This sounds like a theme song to a True Detective series. The singer sounds like he has seen hell and has been dragging himself back into the light over rocks and barb wire. The heavy plodding percussion emphasizes the weight of the load along with the organ, which comes in late to haunt the background, adding just the right grim touch. No man knew better how to create the image of a lifetime struggle with the material world than Johnny Cash. He faces death and death is not gonna win this one. Johnny is gonna let a little thing like death get in his way. He’s got people to meet and things to do.
Why this song now? Well, I could put a David Bowie song here, but this seems more right to me somehow. It is kind of how David Bowie had this oblique way of coming in and out of my life in weird ways. Like the time my friends and I happened upon a very bedraggled Iggy Pop at the California/Mexican border. My friend Rod was a huge Iggy Pop fan and got him to sit on the curb with us for chat. In the middle of this Rod asked him about what it was like to live with David Bowie. Iggy’s only response was, “That Bitch!” with a wicked half grin. Then he began telling us how he was studying ballet and incorporating some of the hand movements into his act. He showed us some very graceful gestures. I am not sure if this had to do with Bowie or not, but it sure could have. He was always putting things together like that hand gestures and a hairstyle, a red tie and a chord progression, Iggy Pop and ballet. He never stopped mixing the pot to see what would come to the surface, and then taking whatever floated up and making something striking out of it that pushed the boundaries of culture a little further out into the frontiers.
When Let’s Dance came out and Modern Love was the big hit. The first time I heard it I was modeling in an art class in the middle of a long pose , and I was so bored. I had not been paying much attention to the music when all of sudden, pictures of men in top hats and tails began doing all kinds of brilliant dancing in my head. The driving beat and frantic movement of the images contrasted so completely with my enforced stillness. I knew it was David Bowie, because no one else sings quite like that. I didn’t want to dance because I am not a dancer, but when the song was over I had dancers in my head for a while.
David Bowie always seemed to be coming at me sideways for all his boldness. I could see things in him and accept them as part of being human. He owned whatever he did in such a way, without making it seem like just attention getting, that you could not refuse it . I don’t know what his motives for doing what he did when he did it, but I do know the world will be a little less weird and I will be a little at a loss to navigate the weirdness that does exist without David Bowie around to stand at the edge of my vision and show me his take on what is possible.
I still have not figured out the connection I feel between Johnny Cash and David Bowie. Johnny, in at least one way is the polar opposite of Bowie in that he chose one color and look and stuck with it, and that was right too. But one thing is for sure David Bowie’s influence on such diverse realms of culture will ensure that no grave is gonna keep him down. We just have to be satisfied with the iterations of Bowie he created and embodied. That is what I will miss the new Bowie that could have been.