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Bowie’s Outside and the Lost Contamination

We lost David Bowie earlier this week. I caught the news in my Facebook feed, and sat there in mute shock for five seconds before screaming, “No!” (luckily I was home at the time). When I was able to recover my wits, I wrote this:

David Bowie is one of those artists you think will always be there. He reinvented himself again and again, and I really didn’t think he would ever stop, he’d just keep on going, like a never-ending regeneration of himself, outliving us all, becoming post-human, then post-post-human, bringing his music to other worlds, other universes.

He was in the background of my musical tastes for a long time, but I got big into his music in the mid-90s, with his contribution to the soundtrack of David Lynch’s film Lost Highway, and the release of the albums Outside and Earthling, and his collaborations with Nine Inch Nails. I was encouraged by a friend to explore his post-Ziggy Berlin Trilogy—Low, “Heroes” and Lodger—which became some of my favourite albums.

His death hits especially hard since his new album, ★ (aka Blackstar, which I’m listening to right now), just came out a few days ago, and he looked just as full of life in the pre-release music videos for it. I’m sad that he won’t get to fully enjoy the accolades for ★, many of which are calling it one of Bowie’s best in years, but as an artist, I am very glad that he was able to witness its release, his final work of art.

Bowie OutsideAll this week, I have come back again and again to Bowie, to his music, to his interviews, to his list of favourite books, to his acting roles. I haven’t been able to work up to watching Labyrinth, because I just don’t know if I could handle it yet. Like so very many of his fans and friends, his death took me by complete surprise (although there is much supposition that ★ was purposefully created as his final goodbye), and I’ve been in mourning. I’ve listened to the new album almost a dozen times. But it wasn’t until today, when I was scanning his discography and Wikipedia entries once again, that I found out something interesting about probably my favourite Bowie album, Outside (released in 1995): he and Brian Eno had planned on revisiting it. And not only that, it was originally planned as the first of five albums “to chronicle the final five years of the millennium” (which is why the title is listed as 1.Outside on the cover art, something I always wondered about).

According to Wikipedia, the proposed second album was to be called Contamination (or 2.Contamination), and this has set my imagination ablaze, especially since neither this, nor the other three albums in the series, was ever made, despite over 20 hours of improvised studio material. (Bowie’s follow-up was the 1997 drum-and-bass electronic extravaganza Earthling.)

In case you’re unaware, Outside is a concept album, like many of Bowie’s albums, but unlike The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars or others, the concept exists beyond the songs themselves and bleeds onto the liner notes in the form of a short story, “The Diary of Nathan Adler“, which reveals a murder mystery investigated by a noirish (or maybe “noird” or “weirdboiled”) detective who specialises in “Art-Crime”. Nathan interacts throughout the album with an eclectic cast of Pynchonesque characters, including ex-convict Leon Blank, underground art-crime dealer Ramona A. Stone (who is also Nathan’s former lover), supposed “broken man” Algeria Touchshriek, and teenage art-crime victim ‘Baby’ Grace Blue. A serial killer referred to only as The Minotaur is the object of Nathan’s quest, and at various points Leon, Ramona and Algeria are considered either suspects or accomplices, before it’s revealed that Nathan himself is The Minotaur (in “I’m Deranged”, my favourite song on the album).

What I love so much about this album, besides the mid-90s industrial musical style Bowie largely employs, and the collaboration with Brian Eno, is this narrative throughline (which is examined in detail at Concept Album Corner). A work of speculative crime fiction (since it takes place in the then near future of 1999), with hints at the larger story, and some truly disturbing visual and aural details (the description of ‘Baby’ Grace Blue’s evisceration and dismemberment as a work of Art still makes me shudder). And I can only imagine the story of Contamination. Nathan is caught at the end of Outside and arrested as The Minotaur, but does his story end there? Is he destroyed by the state, or does he escape his confinement? Would Leon, Ramona or Algeria have returned, or would there have been an entirely new cast of characters?

In some alternate universe out there, Bowie and Eno succeeded in making Contamination and the rest of the series. I can only mourn the loss of those innovative and disruptive albums, just as I mourn the loss of that innovative and disruptive musician today.

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