In the dark days of January, as the news of David Bowie’s death gusted bleakly across the info-seas and all the boats trembled, a number of people I know found themselves murmuring, or singing in their brains, the lyrics to “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth … Why this song, at that moment? Because it’s a song about not being isolated by suffering, a soul-spanning song that begins minutely, with a single person in fidgety, mentally distressed close-up—You pull on your finger / Then another finger / Then cigarette—and amplifies unstoppably toward a salvific, histrionic, orchestra-of-the-nervous-system climax. Oh no, love, you’re not alone … All the knives seem to lacerate your brain / I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain / You’re not alone!
David Bowie, we now realize, with his words chiming posthumously in our heads, was one of the most potent lyricists in rock history. Or maybe four or five of the most potent lyricists, because in his decentered, repeatedly selving way he commanded a variety of modes and manners. “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” is his theatrical muse at maximum inflation—a showstopper, literally. It’s the last number on his 1972 rock opera, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and the song at the conclusion of which—according to Bowie’s messianic conception of the character of Ziggy Stardust, a guitar-wielding idol descended from the firmament—the singer is torn to pieces by his fans, or aliens, or both. Gimme your hands! screams Ziggy at the edge of the stage, projecting himself into a black hole of adoration. Gimme your hands / ’Cause you’re wonderful!
Pure Bowie. His most wildly compassionate lyric, the nakedest act of emotional outreach in his entire songbook, and it’s not even him singing it—it’s Ziggy Stardust, his interstellar blow job of a fabricated rock star, for whom the longed-for moment of connection will be, unfortunately, terminal. By your touch (and yours, and yours) he is obliterated.
“In the chords and melodies is everything I want to say,” Bowie once declared. “The words just jolly it along.” Which is at once a piece of jocular English understatement and a moment of coolly reckoned artistic clarity. You don’t pore over Bowie’s lyrics in search of a system, or decode them like a squinting Dylanologist. What links, for example, the kitchen-sink realism of “Life on Mars?,” from 1971—It’s a god-awful small affair / To the girl with the mousy hair / But her mummy is yelling no / And her daddy has told her to go—to the exultant, piratical nonsense of 1979’s “Red Sails”: Red sails / Thunder ocean / Red sails / Sailor can’t dance like you, followed by a war whoop of falsetto that is somehow both very camp and hair-raisingly atavistic? Nothing but the wraith-like, connect-the-dots presence of the master himself.
Chronology won’t help you either, because Bowie was the absolute embodiment of a 20th-century artist—swirling, fusing, channeling, stealing, refracting, in pieces and in phases, the phases themselves sometimes simultaneous, sometimes recurring. Visually and sonically he was always onto the next thing, the new feeling, but there was no obsolescence: Songs didn’t go out of date; they passed with eerie smoothness into the revolving cabaret of his back catalog.
His famous personae, those bearers of strange ultra-knowledge, appeared and disappeared like evanescent messengers. So what was the message? All of his records, he confided cheerfully to a French interviewer around the release of his 2002 album, Heathen, were basically about “alienation and isolation,” and one by one his hyperbolic half-men brought the news and then fragmented upon its utterance. After the rending and scattering of Ziggy came Aladdin Sane, spiky with wordplay and broken images: Who will love Aladdin Sane? / Battle cries and champagne, just in time for sunrise. A lad insane—a mad boy, but one whose visions have penetrated the magic cave and found the heaped treasure-clutter. In 1976, around the release of Station to Station, it was the Thin White Duke, a flickering totalitarian, haughty and hepatic-looking and giving black-shirted salutes from open-topped cars. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), in 1980, was ruled by the ballet-slippered Pierrot, a frost-clown. He sang “Ashes to Ashes” and in the video stalked white-faced down the beach, horribly exotic, his head cocked to the remonstrations of the mother figure at his side. My mama said, to get things done / You’d better not mess with Major Tom. In the song—and in the memory-centers—this nursery chant is indivisible from the harrowing, self-transcending synthesizer solo going on behind it. Here’s Major Tom again, the existentially detached astronaut created by Bowie for 1969’s “Space Oddity” (Ground Control to Major Tom …), who abandoned a clapped-out Earth and now, as if on an 11-year orbit, floats back into view, but this time as a creature of ill omen.
Super-creeps making spooky suggestions were always part of the scenery. Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs was a lurid end-times musical, a semi-canine crawl through the wasteland toward straight-up fascism: Someone to claim us, someone to follow / Someone to save us, some brave Apollo … We want you, Big Brother! After such sentiments, the entrance of that bony Übermensch the Thin White Duke—It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine … The European cannon is here!—should perhaps have been no surprise. The Duke was ultimately retired, with mumbled apologies from Bowie (“What I’m doing is theater, and only theater”), but his bellowing, bonkers rhetoric made a spectacular pop comeback in “China Girl,” from 1983’s Let’s Dance. Bowie’s persona for this, the biggest-selling album of his career, was in some respects the most confounding of all: blond and tanned, rich-guy smile and double-breasted suit, like a dancing arms dealer. “China Girl” is the imperialist highlight: Voice shaking with grandiosity, with the baritone madness from which only his little China girl can deliver him, the singer lays bare his mind. I stumbled into town / Just like a sacred cow / Visions of swastikas in my head / Plans for everyone! That these mighty, crazy lyrics may actually be the work of Iggy Pop, his co-writer on the song, matters not in the slightest—they’re classic Bowie.
The occult writer David Conway, musing upon the sorcerous aspirations he shared with William S. Burroughs, suggested that in a genuine confrontation with magical power, “the magician becomes less the knightly hero that slays the dragon than the damsel who succumbs to its depravity.” Which strikes me as a perfect description of Bowie’s relationship with modernity. He succumbed to it, he swooned before the confusion, even as, via his art, he enjoyed a spellbinding authority over it. His lyrics—sensational, provisional, barbed with ironies, the static or psychic noise of each successive identity-state—are the language of this paradox. There’s a brand new dance but I don’t know its name / That people from bad homes do again and again. These lines are from 1980’s “Fashion,” and while they are certainly about fashion—its contagion and its repetition, and its relation to class—they also, much more mysteriously and impressively, are fashion. They flick at your brain like some cruel street style. You hear Oberleutnant Bowie giving the orders—Fashion! Turn to the left / Fashion! Turn to the right—and you hear drummer Dennis Davis’s disco-giant stomp and the lacerating jags of Robert Fripp’s guitar, and you feel subliminally attacked by fashion itself.
A certain amount of frowning exegesis occurred in the wake of Blackstar, the bereaved-sounding, saxophonous album recorded during Bowie’s last illness and released two days before his death. What was the great artist telling us? Surely the lyrics expressed, or explored, “themes of mortality”? There was the song “Lazarus”—Look up here / I’m in heaven—and the title track itself: Something happened on the day he died. But “themes of mortality” is about as far as you’ll get. These are Bowie lyrics, cracks in the mirror, energy vectors that come and go. Blackstar became the final vanishing in a long and magical series of vanishings, aura yielding to aura and face drifting into face until (as in the “Lazarus” video) the funerary wrappings blank them all out. Ziggy Stardust is dispersed, Major Tom drifts out of range, and light shrinks to a black star, to the point of extinction.
That’s rock and roll. The great rock lyric is not a poem or a story, still less an idea. It’s a shard, a shrug, a shout, the leading edge of an instant. The best of Bowie’s lyrics are right there at the brink: Touch them and they blow apart. They are always dying. They will never die.