In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Lance Olsen’s novel Always Crashing in the Same is inventive, moving, and wholly encompassing.
Laird Hunt wrote of the book:
“As he takes us on a moving, multinodal journey through the stunning kaleidoscope that was David Bowie’s life, Olsen offers up a generous vision of the indispensable role of art, love and friendship as—with old mortality in the offing—we prosecute the wonders of our days and the challenges of our nights.”
In his own words, here is Lance Olsen’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel Always Crashing in the Same Car:
One of the eight million things that fascinate me about David Bowie is how he kept his cancer diagnosis a secret from almost everyone until the very end; what we all felt on January 10 2016 as news of his death swooped in at us.
My novel Always Crashing in the Same Car imagines those last few months Bowie lived, working on his amazing final album Blackstar, even as it washes back and forth across his kaleidoscopically costumed life.
Commingling fact with the other thing, Always Crashing approaches Bowie through multiple voices and multiple perspectives—the protean musician himself, an academic trying to compose a critical monograph about him in the wake of the academic’s wife’s death, friends, lovers, musicologists, and more.
At its nucleus pulse questions about how we read others, how we are read by them, how (if at all) we can tell the past with something even close to accuracy, what it’s like being the opposite of young and still committed to bracing innovation.
Which is to say Always Crashing is, among other things, an exploration into what a poetics of impermanence looks and feels like.
Let me tell you a little more about it and my obsession with Bowie through ten of his songs, although, I confess, my instinct is to talk here at length about all 400+ he brought out:
“Always Crashing in the Same Car”
Recorded between September and November 1976, and appearing on the album Low the following January, this one, written at the height of Bowie’s cocaine addiction, is about the time he drove in circles in an underground Berlin garage, pushing 100 kph, while a woman named Jasmine (read: Iggy Pop) looked on—about, in other words, the unmitigated frustration at falling into the same self-destructive rhythms over and over. But I read it, as well, given our vantage point in history, as an ironic commentary on the trajectory of Bowie’s music. It may have had its ups. It may have its downs. Only the one thing it never did was to slip into sameness. And, as with music, so with writing.
The title puns on Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the song is perhaps not so accidentally released on July 11, 1969, five days before Apollo 11 lifts off for the moon and nine before the BBC plays it during coverage of the landing, thereby begetting Bowie’s first big hit; after nearly a decade of musical flounders, his career finally finds traction. Major Tom in particular and outer space in general become Bowie’s signature metaphors, not for freedom and possibility, as one might guess, but rather for existential estrangement, loneliness, contingency, the bottomless dread of drift: “Ashes to Ashes,” “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman,” “Life on Mars?,” “Dancing Out in Space,” “Born in a UFO,” “Lazarus,” “Blackstar,” and so forth. It’s okay, he says, to be unmoored. It’s okay to be the alien in the room.
All I want to point out about this third pared-down track on Hunky Dory (1971) is that it serves as emblem of my novel’s structure: collage, a form of which Bowie often used early on to generate lyrics (influenced by Burroughs/Gysin’s cutup technique) that juxtaposes different voices, different registers, which is to say different visions, different viewpoints, different approaches to the world, suggesting no single one can or should ever be privileged.
Once upon a time, Martin Buber recounts in Tales of the Hasidim, one of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev’s students asked him why the first page number is missing in all the tractates of the Babylonian Talmud. “However much a man may learn,” the rabbi replied, “he should always remember that he has not even gotten to the first page.” Recorded in Abbey Road Studios, made famous by the Beatles, this one is literally about a love still in its nascence, but I like to think it suggests, metaphorically, like Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev’s reply, that we’re all absolute creative and intellectual beginners all the time. If we’re not back on our heels when creating, ever in discomforting territory, why in the world are we doing what we’re doing?
“Warszarwa” both flags my favorite Bowie period—his wildly innovative Berlin years (1976-1978; we should all be so lucky)—and his groundbreaking dark ambient collaborations with Brian Eno. Released on Low in 1977, and intended to capture Warsaw’s bleak atmosphere Bowie discovered on a trip there, “Warszarwa” is characteristic of Bowie’s impulse to be forever uncharacteristic. Keyboardist for Roxy Music, Eno works with him on the sonically revolutionary Berlin Trilogy—Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979)—an amalgam of alternately anguished and euphoric funk, electronica, soundscapes, cabaret, and guitar-based rock that, among other things, introduces millions around the world used to vanilla pop to what the Germans call Neue Musik. Eno plays synthesizer. Producer Tony Visconti uses an Eventide Harmonizer to alter the drums in a way, he is positive, he claims, fucks with the fabric of time. The outcome shapes many nineties musicians and bands, among them Radiohead, Björk, P.J. Harvey, Moby, and Blur.Bowie: In some ways, those albums really captured a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come. My complete being is within them. They are my DNA. Mine, too.
Listen to “Heroes” more determinedly than you’ve ever listened to it before. In the dark, lying down, eyes shut, headphones on. Because I bet you will thereby be able to discern how Bowie gets going by laying down a backing track without form, without melody, without lyrics, without vocal, without name. Because George Murray on base warped with flanger; Carlos Alomar on guitar; Dennis Davis on drums, kick, snare, tom-toms; far, far down in the mix, barely perceptible, Bowie himself playing piano; and off in the corner Brian Eno with his EMS VCS 3 briefcase synthesizer birthing celestial ether. Because on another track Bowie caressing another synthesizer, a pulsing ARP Solina. Because a week later he invites Robert Fripp into the studio to overlay three feedbacky guitar riffs run through Eno’s synthesizer. Because Bowie adds a brass track by pumping chords through an electro-mechanical mellotron and, when he can’t find the cowbell he wants lying around in the studio, asks Visconti to tink out the beat with a fork on a metal tape reel while Bowie himself tambourines to keep the song’s momentum rolling forward. Because only after that, a final gesture, do the lyrics and melody come to him when, on a smoking break, Bowie catches sight of Visconti kissing singer Antonia Maass next to the Berlin Wall. Because we kissed, as though nothing could fall / And the shame was on the other side / Oh we can beat them for ever and ever / Then we could be heroes, just for one day. Because Visconti sets up three mics to record Bowie’s voice, one directly in front of him, one twenty feet away, and one fifty, each fitted with an electronic gate tripped depending on how loud Bowie sings, simultaneously creating a breathy, intimate and echoey, roomy sound. Because on the last track backing vocals, Visconti’s Brooklyn accent aligning with Bowie’s English. Because that’s why.
Except Bowie is never as easy as that because being human is never as easy as that. “Let’s Dance” is a calculated sellout based on his Thin White Duke persona, itself apparently based on the Aryan Übermensch. Because during those Berlin years Bowie collected Nazi memorabilia, including Goebbel’s old desk, and flirted with Nazi ideology, telling an interviewer in Sweden in 1976: I believe Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader—and, six days later, upon his return to London from Berlin (“China Girl” : I stumble into town just like a sacred cow, visions of swastikas in my head,plans for everyone), he seems to give the Nazi salute from the back of a black open-top Mercedes Benz limo before thousands of cheering fans at Victoria Station.
Except Bowie is never as easy as that because being human is never as easy as that. This is part of my fascination about and my love for him. Check out the video for this one. Bowie depicts a domino row of female Asian stereotypes (Deadpan Doll, Lotus Blossom Baby, Communist Droid, Hole-in-the-Wall Cook, Mandarin She-Devil, et al.) dominated in various ways (in one scene actually shot in the side of the head, quoting one of the most gruesome images from the Vietnam War: General Loan summarily executing his handcuffed prisoner during the Tet Offensive) by a very white, hypermasculine, nattily dressed Bowie exuding slick privilege like a prizefighter does perspiration. Some critics beat up the video for racism, sexism, and elitism, which is understandably tempting, given those swastikas dancing in the head of its lyricist, but I think they’re wrong. Rather, here we view a post-seventies incarnation of a man who has turned increasingly self-conscious, contemplative, problematically, excitingly political over the years. His China Girl jams racism by unconcealing it. Gender-variable Bowie re-presents White Womanizer in order to parody/condemn misogyny and Western orientalization. From Tiffany Naiman’s “Art’s Filthy Lesson” in David Bowie: Critical Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2015): If you ever took Bowie for what was on the surface, you were missing something. I think he was well aware of his elite cosmopolitanism. He was able to move through different cultures because of his privilege but he understood otherness and wanted to highlight that.
“Where Are We Now?”
The first single from Bowie’s twenty-fourth studio album, The Next Day, was released via iTunes on January 8, 2013, Bowie’s sixty-sixth birthday. On his website he posted an accompanying video by the kooky, poignant multimedia artist Tony Oursler. The video depicts Oursler’s wife, Jacqueline Humphries, and Bowie as conjoined homunculi perched atop a pommel horse in Oursler’s actual junk-stuffed New York studio, which Bowie frequented. Behind them on a screen runs grainy black-and-white footage from a grimy gray walled-in Berlin. To the left sits the model of a large blue ear, to the right one of a large white eye. We are, that is, in some fever-dream Wunderkammer that functions as stand-in for Bowie’s imagination. This isn’t a rock’n’roll suicide. This isn’t a suffragette city. It’s not Aladdin Sane or the Glass Spider or the Man Who Fell to Earth. Listen keenly, and you’ll hear a voice washed through with time—frailer, more spectral, yearning, boundlessly more candid than its earlier iterations. Listen, and you’ll hear Bowie hanging out with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed at the club Dschungel in the seventies, throngs of East Germans passing over the Bösebrücke, first border crossing opened as the Wall fell on November 9, 1989. You’ll hear Bowie meeting Iman in 1990 on a blind date, and everything changing, and his first heart attack backstage during his June 25, 2004 performance at the Hurricane Festival in Scheeßel, Germany, his rush to emergency surgery for an acutely blocked artery. And you’ll be moved by how shot-through it is with an awareness of that blue-eyed boy Mr. Death leaning against the wall across the room, paring his fingernails, smiling without any lips, how it could never have been written by a musician in his forties or thirties, let alone his Stardust twenties.
At the hub of Bowie’s final transmission, recorded and released in December, 2015, is a figure overdetermined with literary associations, adopted by everyone from Melville in Moby-Dick and Tennyson in In Memoriam to Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment, Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and Sylvia Plath in “Lady Lazarus”: one of Christ’s most prominent miracles, first narrated in the Gospel of John (11: 1–53)—that sickness, that demise, those four days in the tomb, that resurrection, that inspiration.
Yet what strikes the person who reads the original text attentively is that we never actually hear Lazarus’s voice. He carries no message himself. John has muzzled him. Christ, too, apparently, who has turned the whole yarn into a sales pitch for himself and his daddums.
Doing so opens an expansive neighborhood for future writers to enter in order to exercise their own interpretive calisthenics. Browning, for instance, in his dramatic monologue “An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician,” tells us Lazarus’s detour into dying provides him with the gift of a child’s eyes; he steps from the tomb into a realm that has become virginal, everything reimbued with novelty, necrosis the mother of beauty.
Whereas Leonid Nikolaievich Andreyev, playwright, novelist, short-story writer, and father of Russian Expressionism, in 1906 imagines quite a different outcome. Lazarus doesn’t uncover revelation in cessation. Rather, he finds nothing except polar cold and darkness. The miracle, he comes to realize, is that there can be no miracle save, perhaps, in the appreciation of obliteration’s piercing horror. He steps from his burial chamber with skin rotting, blistering, peeling off, a body bloated and stinking, a face frozen in shock before what he has witnessed, a mind already putrefying around the edges. His interest in his life, let alone the hereafter, has deserted him.
There are lots more. All provide us, not with some kind of epiphany, but rather with the articulation of the human struggle to articulate the human struggle to articulate.
Most misreadings of Bowie’s song reside in the mistaken belief that Bowie casts himself as Lazarus in it. He doesn’t. Listeners tend to glom on to that first line—Look up here, I’m in heaven—to argue the piece’s speaker is already dead. But he isn’t. He’s simply so potted on painkillers—I’m so high it makes my brain whirl—that it feels that way. The rest of the lyrics concern, not holidaying in kingdom come, but the speaker’s physical and mental unlacing, his fright in the face of reaching room temperature, his useless appetite for release, his glance back over his life.
What I mean to say is that Bowie isn’t the Lazarus in this song.
His music is, and always will be.
LANCE OLSEN is author of more than 30 books of and about innovative writing, including, most recently, the novels Skin Elegies (Dzanc, 2021) and My Red Heaven (Dzanc, 2020). His short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies. A Guggenheim, two-time N.E.A. Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.