She’ll come, she’ll go
She’ll lay belief on you
But she won’t stake her life on you
How can life become her point of view?
– David Bowie, Lady Grinning Soul
When the tone of the music changes
The walls of the city shake.
– Plato, The Republic
LONDON – There’s a brand new dance but I don’t know its name/that people from bad homes do again and again/It’s big and it’s bland full of tension and fear/They do it over there but we don’t do it here. Tension and fear; oh, that’s so Europe 2013. But people from bad homes, you bet they do it over here; it’s the Ziggy plays Maggie dance.
The Roving Eye landed in London a few days ago smack in the middle of Thatcherism hysteria. Digital Fleet Street is agog; Baroness Thatcher’s funeral today will be “beamed to millions”. The BBC – caught in yet another scandal, this time over an “undercover” trip to North Korea risking the lives of London School of Economics students – provides the only live, no commercial breaks coverage on that relic of the past, terrestrial TV. No match for phone hacking enabler Rupert Murdoch’s swirling Skycopter shots. Or even crypto-glamorous Pentagon/State Department stenographer Christiane Amanpour anchoring CNN’s coverage from New York.
The royal family doesn’t like it one bit; this whole affair is way over the top. Big Ben and the Great Clock at Westminster will be silenced. The last time that happened was for Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965. This funeral though, contrary to rumors, won’t be privatized. And Prime Minister David of Arabia Cameron is getting no bounce; only 16% of Britons believe he is Thatcher’s heir. Iraq war enabler Tony Blair fared a hefty 17%. Elsewhere, no Starman is waiting in the sky. He wouldn’t like to come and meet us. Even though he’d blow our minds.
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people/and all the no-bo-dy people, and all the somebody people, all yearning to be crammed inside St Paul’s Cathedral. With only 50 spots assigned for reporters, The Roving Eye decided to watch it from the red zone, also known as London’s police- and CCTV-saturated streets, which after Boston are under an even thicker cloud of paranoia.
All across town, under the moonlight, the serious moonlight, lies an Orwellian spidery web of censorship; concentric circles of media silencing; thundering propaganda. Antidote, in preparation for the funeral; a mock funeral – what else?
One more weekend/ of lights and evening faces/ fast food, living nostalgia. Trafalgar Square, a miserable Saturday evening. Over 3,000 people from all corners of the UK. Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead – they celebrated. Just like supporters of Liverpool football club have been doing for quite a while.
Police in the thousands. A virtual media blackout. Georgie Sutcliffe, actress and serious candidate for Queen of Soho, knocks on the door of a satellite truck and asks, “Who you’re with?” Someone mutters “Sky” in horror, as if a Murdoch outfit was caught in an act of sabotage. After all, the British ruling class must be protected at all costs.
Look out you rock’n rollers/pretty soon you’re gonna get older. So what’s an older rock’n roller to do? The Roving Eye, a former London resident and a former music writer, meets his roving son – born in the early years of Thatcherism – and the destination had to be the venerable Victoria and Albert, one of the world’s foremost museums, for the David Bowie Is exhibition. Watch out. It’s Ziggy against Maggie. We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town. Beep-Beep.
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Margaret Thatcher was in power from May 4, 1979 to November 28, 1990. London pub lore rules that after leaving Somerville College in Oxford, she was a bit lost, on a T S Eliot-style “I have measured my life with coffee spoons” daze, clutching a dog-eared copy of an Ayn Rand book, when she was spotted by a visiting Chicago academic superstar by the name of Milton Friedman. He fell in love with her ankles – and the rest is (neo-liberal) history, with the crucial footnote that her path to 10 Downing Street was mostly paved by millions of pounds courtesy of businessman hubby Denis.
She may not have been your average bag lady of Brit street mythology. She was certainly imprinted with the cosmology of the ultimate shopkeeper – courtesy of Dad’s little grocery store in nondescript Grantham. But most of all she was the ultimate frugal housewife responsible for creating a nation of homeowners. Well, at least quite a few; 13.4 million by the end of the 1980s, compared to 10.2 million early in the decade.
If you were in a council tenancy you could – for the first time ever – buy your home at a huge discount, and run straight into mortgage hell. It was this housing boom – debt boom, actually – that along with financial liberalization turbo-charged the consumer boom of the early 2000s. Then all went bust. The Sex Pistols, only four years after Ziggy played guitar had already prophesied it way back in 1976, in Anarchy in the UK; your future dream is a shopping scheme. I thought it was the UK/ or just another country/another council tenancy.
And even before that, in 1974, post-Spiders from Mars reconverted Diamond Dogs Bowie had already seen it: In the year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch/ sashay on the boardwalk, scurry to the ditch/ just another future song, lonely little kitsch/ (There’s gonna be sorrow), try and wake up tomorrow. Talk about a preview of an inevitable social collapse.
During the Thatcher 1980s (the season of Queen bitch?), median household income grew by 26%. But for families at the bottom 10%, it grew by only 4.6%. The top 10% did way better. Child poverty almost doubled – reaching 3.3 million. Thatcher even privatized milk for children. The number of poor pensioners exploded to 4.1 million. Public spending was 44.6% of GDP in 1979. By 1990, it had been reduced to 39.1%. Now it’s up again at 46.2%. Oh don’t lean on me, man,/ Cause you can’t afford the ticket.
The key legacy of all this is deindustrialization; including manufacturing, industry in Britain was 40% of GDP in 1979; it had fallen to 34% in 1990. Now it’s at less than a paltry 22%. And to think that pints and pints of neo-liberalism and extreme social conservatism, plus extra vodka shots of “traditional moral values”, ended up generating masses of unemployed. Oh you pretty things/Don’t you know you’re driving your/Mamas and papas insane?
Ground control to Major Maggie
David Bowie is Byronesque, Baudelairean, Oscar Wildean, a man of theater, lover of masks, master of artifice and a dandy supreme. He is everything a cut-up can carve up – out of random words or random programming – as shown in the V&A; exhibition. Compared to Thatcher, he is indeed a Spider from Mars.
The cut-up – fast, asymmetrical jump cuts in the fabric of time – are the essence of Bowie’s creativity, his eternal legacy. As a post-Dada experiment that William Burroughs brilliantly summarized as “a new dimension into writing enabling the writer to turn images in cinematic variations”, cut-up techniques perfectly suited, as Bowie himself admitted, his fragmented consciousness (and the minds of millions around the world).
So there I was at the V&A;, looking for a Ziggy playing Maggie crossover. It had to be the video for Boys Keep Swinging, a song on Lodger (1979), the final album in Bowie and Eno’s Berlin Trilogy, which came out just as Maggie was coming to power. Here is Bowie as icy Valkyrie, Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, and the ultimate Queen Bitch; as the inimitable Camille Paglia puts it in her catalogue essay, it’s Bowie penetrating “the cold masculine soul and monstrous lust for power of the great female stars”. Ziggy playing Maggie – and she didn’t even know it.
And then there’s Bowie as Pierrot – the classic 17th century commedia dell’arte character – in the still mesmerizing video for Ashes to Ashes (a phrase straight from the classic Anglican funeral.)
And then there’s the Lady Grinning Soul; a mix of Circe, Calypso, Carmen, Judith (the Klimt version) and Lulu. Maggie may have been no femme fatale. But socially, “she will be your living end”.
Not for Young Americans (I got a suite and you got defeat) – and older Americans as well. Vast swathes of the US – where the Iron Lady is hailed as some Brit Statue of Liberty, a beacon of “freedom and democracy” – have now been taken over by Thatcher’s children, ruthlessly using good ol’ class struggle against state, and even private sector, working families.
Affable Barry, the US president, also known as Double O Bama with a license to kill (list), has sung the Iron Lady’s praises as if she was Dame Judi Dench on a James Bond franchise. The rest of the world, as usual, knows better. She was an enthusiastic supporter of apartheid; branded Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist”; detested “alien cultures”, supported the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; and was so cozy with Chilean mass murderer Augusto Pinochet that she hosted him when he was trying to flee his heavy load. All across Latin America, her Fame, what’s your name? may barely be hinted at here. The custard in the rhubarb pie was a nasty, military coup-loving son.
A Thatcherism (and its side effects) roadmap would have to include Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Launderette (1985), Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff (1991), and endless reruns of the cocaine-turbocharged The Tube on Channel 4. On pop music, if the Spice Girls later configured themselves as Thatcherism’s spitting image, the aversion is best expressed by Elvis Costello in Tramp the Dirt Down. The Cure played Buenos Aires last Friday. Look at Robert Smith’s guitar; the aversion is perennial. And packaging the whole zeitgeist, as a narrative still nothing beats Money by Martin Amis (1985).
But the film is a saddening bore/ cause I wrote it ten times or more/it’s about to be writ again./ And I ask you to focus on this piece by Will Hutton, former editor of the Observer. Post-Thatcherism is all here; the seeds of the current despair – provoked by a monstrous 3D bubble of credit, banking and property – were planted in 1979. Financial greed up, investment/innovation down.
So much for “labor market flexibility”; inequality – exacerbated by the Big Bang of 1986, which consolidated the City of London as the center of a global financial boom – is now spelled as Doom and Gloom. Worse, actually, than in 1990. Perhaps you’re smiling now, smiling through this darkness/ But all I have to give is guilt for dreaming.
Anger? Not really. Waiting so long, I’ve been waiting so, waiting so/Look back in anger, driven by the night. There was hardly any anger, for instance, in 1997; everyone was looking back towards Swingin’ London, to be re-enacted by a Tony Blair winning by a landslide; but he lost the plot right away, and later would shrink to the sad, one-trick pony legacy of a vacuous warmonger. I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago/Oh no, not me, I never lost control./ You’re face to face/ With the man who sold the world.
It’s time to leave the capsule if you dare
Europe 2013, full of tension and fear. All the young dudes/ carry the news. Civil rights are melting down, melting down. Thatcherism’s trademark class struggle – Divide and Rule the disparate tribes – ended up fragmenting Britain’s social tissue beyond repair. There may be the odd brother back at home with his Beatles and his Stones/we never got it off on that revolution stuff/what a drag, too many snags. But across the fence, one still may find these children that you spit on/as they try to change their worlds/ they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.
In a fabulous PR coup – a single coming out of nowhere on his 66th birthday this past January, after 10 years of silence – Bowie tried to answer the question Where Are We Now?. He looks back on his 1970s Berlin days – which yielded the fabulous trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger. By itself, in terms of shaping the Western zeitgeist, the trilogy has been as influential as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sometimes you get so lonely/sometimes you get nowhere/I’ve lived all over the world/I’ve lived every place.
In a curioser and curioser way, Bowie had been silent all through the Global War on Terror (GWOT) years. But boys keep swinging, boys always work it out – even as terror, including shadow and drone wars, has become the new normal.
How to break out? Still, in this valley of unequal tears, O no love! You’re not alone/ No matter what or who you’ve been/ No matter when or where you’ve seen/ All the knives seem to lacerate your brain/ I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain/ You’re not alone.
Knives now lacerate the Facebook/Google generation’s brains – from orphans of the true Arab Spring to legions of unemployed-for-life Europeans. There’s hardly any evidence that we can beat them/ for ever and ever. After all, We’re nothing, and nothing will help us. But the old order won’t get away with it. Cause we can be heroes/ just for one day.
 Thatcher and the Inner City Riots, Huffington Post, April 16, 2013.
 Why Thatcher’s shadow still lingers over Latin America, Al Jazeera, April 15, 2013.
 Margaret Thatcher ‘gave her approval’ to her son Mark’s failed coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea, The Guardian, April 14, 2013.