Bret and Jemaine

I was spending a weekend in the Boston area back in 2007 or so. A bunch of us were hanging out when my friend Nancy said I just HAD to see something. She got her laptop and went to YouTube, excited as a schoolgirl, and searched for “Flight of the Conchords.” Then I saw Bret and Jemaine performing “Robots” live. My first thought was that it was a little hard to take seriously (it’s a parody, so you’re probably not supposed to). I rolled my eyes infuriatingly, looked at Nancy with smirking condescension and said, “Really?” She ignored me, bless her heart, and just laughed hysterically.

Nancy’s always been on a different wavelength than me, which makes her completely indispensible. She’s more than a friend; she’s a sister. Even though you may disagree with your sister over some pretty big things, your relationship never disintegrates because you love each other, and nothing is big enough to change that.

It took a little while, but by the time their TV show had finished its first season, Flight of the Conchords were my favorite musical comedy act behind Weird Al. Without question, my favorite song of theirs is “Bowie,” a moment where David Bowie (played by Jemaine) comes to Bret in a dream to guide him with his out-of-this-universe wisdom – while suspended in mid-air, ‘cause it’s awesome. The song is a trip through the ever-shifting styles of Bowie’s prodigious career, and the lyrics are about Bowie traveling through space to meet his doppelganger, hitting the most ridiculous aspects of his personality (spaceships, jumpsuits, “that’s pretty far out”) in a mocking yet reverential and adoring way. It’s great.

this is David Bowie

I’ll admit that Bowie’s an entity that I still don’t completely understand. Recently, my wife asked me, “So why do you like David Bowie?”, and I couldn’t come up with a good answer. His weirdness and spacey mysticism are at once bizarre and appealing to me. A large part of that is his androgyny. He challenges the conventions of gender in a complicated way, not like his imitators who think gender-bending means simply a man wearing makeup or a woman shaving her head. For him, gender seems to melt away, becoming of no consequence. He’s almost a third gender, one that sees no distinction between male and female, or at least sees the differences as not important.

This androgyny is just a piece of what 70s Bowie was really about, which was transcending his humanity to become something greater. Bowie (or at least his public character) didn’t fit in with any of the “normal” people; it got to the point where he started asking himself some fundamental questions. He somehow went from being an “abnormal person” to not a “person” at all. If not a person, what was he? That question is what he spent the entire 70s trying to answer.

this is also David Bowie; I know, right?

He’s not the first person to explore this theme. Friedrich Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, and Franz Kafka are all cited by Bowie as influences during this period. He takes it to a different place then them, though, because his presentation is more visual, easier to grab hold of. His conclusions are different, too. Kafka, for instance, saw the transformation of man to end with something gruesome, but Bowie has a more open-ended outlook.

During the 70s – and even beyond – Bowie was on a journey to discover who he was. That journey’s most dramatic period is in ’72 to ’73, when he was playing the character of Ziggy Stardust. But it begins with The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, where we see Bowie at war with his own humanness. More than this, though, is that he made some astoundingly good music during this period. Strip away everything else and that still remains.

Thursday: the many phases and faces of Bowie

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