On the morning of June 27, 2012, Grantland editor Sean Fennessey received a tip that suggested David Bowie was near death. The source of the tip had proven reliable in the past (most notably with the passing of Nora Ephron). It was decided that Alex Pappademas and Chuck Klosterman should e-mail back and forth about Bowie's legacy, the transcript of which Grantland would publish immediately after he died (we assumed this would be very soon — perhaps that same day). Pappademas and Klosterman started their conversation that afternoon, unsure about the best way this kind of thing should be handled.
But then something strange and wonderful happened: Bowie lived.
What follows is the (mostly unedited) text of their conversation, stretching over seven months and more than 15,000 words. Bowie's new album, The Next Day, will be released tomorrow. We are happy that things worked out the way they did.
Part 1: June 2012
From: Chuck Klosterman
To: Alex Pappademas
Date: Wednesday, June 27, 2012, at 2:50 p.m.
Subject: might as well start, eh?
I'm finding the death of David Bowie unusually disturbing [EDITOR'S NOTE: BOWIE IS NOT DEAD]. When Adam Yauch died in May, it was common for (white) people born during the '70s to argue that his particular passing was the first pop death that truly felt "close," because they'd almost grown up with him and experienced his musical (and personal) evolution in real time. It wasn't like (for example) George Harrison's death, because Harrison — a '60s artist, defined by black-and-white photographs and galvanized myths — had always seemed historically distant. He'd always seemed old. But the death of Bowie is more disorienting than either of those guys. He never seemed real or unreal, which I unconsciously equate with immortality.
I mean, I can remember when Adam Yauch was (for lack of a better term) "new," so I always viewed him as human. There was never anything unworldly about him. Conversely, George Harrison was exclusively unworldly. His apex as an artist happened during a time I can only read about and imagine and attempt to re-create in my mind. But David Bowie falls into a nebulous middle category: For all those under the age of 45, Bowie was just there when you first became aware that popular culture was something to think about. He didn't seem to be any age; it feels like he should subsist in static perpetuity. He was the first person to become a rock star in the era when rock music was not a new, radical, non-universal thing. He was working as a total original in an art form that was no longer limitless and undefined, and that forced him to be more intellectually creative than he already was. The fact that no one understood precisely what he was doing made him easier to understand, somehow. Bowie invented this insane state of being, and the planet just collectively thought, Yes. This is what we want. It's like he was here just to do that (even though no one had asked for it, or even knew what to ask for).
You know, everyone still uses the term "rock star" incessantly, even though rock stars no longer exist. The idea of the rock star is a constant in our mental culture, but not as an element of our hard reality. Calling someone a "rock star" is like calling someone a "door-to-door salesman" — we all know what it means and we all know what it signifies, but no one occupies its literal designation. Instead, we say things like, "Game designers are the new rock stars" or "Bike messengers are the new rock stars." However, there are no rock stars becoming the new rock stars. That's over. The term is just an abstraction that connotes a specific type of public perception. And it's astounding how much of that specific abstraction is still a straightforward portrait of what David Bowie built in 1972. I realize he based the Ziggy Stardust persona on all these crazy, forgotten weirdoes he met throughout the '60s, but none of them are remotely similar to Bowie's performative vision. It's almost like he made a linguistic leap: "These kinds of artists create a sense of alienation, which means they are figurative aliens, which I will choose to perceive as a literal alien from outer space. And this alien will be obsessed with all the things I am obsessed with, because the alien is still me." It wasn't a reinvention, which everyone likes to claim. It was an invention.
From: Alex Pappademas
To: Chuck Klosterman
Date: Wednesday, June 27, 2012, at 4:37 p.m.
Subject: Re: might as well start, eh?
Yes. Every obit's going to have the word "chameleonic" in the first sentence; he'll go down in history, the way Madonna will, as somebody who continually and restlessly reinvented himself. Cue inevitable montage set to "Changes." (I feel, about "Changes" and its inevitable role in Bowie-mourning, the way Sarah Vowell felt about "My Way" being Sinatra's epitaph — I have no hope that it won't be the official Bowie-died song, but I don't have to like it. Give me "Five Years," give me "Sound and Vision," give me "Time," give me "Heroes" — "Heroes" over a Bowie-tribute montage would make me bawl like a ch-ch-ch-child.)
But you're right — the reinventions aren't the point. What's important is that he foregrounded those reinventions and made them explicit and unambiguous. He introduced the idea that an obviously contrived persona could be as much a part of the theatrics of rock performance as anything a rock star did physically or musically. That an invented self could be rhetorical costuming, a silver-glitter fiction-spacesuit that would allow you to say something about the world, or your own navel, that for whatever reason would sound weird or implausible coming from the "real you." And that you didn't even have to act like it wasn't a contrivance. Bob Dylan did that — or at least, he didn't discourage people from taking his claims about himself at face value — but with Bowie, the thrill was knowing that he was playing a part, that he obviously wasn't from space or black or gay or the King of the Goblins, but that pretending to be those things allowed him to articulate what it was like to be David Bowie at the moment he was pretending to be them. And this spoke to people because everybody feels trapped by the dumb identity they were born with. On the one hand, post–Sasha Fierce and Slim Shady and Jack White and Rick Ross (and Madonna) (and Lady Gaga) this all seems totally routine now; it's in the groundwater of pop. Your pretensions are your art. Everybody's an avatar. And yet we're still having debates about "authenticity" and delighting as a culture in fact-checking the lies people tell about themselves in songs, so I don't know.
To go back to that Dylan comparison, because Dylan's maybe the only other solo-artist peer of Bowie's who "matters" on this level: Dylan's the more conventional-wisdom "important" artist, but he's been absorbed into the fabric of pop as a collection of gestures and tics — people influenced by Bob Dylan tend to sound like Bob Dylan — whereas Bowie's legacy is this much bigger and more far-reaching idea about the role of gesture in pop music, which has emboldened and enabled a ton of people who may not even consider themselves Bowie disciples.
I always took it for granted that Bowie didn't have a fixed identity. The first Bowie album I ever owned was a cassette of Changesbowie, the Rykodisc greatest-hits collection, which is a totally disorienting unstuck-in-time whirlwind tour of the canon up to 1990 — here's space hippie Bowie orbiting the Earth in a tin can, here's the Thin White Duke throwing darts in lovers' eyes, here's that weird r-r-r-r-remix of "Fame" from the Pretty Woman soundtrack. And the second Bowie album I ever owned was Young Americans, the "plastic soul" album, the one where he's pretending to be a black British homosexual man in love with American soul music, or so I'd read. The forks were the road, to me.
From: Chuck Klosterman
To: Alex Pappademas
Date: Thursday, June 28, 2012, at 8:41 a.m.
Subject: Re: might as well start, eh?
You write, "I always took for granted that Bowie didn't have a fixed identity," and — in an explicit sense — that's obviously true. But sometimes I feel like he did. Yes, he constantly toggled through this menagerie of characters. But wasn't his central identity inevitably the same? It was always some version of, "I'm a bizarre, forward-thinking, consciously artificial life force." I think this is why he was better at these inventions than everyone else: There were unifying elements across all his constructions. They did not feel forced. He never became someone who didn't seem like David Bowie. And I know we shouldn't talk about "authenticity" here, because (a) that subject tends to derail everything else, and (b) we're now supposed to pretend like it doesn't matter. But it DOES matter, and I think critics who refuse to worry about authenticity are actively ignoring something profound. The problem is that people misapply the term. Authenticity is not about literal honesty. If an artist says, "I'm a fake person who makes fake art as an extension of my fake experience within a fake world," I view that artist as deeply real. And I'm not arguing that this is how David Bowie thought about himself, because I have no idea how he thought about himself. But it's how I thought of him. I think he was way more authentic than most rock musicians.
Here's something I'd be curious to get your opinion on: Bowie is the most important glam artist of all time. His work (along with T. Rex and Slade) defines what the genre is. Bowie represents the entire glam ideal. But what was "the glam ideal," exactly? If somebody asked you "What was glam rock about?" what would you say? If I asked you "What was David Bowie's music about?" how would you respond? I've been reading this memoir Apathy for the Devil by Nick Kent, a pop writer who was really into Bowie (and particularly Bowie's relationship to Iggy Pop). At one point, Kent writes about how much he hated the Eagles in 1975: "Their music was as comfortable and reassuring to mainstream America as slipping on a pair of old slippers. It didn't challenge its audience on any level or promote alternative lifestyles." Now, he's clearly trying to create this binary relationship between glam rock and California rock, and he's suggesting that the latter was worthless (because nothing was at stake). But — as a musician — what ideas was Bowie forwarding, exactly? Like, what are we supposed to take away from a song like "Cracked Actor"? That's it's merely interesting? That this is how art should be? I feel like it's something much bigger, but I'm having a difficult time explaining what that something is.
Obviously, there are qualities we always associate with glam rock: androgyny, openness to bisexuality, the import of youth, a glamorization of drugs, etc. If you wanted to be reductionist, I suppose you could just argue that glam (and Bowie) embraced the idea of style over substance in a subversive context. But why was that so important? Because I feel like it was.
From: Alex Pappademas
To: Chuck Klosterman
Date: Monday, July 2, 2012, at 1:21 a.m.
Subject: Re: might as well start, eh?
I would like to answer your question about "Cracked Actor" by not answering your question about "Cracked Actor" in any way. I'm having a hard time actually having this conversation.
We should probably say right here that it's July 2, 2012, and as of right this second as far as we both know — although I've been off Twitter and e-mail for the last hour or so — David Bowie is still alive. We're having a conversation about David Bowie to be published in the event of his death.
Which we know is coming. And not the way we know that everybody's death is coming, that someday, rich man or beggar, God's gonna call us home or Xenu's gonna fly us all into the volcano — we had a tip. There was a reliable source who said David Bowie was dying, and soon. This person had supposedly just been right about Nora Ephron, way before Liz Smith was wrong-but-then-right about Nora Ephron. This person was highly placed in some ailing-celebrity inner circle. There'd been that sidebar in the Rolling Stone cover story a couple months ago, about how Bowie hadn't been "making the scene" on a Random Notes kind of level lately. You could call it, if you wanted to: Jann Wenner owns Us Weekly, and Us Weekly totally has enough tentacles that somebody's gotta be picking up Bowie-about-to-die info if it's out there, maybe even pictures of him looking rough, who knows, but Jann wants to respect Bowie's privacy as Bowie's on his way out because it's Bowie.
Either way: Bowie's death, we were told, waits. Like an old roué. And not out there in the fog of the ambiguous future but right around the corner, maybe on the way home from the sushi place, or wherever it is that David Bowie walks to.
(Where does David Bowie walk to? Does he still own his own mountain? I guess he still lives in New York when he's not there, right? And yet I find it hard to imagine David Bowie walking anywhere in New York City, although I assume he does. The only '70s glam/protopunk-identified person I ever saw walking around New York while I lived there was Lou Reed, and I saw him walking around and eating sushi and looking like a scared Lou Reed puppet so many times that he became a quasi-worthless sighting, the way seeing Steve Buscemi becomes a non-event for people who live in the part of Brooklyn where Steve Buscemi lives, or at least something you know only rubes get excited about, whether or not it actually makes you excited.)
(One of the reasons I like living in Los Angeles now is that the "non-collectible" famous-person sightings are different. Ava Crowder from Justified is at the dog park all the time and at first I was totally excited about this and now it's just like "Oh, yeah, there she is again. That dog sure loves running around on dirt." PS: Try to imagine Bowie owning a dog, walking it outside on the street, getting almost all the way out the door and then realizing he's forgotten to bring a fistful of poop bags or his cell phone or his wallet or whatever. It's almost harder to imagine that than it is to imagine a world where he's dead.)
Assuming imminence, you and I agreed to do this e-mail dialogue. It was our idea; I think Sean Fennessey was just giving us the heads-up, expecting us to both be ready with some fake off-the-cuff remarks in the quiver as soon as the news broke. But instead we actually started having the conversation. Or we tried to. (You did a good job on your side of the dialogue. I liked that thing about "rock star" being a label we apply to everyone except people who play rock music. I was kind of like, "Fuck, that's too good, I don't have any Bowie stuff that good.")
And then he didn't die.
Days went by, and no word of David Bowie dying.
I've been acting like it's a thing that's going to happen.
You know that Jenn — who I will identify here as my wife for the benefit of people reading this, even though you know her and know that she's my wife — met David Bowie when she was a baby? Her mom snuck backstage at a Bowie concert in Philadelphia in '73 or '74. It's possible David Bowie actually held her in his weird, skinny arms — she doesn't remember, she was pre-conscious, a fat, pink blob with a silver smear of Aladdin Sane makeup across one eye. She's always had a thing about Bowie forever because of that, thinks about her mom and dad whenever "Kooks" comes on. I had to, like, break this news to Jenn that David Bowie was dying, Chuck.
But because he wasn't actually dead, I couldn't even, really, give her the opportunity to feel feelings about somebody's life and work and the way it's touched your own that a famous person's actual death offers you — that unique, like, solipsism coupon that the death of a famous person represents, where you get to feel sad about them and awesome about all that they achieved and meant to you, stuff like that. So she was both bummed out by knowing this fact and mad at me for forcing her to feel something technically false about David Bowie. I basically Dr. Spaceman-ed her: "He's dead … " "Oh, no." "Tired. David Bowie is dead tired."
I think I'm having trouble with this self-imposed thought experiment for that same reason. I'm unable to think over the Bowie career as a finite narrative because he's not really dead.
I didn't think this was going to be a problem. I thought that basically there would be nothing about his death, when it finally happened, that would change the content of any kind of obituaric writing about Bowie, y'know? I figured it was already kind of a closed case. I guarantee you that if the New York Times has an obituary or some kind of career-spanning postmortem David Bowie arts-section story on file right now, waiting for him to die, something fucking insane would have to happen for that story to change in a significant way. Bowie would have to get eaten by a shark and somehow Iman would have to be involved in him falling into the shark tank. I know you don't watch Saturday Night Live, but you're probably aware of the sketch with Dana Carvey as Tom Brokaw pretaping a bunch of Gerald Ford deaths and running through every way he could possibly die, like being torn apart by a mountain lion and hit by a meteor. Bowie is in that hit-by-a-meteor category. Barring some kind of 9/11-level cataclysmically game-changing news event (e.g., Eastern Seaboard of the United States obliterated by tsunami, claiming millions of lives, including Bowie's), what would have to happen for a David Bowie obituary written today, in July, to be rendered not current? Bowie emerges from seclusion, decides that he's not yet "said all he had to say" with Tin Machine, and cuts an album that critics almost universally agree is "at least as good as Low and totally better than Lodger"?
My problem isn't that doing this ahead of time is totally disrespectful of his life, and of human life in general. It is, but it's also just a part of journalism. Like, a part of actual journalism. We have a mutual friend whose father was a newspaper reporter and a film critic. Long after he left the paper he'd still get the occasional byline when somebody he'd banked an obit for finally kicked it. He passed away last year but probably still has some copy waiting to run. There'll be a hundred Bowie obits and Bowie remembrances, half of them probably also written before the fact, years before the fact, carefully composed in the heads of ex–guitar techs and Mojo freelancers whose three-week stint embedded with the Glass Spider tour left them with notebooks full of unpublished anecdotes (and also hepatitis B). People who never even knew Bowie have thought about what they'll write when Bowie dies. The performative nature of fan grief in the Twitterverse and the blogosphere — are we still calling it the blogosphere, do you know? Is it still spherical? — means that now more than ever, being a person who writes about culture kind of means keeping this mental "Drafts" folder of thoughts and feelings about famous people who seem like they're either old or fucked up enough that they might die soon. I have my three stupid anecdotes about Lindsay Lohan, and I haven't actually written them down, but it'll take me an hour when I have to, y'know?
It's not as if we're going to in any way cause Bowie's death to happen by preparing for it, any more than we cause earthquakes to happen by keeping canned food around. There are no gods so vengeful that they will take Bowie away from everyone else in the world just to make you and me feel guilty. I need to believe that because I haven't actually bought any canned food.
Anyway: The idea (unspoken between us, I should probably add, and maybe you felt differently about it) was that we'd get a little extra time to work on this conversation and then it'd be maybe that much shinier of a paper boat in the fucking flotilla. But I'm struggling more than I anticipated with writing you a bunch of e-mails about what I think Bowie "meant," because I need him to actually be dead to understand what he Meant to Me, which is the unspoken subtext of any of these kinds of things.
Apparently when John O'Hara received a phone call informing him of George Gershwin's death, he shouted "I don't have to believe it if I don't want to!" I know this because Dave Hickey tells this story at the beginning of his essay about Chet Baker, before saying that he wishes he could have been "so willful" at the time of Baker's death, instead of reacting the way he did, which was to say "Aw, shit!" and hang up the phone:
"Because I believed it, and believing it, I sat there for a long time in that cool, shadowy room, looking out at the California morning … above and beyond the bungalow and the palm, the slate-gray Pacific rose to the pale line of the horizon, and this vision of ordinary paradise seemed an appropriate, funereal vista for the ruined prince of West Coast cool."
I need to believe it to make that "Aw, shit" happen. I guess this is partly because I don't want it to be true, but I'd be lying if I said it was entirely, or even primarily, caused by my not wanting it to be true — I just need the "Aw, shit" and I can't fake it. I can't even fake that "Goddammit all the best people keep dying and yet Michelle Malkin is gonna live to be 112" kind of anger, which is itself a mock, rhetorical anger. I can't even fake mock anger privately inside my own mind.
"Aw, shit" is enough to go on, as an emotional reaction. Which is what Hickey's essay tells us, what that incantatory "believed"/"believing" double snare tap says so well. Although it obviously helps that he goes on to write the best nine pages anybody ever wrote about Baker's life and death and how Baker, whom Hickey met only once, "had been the secret sharer and unwitting accomplice in the best and most disgusting of my adventures."
I guess maybe I feel like I lose the right to feel in any way that way about Bowie if we do this tag-team fan-fiction eulogy of him while he's still alive. And I do have positive memories of Bowie along those lines. I have totally talked to girls about David Bowie in order to make them think that I was a certain kind of person. In a way, I guess that's true of all the rock stars whose deaths are actually going to affect me on some emotional level; they're all people who've been in some way a lingua franca for me in conversations with people I wanted to know or wanted to know me. When Joni Mitchell dies I will think about the women I talked to about Joni Mitchell so that they'd think I was the kind of complicated cat who likes a little Hissing of Summer Lawns with his Sunday-morning coffee. (I really resent that scene in The Kids Are All Right when Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo are at an incredibly awkward dinner together until they bond over their shared love of Blue, because now you can't have a conversation with anybody about Blue without it sounding like canned indie-movie dialogue, which is too bad because Blue is the shit, and a really good conversation starter.) I guess me thinking about the people I talked to about David Bowie is really me thinking about the impermanence of all relationships, which in turn is really me thinking about the fact that everyone involved in those memories will someday die, me included.
Again, though, I'd be totally lying if I said I found this hard to do because it's solipsistic. I'm literally just finding it hard to do because it's hard to think of things to say about him while he's still alive. I just need those last few pieces of information before I can start feeling emotions about David Bowie — where he was when he died and what day it was, stuff like that. (I guess I need to know what he died of, too, but again, it doesn't really matter unless he gets killed in a drive-by shooting or struck by a falling satellite.) As it stands, this is like pulling teeth for me. Before I started writing you this e-mail I started writing you another e-mail, in which I literally found myself typing sentences like, "Slade, as one wag once observed," and then there'd be a quote, from one wag who had observed something about Slade. You know you're in trouble anytime you're quoting "one wag."
Are there still "wags"? Can you give me an example of someone who's a present-day, working, self-identified "wag"? Did that profession die with Hitchens? Or was he too productive to be a true wag? I feel like "wags" only exist to be quoted. By the way, here's a quote I found from David Bowie, in noted wags Phil Dellio and Scott Woods's weirdly indispensable book Quotable Pop: "What the music says may be serious, but as a medium it should not be questioned, analyzed, or taken so seriously. I think it should be tarted up, made into a prostitute, a parody of itself. It should be the clown, the Pierrot medium. The music is the mask the message wears — music is the Pierrot and I, the performer, am the message." I guess that's what "Cracked Actor" is about, to me — Bowie's lost somewhere on tour in America, probably weirded out about how much fucked-up behavior he's been able to write off as "Ziggy taking over," just a guy in a lightning-boltier version of sad-clown makeup, begging the man in the coke-dusty mirror to recover the ability to feel before it's too late.
So my question is this: There is a lyrically ambiguous but last-transmission-from-a-dying-space-capsule-ishly funereal song on the new Flaming Lips record called "Is David Bowie Dying?" Do you think Wayne Coyne knows something we don't?