The world lost a great storyteller this week when David Bowie died on January 10, 2016. The man wasn’t limited – he could tell a tale in visuals, in music, in lyrics and with his body. He was a great genius, and one of his last stories, “Lazarus” (YouTube link), showed that he wasn’t done yet. I read on the internet that before his death, the songs from his new album Blackstar were a bit weird. But from personal experience, I can say that seeing “Lazarus” after his death was one of the most powerful video experiences I’ve ever had. We see his struggles, and they are all the more beautiful and poetic because we know the end of the story. And his aesthetic is as sharp as it ever was. The video is shot in shades of old wood and clean that remind us of the past, but don’t burden us with it.
I wanted to take a look at one of his great songs, “A Space Oddity.” (YouTube link to live version) This is the story of Major Tom, an astronaut who wins the admiration of the entire earth, but then winds up dying alone in space. What a downer! I don’t generally like this kind of story, but in this case, there’s the beautiful music that holds my hand and keeps me from running away from this dark, dark vision.
That’s the surface. Beneath, was something else. During a 2002 interview, John Wilson (a BBC interviewer, link to BBC here) asked Bowie, “What is it with spaceships?”
Bowie casually throws out, “Well, it’s an interior dialogue that you manifest physically.” Obviously, his tone seems to say. He continues, “You know, I mean, it’s my little inner space, isn’t it? Writ large. I wouldn’t dream of getting on a spaceship. It’d scare the shit out of me.” (Laughter) “I’ve absolutely no interest or ambition to go into space whatsoever. I’m scared of going down to the end of the garden.” And he chuckles. But it’s that kind of chuckle that says, “I’ve seen myself, and you may not believe what I say, but it’s true.”
Chris Hadfield, an American astronaut, covered it from a more literal perspective. He took his acoustic guitar into space, and rocked the song with . . . yes, I’m going there . . . an out-of-this-world video. And it was marvelous, and caused much comment and admiration from geek circles when I first saw it.
Chris changed some words, which I don’t normally truck with, but in this case, it was perfectly understandable. How can a person stuck in a tin can far above the world cover a song with death and destruction of another such man? Chris turned it into a grand epic of exploration, of the beauty of space and the coolness, utter coolness, of being outside the bounds of earth.
But at the same time, we hear the echoes of Bowie ringing throughout the song. We understand that Hadfield and his colleagues don’t just have a cool job, but that they are literally risking death and fire and the cold vacuum of space when they do that job. Even though Chris changed some of the words, we still understand what he is burying.
It’s really interesting how we can have the same story, and even more than 90 percent of the words exactly the same, and get two different stories: one of a man doomed to be famous, and one that celebrates the hope of exploration.
Both are worth checking out for their own sake, but watch them each again and analyze them as a storyteller. The economy with which they pull our emotional strings is amazing, and I don’t resent them at all for manipulating me into a state of mind far away from my normal one. How do they do it?
(I also think I must mention the sad death of Alan Rickman this week, too. ((Guardian obituary link)) Much has been made of the fact that both men were 69 and died of cancer. I would also like to point out that both men were hard workers who left us a wealth of beautiful work to revisit and explore. Let’s raise a glass to lives well-lived.)