Less is More: A Birthday Lesson from The Thin White Duke
About 7 years ago, I went to see a reunion concert by the modestly successful post-punk band Gang of Four. My excitement couldn’t be understated – these English blokes were huge to me, albeit for completely self-aggrandizing reasons. As effete music snobs, my high school friends and I would try to distinguish ourselves from the rabble by the obscurity of the music we listened to. In Saskatchewan circa 1986, where everyone dressed like they’d stepped right out of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, it was hard to find a band more obscure than Gang of Four.
No doubt the Gang of Four realized their prairie fan club could be named Gang of One and skipped playing my hometown, making this reunion gig the first time I’d see them live. Sure, their sell-by date was twenty years ago. Sure, they had a lot of miles on their odometers. I didn’t care. I was ecstatic – a feeling that lasted exactly one minute, or about the time it took for the band’s aging lead singer Jon King to run out onstage, whirl about like he was Justin Timberlake on speed as he danced to the opening riff of “Damaged Goods - then bend at the waist and almost vomit, too winded and out of shape to sing the first verse. I imagine this was the post-punk equivalent of watching Muhammad Ali box in the 80s, long after he stopping floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee – it made you a little sick inside to witness such a legacy-diminishing spectacle.
Which brings me to the subject of one of England’s newest pensioners – one David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, aka my other musical man-crush. Ziggy Stardust turned 65 today – a noteworthy event partly because of the man’s incredible impact on music, and partly because you hardly see him anymore. His last album was almost nine years ago, and with the exception of the odd appearance here and there, he’s largely disappeared from view – which is probably at it should be.
Now, there could be various reasons for why The Thin White Duke keeps a low profile. He had heart surgery in 2004, and there remains lots of speculation about the effects of his earlier, drug-addled lifestyle on his health. It could be that (unlike Ali or Gang of Four) he felt he’d done what he needed to and had nothing more to add. More likely, though, Bowie has the self-awareness to realize that his best work is probably behind him.
Bowie himself said he needed to experiment to stay interested in his work, even if those experiments led to the kind of failure that compromised his success. For a time in the 70s and early 80s, that bravery produced world-changing pop music. From about the mid-eighties onward, however, his gifts seemed to diminish. His music still showed the same willingness to push boundaries, but those later experiments sounded exactly that – experimental. A big part of success is making it look easy, and for Bowie the effort was starting to show. Certainly, there was nothing he did between 1983 and 2003 that could tarnish his enormous contribution, but certainly nothing that would add to it either.
Now, Bowie could’ve pulled a Jagger and made even more millions touring the world, basking in faded glory as he drew from his deep well of hit songs, However, as a writer noted in The Guardian today, that is anti-thetical to the man’s work: “Bowie’s music was never about nostalgia, always the present, or, even better, the future.”
Instead, we have virtual radio silence. It feels distinguished and elegant, which is in keeping with my perception of Bowie. The silence has had the effect of turning those rare occasions he does show up in public into events of epic proportion. The Arcade Fire was already a great band with plenty of artistic credibility, but having Bowie get on stage and sing one their songs with them is now tantamount to a papal blessing. Bigger than a papal blessing.
Herein lies the lesson of Bowie’s example, reaffirmed by plenty of Better Men such as J.D. Salinger or Terence Malick or (the recently-outed) Banksy, Don Mann, or my own dad; there is value in a low profile. The less often you speak, the more it means when you do. Bide your time, choose both your moments and your words carefully, and realize that trying to add to something great may only serve to undo its greatness (hello, George Lucas). You don’t have to be a pop icon to apply that kind of lesson.