“We Were So Turned On”

I know exactly where I was the first time I heard all the Bowie albums before Scary Monsters and where I watched the Nomi/Bowie performance on Saturday Night Live and where I was introduced to T Rex and Eno, and so much else.

I was in the dorm room of an artist, Jim Sanders, who signed his work Sabbat. I usually called him that.

He was a friend, never a lover. We were perhaps too wise for that (at that age such relationships usually ended in tears), and I, a scrappy ill-groomed half-feral thing, was clearly not his type.

He came from the least likely of places, Centerville, Alabama, a non-place really, but as an Army brat had been around some, in fact being born on a base in France.

He was tall, thin, with a delicate frame, and long slender fingers. In spite of always having a beautiful girlfriend with him, one with an hourglass figure, he caught a lot of hell and insults. Fag was the word of that time, and what could an artistic male with no interest in sports, hunting, and machismo be if not gay? I don’t know how sharply he was stung, but he was who he was, and certainly had no intention of shunning his gay friends or conforming to the dull.

Sabbat was the host. He stood by the turntable and knew just what to play next. By day, his room was what it was: a concrete block tiny barracks with some cloths draped about and quite a few paintings on the wall. By night it was a salon or quasi-opium den, those cloths illuminated by colored bulbs.

People would come and go and there he would stand, presiding at the coolest place those who self-selected themselves would want to be.

Sometimes a stray memory manifests. One year, I was taking a train trip and asked him to make me a cassette of songs, but I didn’t know quite what. It opened with “Station to Station.”

I last saw him in 1983 at my wedding, but we corresponded for a while. He had moved to Columbia, SC., not a full day away from me, but one thing led to the next. We fell out of touch. I used to ask mutual friends what had become of Sabbat, and no one knew.

Then one day in 2012 a stranger called. She had failed to locate family but had found our letters. I’d lived in the same house 20 years, and we kept our phone number when we moved. This was back when there were land lines and directory assistance.

Sabbat had died in 2011, aged 53, after having been sick a long time. He had no health insurance. He died alone, from shock after bleeding out from a burst esophageal varix. He was months past due in rent. His phone service had been cut off, so when he started vomiting blood, he couldn’t call for help. It would not have been painful, but scary, yes. He would have lost consciousness fairly quickly. When his friend told me that he always wore long sleeves even when it was over 100 degrees in Columbia because he itched all the time and left flakes of himself everywhere (pruritus), and that he had started drinking very heavily following one girlfriend’s suicide and another’s cruel departure, it was obvious he had died of advanced cirrhosis.

He wasn’t much of a drinker when I knew him. Different times, different culture.

She put me in touch with his best friend, and there had been some good years. Sabbat taught himself bass guitar, dj’ed at various clubs, worked at a stained glass shop, and loved to cook.  I had organized a reunion of friends to go over and see his work and where the county had buried his ashes, but it fell apart when I got very sick.

It is hard to think of him dying alone of liver disease. Why did he not reach out to me? How did I lose him? I don’t know.

Bowie and Sabbat and those memories of the enchanted days, the true golden years: All of this will never be again.

Post title alludes to “The Bewlay Brothers.

This photo reminds me of Hunky Dory Bowie plus fedora; the second, of Lodger.

jimjim2

The inset above is cropped from a much larger print of Sabbat’s, Subtle Passengers.

I call this one Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy in Another Green World.

 

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Random Thoughts on The Man Who Fell to Earth, Concluded

Finishing this up. My days turned to weeks. 

9. Nicolas Roeg allows viewers much room to intuit connections in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The first few minutes are among the most illogical. All you have to go on is the title. Something seems to explode in the sky and crash into a lake. A boring looking man in the distance watches another man with unusual hair struggle not up from but down toward the lake. How do we know this is the man who fell to Earth?

What Newton plans to do if his spaceship gets home is anyone’s guess. Why is the launch aborted? It seems Newton climbs into the limo and leaves the site on his own initiative. 

10. The dialogue of several of the old movies Newton watches on his banks of TVs blends is seamlessly with the action. The conversation from Love in the Afternoon could be Newton and Mary Lou’s, as well as that in The Third Man. When his driver comes to an abrupt stop outside the shack Newton lives in when he leaves Mary Lou, it sounds like he has blown out a tire. But that sound like a gunshot is on the television — a cowboy and Indian movie this time.

11. When Mary Lou takes a bath in their apartment, Tommy looks into his eyes in the mirror much as he will when he reveals his true self to her.

12. How does Tommy transform shape? One way may be the removal of his contacts. (Bowie is wearing a contact as he plays the role because the pupil size of both Thomas Jerome Newton’s eyes is the same.) A special twisting of nipples seems involved, too. Nipple play happens often with Bryce and his girls. Tommy seems nervous about it when he is in bed with Mary Lou. Why do scientists use a scalpel to get blood from Tommy’s nipples, a scene causing Bryce, to whom Bowie calls for help, to run away?

13. “Freak” is a jarring word in the movie. Mary Lou uses it to Tommy, as does Oliver Farnsworth’s boyfriend about Tommy.

14. Is Mary Lou’s cry, “Tommy! Tommy! Tommy can you hear me?” when Tommy locks himself in the bathroom a call-out to Bowie’s old friend the Who’s  Roger Daltrey’s Tommy?

15. Faith and trust: Newton told Mary Lou his name was Sussex because he did not yet know her. When she asks if he is married, he does not lie. Deceit is not natural to him, in spite of his assumption of the appearance and behavior of a member of a different species. He seems more comfortable doing this than claiming he is English. Newton tells Bryce and Mary Lou he trusts them. He misreads them. Or is this a self-deception?

Tommy really does not want to go to church with Mary Lou. Her talk of God turns his face to sky and memories of his family.

The night before his first physical visit with Bryce, he transmits his image to the dock where Bryce is fishing with the message, “Do not be suspicious.” When asked if they have met before, Newton’s standard answer is evasive, that he has thought about him a few times, as if those — being in physical and mental presences — are same.

After he has been imprisoned, Mary Lou asks Tommy to reveal to the authorities that he is who she knows him to be, but he will no longer prove himself to anyone.

16. The sphere ornament over Newton’s red bridge attracts Bryce’s attention, and foreshadows the huge sphere in the space capsule.

17. There is a statue of an angel or saint along with a mural of the moon in one of the government’s medical exam rooms. Church bells herald Tommy’s escape. At the lake, there were three crucifixes over one of Bryce’s inner thresholds.

18. Farnsworth calls his glasses his eyes. In her last appearance, Mary Lou is bothered by a displaced false eyelash. The x-ray of Newton’s eyes doesn’t blind him, but fuses contacts to his cat eyes, and if the removal of the contacts is an essential first step to leaving his human identity (see above), he is now stuck in disguise.

19. Drink doesn’t sicken Tommy, but it does, he says, allow him to see things. Mary Lou is scandalized by his answer to her question what kinds of things? “Women. And Men.”

20. In Chapter 16 of the Criterion DVD at 13:40, Newton bathed in blue light looks like a much older Bowie. In several scenes, Newton is uncannily still, foretelling the puppets or mannequins of arguably his creepiest video “Love is Lost” (Steve Reich’s remix).

Some Random Thoughts on The Man Who Fell to Earth, Part 1

Each time I watch The Man Who Fell to Earth, I wonder anew. I have no thesis here, so these thoughts just roughly follow the chronology of the movie.

  1. Bowie’s character does not smoke cigarettes during the movie. Buck Henry’s Oliver Farnsworth does in the first scene in which he appears and at least once again. Stills from the set show a great deal of smoking going on, but although this was during Bowie’s chain-smoking days, Thomas Jerome Newton does not smoke.
  2. Is Newton drinking water from cupped hands when we first see him crouched? I used to think so, but he is too close to the roadway and far from the lake to make that practical. After he sells a ring to the curio shop owner for $20, he returns with a coffee cup. It is more of a prayerful pose. (He has cupped hands (2)bundles of $100 bills, but these must have been counterfeited on his home planet, which is the way that Newton is finally taken into custody in the Walter Tevis novel. From television, Tevis’s aliens had gotten a good idea, but not good enough, of the appearance of $20 bills. Also, paying with $100s to get a cup and some snacks would be attention-grabbing.) 
  3.  There are three trains, excluding the one on Newton’s planet: a rusted steam engine, a Santa Fe freight, and an Amtrak passenger. A presentiment of the opening of Station to Station?
  4. This is America. We know immediately and for certain because there are guns. The first is in the cash box at the curio shop, a snub-nosed piece. The Chekovian rule that if a gun appears in Act I, it will be used by Act V sort of applies when Newton orders a pistol that shoots blanks from his jailers when he hears of Mary Lou’s visit. At first he says they gave him one, then corrects himself: he paid for it. He [unwillingly] pays for it all. Not their faces, but their guns are also what we first see of police who check out Newton’s limo in NM. They are a prominent feature in many of movies Tommy watches, including The Third Man and cowboy and Indian movies.
  5. Did Newton walk all 20 or so staircases to Farnsworth’s penthouse to avoid the elevator? Just going five floors in Artesia, NM leaves him in a faint.  From the views and time it eventually takes Farnsworth to fall, his penthouse must have been high up. This falls into the realm of the unknowable, the suspend your disbelief category. Newton could have gone one floor by elevator or stairs, rested, and continued. He could have had Tony carry him. It doesn’t matter, just a curiosity. 
  6. Some equally irrelevant things are knowable. For example, if Arthur isn’t allowed to go over 30 mph, how long would a limo ride take to Artesia? (By the way, at 3,380 ft elevation, any physical exertion would be harder than at sea level.) Artesia is 1965 miles from New York City, so that would be roughly 65 hours, 30 minutes. So if Arthur drove 12 hours a day, about 5 and a half days. Not so bad. By the time Mary Lou and Tommy start looking for a building site for their home, they must have moved their base to Albuquerque because from Artesia to the city is 239 miles, about 8 hours, Newton time. (The film locale is Fenton, just 77 miles or 2.5 hours at 30 mph.)
  7. Coca-Cola is everywhere in America, but considering that the movie was filmed during a hiatus in Bowie’s coke years, it is amusing to hear the Coke commercial “I’d like to teach the world to sing” on in the background on one of the TVs in the early days of the movie and to see a Coke machine in the lobby of the hotel in which Bowie had been kept prisoner.
  8. Mary Lou has an orange cat in her apartment in Artesia and much later when she is living with Nathan Bryce. It could be 10, 15, even 20 years old. Bryce and Mary Lou have certainly aged — and Mary Lou looks fairly bloated — since they betrayed Tommy, although Mary Lou still looks the same naked when she visits the prisoner, who has been in custody long enough to declare his intention to stop trying to prove anything to anyone. Enough time passes between Tommy’s release, Christmas with the unhappy couple, and the final scene for Tommy to have recorded The VisitorWorldwide had been in business for long enough to have a publishing and photography division when Dr. Nathan Bryce enters the story.

Check back in a few days for more.

 

 

Bowie Sighting: Ali Smith’s Winter

Ali Smith’s Winter (2018), the second of a quartet (Autumn appeared last fall) is about Christmases past and present, hearth and earth, the regenerative powers of winter, and the complexities of family life. It is also a very punningly funny and political Brexit novel. Image result for winter ali smith

The references to Bowie work thematically — and continue the subtle tributes that I keep finding accidentally.

It’s 2003, and at the reception following his grandfather’s funeral, 17-year-old Art is approached by a woman living out loud, one so different from his mother, but who claims to be his Aunt Iris (Ire). He doesn’t remember her, although she promises they spent a quarter of his life together. She is trying to get to know the young man he is now:

“Tell me something real, try again. . . .
So, Arthur, she says, in a voice pretending to be a boring relative’s voice. How’s school…which university will you try for… what will you call the three children you’ll have,” ad nausuem. (170)

To which Arthur replies,

“Right now I am spending an inordinate amount of time listening to this, he says.
He gets his ipod out of his pocket.
What is it? she says. A transistor radio?
A what? he says.
He unwinds the earphones and plugs them in. He switches it on. He scrolls through til he finds track two of Hunky Dory. He hands her the headphones.” (170-171)

A few pages later, Art, who once again has been shut down by his mother Sophia, thinks of his aunt’s reaction:

“I used to play this, she shouted…
She started singing the lines about the nightmares coming and the crack in the sky.”(174)

“Oh you Pretty Things/Don’t you know you’re driving your/Mamas and Papas insane.” That would be Iris in the 1970s,  a founding member of the Greenham Common protest, with her arrests at anti-nuclear demonstrations. But at the end of her father’s life, it is she who took charge of young Art when his mother dumped him at his grandfather’s.

Art was a passive child, outwardly simply an inconvenience to his mother, but he made her feel “physically terrible, bombarded by transference aches, every time she is anywhere near him and his sensitivity” (243). 

Christmastime 2016, and the craziness has flipped, as it will when parents become more like themselves each day, and the squabbling of his aunt and mother are driving Art insane.

“All the strangers came today/And it looks as though they’re here to stay.”

Lux is a complete stranger who Art has hired to pretend to be his girlfriend for the holidays. Born in Canada, a  child of Croatian refugees, she cannot bear the sorrow of their lives. She is brilliant and luminous. She reads everything. Aunt Iris will return to Greece to help refugees after Christmas; Sophia complains of the people “coming here because they want our lives” (206).

Lux declares Art’s family reminds him of the one in Cymbeline, and it was thinking if a country could produce a writer like Shakespeare, then that is where she wants to be. So she came to England, but her money ran out before she finished her degree. The most beautiful thing she has ever seen was on a school trip to the Fisher Museum in Toronto: The ghostly imprint of a rosebud once placed between two pages of Cymbeline.

Other Bowie Bits

Two of Bowie’s heroes, Charlie Chaplin and Elvis Presley, are mentioned in a single paragraph describing the Christmas night when Sophia first met Art’s father. It is December 25, 1977, the day Chaplin died. Sophie mentioned that this year’s Christmas marathon has been of Elvis movies (he died in August of 1977).

Sitting in a Tin Can

As a child Sophia was stricken by the fate of Laika, the dog sent into orbit by the Russians. Her father forty years later calls her to report that Laika “didn’t have to circle the earth in that tin can for a whole week before it died. No. Lucky for that dog, it died only a few hours after they blasted it into space” (244).

But businesswoman Sophia is now just too busy with a “worldwide strategy video conference call” (243) to listen to her old man go on about a dog.

 

 

Continue reading “Bowie Sighting: Ali Smith’s Winter”

Bowie Sighting: Peter Robinson’s Sleeping in the Ground, An Inspector Banks Novel

If you read Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series, you know that Banks has eclectic tastes in music and huge libraries of vinyl and electronic recordings for his home, car, and personal player. Some fans have assembled playlists to accompany a few of the 24 books that comprise this series of police procedurals.

In Robinson’s latest Banks mystery, Sleeping in the Ground [2017], the opening chapter describes the murders which his investigation will solve. Each book in the series also adds to our knowledge of the character of Alan Banks.

This time we find Banks leaving the crematorium after the funeral of his first serious girlfriend, claimed by cancer. It has been many years since the two had been in touch, — and of their summer of love in college back in 1972. But the song that his lost love chose for the consignment of her body to the flames, “Starman,” is unsurprising to Banks, and he plays it repeatedly as the train takes him home to the Yorkshire dales.

Throughout the book he reflects on their romance; he remembers their shared joy at seeing David Bowie playing as Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Finally, after the case has concluded and several members of his team return to his cottage, a somber Alan Banks slips away to his back porch, where one of his youngest detectives finds him listening to something that sounds a little bit like the Bowie albums her father once listened to.

Banks tells her she’s right. It is Bowie.  He’s listening to Blackstar. Perhaps, he says, he’ll play it for her some day.

It’s a small tribute, but a tender one.

 

Playing Favorites: Bowie & Anthony Powell

This second “Plying Favorites” is just that – play, possibly of entertainment to no one but myself, a variation of Six Degrees of Separation.

Anthony Powell is the author of a novel in twelve volumes, A Dance to the Music of Time, which I believe is primarily about how our minds make narratives of our lives, but is more generally spoken of as being about British society from 1920s to  early 1970s. It’s far better known in the UK than the US.

I had to laugh when I reached page 215 of Hilary Spurling’s biography Anthony Powell when she describes Powell’s last attempt to write for Warner Brother’s Teddington Film Studios:

The last treatment he worked on –‘ like the final labour imposed by an enchanter into whose power one has fallen through imprudent search for hidden treasure — was a biopic about the nineteenth-century philanthropist Dr. Thomas Barnardo, who founded a chain of homes for destitute and abandoned children. 

David Bowie’s father, Haywood Stenton Jones,* worked as a publicist for St. Barnardo’s for 35 years, after failing to succeed as an entrepreneur  in theatrical production. Remote and meaningless, but amusing, nonetheless.

There is another “six degrees” path, this time through Mustique. A number of  members of the Tennant family are mentioned in Spurling’s biography. Anthony and Lady Violet Powell were friends of the 2nd Baron Glenconner, father to Colin Tennant, the 3rd Baron, who bought the island of Mustique in the Caribbean, which became a retreat for stars and royalty and the site of heavy partying in the 1980s. This is where Bowie once had his Balinese styled house, Mandalay.

I had wondered if Spurling would link Anthony Powell to Stephen Tennant, but she does not. He certainly knew of Stephen**, and Spurling suggests it was through their friendship with Christopher Tennant, 2nd Baron Glenconner and his wife that V.S. Naipaul came to Christopher’s uncle Stephen’s Wiltshire estate.

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*Intriguing family history on Time Detectives’ blog, but lacks citations. The first paternal ancestor of Bowie’s to learn to read and write,  his great-grandfather, was born in 1851, the son of a farm worker.

**Powell is cited in Philip Hoare’s Serious Pleasures as saying Edith Sitwell referred to Stephen Tennant and Siegfired Sasson as “The Old Earl and Little Lord Fauntleroy” (132).

 

 

 

Playing Favorites: Bowie-Yentob-Pullman

Other than being two of my favorites, David Bowie and novelist Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust) have nothing much in common beyond having been born in post-war England within a few months of each other (1/47; 10/46). That, and having interesting minds and reading widely.

Now I find that BBC One, which I cannot watch in the US, has aired a new documentary by Alan Yentob, Angels and Daemons featuring Philip Pullman. While he seems to have had a busy career in the UK these past 43 years, most of the Bowie community will, I expect, agree that Yentob’s supreme accomplishment is Cracked Actor, during which he accompanies Bowie at his most vulnerable during the Aladdin Sane tour. When he watched Cracked Actor, Nicolas Roeg knew that he had found his star for The Man Who Fell to Earth, in spite of Bowie’s meager film experience totaling a few minutes of screen time. The Bowie that Yentob captured seemed himself an alien visitor. 

Perhaps the best scene, one of the strangest in a strange filmscape, is Bowie singing along with Areatha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” remarking on a fly in his milk, and questioning the wisdom of placing a wax museum in the desert. Start at around 5:17 in this clip. If the limo and chauffeur look familiar, it is because Roeg used them in his film, too.

In 1997, on the occasion of Bowie’s 50th birthday, Yentob interviewed him again. He’s a good interviewer, asking interesting questions and not interrupting his subject. I hope that Angels and Daemons will find a way into the US market.

Pullman and Bowie share one other thing: a respect for children and young people struggling against the totalitarian drive for power of mind and soul crushing adults. In recent weeks, with the emergence of high school activists against automatic rifles, Bowie has been quoted a lot (“And these children that you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/Are immune to your consultations/They’re quite aware of what they’re going through).

Pullman’s child heroes are certainly “quite aware of what they’re going through.”

With Bowie, his support for children and young people isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But I have seen more than a few, some public figures, many not, say that the sheer existence of Bowie made it possible to get through their teens. As Bowie entered his 50s and onwards, he became a patron to young visual and musical artists. For his first return to the stage, and one of his last public performances following his heart attack in 2004, he was the youngest person on stage by roughly 30 years when he appeared with Arcade Fire. See “Wake Up,” always a pleasure to return to.

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