by Adam Lehrer
Farewell until eternity, where you and I shall not find ourselves togetherComte de Lautremont Les Chants de Maldoror
He was so strong
He was so… so
We’ll think of him
When we get oldScott Walker “Tilt”
You, I would die for youPrince “I Would Die 4 U”
January 10, 2016. April 21, 2016. July 16, 2016. March 22, 2019. On these dates, and in this order, David Bowie, Prince, Alan Vega, and Scott Walker shed their mortal coils. As Walker gasped his final breaths, pop culture was hammering the final nails in the coffin of one of its archetypes. Walker’s death didn’t just signal that of an innovative icon, but one of a very specific and important iconoclastic musical trope. That isn’t to say they were the only musical performers of huge artistic relevance to have left us in recent years. Aretha Franklin’s passing in 2018 devastated anyone who ever marveled hearing Franklin’s soaring vocal performances on Spirit in the Dark. Bushwick Bill’s death last year was positively gutting to those that had their lives changed by the incendiary transgressive hip-hop of Geto Boys. I personally wept over the loss of David Berman, one of the most sublime American songwriters of the last 25 years. And my personal hero Mark E. Smith, who died in 2018, left me in mourning for a subversive uncanny, surrealist, and brutally contrarian literary sensibility in rock n’ roll.
But those are the deaths of individuals. The deaths of artists. Great artists, no doubt. But people die. This, I know to be true.
As Bowie, Prince, Vega, and Walker drifted into the void, we were left mourning for a myth… Mystique. Enigma… We’ve lost our connection to the spiritual realm. In the death of each of these artists was the death of an artist that connected us to that which lies beyond. The deaths of Bowie, Prince and the others was the death of what I’ve taken to calling “the haunted modernist troubadour,” or balladeer, if you prefer. The troubadour was our last connection to a mode of art creation held over from the Renaissance and early modernism. He composes poems and songs that connect listeners to the primordial human experience, the emotions and sensations that transcend the contemporary: love, death, mysticism, the cosmos. Call it what you will, but it’s become impossible to find art that transports us out of the liquid modern, out of the prison of market subsumption. These artists evoked polarities. Their odes to life were accented by undercurrents of death. Their songs dripped in sexuality and libido while longing for deeper connection. The haunted modernist troubadour is nostalgic for a future that never came but eternally exists in the liminal expansiveness of his imagination, weighed down by a suffocating past.
With their balladry established, it’s important to note that these artists were hardly without modernist bent. While beholden to the pop music form to one extent or another, they nevertheless held commune with the romantics of the past, of early modernism. Baudelaire, Poe, Coleridge, and Blake were conjured forth by Bowie’s voice, and materialized in ecstasy in Walker’s abstract narrative prose. They believed that pop music was eternally capable of more, and that the form could be expanded, deconstructed and built anew by connecting music to its history and to that of the avant-garde. The troubadour grounds his narratives in the present while alluding to themes that exist out of and beyond time: love, hate, death, transcendence, sexuality, and God. But a haunted modernist troubadour is in a persistent state of excitation with visions of the future. In the visions of these four four artists, there existed the foundations of a singular archetype, and with their passings, the haunted modernist troubadour is dead.
One might question what the connective issue is between all of these artists. Surely the leap from Vega to Bowie or Bowie to Walker isn’t difficult to chew on, but Vega to Prince? That’s why it’s so important here to emphasize that I haven’t imagined this haunted modernist troubadour to be making music that is formally or aesthetically similar, but only that he is driven by a specific kind of creative drive and occupies a certain kind of mythos in our culture. The Bristol-based avant-garde musician and proprietor Robert Ridley-Shackleton cites Prince and Suicide as his primary and only influences: “You have to perform and be theatrical,” Shackleton told Stewart Smith in The Wire last June. “[Prince] has been a massive influence on my life, more than anything. My music’s not like Prince, but there’s something about Prince’s music that’s so beyond, it’s so funky I can’t take it. But then also on stage, the moves, the looks, I can’t take it!” It was Shackleton’s experience with Prince, and then hearing Suicide a year later, that allowed him to conquer his fears and get on the damn stage to do his thing. That is the importance of the haunted modernist troubadour. Though someone like Shackleton might be making dank, lo-fi, scuzz funk that has little to do with the exceedingly well produced Prince albums, it was people like Prince and Vega’s existence as artists and icons that allowed him to transcend the limitations of his own psychology and angst to become something more than himself. A performer. An artful construction. A haunted modernist troubadour.
I’m sure you are also curious as to why I left some artists off this list even if they seem to match the criteria I’ve set forth, yes? Surely there are other artists whose deaths should be hailed as the death of the haunted modernist troubadour, too, no? So, let’s get that out of the way before moving forth, shall we? The first conspicuous absence would most likely be Lou Reed. So let me say first: Lou Reed is a god to me. The Velvet Underground is (along with The Fall and Royal Trux) my favorite rock n’ roll band of all time. I worship Reed’s more conventionally blues-leaning solo albums, especially Berlin and Sally Can’t Dance, and consider Metal Machine Music to be a visionary masterpiece that offered a road map for what was then an entirely new realm of underground art production. But the haunted modernist troubadour is characterized by an elegant sense of transformation that carries them through their career, and Bowie/Prince/Vega/Walker produced transformative music to their bitter ends of their lives. That wasn’t the case for Lou (though, his review of Yeezus is among the best works of art he ever produced ). I also understand people’s attachment to Leonard Cohen, but I don’t feel that attachment, and certainly don’t think of him as a haunted modernist troubadour. Cohen was a troubadour, surely, but did he ever expand beyond the limitations imposed upon him as a great singer songwriter? However great he might have been, I don’t think he’s attained the mythic status of someone like Bowie. And if there was life left in the haunted modernist troubadour trope, it would be on life support in the careers of artists like Nick Cave and Kanye. And while I worship the very ground that both of those artists bust their oft-kilter and idiosyncratic dance moves upon, they feel like such rarities within our pop culture that I could easily declare them as the exceptions that prove the rule.
The death of the haunted modernist troubadour is consistent with both the death of history and the death of the future. Pop music has been locked in a dreadful present for some two decades now, endlessly reproducing the now to the point that the now has become static. We have totally lost our historical memory. Consumerism in late capitalism has become a patterned prison, an algorithmic constraint. We hardly ever look at what came before us, exhausted by the information overload of the schizoid present. Whether cleansing the public images of bloodthirsty war criminals or listening to the same pop stars for decades at a time; it’s all connected to the same social relations and cultural tendencies. Likewise, this loss of historical memory inhibits our ability to look forward and envision what is possible. As Frederic Jameson noted, science fiction in postmodernism is almost always dystopian due to the collective realization that technological and industrial innovations will be the death of us. Could be climate apocalypse, could be an AI uprising, could be infinitely more boring than either of those possibilities. The point is, the artists that I’m most interested in, like the haunted modernist troubadour, can not thrive in a world without historical memory or innovative foresight. So when these four artists died, an entire artistic sensibility died. And unlike so many other artistic sensibilities, the haunted modernist troubadour will not be resurrected. Political economic conditions won’t allow it, I’m afraid.
Bowie’s pop cultural status transcends that of simply a songwriter and pop star. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine him as simply a man, and more comfortable to think of him as the extraterrestrial visitor he portrayed in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. A being of another world, out of time itself, ungendered, and free of human limitations, but trying to engage with our culture and society in ways that allowed us to interpret it in new and radical ways. Camille Paglia, who cites Bowie as one of her main inspirations for writing Sexual Personae, claimed that she viewed Bowie as the next step past Warhol in art history: “His passing dramatizes the abysmal mediocrity and banality of too much of today’s popular culture,” she said in an interview following his death. Paglia too understands the immense loss that art itself suffered when Bowie died, ushering in an echo of death that over the course of a few years took the lives of all our haunted modernist troubadours.
Bowie worked in narrative. There is little autobiography in his songs, he only used the self and the ego ideal as raw material that he could shape and hone them into new characters. These characters, rife with symbolic potential, channeled the pop cultural present, the primordial past, and the uncertain future and from them new ideas and human awareness sprung forth. As Simon Reynolds has noted, Bowie did, from a simplistic vantage point, follow trends. But his genius was in pushing those trends to their extremities, from a point at which they would explode with creative, narrative, and symbolic potential. In Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia disagrees with sociologist Max Weber that charisma is that which emerges through deeds of heroism or miracle, positing instead that charisma is actually ‘the numinous aura around a narcissistic personality.’ Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust was the numinous aura around a narcissistic personality given its own personality, and made flesh and blood. The glam rock pansexual at its apotheosis, Ziggy Stardust simultaneously alluded to the androgyne archetype of spiritual and art history (the cult of the Babylonian goddess of sexual freedom Ishtar, the Apollo Belvedere) and the vast collective imagination unleashed during the age of NASA and space travel. Ziggy was declaratively from outside of this world, and yet sang songs and embodied archetypes that were intertwined with centuries of art theory and its most iconic images: all the “sexual personae” from the Greeks through the Symbolists. It was utterly new, and yet longed for the ethereal bliss of early modernism. Bowie, as Ziggy, tells us what they are: “I’m an alligator! I’m a mama-papa coming for you! I’m a Space Invader.” Ziggy’s dual nature – hard and soft, masculine and feminine – is emphasized in the contrast between Bowie’s dexterous vocals and the raw power and of Mick Ronson’s electric guitar.
While Ziggy’s songs could be classified as the troubadour form of “ensenhamen,” or long moralizing poems that taught us, the people, new ways to think and behave, Bowie’s next character The Thin White Duke was birthed in a miasma of cocaine psychosis and brought into fruition on the mesmerizing 1976 album Station to Station. The Duke was a rail thin, angular, fascistic clean romantic incapable of traditionally comprehending the very concept of romance. Indeed, Bowie’s allusion to his interest in fascism during the White Duke period was the source of much controversy, but likely was yet another layer within the confluence of narratives that he generated and fostered to be internalized into the cultural hegemony. On Station to Station closer “Wild is the Wind,” the Duke sings: “Let me fly away with you, For my love is the wind, And wild is the wind wild is the wind.” The Thin Duke sang “cansos” from the perspective of the drug numbed, bottomed out extraterrestrial. Longing for love, and incapable of giving it. Bowie’s revelatory performance in Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth was captured while, according to Bowie himself, the artist was using over 10 grams of cocaine a day, and it’s fascinating to consider the performance as a capturing of Bowie’s personas in flux. He looks withered and unsure of himself; just as the alien in the film lets the memories of his former life fade away as he acclimates to his life on Earth, we are also watching the Thin White Duke fade away as Bowie prepares for another period of transformation.
Bowie’s malleable identities are further emphasized in Todd Haynes’ 1998 musical drama film Velvet Goldmine. In the film, (which, it should be stated, was rejected by Bowie who demanded the biographical references to his life be made more obscure in a lawsuit), a British rock journalist (Christian Bale) is attempting to track down a musician loosely based on Bowie called Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) after the musician staged a hoax depicting his “assassination” and subsequent death. While exploring the careers of both Slade and “Curt Wild” (Ewan McGregor), a character modeled on Iggy Pop that functions as a metaphor for Bowie and Pop’s working relationship in the 1970s, the journalist is eventually told by his editor that the public has lost interest in Brian Slade, and the editor assigns him to cover musician Tommy Stone’s tour. Tommy Stone is revealed to be the new identity of Slade. Throughout the film, there are references to Oscar Wilde, a modernist romantic poet dedicated to universalist spiritual themes of death and resurrection. The theme of the film functions as metaphor for Bowie’s career: the metaphorical death of the assassination stunt is a necessity to bring Slade’s new identity into fruition. Likewise, Bowie knew that only through spiritual death could one achieve life anew. Only through the process of resurrection could the process of transformation transpire.
Death and rebirth were recurring themes throughout Bowie’s career. When one persona died, another one would take its place. But the Blackstar was Bowie’s final transformation, and his transcendence. Forged on the eve of his own morality, Blackstar, released on Jan 8 of 2016 just two days before Bowie’s death, finds Bowie pontificating on the death of the moral coil that had provided the setting for so many deaths and rebirths, and the birth of the Blackstar, an immaterial and omnipotent being, a god of a transformative creativity. A dead god, long live the Blackstar. “Oh, I’ll be free, just like that bluebird,” sings the Blackstar on “Lazarus.” What could be more modernist than enveloping one’s own death in a triumphant pop cultural spectacle (an act also echoed in the final albums and subsequent deaths of Cohen, Berman, and the recently passed John Prine). Bowie is dead, but the Blackstar lives on in the cosmos, only to be called forth through commune with the mystics.
From a dilettantish perspective, one could misinterpret Prince as a particularly grotesque manifestation of all those 1980s trends best left behind: extreme excess, obscene maximalism, cheesy costumes, bad hair, men wearing makeup. But Prince was always too self-aware and intelligent to find himself reduced to a dated stereotype. Aesthetically, Prince was as flamboyantly androgynous as a pre-trial Oscar Wilde, and proved a compelling deconstruction of ugy American stereotypes of black men. He was an androgyne for an afrofuturist techno utopia. As neoliberal elites in cahoots with the media industrial complex attempted to limit pondering of the future to those that could be contained by their pre-established narratives, Prince composed a music of radical uplift and spiritual emancipation to be consumed by the masses, sneaking a bit of high art and glorious melodrama into a rampantly consumerist Reaganite culture. Prince, a genuine musical visionary rivaled by few in his strata of financial success (Kanye West, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, he’s on the level of the gods) envisioned an alternate dimension of pure sonic catharsis with music that crossed emotional spectrums and aimed equally at the body and the soul.
In an interview with MTV in 1999, when Prince was promoting his comeback album Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, Prince (then going under the name of the unpronounceable symbol) told the reporter that he was coming back to music to battle what he saw as pop music’s turn towards “negativity and entropy”: “The truth is you are either here to enlighten or discourage,” he theorizes. I should apply two caveats here. First, the album being promoted is arguably the worst and most conservative body of music that he ever composed, and second, a piece of his argument was a pseudo-reactionary criticism of the mass market transgression of the likes of Eminem and Marilyn Manson that was said to be fueling the school shooting crisis (I think he’s both right and wrong, right in that commercialized transgression is vulgar, wrong in that those artists should feel responsible for political ills). But, from a broader and more universalist application of Prince’s words, what he’s saying is utterly true. It was in the late 1990s, after all, that radical music making vanished from popular culture in favor of boy bands and equally pre-packaged and offensively dull “nu-metal.” Prince, in step with the haunted poets of romanticism, believed in the spiritual dimension of art production.
In his autobiography, Miles Davis affirms his respect for and love of Prince’s musical vision. Two quotes of his beautifully describe the power of Prince and reinforce Prince as a haunted modernist troubadour. First, he claims that “Prince’s music is pointing towards the future.” Later, Davis applauds the religiosity of the Prince sound: “But it’s the church thing that I hear in his music that makes him special, and that organ thing,” says Davis. “It’s a black thing and not a white thing. Prince is like the church to gay guys. He’s the music of the people who go out after ten or eleven at night.” In Prince’s music, a hyper-contemporary aesthetic offers a vision of the future while never losing grasp of art’s role as a transcendent force.
Unlike the other artists on this list, Prince often framed his lyrics from a first person perspective, but subverted the confessional song form by positioning himself as a symbol of lust, freedom, and spiritual rejuvenation that could bond his listeners along universalist themes. In “Purple Rain” from the iconic film soundtrack of the same name, Prince sings, “You say you want a leader, but you can’t make up your mind.” Prince offers himself up as a hero of clarity and a druid of modernism in an era of postmodern contradictions. The songs mirror the troubadour form of “The Gap”: Prince challenges the audience to transcend political economic limitations and look into the beyond beneath the guidance of his gorgeous melodies. In the opening title track from Sign O’ The Times (my favorite Prince album, truth be told), Prince waxes lyrical on all the ills of Reaganite America: crack, the war on crime, poverty, and all the horrors emerging within the genesis of neoliberalism. But even when Prince did social critique he did so in a way that offered a theologian’s perspective on world problems. He was an artist of catharsis, and of the infinite.
In Purple Rain, Prince plays “The Kid.” The Kid, like Prince, is the lead singer of a psychotronic funk band called the Revolution oddly hailing from Minneapolis. The film shows The Kid having a fairly rough, fairly typical working class upbringing, but when he gets on stage he’s no longer just The Kid. He ceases being some sad, dejected, poor youth. On stage, he’s Prince. Successful or not, the film accentuates the Prince mythology. With enough will to power, and enough thirst for freedom, anyone can leave their life behind and become Prince. Anyone can be the best, most mythic, most “Prince” version of themselves. Anyone, Prince suggests, can become a haunted modernist troubadour. By constructing a relatable self-mythology, a mythology that you could reinterpret and take ownership of to create something new, is the essence of modernist art.
Alan Vega and Martyn Rev are lauded for a nihilistic, proto no wave intensity that animated the music and performances they honed as Suicide. And while Suicide’s experimentalism and innovative fervor paved the path for all manner of subversive sub-genres that followed it (post-punk, no wave, industrial), one might be disappointed to hear Suicide’s music if they expect to hear something as vicious as Teenage Jesus the Jerks or as psychotic as Throbbing Gristle. Suicide’s greatest strength was in juxtaposing a scrappily visionary utilization of cheap electronic instruments against a kind of vintage if still quite mesmerizing 1950s rockabilly format. Suicide was a Frankenstein’s Monster of the rock n’ roll spirit; garage rock resurrected as a soulless, mechanical cyborg The duo’s songs were often more hypnotic and eerily beautiful than chaotic or ferociously discordant. They connected electronic music and the avant-garde to rock n’ roll and delta blues, paving the path for other artists to explore synthetic sound as mediated by rock structure. But very few Suicide songs matched its confrontational performative style with equal aural intensity. As hesitant as many Suicide fans would be to admit it, Vega wrote pop songs. They were subversive and manic pop songs to be sure, but seldom diverted from conventional structure. Vega was something like an opiated, art school deadbeat Roy Orbison.Vega crooned in an eerie and soulful baritone infinitely more than he screamed or shrieked (as he did, deliriously, on the terrifying “Frankie Teardrop”). He was a haunted troubadour for the beginning of the end of history; his songs were like hissing urban myths of late capitalist decadence just before a city in decline would be subsumed by and buried beneath the empty signifiers of finance capital. His viscerally uncomfortable performances would often result in his own wounds and blood; Vega’s blood the first sacrament for the end of tymes.
Simon Reynolds asked Vega about the larger-than-life attributes of the heroes and protagonists that populate Vega’s songs’ narratives. Vega responds by citing his favorite comic series Ghost Rider, the title of which he lifted in naming the opening track of Suicide’s iconic debut album, and that comic’s “religious, metaphysical and transformative themes.” If Prince was a preacher of transcendent bliss, Vega was a haunted troubadour for a new book of revelations. A disciplined visual and performance artist, he consciously turned himself into an archetype of urban blight. In his songs, the city destroys the man, and men destroy the city. Dressed in tasseled leather jackets, embroidered cowboy shirts, and buck-toe shoes, Vega looked like a Midnight Cowboy who bottomed out on amphetamines and speed rock briefly after moving to the city. Influenced by Iggy Pop’s self-harming antics, Suicide deliberately played their brand of synth-driven doo wop in venues where they knew they’d be despised, allowing Vega to channel all the alienation of the modern condition.
Within this contradiction I detect Vega’s haunted modernist troubadour sensibility. His songs were urban fables that harnessed biblically apocalyptic themes and haunted quite literally by an urban landscape in disrepair. But the modernism of Suicide is indisputable. There is nigh any form of electronics-driven music untouched by its influence. “Che,” off of the debut album, finds Vega criticizing the hero worship around Che Guevara, dismissing the socialist cause as one of hopeless idealism in a world that was already in oracular disarray. “Frankie Teardrop,” one of Suicide’s most cynically vicious masterpieces, chronicles the tale of Frankie, a factory worker who can’t feed his family and opts to kill his wife, his child, and his self. Folklore is an important form of troubadour song-craft, and late 1970s New York had its own folkloric troubadour in Alan Vega. Atypical of artists of his generation, Vega’s creativity had astounding longevity. His collaborations with Finnish producer Mika Vanio and his group Pan Sonic – a group that like Suicide balanced the retro analogical with the postmodern technological – yielded the fascinating 1998 album Endless. Pan Sonic’s produces an appropriately dystopic background from which the old haunted modernist muses on war, famine, and assorted human degradation, channeling the aura of Elvis and the soul of Beckett. On Vega’s posthumous solo album It, made with his wife, Liz Lamere, he sings, “The truth is dead… the saint is dead… the motorcycle explodes.” A mortal dies, an immortal rises.
Bowie was a troubadour of transformation. Prince was a troubadour of bliss. Vega was a troubadour of decay. But Scott Walker? Walker, whose death was the final nail in the coffin of the haunted modernist troubadour, was a troubadour of terror. Walker was always something of a troubadour, but he wouldn’t let the demons that haunt him manifest until deep into his career, decades after attaining fame as a teen idol in his group The Walker Brothers. Beginning with 1984’s Climate of Hunter, Walker incorporated elements of industrial hiss, avant-garde composition, and classical sensibilities that sent his music down a path of sublime darkness. The songs on his later albums are often said to be in the style of “Lieder” that was often preferred by Beethoven and Schubert: Walker’s operatically anguished vocals form their own melody alongside that produced by the backing music. Walker’s gorgeous voice and the dark bombast of his production and music form a unique narrative dialog: good and evil, heaven and hell. Walker’s songs depict Hades’s perversion of paradise; a world lost to war, famine, bloodshed, rape, domination, and all-encompassing power. In his notes on Walker’s 2006 masterpiece The Drift, rock critic Ian Penman writes that Walker is, “Working out ways to SOUND OUT the present moment’s shame and recess and emptiness, the lingering sense of disappointment and of accounts left unsettled.”
Walker never totally divorced himself from the more conventional pop formats that he was known for in his youth, but was resplendent with ambition to create a contemporary popular music that could actually match the disassociated social conditions of late modernism. To do this, he brought in the elements of the most dramatic and bombastic music. The aforementioned industrial and avant-garde composition, and Wagnerian classical. His thirst for creation knew no bounds, liquidating masses of music history beneath the serene terror of the K-hole.
And true to the nature of the troubadour, Walker seldom wrote autobiographically, instead positioning himself as a vessel through which listeners could face their society in all its bleakness and unknowability. “Clara,” the second track off of The Drift, obliquely implies the story of Claretta Petacci, mistress of Mussolini. Described by Walker as a “fascist love song,” it follows the couple all the way through their execution, Walker’s voice flitters around a gorgeously bombastic melange of electronics, strings and percussion. Backup singer Vanessa-Contenay Quinones sings from the perspective of Claretta, “Sometimes I feel like a swallow, a swallow which by some mistake, has gotten into an attic, and knocks its head against the wall in terror.”
Walker’s final album Bish Bosch, released in 2012, was titled in reference to 14th century fantastical painter Hieronymus Bosch as well as the term “bitch,” signaling Walker’s desire to communicate the power of this immortal female creator character. It’s easy to see why he would be interested in such a concept, because Walker was an artist who sought to create a music that could actually rise to the terrors of the modern world. To do this he looked to conventional pop songcraft, the ambitious compositions of classical music, and the always forward thinking sensibility of the avant-garde. What’s particularly unnerving about neoliberal culture is that even as the world gets more incomprehensible and confusing as our systems are subsumed by market forces and humans are further atomized, our pop culture only seeks to mystify these dynamics if not outright propagandistically enforce them. When Scott Walker died, the haunted modernist troubadour died with him. And with that loss, popular music was cemented as a force of pacification. Radical modernism? Ambition? Drama? Narrative? Myth? It’s gone, and it won’t come back. I dare you to convince me otherwise.
Hauntology is a worn out theory, but it proves durable as an analysis of popular culture. Pop music, subsumed by market demands and the shallow tastes of a hyper-consumerist public, endlessly reproduces the trends that have proven to have financial durability. People don’t want to be challenged, they want jouissance. They want endless libidinal satisfaction without intellectual provocation. A form of popular music that could reinvent itself and summon its listeners to transgress while also satisfying their demands for joy and pleasure died a slow death from 2016 to 2019. In Bowie’s, Prince’s, Vega’s, and Walker’s music, a rooting in the present could be saturated with the eternal mystique of modernist art history while also conspiring to envision a radical future. Radical innovation clashed with the trends of the present while occulted with the connections to the cosmos and the unknown of the great poets and druids.
We mourn David Bowie. Mourn Prince. We mourn for Vega! Mourn for Walker! We mourn, eternally, for the transcendent sublime that departed with our haunted modernist troubadours!