The Great Chameleon Leaves Us Part 2: A Bowie Primer

  1. Birth of a Legend: The Classic ’70s

I realize by now many of us may be feeling Bowied-out with the global media coverage following his death, but I wanted to offer my take on a Bowie Listener’s Guide. Taste in music and art generally is highly personal, so take it for what it’s worth—one fan’s reflections over a lifetime of listening to Bowie. An entire thesis could be written about his lyrical themes and this essay gave me an excuse to use my favourite Bowie quote of all: 

“’Til there was rock you only had God.” —Sweet Head, David Bowie

In any review of an artist’s career it’s inevitable that personal preferences and life experience play a major role in choosing the ‘best’ of that artist’s work. Music has a unique ability to imprint on our neural circuits in association with pivotal, epoch-making moments in our lives. A first date, first concert, firstborn child, a particularly difficult breakup with a wife or lover—fill in the blank. For me one of those moments was my first high school dance, when I walked into the gym—that place of torture for me in physical education classes—to find it utterly transformed. The lights were low, hiding the stark, ugly industrial look and clothing it instead with coloured stage lights, strobes and blacklights. The stage with the PA system and other sound equipment looked like it might have been deposited there by a flying saucer. The polished wooden floorboards of the gym literally shook with the volume of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water booming across the surface. It was like stepping into another world.

Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust persona. Courtesy The Guardian

By now there are enough articles out there with Bowie Top Albums lists. So this for me is mostly a personal selection, though I credit myself with a well-seasoned palate where music is concerned. Clearly the classic Bowie catalogue is well established—Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Pin-Ups, Station to Station, and Low, plus the often overlooked but brilliant The Man Who Sold the World, probably the real inspiration for the grunge bands of the ’90s. Diamond Dogs is sadly hampered by a muddy mix-down and the lack of a crack lead guitarist but gave us Rebel, Rebel and a few other strong tracks. Even in the cocaine-addled haze of the mid-70s Bowie was able to create the mini-dramas of his songs with consistent originality and power. His collaborator Eno has said that he sees Bowie songs as “little plays,” and occasionally he revisits earlier characters, just as a writer of serial fiction would do. Major Tom’s story, launched in Space Oddity in 1969, picks up again in Ashes to Ashes (Scary Monsters, 1980) and is finally laid to rest (or killed off) in Hallo Spaceboy (Outside, 1995), almost the sole standout track on what became a failed Bowie concept album. Diamond Dogs is another example; without the scope that the original stage musical concept would have offered, the LP’s ten songs didn’t quite cut it. (Orwell’s estate at the time was notoriously difficult to deal with.) Bowie often said he wanted to write musicals for Broadway or London, and finally succeeded in that just weeks before his death with Lazarus.

The Ziggy period has produced some amazing gems, and I’m not just talking about the sequins on Bowie’s costumes—D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture, and the tasty hard rock grunge of Live at Santa Monica. Check out Bowie’s performance of My Death on the Ziggy film—with just a guitar and his voice, he articulates a sanguine, emotional prophecy of his own death—both the character Ziggy’s and his own. The song, written by Jacques Brel, Mort Shuman and Eric Blau, remains one of Bowie’s most inspiring covers. It’s almost hard to listen to now that he’s gone. Pin-ups, his tribute album to the ’60s artists that inspired him—the Who, the Kinks, the Easybeats, Yardbirds, Pretty Things etc.—is another sadly overlooked gem of the period. By that time, the Spiders were in top form, although not recording as such, with drummer Aynsley Dunbar standing in for Mick Woodmansey. Bowie pulls off the rare feat of making his interpretations sound better than the originals. Rosalyn, Here Comes the Night, I Can’t Explain, Friday on My Mind and Don’t Bring Me Down are kicked out with consummate professionalism and hard rock attitude. Bowie’s smooth baritone makes Sorrow a pleasure of sheer sweet sadness, taking a routine girl-breaks-boy’s-heart number and catapulting it into the stratosphere. Young Americans was always a disappointment to me as an album. Never a big fan of Motown, I found the soul groove unconvincing and to this day only the title track and Fame stand out.

Bowie about the time of ‘Heroes’, 1977-78.

Although Heroes the song is a standout from the Berlin Trilogy, I found Bowie faltering a little with everything from here onward, though obviously there were standout songs on Lodger (DJ, Fantastic Voyage, Look Back in Anger, Boys Keep Swinging) and Scary Monsters (title track, Fashion, Ashes to Ashes), songs that became a permanent part of his repertoire. I always found most of the Heroes album unlistenable, as I did with much of Scary Monsters, the experimentation tipping over into the merely grating. There are some lovely exceptions on Heroes, like the instrumental pieces Sense of Doubt, Moss Garden and Neukoln, which seem like they should have been placed with side two of Low alongside the gorgeously haunting Warszawa, Art Decade, Weeping Wall, and Subterraneans. Low came out in my final year of high school (1977) and I remember listening to it daily ’til it became part of the wallpaper. We wondered where he could go next after the perfection of Station to Station and he surprised us all again with Low. But to me it always seemed like two albums—the short, stabbing proto- and electro-punk of the songs on side one, and the dreamy instrumentals of side two.

  1. Entering the Mainstream: The Tacky ’80s

“The pretty things are going to hell / they wore it out but they wore it well…” —The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (‘Hours..’ 1999)

Let’s Dance (1983) has that annoying propensity of well-crafted pop songs to lodge itself in your brain after only a few listens. But like most Top 40 music, it leaves little to chew over in the imagination, a rare quality in Bowie songs. Yet the videos for Let’s Dance, Modern Love and China Girl, all shot in Sydney, Australia reveal something of his old subversive edge. In the Let’s Dance video, set in an outback barroom in Australia, the tension between aborigines and whites is palpable. He picks up on the red shoes trope of classic cinema and fairytale, the shoes that are supposed to transform the lowly heroine from a downtrodden servant girl to a glamorous princess. Except that by the end of the video, the young aboriginal woman crushes the red shoes and dances away barefoot with her boyfriend—significantly, another aborigine, not a white prince. In one image, run in reverse, an elderly aboriginal woman smashes a radio—a symbol of white western civilization. That’s a pretty subversive image for an album that would go on to dominate the very airwaves represented by that radio. In the China Girl video, Bowie pushes boundaries again, his on-screen persona openly kissing his Chinese girlfriend on a Sydney street at a time when interracial marriages were still far from mainstream. Like Peter Gabriel in the ’80s, Bowie the Chameleon managed to use the power of mass media to do far more than just earn a fortune. With MTV and MuchMusic, Canada’s equivalent, still being a new media, the message was in plain sight, we just couldn’t see it. It’s arguable that the subtle messaging of these videos seeped into the collective consciousness, alongside the more overt activism of Gabriel and Bowie with Live Aid and Gabriel’s RealWorld Records. The ’80s were a bleak decade overall for music but it was certainly the heyday of superstar activism. Bless their furry little heads! Nice to see the principle of noblesse oblige in action.

Bowie in the ‘Let’s Dance’ period (1983).

But from Let’s Dance onward, Bowie seemed to lose his way, with only Loving the Alien to redeem Tonight, for example. One interviewer called his experiment with Tin Machine “a mid-life crisis” and Bowie admitted it probably was. On the other hand, he ditched the drippy, commercial tone of Tonight and Never Let Me Down for some truly snarling guitars, reminiscent of The Man Who Sold the World with a more chaotic edge. Reeves Gabrels is an amazing guitarist but for my tastes he always sounds too mechanical compared to the spare, searing licks of Mick Ronson or Earl Slick. Bowie had the good fortune to work with some amazing guitarists—and always had a world-class band. Carlos Alomar was as brilliant as Ronson but in a completely different way. Gabrels and Alomar’s embrace of the whammy bar and squealing distortion puts them in the same class but Alomar had enough soul influence to wrestle his sound back to solid ground. And guitarist Gerry Leonard, Bowie’s bandleader until the forced retirement in 2004, was a master arranger. His arrangements for Bowie’s massive back catalogue during the Reality tour were note perfect, even reinventing some songs (like Heroes) completely—a move that rarely works but in this case succeeds brilliantly.

Mick Ronson, bandleader for the Spiders from Mars. Source: The Guardian

Starting with Black Tie, White Noise (1993), Bowie albums were mostly hit-and-miss, with up to three standout tracks and much more that just doesn’t stand the test of time. Outside (1995) made great efforts in a sprawling novella format but somehow never quite gelled, with The Heart’s Filthy Lesson, Hallo Spaceboy and The Motel salvaging an otherwise limping album. Earthling (1997) also falls into this pattern, with Little Wonder, Battle for Britain (The Letter) and I’m Afraid of Americans rising to the top of the fray. Yet his lyrical genius remained vital throughout his career. One of my favourite lines is from Outside (The Motel): “There’s no hell like an old hell…” As it happened, 1997 was Bowie’s 50th birthday, and his birthday party concert with special guests Lou Reed, Frank Black, the Foo Fighters, Robert Smith, and Billy Corgan blew the lid off the venue, as if to say, I may be 50, but I’m far from dead. A nice rejoinder to the aging hooker in Cracked Actor (1973): “Forget that I’m 50, cause you just got paid…” In the ’70s it was assumed that any rocker over 35 was finished. Bowie—who helped define that era—put the nail in that coffin. With the official release of Blackstar just two days before his death, he showed that an artist could remain vital and original up to his last breath.

Bowie with guitarist Carlos Alomar, an innovator who made albums like Station to Station unique and unforgettable. Courtesy Stevens Institute of Technology

In the end, the ’90s weren’t a much better decade musically than the ’80s, but Bowie slips in a dark horse with ‘Hours…’ (1999), an overlooked gem that hearkens back to the songwriting prowess of his glory days. The songwriting style is a mix of Hunky Dory and the b-side of Low. Gone is the sonic overload that haunted Bowie since Tin Machine. Instead we get the stripped, pristine sound of great songs like Thursday’s Child, Survive, and Seven along with Ronson-style rockers like The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell, another of his ‘chapter’ songs—his rejoinder to All You Pretty Things (not coincidentally from Hunky Dory). “The pretty things are going to hell / they wore it out but they wore it well…”

And for all his image as the fashion plate par excellence, Bowie admitted in an interview with the BBC on his 50th birthday that fashion really meant little to him. “We don’t have to do it, you know.” What mattered to him was art—making it and appreciating it.

            Continue reading with Part 3…

LINKS:

  • One of the best bio-pics out there on Bowie is one from the ’70s called Cracked Actor, in which he explains some of his methods as a songwriter and performer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsPVrsZcbZU

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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4 Responses to The Great Chameleon Leaves Us Part 2: A Bowie Primer

  1. I never met anyone else who loved Rilke! I used to memorize him when I was 14. Yeah, a 14-year-old thing to do. I still remember-
    Whoever you are, go out into the evening,
    leaving your room, of which you know each bit.
    Your house is the last before the infinite, whoever you are.
    Then, with your eyes that wearily scarce lift themselves from the worn-out doorstone
    Slowly, you raise a tree and fix it on the sky.
    And you have made the world, and it shall grow and ripen as a word unspoken still.
    When you have grasped it’s meaning with your will
    Then tenderly your eyes will let it go.

    Whew, I think I got it all, but I might have missed some.
    Sorry about that.

    I like every poet you do, except Eliot. It’s not just the anti-Semitism, which calls so much attention to itself, it’s the deep, authentic elitism that makes me recoil. It really functions to blunt his ..well, his intelligence I guess. Without it, he’s just clever, and lamenting the loss of a higher human expression that I don ‘t believe in. Don’t you think he reveals a fairly profound ignorance re. his inability to recognize artistry outside of the sphere he defines?

    I’m a fan of every other one of your poets, although I certainly can’t write about them as you do!

    Can you tell me who wrote this? It’s driving me crazy.

    About suffering, they were neverf wrong, the Old Masters.
    How well they understood its human position……Blank!

    Sorry for this terrible long comment.

    OK, I’m going, I’m going!

    Claire

    PS I replied to your comment on your latest post. I THINK it was your latest post.

  2. Claire: as always your thoughtful comments are welcome here, long or short. How rare in these days of antisocial media to have this level of dialogue! I find some poets “age” better than others with me and my youthful fascination with certain poets isn’t always what I gravitate to in poetry at present. I loved Eliot’s The Waste Land and still love Four Quartets, though I appreciate your reservations about him. I have no truck with the elitists, trust me.
    As a young man I adored Canadian poet Irving Layton but find much of his work hasn’t held up well. But I still love that he was a no-bullshit artist and told it like it is. As a Jewish-Canadian, he had plenty of material from recent history to write about. And certain poems of his will remain immortal, like Senile, My Sister Sings, The Birth of Tragedy, The Cold Green Element and many, many others. Probably Leonard Cohen is better known to Americans, and they were friends.
    Rilke remains a perennial favourite, as does Neruda, possibly the greatest poet of the 20th century. Sorry I can’t place the quote you’re looking for offhand, but will see if I can find it.

  3. Claire: your quote is from W.H. Auden, Musée des Beaux Arts is the poem. Auden was another formative influence for me.
    Here’s a link to it: http://poetrypages.lemon8.nl/life/musee/museebeauxarts.htm

  4. Thanks! I didn’t realize you’d replied. I must have managed to disable the notifications, because I keep being surprised at finding replies to me at various locations.
    Am glad to get the quote – sorry, I didn’t mean for you to look it up for me; I thought you might know it off the top of your head – but that was nice of you. Actually, I’m moderately dyslexic, so I admit I appreciate every search, however simple, that I don’t have to do 🙂
    I’m going to email you now.

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