David Bowie died during the evening of January 10, 2016 in New York City, but much of the world was sleeping, and so woke to the news on the 11th, the news traveling like a cross-continental comet.
He was cremated, according to the death certificate filed with his will, on January 12 in New Jersey; the will directed that if it were not possible to cremate his body in Bali “in accordance with the Buddhist rituals,“* his executor should scatter his ashes off the island’s coast.
Smoke rising; ashes falling.
Philip Hoare notes in RisingTideFallingStar that Guglielmo Marconi believed that his transAtlantic radio transmitters “might also pick up the cries of sailors long since drowned in the Atlantic” (39). Thomas Jerome Newton, the alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, recorded an LP, The Visitor, in hopes of radio play that would allow his wife, if she were alive, to receive a message from him on their home planet. He wouldn’t be making the journey home.
My feeds have been nearly all Bowie for the past three days and will continue into tomorrow.
I wonder if all these transmissions, bouncing between towers, betwist satellites, are being received by the starman, as Hoare calls him.
“He looks like a comet, his flame-like hair slicked back on entry into earth’s atmosphere.”
Philip Hoare, on the fall to earth of alien Thomas Jerome Newton, aka David Bowie. RisingTideFallingStar (130)
After a brief meditation on the fall of Icarus (this book is about risings and fallings and risings of tides and stars, and Icarus, Lazarus, Billy Budd, Ishmael, to name a few), Hoare turns to The Man Who Fell to Earth. Throughout he refers to Bowie as the starman, and Bowie becomes a comet, a piece of a star not yet fallen to earth “forever roaming” (118), often seen as prophesying a sea-change in human affairs, apocalyptic or progressive. Hoare sees Bowie as both “outcast & sensor” (329), a resonant comparison.
The 1618 blue-green comet was taken by the Pilgrims as a sign that it was time to cross the sea to a New World (118). Their appearance is dual: comets with their ball and tails move very quickly, but since they can cover such distances, appear to be slow moving ; their cooling blueish tails may be our source of water (118). Water has disappeared from Newton’s planet and it is this for which he searches. Comet Lovejoy, as seen from International Space Station (NASA).
Hoare’s description of Newton’s hair being like a comet makes so much sense to me. It is — and isn’t — human colored. In the novel by Walter Tevis, Newton is finally busted because his $20 bills aren’t quite right. His planet’s reception of Earth’s transmissions was very, very good — but not quite good enough to see exactly the whorls on the US currency. Similarly, Nicolas Roeg’s/Bowie’s Newton almost passes as human, but in the first minutes of the film, as soon as his hood falls down, it is clear something is different about this guy.
“A sun grazing comet as witnessed by the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, as it dived toward the sun on July 5 and July 6, 2011. SOHO is the overwhelming leader in spotting sungrazers, with almost 3000 spotted to date. SOHO can see the faint light of a comet, because the much brighter light of the sun is blocked by what’s known as a coronograph.” Credits: ESA&NASA/SOHO
Bowie is also extra terrestrial in an uncommon sense; terrestrial to the extreme as a shape-shifter within his own species’ anatomy, which is not enough to accommodate his imagination. Hoare reminds us of the changes preceding Man Who Fell: Bowie as “half-canine, half-human, a dog star…with a feral yelp” — a Diamond Dog (132).
Hoare notes too that on the stack of televisions Newton watches, trying to make sense of Earth and its life forms, is a snippet from John Huston’s film of Melville’s Billy Budd of the beautiful sailor “golden Adonis or dark star” (338) who is hoisted up to be hanged, and then his dead body is buried at sea, falling to the depths.
Hoare then brilliantly links Man Who Fell’s use of whale songs when Newton and his wife are together in a “fluid cybersexual space” (132) continuing on to illustrate the similarities in covers for Songs of the Humpback Whale and the album 2001: A Space Odyssey, the story of astronaut David Bowman (134).
And whale songs, Hoare reminds us, are among the sounds sent on the golden discs in Voyager Explorer, launched in 1977 to tell another world’s people who Earthlings are, as are “Blakean images [of] a naked man and woman and transect lines indicating Homo sapiens’ place in the solar system [that] appear on the Black Star[sic] album” (note for page 134).
“Outside is set at the end of the millennium. What are your thoughts about what’s in store?” Bowie: “‘I’m very positive about it. …What Brian and I are trying to do is develop a series of albums that trace the last five years of the ‘90s. This is the first in this series or cycle of albums.’ [As it turned out, Outside was Bowie and Eno’s last recording together.]”
What, I wondered on first reading, is Admiral Nelson doing in a book featuring so many poets that returns again and again to Bowie?
It’s the frock coats, the frock coats with “pleated skirts [that] swung as Nelson walked. . .and gold-lace cuffs” (327). It’s also the stockings, and the emphasis in portraits on the Admiral’s “balanced” “stance,” more like a “dancer than a fighter” (323). Much of ruling is looking the part. It’s as theatrical and improbable as Bowie.
As the curators explain the fascinating construction of these amphibious woolen maritime frock coats, Hoare muses on how it would feel to be so protected, much as he earlier considered what it would be like to assume the body of a dolphin washed ashore in Provincetown: “I imagine her as a human in a dolphin wetsuit. I think of her bones, lighter than mine since they did not have to bear the full weight of gravity” (61), and the claims of the poet Oppian (AD 180) that killing dolphins is immoral because they were humans who returned to the sea, and “the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thought and human deeds” (60). If, Hoare imagines, he could slip on Nelson’s coat, and “feel the skirts sway and bounce like a kilt,” he could “be a hero, just for a minute or two” (328).
In fact, Nelson was not a handsome sailor but a small admiral who had lost an arm in battle and was blinded in one eye, above which was a scar,“as if he’d been ripped by lighting, a zig-zag rip” (324). His scar remindsme of the one on Pierrot in Ashes to Ashes, and during the production of David Bowie Is, the curators took Hoare to see the costume up close, which is described both in this book and a passage from a profile of Hoare inThe Guardian:
“There lay a cross between a plywood cradle and a semi-circular, space-age coffin. Like the casket of a mummy. In there was the Pierrot costume for the “Ashes to Ashes” video. It was made of buckram and silver fabric and sequins, but it was stiff and looked like the chrysalis of an insect which had vacated it. It was in the shape of David Bowie, as if he’d been teleported out of this world and left this reliquary we were worshipping. I reached out but I couldn’t touch it. It would have been too much. It would have broken the spell.”
As Hoare leaves the Nelson vaults, he notices a sequin had fallen from the coat, “a bit of stardust,” and dutifully returns it to the curator.
But what do these coats have to do with Bowie? RisingTideFallingStar covers the past five hundred years. It is, on one level, about the rise of Empire, the allure of the New World, the migrations of peoples, exploration, cruelty and destruction, and making it new.
It begins with Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a shipwreck halfway to the New World on Prospero’s island, likely Bermuda. Bowie spent a lot of time there is the late 1990s after selling his place on Mustique. He was poised then between Old and New Worlds, becoming, finally a New World New Yorker. He, like Hoare, was a child of a near-dead Empire, and when I look at Bowie’s wardrobe for Outside and Earthling, the End of Empire (millennium, century, and decade) comes to mind.
There is, of course, the slashed Union Jack coat for Earthling designed by Alexander McQueen, and some of Earthling’s titles allude to WWII, e.g. “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” and “Seven Years in Tibet,” but the coat itself is the most eloquent statement.
I’ve long been fascinated by the frock coat Bowie wore on the Outside tour. Why cobwebs? But when Hoare mentions Nelson’s coat that the admiral “wore at the Battle of the Nile… now sadly injured by moths” (317), my thinking changed. It’s described as “a dark, wool frock coat veiled with torn embroidered tulle, and a pair of high-waist, full dark trousers dribbled and smudged with paint.”
Torn embroidered tulle and lacy ruffled cuffs, deliberately distressed or delicate: this is the end of the Empire.
RisingTideFallingStar, the best book about Bowie I expect to read, the one I hope his daughter Lexie has, does not, within its text, include the word Bowie.
I don’t read reviews before I read or write about books, so I don’t know if others see how gratifying this book is to Bowie people.
Dustjacket flap features half the picture of Philip Hoare with wings by Dennis Minsky.
The advanced publicity cover picture suggested that the allusions to Bowie I’ve noted before in Hoare’s work would be more explicit, while the one-word title RisingTideFallingStar, reminiscent of Richard Long’s haunting Textworks, had me guessing Hoare would be returning to the sea again. Both are correct, and what is more, new friends and old* gather in the expanding Hoareiverse.
But like all Hoare’s books, RisingTideFallingStar is essentially about what John Keats called “the vale of Soul-making,”** and soul-making is a matter of self-transformation, the sadness of alienation, and the circuitous routes we take to attempt to get home.
It could be called a lament or thernody, like the song of the humpback whale, which Hoare describes at the beginning of the last chapter (“a keening threnody to me; but to another whale, it is a serenade of lust” (387)). On the book’s last two pages, Hoare seeks rest “in [his] room, overlooking the ocean,” listening to the whales’ unending song, “bending sound” and “dredging the ocean” (387). As a tempest gathers on the night of January 10, 2015, he confronts the allure of falling not to earth but deep into the sea, before finally sleeping and waking to “the news” (392).
I think all here know something of this feeling, this wondering at the stillness of Bowie’s body, then watching the videos, and knowing we will never again feel the transmission of energy through his “eyes, at the centre of it all” (393). After the text but before its epigram (alluding to The Tempest — and “Station to Station”) is Mick Rock’s photo of Bowie with the sailor’s anchor on his face. The last words of Thoreau, which Hoare quoted back on p. 129, come to mind: ‘“Now comes good sailing.’”
For Hoare, whose trajectory was launched 40 years earlier by “the starman who obsessed me, and who presided over my blue notebook” (22), the answer is to go down to the sea, and write Bowie’s name in the sand, and let the waves take it away, and then, as he does each day, to dive into water.
To dissect RisingTideFallingStar would feel like performing a vivisection; to paraphrase, babytalk. it is a very long prose poem: nothing is dispensable, images break the surface briefly, then much later, having always been right there, return like waves to be visible once again.
In the next few posts I’ll note some of the other Bowie allusions and evocations that run through this book. RisingTideFallingStar won’t be released in the US until April 2018 (but why wait? Get it now from Amazon.co.uk), and since this is a Bowie blog, not a lit crit or history of culture thesis, I’ll be taking the Just wow! And then there is this! And here is the best commentary ofThe Man Who Fell to Earthever Approach.
**”The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven-What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making” . Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal. . .)” — John Keats
If you don’t read anything else, skip to the end and read the extended quotations about Heathen — and mortality and music.
These are a few of the passages from Sailor’s JournalsI found particularly affecting. Some I have written about before.
On Grief & Empathy:One of the very earliest entries, 9/4/1998, was posted two days following the crash of Swiss Air 111, a route Bowie used to travel from New York to Geneva. He commented on the mood at JFK International Airport:
“There has been enough sadness in my life for me to at least measure the depth of grief the surviving families must be suffocating in.”
On Love: A beautiful tribute appears on October 14, 1998, the anniversary of the first time he met Iman.
We’ve so grown into our love that I think we both feel that we’ve also grown up. And the feeling that our relationship being so joyous that we’re getting away with something has transformed into the realization that despite all odds we actually were meant to find each other. Hey, gentle vanities are the domain of the older man. Darling Iman, I can’t imagine life without you. I’m reluctantly grateful that I hadn’t known you before as I know I would have lost the best, most stabilizing thing in my life. I was a dumb guy for many years but I’m only stupid now. I love you. Happy anniversary.
On Music: November 27, 1998, Bowie was sorting his piles and came across this:
“What the music says may be serious, but as a medium it should not be questioned, analyzed, or taken so seriously. I think it should be tarted up, made into a prostitute, a parody of itself. It should be the clown, the Pierrot medium. The music is the mask the message wears – music is the Pierrot and I, the performer, am the message.’ Los Angeles Feb 1971. This was printed in Rolling Stone in April of that year. That was said nearly 28 years ago, and I really don’t think my approach to music has altered very much at all. What say you?”
The journal entries for December 20 to 26, 1998, “The Early Ears,” recall Bowie’s earliest musical memories, as well as the slow erosion of spirit that comes with a mother’s litany of, had it not been for you, my life would have been so much better. See [No Longer] Crashing in the Same Car: Mothers.
The first two posts in this index list the songs and artists mentioned here. Use your Find function for dates 12/20/98, 12/22/98/ 12/23/98, and 12/26/98.
On the Potential of the Internet:Bowie posted this September 8, 1999. He introduces the entry by saying he “dropped a really obvious mistake into my speech for the benefit of the press, but, so far not one report has noted it!!!” [There are two good answers, the most obvious being that the “man is born free” quotation is Rousseau’s; the other is that although born in England, Paine was a Revolutionist in the War of Independence. Likely a deliberate mistake about a deliberate mistake: how Bowie!]
…I’m delighted to be here with everyone to give some profile to Net Aid. The existence of any one of the so-called ‘pillars of poverty’ creates walls. And these walls create, not a certainty of security and comfort, but a prison. Both psychological and real. The English radical Thomas Paine wrote: “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” It’s stupefying that 200 years later those words are still applicable. And stupefying is, unfortunately, the appropriate word here. We so often feel incapable of contributing to our future world. All this, it seems, is in the hands of others. That is why I’m so enthusiastic about the involvement of the internet in such an event as this. Because here is a positive initiative that can be accessed by all. Apart from the obvious streams of constant information, you’ll be able to link direct with agencies and charities. Stricken communities will be able to advertise for urgent requirements, a water pump say, or particular medical supplies. And if you’ve got ’em you can act. Suppliers of commodities will be able to talk one-on-one with sales outlets, cutting out the middle man. A signature ability of the Net and a positive sign of things to come.
Becoming-Being-Surviving:Finally, three passages on the creation of Heathen. From October 2001 to May 2002, Bowie discusses the making of this album at Allaire Studios (formerly Glen Tonche), not far from Woodstock, NY. There is a lot about the writing and recording of the songs, and many pictures, but these passages were the ones I found, especially from the viewpoint of 2017, the most moving of the journals. They are also the last of any substance.
5/14/02 [The studio is] just outside of Woodstock, remote, silent and inspirational. We couldn’t believe what a find it was.
I just knew exactly what lyrics I was to write as I stepped into the room although I didn’t yet know what the words themselves were.
Now someplace like that can set me off two ways. I either get super euphoric or darkly depressive, misery being my default position. My soul flies erratically on the wings of what I would imagine is a feeble bi-polarism. Not the all out kind. I’ve encountered that and I’m not that. However, something akin to that brushes past me in my quietest hours.
5/15/02: One reads about encountering epiphany, a Damascene experience. Giddy at the tranquility and the pure gravitas of the place, everything that I had written became galvanized somehow, into an unwavering focus.
5/24/02: I didn’t like writing Heathen. There was something so ominous and final about it. … these words were just streaming out and there were tears running down my face. But I couldn’t stop, they just flew out. It’s an odd feeling, like something else is guiding you, although forcing your hand is more like it.
On the other hand, what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts. There, I’m using that old language again. I don’t believe in demons. I don’t think there is such a thing. Or evil. I don’t believe in some force outside of ourselves that creates bad things. I just think of it as all dysfunctionalism of one kind or another. No satan, no devil. We create so many circles on this straight line we’re told we’re traveling. The truth of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.
5/27/02: For the purposes of this album, Heathenism is a state of mind. You can take it that I’m referring to one who does not see his world. He has no mental light. He destroys almost unwittingly. He cannot feel any Gods presence in his life. He is the 21st century man. However, there is no direct theme or concept behind Heathen, just a number of songs, but somehow there is a thread that runs through it that is quite as strong as any of my thematic type albums. . . .
I had to resign myself, many years ago, that I’m not too articulate when it comes to explaining how I feel about things. But my music does it for me, it really does. There, in the chords and melodies, is everything I want to say. The words just jolly it along. It’s always been my way of expressing what for me is inexpressible by any other means. What is very enlightening for me right now is that I sense that I’m arriving at a place of peace with my writing that I’ve never experienced before. I think I’m going to be writing some of the most worthwhile things that I’ve ever written in the coming years. I’m very confident and trusting in my abilities right now. But I’ve got to think of myself as the luckiest guy. Robert Johnson only had one albums worth of work as his legacy. That’s all that life allowed him.
Good categorization means everything has one place and only one. I could break this out into musical instruments and historical events and a few other things. Instead, at this point I am content with Others. So ends the series on Sailor’s Journals.