Monday January 11, 2016.
I’m not a morning person but this, particular morning feels easy, in a most peculiar way.
The entrance to the QEW is at the end of my street. I turn the radio up. The song may be melancholic in an objective sense, but it suits the grey concrete barring the highway and I’m delighted as the lanes spread out before me like cosmic sheet music:
“…I’m feeling very skilled and I think my spaceship knows which way to go.”
I slide into the left lane with no traffic behind me and little traffic ahead.
The sun is barely yet over the water. It radiates the orange wavelengths of a coil oven burner on low, cradled by reds with a slightly thicker stage presence. I think of HG Wells’ description of the world’s end, in The Time Machine.
A shudder of mortality shimmies up my spine. I remind myself I still have rhythm and spark up the seat heater. The DJ says it wasn’t so long ago that he saw Bowie’s glam rock fashions displayed at the AGO.
“Ah! Bowie’s new album is coming out today.” I remember reading about it in The Guardian.
The day is crisp, without wind. The car stays its course, gliding over the Skyway. I retune the radio as I am wont to do, when the click-clack of inane chat interferes with my driving beat.
Over an hour later, on campus, half of our class is waiting to get inside a locked rehearsal hall.
“Now that David Bowie’s dead-” Claire says, in conversation.
“Is that true?” I ask in a muffled space of suspended animation.
I'm like a cartoon cow whose routine narrative purpose is to get hoofed in the eye, except the resulting stars look very different today.
I make it through class a poor man’s Prometheus. Perhaps Bowie is in galactic earshot now, and I pray that I might nab a slender flame of his unfathomable fire for my own inspiration.
Maybe it’s only shock, but the notion of slicing through sadness seems better suited to the daring poses of Bowie’s earthly incarnations, far more than might stoic eulogy. My inner voice bellows, “Let’s dance!”
“Yes, let’s.” he calmly replies, a dapper improv partner.
The psychological pay-off is prominent, and I approach the day’s work with more joy than usual. Either my prayers are answered, or I’ve simply smiled more, imagining myself in close proximity to a former song and dance superhuman, now undoubtedly gone supernova.
Musician, actor, visual artist, designer, and more—Bowie was many things and seemed, often, to be many people. Much has been written about his various personas, particularly in relation to mental health issues. Of particular resonance, is the extent to which Bowie’s artistry was in formation to trauma.
In an episode of VH1’s Legends, Bowie spoke of “a dark cloud … of mental instability” on his mother’s side. He noted that two or three of her siblings had died by suicide. He spoke of half-brother Terry’s schizophrenia related psychosis, and the hallucinations it inspired. “Most of us (his family) have battled reality and something else, for most of our lives.” he said. In another portion of the broadcast, he mentions his fondness for experimentation, another cornerstone of the creative psyche.
A Rolling Stone review of 1973’s “Aladdin Sane” points out Bowie’s capacity to harness creativity unto the seeming dissolution of familiar ego states, without disappearing himself, and suggests that in doing so he tackles the bleakest of existential concerns:
“If by conventional lights Bowie is a lad insane, then as an Aladdin, a conjurer of supernatural forces, he is quite sane. The titles may change from album to album — from the superman, the homo superior, Ziggy, to Aladdin — but the vision, and Bowie's rightful place in it, remain constant. The pun of the title, alternately vaunted and dismissive, plays on his own sense of discrepancy. Which way you read it depends upon whether you are viewing the present from the eyes of the past or the future.” (Gerson)
Psychiatry often discourages the romanticizing of mental illness in relation to creative ability. The two states, however, have long been anecdotally and empirically linked.
The capacity for divergent thinking that shaped Bowie’s expansive, creative universe, may well have been the result of attempts to escape a harsh, emotional landscape. His tendency towards experimentation, an internal search engine seeking to rebalance perceived instabilities—both in himself and the world.
British psychoanalyst Oliver James has written extensively on Bowie’s use of creativity and persona as a bulwark against childhood trauma:
Bowie often wondered why he was chosen for greatness and Terry for madness and wrote of his fear of mental illness in a series of albums. While his brother’s childhood was a textbook case of the causes of psychosis, Bowie had the right mix of emotional neglect and entitlement to create a man who could face his childhood demons through creativity. Through Ziggy Stardust and his subsequent personas, he engaged in an internal dialogue played out on an international stage.” (James)
It is not certain that shifting identities always made a smooth passage for Bowie in his life offstage. He reportedly suffered psychotic breaks himself, as the result of drug addiction, at various points. The analyst’s mention of healing through persona, however, hints at Jungian psychology, in which one is must integrate various aspects of the self and ego to achieve wholeness. Bowie was long interested in Jung’s work and incorporated the terminology into his own writing:
Symbolic and specific references to Jung abound throughout Bowie’s career. Arguably beginning with his 1967 song ‘Shadow Man’ that poetically encapsulates a key Jungian concept, in 1987 Bowie tellingly described the Glass Spiders of ‘Never Let Me Down’ (1987) as “…Jungian figures, mother figures” around which he not only anchored a worldwide tour, but also created an enormous onstage effigy (Swayne 1987).” (Stark)
Bowie was widely lauded for blurring the line between masculine and feminine aspects of the psyche, touching on the concept of anima—Jung’s idea that men have an active, underlying feminine aspect to their personality, as women have an underlying masculine aspect to theirs, known as animus.
“If she says she can do it, she can do it, she don’t make false claims.” he hiccups in ‘Queen Bitch.’ One wonders if he is not, in this instance, projecting his own artistic audacity, from his own, highly developed feminine perspective.
January 11, 2016 - Epilogue
Not everyone has the luxury of spending the day in transit. As the morning wanes, I dash off a Facebook post aimed at consoling friends who feel trapped in the void of Bowie’s absence:
“He’ll tell you all about it on the next bardo.”
It is a reference to a Buddhist plane in his song “Quicksand”—which is a laundry list of philosophies, and a rock lament oddly embodying something of the tension between classic baroque and rococo.
Bowie’s interest in the dharma, coincides with my own, and I feel no desire to rush out and grasp at his last album. But it’s an eerily slow evening at work, and I leave early. “Blackstar” is being played in full on the radio.
I go to the A&W and get a root beer float.
Sitting in the parking lot of a strip mall, between the dive bars and the car wash bays, I turn the radio up as wide as the clear, Winter sky.
Snippets of Bowie's earthly life are tossed into a futuristic abyss. The title song begins with chanting, engulfed in an aura of compressed air, slowly leaking from a ramshackle vessel. An erratic techno heartbeat interjects alongside a panting sax, giving way again to the chants as they soften.
Suddenly, it’s stardust casually tossed over a disco lick … “How many times does an angel fall?” What could have been a cliche pickup line at Club 54, is now profoundly rerouted. There’s a call and response between “the Great I Am!” All his former selves--film star, pop star, ‘gangstar’—denounced as he insists, “I’m a Blackstar.”
“Stardom is the means towards attaining a vantage point from which to foresee, and an elevation from which to lead." wrote Gerson in Rolling Stone. "The awesome powers and transformations civilization associates with heaven and hell will be unleashed on earth.”
The review of Aladdin Sane, seems astonishingly prescient when considering Blackstar’s denouement some 43 years later.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven.” Bowie sings in Lazarus. Beginning with a deep, elongated pull on the sax, the pop potential of the song distorts into muddy, existential jazz, and finally flutters to cosmic, release.
“Just like that blue bird, I’ll be free.” And the song bird escapes through the holes of a wind instrument, with its mechanics on the fritz.
Dollar Days could well be a Buddhist mantra on letting go of earthly attachments before death: “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me. it’s nothing to see.” And the artist runs downhill in an attempt to let go, only to hit a wall in, I Can’t Give Everything Away.
The album floors me. Over the next two years, I come to recognize the cumulative pull of Bowie’s influence on my own creative drive.
As a kid, I fell hard, fast and head-on with the music of Bob Dylan. Bowie, nonetheless, seems to have had always been hovering in my creative blind spot. I often incorporated him into my visual art, sound cues and written work quite automatically, yet not obsessively, as though my unconscious mind were doing it for me. The following journal entry from May 2007, is one example:
Well, I’m reveling in seventies sex sax as composed by David Bowie ...“sex sax” so-called,‘waz’prominent in a lot of seventies music ... I think that may have been why I came about in the first place...my memoirs beginning late one night, with the recollection of thoughts filtered through the dent riddled sieve of pubescent angst, further fuelled by identity issues and while listening to the local radio station, golden light glowing through a massive silver stereo receiver.
I wondered why seventies music was so melancholic, and why the radio station hadn't bought any new records since 1979. This impossibly vague and intense familiarity with rhythms … can only be the merging of unconscious memories of death and rebirth; blue breaching the air, becoming red, merging briefly in space dance slow-mo, turning purple, and all of it set to music and repeating, until the fear has been expunged"
While the entry began as an attempt to offer some parody of a Dickensian introduction, Bowie’s music seems to have inspired introspection of greater depth. Interestingly, the language of the passage hints at another quote from the review of the Rolling Stone piece:
"Bowie's program is not complete but it involves the elimination of gender differences, the inevitability of Armageddon, and the conquering of death and time as we know them.” (Gerson)
When considering Bowie’s masterful exit—from his last album to the final photo shoot, in which he looked like a man playfully at ease with his fate-it’s hard to imagine his program wasn’t as complete as is humanly possible, and his psyche fully integrated.