It took me a fairly long time to get through Adam Steiner’s excellent book about my favorite album, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). With almost every chapter, I’d stop and want to write something of my own in this verity blog, which slowed my pace. Well, I finally finished it, and though I already wrote much of what came to mind while I was reading the book, I have a few “final” thoughts. I have the word “final” in quotes because I have a feeling this won’t be the last time I at least make reference to the book.
The book is about one album, but Steiner manages to work in both a theory of how to interpret Bowie’s music in general, based on what Bowie himself said, and also a theory of Bowie’s larger philosophy. The former is well-articulated but nothing actually new. As for the latter, however, I never encountered anything like Steiner’s before and found myself not only relating to his version of Bowie’s philosophy but wondering if on some subliminal level this is part of my attracting to Bowie’s music in the first place.
Interpreting Bowie’s music
Someone said of this blog that I go wide and deep. This is true. Especially some of my more recent writings really take the handoff from Bowie and sprint down the field from there. Over the years, Bowie indicated that’s how he wanted fans to receive what he’s giving them. His best songs are usually cryptic and tough to take literally. This is what Steiner, too does in his song-by song analysis. How is he seeing what he’s seeing in some of the songs? Well, he might be seeing something that Bowie didn’t put there.
For instance, he quotes Bowie saying, “What people see in my songs is far more interesting than what I actually put into them.” Steiner then goes on to explain, “The liminal space from the lyric to lyric gives us the spark to make our own imaginative leap with no claim to definite interpretation; the more oblique, the greater the creative distance traveled…messy ends are left open and undone to let new meaning bleed through…”. He bolsters this view by again quoting Bowie talking about the writings of William S. Burroughs, “using the wrong pieces of information and putting them together and finding a third piece of information— it’s what our life has become…’ (p.208)
Much as Steiner took Bowie’s clues and constructed his own meanings for the songs, Bowie himself found meaning where none was originally intended: “His innate sense of musical play echoed Eno’s Oblique Strategies card ‘Honor thy error as hidden intention’” (p.96)
Again, Steiner’s observation here is not original, but many of his interpretations are, at least to my knowledge. And that brings me to his larger interpretation of what Bowie was about…
The life philosophy of David Bowie (according to Adam Steiner)
To Steiner, “Bowie’s major project was to try to become more than oneself, to push against limitations” (p.45). It’s through this lense that he interprets everything else about Scary Monsters, and by extension Bowie’s entire artistic output.
I learned from the book that the opening lines of the song, “Up the Hill Backwards,” came from a book about art by Dadaist Hans Richtar. Though the Dada movement, at least to my understanding, was about highlighting senselessness, the idea that “Up the Hill Backwards” could be heard as a Dada expression paradoxically makes sense:
“Richtar’s thoughts express the existential hinge at the heart of Bowie’s song; we are free to do anything but often remain inhibited either by state controls and economic situation, or by tunnel vision around which we build walls of ‘can’t’ for ourselves: better to complain of our situation, as if we were powerless to act, denying our fear to grasp life by the throat” (p.49)
To Steiner, Bowie was all about agency. He was constantly fighting against societal forces trying to fit him into a box: “…true freedom lies in taking control over one’s life rather than coasting along, harried by gatekeepers, expecting new opportunities to be made for us” (p.49).
Bowie strived to push himself past his own limits, and use adversity and resistance as inspiration: “Creativity comes from obstacles, limitations and questions.’ [quoting Bengt Holmstrom][ His view suggests that finding something to be in opposition to, even if it is an element within yourself, gives us renewed power of resistance- on Scary Monsters, deviance becomes liberty (P.49-50).
Bowie wouldn’t even stay confined to his own original thoughts. He’d break up the songs he was in the process of writing, replace or rearrange words and come up with something new: “Shifting through the aftermath of destruction as a nihilistic form of creation.”
Bowie seemed to recognize his limited time and wanted to make the most of it. “Don’t waste a day,” (p.170) Steiner has him saying. Steiner also has him leaning on a quote from a Buddhist Monk to, “try to make each moment of one’s life one of the happiest, and if not, try to find out why (p.171). Yet Bowie didn’t seem like an especially happy person, at least not in 1980. He described himself as having achieved a kind of happiness, but to my ears it sounds like Bowie meant he’s something else: “I’m happy that I am going the way I considered I would be going when I was eighteen years old, which Iso holding on to nothing, no one; continually in flux’ (p.170) As he sang in the 1970 song, “After All,” “Hold on to nothing and he won’t let you down.”
So, departing for a moment from Steiner, this is to me another example of Bowie striving to escape pain rather than to truly achieve pleasure. I wrote, a few days ago, about how Major Tom in “Space Oddity” flees the carping press wanting to know whose shirts he wears by floating into the solitary void of space. Major Tom was truly holding on to nothing. And I’ve written elsewhere that while space, for Bowie, was sanctuary, time was the enemy. The songs on Scary Monsters don’t directly address time, but Steiner’s depicts Bowie of being constantly aware of time. He rails against wasting a single day, while striving not to get stuck in the past: “‘It was very hard for people to see me as anything other than the person in the suit who did ‘Let’s Dance,’” said Bowie, “‘and it was driving me mad— because it took all my passion for experimenting away.” (P.220).
Yet Bowie’s relationship with his own past material was paradoxical. He was never satisfied with it and didn’t want to wear it, like he wanted to continually prove that audiences were coming for his work, not his reputation. But, as we are reminded by “Ashes to Ashes,” a song that directly calls out to “Space Oddity” from more than a decade past, Bowie was actually quite self-referential. Steiner’s explanation was that, “there was no time for looking back unless to plunder or revisit material. That is, to recycle and refashion.” (P.95)
I find all this appealing. Steiner’s Bowie held himself to a higher standard. His life’s mission was to do as much as he could. One result is this great album, the merits of which Steiner summed up nicely:
“The broad and enduring appeal of the album established the phrase ‘Bowie’s best album since Scary Monsters.’” (P.210)