by Ziggy Merritt
The Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, Jareth, John Blaylock, David Robert Jones, or finally and simply, David Bowie has returned to the stars. When the news of his death grew from a quiet murmur to a chorus of publications writing up stale obituaries I initially spent most of the night, like many, believing this to be a hoax. I was reminded of the opening scene of the film Velvet Goldmine where the analog of Ziggy himself, Maxwell Demon, is seemingly shot during the midst of his performance by the very glam that birthed him. Like that hoax I believed Bowie’s death to be much of the same. After all it had been only a few days since the release of Blackstar, perhaps his finest album in nearly 25 years. It felt cruel that he would leave us so soon after, but would it have felt any less cruel at any other time?
Even three days after I’m still mulling around my house in a state of disbelief. Yet looking at Blackstar, at “Lazarus”, at every bit of media associated with the album, it’s becoming more apparent that we were only dismissing what these last few snapshots of his life meant. Out of the mouth of longtime producer, collaborator, and friend Tony Visconti we now recognize Blackstar as not only a self-written eulogy, but as Bowie’s final gift to his fans.
For this week’s Lost and Found part of me wants to spin some nostalgic fluff piece on Labyrinth as many of my much-maligned generation of millenials already have under a haze of weed and Cheetos dust. Another part of me desperately wanted to write something on what many consider to be the most obscure, and weakest, album of his career, The Buddha of Suburbia. Yet knowing that the Labyrinth soundtrack does not at all fall under the “Lost” signifier and honestly not wanting to depress myself even further with what many have termed to be the low point of the Duke’s career, I naturally settled on a soundtrack almost entirely devoid of the man himself.
Velvet Goldmine is difficult to term in one word. It is a film priding itself on excess, taking bits and pieces of the Bowie/Reed/Pop mythology and jumbling them into a nonlinear ode to the life and death of glam rock. Seen through the eyes of a world-weary journalist played by Christian Bale, the film recounts the rise and fall of Brian Slade, aka Maxwell Demon, in a filmic sendup to Citizen Kane. Despite the daring approach to the direction of Velvet Goldmine, Bowie himself wanted very little to do with the film at the time of its production requiring a much more inventive approach to the score.
The product of this approach is a mash of vintage and contemporary-turned-vintage glam rock. Roxy Music, Lou Reed, T. Rex, and Brian Eno are all notably featured alongside contributions from Thom Yorke and Thurston Moore to name a few, not to mention production credits featuring Michael Stipe of R.E.M. fame. Much love was poured into the foundation of this soundtrack, featuring a host of musicians honoring not just the indulgence and decadence of the era but how that era sought to redefine pop music as art.
A weakness exists only in how both the film and its soundtrack mythologize Bowie, something that may have caused him to become disillusioned with what the film was trying to accomplish. What’s represented is only a few facets of the man himself, namely the glam, glitter, and drama that was so becoming of his Ziggy persona. In a sense it’s myopic, substituting style and poise over the reflexive artistry that allowed Bowie to craft the blue-eyed soul of Young Americans and the seminal, pre-post-rock of the “Berlin Trilogy” that bands such as Boards of Canada and even Radiohead owe much of their existence.
But what was created in its place is nothing short of impressive. Velvet Goldmine should be cited as one of the greatest collaborative feats assembled into one concise, epic soundtrack. Ewan McGregor’s ear-shattering vocals on the cover of The Stooges “T.V. Eye” constantly threatens to derail Iggy’s own roaring delivery. Original numbers such as Shudder to Think’s “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” reflect the cosmic nature and 1984-inspired, dystopian appeal that Bowie brought to his own spacefaring character: “Got tired of wasting gas living above the planet/Mister, show me the way to Earth/The boys of Quadrant 44 with their vicious metal hounds/Never come ‘round here no more.”
Placed against staple hits from Roxy Music and Brian Eno’s respective back catalogues, there are few moments where I feel displaced from glam’s long, velvety reach. Compositions such as the somber and foreshadowing, “Tumbling Down” feel rightly attached to the upbeat “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” by Steve Harley, which appropriately closes out both the film and soundtrack with a touch of hopeful charm.
There will likely never be a film, soundtrack, or documentary that encapsulates the breadth of Bowie’s career to any fan’s discerning satisfaction. Velvet Goldmine is aware of this from the beginning and instead paints us a glamorous portrait of David as something superhuman, a gift bestowed upon us by aliens obsessed with the philosophy of art and aesthetics that novelist Oscar Wilde espoused throughout his career. It gives us a pop idol, a true original, and if nothing else, a familiar friend.