All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings. | David Bowie, 1995
The singer, songwriter, painter and actor David Bowie, aka David Jones, died today aged 69. I woke to the ominous red “breaking news” banner on BBC Breakfast News, and was so shocked that I shouted out loud, something inarticulate: my partner assumed something terrible had happened to me, and it had.
I was introduced to Bowie’s music by an ex boyfriend who had exemplary taste (obviously, he was dating me *implied winky face here*). I’d always had a vague understanding that Bowie was someone quite important, but here, in the early 2000s, my love of him was born. I’ve been listening to BBC Radio 6 Music for most of the afternoon and have been close to tears on several occasions: The Man Who Sold The World, Starman, Ashes to Ashes. They are songs that still resonate: still remind me of the shy young girl I was at the age of 20, sitting in our little house with the cats and the CD player and the candles and the wood burning stove, waiting for my boyfriend to finish work, with the world howling in the darkness outside. I’m crying again listening to Guy Garvey, the lead singer of Elbow, who is himself close to tears, talking about what Bowie meant to him. They’re playing an Elbow cover of The Bewley Brothers now.
David Bowie was the internet before the internet…a sort of clearing house for ideas. | BBC Radio 6 Music
I have recently been reading The Panizzi Lectures: Bibliography & the Sociology of Texts, by D F McKenzie. In that lecture, McKenzie talked about the poet Milton’s use of the word “violl” and the “idea of the book as a sacred but expressive form, one whose medium gives transparent access to the essential meaning…there is a tradition in which print-inclined authors assume this.” [McKenzie, p.24]. The phial, or the text in this interpretation, is “less than sacred text, the destabilised, the indeterminate, or the broken…” [p.27]
It seems to me that Bowie was an artist for whom culture was a feast for him to partake of. As the opening quote to this post shows, he saw that art was changed by each interpretation: that there could be no definitive, ultimate version of anything, and that perhaps, therefore, each new incarnation was just as important as that which came before it. Bowie’s work was rare amongst popular artists, in that you can create your own interpretations of his songs: often his lyrics were ambiguous, meaning that you could, perhaps, break the phial, desecrate the sacred, and make something new of it, a new reading that could be personal to the listener. It seems appropriate to use this analogy, too, because of course:
Milton’s spelling of the word, in addition, reminds us of the viola, and contains therefore “a typical Milton pun: it is as if, in reading a book, we should also be moved by the harmony of the work, what Shakespeare called ‘the concord of sweet sounds’. [McKenzie, p.24]
I don’t believe Bowie was overawed by the canonical: he seems to have held a reverence for it, but reinterpretation was more important to him than the preservation of the perceived sanctity of a piece of art. This is represented quite profoundly in the V&A exhibition David Bowie is, which is currently on a worldwide tour. In it, Bowie’s history seems to embody the essence of the digital humanities: music with its roots in jazz, punk, Euro-disco and electronic German art-rock; “mixed media, cinema, mime, Tibetan Buddhism, acting and love” [About David Bowie]: science fiction, Brechtian theatricality, Surrealism, William Burroughs; Andy Warhol, murder, technology, the outsider: he was also responsible for the first ever song distributed through the internet (1996’s Telling Lies).
Bowie has come not just to represent his innovations but to symbolize modern rock as an idiom in which literacy, art, fashion, style, sexual exploration and social commentary can be rolled into one. | Rolling Stone Magazine.
In addition to all that, he painted the face of masculinity: twisting the “traditional” norms related to gender and sexuality, encompassing the “spaces in between” that Norbert Wiener so eloquently talks about when describing the essence of the digital humanities. That may seem like a tenuous analogy, but it is the reason I wrote this blog post: Bowie existed in those spaces, applied technology in new and fascinating ways, took what was traditional and created something new. He broke open the phial and released the sweet sounds within.
Who were Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop? And what of Cherry Vanilla, Wayne/Jayne County, and Leee Black Childers? And why was it so important to read On The Road, see this film A Clockwork Orange, or hear Kraftwerk, Anthony Newley and Mott the Hoople? It turned out discovering David Bowie came with a reading list to immerse oneself in and retrace the steps he’d walked in, to perhaps decrypt this strange news from another star… | James Gent, Happy Birthday Starman: A Tribute to the genius of David Bowie.
My friend James Gent has written a far more fitting tribute to the Thin White Duke, albeit a week before Bowie’s death: it can be found here and shows Mr Gent at his eloquent and emotive best, describing Bowie as the person who “freed all us suburban outcasts” [@jamesgent76].
We must continue to turn and face the strange in his absence.