Feb/Mar 2019

Stardust Reveries

David Bowie, Song by Song

Carl Wilson


Ashes to Ashes:

The Songs of David Bowie, 1976-2016

by Chris O'Leary

Repeater

$26.95 List Price

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Ashes to Ashes, the second volume of Chris O’Leary’s song-by-song chronicle of David Bowie’s work, reaches its title track around page 155. Of 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes,” which was Bowie’s second-ever No. 1 single in the UK—the first had been “Space Oddity,” to which “Ashes to Ashes” was the mischievous sequel (We know Major Tom’s a junkie)—O’Leary remarks that it is, “in a way, his last song, the closing chapter that comes midway through the book. Bowie sings himself off-stage with a children’s rhyme: eternally falling, eternally young.”

In mundane truth, at that point the reader is about thirty-six years, five hundred pages, and hundreds of songs away from the end of Bowie’s art and life, which came in January of 2016 with the surprise release of Blackstar on his sixty-ninth birthday and, two days later, his death by liver cancer. But symbolically O’Leary is right: “Ashes to Ashes” and the Scary Monsters album it comes from mark the end of the iconic David Bowie, the 1970s Bowie, the queer chameleon, the glam apocalyptist, the art-rock figurehead, the cracked actor who fell to Earth. What would follow to most of the public was, briefly, Bowie as hetero, slick, hit-making, yuppie triumphalist in the Let’s Dance era; then Bowie as try-hard has-been; then Bowie the happily married art-collecting retiree; and at last, strictly in his final few years, Prospero-Lear Bowie, the old man rising to prove he still had command of his magicks, and to roar against the onrushing void.

Click to enlarge

View of “David Bowie is,” 2018, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Compared to its briefer and more action-packed predecessor, 2015’s Rebel Rebel, which tracked Bowie from his beginnings through his 1970s apex, Ashes to Ashes (Repeater Books, $27) has to grapple with that erratic story line, which is at once the book’s flaw and its fascination. It starts on the high note of the Berlin years (really the Paris and Berlin years), including Bowie’s collaborative records with Iggy Pop and with Brian Eno. But even halfway through the terrific chapter on the album “Heroes,” I was starting to dread the arrival of the mid-1980s, with Tonight (as O’Leary puts it, “among the least-loved #1 records of its era”), the Tin Machine band years, Never Let Me Down, and other clunkers.

As it turns out, yes, there are some pages that drag, but the book’s hidden strength is that Bowie’s wilderness years give O’Leary a mystery to pursue. Not much remains to be said about Ziggy Stardust, though O’Leary managed respectably in Rebel Rebel. But only real loyalists will be nearly as conversant with Bowie’s 1990s highlights, such as the Buddha of Suburbia semi-soundtrack-album and the Twin Peaks–like multilayered noir surrealism of 1995’s 1. Outside. O’Leary can even point you to a few late-1980s songs worth salvaging from the heap. More importantly, his molecular method enables him to track what Bowie was hoping for in every phase, where it tended to go wrong, and, speculatively, why. Confronting all the albums and songs he painstakingly turned out, it’s impossible to maintain the cynical view that Bowie had become lazy and entitled. Rather, he seems puzzlingly desperate to please—as if the Let’s Dance experience had hooked him on the high of mass attention as much as the Thin White Duke had been fused to his gilded cocaine spoon, making him second-guess his own artistic impulses, whether by “getting back to basics” with Tin Machine (as if David Bowie’d ever had anything to do with “basics”), or by chasing trends, or whatever the anxiety was.

O’Leary is well positioned by two prime factors to tell the late-Bowie story: First, as he says in his intro, he “was never a true fan.” That is, he’s not a Bowie obsessive who’d be inclined to fetishize his every act as godlike or to defend the indefensible (though he makes some inevitable revisionist cases). Rather, he’s a diligent researcher who smartly mines the archives of the obsessives—if you aren’t among them, you will glean new facts and anecdotes page after page. Second, O’Leary kind of trapped himself unwittingly into the job, which feels much like where David Bowie stood around 1987. O’Leary’s two Bowie books began in 2009 as a blog called Pushing Ahead of the Dame (that’s a “Queen Bitch” reference, as well as a “silly name” he admits he’s often regretted). It was conceived as a writing exercise, modeled on the late Ian MacDonald’s landmark book Revolution in the Head, which used a chronological song-by-song account as a life-and-times device to talk about what the Beatles did to the 1960s and what the 1960s did to the Beatles. O’Leary doesn’t have the same kind of overarching aim in writing about Bowie, though he does note late in the book that he discovered he was kind of writing about the peak and decline of rock culture. Aside from the glam/Ziggy period, Bowie was rarely central to his times the way the Beatles were, but he was such a cultural magpie and so influential that O’Leary has the opportunity to go off on rich tangents about Yukio Mishima, the New Romantic movement, “outsider art,” 9/11 (O’Leary worked a block away from the twin towers at the time), and many other subjects. He combines that with close attention to the recording process, musicians, instruments, rhythm and chord structures, and more.

O’Leary’s problem is that while the Beatles’ recording career as a band lasted roughly seven years, during which they made some bum tracks but never a bad album, David Bowie’s stretches across a very uneven half century. This meant O’Leary’s project itself lasted nearly a decade. The benefit was that his fine writing got better and better, and when Bowie’s return to public life and then his death occurred, O’Leary had rendered himself the writer best prepared to stand at the center of the action. I followed the blog intermittently over the years, but I was glued to it in January of 2016. O’Leary’s essays on the songs from Blackstar and the often over-looked Lazarus stage musical are virtuoso work, full of accumulated knowledge and feeling. I love, for instance, his description of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” as the end of a whodunit, “in which the detective reveals there’s been no crime.”

Dumping the entirety of a blog into book form is a gamble, one that makes Ashes to Ashes dauntingly gargantuan. But most readers (unlike a reviewer) will skip around according to their interests, and the completism makes it a long-term reference source, while blogs tend to expire with the online companies that host them.

One impression that will stick with me is that of all the awkward and unbecoming stages 1960s and ’70s rock icons went through in the 1980s, Bowie’s might have been the most costly. Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and the Rolling Stones, for instance, already had their places secured in music history, so their shoulder-padded, gated-drum years couldn’t do irrevocable damage. (And have already begun to be reclaimed.) Bowie, on the other hand, began the decade as still a fairly niche artist (at least to Americans) and still a paragon of cool. As a kid I didn’t begrudge him the Let’s Dance pop turn—it seemed like another garb he could don and shed at will—but what followed disillusioned me so much I stopped giving the benefit of the doubt. When he incorporated drum and bass on 1997’s Earthling, for instance, I was dismissive of this old guy trying to be down with the youth: I agreed with Caitlin Moran, who wrote in the Times of London on Bowie’s fiftieth birthday that year, “What is the point of David Bowie now?” Yet listening back, Earthling sounds at least as solid as other pop-electronic music of the time. Death and Blackstar (and to a lesser extent 2013’s The Next Day) have altered our perspectives; Moran’s own lovely posthumous appreciation was utterly free of that 1997 snark. Still, without O’Leary’s book, I’m not sure I would ever have taken the time to backtrack to the Bowie records I’d missed.

In the section on 1982’s Bowie-starring BBC production of Brecht’s Baal, whose soundtrack album was his last release before Let’s Dance, O’Leary proposes a provocative counterfactual: “Baal seems in retrospect a path declined, a doorway into an alternate life in which [Bowie] settled into the commercial avant-garde. Collaborating with Robert Wilson, Jean-Michel Basquiat, or Laurie Anderson. Scoring or starring in Jim Jarmusch or Wim Wenders films. Making soundscape records for Nonesuch, performing Brecht on the London stage. Instead Baal, as with so many Bowie artifacts, became a boundary marker." That’s an anachronism, as I don’t think the sort of “commercial avant-garde” that O’Leary’s referencing here really existed full-blown until the 1990s—with the end of the Cold War, once-oppositional culture became more easily and thoroughly assimilated to capitalism, for makers and marketers alike. Still, once it did emerge, it is rather astonishing that Bowie wasn’t more a part of it. But he was always too pop to be content as just an “art guy.” Glam’s dream was that art plus pop meant transfiguration, not gentrification.

O’Leary shows that Bowie was often insecure about not actually being the wild alien that his songs invoked. Iggy Pop was such a muse to him because he felt Iggy was the genuine article. (Scott Walker, likewise, and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.) But that’s what made Bowie the person able to expose Iggy to an audience he might never have reached on his own. Bowie’s mixture of outré visionary and suburban normie was key to his achievements and his flounderings alike. As Charles Shaar Murray says in a quote that tops one of O’Leary’s chapters, Bowie “never makes minor errors, only fundamental ones.” In hindsight, that feels like one of his glories, and utterly endearing, too. It makes me miss him as burningly as I did that very sad January. Did I fret that Ashes to Ashes was maybe too long? Oh no, don’t say it’s true. I wanted it never to end.

Carl Wilson is the music critic for Slate and the author of Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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