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Paranoid Pop

A look back at the remarkable life and career of one of the 20th Century’s most original artists.

· 19 min read
Paranoid Pop
David Bowie performs live on stage at Earls Court Arena on May 12th, 1973 during the Ziggy Stardust tour (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns via Getty).

I’m English. I can’t accept happiness that easily.
There’s got to be a trick in there somewhere.

~David Bowie

There’s a moment in this year’s most talked-about music film that I particularly enjoyed—and like almost everything catchy about David Bowie, it’s perfectly timed. As Brett Morgen’s 134-minute documentary Moonage Daydream arcs into the final portion of its subject’s remarkable life, we catch a glimpse of what appears to be a still from the last music video Bowie ever made. It’s the promo for ‘Lazarus,’ the spooky single from his final album Blackstar, the introductory lyric to which feels like Bowie’s most superfluous line: “Look up here/I’m in heaven.” It’s almost too on-the-nose.

Lazurus (2015)

You don’t have to be a Bowie aficionado (although it surely helps) to recognise that this is what he had been singing about in one way or another his whole adult life. Well, at least ever since July 11th, 1969, when he first boarded a rocket, munched his NASA-supplied protein pills, and put his helmet on.

Throughout the rough-and-tumble 48-year career charted by Morgen’s kaleidoscopic film, rock’s self-styled futurist was dogged by the criticism that his art was too indecisive—that he insatiably adopted one new style after another only to promptly abandon it and move on. One minute the sexual switch-hitter with the wonky teeth, marble eyes, and darling dress-sense seemed to fancy himself as the reincarnation of Jacques Brel; the next he was a queen bitch or an Afghan-coated hippie or a flipping line-dancer on Soul Train. All of this made Bowie’s art fascinatingly unpredictable, but it also left him open to the charge of dilettantism. But if the style was about marvellously timed artistic lunges, the vision never much changed.

As he prepared to make his documentary, Morgen says he cobbled together a database of his subject’s creative process and taste in music, film, art, literature, and philosophy, which he then drew upon for his own creative inspiration. But he could just as easily have jotted one salient fact about Bowie’s art on the back of a napkin and he’d have had all the information he really needed. Paranoia was the consistent theme. Virtually every Bowie work that mattered found the singer casting his eyes to the heavens in abject horror as he reached into his soul to confront the terror his gaze evoked. “I’m not one of those guys that has a great worldview,” the singer once reflected. “I kind of deal with terror and fear and isolation and abandonment.” And that’s really about it.

Yet the ‘Lazarus’ promo still had its points of difference when it was first aired nearly seven years ago. The video looked glossy, and that’s not something you could say about everything David Bowie ever did. It sounded strong, too, although that was already apparent from the audio which had been released the previous month. And it offered further proof, if any were needed, of the sophisticated musical curve the artist had been on since at least the turn of this century. So many gorgeous pockets: the grimy saxophone dives, the skeletal guitar, the abrupt dynamic shifts.

Ah yes, the timing. The video was directed by Johan Renck and shot some eight weeks earlier. By this point, Bowie already knew that the cancer devouring his body was terminal. But most people outside of his immediate circle had no inkling of this. How could we? The sheer strength of his creative life force seemed to preclude such a diagnosis. Yes, the clip opens with the singer lying on what appears to be a death-bed with buttons on his eyes. But by the time the song hits its musical stride, he is up on his feet gyrating like he did in his prime, replete with those hypnotic moves he learned in the early 1970s when he was being mentored by the mime artist Lindsay Kemp. And what’s this impishness in the lyric, “I was looking for your ass”?

It was natural to assume that, Bowie being Bowie, he was just shooting up pie in the sky again. Of course there’ll be a tomorrow. Wasn’t there always? After all, there had been rather a lot about sickness and mortality on his previous album, The Next Day, a stylistic trip through his own back-catalogue. More recently, he had exhibited 300 objects of Bowie memorabilia, thereby revealing the consideration with which he had preserved the iconic artefacts of his career. Most recently of all, there had been the new play, also called Lazarus. Hadn’t Bowie himself even showed up for the opening night just the other week looking like a million bucks? And sure enough, there was indeed a tomorrow—his 69th birthday and a grimly beautiful new album to mark the occasion.

And then?

With impeccable timing, the thin white stork had dropped David Robert Jones out of London’s skies nearly three-score-and-ten years earlier. The suburban Bromley Boomer fell to Earth on January 8th, 1947, and landed smack in the middle of the bulge years, a wonderfully fertile period for anyone looking to forge a career in recorded music. His first instrument was the saxophone, which he was blowing on by the age of 14. Within a few years, the transistor radio would be ubiquitous, young people would be awash with disposable cash to buy records, and the mass adoption of international air travel would open up new vistas for fans and artists alike. Could any moment have been better suited to a rock-star-in-waiting?

But he also came of age as the youngest child in a doomy household. Three of his maternal aunts suffered from acute mental health issues—one of whom was eventually lobotomized—and the family was riven with more dark secrets than the Tolstoy home. His schizophrenic step-brother, Terry, would spend much of his adult life in psychiatric care. His beloved father dropped dead when Bowie was just 22, while his mother—a children’s home publicist with whom he was emphatically not close—lived on. “Everyone says, ‘Oh yes, my family is quite mad,’” Bowie later recalled. “Mine really is.”

The greatest dream of the era in which Bowie grew up—the promise of putting Man on the Moon—became one of his first signature artistic nightmares. Space Oddity, the most famous track from his eponymous second album, conjured one such scenario, and provided him with his first real hit after the false start of his debut. The earlier album had its moments, but it left unresolved the question of whether the singer wanted to be a fey-voiced Anthony Newley or a strange young man called Dylan.

By the time he recorded his second album—and, especially, his third—Bowie had decided he would be a bit of both. The cover art for 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World presented him elegantly reclining on a chaise longue in a dress. He smoked copious amounts of hash and assembled a crack band for 10 days of whirling Moog synthesizers and hard rock guitars. The experience was so enjoyable and creatively rewarding that bassist Trevor Bolder, guitarist Mick Ronson, and drummer Mick Woodmansey stayed on. The tracks were laid down at a London residence called Haddon Hall, in Beckenham, and it is here that he would write and rehearse the material for his next three albums that would send his career stratospheric.

The Man Who Sold the Word (1970)

Commercially, the sex, drugs, and frock ’n’ roll of The Man Who Sold the World didn’t find much of an audience. It was too heavy, perhaps, for the folk followers he had accrued with its acoustic predecessor. And too gay for rock fans certainly, the singer’s voracious heterosexuality notwithstanding. He followed it a year later with Hunky Dory, which is generally thought to be the record on which the Bowie alchemy first cohered into something truly new. It was also the curtain-raiser for what’s generally regarded as his classic period, and it provided him with his first American hit, ‘Changes.’ More critically, it saw him discard the claustrophobic sound of The Man Who Sold the World for textured melodies, creamy arrangements, seat-of-the-pants lyrics, and further cameos from extraterrestrials.

On Hunky Dory, Bowie also turned in tribute tracks about Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, and Bob Dylan. Warhol hated the song Bowie had written about him. Reed would eventually smack Bowie about the head during an altercation at a London restaurant in April 1979. And when Bowie finally met Dylan, he later told Playboy, they “didn’t have a lot to talk about. We’re not great friends. Actually, I think he hates me.” Small wonder that he preferred the company of spacemen. The razzle-dazzle of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ conjures hordes of them. As does ‘Life on Mars?’ which features a chord progression nicked from Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way.’ The album closes with ‘The Bewlay Brothers,’ in which the 24-year-old singer paid a tribute of sorts to his own step-brother, Terry.

But it was the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972 that made David Bowie a superstar. Picking the space songs out of that record is difficult because, by that point, almost everything Bowie was writing seemed to have an explicitly alien streak. During his appearance on Top of the Pops, he draped an arm across Ronson’s shoulders, and glowered out at a world that was about to repay the attention. In the wake of the album’s release, he returned to the United States a sensation (although the stormy flight en route only confirmed his fear of flying).

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

A generation on, Ziggy Stardust still routinely appears at or near the top of critics’ lists of the all-time greatest rock albums. It is strange to recall then, that in 1972, while it picked up its share of warm reviews, the album was by no means universally well received (the work of a “competent plagiarist,” sniffed Sounds). Some critics never got it. “I always thought all that Ziggy Stardust homo-from-Aldebaran business was a crock of shit,” wrote Lester Bangs in Creem four years later, “especially coming from a guy who wouldn’t even get in a goddam airplane.”

Oh well. Other much-vaunted works from the same period, such as the Stones’ Exile on Main Street and Van Morrison’s pastoral classic Astral Weeks, didn’t fare much better with contemporary reviewers. Nor did Lou Reed’s Transformer, a gorgeous slice of New York decadence that Bowie produced and somehow managed to knock out only months after Ziggy Stardust. Bowie’s boundless creative energy at the time seemed to be matched by his enthusiasm for the charcoal-voiced former Velvet Underground frontman, whom he plainly fancied in more ways than one.

In the weeks before he signed on to produce the album, Bowie even took to sending his RCA stablemate yellow roses along with a can of red spray paint in case Reed wanted to change the colour. The record was co-produced by Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, whose idea it was to use twin bass lines on ‘Walk on the Wild Side,’ a song on which Bowie played acoustic guitar. Bowie would go on to produce recordings for other artists, most notably Iggy Pop and twerpish electro-rockers Devo, but no other collaboration approached the titanic pop triumph of Transformer.

Bowie’s 1973 offering, Aladdin Sane, was (largely) a rock record, but dusted with quirky flourishes thanks to the impish cabaret touches provided by the recently recruited jazz pianist Mike Garson. It was also heavy with hits, including the supple ‘Jean Genie’ (yeah okay, Genet, we got it the first time, David). Garson’s cocktail piano gave the title track a peculiar wartime feel, replete with artful lifts from Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land.’

1974 was the year of the Diamond Dogs, an intriguing record made after Bowie had fired the Spiders from Mars in search of a new sound and direction. It might have been subtitled The Orwell Album, as it was stitched together from words, themes, characters, and horrors drawn from the English author’s dystopian satire Nineteen Eighty-Four. Bowie showcased the album on another North American tour, during which, he later recalled, “I started getting into drugs in a big way and not eating.” On the road, he subsisted on a diet of red and green peppers, Rothmans cigarettes, and cocaine. He was also bingeing on books, devouring Saul Bellow, RD Laing, and James Baldwin, and amusing himself with the British children’s comic, The Beano. Asked by Vanity Fair to describe his idea of perfect happiness, Bowie responded: “Reading.”

His next project, Young Americans, weaved together his stateside impressions with the funk promises of The Orwell Album, in particular the Isaac Hayes-esque ‘1984.’ Writing in the Village Voice, Robert Christgau called the amalgam of rock and Philly soul “an almost total failure,” and complained that the only thing thinner than the conceit was Bowie’s voice. Another know-it-all critic dismissed it as “the phoniest R&B I’ve ever heard,” but since the name of that particular critic was David Bowie, we have to accept the possibility that he was onto something. Perversely, it was also the only Bowie record to date that Lester Bangs didn’t hate (“a perfectly acceptable piece of highly listenable product”).

Young Americans (1975)

Before hurrying to take issue with these judgements on Bowie’s bona fides as a Motown man, it is worth listening to him in the Moonage Daydream documentary turning in a truly wretched blue-eyed soul version of ‘Rock ’n’ Roll With Me’ from The Orwell Album. But is Young Americans a dead loss? Absolutely not—not with all those great backing vocalists, especially the female voices (a first for Bowie, arrangement-wise) and the appearance of John Lennon, who seemed to pop up everywhere around that time. On the title track, Bowie even managed to freight in a celebrated line from the Fab One: “I heard the news today, oh boy.”

Elsewhere, the two plundered the Beatles’ back-catalogue, surfacing a moody rereading of ‘Across the Universe.’ That song rubs up against another staring-at-the-heavens composition, ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ (the album’s original working title). But their biggest collaborative success by far was the funk-blasted meditation, ‘Fame,’ which became Bowie’s first number one in the United States. You can hear Lennon singing falsetto on it. You can enjoy the way their voices shadow each other. You can marvel at the sense of menace it evokes, and think about how it might appeal to the kind of fanatical follower the song conjures up.

Five years later, Lennon would be shot to death by just such a fan in New York City. Before setting off to the Dakota to murder the former Beatle, Mark Chapman attended a performance by David Bowie in the Broadway production of The Elephant Man.

In order to avoid getting in a goddamn airplane, Bowie’s 1975–76 world tour involved crossing the Atlantic by ship, travelling through the US by bus, train, and car, and then taking another ship across the Pacific. During an interview with Rolling Stone in his hotel room, he rushed to the window claiming to have just seen bodies falling out of the sky. For the homeward leg, he took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Zurich with his old friend Iggy Pop, the photographer Andrew Kent, and acting manager Pat Gibbons.

Is this really the best way to deal with chronic aviophobia? Shrinks counsel certain practices and carry-on essentials that will make the experience of flying much less anxiety-inducing. Be mindful of what you consume, they suggest: go easy on the coffee and high sodium, or anything likely to make your pulse race. David Bowie took precisely the opposite course of therapeutic action. By this point, he was consuming so much cocaine that his ability to work at all is as notable as what he actually managed to produce.

Station to Station was recorded in 1975 and released the following year, and it remains an abrasive triumph. One of Bowie’s most perversely satisfying works, it is as impeccable as the white shirt, black trousers, and natty waistcoat he took to wearing in the publicity shots. It is also stark raving bonkers. Recorded mainly at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles, Bowie made good on the song-within-a-song device he started playing with on Hunky Dory with songs like ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ and later perfected on The Orwell Album with the mesmerising ‘Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)’ three-parter.

Vortically whirling synthesizers mimicking the chugging of a train usher in the 10-minute-long title track. Earl Slick’s wailing guitar is like the scream of a locomotive. The vocal show begins glacially to the accompaniment of E-Streeter Roy Bittan’s piano—plink, plonk, plink—marking the segue into the song’s second suite. “An album of love songs.” somebody called it, “the kind you write when you have no love in your own life.” Lester Bangs noted that the only thing missing from what he considered to be Bowie’s first masterpiece was “a little more cocaine.”

Station to Station was also the first Bowie album to be issued without a lyric sheet, which was a bit odd, really, because it contained his best bunch of lyrics—all the better for the fact that half the time young fans like me didn’t know what the hell he was on about. Like the bit in the title song where he cries out: “Here are we/One magical moment from kether to malkuth.” Does anyone have a clue what that means? (It turns out that it’s an oh-so-clever reference to Jewish mysticism: kether, or “crown” in Hebrew, is the topmost part of the Kabbalah tree, the source of the 13 Supernal Attributes of Mercy. Malkuth, which means “kingdom,” sits right at the bottom, and the distance from one to the other is a galaxy. Bowie is, if you really want to know, singing about somebody falling from the skies.)

Not content with merely pasting songs within songs, his next expedition, to West Germany, produced albums within albums—the so-called Berlin trilogy of Low, “Heroes” (the quote marks around which have never been satisfactorily explained), and Lodger.

For the German project, Bowie hauled in his old friend Brian Eno to collaborate on a number of lengthy instrumental tracks (or at least that’s what people who listen to them more than once tell me). These were folded into frequently brilliant shorter vocal compositions, for which Eno encouraged Bowie to use the cut-up postmodern approach to writing lyrics (the same device Morgen appears to use in Moonage Daydream, come to think of it).

But it was Tony Visconti who turned out to be the star of the show. In addition to his scrumptiously clean production, Bowie’s longstanding collaborator inspired what may be the singer’s most adored lines—the ones on the title track of “Heroes” about the lovers standing together by the Berlin Wall as guns fire over their heads, kissing “as though nothing could fall.” It’s all so poetically East German. That is, until we learn that the two characters in question were Visconti outside the studio and his then-lover.

The Berlin Trilogy

Low and “Heroes” were both recorded and released in 1977. In 1979, the Berlin trilogy concluded with what was then generally thought to be the weakest of the three releases, Lodger. Over time, however, that record has seen its critical estimation rise well above the other two, thanks in part to its cleverly baroque arrangements and consistently well-paced vocals, and the turbulence and terror at 40,000 feet on the show-stealing ‘African Night Flight.’

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) appeared in 1980, and offered more of the fearful lyrics amid a tumble of styles. It scrunches our senses with yet another sumptuous lost-in-space item, ‘Ashes to Ashes,’ a sequel of sorts to ‘Space Oddity.’ The song is a prequel, as well, to a couple of decades spent producing generally indifferent material—a few decent songs here and there, but nothing much to write home about. We should probably draw a curtain of charity across Let’s Dance (1983), Tonight (1984), Never Let Me Down (1987), Black Tie White Noise (1993), 1.Outside (1995), Earthling (1997), hours...” (1999—more unexplained quote marks), and the godawful Tin Machine excursions (1989–91), not to mention Bowie’s generally inauspicious forays into acting during this period.

Interestingly, that fallow period was also the time when Bowie’s terror of the skies appeared to recede somewhat, a development he almost apologises for in Morgen’s film. But, of course, you can’t get away from these things forever.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, Bowie was upstate in Woodstock recording when the team of religious supremacists commandeered passenger planes and ploughed them into his adopted city’s most visible commercial landmark. His residence on Lafayette Street was near enough to the ensuing carnage that he could taste the smoke and the wretched smell of bodies that wafted through downtown Manhattan. So is the studio where he polished off Heathen, his most arresting new recording since the late 1970s.

For all its art-pop trimmings, Heathen was an understandable downer. It was also the first album he had made with Tony Visconti at the helm since Scary Monsters. The pair hadn’t been in touch for nearly 20 years, and since Bowie hadn’t released anything artistically significant in that time, he may have concluded (as many critics did) that these two facts were not unrelated. Bowieologists haggle over whether the album was written before or after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In any event, the record inhabits a high-octane, head-spinning “dichotomy of the lust for life against the finality of everything,” as Bowie put it at the time. Among the highlights was ‘I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,’ a speed-funk song about a man who escapes Earth only to discover that it’s lonely out in space.

Heathen (2002)

Bowie played more instruments on the record than on anything since Low. “His knowledge of harmonic and chordal structure has vastly improved,” Visconti enthused in an interview, mentioning the singer’s particular progress in writing melody. During Heathen’s 2002 tour, Bowie again made the intercontinental trip aboard the QE2 rather than a plane. “David is a lot better at flying these days and travels by plane when he has to,” a publicist explained. “But sometimes he’s in no rush so he decides to take a leisurely cruise across the Atlantic.” Bowie put it more succinctly when an Australian interviewer asked if he was still petrified by flying: “Oh God, yes.”

For his next album, Reality in 2003, Bowie returned with a band, which accompanied him on tour for the following year. The concerts were sensational, garnering almost uniformly strong reviews, including the one I mentally composed in 2004 after I saw him play at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand, an outdoor venue better suited to sports fixtures than rock concerts. No sooner had the show’s stomping opener, ‘Rebel Rebel’ concluded than the skies opened. Bowie played on like a trooper for the thousands jitterbugging around in what was soon a slosh pit.

A few months later, just like that, we were told that he was finished with touring. An onstage heart attack, they said, but with Bowie you never really know. Depending on how you count these things, this was his third retirement from live performance. The first such proclamation was issued at the end of a 1973 concert in London. A few years later, he announced his retirement again: “There will be no more rock and roll records or tours from me. The last thing I want to be is some useless fucking rock singer.” That vow lasted all of six months.

But this time he stuck to his pledge. For the next decade, the record effectively petered out. The once publicly tortured artist became—as far as anyone could tell—a privately happy one in jolly New York. And why not? His daughter Lexi, who was born in 2000, was coming of age, and the old man said he was simply feeling unusually content, what with her and his glamorously dark-eyed wife, Iman. “You would think that a rock star being married to a supermodel would be one of the greatest things in the world,” Bowie explained in one of his now-infrequent interviews. “It is.”

Happiness, after all, was never really Bowie’s artistic style. His major musical works had been an unusually comprehensive exercise in paranoia. Over time, the fact that he quit the game seemed to suggest that rather than simply dealing with ill-health or any number of negative personal issues, he had just found more enjoyable things with which to occupy his time. We’ll never know. Then, in the fall of 2015, Johan Renck knocked on the door of the Bowie duplex and found a sick man with hidden scars on his death bed.

Speculation still abounds about Bowie’s final album, and the song ‘Lazarus,’ in particular. A few years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Cunningham made the intriguing case that the song was actually about the poet Emma Lazarus. And when I say intriguing, I mean personally so, because the woman whose verse adorns the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty also happens to be a far-flung blood relative of mine. The woman who gave America its most famous line of poetry—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”—is still, astoundingly, studied in few American institutions of higher learning.

For the man Cunningham once called the “genius with the questionable haircut,” the young Jewish author of ‘The Great Colossus’ was eminently worthy of study. That’s hardly surprising, really. Since 1970, the bulk of Bowie’s life had been about wrestling with the realities of living Stateside. And sure enough, re-listening to ‘Lazarus’ in 2022, I am struck by the lines about making it to New York, and by the echo of Emma Lazarus’s famous line, “Oh, I’ll be free!”

In his twilight years, the transplanted Englishman seemed to have found something similar, if only the freedom to be himself. As Elton John noted after his death, the striking thing about Bowie’s last 10 years was how privately he lived and died, keeping his declining health secret in a social-media age when everyone shares everything. “Bowie was being treated for the illnesses without anyone knowing anything. … And that is the mystique of the man, because we know David Bowie the figure, the singer, the outrageous performer, but actually, we don’t know anything about him—and that’s the way it should be in music and should be in any art form whatsoever.”

Blackstar (2016)

Among the tributes posted here, there, and everywhere after he died was a poignant item from Brian Eno. Eno recalled an email Bowie sent him only days earlier, “funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions, and all the usual stuff we did.” The message ended with a seemingly innocuous flourish: “Thank you for the good times, Brian. They will never rot.” It was signed “Dawn.” Only later, possibly when he watched the video to ‘Lazarus’ for the first time with the rest of us, did Eno realise that this was a goodbye from his old friend.

His old friend David Jones, that is. The fabulously disturbed personalities he created—Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, and the Thin White Duke—live on. As does his most important artistic creation of all, David Bowie. How fortunate some of us were to encounter those personas first hand, and how unlikely it would be for anything of the same order to happen if he had started out in 2022.

Bowie’s genius for turning his deepest fears into art—treating them as what psychiatrists call “primary process material”—could hardly have been further removed from the current preoccupation with “safety.” He played fast and loose with sexual stereotypes, but never forgot to wink at us as he did so. Perhaps most critically of all, he was a relentlessly self-educated man, taking his cues from great books, historical ideas, and the people he loved in an attempt to satisfy what he once described as his “malevolent curiosity.”

The result has been a remarkable terrestrial legacy. “I’ve made over 25 studio albums,” he told an interviewer in 2002, “and I think probably I’ve made two real stinkers in my time, and some not-bad albums, and some really good albums. I’m proud of what I’ve done. In fact it’s been a good ride.”

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