Loving The Alien: David Bowie and the Leper Messiah

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The world reels this week from the loss of it’s leper messiah, David Bowie, the man who fell to earth. Bowie positioned himself consciously as a spaceman, an enigma, a “blackstar” which emitted not light but mystery. Bowie gave hope and consolation to outcasts throughout the world- especially artists, LGBTQ people, musicians and poets, and even bookish Jewish misfits like me (as discussed by Jay Michaelson here).

David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, was more than anything a brilliant musician and lyricist and that was what I loved him for. Yet contemplating his career one cannot help but meditate on the power of his persona. Bowie’s greatest creation, apart from his art, was “David Bowie”, an alias which itself had so many aliases that it was practically Talmudic in its self-referential hypertextuality. In actual practice the two went together, persona and logos, and Bowie created a legacy of intertwined words and images which shed light on each other.

Bowie contemplated spiritual matters throughout his artistic career, though this often came through in subtle, enigmatic ways. Songs like Sex and the Church, Saviour Machine, and  Loving The Alien explored Christian themes, and Station to Station even references Jewish Kabbalah when Bowie sings, “here we are, one magical movement from keter to malkhut”, ie. from the unmanifest down the pathways of the tree of life. On top of that “station to station” is, Bowie said, a reference to the stations of the cross. On his brilliant last album this becomes even more pronounced, as Christian imagery plays out in at least three of the songs (Blackstar, Lazarus, and I Can’t Give Everything Away).

Blackstar muses on the enigmatic presence of God and Bowie’s own identity as an icon soon to live beyond his own lifetime; Lazarus and I Can’t Give Everything Away explore the theme of resurrection (“the pulse returns to prodigal sons” in the latter). Lazarus contemplates Bowie’s own impending death. It opens “Look up here/ I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars you can’t see” ( a clear contrast to Jesus who after his ascension has visible scars). In the song Bowie indeed pictures himself ascending to heaven (and amusingly losing his cellphone along the way) and then becoming free “as a blackbird, ain’t that just like me?” The video, which ends with Bowie disappearing into a dark closet also depicts him as a blind prophet on a hospital bed cavorting in movements halfway between levitation and crucifixion.

Messianic imagery appeared early on in Bowie’s career and has been a staple. The album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars depicts an androgynous alien rockstar messiah ultimately destroyed by the masses he came to save. Bowie tellingly refers to Ziggy as a “leper messiah”, a saviour who is himself a frightening outcast. In one of the album’s songs, Starman, a child hears a late night transmission on the radio about a “starman/waiting in the sky/he’d like to come and meet us/but he thinks he’d blow our minds”. The child tells a friend (“don’t tell your papa or he’ll have us locked up in fright”). The starman’s message to the children: “He’s told us not to blow it/cause he knows it’s all worthwhile/He told me:let the children lose it/ let the children use it/ Let all the children boogie.”

Messianic imagery continues to haunt his lyrics and iconography right up to his last two albums. On his penultimate album The Next Day he featured a song (and even moreso a video) which is a daring and disturbing midrash on the messiah and the institutional church. The song is narrated from the perspective of an aging Bowie, who sings “Here I am/ not quite dying/ my body left to rot in a hollow tree/ its branches throwing shadows/ On the gallows for me”. He tells a story of a hunted prophet/christ figure who is chased through the alleyways with whips by a “gormless (i.e. foolish) crowd” who bring him to a sadistic priest for death. The demonic priests  “live upon their feet and they die upon their knees/They can work with satan while they dress like the saints/They know god exists for the devil told them so.” The unsettling video (which is not for young viewers or the faint of heart) depicts a shady, worldly club frequented by Catholic priests. One of the priests, played by Gary Oldman, assaults a poor beggar on the way in. Once inside the priests enjoy the company of prostitutes and the spectacle of a flagellant whipping himself. Bowie, dressed like a Franciscan Friar, denounces the crowd from the stage. In the bizarre denouement one of the prostitutes, who has been dancing with Oldman, suddenly develops stigmata and begins spouting blood from her hands.

This controversial video, which understandingly upset Catholics a fair bit, seems to me to make a valuable point that is consistent with Bowie’s use of messianic and prophetic imagery throughout his career. In this video the institutional priests are pharisees and hypocrites. The true form of Christ appears in the prostitute who is a scorned outsider being humiliated and exploited, giving up her body and blood for others.

In Bowie’s art the messiah is an outsider, an alien, who comes from outer space. This messiah affirms the outcast and outsider, and is himself “leprous”- strange and frightening. It is clear to everyone that to some extent this reflects Bowie’s self-understanding, and to some extent is a mission statement for the icon he was trying to create in Ziggy Stardust and the persona of “David Bowie”. What made Bowie strange, frightening and liberating was his radical affirmation of art and freedom of self-expression (including cross-dressing and using the male body as a canvas for art) and his open-ness about his bisexuality.  As comedian Sara Benincasa wrote, “I do not believe it is a wild exaggeration to say that there are on this earth today many people who would not be here without David Bowie….he gave them a reason to stay alive when perhaps they did not want to. He was the patron saint of all my favorite fellow travelers: the freaks, the fags, the dykes, the queers, the weirdos of all stripes, and that most dangerous creature of all: the artist.”

While today we may take for granted the freedom in much of Western culture, it was not always so and still isn’t so in much of the world. Bowie started off as a tall, strange looking artist walking around London in a dress being sweared at. By the mid-70’s he had changed the landscape. We may not agree with everything he stood for at times (like promiscuity, drug use, or for some the gender-bending sexuality itself) but aside from the power of art and the mind Bowie’s legacy still stands for something else even more important: loving the alien.

Bowie’s understanding of the Messiah has in the end a surprising depth. Bowie’s saviour figures are not figures of power or awe. They are strange and unsettling and they come “to seek and save what is lost” (Luke 19:10) and “not for the righteous but for sinners” (Mark 2:17, Matthew 9:13, Luke 5:32). The Talmud asks, “Where now is the Messiah?” and answers, “He sits outside the gates of the city, changing the bandages of lepers (Sanhedrin 98a).”  Bowie’s alien messiah is the saviour of the lost sheep, whose stigmata appears not in priests who protect boundaries but in hookers, addicts, and yes- artists.

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Update (Jan 14): In a pleasantly surprising move,  Christianity Today, which is the #1 mainstream Christian magazine (and was made what it is mostly by Billy Graham) has published an authentically appreciative and thoughtful eulogy about Bowie here.