A little over a year ago, David Bowie died. One of the first of the many, many, victims of 2016’s alleged celebrity death epidemic, Bowie’s passing sent shockwaves of grief through the imaginative world. Even people who hated everything the man represented loved some of his music, because it’s very good, very catchy and – especially here in the UK – ubiquitous. Bowie’s music includes low fi electronica, brash pop, soul disco funky stuff, taut piano ballads and glam rock anthems (and that’s just mentioning his hits), which means there’s a song, somewhere, in his repertoire, appropriate to almost every moment of existence. One of the things that people love about David Bowie is his numerous reinventions, and this is praised because one feels that he did this not as a cynical marketing ploy, but because he wanted to be different, to develop. His music ch-ch-changed, the roles he played in films changed, the way he dressed and the way he interacted with the world changed. He was a beautiful, charming, and deeply creative man and he gifted the world huge amounts of significant pop culture (and avant garde) Art, and that’s capitalised on purpose. He wrote ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Let’s Dance’ and Low. He did Ziggy Stardust and that gorgeous, recent, haunting, song ‘Where Are We Now?’. He acted in films like Zoolander and that one where Hugh Jackman drowns clones of himself over and over again (#spoileralert) and he achieved huge amounts of recognition for his position as a relatively unique figure within the international music scene. He was, in short, bloody great.1
I’m writing too much about David Bowie, which no one needs to read. What I’m actually intending to discuss is a lovely little (I mean that literally, not literarily) book by Susana Medina, published by Piece of Paper Press.
Piece of Paper Press is run by Tony White and is a “lo-fi” independent publisher that puts out limited copies of arty books once or twice a year. The books are made of a single piece of paper, cut up stapled together by hand. Often these are conceptual works created by artists, but Medina is a writer and her book – I will call it that – is called The Bowie Neurotransmitter and is a meditation on the importance of David Bowie to her life. To everyone’s life, I suppose.
As an object, The Bowie Neurotrasmitter is a pleasing thing: it has been constructed with care from a far sturdier piece of paper than the paper I buy for my printer at work, and when you hold it you get to feel like a giant reading a normal magazine. The text inside is small, but satisfyingly so – the A7-size pages contain as many words as most “full size” books, and it is not difficult to read – you just have to hold it closer to your face than a normal volume. The literary content is a single essay, probably around 3,000 words, and it deals with Medina’s personal life and personal psychological connection to Bowie – one she believes most people have, embedded in their Bowie Neurotransmitter.
Medina’s writing is sweet and hopeful, personal and general. There’s a firm tone of happiness and optimism that – as an unhappy man – I cannot relate to, but Medina doesn’t veer into the “uplifting memes” style of overwhelming positivity. She’s a happy woman, reflecting on the positive things given to her life by David Bowie, and that is a valid and valuable thing. Medina writes about translating David Bowie lyrics into her native Spanish as a teenager, which is understandably amusing: “Snag? Flickers? … Droog … ? Not in dictionary … America’s tortured brow? Freak out in a moonage daydream?” Bowie’s lyrics do often seem impenetrable at first glance, but there is always some meaning, even if it is obtuse.2
The Bowie Neurotransmitter discusses Bowie’s influence on Medina’s life, on her relationships with friends and lovers, and it’s an entertaining and engaging read. She discusses public grief and social media’s central importance in many people’s lives, she writes warmly about Bowie’s development and alterations as an artist (I’m trying not to write ch-ch-changes again) and how they matched hers. As Medina grew up, Bowie grew up too, and she became an adult pleased to have enjoyed the intersection of her life and his artistic output. This is personal, engaging and warm writing, and I firmly enjoyed reading it. Medina evokes youth and ageing and excitement and all those other things music makes you think of. It’s full of references to Bowie’s lyrics, Bowie’s messages and Bowie’s life, and it’s a fitting and heartfelt tribute to an iconic artist.
To try and get hold of a copy, click here to visit Piece of Paper Press’ website. You might not be able to, though, as these are distributed free and given out first come, first served. There were only 150 copies printed, but maybe you can read it digitally if you ask nicely.
Let’s close with some Medina on Bowie:
it’s electrifying. And it’s seminal work, after seminal work, after seminal work, and sometimes listening to his music you weep, because his brilliance is achingly beautiful
1. Full disclosure, though: I saw Lazarus a few weeks ago and it is distinctly underwhelming: Bowie was not infallible. ↩
2. Inspired by reading this essay and with time to kill on a long road trip in the afternoon/evening, I listened to Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on Monday. Both were albums that I’d adored as a teenager, but hadn’t returned to in a long time. Hunky Dory I don’t think I’d listened to the whole way through for about a decade, and Ziggy… for probably well over half that. In my head I’d allowed myself to become convinced that Bowie was a bit of a charlatan – that his lyrics were nonsense, nonsensical, and the fact that he is so lauded by the general public meant that there couldn’t possibly be poetry there, as normal people HATE poetry, and anything they have to think about (although often they like things they think they have to think about but don’t actually have to think about, like thrillers). It’s not true, I was wrong. There is real beauty in the language Bowie used, even in those old albums from forty years ago. His lyrics are not nonsense, but they are difficult. Bowie’s language is inventive and interesting enough to be given critical study, hence why people with Medina’s level of cultural nouse like and respect him. The important lesson in relation to his popularity is the need to remember that the man in the street doesn’t listen to song lyrics: it’s how Kendrick Lamar manages to be a mainstream musician despite the power, anger and emotion of his lyrics. Put emotive literature over a banging beat and dickheads will buy it just to dance to. ↩