Random Ultra-Violence: Simon Critchley On David Bowie
, October 6th, 2014 10:02
Prefaced by a short, self-conducted Q&A, we present an extract from author and philosopher Simon Critchley's new book on David Bowie — part personal memoir, part critique — in which we move between Diamond Dogs and Danton's Death, from Nietzsche to the French Revolution
What makes Bowie worthy of such impassioned praise and philosophical reasoning?
My aim in Bowie is very simple: to try and find concepts that do justice to Bowie's art in ways that are neither music journalism, dime store psychology, biography or crappy social history. I still don't think we have a language that gives the huge importance of pop culture its due, that describes and dignifies it in the right way. For me, and for many many millions of others, the world first opened as a set of possibilities through pop music, especially Bowie's music. Bowie is the most important artist tout court of the past six decades and someone just needs to say that and try and explain how his songs justify that claim. That's what I am trying to do in the book.
Which three Bowie songs would you take on a desert island and why?
This is an absolutely impossible question and you know it. Let me cheat a little bit and just choose three from one album. I'm writing a kind of back and forth with the writer Rick Moody at the moment and he wanted us to think about Bowie's 1979 album, Lodger. From that album, I would take these three tracks: (i) 'Red Sails', which is a glorious Neu! inspired drum motorik beat fused with strange ambient harmonies and the weirdly wonderful line 'Sailor can't dance like you'. (ii) 'Boys Keep Swinging', an apparent celebration of being a boy and popping cherries, but, as the wonderful draggy video for the song shows, this is a kind of performative parody and undermining of masculinity. it is a decidedly queer song, revealing the hollowness of boys playing at being boys. (iii) 'Repetition', this is the track that follows 'Boys' on Lodger. It's about a boy that keeps swinging at his wife.
Bowie's work is replete with social commentary, but he always handles things in an oblique way, which many people miss. a recent example is the internal monologue of the serial killer on 'Valentine's Day'. But 'Repetition' is much more direct and it is about the repetitive loops of male violence against women, particularly husbands against wives. The moment of real brilliance in the track (and I would love to ask bowie about this song) is the fact that whole lyric is told in a distant, impersonal third person form: 'Johnny is a man and he's bigger than her'. but there is one moment when bowie switches into the second person to make a plea, to plead with Johnny, 'don't hit her'. you could miss it on the first couple of hearings, but it's what structures the whole song. The only thing that can arrest these cycles of domestic violence is a commandment, an appeal, which always has to be in the second person, like 'you shall not kill'. It is not a law, it is an ethical demand.
Look, this is probably too much and I could pick at least three songs for every Bowie album. it would be a very cluttered desert island. But i like clutter.
One of the strangest moments in the history of British popular music is Peter Noone’s cover version of “Oh! You Pretty Things,” which did pretty well on the UK charts in 1971. Noone (whose name wonderfully splits open into “no one”—a little like Odysseus’s reply to the Cyclops Polyphemus) had been the frontman of the oddly named but hugely successful Herman’s Hermits. Noone displayed a truly bravura lack of understanding of Bowie’s lyrics, which are replete with references to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. More precisely, the song asserts the uselessness of homo sapiens and the need to make way for the homo superior. Admittedly, this is all framed in a rather cheap, British, BBC, Doctor Who version of the future. But the point is clear enough: the extrater- restrial strangers have come to take our children toward a nonhuman future. For us, the nightmare has begun and “We’ve finished our news.”
Funniest of all, fearful of radio censorship, Noone replaced Bowie’s “the earth is a bitch” with the apparently more upbeat “the earth is a beast” (but a bitch is a beast, you might quip). The basis, the constant, the ground of Bowie’s most important work is that the world is screwed, used up, old and done. The earth is a dying dog that awaits its beating from a new master. Bowie’s vision is continually dystopian. One can hear this in the pre-apocalyptic melancholy of “Five Years,” or indeed in post-apocalyptic visions like “Drive-In Saturday.” In the latter, the survivors of a nuclear catastrophe live in vast domes in the western desert of the USA using old movies in order to reenact what they imagine ordinary life was like before the war, “Like the video films we saw.” But, of course, what is created in this reen- actment is not the past, but the clichéd schlock of 1950s romantic movies, where “His name was always Buddy.”
But the most profound and extended dystopian vision comes after the introduction of Gysin’s cut-up method in Diamond Dogs in April 1974, what Peter Doggett calls Bowie’s “dark study in cultural disintegration.” Whatever judgments we might make about Bowie’s musical development, Diamond Dogs is a courageous conceptual step into new territory.
To my mind, it is the album where Bowie finally rids himself of the ghost of Ziggy and begins the rich and speedy series of aesthetic transformations that will carry through until Scary Monsters in 1980. Despite its obvious, repeated acts of homage to the Rolling Stones, particularly through Bowie’s wonderfully scratchy and slightly twisted Keith Richards guitar imitations, the album pushes past whatever rock ’n’ roll had been, slashing and mutilating it before carting it off to the graveyard: “This ain’t rock ’n’ roll. This is genocide.”
I remember looking at the cover of the album, where Bowie is stretched out, half-Great Dane, half-human, for what seemed like hours in the window of our local record store. Then, inside the listening booth (such places still existed at the time), I heard the opening track, “Future Legend,” where the howls of wolves ran along- side the tune from “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” which I knew from one of my mother’s Sinatra albums.
Inspired by Burroughs’s Wild Boys, with marauding gangs carrying eighteen-inch bowie knives that cut two ways, a premonition of the suburban boys and girls who would hit the streets of sundry decaying British cities in the riotous days of punk, Diamond Dogs begins with the prophecy of “Future Legend.” Bowie’s words also cut two ways:
And in the death
As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare
The shutters lifted in inches in temperance building
High on Poacher’s Hill
And red mutant eyes gaze down on Hunger City No more big wheels
Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes
Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue
Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now legwarmers
Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald Any day now the year of the diamond dogs.
Bowie has a vision of the world as ruined: complete civilizational collapse. Here is a picture of urban space prior to gentrification (bliss it was to be alive in that twilight), a space of crime and inverted consumerism. Tramps wear diamonds, silver fox fur becomes legwarmers, heraldic emblems of jewels become rich trash to be draped around freakish peoploids.
Bowie's albums often have traces of musical styles that are being abandoned, like outworn skins, alongside the premonition of something new that will find voice in future work. In Diamond Dogs, the songs “Rebel, Rebel” and “Rock ’n’ Roll with Me” belong to that past, and arguably the soulful, Isaac Hayes–influenced wah-wah guitar of “1984” points forward toward Young Americans. But the real innovations are the nine-minute sequence of “Sweet Thing,” “Candidate,” and “Sweet Thing (Reprise)” and the nightmarishly brilliant “We Are the Dead” (and we could also make a good case for “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”; on the original vinyl version of Diamond Dogs that I owned in the 1970s, the needle would get stuck at the end of the track, emitting an endless and increasingly disturbing “bro, bro, bro, bro, bro, bro, bro, bro, bro, bro”).
In the dead diamond dog world of Halloween Jack (one of the personae on the album), sex is no longer some transgressive excitement. It is “putting pain in a stranger.” Its image, like a Bacon painting, is “a portrait in flesh, who trails on a leash.” If this is a world of flesh, then that flesh is dying. We find here an almost paranoid-schizophrenic picture of the world as extinct, rotting and in need of redemption. This is the kind of world that we find in President Schreber’s deliciously strange delusions in Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, or the inhabitants of R. D. Laing’s Kingsley Hall free asylum in London in the late 1960s: “Can’t you tell I’m dead? I can smell the flesh rotting.”
Perhaps there is also some memory of the world of Bowie’s schizophrenic half brother, Terry Burns, from whom he learned so much so early (about jazz, about Jack Kerouac, about wandering around seedy Soho in London), and who, after he had been institutionalized in a mental hospital for many years, somehow thought that David could save him. Terry Burns killed himself in the final days of 1984 at Coulsdon South railway station, south of London, by putting his head on the rails and waiting for the train to approach. Bowie set off a family feud and media storm by not attending the funeral. He didn’t want to turn it into a circus. The note on Bowie’s bouquet was extremely poignant: “You’ve seen more things than we can imagine, but all these moments will be lost—like tears washed away by the rain.”
It has often been said that there is something of the psychotic in Bowie, which I rather doubt. Bowie was not a lad insane. If such psychotic tendencies exist, then—as with Joyce in Finnegans Wake or as with Artaud in his Theatre of Cruelty—they are sublimated into art. Thanks to his art, maybe he’s not crazy, or so crazy. The constant references to madness, paranoia, and delusion, particularly in the early tracks on The Man Who Sold the World, are a musical transformation of its terrors, even the crazy, closing, canine chant to “All the Madmen”: “Zane, zane, zane. Ouvrez le chien.”
That said, a mad, dead half-brother is a kind of shadow figure and a history of madness in a family, as seems to have been the case with Bowie’s mother, Margaret Mary Burns, is a terrifying thing. We are the dead. The air is full of their cries.
“Is it nice in your snow storm, freezing your brain?” Bowie asks. It’s the exhilarating bleakness of Bowie’s vision in Diamond Dogs that pulls me in with its dirty claws. As the protagonist in the track “Candidate” walks through his film set that “even smells like a street,” he boasts,
Someone scrawled on the wall, ‘I smell the blood of les tricoteuses’
Who wrote up scandals in other bars.
The tricoteuses were the insurrectionary, working- class Parisian women who cheered on executions during the Terror of 1793 to 1794 while watching the surgically precise work of Madame Guillotine. “Candidate” builds with a terrifying lyrical force, painting the picture of a world of exploitation, decay, and rape:
Till the sun beats love on the seedy young knights
Who press you on the ground while shaking in fright.
The world is a prostituted sexual hell defined by random ultra-violence. The song ends plaintively and desperately:
I guess we could cruise down one more time
With you by my side it should be fine
We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band
Then jump in the river holding hands.
The only possible connection in a desperate, ruined world, the sole remainder of love, is to take some drugs and carry out a suicide pact, like the German writer Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, who killed themselves on the shore of the Wannsee outside Berlin after drinking coffee they had brought to them from a nearby café. In a loveless world, love can only be saved through death.
I want to go back to the allusion that les tricoteuses and make a little leap here, or at least take a small step. When I listen to Diamond Dogs and think about Bowie’s dystopian vision, I think of Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death (Dantons Tod). This extraordinary play is defined by a post-revolutionary sense of despair, inaction, and pervasive nihilism. Just prior to his execution, the imprisoned Danton says,
Everything is packed and swarming. The nothing has killed itself (das Nichts hat such ermordert). Creation is its wound. We are its drops of blood, and the world the grave in which it rots.
Such, I think, is Bowie’s dystopia defined by Enlightenment’s deadly dialectic. We declare that God is dead and turn ourselves into Gods only in order to kill better, to exterminate more effectively. We have become heathen. Danton goes on,
The world is chaos. Nothingness is the world- god waiting yet to be born (das Nichts ist das zu gebärende Weltgott).
Danton’s Death ends with Lucile—most Ophelia- like—mounting the steps of the guillotine where the guards are sleeping. She shouts, “Long live the King! (Es lebe der König!)” It seems like a suicidal gesture and one imagines that she is swiftly dispatched, although Büchner leaves the audience to draw that inference. Yet, Paul Celan, in his justly famous “Meridian” speech, given when accepting the Büchner Prize in 1960, finds another meaning to Lucile’s words. He insists that “It is an act of freedom. It is a step.” If that step might appear to be a reactionary defense of the ancient régime, then Celan counters,
But it is not. Allow me, who grew up on the writings of Peter Kropotkin and Gustav Landauer, to insist: this is not homage to any monarchy, to any yesterday worth preserving. It is homage to the majesty of the absurd which bespeaks the presence of human beings. This, Ladies and Gentlemen, has no definitive name, but I believe that this is . . . poetry (die Dichtung).
Fascinatingly, Celan places Lucile’s act under the aegis of Kropotkin’s anarchism of mutual aid and Landauer’s more heady mystical anarchism. Slightly further on, Celan adds what he calls a “topological” dimension to this thought. To take Lucile’s step is to see things “in a u-topian light.” Therefore, the act of freedom which is poetry is utopian:
We came into the nearness of the open and the free. And finally into the nearness of Utopia.
Poetry is a step, an act of freedom taken in relation to a world defined by the majesty of the absurd, a human world. Thus, Büchner’s dystopia is the condition for utopia. My only real thought about Bowie is that his art is also such a step. It sets us free in relation to a civilization that is petrified and dead. One does not fix up a house that is falling off a cliff. Bowie’s dystopia is utopian in equal measure.
I think this thought casts a different light on Bowie’s vision of the world and world politics. Consider a track like the stunning “It’s No Game,” which appears in two versions (“Part 1” and “Part 2”) as bookends to Scary Monsters. Tony Visconti revealed that, amazingly, both versions have the same backing track, although at that point the similarities end. Where the second version is flat, direct, and affectless, the first version features Bowie at his most powerfully histrionic, accompanied by a menacing voiceover in Japanese by Michi Hirota and an insane guitar part by Robert Fripp. The track finishes with Bowie screaming “shut up” over Fripp’s seemingly endless, repeating guitar riff.
What Bowie describes is a Büchnerian world of terror. The first line, “Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution,” describes the languor and disappointment of a post-revolutionary situation. In an allusion to Eddie Cochran’s posthumously released 1960 hit, there are no longer “three steps to heaven.” All that remains are “Big heads and drums—full speed and pagan.” “So, where’s the moral?” Bowie asks. “People have their fingers broken.” In the final verse of “Part 2,” Bowie concludes,
Children round the world
Put camel shit on the walls
They’re making carpets on treadmills
Or garbage sorting.
So, where’s the moral in all this camel shit? Pop stars, like the dreadful Bono, are meant to morph into slimmer versions of Salman Rushdie and mouth liberal platitudes about the state of the world and what we can do to put it right. But here Bowie gives the lie to such liberal complacency by exposing it to a simple, visceral critique. The inexpensive carpets that we use to furnish our home are made by those living in camel-shit huts. Rather than amuse ourselves by playing with some fraudulent political agenda, Bowie simply declares that “It’s no game.” Shit is serious.
The next track on Scary Monsters, “Up the Hill Backwards,” begins, “The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom, and the possibilities it seems to offer.” Like Lucile’s cry at the end of Danton’s Death, this line sounds like Edmund Burke’s conservative critique of the French Revolution. But adapting Celan’s logic, this is no homage to any monarchy or any yesterday, apart from the majesty of the absurd, which is the world of human beings. Such is poetry in Celan’s sense, Bowie’s poetry.
Bowie is out now, published by OR Books