Saturday, October 19, 2013

David Bowie is Staring at You… So What are You Going to Do? The Sound, Vision, and Artistic Magic of the Thin White Duke

David Bowie, Promotional Shot from Reality album, 2003
David Bowie is Here. So states one of the many advertising taglines being used for the David Bowie Is exhibit, currently showing at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s a bit misleading actually – the man himself has been nowhere to be seen since his stellar new album The Next Day was released in March. Not a single media interview, no appearance at the Victoria & Albert museum’s launch of the David Bowie Is exhibit, and certainly no appearance at the exhibit’s Toronto stop (unless he did so in disguise, something Mr. Bowie is no stranger to)

No matter. The exhibit, which runs September 25 – November 27 is both a marketer’s dream and a wonderous thing to experience, which is how I’m sure Bowie himself would want it. Not only is the show being advertised on billboards in Toronto and Montreal, I’ve seen a full-page ad in Rolling Stone magazine. It’s also safe to say that newspapers in Toronto are being blanketed with ads. Not to mention all the press David Bowie Is has received through media reviews.

For those reading this who are unfamiliar with David Bowie, his life’s work is a marriage of form and substance. The form takes shape in his stellar, boots to the floor rock n’ roll oeuvre that spans Ziggy Stardust & his Spiders from Mars to The Thin White Duke to Major Tom to Nathan Adler and beyond. All of those previously mentioned are characters created by Bowie as vehicles through which to deliver his music.

Each of these personalities had their own show stopping costumes that added even more power to Bowie’s already muscular music and presentation. Also, thanks to Bowie’s creativity and artistic care, each character he created spoke to the decade said character belonged to. Ziggy Stardust was the alien strumming about the Five Years us small Earthlings had left until the planet’s destruction. The Thin White Duke was Bowie and his environs of Los Angeles in the thrall of Cocaine, with broad strokes of Occult magic and Fascism thrown in.

Major Tom, particularly his 1980s reincarnation in the song Ashes to Ashes, was closing the book on the 1970s, drugs, addictions, and Bowie’s personal mental anguish during that decade. On the other side of the Bowie knife, the 1970s were also one of his most creatively fruitful periods, seeing the birth of his famous Berlin Trilogy. Years later, Nathan Adler would be the Detective out to solve an Art Crime in 1995’s challenging Outside album.

Bowie’s best-known and most emotionally resonant song was sung by the man himself, instead of an invented character. Heroes, from 1977’s album of the same name. Recorded at Das Hansa Tonstudio, it tells the tale of two lovers, presumably separated by the Berlin Wall, but also by their own human failings (“and I, I’ll drink all the time”). As a strange little child growing up in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, this song was my anthem. The David Bowie Is exhibit features the original handwritten lyrics to said song. I’ll admit, I got a tad misty eyed reading them. 

Heroes is also featured in all its audio glory as re-mastered by Sennheiser Audio, one of the exhibition’s presenters. But then, so are all of Bowie’s songs. While the costumes, which most reviewers have focused on, are beautiful, even more spectacular is the music. Alienation, isolation, floating in space cut off from everything and everyone – these are themes Major Tom keeps returning to and nailing with uncanny precision. Yes, it can be gloomy, but it’s a delicious gloom. This dedication to his chosen ideas continues today – just take a listen to Valentine’s Day. As he narrates the motives of a school shooter it’s clear Mr. Bowie will have it his way; sweet and scary simultaneously. 

David Bowie is rightly adored by all Freaks, Outsiders, and strange children who dare to own their destinies.

To state what’s probably beyond obvious now, this is one exhibit to see and see again if you’re visiting Hogtown before November’s end. For those of you on a tight travel budget, you should know Toronto is the exhibit’s only North American stop. With his beautifully constructed costumes and dark, threatening, yet seductive songwriting that moved our world into the 21st century, you don’t want to miss David Bowie Is.

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