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

David Bowie: Can’t Get Enough of that Doomsday Song: Bowie & The Next Day

bowie2

A review of sorts of the original creation, as the extended edition of Bowie’s most successful album in two decades is released into the streets and alleys.

AN ALBUM COVER WITH A MORE FAMOUS ONE REMOVED.

Or is it covered up?  It’s a blatant statement with a fair splash of Duchamp, but it represents a whole lot more.  This is Bowie playing on and with the past, and that monochromatic statement is an ideal set-up for the album itself.  An album that is, after all, called The Next Day.  Many concepts were dreamed up in pursuit of the ideal cover and now the success the album has inevitably spawned an extended edition with something a little more complicated on the cover; the square has become a cube (though it’s not called The Next, Next Day or any variant on, sadly).

The original album sits rarely in the Bowie portfolio by not, really, featuring his face – not that it isn’t even more noticeable by its absence.  Of course Bowie’s never got criticism for his photoshopped selfies, because he was doing them way before the words Photoshop or selfies landed on the planet. But he’s always been one of the more integral workers in the field, slavishly pioneering and pushing identity and image with every album as he fell through genre after genre.  And through it all, there’s always been the eyes – surely his most definitive trait amongst the chameleon; effortlessly adding the otherworldly- although only sometimes a manipulated version of the truth, and only a minor facet of his act – even now.

The Tracks

Sight and vision, and particularly eyes, come with added impetus in the video for The Next Day, the title track that blistered fingers as it tore from the traps as the album’s third release.  In the promo, Gary Oldman’s priest enters an ‘establishment’ with a woman carrying her eyes on a plate.  The link of course is St. Lucia, the martyr whose name is linked with the Latin word for light and who’s predilection for proffering her own eyes on a dish is directly lifted.  The Patron Saint of the Blind endured a particularly brutal martyrdom. After rejecting a pagan bridegroom she was condemned as a Christian and sentenced to be defiled in a brothel.   When she was saved by dint of being so filled with the Holy Spirit she was otherwise untouchable, she was tortured and either lost her eyes in the process or removed them herself to preserve her virginity…  The details have become lost…  Particularly in the eyes of Catholic critics who missed the reference.  Although, surely no one can miss the rather tongue in cheek send off in the highly figurative film.

Concepts of early Christian martyrdom tie heavily into The Next Day song, a storming opener for an album that was introduced by the wistfully deceptive trawl to the past Where Are We Now?  That is perhaps the most explicit link to Bowie’s 1970’s Berlin era on the album, as the cover would suggest, but certainly not the only one.  The mid to late 70s riddle the first half of the album, like an old friend and deceptively savage reminder at the same time.

As an album opener, The Next Day is a blistering example of old/new Bowie: a far more effective beast than has been evident since his drum ‘n’ bass days.  The title track is a deep dark trawl through the latest tomes that have fascinated Bowie, as was supposed when the album was announced.  It’s the messy travails of a medieval tyrant, with its first person not-quite-a-chorus allowing a punk screech and one of Bowie’s best vocal performances on the album. From its final call to action of ‘Listen’ – identical to the warning on Low’s Breaking Glass, it sets up a disconcerting agenda for an album that surprises and hits you in the face with its relevance. Religious and historical ties abound, and more overtly pagan than Christian, but tied up in an impressive tense-twister.

The Medieval tyrant and finger pointing at Catholicism in the video may seem simple, but the anti-war songs, ongoing examination of aging, high school shooting constructs and celebrity take downs that it sits among are certainly not.  It’s a cohesive package all the same and, of course, the album is underlined by romance that has flowed in and out of Bowie songs all his career – whether they name check Crowley or The Buddha of Suburbia.

The Next Day propels us into second track Dirty Boys, a different kettle of fish – or perhaps riot kettle of fish.  A brass beat propels a song that trades youthful civil disobedience for Caesar’s famous cry at the Rubicon.  But what challenge is the singer undertaking in crossing that river?  Running with the Dirty Boys may well be a call to get back into the mix or a statement that he still is.  Either way, the tremendous almost award stopping success of The Next Day has brought him back in.  He’s more relevant than simply repeating Caesar’s statement before crossing a forbidden river, but it’s clear that should he get back to the warm safety of Rome, he’s going to stay icy.

The Stars Come Out Tonight is a gleaming Bowie classic, that’s almost too classic, too Bowie.  It had the honour of the long-form video (combined with bonus track Plan) probably for that very reason.  The chord structure recalls some of the lighter touches found in his previous three albums.  A decade later, he’s found a way out of much of the light if haunting synth that was often found there, but he’s still retained the Bowie formula.  To describe it as Bowie tackles celebrity piece is a disservice.  For every Brad and Kate he name checks, the video shows that it’s all about Bowie.

Next, Love is Lost – released at The Mercury Prize hosts a disarming and unsettling video that cost a rather brilliant $12.99.  Here the synth beats of lost trilogy between Hours and Reality is back, but it’s more distorted. More vital.  Bowie’s back to the awkward, tragic youth name-checked on Reality’s title track, and is a far cry from the calls to action of his the songs that once opened Hunky Dory.  There is darkness behind the song – but while it’s awkward and rightfully discordant, it’s also a great lament for love.   It may seem one of the least referential tracks on the album, particularly the 70s focussed first half, but the remix video sets that straight.  Starting off with Bowie near a sink as in the Thursday’s Child video from the late 90s, it moves on to a puppet that unmistakably has a Thin Whiteness about it. Similar to the Where are We Now? video, Bowie’s singing face is projected onto an avatar, but this time a puppet version of the Pierrot clown from his Scary Monsters phase.  Along with the Ashes to Ashes refrain in the remix, included on the Extended edition, brings the 1980s rather joltingly into The Next Day, but it works.  The fixed, jarring beat of Love is Lost and its tortured attempt to rationalise aging by contrast sits well on the album, sliding seamlessly into its most retrospective song, that first single Where are We Now?

In the album, it reminds why it was an extraordinary come-back song.  It’s now a gentle reminder of the shock announcement in early January that the chameleon was emerging from isolation.  That emergence wasn’t as much of a surprise as its sure-footedness…  Like the song itself, it was brilliantly extraordinary.

When Valentine’s Day was released there was little controversy.  Perhaps the papers were asleep or reeling from The Next Day’s religion–baiting.  Or perhaps the song’s spiky riff and “sha la las” – the Elvis-era kick-on he’ll never give up – just slipped it beneath the sensationalist press.  A simple video for a challenging subject, most noticeable is Earl Slick’s guitar, finely piqued and so nearly recalling his legendary work on 1976’s Stay.  It’s a closer production, but again shows that The Next Day buzzes urgently between Station to Station and the Berlin era albums in the latter half of the 1970s.  There may be puns, but they’re pointed and the light lyrics carry biting sentiment, especially in light of his adopted country.

If You Can See Me signals a half-way change.   Musically, it’s either something that Bowie’s pushing or working out of his system.  Recalling his various dance experiments, but perhaps more the jagged discordance of Lodger, it’s overwrought and brilliantly uncomfortable. Crescendo’s crash out of little, but  its searing lyrical sneers pave the way for the album’s real relevance.

When the 21st century kicks in, the 70s retreat a decade.   “I’d rather be dead or out of my head than training these guns on those men in the sands” Bowie sings on I’d Rather Be High.  Its repetitive rhythm is slightly militaristic, clashing hypnotically with a psychedelia – one that can’t help recall the Vietnam songs that surfaced as American rivals in his formative career.  Peaking in the bridge, his pleaded first person crawl back to 17 years old sits uncomfortably with the song’s modern upheaval.  In fact it’s a little odd, effectively odd.  this album isn’t about comfort.

Things get darker and simpler with Boss of Me, another song that wears its slight modern Americana on its sleeve.  Here Bowie again reaches for imagery of the sky again – a common theme in the album – but beneath the bitter sweet romance and sense of companionable hope, cities burn.  It’s one of the dark and rhythmic hearts to the album.  As usual, there is the hint of biography built on giant battlements of imagery.  The mellotron piping and melodramatic lyrics hand it middle eight of the album for me, again recalling the sixties.  Notably, the co-writing credit for such a brass heavy song goes to Gerry Leonard, the latest great guitarist of Bowie’s acquaintance.

Dancing Out In Space recalls famous pop pilgrimages with its nautical,  allegorical beginning.  The kind of stuff that enriches The Beach Boys’ Smile or laid down a mythic base for The Klaxons’ early promise.  The quest returns as Bowie finally makes it back to space.  But while he’s broken through the sky, this is no Fantastic Voyage.   The rush to the first chorus seems a little quick, but in a stripped down album, Dancing plays a big part in its central hope. it’s also somehow a bit dad at a wedding via the Big Bopper.

The discordant peak is claimed by How Does the Grass Grow?  It’s Boys Keep Swinging revisited once again, that song once so blatantly aped by Blur and remodelled twice by Eno and Bowie.  Here however, it’s merged with the Shadows’ classic Apache.  But the occasional Pin Ups covers project that Bowie’s kept rolling through his last couple of albums is gone.  Instead, he brings a new streamlined raucous version of Apache to the heart of the song.  A rather horrid almost-a capella, it’s could be the sneer of a man happy to be alive. But things aren’t right.   Apache is more western than ever, but this time the boys are lying lost…  The graves are back amid the repeat “Blood, blood, blood”.

If The Next Day represents anything, it’s the return of Bowie the lyricist.   I’ve a soft spot for what I’ve termed his forgotten trilogy, but the decade away has clearly been kinder to his lyrical sentiment.

In the past week, Lou Reed’s passing inevitably turned me back to Transformer and then almost naturally on to Iggy Pop’s work with Bowie in the 70s.  I couldn’t helpt he transition.  Bowie was supposedly rather in awe of Iggy’s ability to improvise at the microphone, but there is a huge strength in Bowie’s clinical precision, with its insights and implications and intellectualism.  That’s where the relevance lies in this album.  Between those two masters, Lou Reed’s lyrics and delivery are the perfect mid-point.  In How Does the Grass Grow?, four and a half minutes reveal a number of startling lyrics, from gazing in defeat at the stars and the feeling that “returns with the day”.

(You Will) Set the World on Fire advances the political agenda, but again linking back 50 years to the early 1960s with a huge number of direct references.  Spiky and searing, it’s once again Slick powered.  Next, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die returns to the beginning, nearly nicking a line from a song the hero he shares his birthday with: Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel.  A march powers the ballad before sinking into an exit beat lifted straight from Ziggy Stardust’s Five Years…  It’s an extraordinary composition.  Although ostensibly one of the simplest, it’s production is pure stadium.  It’s not only a companion to Rock And Roll Suicide, but a song where Bowie can once again powerfully visit that ‘room’.  The one that’s blue, blue electric blue…  Or indeed the one where he’s been breaking glass… It’s long been a room of bloody history and needs to be in this album. It’s the room full of questions, and here he’s leaving more than ever.

Heat provides the album’s powerful closer. Harking back to Heathen’s closing Sunday, this is a more obscure prayer structure, filled with imagery, allusion, and confusion… Theatrical, and open-ended, the faux-biography whine of ‘My father ran the prison…” falls away into “I am a seer and I am a liar”.  Said it before, will say it again:  Repeat until the next album.

The Bonus

Bonus tracks on the original release Deluxe Edition show that The Next Day‘s quality wasn’t restricted to the album’s 14 songs.  In fact, the album’s leanness makes the bonuses a delight.  So She is a captivating nursery rhyme, with its heavy nautical themes and killer chorus melody.  Here the skies are sleeping at last while hope arrives courtesy of the other half of Scott Walker that Heat ignored.  Plan, the curtain raiser to the album’s second single is urban, 21st century spin on the Low’s Speed of Life. I’ll Take You There is a compulsive guitar track that provides a far more fitting album close.  From the clearly established opening, “Today, today is the 1st of May” this track – again co-written with Leonard – moves from crashing and catchy lament to a call to action and yet more questions.

The Vital

Solid openings, heavy percussion, the rock in rollicking – that’s the lifeblood of The Next Day. Megalomania sits there more often than not, from tyrants to contemporary mass murderers, brought into focus by biting guitar and changing tenses.  If it’s untroubling for Bowie to portray these characters it can’t simply because he enjoys the controversy baiting; their reflections are all too easy to make out.  The relevance and rage that sits alongside is incredible considering the average age of the album’s contributors and that this is the first album Bowie’s produced in his 60s. It’s loud and tinged with blood.  It says far more important things than many young bands’ debut releases, and maybe that’s the point. What’s happened?

Is it the equal of Berlin?  Is it the greatest rock comeback of all time?  Those are questions that some reviews posited.  The answers need to settle alongside the questions.  It may be one, either or both – but there isn’t a short answer.  It’s an album riddled with death as much as vitality.  It’s prickly and live.  It’s vital.  that’s it’s most important statement.

And of course…  Poets often wait to hear what subconscious findings others dig out of their work.  I’m sure that Bowie’s no different.  The appeal of his previous albums, his forgotten trilogy that concluded 10 years ago, wasn’t simply drawing resignation. There was always a room next door he’d written something awful in.  Our room.  Listen.

Read more about David Bowie’s Forgotten Trilogy here.

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