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Always Crashing in the Same Car, by Lance Olsen

 

OH YOU PRETTY THINGS

Humming something that came to him in red dreams, he considers, mid-shave, this man suddenly in his late sixties, this man who looks fifteen years younger than he is—he considers mid-shave the anomaly situated on his jawline just in front of his right earlobe.

How he never noticed it before he took this breath this morning, not even six o’clock yet, his wife asleep a little longer, quick white spring light after last night’s rain rushing every surface in the bathroom.

How time has unexpectedly and irreversibly arisen in that tiny corner of him when he wasn’t being anyone.

The bluegreen smudge, the deviation, no larger than a five-point o in Baskerville typeface. He considers it, and somewhere inside the next breath forgets it, this burl of self-awareness unsettling into eagerness for his first cup of coffee, his first cigarette of three or four packs today, the pleasant understated shocks of them.

The book he will slip into by the incandescent wall of living room windows.

All the silences he will find in it.

All the noise.

 

SOUND + VISION

The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour, the man is reading, stretched out on the cream-colored leather couch in that sunshine squall, having remembered as he moved toward it, coffee cup in hand, the daily letdown: he no longer smokes.

He hasn’t smoked for years.

Not since—how can his body forget something like that?

Static between stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments.

An almost perfectly square black first edition of John Cage’s first volume, a collection of lectures and essays published when he was already forty-nine, still not quite John Cage, in 1961, Wesleyan University Press, mint condition, which the man stumbled across yesterday browsing the rat’s nest of stacks at The Strand, no ambition except to see where the shelves led him after lunch, his favorite, a bagged chicken sandwich with watercress and tomatoes from Olive’s on Prince Street eaten on a bench in Washington Square, listening to shih tzus and squirrels squabbling, kids skateboarding, someone playing jazz, unimprovised Keith Jarrett, on an upright piano the pianist wheeled in from somewhere all the way to the fountain.

 

He first read this book—when did he first read it?

The early Seventies, he would guess, though he can’t recall with any certainty. The only way the man knows for sure he read it is because he read about himself reading it in a biography about him. He reads every one of them, even his ex’s, even Angie’s, his little darling blowtorch, ever fascinated, ever puzzled, about how others write him into themselves.

At the time, Ziggy Stardust had abridged his diet to the elemental: cocaine, milk, red peppers, and Angie’s rage. At the time, Ziggy Stardust, the bisexual alien rock star who attained fame only as earth unraveled into its final five years, couldn’t tell anyone anymore who Ziggy Stardust really was because he was no longer anything except this burst of coked-up energy and anxiety and immortality, and next he had to get out of Britain.

He had to get out of Los Angeles.

He had to reach grimy gray walled-in Berlin to slip the habit and slip Angie and reawaken his music within Brian Eno’s gravitational vehemences.

 

Given four phonographs, the man reads, we can compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat, and landslide.

Did he ever encounter that line before?

Once upon a time Cage’s words reconfigured him, yet he can’t remember any of them. Not with anything like specificity. They lived inside him for more than a quarter century, operating softly, unremittingly, and nowhere except on the page in front of him right now for the first time.

You read a book with this belief you will never leave it behind, yet twenty pages in you can’t summon a single detail from page three. The event begins dissolving as if on some dimmer switch. One month, two years, and, if you’re lucky, you’re still sustaining a gauzy set of emotions about it, a couple of out-of-focus images, maybe a loose idea, this rattling tin box of character traits.

If you’re lucky.

If you’re not, maybe it’s only a half-recollected title swelling out of addle, an author’s name, this spreading unease in the face of what books actually are all about at the end of the day: memory’s fiasco.

 

Lying on the couch, it comes to him that, if every cell comprising a person resurrects every seven or ten years, then this man unawares in his late sixties, listening to the sounds of his wife stirring into her day in the kitchen, has been an absolute somebody else at least three times since first reading the lines he can’t be one hundred percent convinced he has ever read, and yet can, and yet can’t.

 

ALL THE YOUNG DUDES

That interviewer asking you when you were in your forties what you would like your legacy to look like, and you answering: I’d love people to believe I had really great haircuts.

In 2018, two years after your death, the first statue in your honor unveiled in Market Square, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, about an hour-and-half drive northwest of London: a hideous bronze likeness of you from 2002—the year Heathen appeared, two before the first of your six heart attacks—six—casting an amused eye at your alter egos spilling out before you, in the forefront a Ziggy with monstrous grouper mouth looking nothing at all like Ziggy, while speakers mounted above play one of your songs every hour. The night after its reveal, someone spray-paints across the base: Feed the homeless first.

Your mother, Peggy, a cinema usherette. In every photo she puts up with, she wears a grimace, as if physically pained to be where and who she is. And there you are, always smiling stoically beside her, your need for her attention, to broach and traverse her emotional death strip, palpable.

How you intuit that, for young people with difficulty forming, your formlessness tells them it’s okay to be lost. cf.: Major Tom.

Among your favorite artists: Tintoretto, Erich Heckel, Picasso—the first for his bold brushwork, furious energy, and dramatic gestures; the second for his rough, spontaneous marks and bold flat color in those angular, expressionist woodcuts; the third for his tireless curiosity and refusal to roost.

Journalists noting you change your accent depending on who is in a room with you.

Your first auditory love: Little Richard. Without him, you telling another interviewer, half of my contemporaries and I wouldn’t be playing music.

You never seem to get old, not in any sense that matters.

And yet.

Five feet, ten inches tall, you certainly never seem old enough to die.

Eleven, you perform makeshift dances to records by Bill Haley, Fats Domino, and Elvis Presley by yourself in your bedroom and before your parents’ friends on Christmas Eve.

Your father, John, a promotion’s officer for Dr. Barnardo’s charity, which has provided shelter for homeless children since the 1870s.

You noting: Elvis Aaron Presley: January 8, 1935.

You noting: David Robert Jones: January 8, 1947.

Journalists noting you answer their questions in a way that gives them what they want to hear rather than what you necessarily believe.

You knew they didn’t believe you, so you knew you could tell them the truth.

“Space Oddity,” whose title puns on Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is perhaps not so accidentally released on 11 July 1969, five days before Apollo 11 lifts off for the moon and nine before BBC plays it during coverage of the landing, thereby begetting your first big hit (fourteen weeks on the British charts; top position: number five) and, after nearly a decade of musical flounders, finally getting your career off the ground.

Throughout your life, you feel a connection with cultural refugees trying to attain escape velocity.

Tomorrow, you telling another interviewer, belongs to those who can hear it coming.

Born in Brixton, seven-hundred yards from Her Majesty’s Prison.

You hate tea; love Oasis, Placebo, and Arcade Fire during your last years; are innately both “masculine” and “feminine” (our cautious culture’s joke categories), yet neither; arch, clownish, clever, dry, emotionally remote; alternately contemplative, vain, kind, collaborative in spirit, a consummate flatterer, sincerely charming—yet you can turn off that charm like a slamming door if you see you’re not getting your way.

Your laugh: explosive.

John Major, Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party from 1990 to 1997, traversing his youth several streets over from you. His father: acrobat and juggler, naturally.

As his psychedelic astronaut, Major Tom, floats helplessly into outer space, Camille Paglia observing, we sense that the Sixties counterculture has transmuted into a hopelessness about political reform.

Your lyrics: cryptic, jagged, sometimes the product of Burroughsesque cutup, without fail ironic, studied, tonally off-kilter.

Early on, confusing you with your role as the leper messiah, fans want to touch you, hold you close, be assured someone understands and cares about them, absorb your lifeforce—but at the deepest level you don’t care about them, only the heat of their adoration, regard them with suspicion, even as you let them do what they need to do, because that allows you to do what you need to do.

Till there was rock, you sing in “Sweet Head,” an outtake from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, you only had God.

You like to emphasize for effect that as a boy you walked to school past V-2 bomb sites, without, however, pointing out this is true of almost all children in London throughout the years immediately following the war.

To thank him for the piece he wrote about you in Rolling Stone in the early Nineties, you send journalist David Wild a pig fetus in a jar.

Fifty, you tell a reporter: I cannot express to younger people how great it is to be this age. It’s like describing the taste of a peach. They’ll find out when they get here.

How you adored your half-brother Terry. Nine years older than you, apotheosis of cool, he introduces you to Kerouac’s On the Road, Buddhism, and Coltrane. In his twenties, Terry develops schizophrenia and spends much of the rest of his life in and out of institutions. One snowy morning in January 1985, forty-eight, he strolls off the grounds of the Cane Hill Asylum, crosses the road to the train station, and ambles down to the southern end of the platform. Seeing the express train appear in the distance, he jumps onto the tracks, lays his head upon the rail, and turns his face away from the future.

You receive your first instruments as presents before you are ten: a plastic saxophone, a tin guitar, a xylophone.

An asteroid, formerly known as 2008 YN3, is renamed 342843 Davidbowie in your honor days before your sixty-eighth birthday.

At the height of your drug years (I like fast drugs, you telling yet another interviewer. I hate anything that slows me down.), you become frantically paranoid, for a time keeping your urine in your refrigerator, believing that way no wizard can use it to enchant you.

When you are twenty-three, you forming The Hype and cajoling everyone in your band to dress up as superheroes. Everywhere you play, you are booed off stage.

Over the course of your career, you record four hundred songs and sell one hundred forty million albums.

Fame, you say to a journalist, can take interesting men and thrust mediocrity upon them.

Predictably, almost parodically, you underperform at school, leaving in 1963 with only one qualification, a basic O Level—an Ordinary—in art.

Among your school friends: Peter Frampton, whose father is your art instructor. You and Peter stay in touch, even play together on and off, throughout your life.

Your imagination: omniphagic, ingesting anything in any medium that feeds and/or helps spawn your visions.

I was a Buddhist on Tuesday and I was into Nietzsche by Friday, you telling yet another interviewer. Most of my life has been like that.

Your Aunt Vivienne: also diagnosed with schizophrenia. Your Aunt Una: dies in her late thirties after spending years in and out of mental institutions, receiving a number of rounds of electroconvulsive therapy along the way. Your Aunt Nora: a lobotomy because, declares the report, she has a case of “bad nerves.”

Among your teen friends: Reginald Kenneth Dwight, briefly, before gestating into Elton John. As your reputations snowball, your friendship melts away into petty resentments.

Scientists name a large electric-yellow spider from Southeast Asia after you eight years before you are cremated secretly in New Jersey for $700, sans funeral, sans family or friends, your ashes later scattered on Bali: Heteropoda davidbowie.

Major Tom in particular and outer space in general as your signature metaphors, not for freedom and possibility, as one might guess, but rather for existential estrangement, loneliness, contingency, the bottomless dread of drift: “Ashes to Ashes,” “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman,” “Life on Mars?,” “Dancing Out in Space,” “Born in a UFO,” “Lazarus,” “Blackstar,” und so weiter.

Intractably uninterested in formal education, a model autodidact, you always prefer teaching yourself to being taught, whatever that means. Filming Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth in New Mexico in 1975, you have become a twenty-eight-year-old cocaine addict weighing ninety-five pounds. You refuse to travel by plane, positive most flights end in flames, so you show up in July by train—along with three specially designed steamer trunks that open out to display neatly the fifteen hundred volumes that comprise your mobile library. Between shoots you disappear into your trailer to try to swim back toward sobriety by reading.

Ten years earlier, you change your name from David Jones to David Bowie because Davy Jones of The Monkees has become vastly more popular than you. The intended connotation: the famous knife, cutting through all the fatty lies termed civilization.

Contrary to the myth, you don’t evince heterochromia, wherein an individual’s eyes are two different colors, blue and brown in your case, but rather anisocoria, wherein one pupil is larger than the other, in your case your left than your right—this because your friend George Underwood punches you in January 1962 during a fight over a girl at school, resulting in a deep corneal abrasion, paralysis of your left iris’s sphincter, and four months’ hospital treatment. You never again see clearly out of that eye, permanently suffer poor depth perception.

Fifty-one years later, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield records a tribute version of “Space Oddity,” strumming on his acoustic guitar as he floats through the International Space Station.

The measure of Bowie’s success, Mikal Gilmore summarizes in Rolling Stone four years before your death, isn’t whether or not he could remake himself and move on. The measure is that he helped others to proclaim identities that they had once been shamed, or intimidated, into denying.

Angie dreams up holy gestures for you—e.g., you extending a pleading hand to the audience while performing “Rock’n’Roll Suicide”—thereby amping up your role as Savior Machine, Sacrifice Engine. In Floria Sigismondi’s video for “The Next Day,” criticized by the Catholic church (Gary Oldman: horny priest; Marion Cotillard: weary prostitute spurting stigmata in an S&M brothel called the Decameron), you pose as Christ who, in a wink at the end, ascends to heaven, or at least out of the picture. While organized religion may be on the decline, reviewers point out, the sacred is alive, well, and grotesque.

At the time of your death, your net worth is, give or take a few, one hundred million dollars. You leave half, as well as your SoHo apartment, to your wife Iman. Twenty-five percent goes to Duncan, your son by Angie. Your daughter by Iman, Alexandria—Lexi—receives twenty-five percent, in addition to the family’s upstate New York property near Woodstock, Little Tonche Mountain, sixty-four acres in the middle of which lies a country retreat with positively sensational views.

In 1985 a publisher asks Jorge Luis Borges to choose his hundred favorite books and write an introduction to each. Borges only gets to number seventy-four before he moves to the wrong side of the grass. In preparation for the March 2014 opening of the David Bowie Is … retrospective at The Victoria and Albert Museum, you put together and publish a list of the hundred books you feel have most influenced you, in part in homage to Borges.

Number one on Borges’s list is Julio Cortázar’s stories, numbers two and three the apocryphal gospels, number four Amerika and The Complete Stories of Kafka. Number one on your list is Anthony Burgess’s novel about violence in extremis, A Clockwork Orange, without which there would be no Ziggy Stardust, who at the beginning of his concerts struts onto the stage accompanied by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 rendered via Moog synthesizer, a salute to Alex DeLarge and his Droogs, while The Spiders from Mars sport costumes modeled on those from Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Burgess’s 1962 dystopia.

By the time you are twenty-eight, you play: guitar, alto and tenor sax, piano, mellotron, Moog, harmonica, mouth harp, koto, mandolin, recorder, viola, violin, cello, and the stylophone—competently, but never with anything even close to mastery.

Yes, of course I’m gay, and always have been, you confessing to Melody Maker’s Michael Watts in 1972, even as you concurrently assured you’re mother on the phone: Don’t believe a word of it, mum.

Homosexuality having been decriminalized in Britain only five years before.

From your liner notes on Outside: All art is unstable…. There is no authoritative voice, there are only multiple readings.

4.3 million tweets about you within twenty-four hours of your departure.

Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary? you telling a broadcaster. When I first read it, I thought it was a really, really long poem about everything.

On Diamond Dogs, the story goes, you play nearly every instrument.

There’s a sense that I know where I am now, you explaining to a columnist. I recognize life and most of its experiences, and I’m quite comfortable with the idea of the finality of it. But it doesn’t stop me trying to continually resolve it: resolve the questions about it. I think I’ll still be doing it—hopefully—like Strauss at 84.

Postmortem, astronomers name an asterism—a prominent pattern of stars smaller than a constellation—after you: seven present near Mars at the moment of your death that, seen just right, form the lightning bolt constellation reminiscent of your Aladdin Sane face paint.

Number two on your list: Camus’s The Stranger; number three: Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, arguably the first serious, extended critical work about pop music, with an emphasis on 1968, the year the Beatles’ White Album and Stones’ Beggars Banquet were released.

In typography, an asterism refers to a typographic symbol consisting of three asterisks placed in a triangle. It is used to indicate minor breaks in text, call attention to a passage, or separate sub-chapters in a book.

Before the internet, music journalist Paul Morley commenting, you being a one-man Google search engine.

Doctors incorrectly diagnose Anthony Burgess with terminal brain cancer. His reaction: write five novels as quickly as possible in order to support his soon-to-be widow. A Clockwork Orange takes him three weeks. Its inspiration: his first wife’s—Lynne’s—assault in 1944 during a London blackout by a group of American soldiers out for a little fun. Pregnant, she miscarries.

The name you and Iman use signing into hotels: Mr. and Ms. Anthrope.

I change my mind a lot, you mentioning to a commentator. I usually don’t agree with what I say very much.

During your LA years, you begin wearing a cross. You never take it off.

Iman bears a bowie knife tattooed on her ankle, around her belly button the Arabic lettering for David.

When I first went back to have a look at the World Trade Center area after 9/11, you telling yet another interviewer, I thought, my god, it looks like London East End, you know, when I was a kid. It’s what it looked like when I was about seven. It brought it all back. The viable implication—that you had an especially rough childhood in an especially bleak part of the city—is a gentle distortion you liked to perpetuate, according to your biographer Wendy Leigh, who explains you grew up petted and privileged, not a working-class hero by any stretch. Six, you moved from Brixton to Bromley in Kent, hardly an impoverished London neighborhood. The persona you fostered to the contrary, you were a suburban kid who wanted to duck out of the lethal blandness of suburbia ASAP. You felt like an outsider there, just like most teens everywhere do.

Dylan Jones, another of your biographers, recounts his father once asking him what he was working on.

Jones responded he was writing a book about your remarkable appearance on Top of the Pops on that Thursday evening in July 1972 when you sang “Starman” for the first time, blowing away viewers across the U.K. Jones will use those three minutes and thirty-three seconds, the precise instant your name went aboveground and nationwide, he explained, to explore how you influenced an entire generation of music and fashion.

His father hesitated, then asked Jones why.

I reeled off the various elements of his performance that had been so challenging, so inspiring, and so transgressive, Jones writes. I described the way in which Bowie had toyed sexually with his guitarist Mick Ronson, the way in which he had dressed like a pansexual spaceman, the way he sashayed across the screen like a 1920s film star, and, saliently, the way in which his flame-red hair, his Day-Glo jumpsuit, and the general glam color fest had almost colonized the program. I explained that this was the moment when the ‘70s finally outgrew the ‘60s, when the monochrome world of boring, boring southeast England had exploded in a fiesta of color.

My father looked at the floor, took a moment, and then said, very quietly: You know we had a black-and-white television, don’t you?

 

LIFE ON MARS

—scribbles Alec Nolens on another index card, I scribble, on the third day of his third sabbatical, mine, which we envision as a year-long series of experiments in thinking, empathy, and doubt. Still bleary from the transatlantic flight, I am sitting at the desk in the bedroom of a third-floor apartment in a leafy, cobblestoned neighborhood of Berlin three thousand nine hundred and sixty-five miles away from where you left the building nearly a decade ago, pile of those cards already having propagated beside me and my proliferating pile of biographies, interviews, critical studies, and photo albums, four boxes of them shipped ahead so they’d be waiting for me here at the corner of Prenzlauer Allee and Wörther Straße.

It is reckless May-morning bird gibber in the courtyard trees outside my cracked-open window.

It is me sipping coffee while watching David Bowie try to gather before me, breakup, disperse, try to gather again.

This is a form of happiness, these askings, these attempts at understanding what one can’t understand. That’s why we read, I’m coming to reckon. That’s why we write. For those silvery flashes, not of figuring it out, but of revisiting the act of unlearning, the giddy scramble of uncertainty at the back of the brainpan, deep in the chest.

 

That’s why this project will be a love song, not so much to him, as to the lacunae around the thought of him, the idea of caesura as a marker for moving through the world, directions for a kind of life dance, let’s call it, because that’s what’s left us when everything is said and done.

Isn’t it?

 

That, and a love song to the part of his life, anyone’s, almost nobody talks about, noisy spectacle habitually catching the ear and interest long before something like muted equipoise and insight does: those later years we will enter, if things go extremely well, during which the ordinary, the internal, the gently baffled start to overtake the jangle and glare of our formerly operatic first-persons.

What ensues after you’ve stepped off the stage at Top of the Pops, set the city on fire, and next it’s who cares and that was someone else decades back.

When you arrive at a point in your life where instructions for being a rock star are hereafter lacking.

When, now fifty-five, you find yourself divided from yourself, telling yet another interviewer: I never became who I should have been until maybe twelve or fifteen years ago.

And who was that?

Who knows?

You don’t. I don’t. Surely no so-called aficionado does. Aficionados undoubtedly know the least of anyone about their subject because they believe they know the most. That’s the point. I’m coming to conclude the world boils down to reading. People pick up books looking for what they think books will eternally supply: a because. Before long, if they’re not vigilant, they start reading other people as if they were books. That’s where everything goes wrong. Read anyone closely enough, and the because fades out like the last note of a song.

 

In his study of Dostoevsky, ever creaked out in grad programs’ rusty critical wheelbarrow, there’s a niche nobody remembers because they’re busy droning on about platitudes concerning dialogism (beginning on page 53, in case you’d like to have a look; University of Minnesota Press, 1984; tr. Caryl Emerson), when Mikhail Bakhtin discusses the notion of unfinalizability.

The only moment, he says, any of us can be defined—and then only partially, fleetingly, failingly—is when we’re dead, which is to say when we have ceased changing, which is to say ceased being alive. All the other minutes of us are unclosed and indeterminate. Our consciousnesses can never be thoroughly contained by others’ calcifications.

Or our own.

Period.

Expand from individual to existential, and you get: Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.

 

So it is with the book in your lap. You can never stop reading it, once you’ve commenced, not for the rest of your life, despite shaky indications to the contrary.

Books provide us with the pretense of making sense of things (every form suggests a philosophy), but the things they make sense of are constructions inhabited by fictions with crafted intensions, all loose ends interlaced and cinched. Each time we return to a text, regardless of our best efforts, the years will have regenerated it, our sublet world will have become reorganized around it, we will have been translated into another foreign tongue of ourselves.

That’s really why books are so dangerous: not—or not only—that they introduce us to concepts that are deliriously new and unnerving (we fear what we cannot solve, even as we relish it), but that they seem to make sense of other people’s lives, never our own, because because is a category of grammatical mistake that exposes something vastly more troublesome than the two syllables, four vowels, and three consonants which encompass it.

 

That’s the point. Isn’t it? Some people as they age settle into stubborn conviction resembling conclusive vision. When we’re off our game, we sometimes refer to that as wisdom. Over the years, it appears those people have persuaded themselves of their own importance and perspicacity, finalized their own unfinalizability, notwithstanding reality.

Forgive me while I doze.

Other people: not so much so. Other people as they age displace into a fraught, breakable awareness of their own insignificance and contingency. Has there been a larger reason to me? To this deafening roar of time?

Is there a larger reason to reading Bowie? And, if so, has that larger reason come to seem meaningful simply because (have you noticed how grammar simply won’t let you shake some words?) a certain number of people have judged a certain number of the faces he wore publicly for a few decades to be more compelling than those you and I have found ourselves wearing?

I wonder what the larger reason is to reading ourselves reading him—and then, mid-sentence, it occurs to me that’s the wrong question to ask.

What’s the right question?

Beats me.

 

I couldn’t be more cognizant of the fact that I won’t be writing many more books. There are only so many that living rewards you with, even if at the outset you don’t have a clear sense of what that total might amount to.

Better be judicious.

Better pay attention.

Better keep an eye on the egg timer, or the years will bite you.

 

That didn’t go well. Let me try again. There is this poem (Clare Cavanagh translator) by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, which first appeared in the New Yorker on 17 September 2001, six days after 9/11, five years before Bowie’s final public performance at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom (the last song he ever sang live: “Changes,”—anthem, obviously, to unfinalizability) on behalf of the Keep a Child Alive charity—there is this poem whose title and refrain consists of the line praise the mutilated world.

It asks us to think about ships setting out to sea, and how most of them will make it, but how some won’t. It asks us to think about how executioners sing beautiful songs as they work, and how there exist dazzling concerts and delicate light lost. It’s enterprise of an older author, is my point, far beyond the existential reach of somebody who hasn’t crested, say, his fifth decade, aware that every hello is invariably the first plosive of goodbye.

Not in any maudlin way.

Good god no.

There’s nothing resigned about the realization, nothing in it that feels like surrender. It’s just that if you read Zagajewski’s poem attentively you’ll notice there’s not one single because in it.

That’s all you need to know, really, to explain why this is the temporal sweep that interests me, the one more or less still taboo to bring up: What is it like to be the opposite of young? To care less and less about inexperience? To find the juvenile—with its chronic conviction that everything coming to pass before breakfast is equally, stupidly old—well, juvenile.

The essence of a human being, Gabriel García Márquez once commented, is resistant to the passage of time.

He’s wrong.

It’s not.

It most definitely, assuredly, is not.

 

Let me try again. “Where Are We Now?,” the first single from Bowie’s twenty-fourth studio album, The Next Day, was released via iTunes on 8 January 2013, Bowie’s sixty-sixth birthday. It had been ten years since he had offered us any new music. On his website he posted an accompanying video by the kooky, poignant multimedia artist Tony Oursler. The video features Oursler’s wife, Jacqueline Humphries, and Bowie as conjoined homunculi perched atop a pommel horse in Oursler’s actual junk-stuffed New York studio, which Bowie frequented. Behind them on a screen runs grainy black-and-white footage from a grimy gray walled-in Berlin. To the left sits the model of a large blue ear, to the right one of a large white eye. We are in some fever-dream Wunderkammer that functions as stand-in for Bowie’s imagination and remembrance.

This isn’t a rock’n’roll suicide. This isn’t a suffragette city. It’s not Aladdin Sane or the Glass Spider or the Thin White Duke or the Man Who Fell to Earth, even if it is all about Heraclitus. Listen keenly, and you’ll hear a voice washed through with time—frailer, more spectral, yearning, boundlessly more candid than its earlier iterations.

Maybe it’s only a performance of sincerity, but I sincerely doubt it.

Listen, and you’ll hear Bowie hanging out with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed at the club Dschungel in the Seventies, throngs of East Germans passing over the Bösebrücke, first border crossing opened as the Wall fell on 9 November 1989—twenty thousand in the first hour alone, each unsure whether he or she was allowed to do what he or she was doing.

You’ll hear Bowie’s premier heart attack backstage during his 25 June 2004 performance at the Hurricane Festival in Scheeßel, Germany, his rush to emergency surgery for an acutely blocked artery.

What moves me most about it is how shot through it is with an awareness of that blue-eyed boy Mr. Death leaning against the wall across the room, smiling without any lips, paring his fingernails, how it could never have been written by a musician in his forties or thirties, let alone his Stardust twenties.

That, after fifty, the face behind which you wear your faces becomes an exquisite, rending, unavoidable accomplishment.

 

(Image: Andy Warhol’s Orange Car Crash (Orange Disaster) (5 Deaths 11 Times in Orange),1963)

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Lance Olsen is the author of many novels, including My Red Heaven, Dreamlives of Debris, Theories of Forgetting, Calendar of Regrets, Head in Flames, and Skin Elegies; five nonfiction books, five short-story collections, a poetry chapbook, and two anti-textbooks about experimental writing, including Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing; as well as editor of two collections of essays about innovative contemporary fiction. Recipient of numerous awards, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.

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