I’m in a state of mourning, and for more than just the loss of a music icon (or two) this month. I’m stricken by the fact that there is no one to succeed David Bowie—and I’m downright rancorous over the reasons why.
For someone who experienced college in the mid-80s, it’s particularly wounding to realize that a major creative engine of the new-wave fueled era has ceased to exist. To us post-modern, mini-skirted, artsy new wave chicks whose hair was stiff with BOY LONDON gel, Bowie was God. The Internet has since become overrun with tribute slide shows that far outnumber commentary on his contribution—especially discussion of who might continue his legacy. It is apparently easier to gather clips of his ten best videos and costume changes and movie roles than it is to contemplate the environment left in his wake. The slide show parade itself is symptomatic of why no one is waiting to take up that mantle.
Why will there never be another David Bowie? Because the current entertainment industry would never tolerate him. It has become mind-numbingly easier and cheaper to depend on recycled and homogenized entertainment than to put up with the inconvenience of nurturing an actual artist.
Genuine talent is unmanageable. It does not adhere to a contract. It is sexually confused. It throws televisions out the window and says f@ck in public. It gets pissed off at its bandmates. It will not be judged by a panel of well-styled celebrities with buzzers in their hands for the public’s general amusement.
Right now, I imagine there are a hundred Millennial Bowies out there. Instead of being fabulous, at their boldest they are mimicking contrived Disney protégés at network-sponsored national cattle calls. More likely, they’re hiding their true preferences and creative impulses so they can keep their jobs, afford their apartments and justify their unwarranted degrees. They are settling for Instagram as an artistic outlet.
Don’t think another innovator of the Bowie variety just can’t happen. As freakishly brilliant as he was, and as devastating as his loss is to popular culture, talent of this magnitude is not an isolated occurrence. Case in point: John Lennon and Paul McCartney grew up in the same region of Liverpool. At the same time. If the world is ready to ingratiate itself to the next genius, he or she will emerge.
The deluge of online slide shows point to something deeply askew: Rather than expound on David Bowie’s legacy, resulting in fresh insights and unique prose, the more effortless route is to embed videos or repost a collection of existing images and call it a memoriam. Such is easily digestible, and the content is free.
YouTube has become the new vocabulary of our emotions. We are a civilization that communicates via a series of regurgitated flash cards instead of thoughtful narrative.
A watershed of top ten lists is a disservice to what any genuine artist stands for: The conception of material that never existed until, magically, it is brought into reality by the sleight of the artist’s hand. Art is born, not linked.
This is why a whole generation of hipsters have devoted themselves to retro culture, rejecting the artists and even the technologies of their own era and declaring themselves aficionados of material that was conceived and produced long before they were.
I’d like more opportunity to glorify those who originate as opposed to reconstitute. Priority needs to shift back to supporting the strange and unbearable and tortured, instead of the managed and choreographed and sanitized. Until that happens, we will never see another Bono and U2. We will never see another Sting and The Police, or David Byrne and the Talking Heads. We certainly will never see The Doors, The Stones or Led Zeppelin again. Ever.
To that dormant Bowie in the audience: Please recognize a glimmer of yourself here. Please stand up and put on a dress and dance. Write yourself out of the cultural stupor you’ve been born into. Masquerade in glitter eyeshadow and spandex and don’t care what the world thinks about it. Date men. Date women. Dye your hair. Do drugs. Shun the X-Factor auditions. Please, I beg of you—quit your day job, lay off the freaking Pinterest and spew out something amazing.
I recently watched “Love and Mercy,” the biopic on Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys, and last week took a look at “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch.
I am reminded how torturous it is to watch people who are inherently genius, yet are so deeply troubled that they have to suffer for it their whole lives. I am also reminded of a conclusion that I’ve held for years:
Maybe this is an intrinsic part of being brilliant.
Maybe you have to have a few things missing from your brain in order to have quite enough flexibility for all that cool stuff to happen as it does. Maybe authentic creativity requires a brain that does not function like a normal person’s. Creativity is in fact a side-effect of impairment.
Not to categorize myself as Miss Brilliant, but I’ve always had an affinity for the tortured artist type. I’ve felt my brain on occasion go to off-beat places because it had to, because of aberrant dyslexic flashes where I can’t put two and two together. The signals in my brain don’t make the jump from one synapse to another like a regular Joe’s. It skips over the traditional thought process and crafts a new way to interpret stimuli.
I’ve sometimes remarked that all my creative impulses may be one big, undiagnosed dyslexia symptom.
Scary thing is, my brain is so good at compensating that there have been times I have surreptitiously seen and heard and things that weren’t there. (Or sometimes didn’t see something that was there.) Usually I hear something musical, or narrative, where a story or a melody start running in my head.
There are scenes in Love and Mercy where Brian Wilson lies down and hears things… people talking, melodies and harmonies singing, sounds in the background. I’ve had instances of that. I’ve lain back, or dropped half-asleep, and heard songs playing or people speaking dialog that I’d never heard before. I hit a state where things start writing themselves, and I sit back and listen. It’s a weird and beautiful experience. It is magic. But sometimes it is spontaneous enough that it takes you by surprise and makes you wonder about your reality.
My husband insists I fabricate these kinds of things to position myself as special. It’s not true. I’ve walked through my life seeing certain things backwards or further away or closer than they are. Or sometimes I don’t see an object in front of me at all—it blanks-out and fades into the background. Yet my brain bridges the gap.
No one has ever really asked me, but this is my life:
Have you ever had that moment when you pick up a glass, and you think it’s full but you’re mistaken?
You lift it, and the glass goes flying and you spill water because your muscles were bracing for a different level of heaviness. You were fooled. Your brain misperceived it.
That’s my existence. I walk past a door jamb or a coffee table, and my brain tells me it is twelve inches from my body when it is actually only three inches away. I smack my shin on the table or bang my shoulder against the molding. I have dealt with unjustifiable bumps, bruises and scrapes my whole life. I am a grown woman who walks into things.
One day when my brother and I were in a band together, we were practicing in his room. He played the bass line to The Police’s “Roxanne.” I said, No, Jim, wait—you’re missing a couple of cool notes here, that’s not how it goes. Where are those two other notes?
“What two other notes?”
I mouthed the bass line. “You know, DAT DAT – dat dat… DAT DAT – dat dat… Loved you since I knew ya’…”
He said, No, what are you talking about? That’s not how it goes.
I said, oh please, I’ve listened to this song a thousand times.
I sang it again, and he argued. Finally he sat me down with my ear next to an enormous speaker and played the record. He turned up the bass on the equalizer. He said, “I want you to take a deep breath and listen.”
Wait, I said, where did those other bass notes go? I swear they’ve been there all this time.
He said, “YOU WROTE THEM.”
“You wrote them, Sue. You hear them in your head because you wrote them into the song.”
And then there was the day I sang in my high school talent show. A fellow theater student played piano behind me … and then he just stopped. I kept singing, because that’s what they teach you to do when something screws up on stage. You keep going. The piano kicked back in.
After the number I went to the accompanist and said, What happened?
He said, “What do you mean?”
“You stopped playing. In the middle of the song.”
He gave me the face. The expression people deliver when I inadvertently admit I’m not experiencing quite the same world as they are.
“I never stopped playing,” he said.
I asked another friend in the show, What did you hear? Did he stop playing?
There was the look again. The tilted head and squinty eyes. “Of course he didn’t stop playing,” she said. “He was fine.”
I thought to myself, Jesus, it’s me. My brain stops perceiving things sometimes. Yet I always push on.
Flash-forward to the few weeks I tried to learn piano. A friend in a band gifted me his cast-off Moog keyboard. I commandeered some rocker guy with long, carbon-black curls to give me keyboard lessons at Focus II Guitars in Babylon, NY. He made me practice scales, and sent me home with a few measures to learn.
Next lesson, I swung open my workbook and banged out the piece. It was a lovely bit of music.
Rocker guy scratched his head. “That was nice,” he said.
“What was it?” he said.
I pointed to the sheet music. “It was this.”
He tried not to do the face, because he otherwise kind of liked me. “No,” he said. “It was pretty and all. But that wasn’t the music I gave you.”
He stood behind the keyboard and played the measures as they were written.
A whole different piece. I had developed my own version.
I never did learn to play keyboard.
There was also a rehearsal for “Godspell,” the first show I ever did outside a school production. I was eighteen. The cast sat around a table so Eddie the director, who also played Jesus, could teach us the harmonies to “Prepare Ye.”
“Do you know how they go?” he asked.
“Oh, yeah.” I had in fact had been listening to the original Broadway soundtrack on vinyl since fourth grade.
He said, “Okay, Kerry, please sing the melody and Suzanne, you sing the harmony.” I sang it the way I’d been doing since I was 10 years-old.
“Cool,” Eddie said to me. “Where is that from?”
“What do you mean?”
“Who taught you that part? Is that from the movie soundtrack?”
I shrugged my shoulders. No one taught it to me. “I just thought it was pretty. Isn’t that what’s on the album?”
“No,” he said. “This is what’s on the album.” He and Kerry sang the harmony that was written for the show. Which completely diverged from what I’d been singing half my life.
He said, “Now you sing your part with us,” and I chimed in. It was gorgeous. Suddenly, we had three different parts going, one of which had never appeared in any other production.
Eddie said, “Sing it that way in the show, Suzanne.”
Recalling a little incident from a journal, one that I didn’t even remember until re-reading it…
I convinced my buddy Emma from Queens to come with me see China Crisis, one of my favorite bands from college. She and I had an unspoken pact: Whenever one of us wanted to do something and needed a friend to do it with, the other was automatically in. Emma owned a car—a great amenity in New York City—so if I wanted to get back and forth anyplace at night, she had to drive me. And when she needed to bring up the sophistication level of whatever party she planned to go to, in order to impress whatever guy she was trying to affect that week, I was obligated as a chick from Long Island to accompany her. It was subtly known throughout the boroughs that Long Island girls were classier than Queens girls (if a tad less exciting). We were mellow and smart and sensible. They were turbulent and street-savvy and bold.
Emma and I dutifully filled each other’s friendship needs and usually had a riotous time doing so. That is, if we did not get thrown out of whatever club we were in. Because as much as I classed-up any party she took me to, she amped-up the crazy/fun quotient at any place we went.
So, she agreed to see this bunch of obscure English guys play at The Ritz, one of the biggest new wave clubs in the city. By this point in my life, I was skilled at muscling my way to the front row at general admission concerts, despite being smaller than most of the rest of the crowd. I planted myself against the stage under the lead guitarist, who had rather fabulous European bone structure. He played there right above my head all night. I would not even let Emma herself elbow in front of me. When she tried, I took her by the shoulders and supplanted her so briskly that she fell on the floor, and I apologized.
Anyone else, Emma would have belted them with a beer bottle. Me, she let slide. I was the only one who got away with that stuff with her. I was the only one who even tried.
Before the end of the night the two of us swore we’d figure out a way to take the freaking band home (although we hadn’t decided which of us would say uncle and let the other have the lead guitarist). At this point in my life, I wanted to be a real groupie, but thus far the only musicians I ever went home with were the few I had already been dating before the show. Yet when you hung around with Emma , sometimes that kind of thing was possible. She was this exquisite little wild-woman who never said no to anything. Men worshipped her.
Also consider this was Manhattan, and the party wasn’t over until you had to get ready for work the next morning. When the band’s set ended at 12-ish, we were just getting started. Sometimes we didn’t even go out until that hour.
In an effort to secure the attention of the guitar player post-show, we waited a safe gawking distance from what was labeled a stage door, next to a table that several place cards designated as reserved for the band. A nebbishy, older guy in a black suit and glasses hit on Emma repeatedly, insisting he was the band’s photographer, despite the fact that he didn’t have a camera. He looked more like he had just come back from a prayer group than a new wave concert. She flirted back, even though she was way above his league.
“Emma,” I whispered sideways in her ear. “This guy’s a bullshit artist.”
She ignored me.
“Emma, I’m tellin’ you, he’s not with the band.”
She ignored me. The guy had to take off. He gave her his card.
The Ritz was gothic and cavernous; everything was awash in in black paint. She held the card up to what little light was available.
“Jeweler,” she read. “He said he’s a fucking rock photographer, and his card says Jeweler.”
“Told ya’.” One point for the Cynical Long Island Bitch.
A thin guy with blondish, mussed hair emerged from the door marked stage. Emma pointed at him. “That’s one of the guitar players,” she said. She yelled to him. “Hey you! Come ‘ere!”
He came over. Guys listened to Emma.
She asked if he was in the band.
“Yes, I play the bass,” he says, in one of those early-Python-esque British accents that’s such a rapid and choppy cascade of syllables you can barely tell it’s the same language we speak in New York. The band had announced they were from Liverpool. Like the Beatles.
He talked to us. It was loud in the club; they blared the music once the show ended.
Emma smiled. “You know, I love your accent, but I can’t understand a word you’re saying,” she shouted.
I spent a semester in London, so I recognized the lilt and I somewhat understood what he was saying, although I don’t remember a thing and didn’t write down specifics. Likely he was deflecting our advances. Or maybe I piped up about living in England. If I was able to gather my thoughts together.
He was friendly, an ordinary guy. Except one who we could scarcely comprehend.
“I’m Emma.” She shook his hand. He turned to me. We shook. “Suzanne,” I said.
He said his name. Me and Emma looked at each other like WTF?
“What was that again?”
He said something that I wrote down in the journal as Gaesa, assuming it was maybe Gaelic. It was my best guess. You never know. I had met a guy from Ireland a few weeks before (relocated to Woodside, of course) who pronounced his name “Ian,” but spelled it something like EOINEN. I swear there might have been a “w” in there somewhere, like a Tolkien character.
I asked him to spell his name but couldn’t hear the answer.
Note at the time there was no Internet to look things up, so if there was no photo of the band or list of names prominently on the album cover, then you didn’t know what the guys looked like or who they were until Rolling Stone did a feature. But you listened to the music anyway. So I let this encounter go, not even convinced that the guy honestly was one of the guitar players, wondering if instead he was just running with things because two cute groupie-types waved him over. We girls who hung around stage doors learned early: The guy who comes out after the concert is not always in the band. Sometimes he is just a guy with cool hair who moves amps.
This guy seemed far too polite to be a rock star, and he was about as young as we were.
However, in the here and now, I can look up the names of the members of China Crisis from that year. One of them is listed as Gazza Johnson. This was, according to reports, a nickname for Gary— also the name of the black-haired lead guitarist we were drooling over throughout the show. There were two Garys in the band that year, so I guess they needed to differentiate, like me and my four roommates from college, all of whom were named some variation of “Sue.”
I’m sure me and Emma made a play for this guy to come out with us, but it did not work. However, my notes say he was very sweet, so he must have found a diplomatic way to sidestep our invitation.
So… here’s to Gazza Johnson of China Crisis in 1987, for making nice with me and my buddy, even though we could hardly decipher most of what he said. Even though Cynical Long Island Bitch didn’t believe he was who he said he was. Let’s give one point to Emma, the Crazy Little Queens Girl, who believed, and who had the balls to yell loudly enough across the Ritz’s pitch and earsplitting mosh pit to get him to come over and talk to us.
And here, also, is to a life in which I have forgotten things that are way cooler than what many other people ever get to do, ever.
Note that Gazza Johnson was actually an exceptionally talented bass player, and some of the numbers from that year’s album are still my favorite tunes. I will share one of my faves, then.
“Safe as Houses”
Why I didn’t recognize the guy who played it even as I shook his hand is beyond me. Apologies for having eyes for the other guy, who was close enough to step on my fingertips. But apparently not nice enough to come out and say hello.
Note I have purchased and repurchased “What Price Paradise” in every format that it has been issued in since the ’80s, starting with the record album, moving on to a tape cassette for my first car, then a CD, then a download on iTunes after the CD was destroyed in a move, and a second download from Amazon after the iTunes stuff wouldn’t play on my phone anymore. So the band has gotten their share of royalties from me on that recording, in addition to the concert ticket.
I have a certain affinity for bass guitar anyway, since I grew up listening to bass lines being plucked out daily, repeatedly, maddeningly. My younger brother played. And played. And played so much that sometimes I’d march into his bedroom and yank the cord out of the amplifier at 9:00 in the morning on summer weekends when I had a hangover. Certain days I would stand there like an idiot ordering him to mow the lawn before my father had a conniption fit. Until I got fed up and flattened my hand over the strings, it was as if I weren’t even there. At that point he would finally look up as if to say, oh, sorry, you’re in the room with me?
I don’t know if that qualifies me to judge anything. But I do love a good new wave bass line.
That, and thanks to my brother Jimmy, I will have the bass notes to “Tom Sawyer” etched across my brain cells till I die.