David Bowie – Lazarus (2016)
It has been difficult to listen to anything besides David Bowie this week. All the charts are showing it: Upon news of Bowie’s death, the whole world seemed to put on Hunky Dory or Diamond Dogs or Station to Station or Ziggy Stardust or Low or Let’s Dance or Blackstar or on and on and on; fans raided their basements for vinyl, brushed off old CDs, downloaded and streamed and danced on living-room carpets. Children were indoctrinated. Lightning bolts got painted onto faces. Tens of millions of acts of grief, and every song seemed to lead to another. It has been the most ravishing mourning I have ever encountered – a memorial that won’t stand still or stop, that won’t quit ch-ch-ch-changing. Learning about other people’s favourite Bowie songs is like a chain of rabbit holes – tumbling after a singer who is always just ahead of you, mischief in each mismatched eye. Each track is a reminder of the breadth and depth of Bowie’s work: 69 years, 25 albums, so many universes I have inadequately explored.
David Bowie and John Hutchinson – Life Is a Circus (1969)
The chorus of retrospectives has also underlined Bowie’s evolution as an artist. I found myself returning to this demo, which the singer and his early collaborator, John Hutchinson, taped for prospective record labels. The glamorous, audacious Starman is nowhere to be found; instead, Bowie and Hutchinson sound like bargain-bin Simon and Garfunkel, concentrating hard over an acoustic guitar. What’s more, the song is a cover: Bowie borrowed it from a prog-folk act called Djinn, whom he auditioned for and was allegedly rejected from.
If you’re a fan of close harmonies, the British folk revival, or amazing, wavering tape distortion, you will enjoy Life Is a Circus well enough. But for me the value is in remembering David Bowie as a mediocre, middlebrow 22-year-old. It can be intimidating to look back on Bowie’s career – both in general, as a human being, and in particular, as an artist. He accomplished so much, grew and learned, challenging and reinventing himself. He made so much magnificent art. This is inspiring and also paralyzing. Who among us is as chameleonic? Who among us feels as brave as Bowie seemed – mugging as Ziggy Stardust, facing death in Lazarus? Yet Life Is a Circus’s lesson is this: He didn’t start out that way. You can be one thing today and still another tomorrow.
Put on your red shoes.
Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.