ended up caring for creature comforts only, and painting a gloss over it for public consumption. But he didn’t. I salute him for that, even if I do believe that there was something real to be found, and he walked past it.
Bowie’s musical career, it seems to me, is a sub-set of his life. His music, I would suggest, proclaimed the goal of achieving self-determination in all areas of life, even over one’s nature. He lost his way very early on (after 1972’s Ziggy) and musically, suffered an eclipse after 1980’s Scary Monsters, not to be regained until 2016’s Blackstar. In the end, I think his story is that of an extraordinarily talented person, whose insecurity precipitated him into an artistic decline.
But so striking was the Ziggy phenomenon, and so accomplished the music, that it hypnotised reviewers. From 1984 with the release of Tonight, a stream of rather mediocre work, which would have been better as singles than as albums, was occasionally canned, but also occasionally credited as trailblazing, bold and daring – all because it was Bowie. His music had nosed off a cliff, and few noticed, or more precisely, would not let themselves notice. They would always say that he was not dull.
Bowie seemed to think he had to make himself through art. This is wrong. God gives us all we need. All we have to do is develop that. But I neither judge nor belittle him: Blackstar showed how touching and entrancing his searching could be, even if it came up empty handed.
It was not just a question of his constantly changing hair-colour, his exploring diverse art forms, or of sexual-permissiveness. The changes of persona were far more than just gimmicks or novelties: they were a statement that you could be a completely different person if only you wanted to, and took the trouble to achieve it.
In early years, he fought of his fears of madness, and in later years, beat what he called his “addictive personality”, which had manifested in cigarette, alcohol and drug addictions. Bowie aimed to be a “free spirit”, with a nature of his own choice and making, basing himself in music, but also expressing himself in acting, theatre and painting.
Bowie’s songs, which carry his enduring legacy, embody two captaining impulses: the deepest was his love of music. He was a very talented musician and songwriter, with a great gift for evocative words and phrases, even if he could very rarely maintain the level over an entire lyric. Bowie’s passion for music and his talent worked together, he quickly absorbed and digested diverse musical styles and ideas. Allied to this was his knack for working with excellent even inspired musicians. Sometimes these musicians, especially Ronson, Eno and Fripp, turned Bowie’s good ideas into great ones.
The other impulse, which interfered with the first one, to the detriment of his music, was his drive for shelter and security. In his personal life and music alike, his insecurity manifested as a constant search for meaning and purpose which his very insecurity undercut so that he could never find the grail. But in his music it led him, from Aladdin Sane on, to forever be self-consciously trying to change and be different from everybody else. The poses of Ziggy the alien and Captain Tom the space traveller were expressions of this feeling of otherness. And of course, being “different” so often comes to me being “better”.
The fabrication of personalities in the 70s was, I think, an attempt to protect himself behind characters which he scripted and controlled. These characters had no past, anticipated no future and lived in no present, except what he allowed. The on-stage theatrics, which related to those personalities, likewise had the effect of regulating what would happen on stage: they were supports and even buffers, adjusting the outside into a manageable commodity.
Despite his extraordinary talent for lyrics, as manifested in early songs, his self-doubt would not let him rise to the challenge of consistently turning out good lyrics. Already by the Aladdin Sane album, he had thrown in the towel, perhaps despairing of how he would follow up Ziggy. With some notable and honourable exceptions, maybe “Ashes to Ashes” but most particularly “Lazarus”, he never recovered his lyrical talent again, but rather made a virtue out of writing nonsense à la Burroughs. As Lennon said of Dylan’s obscurity, he was “secure in his hipness”. It is the mediocre talents who say that lyrics don’t have to have meaning. The genre of “nonsense” it is obviously a limitation if the words are silly.
This problem was exacerbated by the fact (as I see it) that Bowie’s insecurity also expressed itself in an unbalanced desire for stardom. This led him to try too hard at times, producing music so pretentious that it became boring.
At the end of the day, the question is, what did he achieve? As stated, I think that in addition to some excellent songs, he stands for searching. But his life showed that searching with ambivalence is self-defeating. He knew that there was something to find, but he never stayed put long enough to find it. His dilettantish playing with Tibetan Buddhism, although it permanently enlarged his vocabulary of ideas, was over too soon to make any changes in being. He ever really outgrew his Christian background, from what I can see: the fact that his farewell should be titled “Lazarus” shows that clearly enough. But there were many other signs, such as his kneeling to recite the Our Father at the Freddie Mercury tribute. The self-determination he sought, he never found, because he never found his authentic self. But while he never found the gold he sought, he refused to settle for anything else.