TABLE OF CONTENTS

DAVID BOWIE’S SURVIVAL

The Rolling Stones turn amplification into amplitude. Filling up a track, they never leave it feeling crowded. The ear always knows (even when the listener doesn't care) that instrumentally the Stones are a small band—two guitarists, a bass player, a drummer. That’s it, usually, yet the results sound complete. When the band adds a sax or a harmonica, its job is to second Mick Jagger’s voice, not to plug holes left by the lead guitar and the rhythm section. There are no such holes to be plugged—which is not to say that the texture of a Rolling Stones cut is continuously dense. Sometimes the band leaves a sudden gap, an instant of silence so crisp it gives the tempo of the song a percussive charge. When other groups do this, it sounds portentous—a vibrating void far bigger and emptier than intended. The Stones make it a quick, tension-building device. Their sudden silences feel like the moment before a cheetah leaps—a fraction of time loaded with an explosive future. The effect comes across far better on record than on stage, and so does the rest of the Stones’ stylistic repertoire. The band is far more live, much more aggressively present, in recorded form than it could ever hope to be in the flesh. Concerts disperse the band’s sound, distributing it to the audience in disconnected chunks. The Stones’ in-person appearances succeed because Jagger gives the eye an image vivid enough to make up for the near-chaos surrounding the ear. That “recording artists” ought to make records, not stage appearances, is a rock reviewer’s standard irony. I wheel it out here only to make a necessary point: rock songs are produced, not performed.

When musicians play and sing they don't come up with a song. They devise the bits and pieces of the aural montage their producer assembles at the console of his mixer. The Stones have a pair of producers, the Glimmer Twins—Jagger and Keith Richards, who've learned over the years how to put studio technology at the service of the band’s rhetoric, the persuasive immediacy of the Rolling Stones’ sound. “Start Me Up,” the hit single on Tattoo You (1982), features guitar chords no human hand can play. These are fictions of virtuosity built from layer upon layer of recording tape. The results don't sound fictional, and in a sense they are not. The montage is the fact, which the Glimmer Twins offer as the Stones' spontaneity. One never stops to doubt that—sometime, somehow—Keith Richards could rev up to the point where those chords would become possible.

The cover of Iggy Pop’s Zombie Birdhouse (1982) bears a discreet but defiant note: “There are no synthesizers on this record.” Electric guitars, yes, but none of those electronic devices (Arps, Moogs and mini-Moogs) that have opened up new and wider gaps between performers and their performances. Iggy seems to be making a moral point: his latest album may be heavily produced (with Blondie sideman Chris Stein at the mixing board and on lead guitar, it could not be otherwise), yet the sound of Zombie Birdhouse originates with human gestures on rock music’s traditional instruments; the album’s heat is the heat of flesh and blood.

The cliché of the electric guitar’s humanity, its warmth, is more viable than ever, now that Peter Gabriel’s digitally-mastered song “Shock the Monkey” (1982) has demonstrated the robotic violence to which advanced studio electronics can be a party. Electric guitars may sound artificial to those who've been listening to Andres Segovia, but audiences persuaded by rock music’s rhetoric of spontaneity see something unreal in the “serious” musician’s insistence on pre-modern instruments. The rock guitarist accepts a bit of technology, a degree of dehumanization, for use in a direct assault on the oppressiveness of life in a corporate state. And when certain performers abandon the fight and themselves (Peter Gabriel or Brian Eno at his spaciest), others react by insisting all the more aggressively on the presence of their selves in their music. It’s a survival tactic.

Rock music’s fictions of sincerity have a difficult time offering a clear opposition to Gabriel’s Darth Vader stance, his image of technology as the most glamorous form of evil. Are electric devices really so different from electronic ones? Nonetheless, when Iggy Pop makes a point of his distaste for synthesizers, he may be taking on much larger presences than Gabriel, Eno, and the shiny humanoids of Kraftwerk. His opponent of choice could well be his former collaborator—the aggressively artificial David Bowie, who is addicted to synthesizers. There are robot-creatures in Bowie’s large cast of stage personae, but only a few, and all are minor characters. His artifice assumes full scale when he puts on a look, a style, an image that counts as sincere. So, consciously or not, Iggy Pop pits his brand of sincerity—a sincere sincerity—against Bowie’s kind, which is ostentatiously hollow. With Zombie Birdhouse, Iggy makes a claim to the raw integrity (that is, the tactical correctness) of his days on the Motor City concert stage. Then and now, the claim is shaky. Given the fact that all rock records are the product of studio manipulation, the premier tactician of survival—rather, the grand strategist—may be the flagrantly manipulative Bowie.

Bowie has been around for a long time. In 1964, he put out a single as Davie Jones. His backup band was called the King Bees, the song was “Liza Jane,” and it did not take off. In order not to be confused with Davy Jones of the Monkees, Davie Jones became David Bowie, abandoned his Mod image for a vaguely Dylanesque manner, undertook some heavy-metal gyrations and some more folk-rock essays, then ended up, in 1972, as the speaking likeness of an androgynous glitter-rock creature named Ziggy Stardust. From the schlock apocalypse of the Ziggy-myth (this persona was offered as an extraterrestrial on-planet to announce the end of a cultural era), Bowie tried out sincerity à la Ricky Nelson; Philly-sound funk; Huysmans-revival estheticism; Anthony Newley caterwauling; art-rock archness; more—and grimmer—apocalyptic kitsch; metalloid synthesizer riffs; gravelly echoes from the Velvet Underground. Brechtian theatrics; and McCartney-style crooning, as well as crooning in homage to Frank Sinatra. Bowie has presented dark-continent travelogue effects, pit-band saxophone, muezzin nasalities, electronically contrived string sections, transvestite vamping, the disco “heart beat,” hard-edged minimalist noise, and, just recently, portentousness in the outre-tombe Jim Morrison manner. This is a random, much abbreviated inventory. Claiming no style as his own, he renders them all employable. In place of the Rolling Stones’ rhetoric of in-person “Iive”-ness he puts a rhetoric of artifice—which is to say, a rhetoric of rhetoricity.

Intuiting the distance that separates Bowie from himself, the listener feels drawn in. It’s a labyrinthine kind of contact, familiar in the disenchanted zones of Western culture since the beginnings of Modernism. Though he is not in any way the first to inflict formal and emotional difficulty on rock, Bowie has been extraordinarily successful at this game, this shadow play, which is revelatory and pretentious by turns—and often at its most revealing when Bowie puts on his grandest, most preposterous airs. Who else would have had the gall to suggest the Berlin Wall as the backdrop for a teen drama of star-crossed love, as he did on “Heroes” (1977)? Out of the track’s electrometallic clouds of adolescent doom come terrorist warnings of a credible kind, so delicate is Bowie’s management of his excess.

Bowie mixes his records from reliably pictorial fragments of sound. His best songs feel like tracks for movies it would be a waste of time and money to make—one has already seen them in one’s head. It makes sense, then, to say, that his stylistic bits and pieces (including his own “vocal stylings”) are transparent. Layered in the mixing process, they never turn opaque. Hearing each element through the others, one feels their meanings, moods, and associations build up. The result is a crowded rush of significance—or, sometimes, a deliberate blur which declines to make itself clear. In any and all cases, there is no hope of, no desire for, the instants of charged silence that bring the Stones so close, that give their studio efforts such a “live” sound. Where those instants might occur in Bowie’s records, there is always some reminder that, at the very least, electric current pulses through the sound equipment. His records always announce themselves as recorded, mediated by electromechanical technology from which the living, breathing David Bowie cannot and will not disentangle himself.

Like a movie director (and very much unlike a painter), Bowie depends on others to do things he can't do himself. Among his conscripts is Robert Fripp, one of the few rock guitarist/composers whose music sustains the attention of “serious” (that is, “nonrock”) listeners. Yet Fripp’s distinctive sound on the Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) album (1980) is Bowie’s, not Fripp’s, now that Bowie the producer has had his way with it. On “It’s No Game, Part 1” (on some records titled “It’s No Game, No. 1”) Fripp targets notes right on the beat, much as he does on his League of Gentlemen album (1981). The effect is identifiably Frippian—un-syncopated, odd, inhuman save in its wit about the mechanistic nature of so many of the forms through which we “express” our humanity. Sometimes Fripp lets his harpsichordlike touches drift and get caught in the textures of the song—Carlos Alomar’s rasping guitar and Bowie’s keyboard drone. The image is of the mechanistic disintegrating, grinding down, just as we expect it to do. Elaborated throughout the album, this image elevates “Ashes to Ashes” to the level of a masterpiece. But Fripp doesn't appear on “Ashes to Ashes.” Only Bowie is always present, from before the time of Ziggy Stardust until now. Nothing endures but the imperiousness of his intent.

Scary Monsters . . . absorbed Fripp as a means to Bowie’s purpose—yet there’s more to it than that. Fripp became a figment of Bowie’s imagination, a projection of his desires. It’s tempting to read Bowie’s use of other musicians as a rock-world remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers given his flights of self fantasy and the Lovecraftian demonism of The Man Who Sold The World (1970). But Fripp the sideman-puppet is no more manipulated a figure than Ziggy, Major Tom, or any of the personae Bowie has dreamed up for himself. And surely Fripp knew what the Scary Monsters . . . sessions held in store for him. He had been through it all before.

Three years earlier, Fripp had played lead guitar on Heroes, one of Bowie’s best albums and one difficult to talk about before taking a look at Low, which appeared earlier in 1977. For Low, Bowie conscripted Brian Eno, Robert Fripp’s leading collaborator and about the only other rock performer/composer with Fripp’s appeal to “seriousness.” Side A of Low begins with “Speed of Life,” whose first saunas are a sliding, buzzing cluster of notes—not, however, with Eno at the synthesizer. As with Fripp and “Ashes to Ashes,” the relationship is one of absence. Eno didn't play on the “Speed of Life” track, yet he is present—in a way. Bowie has incorporated his whirring, droning impulses into the song. And those impulses get stronger as Side A progresses. The rhythmic figure of “Breaking Glass” is, in part, a repetitive flutter of Eno’s synthesizer static. With “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” this effect becomes an oppressively droning bass note against which the dead-on-the-tempo bass drum thumps endlessly—a parody of “organic” disco rhythms.

On the mainly instrumental Side B, Bowie’s most important vocal is the movie-music wailing of “Warszawa.” Eno, at the keyboard, sets the pace for everyone else, and something like genuine collaboration occurs—Bowie and Eno confront the work of the techno-rock ensemble, Kraftwerk. But Side B doesn't stand up to Side A. With none of Bowie’s lyrics or diction, “Warszawa” and the rest are cerebral, mid-70s rock derivatives and no more. Only when Bowie gives a lyric a thorough working-over is he able to turn rock music into something like a heritage, a medium for the deployment of a complex intention. With his voice he reduces the rest of the band to the status of the instruments on which he plays—yet his voice doesn't appear at the outset of Side A. Like Eno’s synthesizer, Bowie’s singing is absent from “Speed of Life.”

Armed, however, with a synthesizer of his own, processed “tape horns” and “brass,” to say nothing of synthetic strings, Bowie does provide this first track with a symphonic mockery of the crooning and cracked-voice intonations with which he fills the cuts on this side of Low. In the next song, “Breaking Glass,” he begins with a stentorian mutter (“ . . . I've been/breaking glass in your room again . . . ”), then shifts to a raspy howl (“You're such a wonderful person/but you got problems . . . I’ll never touch you.”). Bowie’s music is so insistently pictorial in part because his inflections always imply a physical state-bug-eyed with straining neck tendons, or much of “Breaking Glass.” When it’s necessary, he can abandon this heavy-breathing school of acting within the space of a single measure. Nonetheless he is always on stage, and his theatrics always project a time, a place, and a mood.

Bowie’s voice comes into “Sound and Vision” very late. When it does the tone is negligent, as if the exquisitely vibrant effects provided by Eno and Alomar and the rest of the Low crew had drawn intention out of a stupor. The voice suggests a physique half-numb, at least at first, while the lyric places the song in a non-place defined by “electric blue”—an updated version of the color (and emotional tonality) of turn-of-the-century estheticism. (Ernest Dowson, after Paul Verlaine, in “Spleen,” 1899: “Too blue, too tender was the sky,/The air too soft, too green the sea.”) Bowie indicates his presence in this dim atmosphere with fragments of gestures, and the idea of melody falls in pieces, too.

A melodic line can, of course, be transcribed from the “Sound and Vision” track. The impression it gives, though, is of melodic impulses that escape before they're fully formed. The synthetic strings glide out of focus, as do the breathy backup vocals provided by Eno and Mary Visconti; whatever riffs do sound as if they might just possibly coalesce into a clear, sustained shape never manage to stand clear of the dazzlingly off-handed rhythmic figure set up by drums, bass, and guitars. The song is over before it arrives, drawn back into the pulse, the nonsong, that permeates all of Low. It’s like the spectacle of sculpture doing battle with light-filled fog and losing, but gracefully.

Whether Eno is at the synthesizer or not, he inspires a droning sound so intricately layered it has the power to absorb everything else-lyric, diction, riff, melody, harmony, even rhythm. All musical possibility has to resist compression into a single endless chord, the obdurate force against which Bowie elaborates his intentions. The synthesizer offers an ongoing opportunity to exercise the will to detach song from sound. In “A New Career in a New Town,” the last cut on Side A, the driving nonmelody gives way at one point to almost nothing—high-pitched, synthesized flutter and disco thump. Then the full instrumentation comes back, sounding just as empty in its tangled intricacy as the passages of self-proclaimed emptiness. It’s all very dehumanized, alienated, anomic—save that Bowie’s harmonica appears, a brave and melancholy assertion of the “natural,” the human, and so on. In this clash: between organic warmth and the conventions of techno-rock, the harmonica’s breathy flutings come to sound just as much an effect as everything else on the track. Bowie’s resistance to artificiality takes the form of artifice, demonstrating that even the “natural” is just a highly engineered form of kidding oneself and one’s audience into believing that images of spontaneity are the real thing.

In the depths of Low, it seems fair to wonder why Bowie grants so much power to the entropic surge of Eno’s synthesizer. If melodic impulses are figures of the self—or at least metaphors of self-devising gestures—why not work for Schumann-like clarity? Cole Porter-esque panache? Why exhibit one’s melodic impulse in a disintegrating atmosphere, perched on a foundation that promises solidity but delivers a sense of low-level volcanic eruptions? Bowie has invented an inhospitable environment for each of his albums. This heavy weather, which sometimes seems so balmy, rangers from the bright, British-invasion sound of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972 (echoes of Herman’s Hermits, fey and breathy but plasticized) to the electronic sleet and hail of Scary Monsters. . . (1980). Along the way, there is the arch and dreadful spotlight, the cabaret glare, that Aladdin Sane (1973) sheds on itself, and the heavy-metal fog through which Station to Station (1976) drives its doomed and gaga lyricism—“I’ll stick with you, baby, for a thousand years./Nothing’s going to touch you in these Golden years”—relentlessly, with the band’s obsessive riffs grinding at Bowie’s self-consciously big and full-colored tones which grind right back, picking up metallic tints, as the lyrics cast off into the atmosphere where they eventually turn senseless, lurching beyond any earthbound grasp yet evoking neither a believable heaven nor a fearful hell. “All I feel and offer you my word on a wing,/And I'm trying hard to fit among your scheme of things/It’s safer than a strange land,/But I still care for myself.” (“Word on a Wing.”)

In Station to Station thought and language, melody and its twin, individual gesture, are trapped by Bowie’s mastery of immobilized sound, of music so self-involved that it hovers, like a mood. The personality tries to move forward—or backward, to a belief in the lyrics' emotionally regressive promises. Or sideways, to ironic dismissal. But the hard line laid down by the rhythm section is so aggressively circular that direction itself is elusive in the rubble-strewn landscape of Station to Station. Nothing is clear save Bowie’s refusal to perform, to give in to melodic impulses, to try to sing a song or devise a self, except under conditions that make the very effort an extraordinary feat. The damaging milieu must also be of his own devising. Otherwise the fragments of the self that emerge would count only as functions of uncontrollable forces.

To ask why he doesn’t skip all this fuss and go for melodic clarity is like asking why Kurt Schwitters didn’t sweep away those bits of rubbish and find himself a sharp pencil and a clean sheet of paper. When the question of coherent form—or an integrated self—appears under pressure from a disintegrating culture, the most courageous attempts at an answer take those pressures into full account. The self must acknowledge, not censor, them—or so many in our era have thought. Popular entertainment usually offers censorship-as-culture, with the help of an image-machine that grinds out simulacra of acceptable selves for mass consumption. Bowie enmeshes himself in the machine, then tries to extricate himself by remodeling its workings. He escapes into his isolation, his integrity, with the help of personae recruited from the culture’s peripheries –among them, the angdrogynous, glittering Ziggy and the black-suited hero of Station to Station, a figure whose chilly elitism would not have been negotiable before Bowie (and a few others) repositioned him. Assuming a place clearly above but never apart from Pop culture, Bowie denies himself the “high-art” stance from which one dismisses—or , of late, romances—the mass audience and thereby claims an automatic integrity. He has chosen to operate in those zones of the culture where no such delusions survive. Bowie cares only about the self constructed in an intimate struggle with those market forces that construe selfhood as a manageable nuisance.

On Heroes (1977), the will to detach song from sound is more powerful than on Low, but in a dubious way. The lyrics, melodies, and tempos on this album’s cuts show the fierce energy of desperation, of hopeless and grandiose theatricality, that was eminently salable in 1977. With a clenched-up, hard-rock rhythm goading each track on Side A of Heroes (the instrumentals of Side B answer those on Side B of Low), there is an endlessly repeated promise of forward motion, of an advance toward resolution. But the electrometallic buzz wins out against these hopes, this theatrical yearning. In the title song lyrical passion ends up as the grandiloquence of automatons. The crooning, croaking character who claims that “we can be heroes, just for one day” turns out to be an early glimpse of the “Little metal-fated boy . . . so war-torn and resigned” of “Because You’re Young” (Scary Monsters . . . ). Robert Fripp’s contribution is a torrent of frantic guitar chords into which he manages, astonishingly, to insert high, delicate, glittering accents. These float clear of the album’s electronic hurricane, but they have nowhere to go. So they're drawn back into the storm, the atmosphere against which Bowie is testing himself. Fripp disappears into a landscape largely of his own making, but one which is willed by Bowie, the producer.

Bowie is never satisfied simply to intend an image. He must leave its intendedness icy-clear. So his music permits no question of the improvisational union, the warmth, that generates the image of working together that rock musicians hold out as an ideal (whatever the facts of studio production). Bowie’s vision is openly hierarchical—or rather, his imagination is so thoroughly engaged in manifesting itself to itself that he cannot conceive of the world save as a structure ascending to his solitary imagination’s preeminence. His career began at some point beyond the shame he might have felt about this, and now, wandering in a seigniorial state, he possesses a kind of generosity. Having learned hard-rock rawness from Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and Mott the Hoople, Bowie paid back his debt by producing records for them (some in 1972–73, others in 1977). It was as if the Stones helped Muddy Waters put out a record—star lends grateful hand to major sources. Iggy Pop was desperate at the time, and he got the most help. Bowie produced three of Iggy’s albums, wrote most of the music on Lust for Life (1977), and put in a stint at the keyboards during the Iggy Pop tour of 1977.

The 1977 Bowie-Pop records present a rock-world satire on Sergei Diaghilev, the mephistophelean impresario. The Idiot and Lust for Life are authentically harsh and desperate tours de force. And Iggy Pop ended up a puppet, his strings pulled never more deftly than in those passages where he is at his most inventive. Pop presents himself on the cover of The Idiot in a marionette’s pose, disjointed and apprehensive. The image is a reprise of the marionette as crooner, grand and unbelievably passionate, on the cover of Bowie’s David Live (1974).

All of Bowie’s gestures permit satirical readings—most of which, though, are dead ends. The 1970s were the years when put-ons and put-downs, send-ups and take-offs taught commercial entertainment to recycle its images faster than ever before. Ironic distance is now a leading commodity on network television (especially NBC, for some reason), a counterpart to the newsroom’s “objectivity.” However, to see Bowie’s ironies as highlights of an ironic era would be to lose him in the image-shuffle. Granted, he plays at getting lost in just that way, but the point is to see how he wins the game-how he emerges from the labyrinth intact, held together by a new, necessarily contingent vision of what it might be to assemble one’s integrity in the light of all that mitigates against it.

The puppet-Bowies spill over each other like runway models and, on occasion, gesture in the direction of the puppeteer—the intending Bowie, the center from which all the fictive creatures, complete with moods and milieus, spin out. He is the stable center of his imaginary universe, which seems so frantic at first glance—so flimsy and incapable of sustaining a center. The picturesque spectacle Bowie generates from his music’s image-play, its swirl of associations, changes remorselessly. Yet his intention is constant, and not in the least ironic: to make the moment’s most corrosive imagery the medium of selfhood. When he sings “Nothing’s going to change my world” (Young Americans, 1975), he is stating this as a fact. Anything but detached, Bowie takes the risk of complete intimacy with the scraps of fad, fashion, manner, and mode by which he manifests himself to us. The latest persona gathers fragments of its new and private world around itself, yet each of these milieus is like every other in its function. Ziggy Stardust falls to earth from another planet, while Major Tom travels in the opposite direction; each is the other in disguise, as every planet in Bowie’s solar system is no more or less than a phase of all the rest presenting the new puppet, who points past him- or herself to Bowie, held steady by his abiding drive to self-preservation.

“Nothing’s going to change my world” is the chorus of Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s lanky, low-keyed “Across the Universe” of 1968. So far as I know, it’s the only Beatles song Bowie has recorded. (Lennon is present, on guitar.) Bowie begins it with an admirable replay of McCartney’s melancholy lilt; then slides into Anthony Newley’s Johnny Carson Show shenanigans—those squalling vibrato effects which signal a sincerity so deeply felt it sandbags the voice, which then staggers off the note. (Staggers of this sort are far from blind; they are the product of careful choreography.) Bowie at the task of ensuring that the effect of sincerity is in order makes an entrancing spectacle, for it evokes in as direct a way as possible the no-nonsense workmanship of the invisible (the intending) Bowie. As for the puppet-Bowie of “Across the Universe”—this is a frivolous shimmer of big-time-entertainer surface. Bowie doesn’t just shift from McCartney’s boyishness to Newsley’s hollowed-out adulthood. He elides them both, never entirely giving up the former, nor granting the latter full acceptance. You can hear the two personae within a single phrase, then both at once—a grotesque, The Day of the Locust ambiguity, though no more peculiar than the collage on any Bowie track after the Ziggy album.

All the meanings and values of the McCartney-Lennon lyric, all the issues it raises and attitudes it strikes, come to us from utopian wool-gathering in a Romantic-Modernist tradition that has been with us for nearly two centuries. “Across the Universe” is a pop-style, mass-culture revamp of themes basic to the high culture of the West. “Limitless undying love,” after all, belonged to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman before the Beatles got hold of it. This is flower-child cosmography, psychology, and ethics all tangled up in a vast, shapeless, light-filled glob. But it is more, a crucial case of survival. Bowie is raising the anti-utopian issue of alienation, as well as the vexed question of mass culture’s links with high art.

In “Across the Universe,” Lennon and McCartney revive the essentially Romantic aeolian harp, which produces song in response to the wind, as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s imagination produced poetry on exposure to nature. Or so, for certain purposes, Shelley claimed. In the Beatles' song, the Romantic imagination has become the “opened mind” of the 1960s. There are other differences, of course (the Beatles offer no counterpart to Shelley’s intricate musings on the play of melody and harmonics in his aeolian harp), but it’s more important to note the uncanny skill with which they refloated the image of a mind so attuned to what is that it takes on the plenitude of the universe. When love leaves one in possession of, and by the same token possessed by, everything, then self and the world are identical. All is felt, all is known, there are no surprises, and one is perfectly entitled to say, “Nothing’s going to change my world.”

The Beatles made a salable commodity of this vision. To do so, they had to simplify it, reduce it to a set of smiling, unfocused promises, but they didn't utterly debase the Aeolian harp figure. As I've suggested, they linked it—as had Shelley and Byron before them—to a revised definition of the world’s plenitude, a topic which has preoccupied Western culture since Plato’s time. From the Timaeus to Mark Akenside’s The Pleasures of the Imagination (1744), the individual was only one element in the fullness of the universe. The Romanticism made the self a reflection of that infinite variety, perhaps even its melodious, harplike source. In a complex (and unresolved) flurry of speculation, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shelley, an others wrenched the aeolian harp from its modest place in 18th-century pastoral; projected a “creative” consciousness into the instrument; and gave it the job of composing, orchestrating, and finally performing a higher consciousness of reality, in response to the winds of a mundane, mechanistic world. Since this fictive harp is a trope for the “creative” self, the plenitude of any authentically experienced universe must have its origins in the variousness of that self—that presence of which, according to Shelley, “Nought may endure but Mutability” (“Mutability,” 1816). Romantic consciousness, like the world it projects and inhabits, has the knack of “being everything by turns and nothing long . . . ” (Byron, 1828), and this is very like Modernist consciousness in its most complex manifestations. As John Ashbery has suggested, archly (in his “Definition of Blue,” The Double Dream of Spring, 1970):

The rise of capitalism parallels the advance of Romanticism
And the individual is dominant until the close of the
nineteenth century.

In our own time, mass practices have sought to submerge the
personality

By ignoring it, which has caused it instead to branch out
in all directions
. . .

The Beatles turned Romantic-Modernist tropes of the self into marketable commodities, with the help of harsh reductions. With the Beatles the self-as-plenitude came equipped with an aura of revolutionary optimism, though of course their own selves were not especially various or mutable. George Harrison was the quiet Beatle. John and Paul were, respectively, smart and cute. Ringo was funny. The unrevolutionary nature of youth-culture rock was well understood at the time, in some quarters, and is well remembered now. All of our era’s “serious” culture, each of its forms and images, has a “low-art” reflection in the movies, fashion, the funny papers. We reflexively assume these marketplace reflections will diminish the intricacy of images and ideas, if only for the sake of convenient distribution. Corporate ideology comes into play here, too, of course—the demographer’s definition of the self, and so on. At any rate, the dumbness of most consumer imagery is so oppressive it’s difficult to imagine figures who are successful in mass culture and simultaneously ascend to levels of complexity. (See Artforum’s special issue on such artists and the questions raised by their work, February 1982). Such a figure has to take into account the loss of revolutionary faith that transformed Romantic fervor into Modernist detachment, and thus transformed the self yearning for wholeness into a self that celebrates its fragmentedness. It seems to me that an exemplary instance of such a figure is David Bowie.

I am not saying that Bowie is a high-culture artist in low-culture drag. Never, not once in over a decade of steady output, as Bowie ordered his collage by high-style means. His fragments are debased, and so are the tattered, gaudy formats in which he arranges them. Kurt Schwitter’s scraps are low, but his Cubist principles are high. Ashbery, better than any novelist of our time, gets down the dreadful flatness of late-20th-century speech—he being a connoisseur of that brand of degradation and many others—yet he orders his bits and pieces of language with a finesse that leads by way of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens to Stéphane Mallarmé. Bowie’s finesse acknowledges no such presences, nor the Parnassus on which they reside.

Though he can be seen as a brilliant addition to the Romantic-Modernist roster, Bowie has never made this claim for himself. Nor should he. His greatest value is not as an artist manqué who ended up as an unusually interesting rock star. Bowie counts most as a self so detached—and so energized by that detachment—he need make no sustaining contact with the culture’s richest traditions of alienated selfhood. Painters and poets of high ambition may drift into excruciating isolation. Their hopes of attaining to a bearable self may turn desperately ironic. They may flirt with cultural detritus, yet they never fully abandon forms and images sanctioned by good taste and the judgments of ‘serious’ criticism. It lessens the anxiety, even some of the horror and disgust, of selfhood to imagine that those forms and images are possessed of some inherent virtue. High style appears to elevate the imagination dedicated to its service, and to give an individual’s work a hallowed, “universal” quality. Good taste (whether ironic, as with Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns, or earnest, as with so many of our “serious” writers) takes pressure off the isolated imagination lessening its sense of responsibility to itself and providing endless, transcendant alibis. For “high style” and “good taste” it is sometimes necessary to read “advanced taste,” “expressive spontaneity,” “political correctness,” or “historical necessity.” I should say in passing that several of these qualities seem to me valuable in life; in art they too often serve simply as claims to art-world acceptance.) If Bowie were, all of a sudden, to take himself seriously as an artist, he would slip into a reliance on such alibis. He might not be any less isolated, yet he would mitigate the harshness of his exile. His responsibility for what he does would not be so clear. The intendedness of his images would be in doubt.

“Ashes to Ashes” has Bowie’s best lyric about detachment (“I’m happy, hope you’re happy too”), but, more than that, the song itself is detached—voice from voice, layer from imagistic layer. Here, the 4/4 time that holds the song’s picturesque scraps together is utterly contingent, and yet compelling. It’s even lively, thanks to the anticipation that brings down the second accent of each measure just an instant too soon. This pushes the sound along, carrying Bowie’s voice out into an airless infinity filled with metallic weather (“But the little green wheels are following me. . . “). With careful monitoring, one can pick up an astonishing variety of sound. It coalesces rhythmically and harmonically, but not organically. This cluttered atmosphere makes the strong suggestion that events are taking place, being imaged forth, on a molecular or an interstellar level, or on both at once—not at the scale of the body, the human voice. Bowie’s lyrics come back to him immediately as dead whispers. He floats (“And I ain’t got no money and I ain’t got no hair . . . the planet is glowing . . “) in the person of Major Tom, an addict of utter isolation, as the spectacle careens through a crowded void of apocalyptic melodrama.

An arrangement more tasteful, a play of images less blatantly exploitive, would provide a refuge, even here, from total desolation. One feels justified in looking for that refuge, or at least in pointing out that a performance this rich surely could generate some of the reassurance, the warmth, to be had from “seriousness.” But Bowie is adamant. He is icy cold, refusing to appeal his music to a higher, more generous court. This is pop music. All its dazzling intricacy serves the will that intends it. Bowie’s will, and he lightens his responsibility with no transcendent promises, no elevating alliances. All you get here are doubtful glimpses of Bowie’s presence, nearly lost in the grim plenitude of this song, yet defining itself by undertaking the risk of that loss, by suffering that grimness.

Of all the recent artists certified as “serious,” only Robert Smithson has Bowie’s respect for the debased forms of mass culture. In particular, both share an alertness to the meaning-bits that drift randomly through science fiction. Like Bowie, too, Smithson had no use for high art’s self-preserving alibis, its claims to cultural privilege and precedence on the agenda of the imagination. Though there’s no visible connection between their work, both struggled beyond satire to an emotional independence of the object satirized (art world, rock biz). Both construed independence as isolation in the self’s responsibility to itself, to its consciousness of disintegration and death. Smithson’s vision carried him out into the desert, entropy’s heartland, “nature” in a decidedly unreassuring form. Bowie works in an artificial desert, an unnatural wasteland—pop music. Grappling with its death-haunted, death denying forms, he denies that denial, thanks chiefly to what Edgar Allan Poe calls “the will, with its vigor” (in “Ligeia,” 1838).

“Five Years,” the lead-in song on the Ziggy Stardust album, reads first of all as schlock apocalypse, a prophecy that the earth would be somehow destroyed by 1977. That year has come and gone. The world is still in peril, of course, yet “Five Years” was never an exercise in futurology. It is about the apocalyptic self that has been with us since William Blake’s time, the individual whose life is a vision and constant revision of consciousness itself, which such individuals take for the primary reality. Conscious at the outset of the feebleness of the will, Bowie can only grow more conscious. And more willful, though his life as an L.A. rock star seems to have come very close to defeating him utterly. This was in the mid 1970s, the period of “Fame” and The Man Who Fell to Earth, a Nicholas Roeg movie in which Bowie plays an extraterrestrial whose super-intelligence cannot save him from the machinations of consumer culture. Bowie himself was disappearing into the seductive byways of the corporate rock-world. His rock-world myth has him deeply involved with cocaine at this period (see David Bowie: The Illustrated Record, by Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray, New York: Avon Books, 1981); myth, of course, may have nothing to do with reality, but Bowie himself has talked of “that dull greeny-gray limelight of American rock and roll” and of his need to escape, which he managed to do only by fleeing to West Berlin, taking “an apartment on top of an auto shop,” and getting to work on the sober textures of Low.

As a Los Angeles superstar, Bowie had given his will over to the scene, perhaps deliberately, perhaps not. In any case, he ran the sort of risk that destroyed Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and so may others that violent burnout has come to seem the normal fate of rock stars—as if commercial music has the power to doom any performer who dares make it the medium of full-scale individuality. Bowie insists on making it the medium of his survival. Faced with death, he can only live—and force himself to further extremes of artifice, harsh peripheries where it is clear that life is survival, a struggle to sustain the self on meanings drawn from imagery that eats away at selfhood like sulfuric acid. Consciousness can fail, lulled by lushness or by horror, and let itself be lured into some variety of oblivion, some passive state which reduces us to exploitable objects. Bowie has mastered mass culture’s rhetoric of dreaminess, of lush, choked up sensuosity, all the better to reveal that even the most sweetly sentimental respite from the demands of survival is a play of images. In Bowie’s cruel and gorgeous vision of the world, that oblivion—even a touch of it—is death. The only life-support systems that work for him are the manipulative devices with which he fends off manipulation.

Carter Ratcliff is a poet and critic who lives in New York City.