November 2012

David Rice

nonfiction

The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s by Peter Doggett

I was thirteen in 1999 and "The Man Who Sold the World" was my favorite Nirvana song. Listening to MTV Unplugged in New York on my Discman on the bus to middle school, I saw "the world" in ruins, fenced off by trash piled high and smoldering into the night. The whole thing had just been sold at a cut rate to some scrapyard maven or retired collector, and Kurt Cobain's voice was the sound of the days just after the sale, when all the inhabitants hung in limbo. There we were, drifting around town, checking out our surroundings maybe for the last time, and gazing, one by one, upon the face of the man who'd decided to sell it, as if hidden there might be some clue as to why.

At the very end of the live take, Kurt mutters, "That was a David Bowie song," but it was years before I could bring myself to wonder who that might be, afraid of confronting the name that'd reached out of the past to grave-rob the Nirvana canon. When I was finally ready to take it on, halfway through high school, I bought a used copy of Bowie's The Man Who Sold the World album, and took it home. The next day, stunned like I'd just discovered a new continent, I came back to the record shop to see how many others I could afford.

These records hit me with such force in the early 2000s that I find Peter Doggett's argument about Bowie's unique relevance to the 1970s, in his new study, The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s, at once provocative and hard to believe.

Because the thing about Bowie is that he's not the sound of another time; he's the sound of another place. He founded a new realm with the fragments of his self, presided over it as emperor, and ushered in millions of celebrants. These fragments were forged by the '70s, and they in turn helped to forge the '70s, but the thing that Bowie expressed, or that attained expression through him, is more volatile than history can encompass. You can, as Doggett has, lay these fragments out and sift intelligently through them, but you can never reduce their plurality to something knowable. To grasp Bowie, you have to go there and wander with him, or as him, through his realm, appreciating its size, mystery, and the elemental truth of its alienness.

Defending the decade as a window worth looking through, Doggett claims that "what unifies these artificial eras is a sense of identity that marks them out from what came before and after." He elects Bowie as the supreme icon of the identity shift away from the Beatles-centric naiveté of the 1960s, and into a decade that withdrew its stock in communal progress. Turning back into the privacy and paranoia of the individual, the '70s fell under the shadows of "dread and misgiving... of stasis, of dead ends... of reckless hedonism and sharp reprisals." Rather than seeking out a community in this new "me" decade, Bowie was cracked and savvy enough to become one.

Cataloging every last song (on every album, as well as singles, covers, live one-offs, unfinished pieces, and soundtrack material) from this period, Doggett parses the records of Bowie's superhuman output, from 1969's star-making but still embryonic Space Oddity, through the harrowing run of Station to Station, Low, and Heroes, to 1980's Scary Monsters, a "record that announced, in word and deed, that its creator had reached the end of the road." He cuts the density of this undertaking with excellent short essays on the sound, making, and contextual significance of each album, as well as key topics like Bowie's relationship with fascism, the occult, Kabbalah, gay culture, film, Warhol, and Dada, his time in Berlin, and his collaborations with Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Brian Eno.

Taken together, these essays flesh out a taxonomy of Bowie's musical world, against its social, cultural, and astral backdrop. This is a curious approach for a book so concerned with time, as taxonomies lend themselves best to the description of natural systems, like the intricate orders of plants, animals, and rocks, which spread out into spatial rather than temporal complexity. Though Doggett doesn't push it this far, latent within his chosen structure is proof of the autonomous existence of Bowie's realm: it's a place of ongoing foment, as full of inhuman activity as the bottom of a tidal pool.

Ironically exemplifying the decade's trends of selfishness and secrecy, Bowie recalls it as "a time when what I was doing didn't seem to resemble anything anybody else was doing." As he braved the strain of compressing three or four decades' work into one, he must have perceived something giant crossing his headspace, and seen that, in the years to come, it would either crush him or drive him to something utterly new.

He faced up to it. Cocaine-fueled overwork might mean sudden death, but stopping meant the long hell of insanity. Claiming to "hate anything that slows me down," he relied upon "fast drugs," battling time as if he knew that the '70s contained all the activation energy he'd ever be given. If he slackened his pace, he'd lose the access he'd been given and end up a casualty, not a martyr.

It wasn't a nuke or a meteor, but something exploded the '60s, leaving behind only disembodied and deformed spiritual, linguistic, and aesthetic fragments. The extremity and alterity of Bowie's life and work in the '70s emerges from playing with these fragments, recognizing their radioactively generative "possibilities and repercussions," at a time when most of Britain and America recognized only imminent doom.

Finding in fragmentation the power to "transcend his own psychological heritage" (schizophrenia had made a mental patient of his brother), Bowie burned through one persona after another, from Ziggy Stardust, to Aladdin Sane, to The Thin White Duke, with a mummers parade of "real Bowies" in between. Unlike Bob Dylan, who escaped pigeonholing and entered the mythic through rigorous absence -- being "not there" wherever you looked for him -- Bowie in the '70s was hyper-there, everywhere and seemingly as everything.

This Frankensteinian approach to identity (as well as to sound, which ran the gamut, in a few stretched-thin years, from pastoral British folk to arena rock to prog to soul to disco to glam to early techno, and to lyrics, for which he often utilized Brion Gysin's and William S. Burroughs's "cut-up method") dissolved the binaries of male and female, straight and gay, outsider and superstar, alien and human, visionary and crackpot, artist and kitsch-monger. Borrowing Warhol's dictum that the surface is everything, Bowie used glitter, makeup, hair dye, and Expressionist stage lighting to externalize and then negate all inner life.

What you see, if you watch videos of Bowie performing, is a man possessed. The personae don't seem created; they appear to have entered him fully formed. This comes across most clearly in Ziggy Stardust, the readymade extraterrestrial superstar, many times more famous than Bowie himself at the time of his debut, but all of the personae share this preexistent, even demonic quality. Bowie didn't set out to cross-dress; he set out to become an entirely new sort of being.

This is why he remains convincing, no matter how outrageous his getups have come to seem: he's convinced to the point of possession, and thus, as a viewer and listener, so are you. From Ziggy onward, he wielded the power to "inspire his audience and belong to them, ultimately be them, become the incarnation of their dreams, lusts, and fears."

Thus possessed, he could bring these spirits onto the stage, but he needed mass adulation (herein lay his fixation on the Rock Star as übermensch, on the Nazis as pop geniuses, and on cloaking his mortality in "the trappings of a god") to recognize and validate what he'd become. Without a crowd feeding him human energy, he would have vanished into smoke and noise. Instead, mass pop stardom served as a counterweight to the dangers of fragmentation and possession. Like pilgrims sailing through the night to settle a continent glimpsed by a prophet in a dream, the millions who made Bowie an idol safeguarded the reality of the realm his records can still take you to.

None of which is to say that mass stardom was an uncompromised state. Bowie knew that rock music, in his era, had gone fully corporate. Perversely, he loved this fact, as it spurred him on to increasingly reckless feats of image making. Building off his early days in a London advertising firm, he conceived of Ziggy as "the ultimate product, a brand that he could sell to the world with utter sincerity and conviction." From here, his star was ascendant.

Both of these aspects -- the dark magic of spirit-possession, and the coked up sleaze of corporate commerce -- are quintessential '70s phenomena, and both are sewn deep into Bowie's legend. Amidst a mass resurgence of solitary, almost medieval obsessions with secret symbols and arcane languages, dark magic and Satanism, Bowie's "search for hidden powers," as well as his thirst for the attention and lucre of stardom, reached fruition in the imagery and ideology of aliens.

Whether early on as Major Tom, lost in space and in no hurry to be found; as the highly marketable but short-lived Ziggy; as an emotionally stunted, alcoholic alien in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth; or ricocheting through the sublimely spooky cosmos of Station to Station, the album he claims not to remember making, we see a lonely, lost creature unsure of its core humanity. At the same time, we see a creature purged of all human attributes, free to play and perform -- and be cruel -- without repercussion.

By the dawn of the '70s, Bowie understood that the world had entered a state in which it could be bought and sold. As he had no moral compunction about being the one to buy and sell it, the only question was how to attain a sufficiently distanced perspective from which to negotiate the sale; one couldn't buy and sell the world while also standing upon it, with nowhere to go once it'd been hauled away and melted down. Just as he found existential legitimacy in alien being, he found his ideal vantage point in outer space.

Bowie saw outer space as a realm of profound loneliness, but also of untold possibilities, full of unfamiliar but fully evolved forms, eager to take up residence within him. He reached out beyond the earth and toward an inevitable unity of time and space in the far reaches of the universe. At this perspectival remove, he overcame the barriers that prevailed over objects and interactions on earth, preventing them from being in two states or two places at once.

Filtering science-fictional conceits through terrestrial aesthetics as disparate as those of Judy Garland and Adolf Hitler, Bowie painted the earth as a foreign planet, one in which we all live, but never quite as ourselves, and not for long. The fact that his work expresses this vision makes it freaky; the fact that it implants this vision in its listener, turning you into the alien who's fallen to earth, trapped among the remnants, imbues it with a power that never diminishes.

Bowie's voice simultaneously conveys the private experience of alien possession, and publicly utters the incantation through which such possession occurs. Like a second Big Bang, the splinter-effects of his decade-long frenzy resonated in Kurt Cobain's throat in 1993, months before his death, in my ears in 1999, years before I'd heard Bowie himself, and through all of Peter Doggett's expertly arranged minutiae in 2012.

Driving down the highway late at night, with no traffic but a few trucks lumbering along in the right lane, I turn on Station to Station. Bathed in rumbling feedback, I wait for the eponymous opening track to kick into gear. When it does, I surrender. You don't play this album, alone at night, if you want to stay where you started. I drift through it, and it through me, fully at large between stations.

Though I'll come to doubt it when the sun rises, any night spent listening to Bowie's '70s masterpieces reminds me that this world opens onto another. I look through the windshield and know the things that possessed him then are out there still, looking for bodies to spend the night in.

The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s by Peter Doggett
Harper
ISBN: 978-0062024657
512 pages