I turn in my seat to watch as they quietly enter the Arlington’s half-light in whispering twos, threes and fours, peering through the murk with a touching vulnerability, expressions brightening at the sight of friends, hands raised in greeting. The hushed army of once and future glam-slammers and barricade-stormers, they who would have turned the world on its head some 45 years ago, now furtively take their seats, apologizing for the inconvenience as they sidle past in their chinos and Chuck Taylors. They settle in and lean into each other, murmuring. The dusky Arlington cavern already has the hushed aspect of a church service. They’re here for Bowie, yeah. But there’s the luggage, too.
David Bowie Is. The omnipresent-tense of the film’s title suggests a quasi-religious experience, and the congregants approve. Bowie was (is) a special case; part accident, (large) part calculation, and part Divine timing, popping up like a jack-in-the-box and inserting himself and his message into that weird demilitarized zone between the 60s conflagration and the 70s blow dried confusion; between the exhausted Stones, the divorcing Beatles, the drowned Hendrix and the approaching polyester Me Generation steamroller. Just at the moment the fires were being doused and the broken masonry swept up in prep for James Taylor’s entrance (mustn’t get brick dust on those white trousers), here comes Bowie like an escapee, with One More Thing To Say. Dismantling the Establishment is for squares. Why overthrow the old order when you can find an elliptical orbit that obviates the need for any order at all?
The film itself was a strangely (not to say deceptively) promoted documentary, a tour of a celebrated Bowie exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, an exhibit so freaking anticipated by a global public still starved for Bowie that it (the exhibit, you understand) is itself touring the world like a rock star, with stops in Toronto, Sao Paulo, Berlin, Chicago, Paris and Melbourne. David Bowie, at 67 and reportedly not in great health, has attained that level of cultural hegemony that allows his shirts to tour in his stead. In the movie two talking heads walk the movie audience through the exhibit’s Twelve Stations of the Cross, as it were, the gasping experts gesturing and talking earnestly at the camera. We see Bowie’s famous costumes (notably for this writer the psychedelic skin-tight tea cozy he wore in his watershed Top of the Pops performance of Starman in ‘72), his childhood ballpoint sketches and odd doodles that seem to suggest designs for movie sets and character creations.
Like most little kids with light bulbs for heads, little Davie Jones had big weird ideas and recorded them prolifically and energetically; unlike most kids he carried them into adulthood as action items. When, at 15 years old, Davie was mightily popped in the left eye by a schoolyard chum in a brief tussle over a girl they both liked, the die was cast. The eye was saved but the pupil paralyzed, an interesting oddity for the shaggy folk-Bowie of 1966, but an absolute badge of deep-space authenticity when he later invented Ziggy and let his addled wife dye his hair a color not found in nature. Unlike say, Perry Como (another estimable chameleon whose startling collection of cardigans could make his audience dizzy with dislocation and excitement), Bowie did not inhabit or typify his time; he infused it. Emerging from a decade that sought exaltation and strangeness, this eyebrow-free wraith with the mismatched pupils and strange, melodic gift wrote his own and our tickets.
So, yeah. We of course took along our 12-year-old daughter that night, grateful for the opportunity to introduce her to a more artistically nourishing time when pop stars could legitimately be thought to have come from outer space. You’re so lucky to be seeing this tonight, Stel! (she nods once, bored already. “How long will the movie last?”). Stella, though, has yet to be seduced into the Earbud Army, and to her credit nods off every night to a long Carpenters lullabye (whether or not the reader finds that a taste assault that trumps all others) – but today’s shuffling deaf-mutes, anesthetized teen and tween droids with wires hanging out of their ears, music blaring minutely in the middle of their wallpapered crania through hours and hours made mundane by the ceaseless, seamless soundtrack. They buy gum, cross the street, scroll their i-things, text their professed love, kiss, and occasionally talk to each other with skinny little Ariana Grande and the gasping Demi Lovato et al marauding through the middle of their heads like an earwig army. And the teeny songs songs tend toward that thrill-ride motif, the honking synth loops and hammerblow bass they blast at 1000 decibels as you try not to bark up your funnel cake on the mischaracterized Alpine Toboggan at Earl Warren. Our musical heroes in the Day were larger-than life avatars who scarcely seemed containable in ordinary rooms.
Bowie was like an androgynous reptile, Jim Morrison a radiant Dionysus in sterlizingly tight leather pants. Our daughter’s pop idols look like paperboys and kickball champions. Justin Bieber might be here to mow your lawn. You want to rush the stage and help these stadium-filling kids with their math homework. And they never leave the heads of our earbud-imprisoned kids. In the 70s (he dared venture) my audiophile friends and I would crowd into my friend Dave’s acoustically pristine bedroom, dim the lights and listen to Genesis’ Musical Box or One for the Vine at crystal-clear high volume, or Supertramp’s Hide in Your Shell. It was a special gathering – like going to temple or church, but without funny hats or those tiddly winks they put on your tongue. I challenge you to try dialing up a Supertramp song with your twelve-year-old in the room. “Daaaduh! Can I change the song!”
But…yeah. You reach a certain age and, as if by some hideous magic, hear your jawbone broadcasting stuff your own mom and dad used to say, and it makes you blush in terror. The effort not to sound like an historically predictable parent/philistine when remarking on the kids’ music choices – it can be tough. But our folks still take the cake! They weren’t possessed of the frightened self-awareness we wear like a postmodern millstone. They didn’t care if they sounded like Parents, they reveled in that, saying the dumbest summary things without hesitation.
One evening at the age of 16 or so I was listening to Elton’s anthemic “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” on the living room stereo, in the days before my very own Zenith Allegro Home HiFi entered and transformed my life and drove me into my shuttered teen bedroom for good. Just as my dad entered the living room that evening, Elton was singing “frozen here…” (on the ladder of my life) , and my dad yelled “Frozen beer! What the hell?”
“Frozen here!” I shouted.
“I heard frozen beer!!” my dad yelled back. I knew immediately this lame shouting match was not the sort of telling generational schism that would feature on a PBS documentary about the dissolution of the American family. It was the only time I can recall our having raised our voices to each other. Yow. Rock and Roll.
Back in the Arlington a theater full of grown teens breathe deep the gathering gloom, to quote an old song. All those long teenage nights behind the locked bedroom door in our parents’ houses (our parents! our parents!), feeling the centrifugal energies of a world spinning like an idiot top. Did all that really happen? Why did my denim bell bottoms have so many zippers? Why did I let my hair puff out like that? Why did I have to borrow a shirt from John Videan for my senior portrait?
This Bowie evening is a rocket ride back to the whole of the teen whirlwind, where lead routinely turned to gold and the world could still surprise the shit out of us, could still drive us back to our locked grottoes to sort things out. I would stare wonderingly at my blacklight MC Escher poster, or spend hours lying in bed and listening to Sparks or Kate Bush or The Who’s Tommy with the lights out, the stereo painting almost tactile sonic pictures in the dark over the rumpled twin bed with its embarrassingly childish sheets and untested box spring, the bittersweetness of LPs stacked on a spindle.
*Jeff writes the column State Street Scribe for the Santa Barbara Sentinel – where a print version of this particular piece can be found this week.
SB Sentinel, Volume 3/Issue 20/October 4-18