David Bowie, "Black Country Rock"

>> Friday, January 15, 2016

One of the things that's happening with listening to a lot of Bowie and reading a lot of retrospective articles is that you constantly run into stuff that you... didn't forget about, but that maybe you overlooked.  And in terms of your own engagement, you're thinking, "Am I the ten-thoudandth person this week to share '"Heroes"'?"  (Yeah, I was.)  "Is everybody posting a link to 'Under Pressure'?"  (I'm not; because it's a fantastic song, but everybody's posting a link to "Under Pressure" this week and you've heard that fabulous song a million billion times already even before; and if I'm one of the people who could never hear it enough times, that doesn't mean I couldn't hear it enough times, if you know what I mean.)

But then you're reading an AV Club piece on The Man Who Sold The World (1970), and Annie Zaleski writes a bit about how "Black Country Rock" came to be, and you're like, "Oh shit, how'd I miss that one?  Why isn't that one going into one of your hundreds of Bowie-memorial posts this week?"  (You should totally read the Zaleski piece at that link, by the way.  She's got some really interesting stuff from drummer Woody Woodmansey and bassist--and long time Bowie producer and collaborator--Tony Visconti.)

I mean, one of the things that's amazing about Bowie is... was, as Visconti told Zaleski, how he came into everything he did saying, "What can we do that’s different?"  And we think about Bowie the crooner, Bowie the alien, Bowie the disco king, Bowie the folk singer, etc., etc., etc.; well here's Bowie basically doing Zeppelin, and nailing it, you know.  "Black Country Rock" is the kind of thing you might expect to hear on Led Zeppelin III (came out on October 5th 1970, and Man Who Sold The World was released in the U.S. on November 4th, for whatever that tells you about airborne rock infections or folk-blues ESP).  Not the kind of grungy rock that Bowie and this backing band (the musicians on Man Who Sold would become The Spiders From Mars) would pour out during the Ziggy era, not the folksy stuff Bowie had been mostly doing up to that point.  Pure old classic blues-rock, most like Zep, although it's not hard to imagine Faces cutting this track, either.

Except, you know--it's totes Bowie.  Tony Visconti told AV Club the track originated in a ten-minute jam session (this may explain some of its traditional inflections), but Bowie just kind of dominates it.  I really, really don't mean that to be any kind of reflection on Mick Ronson, Visconti, or Woodmansey, who are just aces on this track.  They're pretty fabulous (okay, maybe not quite McLagen, Wood, Lane and Jones fabulous, but nobody ought to take offense at coming out second to what was arguably the best rhythm section in rock history plus one of the greatest keyboardists ever joined by a pretty legendary guitarist).  But then Bowie comes in--

There's a point where you worry you're just babbling.  Read the Zaleski profile.  Listen to the track again and maybe put Man Who Sold The World on and listen to the whole fantastic thing.  Damn.


David Bowie, "'Heroes'"

We should be clear: the name of the song is "'Heroes'", not "Heroes".  Scare quotes.  Quotey fingers "heroes".  "Heroes" who are mean, who are drunk all the time, who are nothing and mean nothing.

It's a mean song.

Those quotes are a slight, vital thing.  One time, Bob Dylan's kid did a cover of "'Heroes'" for the soundtrack of that terrible Godzilla movie that Roland Emmerich made, and it's very sincere.  Which is about what you'd expect, actually, from The Wallflowers, but it's obviously a problem.  Sincerity is a stake through this song's heart.

A slightly less-mediocre cover would probably double down on the sarcasm, sneer it up a bit.  Which would be better, but not by much.  There's grief here.  For all the cynicism and hopelessness in lines like, "nothing will keep us together," and, "nothing will drive them away," the song is neither hopeless nor cynical.  It may seem silly to observe that someone's nailed the vocal on a song they wrote, but have faith that it's harder than it sounds.  Bowie, anyway, nails it: it's a vocal that manages to be world-weary yet yearning, cruel yet sad, gutted and un-.  It's a voice that still hopes one good day is sufficient, even as the singer knows it never could be.  

Technical things you may already know.  That the wailing sound is being made by King Crimson's Robert Fripp, controlling the feedback of his guitar with a mix of custom electronics and moving around the studio.  That the weird electronic sounds are being caused by co-writer Brian Eno.  That the wonderful vocal effect (this is my favorite part of all this) was created by producer Tony Visconti using multiple gated microphones set up at different distances in the studio (Wikipedia says nine inches, twenty feet, and fifty feet, which seems large, but what do I know?).

How that works, if you don't know: each microphone was set up with a noise gate, a filter that would only close the circuit once the signal rose to a certain level.  That is, if the sound was below a certain threshold, the gate wouldn't allow the signal to go through to the mixing board.  And so when Bowie is singing quietly, only the closest microphone is picking up his voice and passing it through; if the other microphones can "hear" him, the signal is too low for the gate to pass his voice through.  And then when Bowie sings a little louder, it trips the next closest microphone, and now his voice is coming through two mikes, but the second mike is getting a very slight delay and picking up a lot more of the room noise.  And then Bowie lets loose, and the third gate opens, and this is where you're hearing that epic room ambiance, all that space that you're not really supposed to hear and the sound of Bowie's voice bouncing off whatever else was in the room, the walls and the gear, and there's that subtle chorusing that comes in with it.

It's clever.  It's awesome.  I don't know who else has pulled the trick, I'm sure someone has and it sounded wonderful but maybe not quite so wonderful.  This is a special song.

Now and again, I wonder if it dates itself, if you have to be old to grok everything happening there.  Bowie sings,

I, I can remember (I remember)
Standing, by the wall (by the wall)
And the guns, shot above our heads (over our heads)
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall (nothing could fall)
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day

These are guards, at the Berlin Wall, which isn't a thing anymore.  "Heroes", the album (still with the ironic quotation marks) was recorded in 1977, in West Berlin, when Bowie and Iggy Pop were trying to not die.  West Berlin was a place at the time, now it's just Berlin, and whatever moral clarity a wall cast (none, if you believe John le Carré, and I do and yet I wonder, even having lived through the end of it) is gone.  It was supposedly harder to get drugs in West Berlin, which seems plausible since the city was under geographic siege, a little bubble connected to the free world by one thin rail line and by air.  "We kissed, as though nothing could fall," but eventually the damn thing did and now everything is better for everyone and we don't have any problems with the Russians anymore, nor anyone else.

(There are days, really only moments, that I think back to it and feel a wicked twinge of nostalgia for an era with a Star Wars-esque polarity, the world in which the forces of Evil were battled by the forces of Mostly-Not-Nearly-As-Evil, when things were starkly black-and-ecru.)

"Heroes" is, obviously, Bowie's best record, aside from all his other best records.  Bowie's most famous as a vocalist, which is a little funny since he was sort of a failed sax player (that line, I swear, I'm sure is his, but I'll be damned if I can find the quote or interview at the moment; if you see it, let me know); "Heroes" is about half instrumentals, jazzy, spacey things he and Eno concocted.  Most of side two, or the latter half of the CD if you're modern, doesn't even have lyrics or much lyrics.  And we love, love, love Bowie's voice, of course, but "Heroes" is a great showcase of Bowie the composer, Bowie the experimentalist.  Indeed, it's one of the records (I'd like to say "few," but that would require counting and probably discovering I'm totally wrong) where he doesn't offer any cover versions; but it's still a treat.

Amid all the instrumental fabulosity, however, there's this perfect vocal, perfectly recorded.  A heroic performance, if you will.


David Bowie, "Station To Station"

>> Thursday, January 14, 2016

To make up for "Dancing In The Street," here's three David Bowie songs in one delightfully brilliant package.  I think it's three.  I count three.  Arguably two.  Possibly four.  Oh, this one's all over the place, with that noisy jazz-rock intro, with the crooning "Thin White Duke" passages, and then, boom, I'm thinking that it must be love.

Or the side effects of the cocaine.  This was the record (Station To Station (1976)) that Bowie claimed not to remember recording.  And the whole thing is fabulously nuts, from "Station To Station" bouncing through all the genres to the song about the TV eating his girlfriend ("TVC-15", supposedly based on a coke-fueled hallucination Iggy Pop had), to that amazing cover of "Wild Is The Wind" where Bowie channels Nina Simone in a way that manages to uncannily complement Miss S. by surpassing-without-exceeding her (it's a Zen thing, maybe).  Station is, I think, is Bowie's best album, not counting his other best albums, I mean.

This one's a cranker.  That's the problem with me posting it here.  You oughta be in your car right now, except reading a blog while you're driving is probably a double-plus-ungood idea.  So maybe take the CD out to your car, slip it in, and crank it.  And if you don't have the CD, well, go out and buy it.  Same for the car.  If you have the CD but not the car, you go get yourself a car, and slip the CD in and twist the knob all the way clockwise 'til it breaks off in your hand, or smoosh the "+" button until the LCD screams at you.

Vinyl, naturally, is always an acceptable substitute.


David Bowie, "Red Money"

SiriusXM now has a Bowie channel subbing in for The Loft (channel 30) until Sunday.  All Bowie, all the time, which probably oughta be a thing anyway, the way Springsteen has a station and the Dead have a station and Elvis has a station.  Hell, if Pearl Jam has a station (and they do).  But it's probably a licensing thing, right?  Money has to change hands and things have to be signed, I think.

(Not that it ought to permanently replace The Loft.  I loves me The Loft.)

Anyway, they played this when I was driving home the other evening, "Red Money" from Lodger (1979), and I wondered why the hell I didn't already have it scheduled for the week's Bowie playlist at Giant Midgets.  It's not a track I have tons to say about, though it's off of Bowie's best album (aside from all the other ones), the last of the "Berlin Trilogy" and Eno-ey goodness.  Plus (and this is the main reason I was thinking, "Man, add this to the list" on the drive home) those Carlos Alomar guitars on "Red Money" are something else.

I was also thinking--and this is in keeping with how Bowie was always a few moments in the future--how much this track sounded like something Talking Heads might have done a year later (on, if you want to be specific, Remain In Light (1980)).  Which may just be the Eno influence--he produced Light and the Heads' '79 record Fear of Music.  But still.  What a weird, wonderful cut.

You may or may not have figured out I picked out a whole bunch of tracks and scheduled 'em through the week, and occasionally came in and added another one here or there.  I don't know how many more I'll do; I mean, I can tell you how many more are currently scheduled through Friday, I just can't tell you if the number will grow.  There's a little voice in me that says I'm neglecting Bowie's '80s output, and I think probably his '90s output, too.  I mention this and give you the peek behind the curtain only because if I don't toss up something from Let's Dance (1983), Earthling (1997), or even Tin Machine (1989) it's not because I think any less of those records or anything like that.  It's just that there's a lot of Bowie, you know.  And if I don't pop up a track you loved, well, you should go listen to it again.  That's all.


David Bowie and Mick Jagger, "Dancing In The Street"

This is terrible.  This is utterly, utterly terrible.

I think--I don't know this for a fact, but I think they were both clean at the time.  So this isn't one of those where you can use the drugs as an excuse.  Could have been drunk.  I don't know if Bowie's cleaning up included total sobriety or if he sometimes went all the way into the bottle.

But, here's the thing: as terrible, as unforgivably terrible as it is, look at it.  No, seriously.  If you just scrolled down because you couldn't believe this showed up in a feed, watch the damn silly thing again.

Here are these two guys who are so... I dunno, what's the word?  Phenomenal?  Epic?  Unstoppable?  Huge?  Whatever, these two guys are basically in a position to say, "Fuck it, let's make a record and video and the studio has to release it and MTV will have to put it in circulation because the universe is our bitch," and basically, you know, you might have a problem with that as a matter of hubris or ego or something, but basically they're right.  The damn thing, a studio lark or whatever it was, a total, "Hey, what the hell, you wanna cover 'Dancing In The Street'?  Yeah?  See you after lunch.  Toodles," was on the MTV and the radio and everybody had to listen to it because it was goddamn David Bowie and Mick Jagger so there.

And maybe you remember that when I put "Five Years" up here this week, I said something about David Bowie, when he was silly, was sly and there was something that communicated he was in on the joke, that was how in control he was.  Well, look at him here.  He's obviously having a good time.  I have no idea whether Mick knows how awful the whole thing is, because nobody has ever been able to tell if Mick Jagger has a scintilla of self-awareness anywhere in his body.1  But Bowie, on the other hand?  Bowie is just having a swell old time, seems to know how stupid and godawful the whole thing is and gives absolutely zero fucks, thanks.

It probably rates as one of the worst moments of his career, but gods bless David Bowie.2

1No, that's not true: Jagger looks painfully self-aware in the Stones' performance in the T.A.M.I. Show, one of the Stones' earliest U.S. performances but, worse yet, they had to go on after James Brown, who had pointedly floored it off a motherfucking cliff as a tax on the Stones for having the temerity to be slotted, against their will, as the show's closer ahead of The Hardest Working Man In Show Business.  Supposedly, Brown said, when he found out that he wasn't the closer, that he'd make the Rolling Stones regret coming to America.  To their credit, the Stones (when they found out they were being forced to go on after James Brown) begged not to close, please, put us anywhere on the bill, just not after James Fucking Brown, but that didn't work and Brown blew them off the stage and for the first couple of minutes of the Stones' performance, Mick Jagger looks like he's forgotten how to piss his own pants.  To Brown's credit, he later told them they were alright, gave the Stones front row tickets to his next show, and they apparently became pretty good friends over the subsequent years.  But it's the only time I've ever seen Mick Jagger looking self-conscious.

2Okay, yeah.  Right.  There's an elephant in the room.  Which is that Angela Bowie, David's ex-wife, claimed that she walked in on Mick and David in bed together.  Asleep.  But naked.  So implying they had the sex.  Which may or may not be true, but don't you think it ought to be?  Isn't it a shame they couldn't actually produce offspring?  Their kid would be like Jesus, except a much better dancer.  But if that story gives the "Dancing In The Street" video some kind of, you know, subtext, because maybe there's something more to the way Mick and David are looking at each other and making eye contact... well.  What can you say?


David Bowie, "Kooks"

>> Wednesday, January 13, 2016

So the obvious choices if you're just going to talk about one song from Hunky Dory (1971) are "Changes", "Oh! You Pretty Things", or (probably my favorite) "Life On Mars".

And it's such a sweet, sweet song.  It's possibly easy to gravitate towards Bowie when he was feral ("Diamond Dogs") or cruel ("'Heroes'") or seductive ("China Girl") or cutting ("Teenage Wildlife").  But he could be... well, kooky, and not just in an awful, please-never-do-this-again way ("The Laughing Gnome").

He could do winsome.  In "Everyone Says 'Hi'".  In "Kooks".

He wasn't the first artist to write a song about becoming a parent, certainly wasn't the last.  In typical fashion, he was among the best, though.  This is a song to paint the new baby's room to.  I think.  I'm not a parent and won't be, but if I bought a used crib, like the one on which the paint wouldn't dry... well, to be fair, I'd probably regret the purchase.  But I'd also be listening to this one a lot.  It would be on the playlist.

You hope Bowie's family are okay through this.  That's always tough, because you don't know what to say to people, you know that there's nothing you could say but that saying nothing seems horrifically inadequate.  I hope Duncan Jones is alright, and not just because I love Moon (2009) so damn much.  I hope he's okay because it has to suck to lose a parent.  Wherever Mr. Jones is, though, I hope he gets around to pulling out Hunky Dory (he has to have a copy, right, or know someone), puts on "Kooks" and has a moment of happy out of it.  I think there's a lot of love in it.


David Bowie, "African Night Flight"

Bowie could be gloriously weird.  I don't mean "weird" in the sense that there's anything weird about taking on the persona of an extraterrestrial, or in having a weird and mercifully brief flirtation with fascist iconography.  I mean "weird" in the sense of uncanny or supernatural.  E.g. when he'd do something like tap--almost like he was telepathic or precognitive--into some musical vibration that everybody would be doing in eighteen months.1 

"Everybody" in this case being Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno (who may have had an in, since he was working with Bowie during the Lodger (1979) era, which is where we find "African Night Flight").  The following year, Bowie would release Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980, duh), and that would also prove to be about a year-and-a-half ahead of its time.

I don't know if there's cause and effect.  I mean, probably there is, right?  Probably, what happened was Bowie would release a record like Lodger with a track like "African Night Flight" and Peter Gabriel listens to it and is like, "Whoa."  And over on the other side of the Atlantic, David Byrne picks up a copy of Lodger, puts it on the turntable and is like, "Whoa."  And meanwhile Bowie is already moving on.  Except this sort of leaves you wondering where Bowie is getting these vibes from.

I think--I don't really know what Bowie's listening habits were--but I think, from interviews where he was asked about influences and from looking at the range of songs he covered from other artists, that Bowie must have been a voracious listener, and just a totally unprejudiced listener.  I'm not, as much as I'd like to be: e.g. I just can't quite get Classical Music, and while I occasionally will stumble onto a few composers I like, Classical just usually can't hold my interest for very long and a few notes in I'm done.  And I'd like to say I'll listen to anything, but I'm a liar.  Truth is, there's really a pretty small slice of musical pie I dig into and vast amounts of not-that-slice pie that I just don't get.  But I suspect--maybe it's projection or wishful thinking or hero worship or something--that Bowie really did suck it all in like a great open ravine hungry for the flood.

What a fantastic song.

1I wish I could pick a different number, since that's how long his family said he was struggling with cancer, but it's the number that's about right.


David Bowie, "Pablo Picasso"

>> Tuesday, January 12, 2016

He wasn't just good as a singer-songwriter.  He was so good as an interpreter of songs, as a channel for other artists' work, and a wildly eclectic connoisseur of music on top of that.  Pin Ups (1973) was an entire album of covers, but a good number of Bowie albums included one or more covers.  Bruce Springsteen, Nina Simone, The Kinks, The Who, George Harrison, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Velvet Underground, The Stones, Iggy Pop, Morrissey, and so on, et cetera.  A musical omnivore.

This is David Bowie doing Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, on Reality (2003).  The weird thing to me--is this me getting old?--is that this seems like a "recent" record to me even though it's thirteen years old this year, getting braces and already dropping hints about what kind of car it wants in a couple of years when it gets its permit.

The Modern Lovers' version has a sly, slow funk groove and is slathered in Velvety Undergroundity weirdness (aptly--John Cale produced and played on it).  Bowie pumps 50cc of adrenaline right into the song's heart and adds that crazy sax solo and mad guitar (the sax is his, I don't know if the guitar is, too, or (more likely) Gerry Leonard).  Owning it, though I'm not picking favorites; for me, personally, it's a tie (let me just say I adore Jonathan Richman and have seen him live at least three times, if not more).  Though I am picking favorites insofar as it may be my favorite of all of Bowie's assorted covers, as amazing as his "Wild Is The Wind" is.


David Bowie, "Candidate" (alternate version)

Oh, bless you Rykodisc.  How did we go on without you?

Seriously, though.  There was vinyl, and one of the things about vinyl (and we love the warmth, yes, and the kinesthetic qualities of putting the platter on the spindle, swinging the tone arm into place) was that you got around twenty-three minutes a side, a little more or a little less depending on how closely the grooves were cut, and that depended not just the technical limitations of the cutter (hey, in the 1960s, that was about 18 minutes a side, and you're gonna like it) and also the dynamics of the recording.  As in, literally, a record in which the grooves contained a lot of violent uppity-and-downity-ness meant that the needle could hop out of the groove and you might not notice if the groove was wide enough (we're talking a magnifying-glass diamond-tipped scale, here, natch), but if the grooves were reallyclosetogether because you were trying to fit more music onto the plate, weeeellll, not good.

But then CD came along, and you could get around 72 minutes onto the readable part of the disc, and that was mostly terrible, actually.  Because if the problem with vinyl was that artists like David Bowie had to leave this version of "Candidate" on the cutting room floor (see, all this crap is relevant to the subject after all), the problem with CDs was that nobody bothered taking anything off if the record was too long, and that's how you ended up with a lot of shitty-way-too-long albums in the late '80s and early '90s.  Why, they didn't even worry too much about song order, which was a big deal when you had to figure out not just the optimal way to organize your songs into twenty-ish-minute blocks, but you knew someone was going to have to flip the thing over halfway through, so there was an art to making the middles of albums really good so that Side One ended on just the right note and Side Two lifted off with another right note, and the sides could have actual moods and themes.

But here's where I contradict myself and bless one of the worst things CD did to the album: bonus tracks.  Bonus tracks were a terrible innovation.  What happened, if you're younger than a certain age, is the labels figured if they wanted to sell you the same record you already owned, or if they wanted you to pay $16.00 for a $12.00 (or even $8.00) record (CDs used to be expensive), they needed to sweeten it up with an extra track or two or three to incentivize you.  (Am I using that word right?  Is anyone?)  So not only did you lose that art of balancing the sides (like Yoda would), but there'd be a disturbance in the force because now, say for instance, Violent Femmes eponymous debut (1983) didn't end on the perfectly sweet perfect note of "Good Feeling", it ended on "Gimme The Car", which is a great date-rapey song, but also one that clearly goes between "Prove My Love" and "Promise" if it goes anywhere.

But then there's Rykodisc.  Rykodisc was all about the swank reissues.  Re-mastered.  And here the bonus tracks... I know, I just cursed them, right?  But Ryko's bonus tracks were sweet.  They had bonus tracks like the hopping, bouncing, totally-belonged-on-Diamond Dogs-but-damn-you-vinyl "Candidate" (not to be confused with the cromulent but completely different "Candidate" that actually appeared on side one of the original vinyl).  And when Ryko did their 1990 reissue of Diamond Dogs on Compact Disc--well, we got this prize, almost twenty years after it was buried in the vault.  And for that?  Hooray, Rykodisc!  Hooray bonus tracks!  I take back any mean thing I might have written about you in a previous paragraph!*

I don't know why this wasn't on the original album.  Except, maybe, that it's nearly three minutes longer than the released version and side one of Diamond Dogs (1974) comes in at more than twenty minutes already.  And it's a pretty vibrant record and that vinyl-cutting tech was still coming along in the early '70s, a little more precise than what you had in, say, 1965, but maybe not so nice as what you could get away with by 1983, say.  Point being, I guess he had to lose three minutes.  And everyone would have thought it weird, even for Bowie, if the song just cut out two minutes in.  ("Sorry, out of room on s.1," the liner notes could say.)

Also, as jaunty and groovy as the alternative "Candidate" is, as much as I love those sludgey guitars, as great as the lyrics are ("I make it a thing, when I gazelle on stage to believe in myself / I make it a thing, to glance in window panes and look pleased with myself"), I don't know if it's a Diamond Dogs song.  Diamond Dogs was--you may know this--the result of Bowie's unlicensed attempt to write a musical based on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (the Orwell estate was not amused by the idea of a twenty-something pansexual alien pop star staging a rock musical based on... oh, hell, they probably weren't amused to discover someone like Bowie had read the damn thing).  Dogs is apocalyptic and brutish, and the cheerfully snarky "Candidate" (this one, not the one on the original album) isn't really a fit for the rest of the material, even with guitar fuzz that makes it an obvious cousin of the title track.

Indeed, lyrically it's almost a better fit for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), which kind of puts it in a weird place overall (and maybe further justifies its status as an outtake): Ziggy-ish lyrical themes with a Diamond Dog-ish musical groove makes it a song that wouldn't belong on either album, when you get down to it.

But I love it.  Did I convey that?  And did I thank Rykodisc?  Thank you, Rykodisc!

*For now.


David Bowie, "Everyone Says 'Hi'"

My favorite line in this song, one of my favorite Bowie lines ever, comes at the end of this song.  Bowie is going through the list of people who might miss you as much as he does, now that you've gone away--

And the girl next door
And the guy upstairs
Everyone says, "Hi"

And your mum and dad
Everyone says, "Hi"

And then (this is the best part, my favorite)--

And your big fat dog
Everyone says, "Hi"

Oh, I love that.  I know, seems like a small thing after all that buildup, and this is a guy who wrote some really beautiful, poetic lyrics, and maybe my favorite line is "And your big fat dog."

But this is also sort of like "Five Years," isn't it, in that when Bowie sings that line, you pictured the dog, didn't you?  The assured way he sings it, the smile in his voice, and it's like he knows your dog that you left (probably with your mum and dad, and that's not fair; I'm sure they love the dog, but he was your responsibility) even though all he's really saying about it is that it's big, and fat, and a dog.

Oh, this is such a cheery, such a winsome song.  What is he doing here?  He's singing about something sad--missing someone, losing someone--and it's such a happy and hopeful song as much as it's a sad song (and make no mistake, it's also a sad song).  We miss you, we love you, please come home.  We're happy you're having your big adventure, but if the food is lousy, come back and your favorite restaurant is still up the road where it used to be.

(I find myself, by the way, thinking about an old high school friend who is overseas teaching college in Kurdistan right now.  If the money is lousy, you can always come home, if the food gets you leery, you can always come home.  Hope the weather's good and it's not too hot.)

A lot of bittersweet songs are mostly bitter, y'know?  But this one--this is one that's mostly sweet.  It yearns, but it still keeps the love and hope up front.  This song isn't "goodbye," it's "au revoir," we'll see each other again.

(Though, if it speeds up your return, there's that quiet little guilt trip in it, too, and isn't that well-played?  They may not care for you where you are now, but we love you.)

Another thing I love about this one: another thing I'm a sucker for is random doo-wops stuck into a song, and around the 2:30 mark in this one, would you dig those background vocals?  This is late-period Bowie, or what goes for late period (Heathen (2002)), and therefore supposedly (and maybe truthfully?) inferior to Scary Monsters and Super Creeps (1980) or the Berlin Trilogy.  But this is a fun song, with those "Wop-wop-wahoos" at the crescendo.

Also, listening to it again: kind of a similar dynamic structure to "Five Years" (weird to be comparing these two songs), starting relatively quiet (albeit not whispersoft) and rising to the joyous-but-somber climax.  But here... well, maybe I already said it with "joyous-but-somber".  Where "Five Years" is climbing to the top of the tree because the valley is on fire, this one's climbing up to...

...well, to say "Hi."


David Bowie, "Five Years"

>> Monday, January 11, 2016

Maybe this is as close to a favorite Bowie track as I have.  I dunno.  I could be wrong.  I could be thinking of "Station to Station".  Or "Life on Mars", could be "Life on Mars".  But there's something about this one I always come back to.

I think it's the delivery.  There's this weird thing in "Five Years", where you have all these characters who are just labels--"The News Guy", "A Girl My Age"--and yet the way Bowie sums them up, there's something somehow specific about each of them, as if he's just mentioning them by a descriptor, "Oh, you know, the soldier with a broken arm," but he knows exactly who he's referring to and so you do, too, you can just picture them in your head even though there's not actually a lot there; he hasn't told you anything more than that there's a soldier, one with a broken arm.

Also, I'm a sucker for dynamics, and this song's slow, sloping rise from hushed drums to Bowie's frenzied, apocalyptic wailing bores right down into some primal part of my brain that goes, "Music, goo-ooood," in slurred Frankensteinian tones.

The world didn't end in 1977, which is good because we probably would have all missed Star Wars that May, but Bowie made it sound credible that it could have happened.  Again, it's all in the delivery: Bowie never gets around to telling us why the Earth is really dying, not on "Five Years" nor on any of the rest of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, but the sorrow and rage dripping in his voice is too poignant for it not to be gospel.

A lot will be made in the obituaries about Bowie's theatricality, but it wasn't just that he sometimes liked to dress up onstage, wear lots of makeup, and do these elaborate bits of mime and kabuki and whatever while he was up there.  His singing was always theatrical, whether it was the neoretro crooning on tracks like "Station to Station" or his conversational-to-a-scream delivery of "Five Years".  And yet it always sounded naturalistic; I've long had a guilty pleasure thing for Meat Loaf singing Jim Steinman, but Loaf and Steinman are always theatrically theatrical, those songs are so obviously showtunes ramped up with loud guitars and there's always something a little (or a lot) silly about the whole thing that makes it hard not to crack up a little even when the lyrics are about a viciously fatal motorcycle wreck.  But Bowie was never silly unless he wanted to be, that's how in control Bowie always was of his voice, his manner, his persona; and even when he wanted to be silly, there was a slyness that let you know he was in on the joke.

But that's not "Five Years".  "Five Years" is just brutal.  And beautiful.


"I kiss you, you're beautiful, I want you to walk"

It turns out that David Bowie merely seemed immortal.

I have to wonder, would the news this morning that he lost his life to cancer yesterday be less shocking if he hadn't released a new album, Blackstar, on his 69th birthday and two days before his death?  We don't necessarily think of birthday parties and record releases as being the last acts of dying men (Warren Zevon excepted, perhaps).  Though there's something biting about that in perfect retrospect: Blackstar, like Bowie's previous record, The Next Day (2013) dropped without fanfare, without even a hint the artist was in the studio (compare to last week's breathless announcement that Radiohead was merely back in the studio, noodling around and no idea when something might actually hit the public).

I haven't heard more than the two early-released tracks from Blackstar, "Blackstar" and "Lazarus", but they certainly seemed portentous, ominous, fatalistic (first line of "Lazarus": "Look up here, I’m in heaven"; last lines: "Oh I’ll be free / Ain’t that just like me").  But The Next Day was full of songs about mortality, memory, and wrapping up life's little loose ends.  Songs about the immortality of celebrity ("Stars are never sleeping / Dead ones and the living" he says in "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)"), songs about being old ("Had to get the train / From Potsdamer Platz / You never knew that / That I could do that / Just walking the dead," he sang in "Where Are We Now?").  Even the cover of the record is a deconstruction of the iconic cover of his classic, "Heroes" (1977).  In retrospect, you wonder if he thought The Next Day was going to be his last record and kept the sessions quiet because he wasn't sure if he'd have the songs finished to his liking.  Ditto Blackstar.

And then I wonder, too, if the news that we've lost Bowie isn't somehow worse or more shocking because he was one of those guys who appeared physically indestructible.  He spent a decade, the 1970s, notoriously debauched.  Strung out, pansexually voracious.  Consuming every mind-altering substance discovered or invented by man; sleeping with women, men, and, on at least one occasion, a god (if you believe that infamous Angela Bowie story, and who doesn't hope it was true?).  But where so many of his peers OD'd, burnt out, faded away, blew their minds out--for Bowie, hitting rock bottom consisted of relocating to Berlin, where the drugs were allegedly harder to get, and knocking out three perfect records (Low (1977), "Heroes", and Lodger (1979)) like Babe Ruth pointing his bat at the stands.  And when so many of his sexually adventurous peers were meekly announcing they had contracted hepatitis or HIV--or were dying outright from AIDS--Bowie settled down and married a supermodel, and in a breach of the usual traditions and norms they eschewed the tabloid divorce in favor of a quiet, calm, twenty-four year marriage that lasted to the end of his life.  This was all surely part of Bowie's favoring by the gods: always a delicate, frail-looking man, a "Thin White Duke," with china bones and parchment paper skin, and if the 1970s couldn't kill him, well....

Of course there's the music, too.  Timeless in a sense that David Bowie, as an artist, frequently seemed to be outside of time, to have a casual relationship to it as an outside observer.  It's cliché to point out he was a chameleon, a cross-dressing folk singer in one phase of his career, an elegant crooner in another; an elder statesman of pop, a decayed pre-post-punk, a sparkling alien.  He was a brilliant songwriter in his own right, but utterly stunning as a cover artist who did Nina Simone and Jonathan Richman, Bruce Springsteen and The Pixies.  A solo artist who seemed to come from and exist in his own little world, and yet was a totally natural and at-ease collaborator with Trent Reznor and Bing Crosby, John Lennon and Queen.  When Blackstar came out, with a track called "Lazarus" on it, some people noticed that there's an English doom metal band calling itself Lazarus Blackstar and marveled at how strange it would be if David Bowie was a secret doom metal fan; except that Bowie, who recorded a cover of "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" before Born To Run dropped (ergo, before anybody knew who Bruce Springsteen was except maybe the accountants at CBS who were losing their hair over how badly Springsteen's first two albums were doing), whose tastes ran from jazz to industrial to styles he had to invent himself, probably did listen to sludgey doom metal; why not, he listened to everything else, absorbed it, assimilated it, reinvented it.

Which is why this post isn't going to begin or end with the obligatory Bowie cut.  How could it?  There's no such thing as the quintessential David Bowie track.  They're all the obligatory emblematic song and none of them were.  Was "Station to Station" more typically Bowie than "Blue Jean"?  Was "Diamond Dogs" more representative than "Everyone Says 'Hi'"?  Why "Suffragette City" instead of "Kooks", or "Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)" instead of "African Night Flight"?

I think I might, later today, and/or through the week, post some great, some not-so-great, and some outright terrible Bowie tracks.  Because it's the kind of thing you can do when you have a blog and the Internet, and maybe I'll remind you of something you hadn't listened to in awhile, or maybe I'll manage to pick out a favorite of yours that you play all the fucking time and can't get enough of.

Because that was David Bowie.


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