Glenn Hendler on David Bowie

Responding to the news of David Bowie's death, Glenn Hendler (currently on a semester's leave from chairing the English Department) published a piece in the Avidly blog, part of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Here is an excerpt from this extraordinary work of cultural studies, commemoration, and critique, which appeared two days after Bowie's death.
Christopher GoGwilt, Interim Chair, English Department

 

How to bring your kids up Bowie

Sunday night, as he was dying of cancer downtown, David Bowie was also in my apartment in upper Manhattan, singing my son to sleep. One of the unexpected great joys of having a child has been the opportunity to sing, over and over for more than six years now, the lullaby David Bowie wrote for his newborn son in 1971. Titled “Kooks,” the song appeared on one of his earliest, prettiest albums, Hunky Dory, the one with the soft-focus cover image of a very feminine face looking upward, lips slightly parted, one hand brushing back long straight blonde hair that flows down onto the figure’s shoulders. Reviewers at the time saw the cover as evoking Bacall or Garbo — Bowie himself cited Dietrich as the main influence — but of course it was Bowie, imagining and projecting himself into a stardom that at the time he made Hunky Dory he was not even close to attaining.

I bought Hunky Dory a couple of years after it came out, with money I received for my twelfth birthday, when I also got my first record player. At the time, “Kooks” was one of my least favorite songs on it. Like most people, I loved “Changes,” which every critic in the world continues to treat as if it were a manifesto anticipating Bowie’s career of transmogrification. And of course I loved the ecstatic yet melancholic beauty of “Life on Mars?,” which has somehow—despite its un-Bowie-like structure of full-rhyming couplets (“It’s on America’s tortured brow/that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”)—accrued power and meaning even as it has become the soundtrack to, well, everything in the past few decades.

“Kooks,” though, was too sentimental, even sweet, for my proto-adolescent self.....[Read the full article....]