The “Narratives”

Dear Diary: today I met a number one packet sniffer

The Diary of Nathan Adler (Bowie performance, fragment, CBC, 1995).
The Diary of Nathan Adler, Or the Art Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle. (plus annotations!)
“You Don’t Wanna Be Painting Your Face Like That…” Or, The Beautiful, It Won’t Rap, She Won’t Dance, Very Tricky Piece.

As I’ve said before, all this is true. Not that I’ve got anything against fiction—which is easily said, because nobody is writing it any more anyway. Nobody—they’re simply writing nonfiction that never happened.

James McCourt, Time Remaining.

At the end of 1994, Q magazine was preparing its 100th issue, a celebration of itself. Q asked Bowie to contribute, wanting him to keep a diary for 10 days and to send them the entries. As he was recording in Switzerland at the time, Bowie figured that a day-to-day account of his life would be “incredibly boring.” Instead, he asked himself “what would Nathan Adler be doing?” As Q warned its readers, “he’s written a short, strange, story, bits of which may or may not be autobiographical. The computer illustrations/portraits are by him as well.”

The “Diary of Nathan Adler, Or the Art Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Belew”* which Bowie reprinted in the CD booklet of Outside, became the “storyline” of Outside, the intersection between its characters and the songs that ingested them. Bowie had come up with names, voices and possible motives, and in the “Diary” he arranged the characters in a narrative. Well, not really. There are a number of ways you can consider the Diary. Here are a few to start:

1) Anti-Mystery.

The difference is that in the traditional detective novel there must be a solution, whereas in ours there is just the principle of investigation. Detective novels are consumer products, sold by millions, and are made in the following way: there are clues to an event, say a murder, and someone comes along and puts the the pieces together in order that truth may be revealed. Then it all makes sense. In our novels what is missing is “sense.” There is a constant appeal to sense, but it remains unfulfilled, because the pieces keep moving and shifting and when “sense” appears it is transitory. Therefore, what is important is not to discover the truth at the end of the investigation, but the process itself.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, interview by Susha Guppy, Paris Review, The Art of Fiction, No. 91.

While some of the Diary comes out of what Bowie had been watching, like Twin Peaks, Romeo Is Bleeding and possibly Wings of Desire (in the latter Peter Falk, essentially playing Columbo on vacation, walks around Berlin talking to fallen angels), there’s also the taste of French “Nouveau Roman” authors like Robbe-Grillet, who used the template of the detective story but withheld things like a plot and a resolution.( Robbe-Grillet’s Le Voyeur (1955) is about a crime that may not have occurred: the details change with every chapter.) So Bowie constructed the Diary in this vein: a set of contradictory flashbacks, precise “meaningless” details and vague “critical” ones, the reader forced to play detective, to no avail. It ends on a cliffhanger.

2) Analog Web Page. The Diary is a transcription on paper of what should have been a Web page, where its sentences would have been sewn through with dozens of links. The Diary breathes only through its portals. Confined to paper, it dies.

3) Art-World Snooker.

I favour the clever con artist who remains intact to the committed Fine Artist who ends up with his arms cut off or even worse (in the case of that Austrian blockhead—he would be Austrian, wouldn’t he?—with his dick cut off). I mean this is so romantic, it’s ridiculous…”the artist must suffer for his art.”

Brian Eno, “Internet conversation with David Bowie,” Q, January 1995.

Bowie had joined the board of Modern Painters, was conducting interviews with the likes of Balthus and was collaborating with Damien Hirst (standing on step-ladders and throwing paint at a spinning canvas). In 1995, Bowie had his first solo exhibition, at the Gallery on Cork Street (“New Afro-Pagan and Work, 1975-1995″; we’ll get a bit more into this in a later entry). So the Diary is a vicious little satire of the contemporary art world. Read in chronological order, the Diary lists the ante-raisings of a generation of “body” artists, from the Viennese mutilationist/fakers like Schwarzkogler to Chris Burden getting crucified on a VW Bug to Ron Athey’s “scarification” art. It also includes Hirst’s shark and lamb cadavers and the return to vogue of the death-obsessed fashion photographer Guy Bourdin (the heroin-chic waif look of the mid-Nineties was derived from Bourdin). So Ramona Stone’s alleged “art murder” of Baby Grace is just the next stop on an increasingly desperate line, and one soon outfoxed by reality. (Bowie in 1995: “Murder may be art. If you get away with it. Like, perhaps O.J. Simpson.”)

There are mixed motives here. Bowie was trying to break into a new game, hanging out with the hip new British artists like Hirst and Tracey Emin, and he seemingly wanted to be taken seriously as a painter. But the Diary and his later gleeful contributions to the “Nat Tate” hoax, in which the writer William Boyd created a fake Abstract Expressionist painter who’d supposedly killed himself in 1960, also suggested that Bowie thought the contemporary art world was credulous and ridiculous.

4) “Verbasised” Babel. The Diary is simply Bowie arranging sets of random words spewed out by his automatic cut-up word dispenser program, the “Verbasiser.” One tell is the “11:15 AM” entry, in which appears a raw block of Verbasiser text that includes the repeated words “RA Stone,” “Caucasian,” “saints,” “martyrs,” “tyrannical,” etc. The subsequent entry, “June 15 1977,” is what Bowie conjures out of those words. Note how many words from the Verbasiser stack he uses (e.g., “Caucasian Suicide Temple”) in it. The Diary is a crazed copybook of randomly-generated sentences.

5) Musemapping; Pre-Criticism.

I suppose you can never tell what an artist will do once he’s peaked.

The Diary dates in the “past” (July 1977, October 1994) coincide with periods of high creativity for Bowie. In the summer of ’77, he had been in Berlin, finishing Lust for Life and about to start “Heroes,” while in autumn 1994 he was deep in the distillation process, turning the raw Leon material into Outside. The Diary is an indication that in late ’94, Bowie felt the most inspired that he’d been in well over a decade. But it was also a way for Bowie to craftily frame critical discussion about Outside, directly linking the album to his Berlin period. And it worked: it’s all but impossible to find any review of Outside, past or present, that doesn’t mention the Berlin-era albums (this blog included, natch).

6) Tragedy. The world of Nathan Adler is a cruel, bloody and empty one. Fourteen-year old girls are eviscerated for art; Mark Rothko delicately slashes his wrists; mothers go missing, children are snuffed out. The young pierce and ink themselves, unconsciously following ancient tribal rituals but lacking the religious transformations those rituals had enabled; they merely believe that their bodies are the only sacred thing left to them. There are severed limbs, diamond-studded umbilical cords, webs of intestines, bloodstained tissues hung on wires. The galleries are full of bleeding men and the bisected corpses of cows. There’s no one noble in this world except sad Adler, a last soldier of narrative. He wanders along, serving as a witness and inadvertently as a conscience.

7) Gag Reel. Bowie wrote the Diary in a couple of days as a way to irritate/befuddle Q and his fans. After he released Outside, he never thought about it again. Well, there are a few nights when he will laugh over a bottle of Malbec, recalling how absurd the whole thing was and how wonderful that it’s become the subject of tortured, tedious blog analyses. He sips his wine, then flips open his laptop to write some more one-star reviews of Morrissey albums on Amazon.

bowie meets tricky!

Don’t hide the fragments. They’re all we’ve got left.

Q was a sucker for punishment. A few months after it published the Diary, it asked Bowie to contribute another article. This time, the assignment was for Bowie to interview the musician Tricky. Q possibly envisioned “Paul Weller Meets Noel Gallagher” or “Ray Davies Meets Damon Albarn”: a dues-paid member of an Important Pop Generation bestowing his credentials upon a worthy young aspirant. Instead, Bowie turned in something completely batshit.

“”You Don’t Wanna Be Painting Your Face Like That…” Or, The Beautiful, It Won’t Rap, She Won’t Dance, Very Tricky Piece” is a fiction (were it not for the accompanying photos of the two, you’d never guess Bowie and Tricky had really met) and the sequel to the “Diary of Nathan Adler,” with Bowie casting Tricky as Leon Blank (so Tricky as a character he inspired) and himself as a British Adler.

Opening with an ode to Tricky’s muse, his singer/partner Martina Topley-Bird (You, Martina, sang me down, under the turf”), the piece has “Bowie” looking for “Tricky,” prowling through the “low bars of Bristol,” being told that Tricky’s left for America, although he’d been “spied by the Magpie girl only last Thursday, slipping in and out of shadows down by the quay, drawing black lines on his own posters…the phantom was known to move as a group of one.”

jones and thaws

So Bowie sets off, gumshoe style, on the trail of Tricky Thaws. What follows is a text stuffed full of industrially-mixed metaphors (“the dark wisps of rumor trailed him like two-ropes and now I was reeling him in“), name-drops of other Bowie current faves (“round the corner of the building disappears a guy called Gerald“), an Easter Egg hunt’s worth of Massive Attack and Tricky titles: blue lines, black steel, Karmacoma, Maxinquaye, round the corner. And a few lines which have the flavor of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow:

But meanwhile the quiet English faces on the front row, in what could have been the glow of shepherds’ fire-baskets, nodded out their fleeting thoughts as they were Overcome. So this is the slow shimmering speed that loaned a few moments of the future to us all?

Bowie eventually finds his man. They climb a 97-story building, chatting as they ascend, occasionally scaring the cleaning ladies. They talk of “the War,” of the “haunting ’90s,” of the perils of being young again (“you’re tweeny-little, just a speck of a spindly-stick…by the time you are a teen, you’re in your renegade chapter”). Then Tricky, whether out of malice or mercy, kicks Bowie in the arm and Bowie falls to his death. His appointed successor has claimed his throne, and it’s a fine thing. This album is over. It was the best of chimes. It was the hearse of chimes. Here come the horse to drag me to bed. Here come the Tricky to fuck up my head.

“Nathan Adler” first appeared in Q 100, January 1995 and became the liner notes of Outside; “You Don’t Wanna Be Painting…” was in Q 109, October 1995.

*I don’t have the issue of Q, just a transcription of the Diary from it, and so to my knowledge very few, if any, alterations were made to the text when it was reprinted in Outside. While some sources have the Diary originally subtitled “The Art Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Belew,” a majority have it as “Blue.” Was there originally a joke about Adrian Belew in the title? Anyone who has the issue, please let me know. [edit: and it was Belew after all---see comments.]

Thanks to commenter Sean MacGabhann, who made the Romeo Is Bleeding connection in the previous entry.

Photos: Text in a sea of subtext; oblivious young men; masked marvel bums cigarette from spiv, 1995.

32 Responses to The “Narratives”

  1. s.t. says:

    The bit about Leon’s convictions for “plagiaries without license” seems to give credence to your interpretation of the character as a nod to Tricky, whose music was based on samples.

  2. BenJ says:

    Of course one reason that Outside is always mentioned in the same breath as the Berlin trilogy is the popular misapprehension that all four albums were produced by Brian Eno. Obviously, Tony Visconti is thrilled about that one.

  3. postpunkmonk says:

    Well, I certainly don’t mention “Outside” in the same breath as the Berlin trilogy. Rest easy, Tony!

    The “Nat West” hoax is something I had not known about prior to seeing it in this blog only recently. That ties in with another Bowie/Hoax connection that occurred in 1999. That was the year that John Lurie made a [wonderful] fake outsider album that was allegedly the work of “Marvin Pontiac,” an institutionalized proto-bluesman who “drifted forever and permanently into insanity.” What did David Bowie have to say about it on the cover sticker?

    “A dazzling collection! It strikes me that Pontiac was so uncontainably prescient that one might think that these tracks had been assembled today.” – David Bowie

  4. Steve says:

    Note on your note on B-Songs Extras:
    “There’s both an Oxford Township and an Oxford in New Jersey (town’s in the township). Neither of them has the Museum of Modern Parts…”
    Yes, but there was a “Museum of Modern Art” in Oxford, UK at that time (now Modern Art Oxford.) It’s a series of studio spaces with no permanent collection that hosted some key exhibitions of the YBAs in the 90s – I remember going to a Jake and Dinos Chapman show there, for example.
    This is, of course, of no particular significance.

  5. Steve Mallarmy says:

    Well, this is an interesting period culturally where Bowie tries to play hardball with the ascendant Young British Artists. In the YBAs and the whole Outside non-linear hypercycle, with its explicit nods to the deconstructed detective novels of the Nouveau Roman (not just Robbe-Grillet but also Duras’s L’amante anglaise and quite a few others), what we seem to see is the beginning of a new iteration of postmodernism. It’s a move away from the self-concious version of the eighties (Koons, Schnabel etc) towards a sort of retro-modernism, where the key artists are looking back to high-modernist conceptual art that dates back to Duchamp, where Bowie takes on the late-modernist Nouveau Roman, where modernist architecture comes back in fashion (glass fronts and polished parquet being the default aesthetic in the 90s), etc.

  6. nijinska says:

    Minor correction… I think you mean Guy Bourdin, not Anthony (who’s a TV chef I believe).

  7. Momus says:

    I would actually say that Nan Goldin is responsible for the heroin-chic waif look of the mid-Nineties, because she influenced Corinne Day.

    Bowie’s texts really stretch my fandom to its absolute limits, because I’m also a big fan of the English language. Never have the words “to be continued” been more terrifying. Thank God, being Bowie, you know the promise will never be honoured.

    The prose is very sub-William Gibson. I’m not a huge fan of Gibson either, nor JG Ballard for that matter — that “oh, the modern world is so modern, so very very amoral” stance seems like the flipside of, and complement to, a fear of modernity — but at least they write solid, evocative sentences.

    “One-star Morrissey reviews” made me laugh!

    As for Bowie’s stance of satire towards elements of the British contemporary art world, the feeling was somewhat mutual. I once had a rather unpleasant conversation with Damien Hirst’s gallerist, Jay Jopling, about Bowie. It was in Paris, after a catwalk show, about ten years after Outside came out. Jopling was full of praise for Elton John, whose suite in the Ritz he was staying at. Elton, he said, knew a lot about contemporary art and had great taste. Bowie didn’t. He’d had Bowie in his office pleading for a White Cube show, Jopling claimed, and had sent him packing.

    The drunken gallerist then started pontificating on how you just needed one good idea, repeated endlessly, to make it as an artist. As he headed back to the bar, I remarked to the person sitting next to me: “That’s Jay Jopling up in a nutshell: one good idea, flogged to death.” Jopling happened to be descending a staircase directly behind me as I said it. “Watch it, Nick, I heard that!” he hissed.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I love this period so much

    Interesting comments from many around who/what Bowie was taking on at the time, but ultimately the subject isn’t what interests me. What really makes this period sing is the fact that he took on ANYTHING so completely (and by completely I of course mean with the pre-requisite amount of detachment and irony. Ahem)

    But he took most of his eggs, but them in this one basket and ran with it. And it’s fascinating. It’s the ultimate conclusion to his oft-told anecdote about art being a car-journey where it’s ok to crash.

    I loved Momus’ comment about the texts stretching his fandom to the limit – I barely read the pieces when they came out and re-reading them now I’m no more in love. But they helped flesh out this whole…. Thing. You could listen to the music, the narratives, read the interviews with him (as well as anyone else in the recordings), read the texts, look at the artwork – and whatever you thought of the end product, there was a layered, textured, flawed-but-intriguing world here

    Another thing I like about the era was that, especially early in the live shows, we were spared the ever-more-pervasive chummy Dave persona. Instead we had a more aloof, cold Bowie, performing these strange songs (old and new) and leaving us to fill in our own blanks

    As it happens, I quite like chummy Dave and all that goes with it. But when that’s all one gets on stage over several years it becomes a bit unsurprising and detracts from the sense of occasion after a while

  9. blast it – that last post from Anonymous came from me – thought I was logged in. Sorry

  10. I have the 100th issue of Q Magazine. Definitely Belew.

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      I was convinced I had that 100th issue in my attic, but when I checked, it turned out I hadn’t.

      The Adler short story, if you could call it that, was essentially unreadable. Fandom was not enough for me to stick with it.

      Bowie’s writing – what I’ve seen of it anyway – is wobbly and undisciplined, but one can sense that he has innate talent there too.

      I think this became more evident in the 90s and 2000s, where you see some lovely turns of phrase in his lyrics.

      e.g. “No footprints in the sand” says an awful lot in a few lovely words. (If I get Bowie’s meaning correctly.)

    • col1234 says:

      thanks, Matt! Wonder if it was changed because Adrian Belew actually had a teenage daughter at the time. not the most tasteful thing DB could’ve done.

      • Maj says:

        Oh. Definitely not tasteful. If I were Belew I’d punch him to be honest. Maybe he did. But I hope Bowie himself realised how inappropriate it was.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        The whole ritual-art-murder-of-a-child thing is not the greatest of DB notions. For me, it’s distasteful and exploitative. Not to mention sophomoric. You’d have to wonder what was going through his head really.

        I may be wrong on this, but I think the song Wishful Beginnings – coldly effective in the way it wallows in sadistic horror – was removed from later releases of Outside. And with good cause, if true.

        Maybe somebody had a word in his ear in the wake of real-life horrors like Fred West.

      • David L says:

        I agree, Mr Tagomi. Distasteful, sophomoric. I find the album so incredibly unpleasant that I have a hard time listening to any of it. It’s the sonic equivalent of visiting Buffalo Bill’s lair in “Silence of the Lambs.” When the album first came out I thought it was just a misguided effort to be “edgy” in the vein of Nine Inch Nails. Now I wonder if a lot of this misanthropy is simply a frustrated artist’s reaction to a world that ignored a heart-felt piece of work — the wonderful Buddha of Suburbia.

        Or maybe I’m overanalyzing the situation. :) In any event, with a few exceptions (Hello Spaceboy, Oxford Town) this album is not a place I like to visit.

  11. Maj says:

    I bet everything option 7). :)
    Great write-up Chris! Not sure if the diary deserved all this effort. Bowie should pray to you every night. ;)

  12. postpunkmonk says:

    I’m with Mr. Tagomi and David L. This was just Bowie responding to the zeitgeist, like he usually does, but that was a foul time for humanity, with the serial-killer event horizon infecting popular culture and resulting in things like “Se7en,” which was like having my head dunked in a bucket of vomit in an effort to achieve profundity. Never had I seen so many millions of dollars spent in an expression of adolescent misanthropy! The worthless nihilism of NIN was just more grist for the mill, in my opinion. That it triumphed while the infinitely more humane and adult Killing Joke languished in the shadows was insult to injury.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Actually, Se7en is one of my favorite thrillers of recent decades. Basically, when you get right down to it, it’s a morality tale – albeit a very dark one – about what it truly takes for people to engage with human evil on a day-to-day basis, especially big-city detectives like the two main characters, worn-out veteran William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and hotheaded rookie David Mills (Brad Pitt).

      One is certainly entitled to his or her own opinion about the worth of movies like Se7en or The Silence Of The Lambs (or Twin Peaks, for that matter). Such grisly tales, after all, are hardly for everyone. But remember, the artists and filmmakers are not conjuring up these horrors themselves. They are simply reflecting the fears and preoccupations of the age. Remember, you can always ignore the messenger if you find what’s being said that repellent, but just think twice about shooting them. (And there are always the more fanatical among us who are very much inclined to do just that…literally.)

      • s.t. says:

        I don’t know, I think that Se7en could have been so much better.
        My main problem is David Fincher, who cared more about his aestheticization of sleaze than any moral component. He’s a mood director, and he crafted an effectively creepy mood. But how is a person going to be “woken up” by John Doe’s acts of violence if every day life in this city is such a depressing, dangerous hell anyway? Wouldn’t it have been much more effective as a morality tale to condemn similar “sinners” in a more conventional, everyday urban setting?

        Then there’s the fact that the “twist” ending depends upon an unsatisfying fulfillment of the killer’s “sermon” on the seven deadly sins. I couldn’t tell if John Doe was truly guilty of envy, or it we was just strategically so. And how was his death related to envy? Plus, as far as we know, wrath got punished rather lightly compared to the rest, in a polite, wrathless manner.

        Nitpicking perhaps, but I feel like the movie gets away with murder (so to speak) for the sake of a thrill, and its structure as a morality tale is but a convenient formality.

      • Diamond Duke says:

        John Doe’s acts of violence are not the point of the story, and I don’t think it was the intent to use them to “wake up” the viewer. Just because a homicidal killer in a movie believes he is acting in the name of a higher moral purpose, that doesn’t necessarily mean the filmmakers believe it. And nor should the viewer! (But that seems to be a rather subtle distinction that more and more people seem to be incapable of making these days, alas… :()

        Rather, what’s at stake is the whole issue of how people are supposed to do battle with evil in a world in which traditional concepts of good and evil have seemingly become relativized – or at least fraught with ambiguity – and without completely losing their way. I mean, let’s just forget about John Doe and his “mission” for a moment. It’s a storytelling device, okay? Instead, think about Brad Pitt’s character, David Mills. He’s a character with a very basic and honorable purpose in life: To make a difference in the world, protect the innocent and punish evildoers. Pretty straightforward, right? But his whole understanding is very black-and-white, very Manichean, and he is cursed with a very volatile temperament and a tendency toward violence – or wrath, if you will. And our killer, John Doe, is able to exploit that characteristic and turn it against him in the end.

        The point that Se7en ultimately, and so forcefully, makes is that one cannot dissociate themselves from evil and sin. No matter how good our intentions, we have to be on the lookout for the darkness within ourselves.

      • s.t. says:

        Ah, from your sarcasm, it seems that my post came across as a bit jerky. That wasn’t intentional, so I’m sorry if I offended. I really thought the movie had potential, but was simply disappointed with the results.

        I still feel that this exploration of the ills of moral relativism and would be more incisive and compelling if the city was itself more ambiguous and less blatantly amoral. Yet the sleaziness and danger is amplified for stylistic effect, Fincher’s stock in trade. In fact, after watching extras from the film, and seeing how much time was put into kinky details that only got a split second of screen time in the final cut—like the items in John Doe’s room—it seems obvious to me that Fincher’s motivation for doing the whole film was to create these spectacularly macabre set pieces.

        I am confused about your take on Brad Pitt’s character. He’s brash and perhaps a tad hotheaded, but I wouldn’t say that John Doe had unlocked an evil within him. David Mills was no doubt guilty of a crime, but let’s not forget what happened to his wife. Jail or no jail, wrath or no wrath, his life would still have been ruined by the extreme deeds of a psychopath. And to me, someone who tearfully shoots a man who has just flaunted his dead wife’s severed head has not fallen prey to the sins of wrath. If anything, it was righteous indignation. Many courts would judge it to be a crime of passion. So what was the lesson, other than “apply to work in a better neighborhood?” Other than trying to fall on John Doe’s antiquated notion of morality, I’m at a loss.

        In any event, I did enjoy Fight Club. The creepiness worked for me that time.

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        I totally agree D.D. Really, I couldn’t believe what I was reading in some of the responses to this particular thread. Inappropriate”, “tasteless”, ‘”unpleasant” ? Seriously, these sort of PC buzz-words should be saved for the next meeting of concerned parents against naughty F-words in school text books.

      • Diamond Duke says:

        My thoughts exactly, S-PS. I too have little patience for PC rhetoric (even if I am left-leaning), but I do apologize to s.t. if I came off a little bit too abrasive. ;) I think there is perhaps merit to the criticism that Se7en‘s whole air of grime and sleaze is perhaps a bit too stylized to be realistic, and the look of the film itself is something that could most generously be referred to as “fashionably distressed,” and was perhaps a bit too influential on countless lesser films that appeared in its wake. But I don’t necessarily hold that as a strike against the film itself.

        One thing which binds all these ’90s pop-culture phenomena, with all their preoccupations with violence and moral decay, and connects them with Bowie’s Outside, is this effort to come to terms with a world in which traditional moral values seem to no longer hold sway and we can only see shades of gray. (The Silence Of The Lambs has been mentioned more than once in other people’s comments, but I think that the sequel Hannibal is even more explicit in that sense.) Where is goodness? Where is love? Where is simple human decency? It certainly hasn’t all disappeared. In fact it becomes ever more precious because one has to fight harder for it and ask tougher questions of ourselves – and never to make simple assumptions of anything.

        And BTW, not to belabor the obvious, but one should realize that left-wing “political correctness” and right-wing “moral propriety” are actually two sides of the same coin – a false binary which needs to be transcended in the name of faith, hope, love and human progress.

        Rant over! Nothing personal… :D

  13. Diamond Duke says:

    Several observations…

    David Bowie’s whole concept for Outside, and the whole thing with The Nathan Adler Diaries, is very much in keeping with what he’s done in the past with The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and Diamond Dogs. By which I mean, there is no real narrative or story to any of these pieces, but Bowie manages to get a great deal of mileage out of the idea behind them, conveying the whole notion of an alternative reality in extremely broad strokes. Unlike, say, Pete Townshend or Roger Waters, Bowie is no real master of story or narrative and probably doesn’t have the patience or the attention span to plot one out. (And even Townshend and Waters convey their narratives – notably Tommy, Quadrophenia and The Wall – in rather broad strokes!)

    Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs are often thought of by some as “concept” albums, possessing a storyline of one sort or another. But Bowie never ever really gives us anything like that. We are only generally aware that Ziggy Stardust is a vaguely pansexual alien being (or possibly androgynous human granted special powers and given ubermensch status by extra-terrestrials) who plays in a rock ‘n’ roll band, and is ultimately done in by his own excess and hubris, and we are only generally aware that the Diamond Dogs are some sort of gang of (possibly mutated) droogs running amok in the streets of some blighted, desiccated cityscape in some Orwellian totalitarian society of the future. Likewise, in Outside, we are generally made aware of a scenario in some dystopian future – specifically the turn of the millenium – involving the murder of a girl named Baby Grace, which is being investigated by a detective named Nathan Adler and involving some kind of demimonde art world in which such personae such as Ramona A. Stone, Leon Blank and Algeria Touchshriek prominently figure.

    But…as with Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs, there is no actual “story.” It is up to us as listeners to fill in the blanks and to make what we will of these particular worlds. How do we feel about them? What do they say about the world we live in, and where society is going? And David never provides us with any answers. He lets us find our own way. And we are actually provided with a great deal to work with, because if ever there was a popular music artist whose work aided and abetted the listeners’ subconscious, it’s David Bowie! I think this owes primarily to the fact that his particular lyrical sensibility is very open-ended, not really nailed down in any kind of specific way. Therefore, much leeway is left for each individual listener to fill in the blanks and invest the songs – or overall concept – with his or her own meaning.

    BTW, in my own humble opinion, the David Bowie album which is the most thematically consistent and which miraculously holds together in a conceptual way is Lodger, which I sometimes refer to as Bowie’s “accidental concept album”! (Which is oddly appropriate for a disc which had an original working title of Planned Accidents…) The overriding themes for much of the songs involve feelings of wanderlust (African Night Flight, Move On, Red Sails) in a kind of psychological tug-of-war with the need for personal responsibility and accountability (notably Fantastic Voyage and Red Money, which bookend the record). You also have an apparent running commentary about the ideals and demands and pressures of Western society (in particular the back-to-back placement of Boys Keep Swinging and Repetition). In a way, it almost feels like a series of snapshots of the inside of Bowie’s skull, and the impression one gets. as far as any overall statement is concerned, is simply “Welcome to my world, suckers!!” (As of 1979, perhaps.) But…as I’ve already implied, perhaps that’s simply the way my subconscious relates to it! And therein lies an example of the way I relate to a particular David Bowie album…

    • col1234 says:

      i generally agree, but certainly there’s a lot more “official” storyline material this time ’round, from the liner notes to the cast photos etc. (By contrast, anyone that tried to make sense of Ziggy had to hope to find a stray comment by Bowie in an interview (where he was just making it up wholesale)). This sort of “data overload” which explains nothing reflects DB’s thoughts on the information-glut of the just-about-to-be-born Internet age—-one of the many things he was playing with. Likely get into this a bit more on some entry, or maybe on the Tumblr.

      also, IMO, the most coherent Bowie concept album is the very first LP.

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        Further to this idea of data overload and information glut, there was a computer magazine which featured a write-up on Outside when it was first released. It summarizes Bowie’s Outsiders as “being trapped in a descending spiral of sensory overload, with no absolutes and no ideals, just a maelstrom of stimuli”. Which to me sounds like the Internet in a nutshell.

  14. humanizingthevacuum says:

    “Bowie’s texts really stretch my fandom to its absolute limits, because I’m also a big fan of the English language.”

    the prose in Outside‘s liner notes is terrifying, yeah.

  15. diamond dog says:

    With all the background story published at the time most would have expected a tightly structured narrative. …when you play the music ythe story disappears and has holesvin the plot as big as a ridley scott movie. The articles were dull and album at the time for me was someone trying very hard to evoke past glories….there is some bold strokes in there and flashes of hreatness but as a whole it falls flat.
    Diamond dogs and ziggy do have a thin narrative punctuated by the odd tune which dont fit at all but are perhaps new stuff laid down very quickly and thrown in the mix. Dogs is i find very narrative driven given the 1984 inspiration most of the material fits especially the 2nd side. Its almost i think 2 projects crow barred together due to orwells wife i feel.

    • Maj says:

      With Dogs I feel I might give the songs more narrative meaning than they actually have, because I read 1984. It’s obvious he took a huge inspiration from it but the story (if there is one) of DD is not the story of 1984 even if I sometimes connect it that way.
      …If that makes sense.

  16. timspeaker says:

    Big Picture: Outside and it’s peripheral components (the diary, Leon Tape, etc) continue to bring about meaningful discussion and dialogue concerning art, philosophy, history, and sociology in ways no other artist could. This, IMO, validates the Outside project unto itself.

    PS – yet another sterling, superb piece of writing on what has become THE final word on Bowie-ology. Thank you for your efforts!

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