Monday, January 11, 2016
David Bowie (1947-2016)
The song that's been in my head all day is "Where Are We Now?" Except, in my head, the chorus was, "Where Are You Now?"
When I woke up to discover that David Bowie had died, I was completely and utterly aghast. Like everyone else on the planet, really. After all, I'd just spent the previous three days listening to his tremendous new album Blackstar and I'd been marveling at how powerful his voice sounded. The sound of his instrument not only seemed to belie his years, but he sounded vital, full of vigor, and even cheeky. (Listen to how he bellows, "Where the fuck did Monday go?" on the Blackstar song "Dollar Days.")
There had been a time, of course, when rumors of Bowie's ill-health (and professional retirement) circulated as speculative gossip during his decade-long hiatus from public life. Bowie, seemingly ever aware of his persona and public perceptions (and misconceptions) of it, seemed to confirm the gossip with the unheralded 2013 single "We Are We Now." His voice sounded aged and frayed at the ages as he sang a reflective lyric about his past. It was a feint. The release of The Next Day revealed that his voice hadn't lost any of its potency or range. The lead-off title track triumphantly declared, "Here I am, not quite dying." The venerable artist declined all interview requests, allowing long-time producer Tony Visconti to act as an official spokesperson of sorts, but there was no sign of anything amiss. Bowie looked typically handsome in his publicity photographs. In the video for the rocking single "The Stars are Out Tonight," he looked like impossibly cool next to Tilda Swinton, who was dressed up as a younger Bowie.
The Next Day wasn't a revelatory new direction, but the melodies were strong and it continued in the pleasing vein of its two predecessors, Heathen and Reality. (Here's my review of it.) It was the best unexpected comeback since Kate Bush emerged from her own mysterious 12-year hiatus with Aerial. It seemed as if Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, the European Lodger, and the cool rocker in the Union Jack jacket would be around for many years yet.
I came to David Bowie's music relatively late. As a young boy, I was aware of, and liked, "Let's Dance" and "China Girl" when they were released in the early 1980s. The collaboration with Pat Metheny, "This is Not America," was also an early favorite. A few years later, the single "Loving the Alien" made quite an impression on me. I still rate it as one of his finest moments and he occasionally performed the song live even on his final tour. The next time I became aware of Bowie was at age 14 when I was at a cinema and his song "When the Wind Blows" appeared on a trailer for the animated movie of the same name. I was immediately struck by it. But I was frustrated that I never heard the song again for many years because it wasn't a radio hit.
It was apparent to me even then, even during his most commercial and mainstream period, that he was different. The 1980s were mostly lazy stagnation for Bowie, but he could still release killer singles such as the aforementioned songs and "Absolute Beginners." Then again, that was the decade of his absolute nadir, the duet with Mick Jagger "Dancing in the Street."
As much as I enjoyed Bowie's singles on the radio, and followed the Tin Machine project with interest, I didn't buy a David Bowie album until my early twenties. Credit the single "Jump They Say." It had a snap, crackle, and pop rhythms, an immensely hooky chorus and, above all, a vocal that epitomizes Bowie's cool and attitude.
I didn't buy the parent album of that single, Black Tie, White Noise (a somewhat uneven album that nonetheless contains gems such as the hip-hop jazz funk of "You've Been Around," an uppity cover version of Scott Walker's "Nite Flights," a rousing cover version of Morrissey's "I Know It's Going to Happen Someday," and "The Wedding," Bowie's unabashedly romantic song for his wife Iman.) Instead, I bought the two-disc compilation, The Singles 1969-1993. (Over the years, Bowie issued countless Best Ofs and compilation albums.) It featured all the classic hits, "Space Oddity," "Changes," "Life on Mars," "Fame," "Golden Years," "Ashes to Ashes," "Under Pressure." But The Singles 1969-1993 was also an introduction to songs I'd never heard before, such as "TVC15." It was a gateway to the albums themselves.
Over the years, I've collected 28 Bowie albums in all. They include most of the studio albums, a couple of live albums, and several compilations. I have quite a fondness for Bowie's very underrated run of albums from The Buddha of Suburbia (1993) through to Reality (2003). Many of those records featured Reeves Gabrels, his close collaborator from Tin Machine through to Hours..., on guitar. I remember the first time I saw Gabrels on a television broadcast of a Bowie performance. He wore a boa feather around his neck while he played his guitar with a sex toy. He looked totally badass! His Robert Fripp-influenced guitar-playing was anarchic and virtuosic. Just a few years later, I got to interview Reeves and hang out with him once or twice. Turns out that, unlike his stage persona, he's a mellow dude. Immensely likable and happy to share many stories about his years working with Bowie. To my mind, he deserves credit for midwifing Bowie's artistic return.
The knock on those records from 1989 to 2003 is that they weren't groundbreaking. Critics even chided Bowie for making a drum 'n' bass album, Earthling, in 1997 because he was late to the trend. Which was churlish given the sheer sonic oomph of songs such as "Dead Man Walking" and "I'm Afraid of Americans." Hours..., meanwhile, included Bowie's most autobiographical lyrics ever. The next album, Heathen, was a real highwater mark and ranks among my favorite Bowie records.
The first Bowie concert I ever saw was for the Heathen tour in Boston. I had to pay $120 for a scalped ticket for the small theater. It was worth every dollar. I still recall the gale force of the immense power of Sterling Campbell's drumming. I saw Bowie the next and final time he came to Boston in 2003 for the Reality tour. I went with my friend Heidi who reckons it's still the best concert she's ever seen. Bowie, ever grinning, is one of those frontmen who is in such command an arena that your eyes would follow him around the stage even if the spotlight wasn't on him. That tour was thrilling in the way that it touched on every decade of his career in a wide-ranging and varied setlist.
The weight of expectation for Bowie to create whole new forms of music and bend genres like he did in the 1970s seems unfair. By the 1990s, just about every type of musical genre had already been birthed. But I reckon that Bowie was actually ahead of the curve with perhaps his most overlooked album, Outside from 1995. (Thanks to my close friend Simon for buying me that one for a birthday.)
That album of industrial post-rock arrived at a time when music fashion was in thrall to grunge. The lush and dense production, courtesy of Brian Eno, was at odds with the stripped-down, raw musical ethos of the day. Had the album arrived a few years later, after the release of Radiohead's OK Computer in 1997, or even now, it would be heralded as a near-masterpiece. The sheer quality of the songs on the album is staggering. I still feel a tingle of excitement when I hear the silky seduction of the title track before it explodes in the chorus. The sheer menace and danger of "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" remains undiminished two decades later. What mars the album is the rather silly conceptual story (something about an art thief serial killer—don't ask) and its occasional spoken word interludes. Nevertheless, Outside remains a striking album. As Brian Eno remarked today in his reminiscences, he and Bowie both felt that album had fallen through the cracks.
Of course, Bowie's best work is inarguably the 1970s run of albums from Hunky Dory through to Lodger. Everyone has their personal favorite, whether it be the theatrical glam rock of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars (which owes much to the great guitarist Mick Ronson), or the Philadelphia Soul-influenced Young Americans or the Art Rock of Station to Station (here's my review of it). My fave? Low. The 1977 masterpiece is an album of two halves. Side A is full of killer singles such as "Sound and Vision." Side B is music from another dimension. That side of instrumentals, at once chilly and forboding, yet shot through with moments of melodic warmth, is still some of the most transportive, otherworldly music ever created. Bowie's so-called Berlin trilogy was his zenith as an innovator.
Which brings us back to Blackstar. Bowie and Visconti were keen to once again produce an album unlike anything in Bowie's back catalogue. They succeeded in producing a send-off for Bowie that was at once an emphatic statement of artistic vision and also a farewell. I'd like to think that, in his final days, he enjoyed the rapturous reception the album received. The adventurous album encapsulates everything that I love about the artist. The brilliant adventures in sound. And that voice. David's lyrics didn't always make linear sense (they were often words that had been cut up from magazines and reassembled as provocative phrases), but his voice was so emotionally expressive. That quality, above all, resonated with me the most.
Now that we know Bowie had been battling cancer for 18 months, Blackstar seems to be full of lyrical messages about his imminent departure, not the least of which is in the final song, "I Can't Give Everything Away." The video for Bowie's last single, "Lazarus," depicted the singer and songwriter thrashing about in impossible pain on a hospital bed. We just thought he was being theatrical, just like when he was writhing while blindfolded on a stretcher in the video for "Jump They Say." But now we can see the final image—a man retreating into a wardrobe—for what it was.
The song title "Lazarus" is prophetic. David Bowie knew that even after his death, his musical legacy and fame would live on. We don't know where Bowie is now. But in many ways he's still here with us. Always.