David Bowie: Layers of Ghosts

Bowie poses with Cher on the set of her TV show in 1975.

Bowie poses with Cher on the set of her TV show in 1975.

In the days following David Bowie’s death. I listened to the songs “Life on Mars?” and “The Bewlay Brothers” from the 1971 album Hunky Dory. The lyrics intrigued me.

I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax
Unbelievable … And my brother lays upon the rocks
He could be dead, he could be not, he could be you
He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature
Shooting up pie in the sky
Bewlay brothers

Life on MarsSurely there’s bit of self-portrait in this description. I found a link to a story written by Bowie for the Daily Mail, I went to buy shoes, I came back with Life on Marsdescribing 10 favourite underrated songs. Both “Life on Mars?” and “Bewlay Brothers” make the list. About the latter song, Bowie writes:

“The only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay. It was a common item in the late Sixties and for this song I used Bewlay as a cognomen – in place of my own. This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.”

I must write Merriam-Webster and suggest they add a new definition for palimpsest: layers of ghosts. The Hunky Dory album has its fair share of ghosts, along with a touch of Nietzsche, aliens, and tributes to other musicians. It’s this mixture of influences, delivered with glitter and angst, that gives Bowie’s work such a unique sense of modernity and other-worldliness.

Bowie helps transition us from the 60s world of peace, love and long hair to a Millennial world of sound and vision, mobile devices and remixed songs. Remixed everything. Among the countless Bowie tributes, I found this delightful illustration substituting Bowie for the Little Prince with the caption; “The man who fell to Earth is back amongst the stars. Rest in peace, David Bowie. Illustration/caption by Jarrett J. Krosoczka.”

Bowie as the Little PrinceThe musician starts the conversation and fans keep it going. On a recent CBC News story, we’re told that Canadian DJ Skratch Bastid’s remix of Bowie’s song, “Let’s Dance” has become a Facebook meme with over 8 million views in five days.

When I think of mash-ups and Bowie, his cut-up writing method comes to mind. Taking his cue from William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, Bowie used scissors and pen to spark new thoughts. I ask myself, what would a mash-up of Bowie lyrics look like? Let’s give it a try:

It’s a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair (Life on Mars)

He lays her down, he frowns
“Gee my life’s a funny thing, am I
still too young?” (Young Americans)

“You got your mother in a whirl/ She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” (Rebel Rebel)

“Are you OK?
You’ve been shot in the head
And I’m holding your brains” (Seven Years in Tibet)

I’m looking for a vehicle, I’m looking for a ride
I’m looking for a party, I’m looking for a side. (Candidate)

He says he’s a beautician and sells you nutrition and keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear. (Jean Genie)

You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear (Space Oddity)

So I’ll break up my room and yawn and run to the centre of things. (Sweet Thing)

News guy wept when he told us Earth was really dying. (Five Years)

“I’ll make you a deal like any other candidate.” (Candidate)

Seems you’re trying not to lose
Since I’m not supposed to win. (Win)

Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair (Rock n roll suicide)

Every chance,
every chance that I take
I take it on the road… (Always Crashing in the Same Car)

I’ve lived all over the world
I’ve left every place. (Be My Wife)

You will be like your dreams tonight. (Joe the Lion)

I’m the space invader. (Moorage Daydream)

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange) (Changes)

Then let it be, it’s all I ever wanted
It’s a street with a deal, and a taste
It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you … (Sweet Thing reprise)

Multiple conversations. The search for experience. Exhibitionist finds relief in theatre, masks. The future looks bleak. Experience is filtered through news, media, entertainment. Distrust politicians. Rock ‘n roll is a collective experience. Fame is a trap. Keep dreaming. Space aliens. Nothing is permanent. Embrace change.

My final thought on Bowie: he doesn’t just change for the sake of change. He grows. He develops, he educates himself by traveling, working with gifted people, stretching himself through relationships, marriages, films, families. He stretches himself by renouncing a popular path for an uncertain path. He teaches us all how to become an alien and thrive.

Thanks Bowie, it’s been a blast.

Definition of a good book

Milton and Satan illustrated by Edward Sorel

Milton wary of Satan, New Yorker illustration by Edward Sorel

Poet John Milton defined a good book as: “The precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” (Areopagitica, 1644)

The quote appears in Areopagitica, a defence of free speech written by Milton after visiting the famous astronomer Galileo in 1638. Galileo was then under house arrest in Italy, having been forced by the Inquisition to recant his theory that the earth revolved around the sun. The New Yorker article, Return to Paradise, June 2, 2008, describes Milton’s visit. The article contrasts the modernity of Galileo’s view of the world, with Milton’s rather more old-fashioned notions of God at war with his rebel angels. What I find interesting is that the English poet seeks out a scientist and in some ways sees him as a kindred spirit–a man struggling to understand and convey a picture of the universe.

In this post, I focus on Milton’s definition of a good book. The definition is one sentence charged with several metaphors and paradoxes. For instance, “precious life-blood” is a metaphor referring to the human body. In 1628, Milton’s English contemporary William Harvey published his book De Motu Cordis, outlining for the first time the precise way that blood circulated within the body. This “life-blood” contrasts with a “master spirit.” A spirit is immaterial: a personality, a way of thinking and being. The blood of a spirit or immaterial being is a paradoxical concept as ghosts usually lack physical attributes like blood. To modern ears, the phrase “master spirit” sounds pompous and ominous, emerging out of an era of masters and slaves. Slavery was not abolished in England until 1833, a century and a half after Milton’s death. However, Milton most likely meant “master” in the sense of “master of himself,” an independent thinker. The phrase “master spirit” also reminds me of the apprentice system. One is not born an artist; one learns to be an artist through experience and the mastery of a craft. Canadian critic Northrop Frye uses the phrase “the educated imagination” in much the same way. When Milton combines these two metaphors, “the precious life-blood of a master spirit” he suggests that books have a physical element that relate to the laws of nature and science, as well as a spiritual aspect that is more elusive but still shaped by tradition, upbringing and study.

Milton’s phrase “embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life” presents a fascinating mixture of associations. Embalming was practised by the royalty in Britain at this time. For example, King James I had his two-year-old daughter Margaret embalmed when she died in 1600. This same period saw a proliferation of funerary monuments, and the wide-spread use of epitaphs on graves, identifying the occupation and interests of the deceased, reflect a new belief in the importance of the individual. “Embalmed and treasured up” the writer acts as mortician and pirate. He is both preserver and thief, with his stolen observations of a particular time and culture. This buried treasure is hidden and the readers of a good book must uncover the rich secrets that lie within. There is a further implication that the value of a good book, like buried treasure, increases as it lives beyond the disappearance of the world in which it was created. That it can give “life beyond life” gives a book a kind of supernatural power. Through books, we move forward and backward through time and converse with the dead. Books promise fame and immortality to their creators, but anyone who reads a book written in the past, participates in this powerful exchange that exceeds the limits of a single life.

Milton uses the word “life” three times in his short definition. Life can mean vitality, as in “he is full of life.” There are kinds and degrees of life: “a life of action and purpose” or “a meager, frightened life.” When we say, “Tell me about your life,” we are asking for a story. A good book is above all else a good story. Ecology is the study of the interaction of many life-forms, as when we speak of “life on earth.” Life beyond life suggests resurrection and a religious state of nirvana or transcendence.

There’s a paradox in this as well. When Milton says, “life beyond life,” isn’t this the same as saying “life beyond death”? Life is also death. A good book is a recognition of this and also an escape from it. It is a recognition of the human condition, with an escape clause built in.

In summary, a good book for Milton is blood, spirit, monument, treasure and time capsule. It is life, but also death and an escape from death. That’s quite a definition.