Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Bowie, Blackstar and the Stories Still Untold, Part Three

Secret, Secret

David Bowie would use the fact of his onrushing mortality to achieve what many are hailing as his masterwork, both artistically and (in some quarters) magically. But was this anything new for the Starman? 

Or had he in fact been an old hand at this sort of thing? Did he perform a work of magic so subtle and sophisticated that most observers did not in fact realize that was what they were seeing? 

Part Three of a look at what many see as the most fruitful creative period for the Man Who Fell to Earth and the untold story of the Muse who inspired his most indelible musical- and magical- work.

Read Part One (Examining Blackstar and Lazarus) and Part Two (the story of Bowie's hidden muse)

While the party line has it that David Bowie and Romy Haag split in early 1977, Haag claims that their relationship broke off "at the end of the 70s," adding that,"(w)hen Angie found out we were together, she called a lawyer and they were harassing me. And there was all this bad publicity, and David had a fight with his record company." 

The first claim seems to be referring to the ongoing divorce trial. Bowie had earlier produced a photograph in court of Angela and a female lover in flagrante delicto, arguing she was an unfit parent for their son and Angela was probably looking to retaliate. Presenting evidence that Bowie was conducting a secret affair with a transsexual celebrity would suit her purposes. 

We'll see shortly that Bowie may have kept the exact extent or nature of his relationship with Haag from Angela, despite the latter's later claims.

In keeping with the timeline, the "bad publicity" may well have been local gossip or it may instead have been in response to Bowie's appearance in the Anglo-German film, Just a Gigolo, which created a firestorm of vitriol in the press in late '78 and early '79, much of it leveled at Bowie personally.

Bowie was indeed having protracted conflicts with RCA as well and had made up his mind to leave the label as Lodger was being completed in early 1979, according to guitarist Adrian Belew. Bowie would claim that his own "personal events" prevented him from spending time needed on the album, which resulted in its infamous muddy mix. More on those later.

Whatever the exact details it's certain that Bowie left Berlin for New York in the spring of 1979. But there's excellent evidence that his mind was still very much on his Berlin lover.

We also have photographic evidence of Bowie and Haag together some nine months after the allegedly ill-fated birthday party with its probable nonexistent papparazzo (other tellings instead blame the split on Haag reporting their relationship to local papers), a date we can determine by the kind of shag/mullet haircut Bowie adopted for the "Heroes" video taping (and the subsequent Bing Crosby show taping), his hair having been done up in a quiff through most of 1977. 

He's also wearing the military/punk/leather-type clothing he favored at the time (see the Heroes LP cover and video), and most importantly, we see where he got the idea for the naval officer's cap that he'd wear on stage just a few months later on the Heroes world tour (Haag herself was unsure whether the photos were taken in 1977 or 1978, but was sure the cap was hers). 

So already we see that the official story put out by Bowie and his organization was not true.

There's also the very central issue of Heroes

Goaded on by Bowie's misdirections (remember, this is a magician we're dealing with) and reinforced by a PR machine and a pliant music media, many fans are led to believe that the lyrics to Bowie's songs are just high-minded gibberish, nonsense thrown together through arcane techniques. 

But if- as a thought experiment- you look at Heroes as a document of a passionate yet doomed liaison between two androgynous savants with shared fascinations for the romance of early 20th Century Europe, a romance taking place in a city awash in drugs, political intrigue and paranoia, the album makes every bit of sense in the world.

The leadoff song is simultaneously defiant to the world-- "You can't say no to the Beauty and the Beast"-- and apologetic to a lover: "Nothing is wrong but darling, something's in the way." if you like, you can read this as an apology to Haag for the public blowup, blaming it all the outside forces that demanded it, as well as the turmoil surrounding them ("I wanted no distractions") in general.

Conversely, "Joe the Lion" is an improvised lyric which seems to reference the extreme states Bowie and Iggy were putting themselves through at the time (so much for "cleaning himself up"). 

Which brings up another issue- David was famously wrecked in Los Angeles yet seemed to regain his vitality in drug-drenched Berlin, despite the endless boozing and excess. What else could it have been- what fresh impetus- that turned his (and in turn, Iggy's) life around? Again, so little of the official story makes any real sense.*

The title track is itself a document of an embattled, doomed romance ("nothing will keep us together" and "nothing will drive them away"). It's been noted that Bowie got inspiration for the line about the lovers kissing by the wall from Tony Visconti's own secret romance (which is probably true), but if you read the lyrics in the context of Bowie singing about the impossible future of his relationship with Haag, then the rest makes absolute sense. None of the other explanations we've seen over the years actually do. 

People write- and more importantly, sing- songs like that about their own situations, not about others'.

Romy Haag in 1977

"Sons of the Silent Age" details the shared, eclectic obsessions that brought Bowie and Haag together, the decadence of Weimar Germany, the romance of silent Hollywood, and soul music. The verses catalog the activities the "sons" share with the soaring choruses promising, "Baby, I'll never let you down/I can't stand another sound/Let's find another way." 

Another way to do what? Another way to continue their relationship away from the prying eyes of the media? Haag herself would later say that ,"we wouldn’t go out together that much because of the paparazzi." 

Those damned photos again.

Similarly "Blackout" foresees the aggravation Bowie and Haag would soon suffer from Angela Bowie, whose arrival in Berlin was signaled by "Someone's back in town/The chips are down," and asks to "Get me off the streets/Give me some protection." 

I hate to sound like a broken record but again, read this like it's about a man trying to keep a relationship out of the public eye. And out of sight of his wife, as well. And as the way these things go, probably out of the sight of those closest to him too.   

And even though Angela claims to have known about Bowie and Haag all along, it's hard to imagine her not raising the issue during the divorce trial. This goes a long way in verifying Haag's claims of harassment from Angela's lawyer:  Angela heard rumors but had no evidence she could use in court, and was working to obtain it.

After a number of instrumentals (most far warmer and more romantic than their Low cousins; sexier, if you will) the final song, "The Secret Life of Arabia" is the kind of edgy Eurodisco Chez Romy Haag was famous for. 

Bowie sings "I was running at the speed of life/From morning's thoughts and fantasies/Then I saw your eyes at the cross fades"

This might sound to most like Bowie being opaque. Or it might be an account of Bowie locking eyes with Romy Hague while on tour ("running at the speed of life") at the Berlin Deutschlandhalle while singing "Station to Station", which he would claim was in fact inspired by the Stations of the Cross. 

The instrumental "Speed of Life" was also the B-side to "Be My Wife", a song that was written during the heady early days of Bowie and Haag's affair.

All of a sudden the Secret Life of Arabia isn't so secret, is it? Tell me again how this affair ended in January?

Heroes would be released at the end of the 1977 and find a better reception than Low. Though now considered to be a veritable companion piece to its predecessor, Heroes was then regarded as a lustier, meatier, more passionate experience. The recording sessions went remarkably quickly and were filled with moments of serendipitous magic. Could we assume that Bowie was indeed literally in-spired here and that the now-clandestine nature of his relationship with Haag only fed the fire?

 As Haag would later recount, the two would see little of each other as Bowie would spend much of 1978 out of Berlin, touring Heroes with his all-star band (which now featured Zappa alumnus and future King Crimson frontman Adrian Belew). Significantly, Bowie would perform Weill's "Alabama Song", Haag's famous opening number, in his own sets. 

Subsequently, sessions for his next album Lodger would take place out of Berlin as well, in Switzerland and New York, instead. The themes of the album seemed to reflect Bowie's experience traveling the world but he and Eno's mission statement was to continue doing the kind of studio adventurism that had been explored at Hansa. 

However, according to all involved the magical experience of Low and Heroes simply failed to materialize. Critics saw it as a mere shadow of Heroes, an afterthought. Strangely (and inexplicably), Bowie would also remake the song he recorded with Iggy "Sister Midnight" under the title 'Red Money'. It's first verse would read, "Oh, can you feel it in the way, That a man is not a man?" before taking the refrain, "Project canceled."

Significantly, there would be one song that seemed like an ironic inside joke between the two lovers, 'Boys Keep Swinging', maybe even some kind of entreaty during a difficult period ("boys always work it out").

Oh, that's crazytalk! There's no evidence at all for that, I hear you say!

Well, you might find this connection tenuous indeed until you see the video, which is Bowie- for absolutely no apparent reason at all- acting out the drag performances he watched every night at Chez Romy Haag.

As Haag later said about "Boys Keep Swinging,"(and no one has ever argued with), "The setting is a complete, one-to-one copy of the stage in my club. He’s performing one of my favourite numbers. There’s this one part of the video where he smears his makeup and he rips off his wig... my signature move!" Haag also believes the glamorous middle figure in the video is based on herself, which is probably the case.

Why then would Bowie still be processing an influence he'd dispensed with over two years before? This is "Bowie the Chameleon", who went through interests and influences like most other people change socks.

It's almost inconceivable that he'd be still pulling a move of a lover he-- allegedly-- had a bitter split with an eternity before in Bowietime. This is what really what hangs me up over the official party line. It's like Bowie touring Station to Station with The Spiders from Mars.

It's just...anti-Bowie.

Unless, of course, Haag was telling the truth and their relationship had in fact only ended around this point in time (after the recording of Lodger). Of her volition, if what she says is true. (Remember the woman walking out of frame in "Where Are We Now?" Ah...)

The breakup that Haag claimed took place around this time may have been the unspecified "personal events" Bowie referred to in 2001, seeing as how the biographies I've read don't record anything like that at this time. Which, of course, they wouldn't.

Well, that's just one song and one video, you might be saying. Hardly convincing. 

Well, what if I told you that one of Bowie's most legendary yet enigmatic performances may in fact been a magical ritual meant to exorcise the "ghost" of Haag from his life, a magical ritual that was performed in front of millions of unsuspecting Americans?

What if I told you that this performance climaxed with a rite taken from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the magical society headed by Bowie's admitted hero, Arthur Edward Waite?

On December 15th, 1979 Bowie did a three-song set on Saturday Night Live, hosted by Martin Sheen (whose Apocalypse Now was in theatres at the time). Bowie used the core of his backup band from the 1976 tour, the stunning rhythm section of drummer Dennis Davis, bassist George Murray and guitarist Stacey Heydon, longtime musical director Carlos Alomar, as well as Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri. 

For backup singers, he seemed to reach right back into Romy's bag of tricks, hiring gender-bending German sensation Klaus Nomi and NY underground star Joey Arias, both of whom wore Thierry Mugler dresses and full drag makeup.

The choice of songs seemed curious indeed (especially so since two of the oldies were not hits), the nine-year old "Man Who Sold the World", the three year-old "TVC15" and a truncated version of "Boys Keep Swinging." 

Bowie wore interesting costumes; a knockoff of an old Dadaist costume for "Man" (the 'Silent Age' again), a "Chinese Stewardess" skirt and jacket and high heels (drag, in other words) for "TVC," and a weird semi-naked puppet body on "Boys".

The visuals here are random only if you still believe Bowie and Haag were a thing of the distant past at this point. If you don't, they make the most perfect linear sense.

You have the German Dadaist influence for the first song, the cross-dressing in the second, the nudity (and stagecraft) of the third and the two Chez Romy refugees appearing throughout. A narrative, in other words.

Really, you ask? How so?

Well, the songs aren't random or arbitrary either. Bowie appeared in drag on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World, not coincidentally, and we've already seen the explicit Romy connection to 'Boys Keep Swinging'.

So what of 'TVC15', which was not only three years old it wasn't much of a hit in the US or anywhere else. What's its significance?

Well, nothing other than the fact that 'TVC15' was released as a single the same week Bowie met Romy Haag in Berlin.

Oh, that significance.

Note also Stacey Heydon hadn't played with Bowie in the intervening three years since, yet was hired for this one-off appearance.

Is a pattern beginning to emerge here?

By paying such exacting attention to detail here, Bowie seems to be constructing much, much more than a promotional appearance. As best he could Bowie is recreating the event at which he met Haag, but adding in crucial details meant to magnify the effect of the ritual (Debby Harry and Blondie trading on some of the same cultural signifiers as Haag, hence Destri) he is performing. He is also quite clearly taking a page from shamanism or high ritual magic and using cross-dressing as a way of taking on the power of the female. Or in this case, taking back that power.

Where ever do I get that idea from? Well, at the end of 'TVC15' he takes on (and holds) the 'Enterer' pose of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. 

What is its significance?

It's a part of the Golden Dawn's banishing ritual. Note that Arias and Nomi stiffly turn and face different directions during the song as one would during this ritual. Note also the dog, which has universal connotations to Sirius, venerated by occult orders, but is also linked to the Star trump which has androgynous connotations.

Bowie is clearly constructing a very eclectic kind of magic here, but by drawing on the Banishing Ritual at the end of the song he might reasonably most identify with meeting his former lover, the intended result is fairly obvious. 

There's also this, from the book Loving the Alien. Bowie's occult obsessions were often chalked up merely to his cocaine dementia in LA, but like so many bowiemyths that appears not to be true:
"Bowie's bizarre behaviour continued even after he moved to Europe: witness his strange use of 'signals'. Throughout 1977 and '78 his letters were filled with numbers to which he gave mysterious meanings. The minute Bowie left Berlin in 1979, the numbers abruptly stopped."
In summation: Given the evidence here, I feel very strongly that Bowie and Haag did indeed continue their relationship-- secretly-- long after his 30th birthday party and that her influence had a powerful hold over him, so much that he resorted to what can only be called a rite of sympathetic magic to take back the power he felt she had taken from him.  

Now, you don't have to believe such a thing would work, but you do have to believe Bowie believed it would.

It's interesting to note that he'd play the Fool (as one biographer noted, wearing more lipstick and makeup than ever) in his next great working, a highly symbolic start to a new journey (the man knew his occult symbolism). 

A new journey from what, we should ask? 

His Pierrot take on the Fool archetype seemed to have nothing to do with Scary Monster's title or title track, which-- oh my, look at this-- seems to bid farewell to an exotic woman ("She opened strange doors that we'd never close again") and also name-drops Iggy (who Bowie called Jimmy, which was his real name) in a curious context, reminding us that Bowie produced- and played guitar on- Iggy's records in Berlin ("Jimmy's guitar sound, jealousies scream"). 

Jealousy. Interesting.

And it should be noted just prior to 'Ashes to Ashes' b/w 'Move On' (the latter a song unambiguously about rebounding from a relationship by moving to a new location)--where he first appears as the Fool, the Beginner--that Bowie released a version of Romy's signature tune, "The Alabama Song" in 1980. (Which is included on Monsters as an extra on the CD reissue).

The "Alabama Song" also covered by The Doors. 

Now, tell me again how they split up in January 1977, how this had been just another of David's myriad conquests? That his lyrics were just randomized bulldada?

And did he really get Romy Haag out of his system? Just as I had a hard time squaring Leee's unambiguous claim that Bowie moved to Berlin to be with Romy with the scanty evidence of the relationship in the many Bowie bios (or the ones I'd read so far), none of any of this really changed my way of thinking about the situation.

Now, Haag was as much a footnote to me as anyone else.
 Interesting aside, but no more interesting than Amanda Lear, say. The story seemed fairly consistent, why doubt it? 

I didn't much, until I was recently listening to a Bowie concert from 2002, in Berlin of course. There he performed the song off the album hours called 'Survive', after which he launched into a short anecdote about his time in Berlin which in turn served to introduce, what else, 'The Alabama Song', or that is, Romy's song.

Which, by the way, he just told us he'd sing at breakfast every morning.


That's one of those moments when the light goes on.

If 'Where Are We Now' got me to suspecting that Bowie was still carrying a torch for his Berlin muse, it was actually the lyrics to 'Survive' that first put me on the scent.

Please; don't take my word for it, go read them for yourself. 

These are not Bowie's cut-up abstractions, these are some of the bluntest, rawest lyrics I've ever read of his. This is a stunningly direct, painful address to a former lover, expressing regret for ending the relationship while at the same time cherishing the memories of their shared experiences.

What makes me think this might be about Romy and not Hermione or Ava or some other lost love? Because 'Survive' has Bowie referring to clubs and fashion ("noisy rooms" and "passion pants"), the currency of Chez Romy Haag, and again in a later verse, using apparently coded language referring to drag clubs ("People boys, all snowy white, Razzle dazzle clubs every night").

And take a look at the music video for 'Survive', which has Bowie looking absolutely miserable (again), this time in a kitchen, the ultimate symbol of domesticity. As the song progresses he's literally being pulled away from his environment (or wishing to be), by lyrics like "Give me wings, give me space, give me money for a change of face" (or anonymity), and most poignantly "Wished I had sent a Valentine, I loved you."

Bear in mind, I didn't write these lyrics, David Bowie did.
He wrote them on what was commonly regarded as his "confessional" album (which as we saw, also included some remarkable symbology). Nor did I direct the video. I'm just pointing out the rather blatant symbolism at work.

As time goes on, Bowie's time in Berlin seems to be the definitive era of his career, even more so than the glitter era that first brought him fame. Of course, it's been that way for a long time now, since it was in Berlin that Bowie created a new kind of rock music (and arguably a new kind of ambient music as well), that's had far-reaching influence past the three short years he spent there.

It was a time of intense creativity (Bowie not only recorded his own albums, he composed and produced The Idiot and Lust for Life for Iggy Pop, widely considered that artist's creative peak). Berlin could also be seen as a laboratory for Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), the album that would become the defining landmark of his career (for better or worse).

Given the timeline of events, it's hard to argue against Leee Black Childers' claim that it was indeed Romy Haag that lured Bowie to Berlin, even if some might quibble with Angela's claim that his life there was entirely centered around Haag. There's no arguing Bowie spent a lot of time in her company for the first several months of that period and I would agree with Haag that it went beyond that.

Always judge a person by their actions, not their words. 

And Bowie's extraordinary actions right up to the very end of 1979- and indeed, beyond- tell us nothing but that Romy Haag had some kind of grip on him, a grip that apparently only magic could break.

How very, very Bowie.

UPDATE: Read this and this about Duncan Jones's (aka Zowie Bowie) "dream project."

* Read here how quickly Bowie lapses into sidebars and asides when asked a rather direct question of his move to Berlin, clearly not comfortable with his original explanation. Why? Because he repeats the party line about his precarious drug and emotional state, so of course he moves to the European city with both the Continent's worst drug problem and the stress and anxiety of being on the literal front lines during the hotting up of the Cold War!  

Berlin and Germany in general were also wracked by political terror in 1970s, notably the Munich massacre in 1972, the "German Autumn" in 1977 and violence committed by groups like the Red Army Faction and various far-right gangs throughout the decade (which Bowie himself would blame for leaving Berlin in 1979, so he was well aware of the turmoil). He was already safe and sound in Switzerland yet the notoriously-paranoid Bowie chooses Berlin? Come on.

Bowie then directly contradicts himself by claiming to want to ease his "foreboding" by moving to moving to the "spiritual home" of the "angst-ridden" Expressionists. There's also the fact that his behavior was often even more manic and extreme in Berlin than it had been in Los Angeles, only less witchy, more Teutonic. He would claim another set of reasons altogether for the Berlin move in this 1979 interview and claim he spent most of his time there alone, which is demonstrably untrue whether you believe he was secretly liaising with Haag or not.  

No offense, but I believe Leee Black Childers' explanation of the move.

The same link also tells us that Low was Bowie's most emotionally honest album. Which brings "Be My Wife" back to mind...