When Nomi Met Bowie

December 15, 1979. For Klaus Nomi, his performance as a singer/dancer/weird presence for one single show behind David Bowie that night on Saturday Night Live seemed to be an indication that he was on the right path and he was headed to glory; instead, it was the high-water mark of his brief career.

When Bowie died in January 2016, SNL broadcast one of the songs from that appearance, a performance of “The Man Who Sold the World,” in which Bowie sings in a plastic tuxedo so rigid that Nomi and his co-backup, Joey Arias, were tasked with carrying Bowie to and from his place at the mic. (It was a gift from SNL because no complete, legal, clip of any of the three songs has been available online, as NBC is as legally rigid as Bowie’s tuxedo’s fabric was.) Nomi was so enamored with the plastic suit that he wore a similar one as his costume for the remainder of his career, but his tux was one Nomi could walk in but not sit in or bow to an audience while wearing, which made his own appearances in it similarly awkward.

Here is “The Man Who Sold the World” from that 1979 appearance (SNL/NBC already deleted the official clip; here is one I found):
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Bowie, ‘Blackstar,’ and a Thank You

Saying more and meaning less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent.
—David Bowie, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”

“Something happened the day he died,” sings one character in David Bowie’s longest single, “Blackstar,” which was released as a video in November 2015. At the moment he sings that line in the video, Bowie is a preacher holding aloft a religious book with a black star on its cover. He holds his hands prayerfully and sings earnestly, in the earnest way that signals that lies, or at least complicated truths, are about to be spoken.

Until today, the video and song were simply complex, a piling-on of images and references (the album is also called “Blackstar,” but the album cover only has a black star on it, not the word itself, along with portions of diamond shapes that spell out “BOWIE”), each of which was winking at the other and at past Bowie images and references. (Is the bejeweled skull in the video Major Tom?)

Reviewers and David Bowie experts were just starting to tuck into the multi-layered music and video meal that he had laid out this winter with two videos totaling 15 minutes and a seven-song album released on his birthday, which was Friday. But today is the day David Bowie died, though, or the day the news came out, and for a day at least, every one of the many available interpretations his music and recent work may fire up in one’s mind is filtered through that sad fact. We now know that he recorded the album and the videos knowing that this work was to be his epitaph and not a signal of future directions that his musical interests might take him.

Bowie was an artist for whom public image was one more tool in his expansive repertoire. A personal exit as artistic statement? In a life of many triumphs, this is one more, one last triumph. It is a selfish thing to say that one wishes an artist who produced so much—more than 25 albums, hundreds of songs, memorable acting performances on Broadway and in films and in his videos, an early Internet presence—would not leave us wanting more. But there you have it. I do. Sixty-nine is too young.
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Daily Prompt: The Sword of Damocles

The WordPress Daily Prompt for August 12 asks, “A literary-minded witch gives you a choice: with a flick of the wand, you can become either an obscure novelist whose work will be admired and studied by a select few for decades, or a popular paperback author whose books give pleasure to millions. Which do you choose?”

(Why is it a witch? Why not a literary agent? And who “flicks” a wand, anyway? On to my response.)

I know nothing about the life of the actor Hugo Weaving, and I even had to look up his name before typing it. He is so famous that he is obscured by his success. He played Agent Smith in the three “Matrix” films, Elrond in the three “Lord of the Rings” films, V. in “V for Vendetta,” and provided the voice for Megatron in the “Transformers” franchise and Noah in the “Happy Feet” movies. I trust that the film industry has made him an extraordinarily wealthy man, given that these dozen films have earned approximately $8 billion dollars for that industry. Yet he could walk down my street unnoticed.


Hugo Weaving doesn’t know. (Photo from aceshowbiz.com.)

He disappears into roles that require makeup, prosthetic devices, masks, but always gives portrayals that are compelling, fully realized, quotable—not only quotable because the lines are memorable, quotable because of his delivery of them. Other actors may take on make-up-heavy parts, but, well, Gary Oldman is always Gary Oldman, the best Gary Oldman that there is, but always recognizable as himself.

As I wrote above, I know nothing about Weaving’s life and truly hope it is a joy-filled one, but it seems to me that he has the ideal successful life in the arts: He can shine when he wants to and not when demanded, because his face is not his art, even though he is an actor. I once met Stephen King, the rare author who looks like his various portraits on his book jackets, and watched a crowd assemble once someone recognized him and then follow him down Main Street in New Paltz. He was shopping, not doing the things that make him famous, not typing a book while walking, just window shopping. Individuals in the crowd were vying for his attention, perhaps auditioning to be cast by his brain for a part in his next book.

(If any of his books published in the last 15 years features a bespectacled, young, not-attention-grabbing bookseller, it’s me, just so you know. Hugo Weaving can play me in the movie version.)

In the legend of the Sword of Damocles, Dionysus, a king, offers one of his courtiers, Damocles, that which Damocles covets: total power and extreme wealth. The king suggests they switch places and Damocles accepts. There is one caveat: Dionysus places over the throne a sword that is held in place with a single hair from a horse’s tail. Damocles learns his lesson: Watch what one wishes for. A life of supreme power and wealth comes with the inner neurotic knowledge that the world is vying to take it from you. Damocles happily switches back to his old life.

Does a writer want fame and wealth now or long-term but minor admiration later? Myself, I want both most days and do not see these as mutually exclusive. Pulp writers are deserving of study, since they, usually, describe better than many what is happening in his or her culture’s collective imagination. There is a reason so many people buy their books.

The writers who are obscure in their lifetimes usually possess something many creative artists do not: a supreme confidence that what they are doing is important to someone, even if that someone is only his or her own self. Readers are nice and all, but are they necessary? Out of the millions of people on this planet, someone might be touched to read these words and learn that they are not alone in feeling or thinking or imagining this or that. It is like believing in true love, and people fall in love every day, right? A single true love reader might be all a writer really needs, whenever love comes to town, humously or post.

Every writer is writing to an audience whose size truly can not be known, and it may not matter. If I write a letter to you, I do not know what you are going to do with it. You might toss it away unopened or you might show it to friends. Kafka told his friends to burn all his writings upon his death. Obviously, since we know his name and his works, they (happy for us) betrayed his last wish. If I post a public response to a blog prompt, I do not know if it will be liked (I want it to be considered witty and what-not, but the only say I have in the matter is to write it) or even if it will be read.

I want the true love readers and I want to make a living at writing. These are not mutually exclusive. It’s money that matters.

I want my sentences to be of some use, and feedback and encouragement in the form of $ would be great. I’d take Hugo Weaving’s fame over Stephen King’s, but I am careful what I wish for.