Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the sombre renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. I mean long journeys across gray space. I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic. Understand the man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation. Even if half-mad he is absorbed into the public’s total madness; even if fully rational, a bureaucrat in hell, a secret genius of survival, he is sure to be destroyed by the public’s contempt for survivors. Fame, this special kind, feeds itself on outrage, on what the counselors of lesser men would consider bad publicity – hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs. Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide.
(Is it clear I was a hero of rock’n’roll?)
That’s from the opening of Don DeLillo‘s novel, Great Jones Street, published in April, 1973 in the US (and the next year in the UK), that I’d re-read at the start of the year. It’s a dark sub-culture satire – for Rolling Stone magazine think Running Dog – with a rock musician named Bucky Wunderlick narrating. It’s pretty good, still one of the best rock novels out there. At the start Wunderlick opts to, at the height of his success, disappear mid-tour; rumours abound of weird sitings, illness, breakdown, death etc. Given its period, it’s obvious post-motorcycle accident Bob Dylan is one of the reference points for Bucky – a big deal is made of the Mountain tapes, as opposed to the Basement tapes – and I’ve always thrown at least the self-immolating Jim Morrison and, not having read the book when it first came out, David Bowie into the mix. That latter supposition has proved to be wrong if somewhat prophetic – fast forward to Bowie’s reported early reckless behaviour in Berlin and that “preferably in a foreign city” over the page in DeLillo’s book …
Anyway, with the announcement of the death of David Bowie and clips of Ziggy Stardust everywhere I remembered that opening paragraph of Great Jones Street and began to wonder who was drawing on whom (is that right, grammarians?). The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was released June, 1972, and its concluding track, Rock’n’roll suicide, had been recorded earlier, in February. Given the typical turnaround time in book publishing back then (you know, when they used to proof-read, for example) I guess that rules out any cross-fertilisation either way at the time, that it was a case of – showing my age – as Marshall McLuhan used to say, “it steam engines when it’s steam engine time” (not that I can actually source that quote).
When Michael Jackson died in 2009, more than anything I had an urge to read Danny Baker‘s brilliant account of that rare ‘interview’ of his with MJ and the other Jacksons that had appeared in the NME … in 1981 as it turns out – Yes, that good I remembered it 28 years on. The internet let me down, but it did tell me that The great Greenland mystery (for that is its title) was reprinted in an anthology edited by Dylan Jones called Meaty beaty big and bouncy!: classic rock and pop writing from Elvis to Oasis (1996). I got a cheap tatty copy via AbeBooks and did not regret it. Baker’s article was as sharp (and funny) as I’d thought. An excellent collection it turned out to be, too. Recommended.
When it was announced David Bowie had died I was not immediately moved that much. So it goes. I was, though, surprised to discover – I did have to check – that I didn’t own a single Bowie album. “Heroes”, of course, magnificent, one of the (slipping into hyperbole) truly great songs of the second half of the twentieth century, always gets to me. And that movie, The man who fell to earth, continues to haunt. I admired the accomplished body of work, the intelligence, was animated by a few tracks (Suffragette City and Rebel rebel immediately spring to mind), but there was little I could say I loved this side of Hunky Dory (and not just the gorgeous Kooks), though even that had a touch of the dark about it.
That’s the album I shall soon own. I find now that I miss it; I’d still call it his masterpiece. Back then my mates and I saw it as an incredibly important album – the wit, the intelligence, the chutzpah (Song for Bob Dylan, “Lennon’s on sale again“), the musical nous – and yet it would appear from the obits it was not a huge commercial success. Ziggy Stardust just left me confused: Five years is a tremendous song, a great eco-scene setter … but the costumes were a step too far for gritty old authenticity chasing moi. For me the case was, as Chris Salewicz, another veteran from NME days, put it in The Independent‘s obituary:
The trouble with David Bowie, however, was that it was hard to separate any of his activities from a scent of calculation that seeped into all he did: ultimately there was always something cold at the core of even his greatest work.
But while I hadn’t been particularly touched by the man, it was obvious that many of my younger friends (it’s all relative) had been, and I’m certainly not going to hold that against them. I’m intrigued at the generational paradox. Because – I shouldn’t be, I know, because I know all about The laughing gnome and London boys – I am surprised to discover, if that’s the right word, that David Bowie is actually 18 months older than me. I’ve read a lot about him lately, more than I ever did when he was alive; it’s been interesting to discover that, well …
I turned to Meaty beaty big and bouncy! to see who had the Bowie chapter and was delighted to find a piece by Charles Shaar Murray, written in 1993 for Arena magazine, reflecting affectionately on his career till then, and on his creative lull since Let’s dance. Its title was The man who fell to earth, taken from the compelling Nick Roeg film of the same name that featured Bowie as an extraterrestrial who did just that. Again, don’t bother hunting for the text on the internet. Echoing Salewicz he makes no bones about:
The problem with Bowie – as far as trad-rock orthodoxy is concerned – is that, despite his charter membership of the Big Rock Survivors’ Chums League, he is not trusted. He doesn’t Mean It.
He recalls, rather tellingly:
The first Bowie I ever met face-to-face was Ziggy Stardust […] I was on my first ever assignment for NME, which suited the strategy adopted by Bowie’s then manager, Tony DeFries of MainMan, of keeping his boy away from journalists who’d known him in any of his previous incarnations.
And while the ‘actor’ schtick is not exactly new news, I doubt it’s been expressed in a more charming way anywhere else:
The first question I ever asked David Bowie was something along the lines of ‘The most commonly used words in current rock writing are “punk”, “funk” and “camp”. How much do you think you’ve contributed to bringing this about?’ Bowie seemed intrigued by the question – presumably it made a change from ‘Why is your hair that colour?’ and ‘How does your wife feel about you being bisexual?’ – and he denied any connections with funkiness, sidestepped ‘punk’, and suggested there was something camp about anyone who felt more at home on a stage than off it. ‘No-one ever called Gerry Garcia camp,’ I replied. ‘Ah,’ said Bowie, ‘but he’s a musician and I’m not.’ And we were away.
Murray met him many times after that and, after a roll call of various Bowie stage personas, tells us:
In private, though, he was a South London Bloke, albeit with highly arty tendencies, and that’s about as close to the ‘Real Bowie’ as any of us are going to get.”
What I find interesting here is that the qualities CSM reports more of in this article from way back are precisely what is coming out from all the anecdotage appearing of late in the social media and endless newspaper tributes – the politeness, charm and kindness, the ability to switch to ordinary when he wanted; I never saw beyond the mask, the video. The human being, no less. Vale.
Can’t leave it without acknowledging, admiring and appreciating the way David Bowie kept his final illness private. A dignified model for this celebrity driven age (even if the manner of the release of Blackstar was not exactly spontaneous – theatrical to the end, but I’d say he earned that).
I hadn’t realised that John Lennon was the co-writer of Fame – there’s poignancy. All I could remember about it was the chant, so it crossed my mind that the lyrics might reflect something of the disquisition on fame in the opening paragraph of DeLillo‘s book that kicks off this post, but no – no relation.
Turns out this wasn’t as off the wall notion as it might seem, though. Bowie was a voracious reader. Check out his Top 100 Books and there you’ll find Don DeLillo‘s White noise, a book he’d praised in interviews for its ‘edginess’. It’s a fascinating list, full of good stuff, the expected and the unexpected, ranging from Homer’s Iliad to Viz and back again.
Two other references I’ve found particularly interesting:
- Neil Spencer’s acute overview of Bowie’s impact and career in last week’s Observer
- and another one you won’t find on the internet, the late Ian MacDonald‘s fascinating take on The Thin White Duke’s notorious fascist salute at Victoria Station and the Station to station album – White lines, black magic: Bowie’s dark doings – written in 1999, which also harks back to some of the homo superior stuff on Hunky Dory and looks forward to personal salvation in Berlin; it’s not a knocking piece, I hasten to add. Reprinted in Ian’s exemplary collection, The people’s music (Pimlico, 2003).