Monday, 11 January 2016

Heil and Farewell

“It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.” 
- Cervantes

This morning David Bowie died, of cancer, aged 69. As you can imagine, the airwaves and social media are full of emotion, from sadness to shock. I'm saddened too, though human mortality is not as much of a surprise to me as it clearly is to many people. Being born in 1975, I'm too young (not a phrase I'll be able to use much in future) to have experienced Bowie's work in its original context. I suspect my first exposure to him was either his role in Labyrinth or his duet with Mick Jagger, Let's Dance. I recall the former with some affection, the latter with none. Some years later I bought and liked Low and Heroes, enjoyed the film The Man Who Fell To Earth and liked scattered songs from his other work. I also read about his pioneering embrace of financial instruments when he sold off futures in his royalties in the form of Bowie Bonds. I loved, by the way, Philip Glass's reworking of Low and Heroes into symphonies.

So in musical terms I'm an interested bystander. Bowie wasn't ever important to me in the same way Joni Mitchell, Tindersticks, Gorky's or Ligeti were, but I'm an admirer. However, I'm also an academic, and one of the uncomfortable things academics do is remember everything and point them out. So this morning I recalled the dark side of Bowie, particularly this and similar statements he made. 

My direct source for this is Standpoint magazine (not one I like but it's not given to make things up) and the same interview is cited in conservative historian Dominic Sandbrook's Seasons in the Sun – the interview is with Cameron Crowe in (apparently) Playboy in September 1976, following up comments in a similar vein he made to the NME a year earlier. Here's the full interview

Occasionally I teach literature or art by people who held deeply unpleasant opinions: Eliot, Larkin, Eric Gill to name but three. I do think that we should be capable of appreciating the art separately to the attitudes. Bad people have made good art. Good people have made good art. Good people have made bad art and bad people have made bad art – and that's before we even get close to defining 'good' and 'bad' in artistic and moral terms. However, I don't think that the attitudes should be forgotten or overlooked. With Bowie, everyone from the Prime Minister to the Archbishop of Canterbury (perhaps Eton had a copy in the prefects'  Beatings Chamber) was quoted without reference to Bowie's mid-seventies stance. It's not as if nobody noticed at the time - newspaper articles were written when he turned up in London dressed in black, riding in a black vintage Mercedes drop head and 'waving' (as he later put it) in a suspiciously stiff-armed manner:

Bowie isn't the first celebrity to flirt with – or even plunge deep into fascism or racist politics. Nothing Bowie has said or done compares with Eric Clapton's speech from the stage in Birmingham (also in 1976, clearly a peak year for pop racism), while a few years ago the editor of GQ magazine was fired for printing something facetious about Nazi uniforms being stylish

So, this morning I posted the Bowie quote on Twitter. A lot of people didn't know he'd said it. Some were shocked. Some were angry that I'd posted it. Some contextualised it within the cultural and political conditions of the time and noted that a minority of artists have either employed fascist imagery to shock, or have dabbled in fascism more substantially (Lemmy, I recall, collected Nazi weaponry, uniforms and so on). Some made the point that the work and the attitudes should be separated. Many took the attitude that you shouldn't be held responsible for things you say when you're on drugs. 

Here's a taste: I've removed the authors' names because I don't believe in publicly shaming people: I'll deal with the arguments instead. The drugs ones first:

I don't think this argument washes. Lots of people take large amounts of drugs. Very few of them make substantial and internally coherent arguments in favour of fascism across the course of at least a year. Is cocaine a gateway drug to fascism, or is fascism the natural habitat of people who like cocaine? Secondly, I'm not entirely convinced by any argument that uses the copious intake of illegal substances as a defence. Bowie was not spiked. Nobody forced him to repeatedly take loads of mind-altering substances. Nor do I see anybody claiming that it was just the drugs which produced the great music – so if he gets the credit for the songs, he gets to take the blame for the Nazism. I tend to go along with the interlocutor who put it like this: 

Likewise, I hugely admired John Peel for many reasons but I don't think that 'it was legal in Texas' is sufficient justification for him marrying a 15-year old girl. 'Legal in Texas' is no defence of anything. 

A couple of people made very interesting comments about the role of celebrity in our lives: that they're such public property that the uncomfortable details are washed away. A kind of cognitive dissonance. I think this is understandable and probably true. It's an extension of the 'death of the author' argument. The celebrity-as-text is transformed by the reader's purposes and cultural context and made anew.

This also links to the tweet listed above in the 'drugs' section that promotes Bowie as a 'provocateur'. I can see the argument – nobody more than Bowie operated on the basis that his entire visible existence was a performance of some sort, and perhaps his utterances should be understood in this way.

However, I do have a problem with this. If Bowie's point is that dressing in a Nazi-esque fashion, appropriating Nazi salutes and calling for an extreme right-wing dictatorship is simply a performance, it requires us to put aside the specifics of Nazism and fascism. Concentrating on the style or the attitudes demands that we put aside the mass extermination of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, the intellectually-impaired, trades unionists and other ethnic, religious and political groups. It asks us to put aside the occupations and slaughter, the ghettos and the gas chambers. Bowie didn't just make provocative statements, including some about Hitler: he moved to Berlin which as well as having a vibrant artistic scene, was a divided, occupied city whose government, judiciary and media spheres still harboured lots of former high-ranking Nazis hurriedly rehabilitated as the Cold War took hold, while the general population consisted of many former Nazis and their victims. Call me old-fashioned, but I'd think twice about turning up in Cambodia wearing a Pol Pot t-shirt and explaining that he had style, or that I was just being 'provocative'.

 I enjoyed the robust exchange of ideas that Twitter enabled this morning. People gave me context and supplementary information. They provided context and new ways to approach the facts – some calmly, some passionately. Excellent – this is what it's for. The only really sour note was this one:

The sender blocked me. Again, normal practice on Twitter, and I'm big enough and old enough to be able to take it. What really rankles is that this was an academic. Rather than discussing the substance, like academics do as the core of our existence, she decided that intemperance and blocking was the way to deal with uncomfortable facts. A shame: I like following people with whom I disagree.

The header to this post includes a Tweet about letting the dust settle – a dry, amused and amusing point which deserves serious thought. When is the right time to introduce inconvenient elements? Should the Bowie fans be left to fill social media with uncritical assessments for a few days while their grief is fresh? (As an aside: thank heavens Twitter didn't exist in 1997. I'd have been lynched for my opinions on Diana). I think it's a judgement call. Everybody's talking about Bowie so I felt the time was right to introduce other aspects to the conversation. That may be insensitive but I don't think it's 'vile'. Perhaps we need a more grown-up culture in which we don't idolise those we admire, nor pillory those who err in our eyes. 


Benjamin Judge said...

Hello Vole,

So, all lives should be the subject of public, and immediate, debate at the moment of death? Fine. That's fine. But is there not a whiff here of your looking for (or perhaps, more accurately, jumping upon) an opportunity to quote your little nugget of Bowie history?

Fine, so he said something unbelievably stupid while he was coked off his face (and I think you are massively underestimating, purposely or not, the affect of long term drug abuse on people's thinking) but is this really the time to bring it up? Could it wait, I don't know, a week? A few days?

Because this isn't really like Diana is it? This isn't just about celebrity.

Bowie was not only massively influential as a musician (the concept of Gorkis existing without Bowie is laughable - and the same is true for a good three quarters of your record collection) but also enormously important in the changes in post-war Britain. It is easy to forget that his first few albums came out just a few years after the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 legalised (bits of) homosexuality. Bowie was not only this huge, weird, make-up wearing, androgynous, pansexual thing he was also hugely popular. He, and what he was, had to be acknowledged. His very existence forced opinions to change. Yes, I'm sure you can reel off people who were flamboyant and different first but you can't deny his place in the evolution of British life. For countless people he, or the people he inspired, gave people on the outside of the 'norms' of society a focus and a voice. Could we not have a day or two to process that, to celebrate that, before we stamp on him?

Because, as I said there is a time and a place. Fine, pull the legend apart based on an old interview, but give it a week, yeah. Listen to today's Lauren Laverne show to hear stories of how he affected people's lives, then wait a week, then say what you want. Because at the moment your post feels a tad like clickbait.

Right, I'm off to listen to some more Bowie.

Your very good friend,

Jake said...

I haven't read the full interview yet, but that pull-quote sounds more like a not-unreasonable frustration at the tendency of many contemporary liberals to take their laudable devotion to inclusiveness and compromise to the point where they become paralysed by indecision, and the suggestion that a dose of clear and present danger might force everyone to stop dithering and get things done. I've sat through enough Occupy meetings that I can't help feeling some sympathy.

And in any case, I do happen to think it's a little tactless to bring these things up in the public domain when there's not even been time to bury the man. For all you know you might number one of his kids among your Twitter followers or readers of your blog.

Boris Borcic said...

Is it to historians not a given that of the past only partial records ever happen? The simplest in practice is not to overly care how arbitrary the actual partial record considered happens to be relative to the (impossible) complete record, Because that's in practice the simplest attitude, it's natural that the past leaves us with it as a tradition, but it also implies that appropriate theoretical foundations can't be assumed for this inherited attitude that you seem to illustrate. I read Genesis 2:17 as intended for who wants to share mind with remote generations. You'll fail to understand or be understood if you assume your contemporary moral standards across, that's what it tells. What disturbs me in your blog post, is precisely that it drops things after forcing an issue of contemporary moral standards with Bowie 1976, but without raising a finger to reconcile perspective.

You write: I do have a problem with this (...) it requires us to put aside the specifics of Nazism and fascism

Clapton was born like a dozen weeks before the defeat of the Nazis, and Bowie less than a hundred weeks after it. They were both thirty-ish in 1976. Cold War was raging. What was the age distribution of their natural fan base cohort? This was the generation born and grown in the (moral) atmosphere just after the fall of the Nazis, and rebelling against that atmosphere after some 30 years. Therefore, the specifics of relevance are not those of the Nazis, but those of the intervening period since the Nazis, and first of all, its age at the time.

Lara Pawson said...

What a fascinating post. Thanks very much. Depressing. It will make me re-think Bowie & reflect on his work, much of which I like a lot.

And thanks for the Glass in this. Not heard it before. It's wonderful.

Keep up the good and important work.

D. Ghirlandaio said...

Christ what a bunch of idiots.
If you're going to write about pop music you should at least know the lyrics.

Bowie, Quicksand

I'm closer to the Golden Dawn
Immersed in Crowley's uniform
Of imagery
I'm living in a silent film
Himmler's sacred realm
Of dream reality
I'm frightened by the total goal
Drawing to the ragged hole
And I ain't got the power anymore
No I ain't got the power anymore

I'm the twisted name
on Garbo's eyes
Living proof of
Churchill's lies
I'm destiny
I'm torn between the light and dark
Where others see their targets
Divine symmetry
Should I kiss the viper's fang
Or herald loud
the death of Man
I'm sinking in the quicksand
of my thought
And I ain't got the power anymore

The point of the demimonde is freedom from bourgeois hypocrisy, following extremism in all its forms, to the point of self-destruction.
If you're interested in the art as art, then you have to come to terms with the fact that Bowie after 1980 will be forgotten. But if you want to study the culture of the mid-century UK, Europe and the Anglosphere, The Bowie of the 70s will be remembered. The same goes for Glass, for related reasons. His best early work is icy, minimalist in every way. Soppy romance reduces it to kitsch.

D. Ghirlandaio said...

“[In Berlin] I was in a situation where I was meeting young people of my age whose fathers had actually been SS men, That was a good way to be woken up out of that particular dilemma… yeah, I came crashing down to earth when I got back to Europe.”

Kat said...

Makes me realise how glad I am that the many, very many, seriously stupid things I have said and done over the years were not being written down, photographed or otherwise recorded. Or, at least, where they have been I have subsequently destroyed all evidence.

Is 69 the new 27?

D. Ghirlandaio said...
The UK in the 70s
"Rich and poor existed alike inside a great framework of British institutions. It was the lower-middle-class who went from their schools to keep shops or manage small businesses; who did not participate, for the most part, in the institutions you’re describing; who therefore saw the state not as the guarantor of the framework in which they lived, but as a constant demander of taxes and producer of paperwork; and whose resentment ultimately produced Margaret Thatcher."

"I'm the twisted name on Garbo's eyes
Living proof of Churchill's lies, I'm destiny"

The Jam
"What kind of a fool do you think I am?
You think I know nothing of the modern world

...Even at school I felt quite sure
That one day I would be on top
And I'd look down upon the map"

The Pistols
"God save the Queen
She ain't no human being
There is no future
And England's dreaming

...Don't be told what you want
Don't be told what you need

...Oh God save history
God save your mad parade"

It's the beginning of Thatcherism and New Labor

And here's the interview that gets him into trouble.

He's an asshole. He's hilarious. I'm embarrassed I was ever botherd.
The last bit

PLAYBOY: Last question. Do you believe and stand by everything you’ve said?
BOWIE: Everything but the inflammatory remarks.

I miss the man who gave up and sold out 30 years ago.

Unknown said...

Damn. Two years too late. However, yeah, his ludicrous support for fascism should be absolutely ripped apart and thankfully was – by himself, too. Whether this idiocy was self-induced drug madness, desire to be controversial, or both, any step to forgiveness would have to be taken by way of apology, and by taking a clear ideological stance for democracy, tolerance and inclusion, and against fascism. I'd say he gave it a good shot in the decades that followed after coming to his senses in Berlin.

But please, don't do the "he did a Sieg Heil at Victoria, dressed in black". The Sun did the same piece just days after you, which ought to be a red alert, stating that he dressed like a blackshirt.

Anyone can end up looking like they're heiling in a still frame. Or like they're wearing black in a black and white picture. But here he is, waving away, dressed in blue. The Victoria thing really is dead and buried. At least.