Serious Moonlight


Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, CIBY Pictures, 1992

by Nicholas Rombes

As a kid in the 1970s, kicking around the scrubby back lots near Toledo, Ohio, I assumed David Bowie was from Detroit, Michigan, about an hour north of my hometown. Looking back on it this seems absurd, but at the time I must have associated him with Detroit’s infamous son Alice Cooper, someone who got scrambled in my mind with Bowie, or maybe with Iggy Pop, who grew up in nearby Ann Arbor. Looking back on it it doesn’t make sense, how I’d confuse them. But then again, what did make sense in the ’70s?

It’s been said more than a few times that Bowie was a transformer whose identity as an artist evolved continually, always searching, never remaining still. But I wonder if it wasn’t the other way around: it was Bowie who transformed us and became a screen on which we could project our own desires. When we were into glam or concept albums, there he was as Ziggy. When we were into punk, there he was with Lou Reed. When we were into something like synth-pop, there was Heroes. And on and on. His music seemed just right no matter what music you were listening to.

In 1983 I was a freshman at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, working as a DJ (how glamorous that sounded!) at WFAL, the campus radio station, the kind where the signal (such as it was) came through the phone lines in the dorms, or so they said. While we could pretty much spin anything we wanted, every 42 minutes we had to play one of the three designated songs in rotation that week, songs which arrived via mail on audio tape cartridges (we just called them “carts”) from a location near the Boeing headquarters in Seattle—not far from where Thomas Pynchon worked as a technical writer in the early ’60s—leaving me to fantasize that these “carts” with their weirdly lettered labels was somehow Pynchon related), and it just so happened that “Let’s Dance” was one of them. Over and over during my illustrious 11:00pm to 3:00am Friday night shift, I’d punch the button for a song that I hated at first but grew to love after finally accepting the fact that the line “this serious moonlight” was, no doubt, a worthy turn of phrase. When I off-handedly said on mic that David Bowie would be stopping by for an unannounced radio booth visit only one person phoned in about it, the station manager, to scold me. He was, I’m sure, my only listener.

Bowie understood that pop music (or art, or x) was not just about granting pleasure and satisfaction, but denying it. It’s both sad and true that that’s what his last major work, Blackstar, does so perfectly: it creates the conditions and possibility of being “likeable” while at the same time undermining those conditions. This somehow gives the listener space—space to inhabit his songs rather than be sucked into them, and in this space to turn the music to the listener’s advantage. This is also something he does in David Lynch’s 1992 horror film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (filmed fall 1991 when Bowie was in the US for the “It’s My Life” tour) where for a few minutes he undermines any form of stability we might be looking for. Is his performance comic? Terrifying? Absurd? Incoherent? Dangerous? It’s all of them.

Something similar happens in Chris Petit’s 1979 film Radio On, which opens to “Heroes” in all its full-length glory first diagetically through the hiss and static of a radio, as if some unseen but present person is searching for a suitable song, then non-diagetically as the sound switches to “film score” mode, a fuller rendition sourced not from within the world of the film itself, but from without. And then—during the last 20 seconds—the lo-fi radio version takes over again, as we see a man’s hand turn off the car radio.

Turn it on: 8 January 1947

Turn it off: 10 January 2016

About the Author:


Nicholas Rombes is author of the forthcoming novel The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio Press) and Ramones, from the 33 1/3 series. His work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Filmmaker Magazine. He is a professor in Detroit, Michigan.