I was surprised that I was affected so much by Bowie’s death. Despite being a fan, I don’t have a huge appreciation for the level of musical craft in Bowie’s music — I see him as an experimenter, and I appreciate him in the same way as I appreciate Steve Reich or Skinny Puppy: I liked the way that he wasn’t afraid to alienate his audience in pursuit of some pure expression. Nevertheless, I feel like a void has opened in the pit of my abdomen, slowly sucking my entrails out from the inside. I used to make fun of people for mourning celebrities, but I’ve been shown firsthand that the kind of connection between an artist and his audience is a real one, and the pain that occurs when it’s severed is real too.
The worst part is, Bowie isn’t even dead. David Jones is dead. Bowie was never alive in the first place.
This is not an idle distinction. David Bowie is a fiction-suit. David Bowie has no more to do with David Jones than Ziggy Stardust does, and we killed Ziggy a long time ago.
What David Bowie is, ultimately, is not a human being nor an icon but a set of patterns, practices, and behaviors. David Bowie is a way of life. Buried in the coverage of Jones’ death, clues about how to Bowie are being uncovered and re-aired: information about the creative process from old interviews, and some of the theory behind it.
I didn’t know David Jones. But, to a certain extent, I, like other fans, know Bowie, because Bowie is a construct made exclusively to be known by fans. Here is my attempt to put together the beginning of a list of things that made the Bowie fictionsuit interesting.
- Bowie is a container for other personalities. Even as Bowie is not Jones, Bowie also constructed and discarded other identities, acting as a buffer between these identities (who are ultimately the real rock stars) and Jones himself. Each of these identities is a mythic figure with an epic arc. Each of these identities has a different angle on both the world and Bowie. Ziggy Stardust and Halloween Jack are warped Christ-figures: in a gnostic manner, they become minor messiahs for a group of disaffected youth while corrupting themselves in the process, and in the end they are bodily destroyed by invisible powers greater than themselves whose bidding they were unknowingly doing and whose goals were ultimately selfish; Aladdin Sane and Cracked Actor were more meta: a window into the fracturing of personality. An album was a story of another Bowie fictionsuit, and albums iterated on previous albums, rewriting their story: Outside rewrote Scary Monsters, which rewrote Diamond Dogs, which rewrote The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, which itself rewrote sections of Space Oddity (consider Memory of a Free Festival). Every Bowie egregore is created, set on its path up the arc of the monomyth, and killed off and discarded at the peak of its cultural power. It is in this way that Bowie (and Jones himself) avoided the rock star’s mythical downfall.
- Bowie took creativity very seriously, and availed himself of mechanical means to expand upon ideas and styles. He used cutups for twenty years, both to expand inspiration via juxtaposition and to create actual content. References to Thelema are indications that Bowie was familiar with the english cabala and with Tarot — which is to say, he is familiar with the history of using bibliomancy as a mechanical means of obfuscating existing patterns to generate new insights. When he said that the cutup method is “a very western Tarot”, this indicates the depth of his insight: after all, Tarot is not (historically) eastern — even the people who make dubious claims as to the long history of Tarot only put it as far east as Egypt, while actual historians would say that the game of trumps originated in fifteenth-century Italy and the use of Tarot in divination originated in nineteenth century England under the Golden Dawn — so what does it mean to be a “very western” Tarot? Geographically, the cutup method in its modern form was developed in the international zone of Tangiers in Morocco — so, west of Egypt and west of Italy but southeast of England — and its predecessors in the form of surrealist and dadaist writing games were european. Instead, we can say that the cutup is a culturally western Tarot: it is a purely mechanical means of symbolic rearrangement developed by an american heir to a calculator fortune, and it eschews the kind of monastic memorization of static correspondences that Tarot relies upon. It is a more culturally western (by which I mean empiricist-pragmatist-positivist) occult tradition than the Western Occult Tradition. By the time that Bowie was writing Outside, he had graduated to an even more mechanized and even more western form of cutups: a computer program developed in California for the Macintosh that chopped sentences into five-word columns before shuffling the columns.
- Bowie wasn’t afraid to appropriate other people’s ideas and scramble them. In some sense, Bowie himself was like a cutup machine. At various points, in interviews, he eschews any sense of intended meaning behind his words and actions. To an older crowd, this is sometimes seen as the mark of a pretentious poseur; but, this postmodern attitude toward meaning and toward the function of media is in line with bibliomancy historically. Bowie was a catalyst for other people’s growth, because he put things out there that other people had to fit together, and because they fit those things together using pieces of themselves. Sometimes, this cabalistic attitude toward art merely affected the way identities were presented; other times, it had drastic effects on the media he was working in (such as Bowie’s outsized affect upon the glam, punk, and rivethead genres). Juxtaposition of genres creates new genres while expanding those genres that have been juxtaposed. Bowie did this as a habit.
- Bowie didn’t stop. He didn’t have to. By sacrificing his fictionsuits, he saved himself and was able to work another day. As a result, he was able to release albums at a fairly steady pace from the mid-60s to 2016. Part of his legacy is the fact that he was so productive for so long, and part of his legacy is that he never stopped innovating.
- When it was time for David Jones to leave, Bowie made a show of casting him off too. The body that had held the idea of Bowie is gone, but in addressing directly the same way he had with Ziggy, Bowie took control of this situation. One way of reading Blackstar and Lazarus together is to consider it a fight between Jones, who wants to keep being Bowie, and Bowie, who wants to cast off Jones in order to live on in another body. (I am treating Lazarus as being from the perspective of Jones and Blackstar as being from the perspective of Bowie.)
Obviously, all of this was combined with a lot of talent, hard work, energy, and heaps of pure physical sex appeal. Invoking the Bowie godform is never going to be easy. But, neither is it impossible.
Bowie is dead. Long live Bowie.