Personas: Running from Valentine – David Bowie’s Other Egos

2C Valentine

As Lazarus prepares to open in Amsterdam, a glimpse at one of David Bowie’s most fascinating, incendiary and final creations. The enigmatic Valentine swooped in an unassuming fashion before seizing a supernatural life of his own and linking the reality with fiction…. (contains some spoilers for the musical Lazarus)

Valentine’s Day is Perennial…

DAVID BOWIE’S LAZARUS RETREATED FROM LONDON IN JANUARY 2017, CLOSING THE CURTAIN ON THE SECOND MAJOR LEG OF HIS FINAL WORK. Following popular runs on both sides of the Atlantic, the musical is shortly heading to Amsterdam, proving unlikely to disappear as the anniversary of Bowie’s death reaches its fourth year. It could never really disappear. For one, its interwoven into the final months of its enigmatic creator, whose final public appearance was at its Off-Broadway premiere in December 2015. That Bowie died just two days after the release of his 25th album, Blackstar, was only matched in horrific coincidence by the Lazarus cast recording being scheduled for the day the news broke.

Recording Days

Of course it’s much more complicated than that.

When the cast recording surfaced in October 2016, it laid a further – you can never say final – strand of Bowie’s final interwoven works. Attached to it were three final Bowie songs, themselves first heard and duly replicated in the cast recording. There was some closure to hearing those definitive Bowie versions. They added to the leitmotif of both album and musical and, despite sessions for Blackstar and rehearsals for Lazarus taking place in close proximity, give credence to the idea that Lazarus is his final work. Seen as such, it’s a fine monument to the young Bowie who once thought he might write musicals for a living, or the rising star of the early 1970s who thought he’d try his hands at adapting George Orwell’s 1984 for the stage.

But of course, it’s also much more complicated than that.

Blackstar’s title track bid a farewell, and set a possible fate, for David Bowie’s earliest meaningful creation when it emerged before the musical’s premiere. That was the doomed Major Tom, who in turn inspired and haunted Bowie’s work for four decades, whether suffering a mysterious mishap in space, inspiring a rhyming mantra or inspiring an alien cult. By the time of Blackstar’s release, Tom’s fate was overshadowed by that of his creator. The eerie video of Lazarus, also the opening song of the eponymous musical, saw Bowie retreat into a wardrobe decked in diagonal stripes that recalled a promo shot of Station to Station that had his Thin White Duke drawing the Tree of Life of Kabbalah in a white box room.

While the work of both studio, musical and associated sessions worked towards a crowning work for the artist, the white box room of Lazarus was stolen by one of his far more recent creations. One that was neither Thin White Duke nor Major Tom.

Valentine’s Day

Bristling with old school intent

Sat on the A-side of 2013’s The Next Day, Valentine’s Day bristles with old school intent six tracks in. Preceding it, the wistful Where Are We Now? was not only the song that returned David Bowie to the world after an all-too-long absence, earning him his first top ten in the UK chart for 20 years, but also the nostalgic highlight of the occasionally blistering album that recalled his Berlin period as much as the album’s Heroes obliterating cover. Following it, If You Can See Me continued the searing rhetoric of the album’s title track, drawing in lyrics of plague and devastation in a raucous, sometimes discordant duet of a threat.

But little did we know that in-between, hidden in a simple, guitar web, was a key to Bowie’s final work. While How does the Grass Grow? Picked up the familiar melody of Jerry Lordan’s much covered Apache on the album, Valentine’s Day had no need to sample and reinterpret.

Album producer Tony Visconti once described the track as having a “swagger”, purposefully framing instruments as if they were being played by a high school band. Indeed, said instruments are probably stand more distinctly here than anyone else on the album. But any illusion of amateurishness is skilfully achieved. In particular, there’s Earl Slick’s searing, yet lullaby, guitar line. It’s a riff that compares to his iconic work on John Lennon’s Double Fantasy or Bowie’s Station to Station. But as Slick graciously said, the old school chord changes, structure and sha-la-las are elevated by the lyrics.

On Valentine’s Day, Bowie delves very specifically into the psychology of a high school mass murderer, taking point as his confidante. The verses track the killer’s intent. The chorus comes with the biting, satirical sting of a classic rock song. A gleeful refrain purposefully summing up the shock wastefulness of the attack and implicating the stinging flash in the pan of 15 minutes of fame (a theme that runs through the album as a whole). Bowie’s implicated in the act; possibly powerless to stop, possibly not. The killer’s reduced in mind and physicality by the brief lyrics, from his “scrawny hands” that convey mass death, to his imagining of world “under his heels”. There’s possibly no line more biting than the repeated mantra, warning, threat, promise: “He’s got something to say / It’s Valentine’s Day”.

As Slick put it, these are some of Bowie’s “least cryptic” lyrics.

Visualising the Day

The zing of the close-up guitar strings

Emerging as The Next Day’s fourth single, Valentine’s Day made a further mark with its video. First single Where Are We Now? had sprung from nowhere, backed by a static, haunting artistic piece that reflected its melancholy reflection: Bowie joined by the unspeaking face of a then un-named female (artist Jacqueline Humphries). Second out the block, The Stars are Out Tonight was the LP’s lead video, a set-piece promo film of suburban surreality co-starring Tilda Swinton and prefaced brilliantly by a languorous bonus track. Title track The Next Day was baited Catholicism with a star-packed poke that kept Bowie to a rather amusing cameo at its end.

Valentine’s Day however, was a Bowie tour-de-force. It put the front man at the centre of a brightly filmed but pared back promo. Bowie refused any reference to weaponry, but just as the song defied its lyrics, the video defied the subject matter. And with devastating effect. Pristinely caught in vivid shots, Bowie grasps his G2T Hohner guitar, defying the stinging lead guitar that soars across the track. Full of shadow and menace, guns or the damage caused, may not appear but make their present felt through the reflection of the headless guitar, the negation of Bowie’s arms when not strumming, and the rhythm and the zing of the close-up guitar strings. Filmed at the Red Hook Grain Terminal, deserted since 1965, the effect is Bowie underground. The Intent clear to see. Co-director Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri described the process of Bowie pulling the character of Valentine out of himself as “scary to watch”.

Valentine’s Day is not the only song on The Next Day to reflect the politics or society of the time, or even an anti-gun/violence message. But it’s telling that the artist who’d described himself as “refracting society” some years earlier returned with the most political alum of his career after a 10 year absence. As his long-term keyboardist Mike Garson put it, Bowie expressed a situation “that others could resonate with”. And there was a great deal in the 21st century Bowie had once registered his disappointment with, to resonate with. The singer found that the advent of his new daughter, Alexandra, born in 2002, had “focussed his fears”.

That refraction of society tied back to an impression that had been there since Bowie was Ziggy. He greeted the 21st century as he continued, referencing and readdressing his past work and contemporary issues, even as his interest in the contemporary continued to focus. Bowie would never release another 7-inch single after Valentine’s Day, but this chilling character found a way to outlive his song.

Staged Days

This chilling character found a way to outlive his song.

As much as the inspiration for his character Major Tom came from 2001, or rather Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey of that name, Valentine was to be Bowie’s parting shot to the 21stcentury itself. Major Tom was occasionally personified by Bowie, Most notably in the video of Ashes to Ashes (1980), but was just as likely to appear alongside him, haunting his later work. Valentine surged in late in the day, ridiculed and unsettling in equal measure, but there was clearly more to him than the partial takeover of Bowie that the video’s director called scary. Valentine took his time, but finally broke cover to appear in the last possible work he could. He’s Bowie’s last great creation. A dark and unflattering one that outlived the biting satire of his origin and single song to leave a considerable warning for the new century.

Lazarus drew its inspiration from the Bowie starring film The Man who Fell to Earth (1976), forming as a surreal sequel. While the original film set many points of opposition and incipient threats for the alien Thomas Jerome Newton to contend with, it lacked a single convincing or compelling threat beyond his own self-destruction. Quite probably that was enough. But while Lazarus mostly inhabits Newton’s single room, it benefits from an elevated threat. Valentine orbits the action in a predatory, shrinking circle. His threat is an inspired and effective, if confusing, addition that makes a perfect shorthand for the various, more convoluted forces that contracted around Newton during the film. It’s also an essential upgrade for the 21st century stage.

The villain prowls the musical, and the tower where Thomas Jerome’s Newton has imprisoned himself, undying. While Newton is plagued by his own mind, Valentine’s developed from high school mass murderer, to an atavistic, dark and inhuman personification of earthly evil, if that wasn’t what he was to begin with. At one point, the wings of the Angel of Death stretch from his back as black ink to dominate the stage. That’s after one savage and prolonged stabbing has blotted the main screen with the blood of a victim whose own happy story he’s inverted and used against him.

Valentine is one of the main carriers of the heavy scent of death that hangs across Lazarus, ostensibly the story of a character who simply cannot die. “A dying man who can’t die,” as Newton calls himself, he’s caught between a lost soul of the dead and the creeping, irrepressible dark side of humanity. While Newton can follow the span of Bowie’s career, including the nostalgic Where Are We Now? Valentine resolutely remains a creation of his time. He carries the darker songs from The Next Day album that spawned him, including his own title track, and Love is Lost and Dirty Boys.

And unlike the original video, Valentine brings utter and unmitigated violence to the stage.

While a compelling creation that stays with the audience after the curtain falls, he’s most importantly a warning, the realisation of that contemporary fear that was at the back of his creator’s mind. Despite the sad tales or memorable songs that circle Newton and his maybe muse, the Girl, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Valentine has broken his mould and jumped somewhere he shouldn’t.

As Lazarus faded from the London stage, almost certainly at the end of its original form, it’s not difficult to imagine that Valentine will find other ways to hang around. The 21st century may have brought us precious little David Bowie, but it still managed to enhance his influence. Valentine’s Day is perennial after all. And if it really is very nearly Valentine’s Day, this creation is ready to tell us more about ourselves than his every-cryptic creator.

First published on Niume, with minor changes, on 25 January 2017.

Discover the lasting appeal of Major Tom, if not his fate, with the first of our Bowie Persona posts

Personas: Chasing Major Tom – David Bowie’s Other Egos

Bowie Major Tom Persona

His fate remains shrouded in jewel-encrusted mystery, but David Bowie’s first significant creation had staying power. The enigmatic Major Tom remained his constant if infrequent companion through accidents, addiction, life…

“There’s Old Wave. There’s New Wave. And there’s David Bowie.”

SO RAN THE CATCHY RCA ADVERT FOR HEROES IN 1977. FOR THE TIME IT WAS A STRANGELY ASTUTE SENTIMENT, NOT JUST FOR BOWIE’S SKILFUL DODGING OF PUNK, BUT FOR THE LEGEND THAT WOULD GROW OVER THE FOLLOWING THREE DECADES. As January 2016 proved, record-label sanctioned as that slogan was, it remains one of the best descriptions for the unique space that Bowie carved for himself in rock, pop, and popular culture.

It wasn’t surprising that the news of David Bowie’s death early in 2016 overwhelmed fans. An outpouring of shock and grief surged quickly as if to stem the news and force it back to a dusty, neglected channel where it could be quietly ignored. But the truth was out, and the collective response gained a life of its own. From the shock of friends, admirers and those who were just lucky enough to coincide with him on Planet Earth, sentiments of grief and respect emerged and merged as people sought to explain the unexpected, if not inexplicable.

Whispered through the streets of Brixton where Bowie was born. Under the ladder rungs of the letterists and signwriters, clipping their messages of solidarity to the front of bars, venues and cinemas. Carried across the Atlantic to the sidewalks of New York where Bowie spent his final years. Past the doorways of Lower Manhattan and the Magic Shop studio that had done so well in keeping Bowie’s secrets during his final years.

How could David Bowie, the chameleon, the popular king of reinvention, have gone? It was a ruse, a natural, supernatural, extension of his transformative personas, an exploration of identity… Bowie was always more than the music. Any glimpse of mortality while he was alive led to a quick collective pinch, reaffirmed in a fandom that stretched across patchwork decades. Yes, even the 1980s. As Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne once put it: “That’s why it’s never occurred to me, ‘oh he’s just a man’ – and that’s cool.”  But the news that hit Bowie’s birth town around 7am on 11 January wasn’t cool. Coming just two days after the release of his 25th album, there was a bundled mystery to unravel as the cold news settled in. A final gift, even if it wasn’t.

If it was true…. If Bowie really was just a man who could succumb to something as banal as death, then surely this was just part of an immaculately laid act of exquisite art? Almost 20 years ago Bowie played an artist straining to transform death into the ultimate artistic statement in the Scott brothers’ anthology series The Hunger. A concept derived, but not following Tony Scott’s film of the same name, where Bowie had taken one of his more prominent roles as a doomed, used and abused vampire. Life wasn’t imitating art in 2016 even though death was a recurring element of Bowie’s music and performance.

When the recently re-monikered David Jones broke the charts amid the zeitgeist of the 1969 moon landing, an ambiguous death was at the heart of it.

Major Tom’s Launch

The tallest of tales

Major Tom wasn’t David Bowie’s first character, but he proved to be his most enduring. He was there when Bowie broke, after a good few years of chancing his hand across various bands and solo performances. The mesmerising, conceptual and punning masterpiece Space Oddity was recorded in February 1969 and featured on Bowie’s promotional film Love you till Tuesday. But it was when the song was re-recorded in late spring and released over the summer that saw Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon that it soared to number five in the UK charts.

The tallest of tales, spaceman Major Tom was launched into space only to fall victim to an accident beyond his control, possibly. It rolls out against a psychedelic, intriguing song structure that’s as catchy as the fate of the astronaut is uncertain. Folk, pop, rock, prog, it’s all there, simmering in a way that couldn’t possibly be so predictive of the decades that followed. From the song’s title to its musical references, it was easy to imagine Tom’s fate was the same as that of his near-namesake David Bowman in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But while Bowie’s Major Tom may have been trapped in similar ambiguity, he proved to have greater, inextricable links to his creator.

Major Tom’s Intervention

A different Bowie emerged in the 1980s, ready to reference himself as he entered the decade that would bring him the greatest commercial success.

Bowie would fail to trouble the charts for the two years that followed his imperiling of Major Tom. By that time he had morphed into the glam, androgynous alien Ziggy Stardust and found success with a new Starman. But Bowie never forgot his original extra-terrestrial. In the midst and on the back of his new success, Space Oddity was re-propelled to the top spot of the UK charts in 1975.

Whether or not Major Tom’s destiny was to become some kind of Star Child like David Bowman, Space Oddity remained in Bowie’s live performances as the 1970s rolled on and would be re-recorded and re-released further times as the ’80s approached. As he recorded across the world, Bowie’s need for personas lessened just as they had gripped his psyche so tightly during the mid-’70s. A different Bowie emerged in the 1980s, separated from the arch-addiction that had accompanied his critical success and ready to reference himself as he entered the decade that would bring him the greatest commercial success. The preceding 10 years had seen him prematurely retire his most famous alter-ego before reworking and resampling his work between successive albums. But on Scary Monsters he didn’t just pull an unexpected pop tune out of the bag but gave us a surprise update on Major Tom to space-boot. Spoiler: It wasn’t great news. As Ashes to Ashes ominous refrain left us in no doubt: he was now a junkie.

It was quite the comedown from potential Star Child. But he did receive an upgrade in the iconic video for the song. On video, the Major became Bowie, hanging from proto-Matrix life-pipes in one of the piece’s barely-euphemistic references to drug addiction. That’s when Bowie wasn’t heading a beach procession as Pierrot clown.

Less visually, it’s ominous. Even if the lyrics aren’t dredged for drug allusion, there’s a grim account of the “Action Man” in a torrid state. By the end of Ashes to Ashes, Tom’s become a legend, a legend that’s taken a pounding. From orbiting enigma to his creator’s intergalactic fall guy. He’s a warning, related in a fairy tale mantra, far removed from the direct quotes Bowie wrapped Space Oddity around.

Regardless of the tragic turn of events had befallen the Major, he still accompanied Bowie to the top of the UK charts once again in 1980.

Major Tom’s Haunt

Tom wouldn’t return until the following decade when Bowie asked the Pet Shop Boys to remix his industrial track Hallo Spaceboy. As singer Neil Tennant recalled, the song required a second verse and the Boys drew on the cut-up technique that Bowie had helped promote when penning many distinctive tracks in the early 1970s. That was, after all, how we discovered the Moonage Daydream. By randomly reassembling the lyrics of Space Oddity, Major Tom found a stilted way to break into Bowie’s career once again. The garbled lyric gave little away about Tom’s fate, although Tennant thought that the Major had been abandoned in orbit, rather oddly floating in an old Soviet “tin can” they can’t afford to bring home. When put to Bowie, he responded, “Oh, that’s where he is…”

By the 1990s, Bowie was collaborating with the artists he’d inspired. In turn, they were not only influencing him but reintroducing him to his own work. Or unlocking his own work to him in different ways. Tom’s shallow appearance helped Spaceboy‘s collaboration to number 12 in the UK charts.

Pickings were slimmer still for the spaceman in the following decade, although it’s impossible not to see Tom inhabiting the astronaut suit that both comforts a young girl and haunts Bowie in a sound booth during the video for Heathen‘s 2002 track Slowburn. The single’s cover – Bowie striding to camera, his head imposed on a model’s body, holding a baby – reinforces the link.

Slowburn wasn’t released as a single in the UK. As Tom slipped to visual cameos and his chart power waned, it was easy to think that his ghost had finally faded.

Then there was 2015.

Major Tom’s Fate

The lyrics of Blackstar can be flipped to Tom’s perspective.

The lyrics of the title track of Bowie’s 25th and final album Blackstar are opaque, but Tom is there if you look for him. Video director Johan Renck certainly saw him on the periphery, guided by Bowie’s concept illustrations. Unseen since the Ashes to Ashes video 35 years before, we see an astronaut’s body lying on alien world, discovered by a tailed female who takes his inexplicably jewel-encrusted skull to be worshipped a relic.

It’s a beautiful and affecting piece, the visuals posing as many difficult questions as the 10 minute track that backs it. Or should that be the other way around? Again, the lyrics of Blackstar can be flipped to Tom’s perspective, but it’s the video that remains the most compelling tribute to the space adventurer who was there at the beginning. Renck saw this astronaut as “100% Major Tom,” and his reappearance proved to typical of the enthralling ambiguity in Bowie’s final collection of works. And of course, while it appears to offer Major Tom’s story another, possibly definitive, conclusion, it also manages to raise a whole new set of questions of what happened to Bowie’s longest-serving creation after Space Oddity. The longest-serving creation who so often managed to make his presence felt without really being there very much at all.

Bowie spoke fondly of Tom throughout a career that the doomed astronaut had played a considerable part in launching. Perhaps it’s inevitable that he would find a way back at the end, even as other more prolific alter-ego rivals were baying for attention.

So it proved with melancholic irony, even after Tom’s storybook had closed.

Of the wealth of classic Bowie tracks that rose up the charts in the weeks that followed their creator’s death, Major Tom’s original starring slot rose to a hugely impressive 24th position in the UK charts.

But wouldn’t you know: He was second by six slots to the Starman of 1972. Always the astronaut, never the starman. Every time the original.

First published on Niume, with minor changes, on 12 January 2017.

Discover more in our Persona series with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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