Even if you had never heard a single Flight of the Conchords’ song before this week, you probably couldn’t help run into the same one repeatedly the last few days. It was hard to scroll through any social media feed and not come upon someone sharing or quoting their 2002 song “Bowie,” the band’s surreal and funny, but totally sincere and heartfelt tribute, to the legendary musician.
Jemaine Clement, one half of the musical comedy folk band, wrote the touching story behind the song that then became the basis for an entire episode of their too-brief HBO show. In New Zealand’s The Spinoff, Clement talked about how what started as two fans failing to learn their hero’s songs in a flat in New Zealand ended with him leaving the set of his HBO show and walking down the streets of New York City dressed like Bowie from Labyrinth.
When Clement and Bret McKenzie initially sat down to try and learn Bowie’s songs, they quickly realized he hadn’t just made simple pop songs, but “mini operas,” only “without showing off about it.”
“He’d taken rock’n’roll and added parts of black soul music, which somehow he’d made white without making it uncool. We couldn’t play these songs. They were too tricky to learn, too many parts–all those tricky chords, all those tempo changes, the changes in vocal range, sometimes a deep masculine growl, sometimes a high falsetto of some third alien gender.”
So from there they decided they’d just write their own Bowie song as a tribute to him, which resulted in the great story of the two of them calling into a radio station, both speaking as David Bowie, and telling the DJ you could carry David Bowie in a brown paper bag.
The two of them being David Bowie, but also speaking to Bowie, who as far as they were concerned was floating out in space, became the basis for the song. In the video, either Bowie takes turns asking each other questions about being out there, hanging out with Mick Jaggernauts, and whether his pointy nipples were transmitting data back to earth. On paper it sounds like it might be insulting, but it’s not. There is a warmth and reverence that permeates the entire song. Bowie created his own universe, one where anyone could do or be anything he or she wanted, no matter how weird, and Clement and McKenzie envisioned him as a celestial being capable of incredible, ridiculous feats. It’s such an appropriate tribute to the man that made being weird cool; it’s the world’s most absurd love letter, one that now has a wistful sadness to it.
“We had never heard a parody song like this before, that fawned over the artist instead of mocking them. Would people laugh if it wasn’t mean? We didn’t care if they didn’t laugh, we were obsessed. We were in some kind of writing fever.”
Years later the two would find themselves with their own show on HBO, and they decided on A Christmas Carol inspired episode, where Bret would be visited by a famous musician that would try to cheer him up over fears about his appearance. Who better than Bowie, their hero, to deliver that message. Clement said he wanted to write the episode, but instead of just one Bowie, Bret would be visited by different eras of Bowie.
Now they just needed someone to play Bowie. For a moment, it looked like maybe the man himself would do it.
“We were at once excited, nervous, optimistic and pessimistic. What if he read it the wrong way? What if he thought our recording was square–our guitar playing lacking groove? What if he didn’t like the way I’d written him, his character reduced to a dandy who spoke in ’70s jive talk? What if his coolness absorbed us like a black hole, ceasing our very existences? All reasonable questions.”
Alas, it didn’t happen. A fact that actually relieved Clement.
“Through the disappointment I was extremely relieved. As exciting as it is to meet your hero, the relief of not having to meet them is another, quite different and pleasant feeling.”
He may have been been worried about meeting his hero and what Bowie may have thought of his tribute to him, but it also ended up with Clement in a bunch of tight fitting costumes. After the first attempt to film the “Bowie” scenes didn’t pan out, it was Clement himself that had to take on the part of his idol. In the episode he appears repeatedly to Bret in various Bowie looks (Ziggy Stardust Bowie, “Ashes to Ashes” Bowie, and Labyrinth Bowie).
The episode, like the song, is wonderful. It’s funny, touching, and weird. The video for the song at the episode’s end, where they talk to David Bowie in space, is a better homage to his singular greatness than any mere words could express. The visuals, the music, the ability to make the strange so warm–it’s all there.
Make sure to read the entire essay; it’s an eloquent and tender reminder that an artist can mean so much to so many.
“Music, comedy, visual art, fashion, science fiction. Characters and whole movies influenced by the work of the man. Any artist who changes persona–not just their look, but becomes an entirely different character–gets credited for their creativity, but like us that day in our flat, they’re just copying him. Wonder if they’ll ever know? His influence isn’t just felt in art, though – people too are influenced. He made it cool to be a freak, to feel like an alien.”
Bowie isn’t gone. He was too big for one planet in the universe to keep claiming him as its own. He’s somewhere much more fitting now.
Bowie’s in space.
HT: The Spinoff