Morire: Lemmy vs Bowie
GOOGLE TRADUCETE E PIANGETE – meglio una vita da Lemmy che 100 dischi da Bowie?
Live fast, die old
Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, epitome of the rock lifestyle, died on December 28th, aged 70
IT WAS never hard to pick out Lemmy in a crowd. First, that black hat, vaguely cowboy in style, with silver medallions round it and crossed Confederate swords. Then very long hair (eventually dyed, or else he looked like Willie Nelson), and matching moustache. A black shirt, often open to a jungle of chest hair, with very tight black jeans. And, to complete the look, cowboy boots. Around the mid-1970s many rock bands and their fans spent Saturday night in something similar. Lemmy, founder in 1975 and frontman of Motörhead, wore that outfit, all the time, for 40 years.
He played the same music, too: fundamentally pure rock and roll, rooted in Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, sent through two 100-watt black stacks and classified by the Guinness Book of Records as the loudest rock music ever. Bass was his instrument, but bashed in big up-down chords like the rhythm guitar on which he’d started: the effect was sometimes compared to crushed razor blades, sometimes to showers of gravel. Over this, through a mic tilted perilously over his head, he would rasp out vocals that were hard to hear and usually absurd, he admitted, once you’d made them out: songs about war, drugs, sex, rich people, kicking ass and broken glass, with titles like “Die, You Bastard”, “Antisocial” and “Overkill”, scrawled mostly by him in a few chortling minutes on the back of a cigarette packet.
Motörhead’s selling point was not high culture. It was that, in a scene encompassing heavy metal, punk, psychedelia, rockabilly and all the rest, the band played reliable, raw, ear-splitting rock and roll of the old style, and went on doing so round the world—or at least round the M1, M6 and M4—as long as Lemmy lasted. He led the band through 22 studio albums, the latest released in August. Guitarists and drummers came and went, sometimes by falling offstage or through bathroom mirrors they mistook for windows. The black hat with silver bits was a constant.
Surprisingly, the body inside the clothes also stayed much the same, despite serial abuse from chain-smoking, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s every day (no health-food shit for him!) and handfuls of acid crammed down like dolly mixtures when, for a while, he was roadie for Jimi Hendrix. Acid, he claimed, made him a better person. It gave you a new angle—several new angles—on things. His shift to amphetamines (“motorhead” was American slang for “speed freak”) came when he joined Hawkwind, a dreamy psychedelic band, in 1972. The pills kept him functional through tours from then on, though he was fired from Hawkwind when he was busted for possession in Canada; and though for one show he had to be propped up, his bass hung on him, and pointed in the rough direction of the audience, which he couldn’t see. A doctor once told him that a transfusion would kill him, because his body no longer contained any human blood.
Yet he couldn’t imagine a better life than this, and certainly couldn’t have foreseen it as a troubled, bullied English boy in north Wales—fiddling to catch Bill Haley on the wireless, messing around with short-lived useless bands, slaving at the Hotpoint factory. In the end he spent his entire career making the music he loved, thrilling fans, trashing hotel rooms, instigating riots with firehoses or squirty cheese, and taking restricted substances. (“If we moved in next door to you,” he remarked, “your lawn would die.”) He was a hedonist son of a bitch whose age seemed very nicely stuck at around 25.
Laid today, gone tomorrow
Meanwhile, girls desperate to bed him formed a disorderly queue at every stage door. The best part of any gig was getting laid afterwards; he estimated his conquests in the thousands, because chicks loved men intent on the wandering life, and it suited him, too, to be here today and gone tomorrow. Nowhere was home (though LA, with its “paradise” palm trees, came closest) and marriage wasn’t his style. The one girl he deeply loved died from heroin, making him even more determined not to touch that stuff, at least.
His other regret was that after Motörhead’s greatest hit, “Ace of Spades”, had soared to number 15 in the charts in 1980, even the band’s fans seemed deaf to the equally good music that came next. Though he was on the road most of the year for 40 years, playing to packed houses, he seemed to be always broke. On the fringes of venues he would loiter by the slot machines (his favourite form of that addiction), hoping someone would buy him a drink.
The big time, however, never came any closer, because he refused to change a thing he did. He wore his usual gear, including the Iron Cross necklace from his treasured collection of Nazi memorabilia, even to the Grammy awards. Nor would he kowtow to any asshole, record company or manager. He remained stubbornly his own man, and not always at full volume. On the road he bought dozens of chocolate Kinder eggs for the little toys inside. He enjoyed pondering the beauty and randomness of Nature. And at lights-out on the tour bus he would settle down to P.G. Wodehouse, quietly happy in his own company. He hoped to be remembered as “an honourable man”. But then, with a throaty laugh, he had to admit there wasn’t really any question of that.
LEMMY OR DAVID?
David Bowie, musician, actor and icon, died on January 10th, aged 69
IN JULY 1969 men walked on the moon, a technological leap all but unthinkable 50 years before. Three years later they abandoned it, and have renounced all return ever since. What boosters saw as the great opening act of the space age turned out to be, in effect, its culmination. Within a few years presidential corruption, economic stagnation, military ignominy and imagined catastrophe had warped post-war America’s previously impervious belief in progress, a belief that had resonance across the then free world. After Apollo, the future would never again be what it used to be.
David Bowie’s greatest years began nine days before Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquillity, with the release of his single “Space Oddity”; they ended 11 years later, with the single “Ashes to Ashes”. Over that decade he used imagined futures to turn himself into something contradictory and wonderful—an epitome of alienation with whom the alienated flocked to identify. In doing so, he laid bare one of the key cultural shifts of the 1970s: the giving up of past dreams.
Mr Bowie’s future-fixation was most obvious in his appropriation of the themes of pulp science fiction, of space travel and aliens from other planets, of “Ziggy Stardust” and “Life on Mars”. Other impresarios—most notably L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology—had ransacked the genre for mythologies of personal growth. But none did so with Mr Bowie’s sense of dress and theatre, his sexual thrill, his salesmanship and his understanding of what his fans wanted to hear. His alien allegories made the possibility of change—the heart of the future’s appeal, especially for adolescents—a matter not of remaking society or piling up technological progress but of revealing, or remaking, yourself. The difference between the future and the past lay not in it, but in you.
The proof was in the playing. Mr Bowie grew up as David Jones, a sharp-toothed kid from dull suburban Bromley whose parents held no aspirations for him. Through a talent born of yearning he had transformed himself into Ziggy Stardust: extravagant, flawed and sexually polymorphous, tottering on platform shoes and hiding behind a mask of paint. “Nijinsky meets Woolworths” Mr Bowie called him: a character who ran through 73 different outfits in 21 months. If he could so transform himself, what could make-up and attitude do for you—especially if you had outcast Ziggy, your leper messiah, to sexily show you the way?
Mr Bowie had taken a while to attract attention. Stuck in 1960s London, he picked up a saxophone and considered jazz, then flitted between bands; he moved from mod to Buddhist, from rocker to folk artist, hanging around London’s Soho with its sex shops and music clubs, exploring sexual ambiguity. Despite the success of “Space Oddity” his early albums drew little attention. It was only with the fifth, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, (1972) that millions of teenagers in semi-detached houses just like the one back in Bromley took him to their hearts and turntables.
Through these years and after Mr Bowie’s focus on the future was clear in his relentless reinvention of himself and his music: always wanting to see what was next, ceaselessly leaving the places he had lived and the music he had played for what was to come. “I can think of no other rock artist” wrote Charles Shaar Murray, a rock journalist, “whose next album is always the one I’m most looking forward to hearing.”
Some called him a chameleon, but he was the reverse. Chameleons change hue to blend in with their background; he changed to stand out, and dared others to mimic him. He was never afraid to murder his darlings. Ziggy was killed off in 1973 as he finished an exhausting worldwide tour at London’s Hammersmith Odeon; he was being too much imitated, and Mr Bowie always had to be one step ahead. One successor was Aladdin Sane, a zigzag of painted lightning across his face; another, the most troubled, was the Thin White Duke, an aristocratic cabaret singer in black trousers, waistcoat and white shirt, needing only a skull to play Hamlet.
The tragic garb was well judged. As he dashed from persona to persona, station to station, so the worlds he pushed into became darker. Shaped by the threat of nuclear war, the cultural imagination took a catastrophic turn in the 1970s—one ever-present future was no future at all. Mr Bowie was there at the turning point; his song “Five Years” says more about impending annihilation than a shelf full of reports from the RAND Corporation. Spectacular levels of cocaine abuse also shaped this nihilistic trajectory. Settled in Los Angeles from 1975, he stayed up for days on end, sitting cross-legged behind black curtains, surrounding himself with black candles and painted pentagrams.
His diet was “red peppers, cocaine and milk”; always slender, he became skeletal. He would work madly on a song for a week, only to realise that he had got no further than four bars. Nicolas Roeg had originally been set on Peter O’Toole to play the titular alien in his film “The Man Who Fell To Earth”. But on seeing television footage of Mr Bowie sitting utterly isolated in the back of a limousine he knew he had his not-quite-man. Mr Bowie, true to form, remembered almost nothing of the filming. There is no alienation like drugged alienation, and perhaps no worse place to experience that than “the most repulsive wart on the backside of humanity”, as he described the City of Angels.
In “Space Oddity” Major Tom, floating in a most peculiar way, had been an isolated spaceman; by “Ashes to Ashes” his isolation was a junkie’s. Mr Bowie later said that this funereal nursery rhyme (only his second British number-one single) served to wrap up the 1970s. In the 1980s he reconnected, refashioning himself into a much more straightforward, and less interesting, pop star and something of a Thatcherite poster-boy; embracing consumerism was another side of his celebration of the individual over all else. He found huge audiences in America with “Let’s Dance” (1983); he sang a camp cover of Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” with Mick Jagger for Bob Geldof’s Band Aid. His skills were still there, yet his sense of daring had faded. For the first time since Ziggy, he no longer drove the cultural agenda; like many an ageing rocker, he found himself seen as part of the establishment he had spent his life wrong-footing.
His better work in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, like the late work of many artists, seemed more a response to his own earlier achievement than a reflection of the world outside—but the stature of that earlier work, and the fact that it had done much to shape that world outside, still made the last albums far more interesting than those of most of his peers. Most poignant was his 27th and last, “Blackstar”, released on January 8th. The video for the track “Lazarus” shows him singing “I’ll be free—ain’t that just like me?” before walking backwards, trembling, into a wardrobe, and pulling the door closed. He had choreographed his own death—a step ahead, as usual, and a profound shock for a world that had been unaware of his cancer. Within days “Lazarus” had been watched 17m times, and “Blackstar” topped the charts. His producer, Tony Visconti, confirmed that it was Mr Bowie’s “parting gift”.
“Blackstar” in fact harked back to his greatest period: the one, in the late 1970s, in which he escaped from Los Angeles to Berlin and laid the future to rest in a grave of strange, powerful sound. He chose Berlin to save money and live in a place where he would be unknown. Despite his fascination with Nietzsche, it was the city’s cultural ferment, not a dalliance with fascism, that induced him to stay. He and Iggy Pop, a drug-addled rocker who was part-muse, part-playmate, part-protégé, shared a flat in Schöneberg.
In earlier days Mr Bowie had planned his albums meticulously; now he and his collaborators, including Mr Visconti and the remarkable Brian Eno, worked on the fly in the studio, the lyrics assembled with scissors-and-paste montage—or left out altogether. Much of the music was bleak, its synthesisers industrial, its guitars angry, its words disturbing. Take “Breaking Glass”: “Baby, I’ve been breaking glass in your room again. Listen. Don’t look at the carpet. I drew something awful on it”—presumed to be a reference to the pentagrams of Los Angeles.
But in this darkness there was grace. Freedom and honesty characterise the Berlin recordings, the veneer of masquerade abandoned. He had a sense, he said, “of closing the blinds and saying, ‘Fuck them all’.” And in a city as freighted with history as any in Europe, he felt he had at last captured “a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass”.
It is no accident that his greatest song of this period, “‘Heroes’”, both celebrates its protagonists’ potential and constrains it: while everything might be possible, it is all “just for one day”. It is an embrace of the present that acknowledges the passing away of future dreams, but in its intimate immensity absorbs the sadness of that loss. It is, like much great art, universal precisely because of its response to a particular place—and time.
tratti dalla sezione Obituaries dell’Economist