David Bowie is: Infestation

A month before my fifteenth birthday, I saw David Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour with my mother at Madison Square Garden.  She came with me because I wasn’t allowed to go to concerts alone then, and because she loved him.  In fact, my mother loved David Bowie so much, she forbid my father to come with us, lest he be uncomfortable with her excitement.

The Glass Spider Tour and the album it was in support of, Never Let Me Down, aren’t terribly well-reviewed or considered significant in the canon of Bowie’s work, and I knew that, even then, holding my breath for the older songs – like “Time” and “Heroes” — I had fallen in love with largely because they were on the cheapest cassettes for sale at Tower Records.

But the show had no less mesmerizing impact on me for all that, in large part because of the work done by choreographer Toni Basil and a character danced by Melissa Hurley, who, during “Bang Bang” is seemingly plucked out of the audience.  Chosen, she then rejects Bowie; then once he is chastened, goes after him, and leads him in something resembling a tango.

While the ruse was obvious, and I had even read about the moment in a music magazine in advance of the show, it still had the barest tinge and hope of authenticity to me. After all, I was a teenager and there was no mainstream commercial Internet at the time, so I had not read a description of this exact moment appearing night after night as a reminder that I would never be that girl.  With my dark curly hair, a dress at home that looked like the performer’s, and too many hours spent in dance classes, I had a tiny bit of hope, that one day….

I’ve had a lot of daydreams though, and that one faded faster than many it seems.  Certainly,  it was something long forgotten by the time I went to the David Bowie is exhibit at the Victoria & Albert in London last month and had what is certainly the most extraordinary museum visit I have ever experienced.

Even as the exhibit is far too crowded (it is sold out; without advance planning, the only way to get in at this point is to have, borrow, or purchase the same day a year long membership to the V&A) and chaotic in its isolation (as a guest you wear headphones for most of the journey that trigger music and interviews to scatter across your ears depending where you are in the exhibit) it is a trove of memory, evidence and technique that spans Bowie’s history and puts tangibility to details you may only have heard in passing: Diamond Dogs was supposed to be a stage musical; he performed on SNL with Klaus Nomi; he uses a computer program that cuts up sentences from other sources into his song lyrics.

This archive of sketches, sound and video clips, costumes, and artifacts, however, is not actually the highlight of the exhibit.  Rather, it’s the other people there with you.

The structure of the exhibit renders nearly everyone completely silent.  If they make sound, it is unlikely that you will hear them.  Yet, sometimes I caught a random peel of laughter, or looked to my left or right and found someone staring open-mouthed at the video of a performance video of “Boys Keep Swinging.”  Then, unavoidably, I was put in mind of Velvet Goldmine when the character of Arthur fantasizes about pointing at a television performance of the film’s Bowie avatar Brian Slade and shouting, “That’s me Ma!  That’s me!”

But the true magic is in he penultimate moment of David Bowie is that leads viewers into a large, multistory room coated in video monitors.  There are some exhibits scattered throughout this space, but they are secondary to the visual and auditory display and the many seating areas provided finally for guests.

Everyone stares up, mouths open yet again (we are tiny birds, there to receive this very fundamental piece of pop-culture nourishment and benediction; after all, one of the exhibits main arguments is that Bowie is in everything, including us).  Eventually, people realize the sound is no longer coming through their headphones, but is piped into the room directly, and the isolation of the exhibit structure has gives way to the communal concert experience.

A woman near me laughed at the wonder of it, and a security guard tried to shush her, but the crowd told him no.  A man to my left had tears tracking down his cheeks.  I had to look away from a monitor close to the floor that showed 9/11 footage during a performance of “Heroes,” which for me in high school was a song about how I felt I would never be loved.  Later I had to sit down as the whole of the room lit up with that long-forgotten performance of “Bang Bang” on The Glass Spider tour.

Exiting the exhibit one is given the proof, no longer needed, that David Bowie is in all of us.  Photos of artists who have borrowed, begged, and stolen from Bowie’s various incarnations and looks, or even echoed him seemingly accidentally and disturbingly (Tilda Swinton must be noted, especially), line three walls.  A periodic element chart of figures relevant, some as influence and some as influenced, is painted on the desperately meaningful fourth. Sometimes I would see names – Harvey Milk – and have to look away.

David Bowie is argues aggressively that Bowie’s presence, if not his work itself, is necessarily political in our cultures, and personal in the way that it does not just inspire, but infests.  It reminded me of the relief I felt as little more than a child to see portrayals of desire and loss and otherness that I was entitled to access in private amongst the public.

And it reminded me that there are some strange gems in the Bowie’s canon, not just in the truly great albums (Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and the Berlin triptych), but in the lesser ones.  In fact, I walked out of David Bowie is with an obsessive need to revisit Never Let Me Down, and while I (re)discovered an album with many legitimately forgettable tracks and an excessive abuse of the signature-80s unnecessary sax solo, I also found in it the feminine counterpart to Diamond Dogs through “Bang Bang” and the rather spectacular “Time Will Crawl” that clearly returns us to the unresolved narratives of Hunger City.

David Bowie is runs through August 11 at the Victoria and Albert in London.

Nick Cave: A laying on of hands

(For the uninitiated, Nick Cave sings a lot of songs about murder, religion, and violence (often against women). His lyrics at times contain slurs, and his themes are often disturbing. In light of that, advance warning that this may not be the blog post for you).

The holidays have been a little funny this year, although in some ways, they always are: My mother is Jewish and my father tends to rotate through religions biannually and is the type of guy who has self-published his own version of the Bible. Combine this with two family birthdays in April (my father’s and my partner’s) and it can get more than a little wacky pretty quickly. Trust me, when Easter Sunday and the first day of Passover are the same day and the birthday of your dad who writes poetry in the voice of Jesus, things get a little intense and a lot weird.

This year, though, the holidays got cancelled.  A pipe burst in my parents’ apartment, flooding the entire space with about 6 inches of boiling water. This took down a huge part of a wall, destroyed the flooring, and resulted in significant property damage.  It was also a re-lived trauma; something similar happened about 35 years ago in which most of my mother’s artwork was destroyed.  She works in water color, my father in oils, so his work was fine.

it suffices to say, Passover got cancelled this year, and Easter was already off the table because I would be in the air at the start of a business trip.

But for all that I attempt to distance myself from some aspects of them, I am a product of my eccentric family and its religious shenanigans (I haven’t mentioned other conversions, various conversants with Jesus, or my late cousin who joined a cult which allowed her only to dress in red), and so the season and I didn’t quite pass each other by.

I’ve seen Nick Cave in concert dozens of times.  The first was about 25 years ago, in high school.  He was so drunk or high, that not only could he not remember the words to his own songs, and not only could he not read the words to his own songs successfully off of a piece of paper, he couldn’t even sit on the stool from whence he was trying to do this without falling off of it. 

I didn’t know what to think of it, and I suppose on some level, I didn’t care.  I had my freedom for a night in New York without lying for a change, and that was enough.

But despite that particular gig being the way it was, I didn’t lose interest in Nick Cave.  I’ve seen him with his band, The Bad Seeds; I’ve seen him solo, crooning as he noodled on a grand piano at Town Hall.  And I’ve always been mesmerized, by his jangly charisma, a sort of Neil Diamond spit up from the pits of hell to sing about religion and murder and drunks all taken out of some fictional, horrific, and supernatural Dust Bowl America.

So this past friday, I went to see Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds again, because I always do.  And while there are no terrible seats at The Beacon, I had terrible seats, up in the lodge, but I became thankful for them, nearly instantly.  Because when Cave took the stage, he crouched down, and beckoned the audience to him, cajolling them, praising them closer, telling them to ignore the security guards, come closer, come closer.

And, of course, eventually they did. 

When I was seventeen, and just a week or two into college, I walked up to Gaston Hall at Georgetown University in a rainstorm to see Cave play.  A lot of things happened that day and night, but one of them was that same beckoning.  And I was close to the front, so when he called, I was right there, and in fact watched half the show sat on the lip of the stage and twisted ’round to see him.  He sang “Hey Joe” just inches from my face, into my eyes, long fingers touching my hair.

To see him work that particular magic — and horror, there’s a lot of horror at Nick Cave shows — on Friday night was a moment come full circle.  For every gentle caress as he sang of murder or men who make bets with the Devil and win, there was also his palm smacking onto the top of someone’s head, a laying on of hands as they vibrated under him to the music.

I watched this for two hours, a hand over my mouth smiling into it, as Cave performed this ritual on dozens of fans, going out into the crowd at one point and saying no to those who would try for the moment twice.  And it wasn’t just girls this time, not like it was back in 1990, and I was grateful for it, because this a man whose songs I feel I can never recommend to anyone because they often contain lines like “a fag in a whalebone corset draping his dick across my face.”  Those lines, for the record, usually aren’t even the ones most likely to upset or offend; Cave has a lot of seven-minute story songs, and they are all a long dark road. 

In all these years nothing about his songs has really changed; some are slower, some are almost gentle; but it’s still a body of work that’s often about dead prostitutes (and lately mermaids, actually, but I think that’s just a one-album phase). The songs remain dark, unsavory, lit by a strange religiosity, and desperately romantic.

At Friday’s show Cave sang a lot of older ones I didn’t expect to hear: “Papa Won’t Leave You Henry” (from which the previously quoted line comes), “Deanna” (which is only particularly harrowing if you’ve heard him tell its backstory), “The Mercy Seat” (performed in the voice of a convict as he is being executed in the eletric chair), “The Weeping Song” (performed solo now that Blixa Bargeld is no longer in the band, a gesture I appreciate, even though the song, which tells the difference between children’s tears and adult sorrow, was always better as a duet), “The Ship Song” (perhaps the most shattering love song I have ever heard), “Tupelo” (which, clearly, it’s just easier if I link to), and “From Her to Eternity” (the night’s closest moment to Cave’s original punk days, but remarkably listenable to all the same).

And amongst all of this, Cave did it with a string section and a children’s choir from Harlem. 

Now, there are a lot of dead and weeping children in Cave’s songs; having children’s voices support many of those songs (even if the truly violent and disturbing stuff was saved for when they were off stage) was brilliant and weird and that possible step too far that a performer with his roots in punk should generally provide.

Even so, a man that I have seen give pretty much every type and quality of concert imaginable, managed to surprise me and discomfort me all over again.  Which is, of course, why I keep coming back.

Somewhere in there, as the people around me whispered about how they wished they were down on the floor where Cave was still beckoning and cajoling between verses and laying on hands during, I realized that nearly everything I’ve ever thought about what it means to be chosen, and the burden of that, comes from being one of those people on the floor as a teen. 

How silly, how wasteful, how secret and lovely, it seemed to me all at once. 

The children lifted their voices again, Cave referenced a great and terrible God with incredibly elusive mercy, and I thought about the email I would write to my parents about seeing the show, like this, on Good Friday of all days, knowing my father might well be offended and my mother vociferously jealous.

After and leaving, I overheard two conversations: One from a woman who had clearly seen Cave before and had taken her seemingly new boyfriend in the concert.  She was relieved that he had liked it.  The other, two people, probably around ten years younger than me who’d never seen Cave before. They were in that wow, what was that, wow place some of us go to after really good concerts.  I followed them to the subway, listening to them try to talk about the way Cave touches his audience as if they are customer and pilgrims.  They wondered if the people in the audience who got that close wanted to fuck him or wanted to be healed.

I shook my head to myself, but said nothing.  But 23 years ago when Nick Cave sang “Hey Joe” to me I stared him right in the eye and sung along when I could.  It wasn’t anything but a dare in my pretty little seventeen-year-old head, and that went both ways.

There aren’t a lot of interactions a person can have with someone we put on a stage, we put on a pedestal, we insert into a narrative that says we’re practically obligated to desire them, where you get to be that equal and that ferocious, no matter how much it looks, under those long fingers, like something else.

an stomach the themes of Cave’s work, it’s a never, ever miss gig.