Bowie: The Poet Behind the Tights


David Bowie: artist, cliché, and vast collection of colorful pants.

Today, pop culture has happily engulfed the last two and added them to its harrowing repertoire, leaving of Mr. Jones only the first, to be used as consolation prize to denuded purists and clueless hipsters everywhere. But really, how many modern popstars have claimed, from within their made-up confines, to be inspired by Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, or any of his musically-inclined fashion statements? Unfortunately the question is rhetorical (but the answer isn’t, and it’s a lot), yet it remains a fact that any musician interested in crafting an image of some daring must pay homage to the Dame.

Conveniently enough, these — the Lady Gagas and Empires of the Sun of the world — have never actually acknowledged the man’s music as being their inspiration, but rather say as such of his many masks. While this does explain the relative worthlessness of their output (an army of self-congratulatory producers rarely makes for proper artists, let alone musicians), it also delineates the outlines of a certain societal affliction: that of the general shallowness of music tastes.

I’ll therefore try to show of Bowie at least the contrary — that he is not simply an accumulation of interesting personas, but also a fine musician and great wordsmith. The latter of the two will be expanded today, his musical ability being (I hope) obvious to anyone with functioning pressure cavities.


Lyrics and Poetry

Paul Verlaine on a bad day.

Poetry, the great Symbolist forehead offender (amongst other things) Paul Verlaine famously claimed, is “music before all else”. One can reasonably assume, as I do, that the Frenchman did not mean to say poetry was melody or harmony, but rather those other parts of music: rhythm (known to Joe Strummer as the ‘engine room’) and sound (known to your favorite synesthetic as ‘color’).

Though beat’s importance in poetry isn’t open to debate, its role appears to be much less dominant in song lyrics (or at least so in modern, post-1960’s pieces). While of course the very best pop lyrics are able to be recited by themselves––carried by their own exquisite rhythm — their meter requirements differ somewhat from classical poetry. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that pure poetry creates its own rhythm, whereas lyrics must necessarily follow the accompanying music. Consider, for example, a little Shelley:

“ — — — — — — ! O, that the dream
Of dark magician in his visioned cave,
Raking the cinders of a crucible
For life and power, even when his feeble hand
Shakes in its last decay, were the true law
Of this so lovely world!”

To put that to music, and somewhat successfully, one would either need his melody to be highly irregular, or completely monotone… both neither quite pop standards (though near-monotone certainly exists).

In truth, different kind of lyrics surrender different amounts of poetic rhythm to their music. Opera does so the most, transforming each word almost completely to fit the melody. Pop music keeps some of it intact, but must make extensive use of other ‘sound’ techniques (like rhyme) to come out. Rap, almost always unsung, is the closest to poetry — and is as a result most effective atop simpler musical arrangements. Pop lyrics, tucked neatly between extremes, always oscillate between the two sides: barely sung, or, you know, not. Whatever the case is, it is worth remembering that their strength alone can take some songs to heights their melodic and harmonic qualities perhaps could not — Tom Waits and Bob Dylan being the obvious examples here.

Our Bowie, blessed as he is by musical greatness, as well as a constantly reinventing and never tarnished image, is also a first-rate lyricist. Here are some examples:

Candidate

I’ll make you a deal, like any other candidate / We’ll pretend we’re walking home ‘cause you’re future’s at stake / My set is amazing, it even smells like a street / There’s a bar at the end where I can meet you and your friend”

Such are the opening lines of this 1974 masterpiece, a song off of Bowie’s first post-glam release Diamond Dogs, itself heavily based on the famous George Orwell dystopian novel 1984. The whole album was originally written as material for a theatrical production of that book, and there is little doubt to the post-apocalyptic imagery anchored within these lyrics. Squalor and despair are palpable throughout, even (or especially?) as they attempt to describe a certain dystopian ‘nightlife’ (“If you want it, boys, get it here, thing”). Here, Bowie is cinematic in scope, setting up a scene remarkable in detail (“There’s a shop on the corner selling papier mâché / Making bullet-proof faces, Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay”) through which the protagonist and his forbidden love navigate. As he so often does, however, the musician reserves his best for last, when the couple sinks a little deeper into discouragement:

“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.”

Stay

1976: funky Bowie is at his height. He lives in Los Angeles, stars in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and takes up a lifestyle of particular excess. Bowie lives life like his new persona, the hollowed, debonair Thin White Duke, or as he describes it: “ice masquerading as fire” (if that’s not poetic I don’t know what is). Yet, almost paradoxically, this year also marks his emotional and spiritual low, so much so that his album Station to Station embodies a certain yearning for escape. From these conflicting emotions emanates Stay, the last song off the album. Though at first glance it appears to be fairly straightforward in its meaning (Bowie parties, is attracted to someone, wants that person to stay, but he/she doesn’t), it is riddled with sinister undertones, musically (dissonance and atonality have their moments) and lyrically. Both for its stunning opening (“This week dragged past me so slowly / The days fell on their knees / Maybe I’ll take something to help me / Hope someone takes after me…”), and constantly doubtful, almost contradictory lines (“Life is so vague when it brings someone new / Maybe tomorrow I’ll know what to do”), no one (except perhaps Roxy Music) comes close to its portrayal of party melancholy.

Quicksand

Like many of his other songs (Word on a Wing the most obvious example), Quicksand deals with Bowie’s ideological and spiritual anxieties. Unlike these other songs, however, this one does so by combining wit with remarkable gravitas. After a touching — and occasionally amusing — recounting of the many brands of thought he’s encountered, from “Crowley’s uniform of imagery” to Schaeffer’s urging (“herald loud the death of man”), he breaks down under their strain: “I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought / And I ain’t got the power, anymore”. Had the song ended there, it would surely have been remembered as nothing more than another pleasant little work of Mr. Jones’, not without some quality — and yet, what comes next makes Quicksand truly one of his best: Hung upon a rising, surreal and somewhat comforting melody, delivered by choir, is the bittersweet realization we should all be doomed to make: “Don’t believe in yourself / Don’t deceive with belief / Knowledge comes with death’s release”… Right?

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