I had a minor breakthrough with David Bowie recently. It was so obvious that I couldn’t believe that it had taken me so long to figure it out.
“In the end, Dave,” I said, when I finally got him on the phone, “I think you resented that I had such a close relationship with Mom and Dad. While your ongoing success and fame forces me to acknowledge that I’ve never had any real drive, passion, or talent of my own. That’s why we’ve never really gotten along.”
We penciled in an appointment to hug it all out when he sweeps through New England during his Monochrome Eyebrow tour in 2011. Yes, I’m well aware that one of his tour managers will call to cancel about a week before.
Oh, right…the actual breakthrough:
David Bowie is what John Lennon could have and should have been during the Seventies.
When the Beatles broke up, Lennon declared that he felt burned-out and he intended to use all of the sick days that he’d accrued over the previous decade of hard rocking. Fair enough, but eventually, Personal Days became a formal Leave of Absence, and then after a bunch of registered letters went unanswered the Universe was forced to (regretfully) fill the vacant position. A New Lennon would have to be whiteboarded, prototyped and shipped, ASAP.
(“Hey, what’s with the eyes?”
“The eyes. You’ve got two different eyes in there.”
“Aw, Christ…I just grabbed the first two from the bin. I assumed that they were all pre-matched. Is there time to swap one of ’em out?”
“Not without pulling the whole cerebral subassembly and then re-doing the wiring harness. We’ll just have to cross our fingers and hope nobody notices.”
“Look, Craig, I know there was a rush to make the ship date but we adopted ISO 9001 processes for a reason, all right?”)
Yes, fine, “Imagine” was indeed a lovely little tune. But for every “Imagine” that John Lennon wrote during the Seventies, he wrote eleven more that read like a page of Lennon’s psychiatrist’s notes after a two-hour session. By the time you get to the last track of “Plastic Ono Band” you involuntarily check your watch and say “Well, I see our time is nearly up. Shall we meet again in two weeks?”
And so I say that when John Lennon felt a need to lay down his baton at the end of the Sixties, it was David Bowie who picked it up again. “Life On Mars?” is the beginning and the end of my argument. It might be Bowie’s masterpiece. The music begins slowly, as Bowie’s voice seems to pace thoughtfully around the room, nudged along by Rick Wakeman’s piano. Bits of the melody start to wander in and make their presence known. Only when various muscles and tendons have been fully warmed-up does the arrangement take off; like a kite, it suddenly leaps into the air and once it reaches altitude, it parries around as though being 200 feet off the ground is the simplest thing in the world.
David Bowie is a kind man, so he gives us a couple of minutes of sensible scene-building before he starts pushing out lyrics like these:
It's on America's tortured brow That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow. Now the workers have struck for fame 'Cause Lennon's on sale again. See the mice in their million hordes From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads. Rule Britannia is out of bounds To my mother, my dog, and clowns
Not a word of that would seem out of place on either side of “Sgt. Pepper.” It’s lyrics as sound-play, meant to provoke imagination rather than understanding. Lennon had an uncanny ability to aim higher than Lewis Carroll but not smack his head against the extreme of psychedelic nonsense. Bowie’s achieved the same vibe here.
It’s possible that becoming The Great John Lennon is a bit like becoming The Dread Pirate Roberts. You’re meant to prosper in the role until it’s time to pass it along to somebody else. I don’t know to whom David Bowie passed the Lennon Baton but it was definitely sometime between “Under Pressure” and “Cat People.” While killing time in a bus terminal he came across a glossy brochure entitled “Make Big Money In International Pop Superstardom” and then he couldn’t drop that stick fast enough.
It seems to have worked out all right. He’s married to a supermodel and has the ongoing respect and support of the public. I’d like to think that Lennon would have made out as well. I’m sure he would have agreed that the presence of the album “Never Let Me Down” in Bowie’s discography was a very small price to pay.