Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Bowie

What comes next

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Isaac Asimov

In the memoir I. Asimov, which Isaac Asimov wrote when he knew that he was dying from complications of an HIV infection acquired years earlier from a blood transfusion, its author says:

Comparatively early in life I managed to have it ground into my brain that there was no disgrace in dying after seventy, but that dying before seventy was “premature” and was a reflection on a person’s intelligence and character.

Asimov blamed this on the Bible verse that tells us that “the years of our life are threescore and ten,” and he observes that his opinion was “unreasonable, of course; quite irrational.” Still, I have a hunch that many of us continue to share that view, if only subconsciously. This year may or may not have had a greater number of celebrity deaths than usual, but it certainly seemed that way, and many of the ones that stung the most—David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher—were of artists who were between the ages of fifty and seventy. They had been around for enough to feel like legends, but not quite old enough for us to think that their stories were over, and it felt, in some cases, as if we’d been deprived of another decade or two of work. (It’s a measure of Bowie’s hold over my imagination that even after we’ve lost so many others, his death is still the one that hurts the most, and I think that the post I wrote after hearing the news might be the best thing I’ve ever written on this blog.)

When a science fiction writer dies, there’s an additional pang of regret that he or she didn’t live “to see the future,” which, if anything, is even more irrational. But that doesn’t make it wrong. In the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, John W. Campbell published the complete chart of Robert A. Heinlein’s Future History, which extended from the present day to past the year 2100. In his editor’s note, Campbell wrote:

It might be of very real interest to you to trace in on this suggestion of the future your own life line. My own, I imagine, should extend up to about 1980—a bit beyond the time of “Roads Must Roll” and “Blowups Happen.” My children may see the days of “Logic of Empire.” Where does your life line fall? Where will your children’s end?

Campbell, in fact, had no intention of dying at all. In a biographical sketch from the early fifties, he said: “It’s my intention to live at least two hundred years, because I damn well want to find out how this mess comes out, and that’s the only way I know of that I can do it.” A few years later, he extended the timeline, saying that he planned “to see what happens next—if I have to hang around for another five hundred years or so to do so!” Toward the end of the sixties, when he was painfully conscious of his failing health, he wrote, more modestly, that he hoped to keep editing the magazine for another thirty years, noting that he would be “just shy of ninety” in 1998.

Robert A. Heinlein's Future History

Campbell’s fullest statement on human longevity came in an editorial titled “Oh King, Live Forever!”, which was published in the April 1949 issue of Astounding. Campbell began with the statement:

At some point in the history of the world and the history of medical science, a point will be reached such that a child born at that time can, if he chooses—and has reasonable luck so far as mechanical damage goes—live practically forever. This point in time will be some forty or more years before the perfection of the full requirements for continuous life—and this point may already have passed, without our knowing it.

He continued by saying that it shouldn’t be too hard to extend the human lifespan by a few decades, and he concluded:

The first advance of thirty years would be no “eternal youth” treatment. But—science tends to advance exponentially. That thirty-year reprieve might give just the time needed for research to extend your life another forty years. And that forty years might—

It’s an argument that perfectly anticipates those of such later transhumanists as Ray Kurzweil, author of books like Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. And for all I know, it might be right—someday.

As it turned out, Campbell was only sixty-one when he died, and while his death was sudden, it was far from unexpected: he had been suffering from gout, high blood pressure, and other ailments for years. It’s easy to regret that both he and Asimov failed to make it to the twenty-first century. But Campbell lived to see the moon landing. So did Asimov, who once wrote, like Campbell, that he hoped to keep on living as long as he was still curious to see how the story would turn out. In his movie review of The Sea Inside, which is about a quadriplegic who demands the right to die, Roger Ebert made a similar statement:

I believe I would want to live as long as I could, assuming I had my sanity and some way to communicate…If a man is of sound mind and not in pain, how in the world can he decide he no longer wants to read tomorrow’s newspaper?

When he wrote those words, Ebert—who once called Campbell “my hero”—was a few years away from his own very public struggle with mortality. But the desire to see what happens next is very strong, and it’s particularly moving when you think of the times through which Campbell, Asimov, and the rest all lived. It’s been a rough twelve months, and I can’t say that I’m particularly sorry to say goodbye to 2016. But I still want to know what comes next.

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December 30, 2016 at 9:24 am

Listen without prejudice

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George Michael

In The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson says of Tuesday Weld: “If she had been ‘Susan Weld’ she might now be known as one of our great actresses.” The same point might hold true of George Michael, who was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou and chose a nom de mike—with its unfortunate combination of two first names—that made him seem frothy and lightweight. If he had called himself, say, George Parker, he might well have been regarded as one of our great songwriters, which he indisputably was. In the past, I’ve called Tom Cruise a brilliant producer who happened to be born into the body of a movie star, and George Michael had the similar misfortune of being a perversely inventive and resourceful recording artist who was also the most convincing embodiment of a pop superstar that anybody had ever seen. It’s hard to think of another performer of that era who had so complete a package: the look, the voice, the sexuality, the stage presence. The fact that he was gay and unable to acknowledge it for so long was an undeniable burden, but it also led him to transform himself into what would have been almost a caricature of erotic assertiveness if it hadn’t been delivered so earnestly. Like Cary Grant, a figure with whom he might otherwise seem to have little in common, he turned himself into exactly what he thought everyone wanted, and he did it so well that he was never allowed to be anything else.

But consider the songs. Michael was a superb songwriter from the very beginning, and “Everything She Wants,” “Last Christmas,” “Careless Whisper,” and “A Different Corner,” which he all wrote in his early twenties, should be enough to silence any doubts about his talent. His later songs could be exhausting in their insistence on doubling as statements of purpose. But it’s Faith, and particularly the first side of the album and the coda of “Kissing a Fool,” that never fails to fill me with awe. It was a clear declaration that this was a young man, not yet twenty-five, who was capable of anything, and he wasn’t shy about alerting us to the fact: the back of the compact disc reads “Written, Arranged, and Produced by George Michael.” In those five songs, Michael nimbly tackles so many different styles and tones that it threatens to make the creation of timeless pop music seem as mechanical a process as it really is. A little less sex and a lot more irony, and you’d be looking at as skilled a chameleon as Stephin Merritt—which is another comparison that I didn’t think I’d ever make. But on his best day, Michael was the better writer. “One More Try” has meant a lot to me since the moment I first heard it, while “I Want Your Sex” is one of those songs that would sound revolutionary in any decade. When you listen to the Monogamy Mix, which blends all three sections together into a monster track of thirteen minutes, you start to wonder if we’ve caught up to it even now.

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley

These songs have been part of the background of my life for literally as long as I can remember—the music video for “Careless Whisper” was probably the first one I ever saw, except maybe for “Thriller,” and I can’t have been more than five years old. Yet I never felt like I understood George Michael in the way I thought I knew, say, the Pet Shop Boys, who also took a long time to get the recognition they deserved. (They also settled into their roles as elder statesmen a little too eagerly, while Michael never seemed comfortable with his cultural position at any age.) For an artist who told us what he thought in plenty of songs, he remained essentially unknowable. Part of it was due to that glossy voice, one of the best of its time, especially when it verged on Alison Moyet territory. But it often seemed like just another instrument, rather than a piece of himself. Unlike David Bowie, who assumed countless personas that still allowed the man underneath to peek through, Michael wore his fame, in John Updike’s words, like a mask that ate into the face. His death doesn’t feel like a personal loss to me, in the way that Bowie did, but I’ve spent just about as much time listening to his music, even if you don’t count all the times I’ve played “Last Christmas” in an endless loop on Infinite Jukebox.

In the end, it was a career that was bound to seem unfinished no matter when or how it ended. Its back half was a succession of setbacks and missed opportunities, and you could argue that its peak lasted for less than four years. The last album of his that I owned was the oddball Songs from the Last Century, in which he tried on a new role—a lounge singer of old standards—that would have been ludicrous if it hadn’t been so deeply heartfelt. It wasn’t a persuasive gesture, because he didn’t need to sing somebody else’s songs to sound like part of the canon. That was seventeen years ago, or almost half my lifetime. There were long stretches when he dropped out of my personal rotation, but he always found his way back: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” even played at my wedding. “One More Try” will always be my favorite, but the snippet that has been in my head the most is the moment in “Everything She Wants” when Michael just sings: Uh huh huh / Oh, oh / Uh huh huh / Doo doo doo / La la la la… Maybe he’s just marking time, or he wanted to preserve a melodic idea that didn’t lend itself to words, or it was a reflection of the exuberance that Wesley Morris identifies in his excellent tribute in the New York Times: “There aren’t that many pop stars with as many parts of as many songs that are as exciting to sing as George Michael has—bridges, verses, the fillips he adds between the chorus during a fade-out.” But if I were trying to explain what pop music was all about to someone who had never heard it, I might just play this first.

Quote of the Day

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David Bowie

I’ve used [the cut-up method] only on a couple of actual songs, but I’ve used it—more than anything else—as igniting anything that might be in my imagination, and you can often come up with very interesting attitudes to look into…It seemed that it would predict things about the future and would tell me a lot about the past. It’s really quite an astonishing thing.

David Bowie, in the documentary Cracked Actor

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January 12, 2016 at 7:30 am

Forever and ever

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The cover of David Bowie's Hours

I knew this day would come, but I allowed myself to hope that it never would. When I first became aware of David Bowie, it happened to be at a point in his career when it seemed as if he had been around forever, and he was everywhere you looked. My dad, a longtime fan, had bought Let’s Dance just like everyone else—he and my mom even saw Bowie perform on the Serious Moonlight tour—and my parents still talk about watching me sing along as a toddler to “Modern Love.” Later, of course, there was Labyrinth, along with so much else that is so deeply embedded in my subconscious that I can’t imagine a world without it. But it took me a long time to realize that I was encountering Bowie at a moment that was a clear outlier in the larger story of his life. The massive success of Let’s Dance, which had originally been intended as a one-off detour, transformed him into a mainstream pop superstar for the first time, and he followed it with a string of commercially minded albums that most critics, along with Bowie himself, rank low in his body of work. But I still love what Sasha Frere-Jones has called “the blocky drums and sports-bar guitars” of this period. It’s richer, weirder stuff than it initially seems, and it’s the first version that comes to mind whenever I think about David Bowie. Which is an awful lot. In fact, as the years pass, I find that I’ve spent most of my life thinking about Bowie pretty much all the time.

When an artist has such a long, productive career and you tune in halfway through, you tend to see his or her music in two parallel chronologies. There’s the true chronology, which you start to piece together as you work backward and forward through the discography and listen to the songs in the order in which they were written and recorded. And there’s the autobiographical chronology, in which the albums assume positions in your memory based on when you listened to them the most. This doesn’t have much to do with their proper release dates: the songs situate themselves in your life wherever they can fit, like enzymes locking onto substrates, and they end up spelling out a new message. If the Bowie of the eighties takes me back to my childhood, I can’t listen to Scary Monsters without being plunged right away into my senior year of high school, in which I listened to it endlessly on a Discman and headphones while riding the train up to Berkeley. My arrival in New York after college was scored to Hours, an album often seen as forgettable, but which contains a handful of Bowie’s loveliest songs, especially “Thursday’s Child” and “Survive.” “Modern Love” played at my wedding. And it’s hard to think of a chapter in my life when he wasn’t important. He was such a given, in fact, that it took me a long time to get a sense of the shape of his career as a whole, in the same way that there are enormous swaths in the lives of your parents that you’ve never bothered to ask about because they’ve always been there.

David Bowie

I saw Bowie perform live twice. The first was the Outside tour with Nine Inch Nails as his opening act, and it was my first rock concert ever: Bowie came onstage to the sound of “Subterraneans” and intoned the lyrics to “Scary Monsters” as a spoken-word piece, an unforgettable moment that I was recently delighted to find online. Much later, I saw him in New York with my brother, with whom I’d also caught a retrospective at the Museum of Television and Radio—this was in the years before YouTube—that collected many of his old videos and performance clips, playing continuously on a screen in a tiny darkened room. By then, Bowie was an institution. He was so established that he had issued bonds secured by royalties from his back catalog, and going back over pictures and footage from his early days was like looking at snapshots of your father and marveling at how long his hair used to be. And occasionally it occurred to me that Bowie would have to die one day, much as I still think the same about Francis Coppola or Werner Herzog. It seemed inconceivable, although hints of mortality are woven throughout his catalog. (As I wrote on this blog once: “And the skull grins through even his most unabashedly mainstream moments. If you listen carefully to ‘Let’s Dance,’ you can hear something rattling in the background, alongside the slick horns and synthetic percussion. It’s the sound of Bowie’s false teeth.”) If David Bowie can die, it means that none of us are safe.

After reading the news, the first song I played was “Starman.” I don’t think I’m alone. But the way that song came back into my life is revealing in itself. I’d always been vaguely aware of it, from The Life Aquatic if nothing else—which links Bowie indelibly in my mind with Bill Murray, another celebrity whose departure I anticipate with dread. But I didn’t listen to it closely until I got a copy of his recent greatest hits album Nothing Has Changed. (It was a Christmas present from my brother, which is just another reminder of how entwined Bowie has been in the story of my family.) It’s an eclectic collection of songs on two chunky vinyl discs, with different track listings depending on the format, and it both reminded me of some old favorites and reintroduced me to songs that, for whatever reason, had never been integrated into my internal playlist. The best part was playing it for my two-year-old daughter, who has since been known to ask for Bowie by name. She can sing along to “Changes,” as she did unprompted when I pulled out the album this morning, and to “Heroes,” with her little voice sounding strong and clear: “We can beat dem / Forevah and evah…” It makes me feel like I’m maintaining some kind of continuity. And the phrase “forever and ever” has become a regular part of her vocabulary. She’ll ask: “Am I going to be three forever and ever?” And when it’s time to turn off the lights, and I sit on the edge of her bed, she asks: “Will you stay with me forever and ever?” I want to say yes, but of course I can’t. And neither could David Bowie.

The Gospel According to Herzog

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Werner Herzog on the set of Fitzcarraldo

When you’re a voracious reader with a large library, you sometimes get the feeling that there aren’t any books left to discover. There are certainly books left to be read, both old and new, but you’d like to think that you have a decent idea of the territory. Yet it’s always possible to be surprised and astonished by a book you didn’t know existed, which is exactly what happened to me last week. The book is A Guide for the Perplexed by the German director Werner Herzog, which I received as a belated holiday gift from my parents. I’m a Herzog fan, but not a completist: I’ve seen maybe five of his features and three or four of his documentaries, which leaves a lot of unexplored material, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Woyzeck put me to sleep. But I’m stunned by this book. It’s a revised and expanded version of Herzog on Herzog, a collection of his conversations with Paul Cronin that was originally published more than a decade ago, and I’m filled with regret at the fact that I didn’t pick up the first edition when I had the chance—I feel that my life would have been subtly different if I had. Not only is it the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in filmmaking, it’s almost the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in anything at all.

Over the last few days, A Guide for the Perplexed has practically been attached to my hand, and I’ve already devoured hundreds of pages, browsing in it at random. It’s a huge book, but every paragraph explodes with insight. Even if you don’t have any interest in Herzog, you should pick up a copy just to read for your own pleasure: you can open it to any page and find yourself immediately arrested. Here are a few lines picked almost at random:

Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Peter Zeitlinger [Herzog’s cinematographer] is always trying to sneak “beautiful” shots into our films, and I’m forever preventing it…Things are more problematic when there is a spectacular sunset on the horizon and he scrambles to set up the camera to film it. I immediately turn the tripod 180 degrees in the other direction.

Those who read own the world. Those who watch television lose it.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

And this doesn’t even touch on Herzog’s own stories, which are seemingly inexhaustible. He provides his own perspective on many famous anecdotes, like the time he was shot on camera while being interviewed by the BBC—the bullet was stopped by his jacket and a catalog in his pocket, and he wanted to keep going—or the threat that kept Klaus Kinski from abandoning the production of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. (“I told him I had a rifle…and that he would only make it as far as the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head. The ninth would be for me.”) But there are countless relatively unknown stories that jump off the page: Herzog posing as a veterinarian at the airport to rescue the monkeys he needed for Aguirre, forging an impressive document over the signature of the president of Peru to gain access to locations for Fitzcarraldo, stealing his first camera, shooting oil fires in Kuwait under such unforgiving conditions that the microphone began to melt. We hear about the unexpected targets of Herzog’s disdain, from David Bowie (“The man is a neon light bulb”) to legendary firefighter Red Adair (“He was extremely meticulous, cowardly, and overly bureaucratic”), as well as his contempt for cinéma vérité, a panel discussion on which he concluded by saying: “I’m no fly on the wall. I am the hornet that stings. Happy New Year, losers.”

Yet little of this would matter, aside from its enormous entertainment value, if we weren’t also treated to a dazzling array of insights on screenwriting, cinematography, sound, financing, documentary filmmaking, editing, and storytelling of all kinds. Herzog is his own best character, and he admits that he can sometimes become “a clown,” but his example sustains and nourishes the rest of us. In On Directing Film—the other essential book I’d recommend to any aspiring filmmaker—David Mamet writes:

But listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of dramatic art—to tell a story. Thati’s all it’s good for.

Herzog, believe it or not, would agree, and he even tells attendees at his Rogue Film School to watch Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as illustrations of great storytelling. And the way in which Herzog and Capra’s reputations have diverged since Mamet wrote those words, over twenty years ago, is illuminating in itself. A Guide for the Perplexed may turn out to be as full of fabrications as Capra’s own memoirs, but they’re the kind of inventions, like the staged moments in Herzog’s “documentaries,” that get at a deeper truth. As Herzog himself says of another great dreamer: “The difference between me and Don Quixote is, I deliver.”

Written by nevalalee

February 3, 2015 at 9:44 am

Changesbowie

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Heroes by David Bowie

If a rock star survives long enough, there inevitably comes a point in his or her career in which every new album is hailed as a return to form. It can be amusing to see this little drama played out every two or three years—as it did, for instance, throughout R.E.M.’s last active decade—but it isn’t hard to understand why. Rock criticism is a singularly thankless job: it’s written on deadline, often with only a few days to consider the work in question, but it concerns itself with a form of art defined by its effect on us over months or years. When an established star puts out a new album, it tends, at minimum, to be polished and professionally produced, with a handful of exciting songs; at first listen, we naturally compare it to our memories of earlier works that have sustained the same qualities over decades or more, and the initial comparison tends to be favorable. Before long, however, the new release is invisibly absorbed into the rest of the artist’s discography, while the older material, tested by time, retains its staying power. And when the next album comes along, in that first blush of excitement, it’s easy to see it as, say, David Bowie’s best work since Scary Monsters.

This is why it pays to be a little cautious with the reviews hailing The Next Day as one of the strongest albums of Bowie’s career. In this case, we need to be especially careful, because it’s his first new album in ten years. Bowie, to put it mildly, is an interesting guy, and it’s been so long since he’s given us anything new that it’s easy to give his latest album more love than it deserves, if only because provides an excuse for us to think and talk about him again. That said, even after a few listens, I think it’s a very good album: my favorite tracks are probably “I’d Rather Be High” and “How Does the Grass Grow?”—the latter largely for its cheeky vocal appropriation of the bridge from “Apache,” the greatest of all rock instrumentals. All the same, I’d probably place it slightly below some of Bowie’s later work, notably the wonderful Heathen, or even Hours, an uneven album that nonetheless contains what I think is Bowie’s best song. And although I’ll continue to listen to this album a lot over the coming weeks, it’s just too soon to say how it will hold up over time.

The Next Day by David Bowie

Yet it’s still a major work, precisely because the wait for it has been so long. Bowie spent most of his career evolving in public, and toward the end, the result was often an album, like Outside or Earthing, that felt a few steps behind the sounds it was so fluently appropriating. The Next Day, by comparison, comes from a Bowie that is hard to recognize: it was recorded in private, almost in secret, after what seems to have been an extended period of reflection. It’s tempting, then, to interpret the result as a statement of what Bowie himself considers to be the heart of his career, which is why the album’s sound is so revealing. In the words of Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker:

The problem is that the production that Bowie and [producer Tony] Visconti chose for the songs puts this record, sonically, closer to the blocky drums and sports-bar guitars of eighties albums like Let’s Dance and Tonight than to some of his slightly hidden gems from the past two decades.

Frere-Jones is disappointed by this, but to me, there’s a more profound message here: as great as the earlier songs may be, Bowie seems to understand that his work needs to be recentered, gently but firmly, on the most nakedly commercial music of his career.

Because it’s in his persona as a superstar that Bowie’s legacy endures, if not to listeners, than certainly to other artists. Last week, I posted a quote from Saul Bellow, which reads in part:

Writers, poets, painters, musicians, philosophers, political thinkers, to name only a few of the categories affected, must woo their readers, viewers, listeners, from distraction. To this we must add, for simple realism demands it, that these same writers, painters, etc., are themselves the children of distraction. As such, they are peculiarly qualified to approach the distracted multitudes. They will have experienced the seductions as well as the destructiveness of the forces we have been considering here.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this perfectly describes Bowie, who, like his disciple Lady Gaga, understands that before you can ask us to reflect on the meaning of stardom and illusion, you first need to achieve the somewhat more straightforward task of becoming the biggest pop star in the world. At his best, Bowie, who took both his name and his earliest creative breakthrough from Kubrick’s 2001, saw the future more clearly than anyone else. And the skull grins through even his most unabashedly mainstream moments. If you listen carefully to “Let’s Dance,” you can hear something rattling in the background, alongside the slick horns and synthetic percussion. It’s the sound of Bowie’s false teeth.

Written by nevalalee

March 18, 2013 at 9:50 am

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