Irony, David Bowie, my dead friend, and me

irony_b_eTwo people who have been influential in my life died this January. First David Bowie, someone, of course, I never met, and then my friend Evan who played in bands with me when we were both younger. David Bowie surprised his fans with his departure, having been battling cancer for more than a year, but keeping it secret. Evan’s death was a surprise to all: he succumbed to a severe case of pneumonia that became fatal so rapidly that Evan himself probably never knew that his life was ending.

My last conversation with Evan, over Facebook chat and shortly before he became ill, was about David Bowie, with us both reflecting on the impact he’d had on us. Evan shared with me that he did not come to fully appreciate Bowie’s work until later in his life. Evan’s words were “I had to get wiser to get hip to his irony.” Irony was something that divided Evan and me, to some extent, when we were both younger and trying to combine our aesthetic sensibilities into a coherent package for the band we played in together. At the time, Evan was very much about creating optimistic, affirming expressions that would support the most positive possible lives for himself and those in his sphere. I admired the stalwartness with which he dedicated himself to this purpose and saw the great value in it. And yet, I also found myself wanting to write and play songs that did not shy from sarcastic, sardonic and ironic voices. At the time, as insistent as I was about doing it my way, still, on some secret level, I thought Evan’s approach was “right” whereas I was just indulging a kind of lowly urge to scratch an itch. That irony/sarcasm/darkness made art funnier, or sexier or more sellable to “the lowest common denominator” and things like that, but was less courageous than art that purposefully sought to elevate. In other words, in my aesthetic gut, I wanted irony, but in my mind I did not know how to justify it. Back then.

As the years went by, and we each grew into our separately unfolding lives, I have found myself becoming more and more  adamant about being allowed to express earnestness and irony, both, without having to feel embarrassed or ashamed about either. Most of the music and other kinds of art that I like now are that way, and these days I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about a theorized new aesthetic cultural turn that some call Metamodernism, that is kind of all about about embracing both sides of the earnestness/irony divide.

After the time when we were working together, whenever Evan and I crossed paths, over the years, there was always a sense of mutual delight. We both tended to keep track of each others’ musical projects, and in our usually hurried encounters (that’s how adulthood gets), we’d do our best to catch up on our lives. Houses, wives and children (or lack thereof in my case), day-career changes, etc.

I was often blown away by the intricate craftsmanship with which Evan composed words, melodies and arrangements. He poured all of his heart and a very natural vocal gift into his performances, and his musical compatriots, including his beloved wife Lael, were top notch. I felt equally appreciated by Evan for my own music. I can’t know what he really thought now, but my impression was that he saw me as a kind of treasured musical eccentric, what with the indie/quirky/ironic and sometimes shadow-sidey direction that my music went in since we parted ways as bandmates.

OK, so here’s what I am thinking about irony. And by “irony” I mean the whole mess of terms and concepts that often get thrown together around it. Sarcasm, snark, sardonicism, facetiousness, etc.  My ninth-grade English teacher, Miss Shea, taught me that irony is when there is something important that at least one character in a story does not know, but, the reader does know (and possibly other characters know, as well). It adds dimension to a story, because, rather than giving one unified accounting of events, it creates a more complex narrative that includes multiple points of view – different versions of the truth.

When Evan messaged me that it wasn’t till later in his life that he got wise enough to appreciate David Bowie’s irony, I wondered two things. First, well… I wondered why he thought of David Bowie as ironic. In the transcript of our chat exchange, we end up drifting into other topics, and never get back to that point. I have to think that for Evan, who was very straightforward with his intentions and missions, there was something oblique and coy about David Bowie’s various self-presentations and character-based songwriting. So, then, the more important question: What was the wisdom that Evan eventually found in David Bowie’s irony, and presumably in irony in general?

Since I did not get to finish this conversation with Evan, I’ve played it out in my mind. I’ll spare you the cuteness of an imaginary dialog, but the answer is along these lines:

When we proclaim and express, especially through art, a great truth, we by necessity must curate reality. Curating is the informed, intentional selection of what to include in a presentation. Without curation, it’s not art and it’s not truth; it’s simply what is.
When we take what is and make it into art by making thoughtful choices about which parts of it to include and draw attention to, we by necessity end up leaving things out. Those reality shavings that get left out of our work are sometimes – not always, but sometimes – important in ways that even the best artists cannot comprehend. After a while, the left-out stuff builds up and needs to be heard/seen/felt. When we include an ironic dimension in our work, it is a way of embracing that which we don’t even realize we are at risk of not embracing. It creates an opening through which everything we don’t know is important can pour back into our work, while we busily focus on emphasizing and featuring the things that we know are important. David Bowie’s songs always, or at least usually, had a clear point to them, whether it was emotional or conceptual, but he also wrapped them in a blanket of weirdness that was not necessarily specific to the meaning of the particular song, but just kind of came with the territory of being a David Bowie song. I feel like, as I explained above, this opened up a space for a bunch of unpredictable, otherwise hidden truths to attach themselves to his expressions. This made Bowie’s music more appealing to the kind of listeners who get antsy when presented with a simple unitary truth.

I may be going out on a limb, but I will venture to say that David Bowie, while being a primary mover in the transition from 60s music to 70s music, was also a spiritual godfather to the “alternative rock” that both Evan and I had a hard time fitting in with during the 90s. My feeling is, although a lot of great music did come out of this era, much of it had the failing of being only about irony. If irony is supposed to do the job of making room for the unseen, messy and contradictory sub-truths circling a main truth, you end up with something kind of empty when you make irony the focus of your work, with no truth at the center. Evan did not like this trend, and speculating, he might have associated David Bowie with it, back then. To me, the important difference between David Bowie’s music and the irony-heavy part of alternative rock that’s not my cup of tea is that David Bowie employed irony for a greater purpose, where the lesser artists were ironic for the sake of being ironic. (And, again, I’m using “ironic” in a very general way to include sardonic, sarcastic, dark, meta, parodic, slippery, wry, decentered, etc.).

I wish I could have a little irony summit with Evan, and find out what he came to think about irony in his recent years, how it influenced his own creativity and his work as a mental health counselor, and if he might think my ideas about it might have merit. I wish he could read this piece. I wish David Bowie could make more music. I wish my last conversation with Evan did not end like this:

Evan: I can understand if Let’s Dance was a let down for you. Much more