“Sit tight in your corner. Don’t tell god your plans”
I left New York just as the delicate warmth of spring gave way to one of its infamously hellish summers. Like a man in a trench-coat with nothing underneath, its sweating resonance threatened to reveal itself only briefly, yet offered all the encouragement I needed to move rapidly from its proximity.
Realistically, a deficiency of work and money forced my hand; I had to say goodbye to that fair city, whether I liked it or not. But the onset of summer convinced me that it might be the decision I wanted to make, and the apparently insurmountable case of writers’ block I had developed since my arrival reinforced my faith in the decision that was thrust upon me.
Because if Virginia Woolf was right in suggesting that every writer needs a room of her own, New York might be one the most difficult places in the world to write. Rooms, after all, do not come cheap – so one is faced with a limited set of options if intent on practising the craft.
Today, one might reframe the claim as a response to inequality of personal time; Woolf’s statement speaks more to the lack of equality between the sexes than it does to a rigid framework of conditions required to write well. When you’re competing against writers who enjoy near total freedom from concerns both economic and domestic, anything less is a substantial disadvantage.
Shouldn’t it be enough, then, to ensure that men and women alike are able to carve out niches of uninterrupted time to work on creative endeavours? Perhaps. But New York is a hard place to attain even that most minimal of personal requirements, and so artistic endeavours have the habit of either falling to the wayside, or providing a source of constant frustration when they move slowly, or – as happened frequently with me – grind to a standstill. And when the source of that frustration is an album like 1. Outside, you start to wonder why you’re so intent on doing any of this writing business in the first place when the effort:reward ratio is so god-awful. But I sunk the costs, and I couldn’t let go.
The album is Bowie’s nineteenth, and it has the distinct feel of a mid-career offering from a quote-unquote “prolific” artist. It’s not that Bowie phones it in (the way he does on Tonight), it’s just that he is intent on unabashedly doing his thing – for better or worse.
Caption “worse, definitely worse”
The album has a subtitle: The Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle and includes a number of interludes just like the above that blur the line between David Bowie’s work and that of a 19 year old goth with only the WYSIWYG editor of Livejournal between her and publication.1 David Bowie and Brian Eno have explained in interviews that these are just the tip of the iceberg, and there are many, many more such recordings lying around, just waiting to be collated. The threat – if it wasn’t obvious from the title – was that there is enough material for a second album, and my one great hope for Bowie’s legacy is that it will never be posthumously released. Posthumously? I never suspected that I would use the word in relation to Bowie – at least during the writing of this blog – but there it is.
I started listening to this album immediately after finishing up the last one, and have been editing some savage review of it for more or less year. It never felt quite ready, though, and as the months crept by I tried hard to ignore the fact that, while I was trying to hone my snark, the clock was ticking on and I had myself produced nothing of value.
When I heard in December that Bowie was releasing Blackstar, I knew I had missed the mark yet again; I thought little of the fact. Bowie’s future creative output, however long it might take, was inevitable – so I would simply have to be ready to catch the next wave. But it did cause me to feel uneasy about my critique.
While I was rearranging the order of malignant sentences, Bowie had produced a whole new work of art. I no longer felt that I could take pride in my long and protracted piece about the shittiness of a mostly forgotten album when the artist who wrote had moved on and was outputting new and exciting work.
I decided to ditch most of it, and began rewriting with a view to something more personal and less focussed on what I felt were the negative aspects of the work. I was making serious progress, and on January 12 I was actually putting off the final edit so that I could add “write at least three blog posts” to my whiteboard (allowing me to immediately cross something off for a false sense of extra ahcievement). That was the plan, at least, until my partner tilted her phone in front of me with a sense of urgency. It was a New York Times update – “David Bowie dies at age 69.” I was devastated.
I couldn’t help feeling about this blog some small version of the way I felt about not having visited my aunt before she passed away. A part of me had always imagined Bowie reading it when it was completed, edited, and cohesive, and admiring the way his legacy had inspired yet another narrative of transformation. A childish dream, I know – particularly given the possibility that Bowie might have baulked at the overly normal dream of being thin – “what a horrid product of magazine culture” – he might have thought – “what a waste of my transcendent and transgressive work”. But now I’ll never know.
I’m not sure I can improve upon Adam Savage’s words, when he said on his podcast: “I thought we were all in agreement – as a culture, as a people, as a species – that if anyone was going to be granted immortality it was him”. In some very naive way, I think I actually believed that he could be.
I know – this feeling is not original – it goes all the way back to Epic of Gilgamesh. But a lot of time has passed since then, and I hoped that these days, if you lived a big enough life, you really could cheat death. I blame Aubrey De Grey.
If the first immortal was going to be anyone, certainly it would be someone as inhumanly impressive as Bowie. If not him, then who? No one. There, in this equation, was the selfish part of my response.
Here is a thing I’ve never forgotten: a memory of a memory. When I was fifteen years old, I was standing in the shower and thinking of something that happened many years earlier. I had convinced my little brother to push over the family barbecue, and watched him cry as he struggled to understand why he had received the full portion of the blame for an action he had no interest in. He thought he was doing the right thing – following the lead of his big (and usually responsible) brother – and was being crucified for it. It held up, at fifteen, as the most intense feeling of guilt I had ever experienced, and as I reimagined it I felt as though it had only just happened.
What struck me then, and has stayed with me ever since, was the comprehension that if my twelve-year-old memories could feel so near to me at fifteen, then surely a world-weary future version of myself might recall my fifteen-year-old experiences as being just as recent. And if that could happen in reverse, could it go the other way?
Suddenly, I found myself terrified that I was an old man looking back on a youth I could never reclaim, and that I would soon be sucked back into the reality of a near and inevitable death – that my fifteen-year-old experiences (then current) were but a dream I was about to wake up from. I still think about it, sometimes, because although that snap-waking did not come to fruition, it seemed as real and inevitable to me then as the rising ground in a falling dream, and I knew deep down that – if I was lucky enough to make it to old age – it would inevitably come to fruition. No matter what I do, no matter how I live, my life will have inevitably passed by in what feels like an instant.
I have made some real headway into not obsessing over this, by thinking about what I can achieve in life, and trying to take risks and not waste my moments. I thought that, by doing a lot, that I could achieve immortality – in that same way that Gilgamesh did with his walls and his kingdom.
But when I heard about Bowie, I kept thinking of him on his deathbed, having done so much more than I could ever hope to, and realising that he would still have that same feeling I have feared for so long, however grand and impressive those flashbacks might have been.
I do not believe I will ever have a healthy attitude towards death – I’m not totally sure I want to – but Bowie’s life stands to me, at least, as a testament to the reason we try. Because, even if the person must die, and even if living on as a legacy is meaningful only to those who benefit from it, not to the individual who bequeaths it, as a beneficiary I feel a strong obligation to do the same.
And, oh, what a legacy Bowie has left.
But let’s come back to 1. Outside – lest I not talk about the album at all. Because it is part of that legacy. And while, on it, more than any other album, Bowie seems to confuse the process of piloting and exploring ideas with the process of actually refining those ideas – it stands as a testament, and window into, the place great ideas come from.
I want to be clear – I am not recommending that anyone listen to this album. But, in the wake of Bowie’s death, it’s important to emphasise that this is how ideas are born. Successful artists often lose sight of what constitutes audience-ready material, and what should be relegated to the old box of jam tapes that might be sold to an enthusiast for more than the album grosses.
But this is how it worked under the dominant label-driven paradigm of the time: spend, output, promote, spend, output, promote. It broke a lot of artists, who were forced to put out music after being long sucked dry, but Bowie thrived on it – having such a penchant for embracing and appropriating the popular, putting out the work without shame, and moving on to the next thing. You could criticise him, but by the time you’d be criticising an outdated Bowie, because he’d have moved onto the next thing by the time you got the chance.
That is why I felt uneasy, well before Bowie’s death, criticising this album. Because Bowie has always had a reputation for finishing things; he was enviably decisive, and seemed to only look backward for the purpose of self-reference. Perhaps he got nostalgic, but the listener was never subjected to it. In Bowie’s work (unlike, say, Dylan’s)2 there is only forward – never a sense that he is casting judgment on music because of his ability to keep up with it.
There was always the sense that he was listening, searching, and looking for inspiration in all that was happening around (and because of) him. When you do that so artfully, you get a pass for missing the mark once in a while – even if you miss it by a lot – not just because you’re dead, but because failure is an essential step towards greatness. I am aware of no other artist who has embraced that reality so willingly and so gracefully, and I doubt we will again for some time to come.
“This is your shadow on my wall. This is my flesh and blood – this is what I could have been.”
- : Which stands to reason, when you remember that Bowie has influenced many of the bands that influence many of the goths. ↩
- From an interview in Rolling Stone “You do the best you can, you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really. You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like – static. Even these songs probably sounded ten times better in the studio when we recorded ’em. CDs are small. There’s no stature to it. I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like, ‘Everybody’s gettin’ music for free.’ I was like, ‘Well, why not? It ain’t worth nothing anyway.’”” ↩