‘Just find a place to make your stand’

It’s a side-effect of getting older, I suppose- watching those we grew up honouring and loving for the contributions that they made to our lives pass away. The fact that we never knew them personally doesn’t lessen the loss at all.

Still weeping for David, I’m reeling with yesterday’s news about Glenn Frey. I’ve written about the Eagles many times – they are, by a considerable margin – my favourite US band. Feeling a little exhausted (it’s been one of those weeks in my ‘real world’ as well), I was going to just reblog one of those old posts with a new intro and call it a night. WordPress didn’t feel like cooperating. Try as I might, I could not get the thing to re-post. So, instead, I’ve modified and cut-and-pasted this oldie-but-goodie – with a new title, although the substance of the original post remains the same. It’s part of a series I started ages ago about ‘songs that can change a life’. The Eagles had a whole passel of those.

Glenn Frey and Don Henley were one of the greatest songwriting teams of the 70s. Although I’ve always loved Don best (I have a thing for drummers), as he noted in his touching tribute yesterday, ‘Glenn was the one who started it all. He was the spark plug, the man with the plan. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music and a work ethic that wouldn’t quit. He was funny, bullheaded, mercurial, generous, deeply talented and driven.’

The line up there ^^^ that I’ve used as the ‘new’ post title came from a tune he wrote with Jackson Browne (another wonderful singer-songwriter), and exemplifies so much of the fun and spark that Don was talking about. Certain songs just stick with you. Glenn Frey (co)wrote more than a few of the best of them.

I love the Eagles.  Not a fan of Country as a genre, but there’s something about that Country/Rock cross-over (California Rock?) that reminds me of summertime and lakes and cottages and bonfires on beaches.

I have Hotel California (1976) on vinyl, kept in storage with the rest of my favourite records and waiting for the day that I purchase something on which to play them- with all the atmospheric pops and skips intact – although I have always taken meticulous care of my vinyl, so the latter are few and far between (Little side note- Hotel California and all its friends will soon be released from storage, since, in the midst of all the impossible losses of the week, we somehow managed to buy a house yesterday…).

The entirety of the album is thematic- it’s a ‘concept album’ that the Eagles have said was meant to represent the decline of the US as it slipped into materialism and superficiality.  In hindsight, the record was distressingly prophetic.

Both the title song and the album as a whole generally rank pretty high when ‘greatest songs/albums’ are tallied- if you put any stock in such things.  I don’t, really, but I DO have to agree that it contains some great songs, two in particular, that figure near the Top of my personal Pops as incredible story songs.

The title tune, with lyrics by Glenn Frey, recounts the saga of someone trying to live the high life associated with California in the 1970s.  It’s an allegorical trip through the desert to the fancy hotel that appears like an oasis out of the darkness.

On the surface, the hotel seems to offer all the trappings of fame and fortune that California seemed to promise those who arrive, with stars in their eyes, seeking such things.  But the ‘spirit‘ of the peace and love movement of the previous decade hasn’t been around the Hotel California ‘since 1969‘, while the excesses and wealth of the 70s have imprisoned all those who reached for the heights and found nothing but materialism and superficiality.

The opening guitar riff takes me to that highway – and to the sense of uncertainty and entrapment that the song suggests is the direction that society has chosen.  It is a harbinger- and one that has been realized as we look back from a distance of almost 40 (!) years.

The album’s final track has an even bleaker message.  The Last Resort is an epic composition, referencing environmental degradation, institutionalized racism and the myth of manifest destiny.

While Hotel California is all about evoking lonely and deserted highways, The Last Resort takes me to a beach, on a lake, as the sun is setting and the stars and Northern Lights are beginning to brighten the darkness.  It never fails to transport me to my personal paradise.

Don Henley’s lyric traces America’s history – and its tendency to destroy as it attempts to create.  It is about the evils of colonialism and the guiding principle of manifest destiny as it became enshrined to further the development (or, more accurately, rape) of the land and its indigenous peoples.

The New World was seen as a place of redemption – a Paradise – for those descended from the Puritan settlers after they fled religious persecution in Europe.  Manifest destiny was the rhetorical mantra behind the push west – spreading American virtues and institutions as decreed by the destiny ‘established by god’.

Territorial expansion was seen as the providence, right, and responsibility of the United States – the self-perceived and – appointed model for the rest of the world.  By expanding and spreading its values – whether those values were wanted and appreciated or not – they were fulfilling the will of god and doing his work.

Although the song presents the historical western progression of the principle of manifest destiny, Henley saw history repeating itself – in the 1970s – as development destroyed more and more of the natural environment and served to pollute the atmosphere in the same way that forced conversions polluted relations with the First Nations peoples whose lands and ways of life were taken and changed irrevocably.

Myths are not always positive.  Manifest destiny was a narrative script that attempted to justify the destruction of those who stood in the way of the spread of American ideals, beliefs and practices.  The repercussions are still being felt.

Whether or not we use the term these days, the actions of the US government in condemning the elected governments of foreign nations and the invasions of other countries, all hearken back to some degree to the concept.

‘Our way’ is the only way.  And that ‘way’ will be shared regardless of the opinions of the recipients of the ‘wisdom’.

We destroy that which we can’t understand or that which is simply beautiful – in the name of god, destiny, progress, sustainability, the economy, greed, the American Dream… These are the lies we tell.

The Eagles witnessed this in 1976 – and foresaw its furtherance in the future.  That future is our present – and we are faced with the same concerns and considerations to the nth degree.  The song is a beautiful and insightful presentation of the need to use our myths, and the cultural scripts that stem from the narratives, with care and engaged and critical examination.

The prophetic voices of Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Randy Meisner and Don Felder weren’t heeded almost 40 years ago.

Since it’s January, I’m not at a cottage tonight, so I’m missing the physical atmosphere that these songs conjure from my memory.  The sense of loss and futility come through regardless of location, but, as I sit and enjoy a quiet evening, the beauty of the thread of optimism that is woven into them rings out as well, like a Mission Bell in the desert.

Time to pay attention and let these stories drown out the wrongs done in the name of the myths of past eras and stop kissing our paradises – individual and communal – goodbye.

I seem to be saying this too much lately. Travel safely Mr. Frey. Thank you for your music – and the sense of fun and lessons, both – that it contained.

‘Warm Impermanence’

‘We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise, I spoke into his eyes…’

When I woke up, unsettled, at 4am yesterday morning (funny that it’s always https://colemining.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/4am-in-the-morning/), I figured it was symptomatic of the return of the recurrent insomnia and/or bad sleeping patterns that plague me from time-to-time. Finally falling back to sleep- to an odd dream in which I dyed my hair myriad colours (definitely not a typical look for me), I knew that the disrupted sleep meant that it wasn’t likely to be a great day.

But I didn’t expect this.

David Bowie is gone.

I could scarcely wrap my brain around that fact, let alone begin to figure out how to articulate what this means to me, personally. He belonged to the world, certainly, and his legacy lives on in a body of work that is staggering in its diversity and genius. But. He was such a force and presence in my life… I wasn’t sure what to do with this information.

Drinking the first of what would be many coffees, I opened the facebook to a message from the Incomparable Len- the truest Bowie fan that I know (perhaps the truest Bowie fan there is)- just as the CBC told me the same thing. I had to stay off the social media all day – again – this time because I just couldn’t handle all the notices and reminiscences and tributes that are happening, everywhere.

I spent much of the day doing my very best not to cry. Which I managed by not acknowledging that he is gone. Once home, whilst I threw together some dinner, the nightly news kept trying to disabuse me of that little bit of denial. Like the rest of the world, I’ve had to realize that it’s time to face the sad music and let him go.

I’ve written about him a number of times before – generally in passing – when something he wrote, or said, or performed, could express what I was getting at better than I ever could. He was such an ubiquitous influence in my life – and in the lives of my generation and those immediately before and all those after (whether they know it or not) – that little pieces of him creep into the everyday without real notice or acknowledgement.

I really never thought he would die.

The surprise is, in and of itself, a mark of the man and his absolute class. Unlike other ‘celebrities’ these days, David was an intensely private person, living large in the spotlight while in character (whichever character was of the moment), but holding tight to the reins of his real life- with his wife and his family and friendships.

Friday was his 69th birthday- and the release date of his new album, Blackstar, a project that seemed to belie any indication that the fact that he has kept out of the spotlight completely for many months meant that he was struggling with health issues. I first heard the title song a number of weeks ago and, watching the video, I admit to feeling unsettled by the underlying message and imagery. He had a habit of being ‘unsettling’.

Since Friday, ‘Blackstar’ and the second single from the album, ‘Lazarus’, have become all the more poignant, since it seems that the album was intended as his final farewell to this world- and all who loved him. Even his death was art of a spectacularly high form.

We shouldn’t be surprised.

No one was more innovative and inclusive and inspirational than Bowie. No one. He transcended genre and gender and sexuality – while bringing those things to the forefront of important discussions and helping to change the way we view them all. He ripped us out of the ignorance and puritanical biases of the past – often without us realizing he was doing so. His genial intelligence and quick wit and charm distracted us from feeling too much pain from our extraction out of nonsensical previously-held mores.

He was part of the landscape- and frequent contributor to the soundtrack- of my entire life.

As a teenager: on a bus in Pushkin, outside of Leningrad (as it was called then- St. Petersburg in these post-Soviet Union days), listening to ‘Suffragette City’ while sharing earphones with my BFF. Which meant that only one of us could hear the ‘hey mans’. David accompanied us on the tour of Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace museum- with its Amber Room (at that time pre-reconstruction), and was as much a part of my remembrance of that day as were the artistic and historical wonders of the place.

When I first discovered Anne Rice’s vampires (also while a teenager), Lestat looked a whole lot like David in my imagination (never that Cruise guy. Nope. NEVER. And that Pitt guy as Louis?!?! Yeah, no. Worst casting of any movie ever. But I digress…). When I read her now, still, that Brat Prince looks more Jareth (oh how I loved him in Labyrinth. Muppets and Bowie together. Perfection) than Rutger Hauer (Anne’s imagining) or Stuart Townsend (better casting – an unfortunately terrible movie, though).

In my twenties I wrote a long, self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness piece of drivel (it haunts me to this day) called ‘Talking to Ziggy’- about the ongoing conversation between a young, struggling woman and the realized ‘ghost’ of Ziggy Stardust (what happens to fictional characters when they are no longer needed? Do they become ghosts, like humans are supposed to do? It was, in some ways, delving into similar themes as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods – although he did it much better. Speaking of Neil… he posted this lovely piece – a short story in his latest collection, Trigger Warning – that he calls ‘fan fiction’. Beautiful- and further evidence of the reality that David touched so many of us in so many ways…). Looking back at it now (I pull it out every now and again to assure myself that my writing has improved), I realize that – purplish prose and young-adult angst aside – I can’t under-emphasize the place that guy holds in my heart.

I could go on (and on, and on) about specific experiences that call him to mind, and how his songs take me back to places and times that grow farther away from my immediate recall as I grow older. I won’t, though. I’m still sorting through a lot of them and some ain’t so easy to revisit.

Suffice it to say that he was the person I spoke with when I felt no one else was listening. He was also the one I listened to – and discussed things with – working through questions and crises with the voice in my head that was oh-so-familiar from his songs, his films, his interviews (with the release of Let’s Dance he was ever-present in the beginnings of MTV and MuchMusic). I felt like I knew him. And I never had a doubt that he knew me.

He did so much. His spheres of art and influence were so vast that it makes the rest of us (read: me) feel like incredible slackers. His being was a kick in pants. To get moving. To turn and face the strange and effect changes to things that need changing.

When I’m not paying attention (or focused on something else – my job, for instance), I can slip back into the denial that was my initial coping mechanism upon hearing the news. It’s hard to face a world without him. If I could’ve believed immortality of anyone, it’d have to be David. He was somehow completely human and otherworldly, simultaneously.

The ‘fictional-something’ I’ve been working on forever deals with, in part, ideas of immortality – how we play with the concept, and those things we do to make it happen – in some form – since true, physical, immortality isn’t something to which we humans can aspire (at this time, anyway. Who knows what the more scientifically-inclined might come up with in the future…). Since I’ve been trying to hold to my determination to actually finish the thing this year, it’s a theme that’s uppermost in my thoughts lately.

There’s a lot of talk today about his last song, ‘Lazarus’, and its foreshadowing of his death. It shares its title with play he co-wrote, currently playing in New York. The play is based on The Man who Fell to Earth (David starred in the 1976 film, based on the novel by Walter Tevis) – with its themes of redemption and salvation.

Lazarus was, of course, a mythological figure – the guy that Jesus brought back to life after he had been dead for four days. He was a harbinger of something even greater to come (Jesus’ own resurrection) and the symbol of the defeat of that most indefatigable enemy of humanity: death.

David didn’t seem all that concerned about much outside of THIS life, though. The papers today are talking about his fight to live – to conquer the cancer that was taking him from his wife and young daughter while continuing to create and send messages to all those who have paid attention to what he has had to say for so many years. The use of Lazarus as a character in his swansong(s) is symbolic in its entirety. David understood metaphor and the importance of mythology.

I started this blog as a way of discussing our myths (it’s right there ^^^ in the tagline) and their enduring importance in our shared humanity, and discovered (quite quickly) that our stories and our music, when they’re at their best, come from the same place.

If any one person lived the truth of that with his entire being it was David Bowie. The characters he created, the personas he assumed and cast-off, the ideals and concerns and wonders he expressed, the everyday events in the lives of the ‘normal’ and the not-so-normal people he encountered… all these things have become part of our mythology.

He did that.

He was an exemplar for so much that is good and important.

He altered our perceptions of ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ and ‘acceptable’.

He turned taboos/’traditions’ on their heads and made us see their inherent inequity and ridiculousness.

He let us all know that our feelings of lack of belonging – as if we are aliens on our own planet/outcasts in our society – aren’t terribly unique or all that concerning, in the grander scheme of things.

He made us embrace the strange.

He led us new places, and foresaw the changes that would shape new generations.

He warned against inaction.

He changed the world.

He contributed to my world in ways I’m still discovering.

‘Pushing thru the market
square
so many mothers sighing
News had just come over,
we had five years left to cry in

News guy wept and told us
earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet
then I knew he was not lying

I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies
I saw boys, toys electric irons and T.V.’s
My brain hurt like a warehouse
it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things
to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people’

Whether we have five years, or five hundred years, or five million years, left to us as a species of inhabitants of this world, David reminds us that we need each other – over and above all those other things that are out there.

All loss leads to introspection of some kind. Great loss can lead to great introspection and the finding of new insights. As I turn myself to face me (‘I still don’t know what I was waiting for’ ‘a million dead-end streets’… these lyrics have been hitting me in the heart for months as I figure out what comes next in my own life. Hard to pick one favourite song from amongst the myriad- but right now that’d be it, methinks. ‘Warm impermanence’ indeed.)  – setting aside denial and starting to integrate this great loss – remembered lessons from his body of work will guide (and goad) my future steps. As they always have done.

His last words leave us saddened, yes. Immensely so. But also heartened by the knowledge that he, as Lazarus, was a harbinger of those things that may, yet, come to be realized all over this world – acceptance and light and promise of peace and an understanding of ourselves in all our human variety. His eternal wisdom tells us that we need these things in order to live together in this life, on this planet, together. If we act to harmonize all these realities then the inevitability of death might become less fearsome, and our search for routes to immortality – and anachronistic stories about its possibility – less important than living our best lives now.

His final character is that bluebird – flying free with nothing left to lose.

My love and thanks, Starman. Know that your immortality is secure through those many myths you have left behind you. We have been immeasurably enriched by your example.