I’m Still Finding Myself in David Bowie’s ‘Low’

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Everybody has a David Bowie moment, so here is mine. The first Bowie album I bought was Hunky Dory, but the one I always read most about in the music magazines I used to thumb through at the newsstand where I delivered newspapers was Low. I didn’t get it until years later — not until the end of my 20s, which is, coincidentally enough, the age at which its creator made it. And I was genuinely startled to find that it seemed to describe… me.

Bowie recorded Low in late 1976, just before his 30th birthday. It’s a well-named record indeed, a reflection of depression and alienation, of the struggle to kick drugs and remain sober, of trying to find a place and a way to fit into the world. Bowie’s leviathan cocaine habit is well documented, of course — I’ve always had a feeling it was more utilitarian than it might have appeared, but there’s certainly no doubt that it got well and truly messy as the ’70s progressed. Happily, I’ve never exorcised a swimming pool or kept my fingernail clippings in the fridge — culture writing just doesn’t cut it as far as financing a truly disastrous coke habit goes — but like many people, I’ve had my “issues” with various substances throughout the years.

As our own Judy Berman pointed out on Monday, for all the talk of Bowie being a “chameleon” and all the other critical clichés that have been lobbed at him over the years, there are strong themes that run through his work. For what it’s worth, I agree: I think the notoriety of his characters has always overshadowed the fact that his lyrics were often deeply personal. In any case, by the time of Low, all characters had been abandoned. If anything, Bowie was inhabiting someone else’s character, namely the protagonist of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which he played the lead. If the last couple of days have demonstrated anything, it’s that Bowie’s art and life (and, indeed, death) corresponded to a startling extent. (And, just as importantly, each defined the other — as Hugo Wilcken’s 33 1/3 book on Low notes, “Thomas Jerome Newton, the part [Bowie] plays [in the film], was Nic Roeg’s projection of Bowie, and Bowie, in turn, confessed to “being Newton for six months after the movie shoot.”)

In any case, Low is Bowie at his most raw and vulnerable, which is perhaps why it’s so relatable. If you’ve ever tried kicking a substance, you’ll know that feeling of wondering how exactly you’re going to deal with the world without it, of your nerves suddenly being ragged and oversensitive, of having all this time you have no idea what to do with. Low is shot through with that feeling, the sense of having fallen from the decadent heights of his existence in LA to the streets of Berlin. More frightening to Bowie still, of course, was the thought of what kicking cocaine might do to his muse — after the Rimbaudian rational derangement of the senses that culminated in Station to Station, here he was, trying to get sober, naked, vulnerable, wondering if he’d even be able to make art at all.

That’s a fear that anyone who tries to create anything can share, especially if one has used any sort of substances to expedite that creation, or to inspire it, or even just to try to smooth over the fear that what you’re making isn’t any good. It’s a fear that Bowie describes in “Sound and Vision” — surely the best song about writer’s block ever, and perhaps also the deftest way of dealing with writer’s block: by writing about it. But words are minimal throughout the record, because its creator was having trouble conjuring them. As Wilcken notes, “It was a case of making a virtue out of failure, of running into a wall.”

I’d like to say that Low somehow helped me, but I’m not sure it did, because I’m not sure I ever really understood it. Even now, years later, it is still revealing itself to me. I always heard the lyric of “Be My Wife,” for instance, as “I’ve lived all over the world/ I’ve lived every place,” which came across as a tautological couplet that related only tangentially to the rest of the song’s lyrics. It was only recently that I realized he wasn’t saying that at all — it was “I’ve lived all over the world/ I’ve LEFT every place.” And with that, the whole meaning changes, taking on connotations of an endless search for something, one that felt uncomfortably reminiscent of my own peripatetic existence.

And so as I come to know myself, I come to know this record. It’s a strange feeling, honestly, to realize that a 40-year-old record by a man I will never get the chance to meet does a better job of describing my own experience than I’ve been able to do. It still does. On those nights when one quiet drink turns into getting home at three in the morning with a lot of vodka and an ill-advised phone call under the belt, there’s no song that seems more fitting than “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” a song that’s not so much about the morning after as it is about the end of the night before, knowing that you’re fucking up, not even being able to explain why, but doing it anyway. Again. I’ve always thought of it as a companion piece to Iggy’s “1970,” with its dogged, increasingly desperate insistence that “I feel alright” as it becomes clear that the song’s narrator feels anything but alright.

I do that less often these days, or at least I try to. And even there, Low seems to reflect my experience — specifically, the album’s instrumentals, which are equal parts stately melancholia and a curiously breezy brand of optimism. “A New Career in a New Town” seems to contradict the jet-set ennui of “Be My Wife”; whatever he felt about the nature of his life in general, it seems Bowie was optimistic about the new possibilities Berlin would afford him. And, of course, there’s also that feeling of floating on a pink cloud during your first weeks of sobriety. The hard work comes later. As Bowie himself said of the album, “I get a real sense of optimism through the veils of despair from Low. I can hear myself really struggling to get well.”

In the Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire that has resurfaced online this week, Bowie describes his greatest achievement as “discovering morning.” I know exactly what he means, or at least I think I do — it’s the same thing that Jarvis Cocker, another great hero of mine, describes in his song “Sunrise”: “I used to hide from the sun/ Tried to live my whole life underground/ Why’d you have to rise and ruin all my fun?/ Just turn over, close the curtains on the day/ But here comes sunrise.” I look forward to that day. But until it comes, I’ll have Low.