Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar: Frock Coats and the End of Empire


Bowie on Outside in 1995 interview with Larry Katz: 

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.]”

In the second half of Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar, Hoare visits the Royal Museums Greenwich for a personal viewing of Admiral Nelson’s undress coat worn when he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar.

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 reminds me 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 in The 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.

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Sailor’s Journals Indexed, Part 7: Performances. And a Caveat.

Sailor’s Journals may seem voluminous from this series of posts. It is not. If you read it straight through it might take 3 hours. So say 6 to write. Six hours of journaling in the 69 years of such a complex man as Bowie simply is not much at all. Like a single cell in the body, perhaps.

Continue reading “Sailor’s Journals Indexed, Part 7: Performances. And a Caveat.”

Liminal Lazaruses 2: Loving the Alien

“Love the alien as you love yourself; for you were once aliens in the Land of Egypt… “(Leviticus 19:34)

“Thinking of a different time
Palestine a modern problem
Bounty and your wealth in land
Terror in a best laid plan. . . ” (Bowie, “Loving the Alien”)

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Emma Lazarus:“The New Colossus”)

In his introduction to Lazarus: A Musical: The Complete Book and Lyrics, co-author Enda Walsh recalls that  Bowie’s first sketch of the musical included

“a character of a woman who thought she might be Emma Lazarus (the American poet whose poem “The New Colossus” is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty) — a woman who would . . . help and fall in love with . . . Thomas Newton.” (p. viii)

Emma didn’t make the cut (and yes, I’ve read Michael Cunningham’s fantasy, “Stage Oddity” — I’ll get to that later), but “The New Colossus” appears in The Complete Book and Lyrics after the end of the play and a blank page.*

Is it the name, Lazarus, that links Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” and the musical? Or the theme of emigration, the departure from home to a new land, from which there is little likelihood of return?

I think we can dismiss the name “Lazarus” as nothing more than serendipity.

Being a stranger in a strange land, not so easily.** As Walsh puts it, Thomas Jerome Newton is “the most travelled of immigrants,” that is, an alien (p. viii).

Bowie’s 1985 “Loving the Alien” is not about a man who fell to Earth but instead the seemingly endless back-and-forth battles of “the Templars and the Saracens/They’re travelling the holy land.” The 1985 video has a mid-80s dancing Bowie; the arrangement is curiously bouncy for a song with fairly grim lyrics.

Why the Templars and the Saraceans? Simply through reading widely, Bowie would have come across the Templars, and later when he progressed to Gnosticism, once again, there is a Templar connection. Using “Saracean” is just obscure enough to make the song not about a particular clash in the Middle East.

Primarily, I think too he wanted to play with the word and idea of alien. He’d had 10 years of being an unhuman alien, and now he’s reminding us that not all aliens are starmen.

In 1990, Bowie met Iman,  a Somalian immigrant to the US, and the couple joined the millions of other immigrants who have passed through or settled in New York City. In the early 2000s, Bowie asked guitarist Gerry Leonard to rearrange “Loving the Alien,” and on the Reality Tour, the song is slow, deliberate, somber.

Emma Lazarus, a Jew, was not one of the “huddled masses” of the mid-1800s who arrived in America fleeing the Russian pogroms or genocide of Jews; in fact, her forebearers had been in the US for several generations.

But as a Jew, a people without a homeland, she was also an alien, and was one of the earliest advocates for establishing a Jewish nation — a Zionist before the term had been coined. She too was a liminal Lazarus, suspended between the physical homeland of her birth and the spiritual but as yet unreal homeland of her faith.

 

*I haven’t found out (and would appreciate a definitive answer) if the poem is included in the program or read after the curtain falls on the play. If it didn’t, and the play is staged again, I believe that will change.

** Exodus 2:22. The main character of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is a human raised by Martians for his first 25 years, the sole survivor of a mission to Mars. When an Earth-based expedition discovers him, he is forced to return to Earth, but doesn’t know how to be human. The character’s name: Valentine Michael Smith (there’s both a Valentine and Michael in  Lazarus, for what it’s worth.

Photos are from the National Park Service.lazarus-portraitchains-2

 

Ziggy in the UK and US: What Americans Missed

At times I’ve found the emphasis on the Ziggy years to be puzzling. Pick up any of the biographies or most of the obituaries, and you’ll see what I mean: the 1970s are covered at much greater length than the whole of 1980 to 2016 (36 years!), and even within these pages, Ziggy gets a disproportionate amount of attention.

There are good reasons for this: the theatricality and myth-making are two. And the risk Bowie took. Had he not been able to pull it off, a silly Ziggy Stardust would’ve been hard to overcome.

I don’t know how to substantiate my next claim, but I’d guess that the strongest feelings for Ziggy (not to be confused with Bowie) are held by English fans born in 1955 or earlier, and that this is largely a matter of geography.

The first concerts for Ziggy and the Spiders were in small venues, taverns and pubs. Then they graduated to university halls, and finally to civic centers and theaters.

From January 29 to September 7, 1972, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars performed 55 times in England and once in Wales. I imagine it would have taken at least two concerts for fans to take in what they were seeing, and then if you were in these early, small audiences, you’d be back as often as you could manage, and you would start to notice those that were doing the same.

From an audience, a congregation would emerge.

Membership in the church of man, love. You didn’t need faith you weren’t alone in your weirdness; you had evidence, and no matter how miserable your work or school week was, there would be another chance to be back with your people.

Or so it could have been in England.

But not in America.

Why? The whole of England is roughly 400 miles at its longest and 300 at its widest, and it has a functional rail system.

Whether by car or rail, it would have been possible to attend dozens of performances. The longest legs, like  Manchester  to Plymouth (300 miles) or Sunderland to Torquay (380) could be done in a day (and a night) round trip. Most distances were less than 250 miles. Even Aberystwyth, Wales is only 210 miles from London.

Ziggy Stardust played half as many shows — 26 — in the US in 1972. And in so doing, the entourage covered over 15,000 miles by bus, car, or train. (Bowie refused to fly for a few years).* Whoever planned this itinerary had never opened an atlas, had no experience of a road trip from hell, and wasn’t footing the bill.

One stretch of the tour was 1632 miles (Kansas City to Santa Monica); another, Seattle to Phoenix, was 1440, not counting the 800 it took to get from San Francisco to Seattle to play for an audience of 400.**

I’m guessing that other than journalists, very, very few people in the US saw Ziggy Stardust more than once in 1972***. Only those who had a lot of time and a fair amount of money could do what wouldn’t have been a big deal for those in the UK.

No church of man, love in the US, in other words.

Ultimately I suppose it mattered little. The congregants who formed the hard-core fan base in the UK probably numbered only in the thousands.

But wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have been one of these?

What Bowie’s manager Tony Defries did right in the US was to get the journalists and celebs on the East and West Coasts excited about Bowie. Those shows, and perhaps for good will, Cleveland’s would have sufficed. The fan experience wouldn’t have been so different that it would justify the strain on Bowie.****

Whenever I hear people knock down Bowie for his 1980s money-making shows, I think about those 15,000 miles. Supporting an entourage of 42 or so people didn’t fall on the folks who engineered this zigzagging mess, but on Bowie, who ended up having made very little money for the physical and psychological investment demanded by the Defries machine. Once out of this servitude to Defries, he decided to take care of his (and his son’s) financial security.

And then he was able to do what he enjoyed.

——–

*Look at some of these distances: Cleveland to Memphis: 730 miles; back up to NYC 1100; down to Boston: 216; west to Chicago 990; up to Detroit 280; down to St. Louis, 530; then to Kansas City, 280; out to Santa Monica: 1632; up to San Francisco, 380, and then to Seattle, 800*; down to Phoenix, 1414; east to New Orleans: 1550; south to Ft. Lauderdale (Dania), Florida 875, and so on.
**Another site not worth the effort it took to get there: Pirate’s World in Dania, FL. Dania is a small Southern town, when you get right down to it, north of Ft. Lauderdale, or about an hour and a half from Miami.  Pirate’s World was an amusement park, so bands were competing with screams from roller coasters, etc. I looked for audience size for this concert, and on two sites, Bowie’s appearance isn’t even listed. These folks came out for Grand Funk Railroad, Iron Butterfly, Alice Cooper. And for this, Bowie traveled 1775 miles from New Orleans to Dania (875 miles) and then back up to Nashville (900 miles).
And why go to Nashville in the first place? It’s the epicenter for country music. And it is in the Bible Belt of the Deep South.
***The few who did, if there were any, probably lived in or near Cleveland, Ohio (3 shows), Santa Monica, San Francisco, or Philadelphia (2 each). Only the Cleveland shows weren’t all on consecutive nights (one at the start of the tour, two toward the end).
****Cleveland, Ohio, had disc jockeys who in 1972 took a break from “Horse with No Name” and “Song Sung Blue” to play a bit of Bowie; they were ready for Ziggy’s landing. And Cleveland is on the way from NYC to California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wake Up to The Next Day

I think one of the bravest things Bowie did in the last seven years was to perform “Wake Up” with Arcade Fire on September 8, 2005, during the televised “Fashion Rocks” awards show not 15 months after his heart attack.

It’s not that Bowie is more than 33 years older than Arcade Fire’s lead singer and founder, Win Butler, who, even though David is in two-inch or so heels, towers over his guest.

It’s that Bowie did not look like Bowie that night. He didn’t look well. I don’t think Bowie cares as much about his appearance as we do. But the Bowie who sang that night looked fleshy — and Bowie isn’t a fleshy guy. Maybe he had put on weight, but is someone with his bone structure likely to add the pounds to his face and neck? He was puffy, perhaps as a side effect of multiple heart medications.

So it is chilling when Bowie takes the lead at 4:10 into “Wake Up” — an incredible song in which the seriousness of its lyrics is matched only by the sheer joy and lust for life of its music — and sings these lines:

“With my lightnin’ bolts a glowin’
I can see where I am goin’ to be
when the reaper he reaches and touches my hand.”

(And if you don’t know the lyrics, it is very easy to mishear that first line as “When my life is over…”.)

Back to July 2004

One of the most widely quoted remarks Bowie made following his heart surgery was,

“I tell you what, though, I won’t be writing a song about this one.”

My thought was, then you won’t be writing much at all. We all wish otherwise, I expect, but there are some experiences that cannot be denied. And keeping silent about them means keeping silent. Period.

Today and The Next Day and the next

We had the title before we heard the song and some time to consider the difference between “tomorrow” and “the next day.” Tomorrow, we know, never comes. When it arrives, it is today. But the next day and the next day — that’s different, somehow.

“Here I am
Not quite dying
My body left to rot in a hollow tree
Its branches throwing shadows
On the gallows for me
And the next day
And the next
And another day”

Is this about Bowie’s mortality? No and yes and no and yes. “Here I am/Not quite dying” — a great let’s-get-this-clear-from-the-start line.

It needed saying. And brilliantly Bowie delivers the news with great high energy in The Next Day’s title cut, a vibrantly vital upbeat melody with lyrics bleaker than “Wake Up’s.”

The not-quite-dead guy continues, “My body left to rot in a hollow tree.” That’s not Bowie: maybe it’s one of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or Merlin who once was imprisoned in a hollow tree.

Is the tree the Old Norse Yggdrasill, the Tree of the World, which takes its name from “Odin’s horse”, meaning “gallows,” and where Odin, the wise old wanderer, god of wisdom and poetry, and master of the magical use of sound, sacrificed himself to himself ?

There are other mentions of death on The Next Day, and by the time you reach the eleventh track, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” you aren’t worried about Bowie any longer, just wondering why he gave such a lackluster title to an interesting song and if there is a link between she who unseen moves “through the dark/Leaving slips of paper /Somewhere in the park” and he who “fashions paper sculptures. . . /Then drags them to the river‘s bank in the cart” (“The Next Day”).

Lambeth to Brixton, or Poetry and Painting, Sound and Vision, William Blake, and The Institute of Imagination

David Robert Jones was born within walking distance of the house where William Blake (1757-1827) did much of his greatest work.

London seems a remarkably small town in some ways: so much has happened there in so little space over so many hundreds of years’ time. South of the Thames River, at Hercules Road, London SE1, between 1791 and 1800, William Blake created the Songs of Experience, Europe and America (among other prophetic books), and Newton and Nebuchadnezzar.

The man who would be David Bowie was born about three miles down the road at 40 Stansfield Road, Brixton, London, SW9 9RZ on January 8, 1947.

At age 10, in 1767, Blake started  Mr Pars’ drawing school in the Strand and then in 1772 became an apprentice engraver to  James Basire of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. At age 11, David Jones went to Bromley Tech to study art, leaving five years later to start work at Hirst Advertising, 98 New Bond Street, London, not far from Lincoln Fields.

There the similarities end.

Blake scrambled for enough cash to maintain himself and wife and buy what he needed for his engravings and paintings,  unknown and unappreciated. But likely he came close to satisfying himself, creating his own system of belief, was never “enslav’d by another Man’s,” and preserved his visions in ways which honor both language and image, joining the sound of poetry and the meaning of its words and the sensuality and immediacy of his visual art.

Jones became Bowie and achieved fame and riches. I don’t mean to suggest that he is not a man who has achieved great things. But I think he never got to where he wanted to go. I think he wanted very much to join sound and vision, but it didn’t happen. He could imagine it, using elements of Kabuki or mime, costuming, and so on to add visual interest to the music, but one problem, of course, is that performance is fleeting. My choice, based solely on youtube snippets, of the most visually interesting tour is Sound and Vision. Even on my monitor, the interaction of the giantess Louise Lecavalier and Bowie is impressive.

For recordings, Outside came closest, perhaps, but appeared after the transition from 12″ by 12″ LP format with heavy cardboard opening out to a 24″ by 12″ canvas and capable, even unboxed, of including glossy 8″ x 10″ photographs and a 24″ by 36″ poster (I’m thinking of the Beatles’ White Album) to the shoddy little 5.5″ square CD case with the flimsy little booklets of thin paper. The artwork of Outside is essentially ruined by being so shrunk that even a magnifying glass doesn’t help with the lyrics.

Bowie’s Blakean Mind

Bowie thought in Blakean mode — Blakean in the synathesia sense (like one who hears or smells colors). In 1978, Bowie told Melody Maker‘s Michael Watts about his  “peculiar system of notation for the musicians”:

“I draw the music, the shape that it should look like. I have to draw the feeling because I can’t explain it. The musicians who have worked with me have now learned the language.”

Twenty years later he told The New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman:

“I’d find that if I had some creative obstacle in the music that I was working on, I would often revert to drawing it out or painting it out. Somehow the act of trying to recreate the structure of the music in paint or in drawing would produce a breakthrough. . . .I’ll combine sounds that are kind of unusual, and then I’m not quite sure where the text should fall in the music, or I’m not sure what the sound conjures up for me. So then I’ll go and try and draw or paint the sound of the music. And often a landscape will produce itself.  . . . . Suddenly I’ll realize where things go in the music.”

So there we are. Except for one odd little connection.

The Institute of Imagination, Blake House, London

If you search “David Bowie” + “William Blake,” you are going to find an annoying number of hits for Bowie’s description of artist Tracy Emin as “William Blake as a woman, written by Mike Leigh.” Keep going though and you’ll find a most peculiar invitation to join the Institute of the Imagination [IΟI]. Membership is limited to 100 people. The cost is £1ooo to join and then another £1000 each year for dues. Three patrons are listed: Bowie, Prof. Chris Orr RA, and Sir Stephen Tumim.

Tumim was a judge who campaigned vigorously for prison reform. He also oversaw the Arthur Koestler award for prisoners’ art, which he collected. The judge died in 2003.

Chris Orr is a visual artist who attended Ravensbourne College of Design, once the not so grandly named Bromley Technical College, Bowie’s old school. Of his work, Orr says,

“The basic physical nature of the print processes… allows one full control of the output. From the conception of an idea and the making of plates to their refinement through proofing and the printing of the edition, I was fully in control…I identified strongly with William Blake: being married to Catherine, having the press in the house, publishing and distributing the results. My homage to Blake also takes in his capacity as an inventor. In pursuit of my own poetic vision I have discovered, or re-discovered, printing processes such as counter-proofing and relief printing that can serve to liberate creativity.”

The closest connection with Blake is via the IΟI’s founder and director, Tim Heath, who studied math, practiced law, and is now a writer and designer. Heath is also Chairman of the Blake Society and owns the only building still standing where Blake once lived, Blake House, 17 South Molton Street, London — which also happens to be the headquarters for IΟI.

He is still active. In 1997 he was awarded a grant “to create the definitive Blake Website on the Internet.” I think the University of Georgia’s Blake Digital TextProject wins that prize. More recently, in 2009, Heath was involved with “Songs of Imagination & Digitisation, an illuminated book for the digital age,” a project of if:book or The Future of the Book national charity in the UK (you may also check out “magical musical graphical digital fiction”).

As for surviving Patrons Bowie’s amd Orr’s support of  Director Heath’s IΟI, or for that matter the existential status of the IΟI, I haven’t a clue or £2000 to find out. But maybe I’ll send in a membership application, accompanied by an imaginary £2000, just for fun.

You know what else is amusing: Philip Pullman, one of my favorites, is the president of the Blake Society, which sometimes meets in the same digs as does (or did) Bowie’s IΟI. How tidy life sometimes seems.