Paul Goodman: Bowie, whose story has touched both fascism and communism, gazes beyond politics towards death
This, written by Paul Goodman, is the second entry in a new ConservativeHome column focusing on culture. It is edited by Peter Hoskin, and appears on Fridays.
David Bowie dabbled with neo-nazism during the mid-1970s – he was quoted as saying that “Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader”, and talked of speeding up “the progress of a right-wing totally dictatorial tyranny” – when Britain seemed to be on the verge of collapse. Inflation ran at over 25 per cent; the Prime Minister was believed by some to be a Russian spy; an organisation was formed to break any coming general strike, and one of its leaders speculated about a military coup. Did Bowie really give a Nazi salute to fans at Victoria Station from a Mercedes Covertable, or did a photographer – as Bowie claimed – catch him in mid-wave? Either way, his response to the disorder around him – namely, to champion order, albeit in a loathsome form – may have been deplorable, but it was not inexplicable.
Then again, Bowie had reasons of his own for craving order – among them, a rampant cocaine habit that didn’t end until he settled in Berlin a few years later. The parallel with his Ziggy Stardust – the original pop idol – is too obvious to dwell on. “He took it all too far,” one of the lines in the song went, and set against Bowie's radical experiments (some of which were for show, such as his proclaimed bisexuality) were the repressive ubermenschen who dog his art: the Superman, Big Brother, the Thin White Duke. Later, after his work had lost its edge, Bowie went more mainstream – politically, at any rate. He was in on the Live Aid event in 1985. In his Tin Machine days in the late 1980s, he denounced drugs, fascism and TV. But it would be a mistake to search for consistency in a life that has been formed by ceaseless reinvention.
seemed to have retired after a heart attack in 2004. But, last week, he
turned up on our doorsteps like an old friend who’d gone missing and was
presumed dead. And just as the handshake or the laugh of that old friend
brings old times back, so it is when, over blurry synthesisers and a subdued
drumbeat (“the slightly wonky retro-futuristic ambience of late 70s / early 80s
rock electronica”), that unmistakable voice quavers: “Had to get the train /
From Potsdamer Platz.” The world of ‘Where are we now?’, the song released on
an unsuspecting world on the day of his 66th birthday, is that of the Berlin in
which Bowie wrote some of his most innovative music. Or, rather, it is of
that Berlin remembered in Bowie's early old age: KaDeWe; Dschungel on Nürnberger
He is “a man lost in time”. “Just walking the dead,” he sings – as terse and haunted a line as he's ever written – and it's unclear whether this was so then (in the Berlin to which the stylish but unsettling video above records), or is so now, or both. But the sense of bewilderment in both the words and Bowie’s eyes is unmissable. “Where are we now?” he asks. At first, the tune is barely traceable and the pulse of the music scarcely seems to beat. But before you know it, that tune has got under your skin, and you grasp that Bowie is achieving maximum impact with apparently minimal effort. It is as though a sick man were deploying his conserved strength to gasp a last message. Musically, the hazy effect is like seeing city lights through rain. The lyrics are snapshots – curt and compressed.
“Twenty thousand people/Cross Bosebrucke/Fingers are crossed/Just in case”. The dramatics of ‘Heroes’, in which two lovers kiss by the Wall as East German police fire bullets above their heads, are gone. Bowie sang that song in Berlin for the victims of communism in 1987 – “We send our best wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the Wall,” he said – and, as Tobias Rüther recorded in Standpoint, young East Berliners charged towards the Brandenburg Gate: “the Wall has only another two years to go”. But now, over 25 years later, Bowie's mood is less heroic than wry. Crossing your figures for luck requires less energy than kissing “as though nothing could fall”: again, there is that pared-down economy. Then something else happens.
Without changing its melody, the music moves up a gear, as near the end of ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’. A guitar comes from nowhere, playing and repeating two notes. The drums pick up. “As long as there’s sun,” Bowie sings. “As long as there’s rain. As long as there’s fire. As long as there’s me. As long as there’s you.” We sometimes read into words what we want to read into them. But there is something here about the unquenchable endurance of the human spirit – even, perhaps, about revelation. I want to read the last line as: “as long as our love endures”. Bowie sings with a kind of muted ecstasy. Then the guitar takes over where he stops, and its notes soar off into infinity. The once-self-proclaimed fascist whose story is strangely mixed with communism’s fall is gazing beyond politics, out towards the No Man’s Land where life meets death.