The Stars Are Out Tonight at Our Thoughtless Instigation: David Bowie's New Day

Norman Ball
Photo: Jimmy King

In an era when the Stones relentlessly seek to extend, exploit and parlay their accrued fame (as do legions of lesser legacy acts), David Bowie, ever the brave contrarian, is doing his level best to open the shutters on a fresh new day.

David Bowie

The Next Day

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2013-03-12

It remains to be seen whether a ghostly white superimposed Post-it Note will offer Wall enough to demarcate All Days Past from The Next Day. In an era when the Stones relentlessly seek to extend, exploit and parlay their accrued fame (as do legions of lesser legacy acts), David Bowie, ever the brave contrarian, is doing his level best to open the shutters on a fresh new day. But will our erstwhile “hero” be allowed a second vista?

If only strumming a guitar was even half the game. As it is, time and music enjoy an unconventional relationship that extends well beyond simply playin’ da notes. Philip Glass’ definition of music has shifted and evolved over the years in a manner that increasingly intuits the centrality of time's passage while indirectly downplaying the trumpeted sound wave. Recently he's taken to simply calling music a “place”. I might respectfully sharpen that to a “time and place”, that is, a proper four-dimensional nexus (which I suspect Glass may have meant anyway, allowing for conversational shorthand in the YouTube interview I watched.) In either case, the notion is that, while music can be revisited and perhaps waved at through an opaque rear window, it can never be fully resumed. True, sonic affections can be formed for music at any time. However, I wish to differentiate those timely few who managed to experience David Bowie's (and other ‘70s artists') music contemporaneously from those who encountered it after the moment of its cultural arrival when all Zeitgeist had fallen, wanking, to the carnival floor.

Today's young people, the better lazy ones, are forever extolling the music of the ‘70s while cursing the cruel belated accident of their births. You will hear them say, “I wish I could have been there [in that place] or how did we get stuck with time-wasters like Nickelback?” In this, they are the voyeurs of utter self-destruction. Don’t they know youth culture stands ready to be made first and only consumed later? Such frightening passivity! Look in the mirror kids. You are the only youth in town. Music is more than simply a sound and way more than a fungible shelf-item. It’s a discrete 'non-reprisable' confluence of time and place. Every dog gets his day and his day only. Anything less than looking ahead is a dog’s breakfast.

Though it kills me that a whole generation is being sacrificed to sonic pap, when is a step backwards ever even a tiny step in the right direction? Frankly it’s just another chapter in the Passivity Handbook when astute young ears lose themselves in a ‘70s back-catalog. Even as it probably destroyed a generation of guitar gods, Guitar Hero was a cruelly efficient time machine for giving signature licks a second lease. So a bunch of geriatrics got another big swag of money. Love on them. At the risk of further piling onto youthful dispiritedness, I wanna say “hey kids, you can jockey the riffs on a guitar-shaped joystick all you want, but you can never HAVE the ‘70s.”

Yes I know. Modern times are hard. But if Charlie Chaplin could get through them, we can too. During those long gray days of the past, my Grandad could not complete his barefoot, snow-capped, seven-mile trek to school without his iPod running out of juice. So no excuses Junior or Mick Jagger will happily dine on your moment. Don’t you get it? Jagger would give his right ball to have your Now. Beware the ever-spilling jealousies of yesteryear’s stars. Your job is to try and make them jealous of you as only youth can. Now quit rifling my LP’s, no you can’t have the car keys and go whip up your own fucking Zeitgeist. What have we allowed with our carpet-bound kids that we must order them to be rebellious?

The spirit of nostalgia hangs heavy over music because time’s arrow is blithely unidirectional. That’s also why Jagger evokes, more often than not today, an insectified Peter Pan entombed in prehistoric amber. Yes, modern peons remind us, he still has “the moves”. But his legendary dexterity is, at least in some part, a stillborn recitation from a past that can never authentically be resurrected. Much like a leathery oroborus administering itself a perpetual blow-job, Jagger is an old man forever betrothed to his recalcitrant teenager. As for venturing between or around this elemental lip-lock, no interceding female companion need dare seek long-term appointment. The self-love is complete and non-negotiable. Loving union with other human entities is at best a Balinese sham. Jagger’s time-terror is palpable. Clearly the fear of death can sell out stadia. Except in the most meretricious sense, does that make Mick’s full house any more valid on artistic grounds?

Within this battle of time-corridors, Bowie has bravely embraced a carpe diem strategy. He seems to understand the toxic clock-stoppedness of the fandom death-grip, and wishes to transcend it. Alas, so many grown-up kids (covert Jaggerites) are prepared to kill the Man in order to recover the reveries of youth. For those too old to bear the sight of calendars, Ziggy is now the stuff of museum curators. To his credit, Jagger understands his product’s allure. (In this outing, I am Defender of the Arts. Jagger’s demonstrable genius just happens to lie elsewhere.) He must appear to defy time or else look like those other sad-sack legacy acts that can barely fill a community hall. Would it offend Jagger greatly to suggest his business case is more perma-fresh, Humperdinkian Vegas performer than dynamic, in-the-world artist? Probably not.

Okay, so the kids aren’t alright. When were they ever? Time to kick some old ass as there is plenty of inauthenticity to go round in the middlin’ demographic. The desire to employ our aging rock gods as time-shields is a coward’s tactic wrapped in a fool’s errand. Jagger’s wardrobe mistress is full of shit. There exists no spandex of sufficient tensile strength to suspend us all permanently above the abyss. One might consider then, authentic engagement within one's golden years. Surely we're still here for reasons other than to dote over our beloved Lester Bangs Creem collection or to school the kids in the joys of youthful exuberance. In times past, youth required no formal instruction.

I don’t wish to diminish the astute craft of songs-present, but there will never been another Moonage Daydream because there will never be -- for you and me at least -- another adolescence hungry for a soundtrack worthy of its raging hormones. (Here I am addressing my contemporaries, i.e. those more old than young.) Again, once upon a time it was about far more than the music; and, while I note the latter's loosening cultural grip with great sadness, I am aware that perhaps my grandfather mourned the passing of Steeple Chases with equal melancholy. “Enthusiasm is dead! Long live enthusiasm!” My teenage son salivates over the pending release date of BioShock 3. I recognize his breathless anticipation even as I am a perfect stranger to his game-world. There goeth me but for the grace of Led Zeppelin IV.

Thus though the genre-du-jour may change, we will all bear, in our time, the discrete tattered remnants of our own irrepressible Moment of Youth. Moonage Daydream and Halo 4 are temporalities only -- touchstones and ephemera of a tragic youth too soon lost. Relish the fumes by all means. But for God’s sake, keep moving. Bowie seeks to lead by example. Here is an honest photo that makes no bones about where he is now. For a performance artist whose physical beauty (certainly his visuality) was long regarded an essential ingredient of his art, surely this was a brave photo to part with. (I hasten to add I should only look so good at 66.) Nonetheless I see it as representing a visceral and unadorned entreaty for us to join him in the march forward. “Move or die.” That would surely be an artist speaking, and not a botox-addicted celebrity of perpetually frozen countenance.

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