David Bowie and ‘god’

This article was first published on Sceptical Scot.

Like millions of other Bowie fans, perhaps, I find myself listening to his music more than ever since he died a year ago today.

And, as for them, it continues to offer consolation, not only for the hard fact that we shall hear no more from him, but for the particular challenges of my own life. Why should this music, so often abstract, glacial, detached, obscure and mockingly ironic, hold such a powerful emotional appeal for so many?

Bowie’s work delighted in illusion and artifice, his elliptical wordplay as elusive as the quicksilver music itself, with its shimmering surfaces and sudden, bracing chord changes. And perhaps it is that very weightlessness, that impressionistic quality, that gives his songs their power, an ability to communicate a sense of the perpetual Speed of Life, with its continual flux, contingency and strangeness.

Bowie’s best work is fired by a devout scepticism, a disciplined concern to escape all orthodoxies for fear that awareness of the sublime mystery of existence be obscured and deadened by enslavement to dogma and convention.

For Bowie, it seems, the possibility of change was the very essence of life, a possibility stifled by all forms of fixed identity, of sexuality, gender, political persuasion or mode of creative expression. His music is shot through with desire for God, but it is the desire of a heretic, a gnostic, impatient of all forms of clericalism.

His early work is saturated with Nietzschean imagery of the death of gods and the Übermensch. Saviour Machine condemns established religion as a form of organised thought control, and Oh You Pretty Things and The Supermen look forward to the coming of the ‘Homo Superior’ (punning on Bowie’s subversion of sexual norms). The alien messiah arrives in the form of Ziggy Stardust, for whom ’the Church of Man is such a holy place to be’.

Even at the height of his commercial superstardom in the early 1980s Bowie could put out a single like Loving the Alien condemning the perversity and violence of religious faith, with its imagery of the Crusades and horror at the misplaced direction of so much human devotion over the centuries to the worship of false messiahs:

But if you pray all your sins are hooked upon the sky
Pray and the heathen lie will disappear
Prayers they hide the saddest view
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

As late as his penultimate album, The Next Day, released in 2013, he was still condemning a priesthood that ‘can work with Satan while they dress like the saints’, and ‘know God exists for the Devil told them so,’ angry images recalling William Blake’s resentment at ‘Priests in black gowns … walking their rounds’ in The Garden of Love, ‘binding with briars, my joys and desires.’

Bowie’s iconoclasm had a puritanical edge that made him as uncomfortable with the banalities of consumer society as with the strictures of revealed religion, a society that for him, as for Nietzsche, was haunted by a sense of the loss of God.

Buried within one of his most beloved songs, Life on Mars, now a shopping mall favourite, is a dismissive observation of the holidaying habits of the masses, ‘the mice in their million hordes/From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads’, and Sons of the Silent Age condemns those who ‘Search through their one-inch thoughts/Then decide it couldn’t be done’, and ‘Don’t walk, they just glide in and out of life/They never die, they just go to sleep one day.’ The song was written shortly after Bowie’s notorious 1976 Playboy interview (recorded when he was in struggling with serious drug addiction) in which he voiced his ‘very strong’ belief in fascism.

Bowie mellowed, but in 2002, long after he had settled into a – by his standards – conventional family-oriented existence he expressed concern about the prevalence of contemporary ‘heathenism’, the loss of a sense of possibility that life might have spiritual dimensions:

I think there’s a lot of people that are not even really aware that they have the potential for one. An emphasis on material goods has kind of displaced that. The way we paint our celebrities. Kids killing kids for a pair of shoes, the whole feeling that material goods will give you status and happiness. And I guess it keeps going back to spirituality.

Bowie’s preoccupation, to the end, with this sense of spiritual lack was recognised in the generous tributes paid to him on his death by perceptive representatives of the religious traditions he had challenged.

William Doino Jr writing for the conservative Catholic journal First Things praised Bowie’s capacity to speak for the alienated as a form of Christian charity for the stranger, and noted his occasional flirtation with conventional religious imagery. He famously recited the Lord’s Prayer at Freddie Mercury’s tribute concert, sang a Christian medley on Bing Crosby’s Christmas show and, on the despairing Word on a Wing, written during the worst period of his drug addiction, implored:

Lord, I kneel and offer you
My word on a wing
And I’m trying hard to fit among Your scheme of things.

For Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi Bowie was ‘always on the unstable boundary between the sacred and the profane’.

These and other religious commentators interpreted Bowie’s restlessness in terms of the classic Christian ‘journey’, a pilgrimage towards a settled faith captured in Augustine’s expression: ’Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.’ But while they recognised something important about him that is often overlooked – his reverence for the sacred – it was a reverence for the quest itself rather than a destination.

The closest Bowie came to any kind of settled faith was his lifelong fascination with Tibetan Buddhism, the most open-ended of spiritual disciplines, an interest confirmed in his request that his ashes be scattered in Bali in accordance with Buddhist ritual.

That radical openness is plain in great songs such as Ashes to Ashes and, more recently, Where Are We Now and I Can’t Everything Away. But Bowie himself picked out a less well known song, Heathen (The Rays), as having a particular significance, a rapt secular hymn that expresses his abiding attitude of wonder.

The music is simple, revolving around the oscillation of a pair of ambient chords, and the lyrics spare, just three brief verses intimating the world’s simultaneous weight and insubstantiality, a Zen landscape in sound. The singer waits for a god who never comes, through a brief day in which the sun rises and falls:

Steel on the skyline
Sky made of glass
Made for a real world
All things must pass

Waiting for something
Looking for someone
Is there no reason?
Have I stared too long?

You say you’ll leave me
And when the sun is low
And the rays high
I can see it now
I can feel it die

Shortly after the album was released Bowie said:

It came pouring out one morning at the studio up in Woodstock. I had little or no control over it. It had me in tears as I sang it. It felt like it was being plucked from my very being. An epiphany of sorts. It seems to be a summation of some kind and I think will become a personal milestone of some sort to me. It contains for me a strong indication of how beautiful and wonderful life is and how I regret that I will have to relinquish my hold upon it. I could only have written it at my present age.

Here the power of Bowie’s music, which continues to move so many, is made as plain as it can ever be. The God he seeks is both nowhere and everywhere, the world both nothing and everything, reality a play of precious appearances. The philosopher Simon Critchley, in the final chapter of his lucid book on Bowie, describes that intense attitude of unknowing well:

Just for an instant, for the duration of a song, a seemingly silly, simple, puerile pop song, we can decreate all that is creaturely … about us, and imagine some other way of existing, something utopian. Such is the tremendous hope that speaks out of Bowie’s music. This is Bowie’s step, his act of freedom taken in face of the majesty of the absurd and the presence of human beings. Such is the power of his poetry.