David Bowie – RIP
First Lemmy, now David Bowie.
I thought about posting a playlist and writing up a tribute this morning when I first heard the news that David Bowie had succumbed to cancer, but I couldn’t. I was without words.
What does this guy even mean to me? I spent most of the day listening to his music, and I chuckled to myself about all the arguments I’d gotten into about Bowie over the years. As a musician had gone through so many iterations in his personae and the musical styles he inhabited with them that there aren’t many people who embrace the sum total of Bowie with equal love, and I’d known several people who adored one or two records and outright hated as many more.
Initially, I was like that. The first David Bowie I consciously remember hearing and identifying clearly with him was Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars. KSAN, the local FM station when I was a kid, used to play full LPs on Sunday night and I remember hearing that one all the way through and loving it immediately. It was an old record at that point (funny how when I was a kid any record that was more than two or three years past its release date was “old” and now rock radio practically never plays anything that isn’t at least 20 years old… but that’s fodder for another article, some other time), and I wanted to hear more of the same. I got The Man Who Sold The World and Aladdin Sane and then the well was dry. Past that point was Diamond Dogs (which I was advised to avoid by a learned record store clerk), Young Americans and Station To Station and Low. I got Young Americans and immediately hated it as much as I was capable of hating a rock and roll record. I had a huge bias against R&B and Soul because my mother listened to stuff like that (and no teen or pre-teen wants to be known to like the music his mother likes). And that’s where I stalled with Bowie for a few years.
I first re-engaged when Lodger came out and I heard DJ, Look Back In Anger and Boys Keep Swinging via music videos played on late night TV. Look Back In Anger blew my wee mind. I re-listened to that one a couple of times today and it still floored me. I threw Young Americans on the day after I’d seen those videos and realized I’d been a putz. I henceforth gobbled up anything Bowie released.
When Scary Monsters came out in 1980 I visibly coveted it while hanging out with my friends at Record Factory, so it was really no surprise when I got not one but two copies for my birthday (I think I returned one unopened and exchanged it for a copy of Station To Station).
Bowie lost me again with Let’s Dance. I thoroughly and completely loved the art rock, Berlin period, Bowie and Let’s Dance was too accessible and too poppy for me. In a lot of ways his records never grabbed me again after that. I dutifully bought Tonight, but I probably only listened to it a couple of times, and I hated Never Let Me Down (apparently Mr. Bowie agreed with me, as I’ve read a couple interviews where he threw it under the bus).
I developed a theory that David Bowie’s records could be used as a barometer of the general quality of creativity and inspiration in pop music at the time they were made. What Bowie was an utter genius at doing was hearing and seeing other things, done by other artists and musicians, and building upon that work to make something bigger and grander. He did it with glam rock in the early 70s (the influence of Marc Bolan, who actually played on an early Bowie record, is all over his early records), and by finding a way to make the weirdness of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed into something totally accessible and commercially successful with Ziggy Stardust. He took the lounge act and plastic soul of Brian Ferry and Roxy Music and developed that into the Thin White Duke. He took German experimental art rock and made that into yet another alien we could all relate to in his Berlin phase, and then he took the New Romantic style and sound and turned it into a hit machine with Let’s Dance.
So, I’m sure the slump in Bowie’s records has plenty to do with just getting bored with making records and growing older and wanting to have a simpler life (it happens to them all), but I’m also pretty sure that when the rock world is dull, and everything sounds the same (I’m looking at you mid to late 1980s and early 90s) there was just no one David Bowie was inspired by. Or when he was (Tin Machine) the formula was too stripped down and raw to be manipulated.
There are bits of Earthling and Heathen that are great, and I think if a younger version of David Bowie had encountered electronica he’d have run with it big time. But sometimes you’re just too old, or too white or too British.
David Bowie was a big deal to me. I’ve read so many tributes, and they are all pretty much spot on. Bowie made being weird cool. He made art rock that still rocked and grooved.
I think though, my favorite tribute is the five seasons of The Venture Brothers where he was (or wasn’t) the primary super villain of the world – The Sovereign. If anyone could have been a shape-changing super villain, orchestrating and managing all the arch villainy of the world (and looking dead cool doing it) it was David Bowie.