When you climb to the top of the mountain
Look out over the sea
Think about the places perhaps, where a young man could be
Then you jump back down to the rooftops
Look out over the town
Think about all of the strange things circulating round
It ain’t easy, it ain’t easy
It ain’t easy to get to heaven when you’re going down
Well all the people have got their problems
That ain’t nothing new
With the help of the good Lord
We can all pull on through
We can all pull on through
Get there in the end
Sometimes it’ll take you right up and sometimes down again
When the news came of David Bowie’s death by cancer the MND said “I guess you have something new for the blog.” But as I have been telling anyone who is willing to listen, I really did not want to write this. I mentioned in my tribute to Lemmy that the passing of cultural icons isn’t something I like to spend a lot of time dwelling on. After all they leave a body of work that everyone gets to celebrate and there just aren’t that many of us who can lay claim to such accomplishments. My reasons for not wanting to write this run a lot deeper than that. There are hundreds of articles out there on David Bowie, this just seemed to be superfluous. How could I possibly explain the complex impact he had on my life without sounding facile or glib? Most of all I’m just sick at heart from losing people like him, Lemmy and Alan Rickman all in such a short period of time. Fuck Cancer, just can’t be said with enough anger or pain. No matter how hard I fought the idea, there was an itch that had to be scratched.
Usually the topics of my posts are just a way of weaving together the comments I have on different pieces of wax in my collection. This time I thought I was safe since most of my Bowie was digital. Then the MND, bless his soul, went on a hardcore effort to correct the problem so I wouldn’t have any excuse not to write. He did some amazing work in a very short period of time and I guess I should be grateful but… Okay, I’m grateful. Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the other way that Bowie affected me before I get into his music, and that was his acting roles.
I don’t know what I expected when I went with my high school friends in 1976 to see “The Man Who Fell To Earth” but it wasn’t the soul effecting movie that was on the screen. I’d been reading science fiction for years and always expected aliens to be powerful or dangerous, not horribly depressed, lost, and bored. It was a revelation to a teenage boy in terms of what science fiction could and should be. His turn as a vampire without fangs with Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger made perfect sense to me. I think I’m one of the few people who saw John Landis’ Into The Night but the scene where Bowie and the master of rockabilly Carl Perkins kill each other is worth it just for that. If you haven’t seen Absolute Beginners, the musical he did with Ray Davies about kids in London during the late 50’s you are missing something amazing. I didn’t have the same reaction to Bowie’s depiction of the Goblin King in “Labyrinth” as many of my female friends but I still loved the movie. There are a number of others I have missed but the point is the man stepped into the genres I loved and made himself at home.
Hunky Dory came out in 1971 and is one of the first albums the MND sent my way. Bowie had done three albums before this one, his self-titled one in 1967, Space Oddity in 1969 and 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World. Hunky Dory was the first one to go platinum and for good reason. The copy the MND got was in good shape but you can tell it was well-loved. He did a professional job of cleaning it up though. The album opens with Changes which has gotten to be a Bowie standard for good reason. His tribute to Andy Warhol is just like the man himself, an amazing mix of art, weirdness, and salesmanship. Nobody can do Dylan as well as Bowie, so Song For Bob Dylan comes out as a straight up challenge. In fact he said in interview that the song laid out what he felt about rock at the time and that if Dylan wasn’t going take the lead (something Dylan had been saying at the time he wanted no part of) then he would. Speaking of Bowie as chameleon, listening to Queen Bitch I could have sworn he was Lou Reed.
The album that rises above them all is Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Listening to this piece of wax now it’s hard to believe it came out in 1972, the music could have come out last year just as easily. The album that the MND used was mine from many years ago when I had to sell off my collection and it still sounds amazing. Since it was recorded in analog, listening to in digital just loses so much of the subtlety of the music. I used the fifth track off the album as the title for this tribute because it was a song I listened to a lot when I needed to deal with piles of crap. If you don’t have this album, get it. Between Rock and Roll Suicide, Starman, and Ziggy Stardust, the damn thing is a work of genius.
Then there’s Aladdin Sane from 1973. I’m sure you’ve seen the classic picture from the cover with Bowie with the lightning bolt down his face. This is album with The Jean Genie which without a doubt has the most slamming beat going which is why it’s been used in movies like American Hustle. There are a number of other songs on the album with equally hardcore sounds like Cracked Actor and Panic In Detroit. There was a certain amount of negative critical response to the edge that came from this album but I think they missed the point he was going for completely. It seem like he was looking for a way to combine hard and heavy with the more complicated ideas and styles.
The next one in my vinyl collection is Young Americans which came out in 1975 so I’m missing Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs but moving right along. It’s a little more funky, ethereal, and experimental than the previous albums but you can’t argue with the musicianship. This is the album with Fame after all. So that I won’t just be repeating myself let’s just assume you understand that since it was recorded in ’75, it was in analog and etc. etc. I think it’s interesting that he chooses to cover The Beatles’ Across the Universe and almost does a better job. Fascination is another of the classic Bowie songs that comes from this album. Bowie was making songs that didn’t fit into the radio play format, everything on this album is over four minutes long and most run into six. It didn’t hurt him though. I remember sitting in a friends basement listening to Queen and Bowie, realizing that the world was a much different place than what we were seeing in Anchorage, Alaska.
So skipping Station to Station and Low we get to the next one in my vinyl collection which is Heroes. This was a continuation of the work Bowie had been doing with Brian Eno from the Low album as the second in the Berlin trilogy which was followed a couple of years later by Lodger. As you might have guessed they were all recorded in Berlin with similar tones and styles. You can feel the New Wave vibrating off the wax. Actually they marketed Heroes with the line, “There’s Old Wave, New Wave, and then there is David Bowie.” Which isn’t that far from the truth. Taking the guitar work of Robert Fripp and inspiration from bands like Kraftwerk, Heroes will take you to places are rather dark but not nearly as melancholy as Low. Beauty and the Beast may be New Wave but it has a rocking soul and kicks out the jams. A lot of the album is instrumental, experimental work so to be honest it misses the mark for me but YMWV. For me anything where Bowie isn’t singing just isn’t what I want to listen to on a Bowie album.
Sadly having to skip a really great album Scary Monsters (and Super Freaks), brings us to the 1983 release Lets Dance. If there was ever an album that captured the soul of the eighties better I don’t know what it is. Starting out with Modern Love a song that is both wistful for things lost and ready to plow ahead into the future, it keeps that tone throughout. The title song starts out like it wants to be a 50’s sock hop song, ducks and dodges into jazz and pop only to have Stevie Ray Vaughan wrap it up on guitar. China Girl is bourbon smooth compared to Iggy Pops raw moonshine version from The Idiot in 1977 but Without You is highly underrated and did an effective job of making me stop writing for twenty minutes cause of the feels. Just to make sure I was going to raid the booze cabinet, the MND added a track to Lets Dance that he felt was needed. Yep, he dropped Under Pressure on there. If you haven’t heard the duet between Bowie and Freddie Mercury doing Under Pressure, totally acapella, you just must, it’s beautiful.
I’m missing his 90’s stuff which is sad. He managed to be one step ahead of musical trends and embraced others while other artists his age were turning out albums of musical standards (I’m looking at you Rod Stewart). He toured with Trent Reznor and encouraged people to remix his songs. His album Earthling is a great example of his passion for the mix with songs like I’m Afraid of Americans getting remixes from Trent, one with Ice Cube and a House mix. Dead Man Walking was remixed by Moby, Vigor Mortis, and another House mix. These days it’s not uncommon but in 1997 to have the artist support and encourage this kind of thing wasn’t business as usual.
I do have his last album Blackstar. As of this writing, a week after Bowie’s moving on to the stars, a lot of assholes have snapped up all the available copies of the vinyl and put them EBay for stupid amounts of money. The company is rushing to put out another pressing which I hope won’t effect the sound quality as so often happens when a second pressing is done in a hurry but I really hope it will screw the people who have done this. Another reason to shop at your local record store; the MND had mentioned that he wanted a copy of Blackstar before Bowie died, so the owner was holding it for him. He could have sold it a dozen times over and for a goodly chunk of change but customer service was most important and when it was ready for the MND when he walked in the door. That is why I will keep going back to Obsessions.
Blackstar was recorded digitally so having it on vinyl isn’t the end all be all but there is a good reason to get it on wax. After he did the needle drop, the MND described how the vinyl gave the music a smoky flavor with almost a touch of Morphine. There’s some reason to bring in the comparison to the bass and sax driven alt band because Blackstar is very much an avant-garde art rock, kind of album. Lazarus is probably the most straightforward song in the bunch and it’s fucking heartrending. The title song is 10 minutes of experimental head work. I gather Bowie had planned to do a second part to the album, thinking he had a little more time left. As a closing piece it is a perfect parting gift to his fans, giving us something to think about and to work at.
Two quick side trips here before I wrap up. The first is about one of the hundred different posts that came up on my feed. It was all of David Bowie’s favorite books. I consider myself pretty well read but the man was damned impressive, literature, comics, history, art, smut, he had it all covered. I started working on a new list of books I needed to read.
Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock by Nik Cohn
Mystery Train by Greil Marcus
Beano (comic, ’50s)
Raw (comic, ’80s)
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm And Blues And The Southern Dream Of Freedom by Peter Guralnick
Writers At Work: The Paris Review Interviews edited by Malcolm Cowley
The Sound Of The City: The Rise Of Rock And Roll by Charlie Gillete
The other moment was sitting around the lunch table a while after his death with some of my colleagues feeling like shit when one person held up their phone to show us all the short bit from The Extras where Bowie tears up Ricky Gervais in song.
We were all laughing so hard by the time Bowie was getting everyone to sing “See his pug nose face.” The very person who we were mourning was making us laugh our asses off.
Thank you David Bowie. Thank you for being weird and wonderful. For giving us music that no one had ever heard before. Thank you for pushing boundaries and making dreams. Thank you for giving me even more damned books that I need to buy. Thank you for making me laugh when I all I wanted to do was feel sorry. Thank you, David Bowie for being funny and smart and wonderful and sexy and a rock god. Thank you.