David Bowie has died. In tribute, I’m posting some portions of the second chapter of Agata Pyzik’s excellent book Poor but Sexy, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Review of Books about a year ago. You should definitely pick it up if you haven’t already. To complement it, I’m including some photos of Bowie in Moscow and around the Eastern Bloc.
A word about Bowie’s flirtation with fascist symbolism during the 1970s: Quite clearly it was a deliberate aesthetic provocation meant to shock the public, part of his Thin White Duke persona. Same goes with that Playboy interview: he was coked out of his mind, responding to decades of British postwar malaise. Bowie also made use of communist, East European, and avant-garde symbolism around this time. Not trying to make excuses for the guy, just pointing out that this part of rock’n’roll’s broader obsession with totalitarianism during this period.
Either way, don’t expect sound politics from celebrities. Lemmy also liked to collect fascoid paraphernalia, as many have pointed out. He was a great musician and artist all the same. Regarding Bowie’s sexual improprieties, allegedly sleeping with Lori Maddox when she was seventeen and he was in his early twenties (as part of a ménage à trois with another man), again I am not interested in his private life. Picasso slept with younger women in Paris, but this hardly makes him less of a painter. Caravaggio murdered a couple people in cold blood, and he is similarly undiminished.
Surely no one will fault us for mourning Bowie’s death simply because he did not make great contributions to Marxist theory.
Ashes and brocade
Berlinism, Bowie, post punk,
new romantics and pop culture
during the second Cold War
Had to get the train
from Potsdamer Platz
You never knew that I could do that
Just walking the dead
a man lost in time
Twenty thousand people cross Bösebrücke
fingers are crossed just in case
where are we now?
— David Bowie, “Where
Are We Now?” (2013)
I could make a transformation
Is there concrete all around or is it in my head?
— David Bowie, “All
the Young Dudes”
The 1970s were the era of defeat. As the sixties were extremely intense in terms of political and social change, from the early seventies the flux went steady. David Bowie, who debuted in the late sixties, marked this change when he invented Ziggy Stardust in 1972: no more real heroes, from now on the most desirable thing was to be fabricated. What is genuine, authentic, is boring. The only hero that really matters, is pure artifice, cut out from the comic books, movies and dressed in everything that’s glamorous. Bowie more than anyone contributed to the cherishing of artifice in pop music, realizing the idea of a “hero for a day,” only following the course mass culture had been taking for decades. Was he conscious of that? Some of his lyrics of the era mark the mourning of the depoliticization of his generation: in the lyrics to the song “Star,” he mentions “Bevan (who) tried to change the nation,” and posing himself instead as someone who “could make a transformation as a rock & roll star.” Facing the “growing nihilism of his generation, he still believes that as a star of artifice, he can carry on their political task. “All the Young Dudes,” a song he wrote for Mott the Hoople in ’72, reeks of the youth’s disappointment and disillusionment, forming a kind of “solidarity of the losers” anthem. Bowie, always too erratic to make any firm political commitment, was rather in love with various dubious figures, “cracked actors,” (the inspiration for Ziggy was a forgotten singer who was believed to be a combination of god and an alien), necromantics like Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Anger’s satanism, Fascist dictators. He was, nevertheless, obsessed with certain elements of modernity. He was driven to German culture, especially the Weimar period, expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit, theater, Brecht. His first break-through hit concerned a man lost in space, after all, and the space age gets a strongly melancholic treatment from Bowie, as his character Major Tom is rather terrified by the silence of space. Another obsession, as we will see, was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Bowie’s fixation with “totalitarianism” applied to both sides. At one point he planned to stage an adaptation of the Soviet-Czech comic book Octobriana, about a socialist she-devil super-heroine — a samizdat publication, that was circulated between creators only through the post. Bowie could only have learned about it from its 1971 American edition. On the other side, his dalliance with the far right was something more than just the famous Sieg Heil he made to fans in 1976 at Victoria Station. It’s not an accident pop bands are very rarely left-wing, and Bowie’s reaction to the economic crisis of the seventies was to imagine becoming a right wing politician who’ll “sort things out.” “I believe strongly in Fascism,” Bowie said; “the only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air is to speed up the progress of a right wing tyranny. People have responded always more efficiently under a regimental leadership.” Bowie recognized, if only half-consciously, the appeal and meaning of the pop idol as a dictator. In Peter Watkins’ film from some years earlier, 1967’s Privilege, a young, cherubic, mega-popular singer is hired by the fascistic authorities, who use his popularity to ensure their control over the masses, in a truly Orwellesque, Big Brother-like take on the police state (which here has much more to do with Nazi Germany than communist states). Yet Watkins’ scared, weakened, traumatized singer, terrified of the masses, couldn’t have been further from Bowie, who relished in fame.
So Bowie’s fascination with Germany and Berlin was only partly expressionism – much of it was also quite simply, fascism. He became a chief Schwarzkarakter for Rock against Racism, whose magazine pictured him next to Enoch Powell and Hitler. The press deemed his Thin White Duke look “more Nazi than Futurist (sic)’. He also caught the attention and sympathy of the National Front, who in an article called “White European Dance Music,” said that “Perhaps the anticommunist backlash and the aspirations towards heroism by the futurist movement, has much to do with the imagery employed by the big daddy of futurism, David Bowie. After all, it was Bowie who horrified the establishment in mid seventies with his favorable comments on the NF, and Bowie who might have started an “anti-communist” music tradition which we now see flourishing amidst the New Wave of futurist bands. Who might the NF’s publicist have meant as the “futurist movement”? It was the growing synthpop and New Romanticism that was emerging from the post-punk bands. Punk by itself might have evoked a resistance towards the establishment, but by then it was dissolving. Although we are used to seeing industrial/synthpop/postpunk as ruthless modernists, the bands were actually rarely openly left wing. The political message, if any, was rather vague. Bands dwelling on the space age came often from dispossessed areas, which they then made topics for their music, but the result didn’t have to be politically sound. It was this later, new romantic period that brought Bowie to the left, with the stern words about “fascists” on Scary Monsters.
But even if we treat those remarks as just the drugged out delirium of a coked-up degenerate, which they were, it can’t be denied they had an influence on popular music. If you take the whole fascination with the Germanic in post punk bands, like Siouxsie and the Banshees or, omen omen, Joy Division, the twisted outpourings of their leaders weren’t just simply teasing their parents. They were flirting with the outrageous (Siouxsie), against the war generation, or they were openly right wing, like Ian Curtis. They had little to do with the struggles of Baader-Meinhof that ended tragically few years back. Curtis was confusing his obsession with Hitlerism with another obsession with a concentration camp prisoners (Stephen Morris has said in an interview that Joy Division were supposed to look like Nazi camp victims) or wider, the idea of the underdog, which tapped into their Bowieesque Eastern Bloc fantasies, like that of “Warszawa,” an eternally concrete, sinister city. Yet Bowie’s image of contemporary Berlin must’ve been seriously twisted, if he thought he could find shelter there with another drug addict, Iggy Pop, in a place that had already become one of the most narcotics-dependent places on earth. West Germany and West Berlin had for years been a territory of political dysphoria. The New Left’s legacy was melting. In a context of pseudo-denazification, militancy reached its peak around 1968 and the police shooting of Benno Ohnesorg. By 1976, when Bowie moved to Berlin, it had become the armed terrorism of RAF, the Red Army Faction.
Oh we can beat them, forever and ever
The seventies were an era of abandoned children, with no more support in institutions. Christiane F. Wir sind Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (this sentence has the same structure as the “Wir Sind Helden,” we are the heroes), the 1981 film, opens with a murky shot of Gropiusstadt, the most infamous block estate in Berlin, by then decaying from social and material neglect, plagued by crime and violence, which brought more and more arguments to a new class of politicians who deemed the ideas of modernism “bankrupted’. The infamous St Louis estate Pruitt-Igoe was taken down in the mid-seventies. Groupiusstadt is scary, but wasn’t meant to be. Former Bauhaus director Walter Gropius designed it as a quite modest, low-density estate. Later, with migration from East Berlin rising, it was rebuilt several times to cram the new population in growingly lesser quality flats. Christiane hates Gropiusstadt, where she lives with her single, always-at-work mother, who is always absent, unless she is fucking her dodgy boyfriend. The only company and community she finds is in the night clubs and friends, who are all into drugs. She goes to the Sound, the famous disco club, labeled as “the most modern discotheque in Europe.” She starts lightly, takes speed and coke, but the whole thing is about “H.” H is her obsession, a gate to a different reality, where she can communicate with her idol, Bowie. Seeing her friends all drowning in H, she thinks this transgression is the only way to belong to their community.
Bowie, when a Thin White Duke, had cocaine as his toxin of choice, the typical drug of someone who insists they have the full “control” over their habit. The first half of the film is basically a Bowie fan story. Christiane has all his records (which she, when the first part ends, symbolically sells to get money for drugs). Bowie is the god for her post-political generation, who recreates politics as spectacle. In the film, he’s present everywhere, as music or endlessly repeated image: his music oozes out in clubs, at the Zoo station, where the young addicts gather at their alternative home; they hear him, when they forget themselves in the drug haze. He looks at Christiane and others from posters, like Big Brother from the LP covers, in their dreams; his concert, central to the film, is the EVENT she waits for. It is her most intimate company, it accompanies the kids, when they prostitute themselves, and when they inject the drug and go on a trip, he IS that “trip and that drug and that malaise.
In “Heroes,” Bowie makes a final declaration: there are no more heroes; long live the heroes! Yet, his character, the new, bodiless, endlessly androgynous, sexless figure, has still some miasmas, he’s yearning: “I can remember standing by the wall/ and the guns shot above our heads/ and we kissed, as though nothing could fall/ and the shame, was on the other side.” is this purely the obligatory anti-communism? There’s more: “Heroes” and Low are psychogeographical albums, where he takes us on various trips to places charged with history, various stops around Berlin, Neukölln, the Wall; then Warszawa, Japan, China, yearning for the East. And it is the easterners who shoot, who perpetrate the terror, it’s true: it was the choice of the DDR government to erect the Wall, as between the establishing of the republic in 1948 and 1961 their population was increasingly defecting to the West. This was the ideological failure of the East, who had to lock their citizens to convince them they live in the best of the worlds. The children of Bahnhof Zoo don’t understand this Drang nach Osten, but why else would they stick to the DDR-owned and operated Zoo Station, the filthiest, most brutalized part of West Berlin? And next to it: the bling of the Ku’damm, along which they walk searching for drugs and soliciting for clients. Just like characters in Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons, they look at the shop window displays as at the promise of a life they will never have.
Five hours away from that city was another one which was also leveled to the ground, but by Germans. “Warszawa,” Bowie’s most sinister and mysterious track, appears in the film in the grimmest moments, when they first take heroin. It was also full of young, emaciated people. Perhaps the boredom the Polish youth felt at the time was the result of that isolation. Warsaw didn’t have the Wall, but the lives of its people gravitated no less around what happened with this piece of concrete. In 1981, the year Christiane F. was screened, it was invaded by its own tanks. Bowie was a tourist, who left Warsaw a postcard, and then left. They couldn’t, continuing to be trapped with their lives. For young people of the declining late seventies, Bowie — an endlessly enigmatic hero for one day, less real than celluloid, replaced their politicians, parents, institutions, their god. But how to stake your whole life on something that does not exist?
The Drinker, the heroine of Ulrike Ottinger’s Bildnis Nach Trinkerin, shot at the same time in 1979, is played by the splendidly dressed Tabea Blumenschein, Ottinger’s lover and muse, as a beautiful mysterious millionaire, landing at Tegel airport, who chooses Berlin as the scene of her destruction, with alcohol as the drug. She’s always wearing splendid clothes, inspired by early Dior or Balenciaga, with the rule: dress well for your death. To make it funnier, Ottinger accompanies her with a choir of three women, dressed in identical uniforms: Social Question, Accurate Statistics and Common Sense, who comment and cheer her on. She drinks in the bars until she’s unconscious, meeting various weirdos, cross-dressers, punks and transes on her way. Her only friend is a homeless woman. She goes around degenerate Berlin, full of trash, which, together with homeless Lutze, they gather in a supermarket trolley (Ottinger was friends with Wolf Vostell, artist of destruction, who appears briefly in the film). She picks a random from the bar and takes him on a Berlin night dérive without end. She does a lot of pointless things: one sees her balancing on a tightrope in a ridiculous ballerina dress, against the towers of Gropiusstadt, after she joins a circus troupe, a regular Ottingeresque bunch of weirdos, of society’s marginals, who take a dim view of her circus art. After several attempts, when she manages to degrade herself completely, she goes to the Zoo station, as if looking for a way out. Yet, she’s is overrun by the careful, punctual German middle classes, hurrying to work. The film’s alternative title is Ticket With No Return.
Christiane F. is a weird kind of a zombie movie, where the action takes place only at night. When we first see Christiane going to a night club, it resembles hell. Gradually, all characters, as the habit develops, start to look more and more like ghosts, or rather zombies. Director Uli Edel is too literal when he throws Christiane into a nightclub projection of The Night of the Living Dead, we can soon see that from their disintegrating faces, changing expression only upon the sight or possibility of getting the drug. Everything becomes clear during the ravishing sequence of the Bowie concert. If they’re zombies, Bowie is their zombie-king. As Christiane looks her all-prepared, artificial idol in the face, then at his absolute artistic heyday, we start to believe he’s not only the sun they need to exist; tragically, in a horrific vision he, or rather his persona, becomes identical with the drug, the reason for their degeneration. What follows is the naked horror of addiction: physical and mental degradation and prostitution of these 14-year old kids, while their bodies waste away. Larry Clark’s 1994 Kids is a version of this, post-AIDS.
Fear in the Western World
If post punk had a father and a god, it was David Bowie. Our man, partly as a result of the galloping drug addiction, depression, world-weariness (“world” here being the West, America, that scared the shit out of him), and a taste for history, he is looking for a place of refuge to save his precarious life. He looks towards the east – he had traveled there before, to Moscow in 1973, and he took a train back from there to West Berlin. When he travelled there again in 1976 with Iggy Pop, “they saw towns still pockmarked with bullet holes and a landscape scarred by unrepaired bomb craters; drawing alongside a goods train in Warsaw, they witnessed a worker unloading coal piece by piece in the gray, freezing sleet.
By this time Brian Eno, his collaborator, was already working with Cluster in Dusseldorf, who had worked with Neu!, who in turn were once members of Kraftwerk. “Autobahn” was a novelty hit in 1974, and their perfected look of constructivist robots lands among the stunned Europe. Neat, disciplined, glamorous robotniks looking as if they just came from the heroic Socialist Realist canvases, they expressed a longing for the lost Europe, wanting to reclaim Germany’s past from the Nazis. The red and black of their clothes were the primary colors, the colors of the spiritual Goethean palette, for de Stijl, Bauhaus, the constructivists, and the Nazi flag. Fascinated with the idea of mechanical ballet by the painter and Bauhaus theater designer Oskar Schlemmer, combining to the same degree the spiritual and mechanical, and by Meyerhold’s theatrical ideas of biomechanics, Kraftwerk built a bridge between the early hopeful, ambitious modernity of Weimar and the dispirited, broken post-sixties reality, when cars, highways, speed of life, computers and robots became a natural part of our existence. The obsession this era has with the mechanical, controlled man evoked the fears of totalitarianism and the state control just as a deeper fantasy of human efficiency. The measurement of the body, of its possibilities, was at the start of the technological revolution, and organization. It was a dark echo of the Golem, puppets, Karel Capek’s robots, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the real source of post-punk imagery, although of deeply dubious politics. Punks, a lost generation betrayed by history, were obsessed with it, despite claiming a lack of any interest in the past. Their obsession was a fantasy within the late capitalist, increasingly post-Fordist society, where efficiency was already beginning to be replaced with dubious financial capital. The mechanized organism was a Fordist obsession, and found its sickly, glam repetition in Klaus Nomi, a Bavarian former pastry maker, who discovered an operatic countertenor in himself. In the famous Saturday Nigh Live performance with Bowie in 1979, they channel the German avant-garde, dressed in Sonia Delaunay-inspired bombastic dada-suits, with exaggerated inflatable arms and legs, Bowie using also a puppet and a communist China blue suit with a Mao-Collar, but equipped with a skirt.
With the political crisis approaching, the post-boom generation, as if feeling that history was going to strike back again, took on the task of performing painful historical exorcisms on themselves. They lived as if it was the twenties, thirties, fifties or sixties, and yet they lived inevitably in the present. They knew constructivists from art schools, and saw Ballets Russes’ designs. Hence the sad pierrots and cosmonauts, able workers and fifties Soviet beauties among the new romantic crowd. There was the end of history and there was no future. In the dying industrial town of Cleveland, Ohio, the young members of DEVO imagined they lived in “1920s Central Europe” and constructed Hugo Ball-like costumes from rubble; OMD, Spandau Ballet, Joy Division, all were dressed as if in homage to the builders of a better socialist freedom. They were all looking east, but not to the demonic Bloc, but rather its threshold. Germany, via its brilliant development in electronic music, via Stockhausen, stimulated by other centers of electronic music, including Warsaw, was a laboratory, a window, from which you could comfortably observe the history behind the barbed wire, but safe enough not to get bruised by it. Kraftwerk provided a sound, but the Westerners were only guests on the Trans-Europe Express. It was Bowie who put the elements together. Bowie, a model postmodernist, someone who built his life and art out of the artificial, the fabricated, who went though pop art, comic books and Brecht, needed the necessary frisson of the real, which he found in Berlin, Warszawa and Moscow. There, you had no art of style to be consumed, but the burden of history, that could be tracked on the gigantic spaces of consuming emptiness and morbid austerity. Berlin was a relatively safe option, a city of vice and excitation. As we saw, he was the wall against which Christiane F. and her drugged, prostituting young friends were projecting their saccharine dreams that never came true. Berlin was, like any other big post war metropolis raised from ashes, a scene of “modernity’s failure,” with the decaying tower block estates, like Gropiusstadt, which for Christiane is in turn everything she fears and hates. Christiane F., who after the publication of her memoir became a figure with a cult following, although she never managed to completely drop her addiction, later debuted as a singer, with the gleefully sleepy Wunderbar single, co-produced with members of Einstürzende Neubauten.
As ever, Warszawa, the place, had to be satisfied by this cult, but received a niche fame from the Bowie track. Later Joy Division couldn’t decide whether they should call themselves Stutthoff, Auschwitz or Warsaw, while sporting shaven looks of the camp victims. The enduring image of the East was still the one from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. When the said year finally came, both Poland and the UK were in the middle of crisis.
A totalitarian musical
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has been an enduring obsession of pop culture since its publication. Bowie had been fixated on staging a opera based upon the novel, which, after being aborted by Orwell’s estate, transformed into the album Diamond Dogs, full of the images from Orwellian catalog: of urban decay, prophetism, fatalism. Big Brother harassed the wrecked up and paralyzed survivors of the year of scavenger and the season of the bitch, heroes felt hysterical detachment, stark robotic images from Metropolis. Bowie was also, after all, a William S. Burroughs fan, to which referred the spoken opening piece.
Bowie wanted a “sexy,” glamorized vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a totalitarian musical, a glorious authoritarianism, which occurred to him not via reading the book, but via an actual visit to Moscow (which was to be one of several) which he undertook in 1973, on the way to Japan — by taking a train, of course. He saw it with the perhaps clichéd eyes of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yet, by the 1970s a very different author’s future would join Orwell’s. It was the conservative Catholic modernist Anthony Burgess whose terrifying vision of modish city oiks turned Soviet was the one which kept stirring generations of youth and became a foundational text for the glam and punk generation. A Clockwork Orange, of which we speak, had its roots in a trip Burgess took to Russia in the fifties, when he got beaten by Western-dressed smart looking young delinquents in Leningrad. It was the era of arguably the first youth subculture in the UK, Teddy boys, the first who consciously used/appropriated the dress of the upper classes, to distort it and make it theirs. After the war British upper classes revived the pre-WWI style of the Edwardian era, the last one they were comfortable in, as a look for their anti-austerity, anti-socialist values. In the hands of working class boys, taking it straight from dandies, combining it with their violence, the idea “of clothes as a threat to society” was born. Burgess, seeing the similarities between the Soviet and British fashionistas, drew the conclusion (and in the era when the Soviets could still defeat the West) that after the inevitable Soviet invasion, the future subcultures will be speaking Russian and will be violent.
The legend wouldn’t have been born without the shock of the Kubrick film from 1971. Before it was banned, a few people, including Bowie and the future movement, saw it (it was cited as influence basically by the whole synthetic generation — in Sheffield only, there were groups called Heaven 17, Clock DVA, and They Must Be Russians). At the time of the Ziggy Tour, Bowie used to inaugurate his gigs with Wendy Carlos’ brusque, startlingly futuristic synthetic soundtrack, which made a furor and a lasting impact. Kubrick himself used dazzling psychedelic designs but also Soviet murals in the vision of society, using the Soviet parable to take on the conformism of the British.
Michael Radford’s film adaptation 1984, was shot in the same year in the dockland area of London, before it got redeveloped, which at the time looked exactly like a place where the war was going on. In its look though, the film is anything but futuristic — it rather takes the cue from the book, making everybody look as if it was 1948, or 1940s fascism, as if It Happened Here really took place. The only “futurist” element in the film is the soundtrack made by Eurythmics, amplifying the mechanized (Sssex Crime!), yet with its postindustrial rubble and decay in the frame, it provided a feeling not far away from Jarman’s slightly later new romantic catastrophic The Last of England (1986).
In 2013, after a 10-year hiatus, Bowie surprised everyone with a sudden comeback, with an album The Next Day, very consciously referring to his “Berlin” period, with a conceptual cover, in which the iconic leather-clad Bowie from “Heroes” is covered by a white superimposed square. Bowie at once wants to cut off from the burden of the legendary past and escape constant comparisons to his most legendary period, yet it makes a strongly nostalgic leap, with the lyrics of “Where Are We Now” recalling his stay in Berlin, recalling his then-hang out, Dschungel bar, the department store on Ku’damm, KaDeWe. He’s “a man lost in time.”
System to fight the SYSTEM
Warsaw during communism was a city that had to change dramatically into a completely different place than it was before the war. It is a miracle, and proof of an extremely strong identity and the love of its inhabitants, that despite this drastic change Warsaw still lives all of its previous lives, and one can easily trace every era of its life. There’s a legend that during his two hours train-break in 1976 Bowie stepped out at Dworzec Gdański, and walked towards the modernist area of Paris Commune Square (now named after Woodrow Wilson), where he allegedly stopped at the record shop and purchased some folk music LPs. It remains unconfirmed by Bowie himself, but very likely one was by Silesian folk dance ensemble “Śląsk,” who were then directed by Stanislaw Hedyna and his original interpretations of native music. Śląsk’s “Helokanie” is shockingly similar to Bowie’s “Warszawa,” and the brief visit is to this day mythologized by Polish fans. “Warszawa” was a later, much more mature version of Bowie’s earlier vision of 1984, minus the glamour and camp, but with a dramatic, heavy beauty. For “Warszawa” Bowie reserved a somberness and seriousness typical rather for modern composition. It remains his most mysterious track.
And how was it heard in Warsaw itself? The Polish punk rock groups of the late seventies and early eighties tended to draw on other influences than Bowie. Yet it was a touchstone for the later, 1990s poet Andrzej Sosnowski, now our foremost neo-avantgardist, who would use “Warszawa” as a hidden reference in his work. Sosnowski’s Warszawa is always filtered through Bowie’s Warszawa, meaning there’s a mythical, concrete, bleak Warszawa that Bowie had in mind, that only partially is the real Warsaw. In Sosnowski’s vision Warsaw is a late-postmodern, bleak Baudelairean vision (immortalized also in “The Waste Land,” quoting his Fourmillante cite… from Fleurs du Mal). In this Warsaw we encounter a similar mixture of flattened eroticism and feelings from different orders, metaphysical, sexual and bluntly mundane, all mixed up. A shop mannequin gives him an erection, and the crotch and the wallet seem to be erect in the same place.