Thursday, February 25, 2016

We Can Be Heroes: The Music & Words of David Bowie

Berlin, 1977.

David Bowie was one of the primary cultural influences on my evolution as a human being. Not just in terms of his music but the changing personas, attention to style, experimentation with current trends, and most of all because he was just so fucking cool. The blue hair is more about Bowie as Johnny Rotten, even though he was more of a red or orange dye. It's about the willingness to let that side of you which almost has to be noticeably different to shine through or you wither as a human. And then the impeccable attention to detail, master showmanship, polymath ability to create significant & meaningful works in a variety of media.

First became aware of his music at age 12 or so, enough of a fan at any rate to grab "Scary Monsters" on LP pretty much the week it was released, having already been hooked by the "Ashes to Ashes" video. Queen was my favorite band at the time and the delight in seeing the Bowie/Queen "Under Pressure" collaboration pretty much resonate with the whole world was a sort of vindication. I got to see him play live in 1983 (age 16) and 1991, stayed active with his career through the 1990s but grew estranged as the century changed and my own tastes along with it. His passing was a shocking blow, happening on the day of a significant showing of work at a prestige venue I'd coveted a spot in for a few years. The news was completely unexpected, like walking into a wall emotionally, and created a dark chasm into which I have been content to gaze quietly. 

He knew.

While discussing the loss on social media in relation to the passing of another beloved pop culture fixation of my entire life, Leonard Nimoy, a friend put it best as to why the Bowie loss actually hurt on a personal level: "We may have had our Spock, one we all knew and shared together, but we had our own David, his music spoke to us personally. We listened to him by ourselves. It can't help but be painful to know his voice is now silent."

January 11, 2016 Utica NY.

As a way to come to terms with his passing I decided to re-visit my own library of Bowie music and play "Let's Make a List" with ranking the 27 albums of his I got to know well enough to comment on. Not all are included, only those albums I have actually purchased and I will come clean and admit to having skipped a few latter era efforts. Also not including “Blackstar” as it sort of stands alone for now and is the one that everyone should go out and get immediately. Plus “The Idiot” if by some ghastly oversight you don’t already have it. And speaking of the Iggy in me apologies in advance for some salty language & blunt statements about portions of David's portfolio which I did not particularly care for. 

I also have decided that my way to respond artistically to his passing is to put together a show called "We Can Be Heroes: The Music & Words of David Bowie in Pictures" at The Tech Garden in Syracuse this coming September 2016. Artists will be invited to visualize their favorite Bowie song, album, era or persona including multimedia and performance. Pretty sure I know which songs I'll be painting, and I will be sure to post the call for artworks here.

---

1) “Heroes” (1977) The only album ever in the history of human civilization to feature David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Robert Fripp all making music together. Case closed, sorry but that’s showbiz, and fortunately the results merit the distinction. Techno punk art rock before it existed, or rather this is where the form began to take shape. First obtained at age 16 on cassette as a Christmas present from my younger brother. Still have it! and would walk many crooked miles for a release of a multi-disc “Heroes” box set of video content, alternate mixes or previously unissued demo outtakes. There have to be some.



2) Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980) My first David Bowie album ever, purchased on LP at the time of original release at age 13 & it surely served to help define the warped individual I became. Features some of the finest guitar work Robert Fripp committed to record + Bowie’s best individual song ever in “Ashes to Ashes”. Should probably be my number one simply for being my first Bowie record, but Eno was out of the picture by then and I have to go with the legs. Always go with the legs.



3) Station to Station (1976) David Bowie’s finest album from his entire career, period. There is no comparison. Can’t rank it as #1 or #2 just because of the respective places of those choices in my own personal history. Came upon “Station to Station” somewhat later during college after his influence was already secured. But the album's majesty of execution by the players involved & completeness of form cannot be understated. Thank you, Gentlemen!



4) The Man Who Sold the World (1970) Newly reconsidered as a top tier favorite for its breadth of range, daringness of execution and sonic wallop. What rock and roll is all about & a direct precursor to the sounds which Queen, my favorite band ever, would soon become known for. Had this on CD at a period when the bulk of his catalog was unavailable, played it over & over and forgot how much I had come to respect it. Will also forever have the distinction of being the first Bowie album I heard after learning of his passing. Which wasn’t even my choice, never would have been in a million fucking years, and at the time it pissed me off to be forced to endure the emotions it unleashed. Kind of glad it worked out that way.



5) Lodger (1978) A guilty pleasure choice based on current taste. Almost as much an Eno record as it is a Bowie album, with better production then you might remember upon last listening. Or at least that was my reaction when stuck driving in a blizzard with it on last week, and the disc is still in the player. Likely more satisfying as a complete album of Bowie music then sister records “Low” and “Heroes” only for not being so purposefully experimental in form. He sings more on it at any rate. Ended up with a CD of “Lodger” during the period when his catalog had gone out of print and bonded with it deeper than I’d realized. Turns out I’d missed hearing it.



6) Young Americans (1975) Never cared much for the title track but this record now stands out as Bowie’s most daring turn in direction as an artist, some of which admittedly didn’t work out as well as other parts. Which is what makes it art, all about attitude and style as much as the music. But when the music does gel it’s amongst the best of his career, including the most convincing Beatles cover ever released by anyone. That he had one of the actual Beatles on board just ups the cool ante. They damn well meant it, especially on "Fame" which now sounds as nasty & fed up as anything the Sex Pistols ever put their name to.



7) Hunky Dory (1972) Well-rounded, doggedly upbeat and positively spirited album is both the matured older brother of “The Man Who Sold the World” and the cute kid sister of “Ziggy Stardust” you’d rather have at the party. Gets the point across without all the fuss & bother, and it’s range of styles also directly prefigured the sounds which Queen would become known for. First heard at the insistence of our pretty French exchange student in high school, who continues to insist that Americans have no taste in music. I’ll grant that.



8) Diamond Dogs (1974) This has slipped down a notch or three on my personal ranking since the week following January 10th, not because it got any weaker but because the strengths of others became more apparent. It’s grandiose self indulgence compared even to “Young Americans” - and mind you, that self indulgence is part of the charm - though strangely the standard album cuts do not feature at all on my Favorite Bowie Tracks Ever list. Better as a whole then it’s parts, perhaps? Which just proves it’s art, or whatever.



9) Low (1977) Half a decent Bowie/Eno album is still better than most full records by anyone. More punk then the obvious punk music being produced at the time, all about attitude and stye. Others have said it best: the song fragments on side one eclipse some of his “complete” songwriting efforts in being what we listen to Bowie for distilled down into two minutes. Side two specializes in music for people who are inclined to shave their eyebrows off while tripping and, to be honest, I avoid it. But that first side … 



10) Aladdin Sane (1973) Bowie’s finest straight-up classic era rock and roll album still has some nifty twists & turns to keep it interesting, an AOR friendly form to make it a party favorite, and production that brings something new to the ear at every listen. Plus enough manic energy in the right places to suggest the direction which led to “Station to Station” once he got enough drugs in him. Just took a while. Boasts several Favorite Bowie Song Ever contenders starting with the title track, and I have always felt that Happy Mondays should seriously consider a cover of “Panic in Detroit”.



11) Space Oddity (David Bowie) (1969) Bizarre psychedelic folk rock crossed with the Velvet Underground, and the record which brought us Space People coming down from the Sky Machine. Has more to offer than first encounter may suggest and in spite of the hillbilly space rock form is still interesting even when not stoned.



12) The Idiot / Lust For Life (1977) Bowie produced Iggy Pop, held in mild disdain by Iggy purists for being more Bowie than Iggy. Bowie fans say it worked out just fine, and to me the two very different records represent another side of the Berlin Trilogy of “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger” including some of the same musicians. “The Idiot” in particular a timelessly growling, ugly masterwork of techno industrial Goth rock made before the form even existed. They were that cool.


13) Stage (1978) Sort of not fair to include live albums on such a list but it does feature the tour for the “Heroes” + “Low” material done with admirable respect. Even the version of “Fame” is snarling with something unique. Features Adrian Belew serving as a very capable substitute for Fripp and Utopia synth operator Roger Powell sitting in just as well for Eno. Just sift out the perfunctory Ziggy era cuts and one has a decent live album of very interesting band playing some pretty far out music.

"Fame" in 1978 and a little less fed up.

14) Sound + Vision Box Set (1989) If it’s not fair to include live albums than I’m really pushing it now, but have very fond memories of this box set and it’s highly enjoyable collection of B sides, outtakes, alternate mixes and unreleased demo cuts. Some of which now find themselves on the Favorite Bowie Songs Ever list and their source should be duly attributed. Most of the content has since been re-released on followup collections but I will never part with my set and enjoyed getting to see the related tour with Adrian Belew on guitar.



15) David Bowie (David Bowie) (1967) Bizarre psychedelic lounge pop crossed with Mel Torme, and the record which brought us “The Laughing Gnome”. Re-issued in numerous forms and to varying levels of completeness. A good way of gauging one’s addiction to Bowie’s work is to see if they have this in their collection in some form, as most non-fans will find it bewildering at best. And yes, I like it better than Ziggy Stardust.



16) The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) You know, OK. Bowie’s most important album, timeless AOR friendly psychedelic pop rock with lots of VU influence and featuring my favorite Bowie track of all time in “Moonage Daydream”. Which I play as infrequently as possible, having frankly heard the rest of it a bit too often. 



17) Earthling (1997) The last Bowie album I managed to connect with personally at the time of original release prior to “Blackstar”. Has two of my favorite Bowie cuts ever (“Looking for Satellites” and “Dead Man Walking”), and the Bowie as techno artist thing actually proves a decent fit for most of the first side. Not so sure about the rest of it these days, but then again since I quit drinking a lot of his latter era catalog starts to sound noisy quick. Interesting music video for "Dead Man Walking" below is almost the reverse of what I want for the art show: He set his music to Francis Bacon paintings, and now I want a sweater with eight foot long arms too.



18) Tin Machine (1989) Goofball hard rock overblown “garage grunge with a budget” was one of the few Bowie albums we had on CD in college & ended up playing it quite a bit, especially when drinking beer. He had the good sense to keep Reeves Gabrels around after and the Sales brothers from “Lust for Life” were a riot. A hot, noisy mess indeed, earning a place of respect just by royally pissing off our early riser next door neighbor for a semester or two … Sorry, Bro. But we had fun.



19) Black Tie White Noise (1992) Decent comeback album from the Tin Machine stage is better than it had to be & still a good enough listen twenty five years on. Has a couple of above average cuts with a great Cream cover he’d been born to release. I also liked Bowie re-defining himself as sort of a half tuxedoed nightclub rocker. Wallows a bit on the marriage theme but the guy was in love. Been there, will give him a break.



20) Let’s Dance (1983) Certainly not an album I put on when wanting a Bowie fix but it’s still listenable. Saw the tour for it and was thankfully far enough away from the stage to miss his puffy big hair. Caught up with the hair on video eventually and was almost embarrassed, oh the laughs. Most interesting thing I can think of to say about the album being the number of friends who mentioned that they also happened to have had sex with it playing back in the day. Far out.

"Fame" in 1983, and now he's Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders.

21) David Live (1974) Soggy, stuffy, arbitrary sounding live album plumbs the Ziggy material re-configured for a soul rock approach that is politely described as awkward. But there’s a killer live take on “Time” from "Aladdin Sane" that will always bring a lump to the throat, especially now. 



22) Tonight (1984) I never got "Blue Jean", and this tacky, overblown followup to his big pop breakthrough finds scant redemption with a standout vocal performance on “Loving the Alien”. That plus a couple modified Iggy Pop creations being the only reasons to really bother. Hope Iggy’s still making money off it.



23) Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture Soundtrack (1973) Flat, mostly dull, uninspired live album documenting the final performance of the Spiders from Mars in front of a paying audience. Accompanying film is perhaps a bit more interesting for its visual element. As for the music it always sounded like they were pretty much done with it anyway, a passable Velvet Underground cover being about the only cut worth listening to more than once. Oh well.



24) Pin-Ups (1973) Never liked it, but then again I am not nostalgic for noisy fast-tempo British invasion pop rock. If even your cover of “See Emily Play” doesn’t do much for the mind you have a problem, Houston. Saving grace being the bonus track cover of “Port of Amsterdam” on the Ryko CD I barely every listen to, and it's the reason why if so.



25) Tin Machine II (1992) Silly fun stops cutting it at some point and this was a dead horse being flogged. Though Bowie should be commended for having actually approached the Tin Machine project as a genuine democratic collective no matter what we would have preferred. Evidence of the ears then & now is that they were simply out of ideas, the album coming across as going through the motions to fulfill a contract. Has a workable Roxy Music cover he would continue to perform after the group folded but the project was over before the record was even released and he knew it. Bummer for the rest of the guys.



26) Hours … (1999) Awful album. Loud, noisy, and until “Blackstar” the most recent Bowie release I actually spent money on. Has exactly one good song in “All the Pretty Things are Going to Hell” ... I guess they were.



27) Outside (1995) Hated this album from the first minute into the first cut on first listening the day it was released, Brian Eno or no. Over muddled in conceptualia which goes nowhere of interest, noisy, grating and unnecessarily negative in tone. Which is why it still managed to be something of a hit: that’s why people listen to Bowie. Just not all of us all the time.



28) Never Let Me Down (1987) “Time Will Crawl” isn’t bad but sorry, no. Tried to make myself like this album to no avail then or now. Just put on "Blackstar" again, life is short, which also happens to be its message.



You are BUSTED for being human after all, Mister.



My favorite Bowie clip of the whole lot. That guy just had too much class.

3 comments:

  1. In the wake of Bowie's death I find myself wishing I had been more of a fan. I had a friend play Ziggy for me in...1973...like it was a big deal and I didn't get it. Until 1979...then I got it--all of it up to that point--married to the Berlin Trilogy (all of it).

    One of the most interesting social art experiences I had was finding "Heroes" unmanageable and incomprehensible, only to become profoundly enamored of it a couple of months later (and still so).

    I guess that was Adrian Belew raping his guitar/amp on Stationtostation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDXBeu3198c clearly from the Stage tour; and a performance that seems to me like what the whole deal was about.

    Thanks for taking the time to create your list--I hope that as more thoughts form on the entries you will add them for a more rich commentary.

    Fun stuff! (as always)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Bro! yep Belew was his guitarist for the 1978 and 1991 tours. my current theory is that Robert Fripp heard Stage and was convinced he'd found a guitarist in his own league that he could re-invent King Crimson with once their schedules meshed

      Delete
  2. I have one memory of the two of us pulling an all-nighter making me some Bowie tapes. Fun times! Although I loved Outside…

    ReplyDelete