“I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” – David Bowie
The late David Bowie’s influence on pop culture is so wide and all-encompassing that one might not even notice it until it’s too late, even to a former slightly homophobic SS15 punk. Our Editorial Director, Ben Liew, looks back at how the (Black) Starman had affected him growing up…
All my life, I have tried to avoid David Bowie to no avail. Ever since I saw his crotch and crazy eyes and wig (or was it his real hair?) in Labyrinth, I had nightmares of the Goblin King coming to take me away, to turn me into a goblin-muppet-choir member. I was 10 at the time. Maybe 8. I’m trying something new here where I use minimal referencing to keep it real – gonzo.
Over a subpar VHS copy with hissy audio, my sister would say something like, “Jennifer Connelly is so pretty! I think she has beautiful eyes,” or some shit like that, and I would go, “Yuck!” Because I hadn’t reached puberty. Young-adult Jennifer Connelly and 30-something David Bowie were the only real human actors in the film; every other character was either a muppet or a dog as I remember.
Anyway, this was back when movies had memorable songs. At the moment, I’m biased because I just watched the new Charlie Brown movie and it had no songs. WTF? The theme from Snoopy Come Home fucking rules, you Hollywood turds! So ANYWAY, I was watching Labyrinth with my sister and thinking how innocent Connelly looks (which is why I can never watch Requiem for A Dream [again])… when all of a sudden Bowie/Goblin King breaks out into song. The two songs in the movie, ‘Magic Dance’ and ‘As The World Falls Down’, are two ends of the emotional spectrum – one a happy, dance song about babies and magic; and the other a tale about falling senselessly in love. Okay, that’s not happy-sad. That’s happy-happy. But I guess aesthetically it was two ends – energetic muppets vs. crying while stalking someone’s Facebook.
David Bowie is… Everywhere
David Bowie is… Nowhere
If you don’t look, you won’t notice him. I don’t mean to be a music nerd (as you can see from the lack of reference checks – nor do I seek to be artistic in my words – journalistic, maybe) but WTF is going on with all these posers posting memorials about David Bowie. Where were all of you when I was roaming about Subang Jaya back in the ‘80s and ‘90s? All the fuckers were talking about Nirvana and nuthin’ else! The irony! One of Nirvana’s popular covers was ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.
Then I realised, that apart from it being Malaysia pre-internet, that Bowie was one of those artistes that had to be studied to be truly appreciated. It wasn’t that his music wasn’t pop enough, around the ‘90s he would have been a middle-age rockstar, a legend nonetheless, but not the kind of hero a young punk like me would take note of despite the Pepsi commercial he did with Tina Turner in the ‘80s.
David Bowie came back on national TV, late ‘90s. MetroVision aired The Hunger (which I think aired some uncensored scenes due to the guy with the scissors not being able to understand WTF was the series about and eventually dosing off). Around this time, I saw ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ on MTV and decided not to check Bowie out any further. In my memory, the song sounds scarier than NIN.
If I were to be really honest, around my kicking-shit-round-SS15 days, I was probably a little homophobic too. I had a gay friend in high school, but he was keeping it a secret, of course. So naturally some of the kids who found out started to make a big deal out of it and my mind was polluted with all sorts of horrible images (mostly set in jail). David Bowie’s androgyny worried me. Do I have to become a cross-dressing bisexual to be a talented rockstar? That’s a Harian Metro headline right there (eat shit, cow-worshippers!). Also, it was around this time that my dad passed a book to me – Rock Star Scandals. There were stories about Elvis Presley pill-popping, Led Zeppelin trynna shove a baby shark up a groupie’s pie hole, and bizarrely, a Nazi-saluting David Bowie who favoured fascism. At the time, I didn’t yet realise that his comments were taken out of context like Bob Dylan before him.
It’s entirely impossible for an artiste to articulate politics. That’s because art is pure and politics is Croydon. (See what I did there? I just gave the real Bowie fans something to chew on).
The fact that today, skinheads in Malaysia are so entangled in left and right politics-cum-drama and still fighting each other, only serves as a reminder to me that things don’t change, so don’t be bitter. All of the punks at the time in SS15 were either unaware of Bowie’s works or would just write him off as a rich, fascist rockstar (without realising what the term actually meant).
Luckily, national TV also aired a special from American Network, A Tribute to Little Richard. To quote the end of Bowie’s speech’s in verbatim, “… and thank you for turning race-music, into pop music.” Oh yeah, there was also this weird but cool dude, the only guy with a job in IT amongst the lot of us punks, who was into Morrissey and The Misfits at the same time (this was like “OMG!” in the ‘90s). He knew all about Bowie, glam, glitter, dressing up like a girl à la New York Dolls; Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Trainspotting… I remember him passing me a pirated VCD version of Velvet Goldmine (a fictional movie with characters inspired by Bowie and Iggy Pop). “Why so gay one?” I would ask my older friend. Then one day he became a custom officer and moved out of Subang Jaya, and just like that there was no more talk of anything ‘cept for hxcore, crust punk, anarcho punk, veganism, DIY, collectives, scenes, blah, blah, blah… all good things but it was like going back to school again. Man, fuck school.
It was around this time, I made a conscious decision to stop hanging out at SS15.
Sometime after moving out from my folks’, I went on a perilous trip to Koh Pha Ngan. It was perilous (or “sudden-death” as my now bassist and housemate Khang called it) because I had just met this crazy dude in a house party and we were young and had an appetite for experimenting with our minds.
If you’re expecting the usual drug faux-glorification that appears once in a while in my pieces, sorry to disappoint you, there’s nothing much here to talk about (at least for now). But in the bus on the way to the Thai border, I’m shuffling headphones with Khang, swapping music we have on our iPods (this was February 2006). I’m coming to think that Khang and I didn’t share a lot in common musically due to his previous 10 recommendations (all trance tracks) and the valium killing my desire to talk about music, when suddenly, he played me a Velvet Underground song.
Now, the Velvets and Bowie shared a similar history not just in pop culture, but also to my story here. You see, I disliked the Velvet Underground as much as Bowie at the start (well, maybe more ‘cause John Cale’s violin + Lou Reed’s guitar’s feedback = vomiting on acid). I only liked a couple of Velvet songs, so when Khang put on ‘Sweet Jane’, our musical friendship finally began. Don’t ask me why I was taking a trip out of the country with a guy I just met at a house party in the first place… Don’t get drunk at house parties too, you might make grand plans that might actually happen next week, valid passport or not.
After the ‘trip’, I came back remembering the Velvets playing every morning in our beach shack, and occasionally when we hijacked the resort’s restaurant’s soundsystem; for the first time via the wonders of the internet, I looked up Bowie’s back catalogue and did what any kid with torrent did. I ate up all his albums, but of course, the first real listen to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was the best and will remain that way. So I guess I was growing to like David Bowie and The Velvet Underground simultaneously.
Let’s Dance ‘til the Party Ends
Now I know I’ve said some shitty things about Twilight Actiongirl (TAG), Loft, and Barsonic, and yeah, probably half of it still stand though I’ve forgotten the most of it, but as far as validation goes for your music taste, if you did not recognise the foundation of rock (among the many songs that were played time and again by TAG), then you probably should watch a couple of BBC documentaries because there is a wealth of art in the past that most kids at the time (and even now) were unaware of. Now, the internet brought great things but it also gave us electro house (which was also played by TAG, or electroklash, whatever).
The whole indie disco, nu-rave, electrocrap, LapSap, TAG, whatever you called it… DJs were widening the music playground at clubs. Before this, it was pretty much those 10 tracks that Khang played me before putting on ‘Sweet Jane’. Yeah, yeah… there were hip hop, r’n’b, house, techno, and all that duh duh duh music… I guess the more serious ones from the older DJ gang wanted to be Kraftwerk. The rest wanted to be shit.
ANYWAY, there comes a time, like before, when you outgrow your small group of friends and want to connect with other KL-based Bowie and Velvet Underground fans. Well, Loft was the place to do it. There was a lot of music chatter going on outside the club, or in the restrooms (amongst the music nerds lah!). People were just happy that someone was playing all that goddamned music that was pretty much ignored in KL. You wouldn’t always hear Bowie, actually it wasn’t that often, but you’d hear Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, and The Stooges, you’d get your history of proto-punk right there on the dancefloor and still be able to chat up some girls.
Nowadays, when I think of the good times I had on those Friday nights, I remember two things: Long Island Tea jugs and that music sounds better with good company. It’s cheesy but that’s TAG for those of you who remember it that way, and I wouldn’t change anything about it. It was the most fun I had seeking out music. Now, all you have to do is turn on BFM and wait awhile until the next Bowie track comes on or follow some influencer’s Spotify account (depending on who the influencer is, you’re bound to get a Bowie track or two from one period or another of his illustrious career – there’s something for everyone in his catalogue).
I remember asking Daryl Goh when I was on a work trip in London in 2013, “Should I go for the David Bowie is… exhibition?” “Why would you want to pay to see an aunty’s clothes?” he fired away in the manner of a typically jaded DJ-journalist. Fair enough. We both knew the answer. Shit thing was that when I finally got the time to go to the museum, the exhibition was a full house and I was denied entry. They were turning people away.
Afraid of Mexicans
I hated school, no brownie points for picking that up. But the time I had to sit through a six-hour lecture with Tony Visconti, Ken Scott, and Nile Rodgers, I was wide-awake. After nearly 24-hours of travelling and a bad case of jetlag, I was wondering around jilted in New York City (even after a week). The event, Classic Album Sundays (part of Red Bull Music Academy 2012) featured an hour-long talk by three producers followed by a listening session of each of their albums that they worked on with Bowie, right after their individual speeches. “Goddamit!” I thought to myself.
How am I going to keep awake for all this? Why couldn’t they have just played the albums last after the talks? Well, it wouldn’t have been the same.
I would mark this down as one of the most powerful events I’ve ever attended. Most of the producers’ speeches are online on the Red Bull Music Academy site, so I don’t want to repeat content here, but I got to mention here that Nile Rodgers cried during his speech. He was indeed touched that a down-and-out David Bowie during the ‘80s had given him the opportunity to produce Let’s Dance, which eventually saved Nile’s career as well.
I got into a conversation with a white dude who had a hippie exterior; he was the only one there who could sit on the floor with his kneecaps touching the floor. After a while he asked if I were Mexican. I told him I might as well be. “I’m sitting here with three of David Bowie’s top producers and I feel like having an afternoon siesta. This is nerve-wrecking being in the same room with these guys. Same time tiring ‘cause I’m jetlagged.” So he said, “Why don’t we go talk to Tony Visconti? He looks free now.”
Next thing I know, hippie dude and I were speaking with Visconti about … well, this was where a huge potong stim moment took place and I blanked out due to exhaustion and I just can’t remember the conversation. I returned to my hotel that evening, skipped dinner and went to bed at 7pm, in fucking New York City, the city that never sleeps! But for a chance to meet David Bowie vicariously via his producers, it was worth it. We can be heroes with enough rest tomorrow. Only problem was, my flight back to KL was in less than 24 hours, that’s why I recall wondering around the Lower East Side at 6am on a Monday morning, clueless and looking for some action.
Keeping in mind Bowie himself tried hard to make it as a musician from an early age, releasing some weird psychedelic pop songs before finally breaking with ‘Space Oddity’ several years later in ’69; I kind of doubt that David Bowie would be as popular or well-received as he was if he were to be a new artiste today.
Don’t believe all the social media postings you see. When I asked a bunch of music-savvy interns a couple of years back if they knew who David Bowie was, I got blank stares. One of them mistook him for David Letterman.
Today, David Bowie gets specials made about him on TV, with celebrities like Little Richard repaying his kind gestures of past. He was the subject of an episode of Flight of The Concords. He was singing in Louis Vuitton commercials (with music he composed and wrote). Bowie freaking played Nikola Tesla in The Prestige for crying out loud. Discovering Bowie today is much easier. You don’t have to take road trips to Thailand with strangers. You don’t have to indulge in six hours of music talk. Most of all, you don’t need to get nightmares about the Goblin King and his crotch coming to get cha.
However, today, artistes are called ‘influencers’ in boardrooms where marketers have meetings and are measured by Likes and Followers. Weird shit like what Bowie did would just be dismissed as another red herring by internet-jaded millennials on the prowl for the next viral steal. Plus, there’s no more fun in space exploration anymore, now that we know Stanley Kubrick allegedly faked the moon landing. Say all you want NASA, nobody’s going believe you ‘cause you didn’t send a dog on a death-mission into outer space earlier to prove you mean business!
There are artistes that change and there are those who stick to what they do. As an artiste that’s compared to a chameleon, no one epitomised the phrase ‘go with the flow’ more than Bowie. On each album, he revived something from the past and channelled it through his future-vision, making trends work for him and not the other way around. Example, to paraphrase producer Nile Rodgers, Let’s Dance was the sonic equivalent to a Little Richard album from the future that kind of looked like the past. Not clear enough? It’s okay, just enjoy the music.
At the end of his career, his last two albums The Next Day and Blackstar are way off course in adapting to anything current. I guess he knew his time was coming and wanted to leave his mark, flavour of the day be damned. In actual fact, Bowie had been quiet since his appearance with Arcade Fire. In my mind, he was silently battling cancer all those years, not wanting to alarm the rest of us, in typical British manner, being very proper about facing his eventual death with dignity.
It’s not a lot to ask for, dignity in death. To be remembered amongst the stars by our loved ones. It makes us humans want to leave a legacy to be admired, or a whole load of bitchin’ albums to be enjoyed for generations to come, including a final, highly-cryptic album that will keep critics and fans guessing for eternity.
Once and if their legacies are earned, humans will look back at their lives – filled with achievements unlocked, ups and downs, adventures with crazy friends, travelling to Berlin and Paris, and back to London, of acts of heroism and individualism, silly piss-drunk nights, lonely nights, cold nights, club nights, cats fucking in the night, going against the popular view of the day, standing out, innovating, changing, and loving every second of it, he or she would surely wish for more time on this planet.
I’ve always suspected that David Bowie was an alien.
★ (Blackstar) is out now.