Oedipus Red

I once had a conversation with someone who told me they were a professionally trained psychologist. I don’t meet a ton of psychologists, so I tried to think of a relevant question to ask and I recalled that in TV’s Frasier – Dr. Frasier was a Freudian and his brother Niles was a Jung specialist. I asked her whether she was a freudian or a jungian and she gave me the most nonplussed look and said, “Well, we’re pretty much all cognitive behavioral therapists these days.” I didn’t really know much about that at the time, and honestly I only had the most cursory kind of knowledge of Freud or Jung either. All things considered it was kind of an awkward conversation, but her reaction stuck with me.

I did some reading later and investigated the real structures of Freudian analysis and such, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy seemed really pragmatic and simple compared to all the grand theorizing and complex subconscious concepts that Freud insisted were real and linked to various mythological characters. What’s interesting, though, when you explore a little further is that not only is Freud no longer really used in any professional capacity – there’s some sentiment going on that suggests he set psychology as a discipline back quite a lot by getting it entangled in all these ideas that have little or no basis in any scientific evidence. Yet – when you ask people about psychology Freud still looms large as just kind of cultural touchstone.

Certain things are best left unfinished, I find. When it comes to gigantic bodies of work like the discography of 70’s icons like David Bowie, Lou Reed, or Iggy Pop – I try to focus on just a few albums or songs at a time and really appreciate them rather than try to take in decades of work all at once or exhaustively. I reference Bowie a lot when I think about art or about characters and artifice, so I was listening to some of his albums that were remastered in 2017, and I realized I hadn’t spent much time listening to 1979’s Lodger. One of the later tracks on the album was Red Money – a song I couldn’t even recall. I put it on. “Oh … that’s Sister Midnight.” I’ve been an Iggy Pop fan for a very long time, and having read his biography and a fair amount about Bowie I knew they’d worked together on The Idiot and just in general were co-workers and friends in the Berlin Trilogy era. I happen to be a pretty big fan of their mutual output from that period. I had to take in Red Money slowly and surely and figure out just what was going on – this was a straight re-purposing of the instrumentals and even some of the lyrics from the Iggy classic.

Bowie and Iggy on tour 1977 on this bootleg cover

Somehow, despite being virtually the same song it has a very different feeling. According to interviews with both of them, both Bowie and Iggy claim that Iggy came into the studio and just kind of made up the lyrics to Bowie’s tracks on the spot. Iggy’s lyrics are a straight reference to Oedipus Rex – I think you could argue that Iggy was thinking about Freud and the Oedipus Complex he came up with – he even, really weirdly I might add, mentions Freud in an interview from right around when Sister Midnight came out.

I’ll tell you about punk rock: punk rock is a word used by dilettantes and, uh… and, uh… heartless manipulators, about music… that takes up the energies, and the bodies, and the hearts and the souls and the time and the minds, of young men, who give what they have to it, and give everything they have to it. And it’s a… it’s a term that’s based on contempt; it’s a term that’s based on fashion, style, elitism, satanism, and, everything that’s rotten about rock ‘n’ roll.’I don’t know Johnny Rotten… but I’m sure, I’m sure he puts as much blood and sweat into what he does as Sigmund Freud did.

You see, what, what sounds to you like a big load of trashy old noise… is in fact… the brilliant music of a genius… myself. And that music is so powerful, that it’s quite beyond my control. And, ah… when I’m in the grips of it, I don’t feel pleasure and I don’t feel pain, either physically or emotionally. Do you understand what I’m talking about? Have you ever, have you ever felt like that? When you just, when you just, you couldn’t feel anything, and you didn’t want to either. You know, like that? Do you understand what I’m saying, sir?

– Iggy Pop interview with Peter Gzowski on the CBC on 11 March 1977″

Bowie’s song, Red Money, was from a little later – towards the end of that period where they lived together in Berlin. Bowie’s lyrics are pretty cryptic, but even though strange they seem much more calculated. He talks about a red box in one verse – which didn’t mean anything to me at first, but the Bowie Bible had a quote from Melody Maker:

This song, I think, is about responsibility. Red boxes keep cropping up in my paintings, and they represent responsibility there.

– David Bowie, Melody Maker, 19 May 1979

In general though, Bowie’s choice to essentially cover his own track he gifted Iggy and change the meaning of it could be seen as a complex song in two parts he intended to be paired. Bowie and Iggy toured together in 1977 with Bowie supporting Iggy. Bowie was doing some backing vocals, but mostly just playing keyboards – deliberately taking a backseat to Iggy’s performances. There was an incredible TV interview from this tour with Dinah Shore where the full interview has the two explain some incredible candid thoughts on the nature of their collaboration and contrasting styles. Bowie talks at length about how much he admires Iggy’s talent and ability to tap into spontaneity.

David Bowie & Iggy Pop on The Dinah Shore Show 1977

Bowie: “I guess, uh, he’ll hate me but it’s it’s more like a – the beatnik era thing with you see it’s a retreat, i mean it’s – it’s – it’s a very spontaneous kind of lyric. It’s not like a written thing at all but whereas mine, so I spend months writing one word (then i have to look it up and see how to spell it).”

He goes on later to talk about the public taste, and how he and Iggy come at it from different angles.

Bowie: “There’s a particular a hardcore point in the public that that – there’s a valve a an emotional point that can be touched in two places: it’s either on a spiritual level or a gut level and that will never change ever … I’m a cyborg, right? It’s very different – mine comes from sort of up to [gestures at head] from there and jimmy’s comes from about [gestures towards waist] here down to about – there – you know?”

Now that’s all interesting maybe by itself, but what’s also interesting is that Bowie never played Red Money once live (as far as we know). He covered Sister Midnight over and over again in different tours for the rest of his career after Iggy’s The Idiot was released. I’m just guessing, but I think that Bowie toured supporting Iggy and played Iggy’s version because he could see that Iggy had been “in the grips of it” – Iggy had channeled the muse of something that came with blood and sweat and given it everything he had and Bowie could tell that *this* was compelling music with the emotional depths and heights that made it powerful. By contrast, Bowie’s version of the song was about not being able to see over high heights, about not being able to ignore responsibility, about something altogether more abstract.

Bowie with his painting Child in Berlin from 1977

So I asked my friend Dusko if he could find the time if he could work on a sort of mashup track. There was already a pretty good one on Youtube, but I what I really wanted to exist that didn’t exist yet was some attempt to make those two songs into a new song that was somehow both of them and yet a different thing. I wanted to see what new ideas would spark when they weren’t considered separately but also listened to as if it were one multifaceted song that was something else. He did an incredible job, and I listened to his combined track over and over and over again and worked on a series that reflected the two styles: black and white harsh flowing shapes and textures that drags into it wild rough visceral imagery, black cityscapes that should conjure Berlin and all the stark realities it brings to mind, the angelic and destitute contrasts in Freudian psychology and Iggy’s muse. At the same time there’s cool collected shapes in a color of red sampled from one of Bowie’s paintings from 1977. Rational shapes, solid lines, repeating mathematical patterns – responsibility.

The music was made by Dusko – I just threw together a mash of Oedipus Red #1 – #11 with some transitions to match it.

For the actual technique I was using threshold filters on images. This is not really very sophisticated, but when you find good images and can blend them – the black and white contrast means you can make collage that’s very weirdly mixed things that blend together well. Pictures feel a little more amorphous and blend-able when they are all in the same black and white palette. I’ve always enjoyed making smoke and waves and animal type textures blend together in shapes that mix and flow with thresholding. The red patterns are a mixture of using shape layer repeaters, Processing sketches and plain text manipulation and duplication and such – I found that anything too complicated started to feel like Op Art and not like simple structural elements and patterns.

I was thinking while doing this that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy seems like a very practical way of addressing our emotional problems, our behavioral loops and habits that keep us from being well-adjusted. Is it exciting, though? Carl Jung remarked in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections that Freud’s “sexual theory was just as occult, that is to say just as unproven an hypothesis, as many other speculative views.” It masqueraded as a 20th century discovery when it seems consensus now is that it was more of a personal obsession, a revolt against religion that transformed into a dogma of its own. If we no longer believe in (and were probably set back by decades because we believed in) the kind of subterranean behemoths of Id and Ego and relationships like Oedipus and Elektra – all these grand ideas that turned out to be delusions – can we live like that? Can we live like we’re really pretty ordinary creatures that get hung up on things and just need to focus and change how we think about those things? Again from Jung, “the problem still remains: how to overcome or escape our anxiety, bad conscience, guilt, compulsion, unconsciousness, and instinctuality. If we cannot do this from the bright, idealistic side, then perhaps we shall have better luck by approaching the problem from the dark, biological side.” I think what Jung saw was that Freud really was possessed by the kind of muse that can distract from how boring actually dealing with our problems is; he said, “I see him as a tragic figure; for he was a great man, and what is more, a man in the grip of his daimon.” In the context of this art (pretentious as it is) – what I am doing is making David Bowie out to be the Carl Jung in this relationship and Iggy Pop is Sigmund Freud – but all of it is just two flawed ways of looking forward to a new paradigm where neither rational idealism and responsibility nor visceral preoccupations with sexuality and myth seems to help – but they remain so much more interesting than our modest new way of thinking.

There’s another Bowie interview with Charlie Rose from 1998 where he floats the idea that the impulse to make art is essentially a dysfunction. He said “I’ve often wondered if actually being an artist, in any way – any nature – is kind of a sign of a certain kind of dysfunction – a social dysfunctionalism anyway … I think the saner and rational approach to life is to survive steadfastly and create a protective home and create a warm loving environment for one’s family…” Yet – what we want, what we can’t seem to do without if we have any aesthetic yearnings – is something else. We want something more bright and darker and harder to corral into neat little boxes – midnights and mothers – like a nervous disease.

These pieces were setup as 24 hour open edition claims from manifold. Each one succeeding the previous one.