Speedly commissioned (and written) piece on David Bowie's five-word intervention into the referendum debate, for The Guardian. Happy to see it there - but some interesting editorial cuts from the article itself as it appears on the Guardian website, involving a Playboy interview in 1978 and Hugh Macdiarmid. The cuts restored below.
Scottish independence supporters can forgive David Bowie's union folly
Amidst the relentless Ibizafication of popular music that was the Brits last night, a welcome moment of real-worldery appeared at its close. Kate Moss delivered a New York message from David Bowie, in which he cryptically accepted his lifetime award, but declared with ringing clarity at the end, “Scotland - stay with us”.
Cue the independence referendum Klaxons, arrooga-ing sternly across the island.
Any hopes that Bowie the icon might induce genuflection among the referendum Don’t-Knows was instantly dashed by Twitter. The #scottishbowie hashtag immediately wrestled him down into the dusty kailyard. Ziggy Played Stranraer, Scary Monsters (and Super Neeps), Speyside Oddity, Black Tie White Pudding, The Spiders From Largs, Hunky Doric, Under Perthshire… The hits kept on coming.
But will Bowie’s Ukanian love-bombing play in the debate? It’s a truism about the Yes campaign that they are teeming with stellar artists in all genres, who see a natural fit between their own, opportunity-friendly lives and the collective leap towards full independence. This is in comparison with the somewhat threadbare - or in Scots, shilpit - pantheon of the No campaign.
Their most recent cultural intervention was a toe-curling Burns night viral from John Barrowman, draped in the kind of tartan usually seen in dog mangers and over car seats. (There are strong rumors that the The Krankies, Barrowman’s partners in Glasgow Panto, have also recorded a No endorsement. Given Barrowman’s reception, we may need the data-retrieval powers of an Assange or Snowden to unearth that one).
But though I am partisan - as a musician and YesScotland board member - I would concede that the Dame’s Unionist drone-drop of love from across the Atlantic has mildly troubled a few indy-minded creatives.
Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite is probably paradigmatic: “I somehow forgave Bowie for the Placebo collaboration. I”m sure I can can forgive him for this folly too”. Pro-Yes comedian Frankie Boyle noted: “I completely respect Bowie's right to express views on Independence, just as I'd respect Iggy Pop's opinions on the CERN particle accelerator”. Dramatist David Greig went into a meltdown of ambivalence: “The weird thing is, I'm feeling giddy that HE NOTICED US! David Bowie mentioned Scotland! We exist! We're real! HE LOVES US! And we love him.”
I doubt this will dent the implacable momentum of the cultural supertanker behind Yes (see this list from the movement’s Diego Riveras, National Collective). But it’s worth a second or two dwelling on Bowie’s own motivations here. The Thin White Duke - which, let’s be honest, is not a good start - has some form on a variety of, er, “national questions”.
Bowie in Playboy, 1978: “Britain is ready for a fascist leader… After all, fascism is really nationalism…You’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up”. Not helpful to the comity of nations. But then, neither was the mighty Hugh Macdiarmid’s “Plea for a Scottish Fascism” in 1923.
Protean artists can sometimes be in the grip of noxious ideas, as their contrarian radar sweeps around for inspiration - yet they can still maintain a fertile ambivalence all the way through. I recall Bowie’s guano-spattered Union Jack frock-coat, designed by Alexander McQueen, on the cover of his 1997 drum’n’bass record Earthling.
There’s two ways to read this, of course. Is Bowie displaying how disrespected and deconstructed the Union flag is? Or, as his defiant stance might suggest, is he the last man standing to defend green-and-pleasant Britishness against detractors from all sides? But this is, of course, Bowie at his best - bringing ambiguous art-power into the pop mainstream. Morrissey’s parallel Britology sends his devotees into just as many twisting spirals of exculpation. Evidently, these quasars of rock are sent to try us.
Certainly, deploying Kate “she’s got the London Look” Moss to deliver a sentimental plea to rebellious Scots shows that the Dame has been reading the Danny Boyle, post-Olympic playbook of pluralist, capacious Unionism. Another thing: Bowie is almost 70 - and thus has some connection to the post-war generation, those who could feel Britishness in their bones, via a victorious war and a welfare state.
As any biography will also tell you, for all his shape-shifting brilliance, Bowie is a right old Royal Variety Performance vaudevillian at heart. I can imagine him enthroned in his techno-lair in Manhattan, sampling news feeds from the Old Country, allowing tendrils of moist patriotism to penetrate his otherwise steely alien mind.
But from the indy side, we say: You can be The Man Who Fell To Perth anytime you like, David. The Saltire’d, heather-dusted frock-coat has already been tailored, and awaits your beloved, skeletal frame. We may borrow your line, “We can be heroes, just for one day”, if that’s OK. Though could you explain that Japanese rabbit-on-the-moon reference in your speech before you come over? On second thoughts - mibbes naw.