David Bowie: a personal history


Watching Labyrinth the other night re-awakened me to the thrill and the puzzle that is David Bowie.

You know how sometimes you have a vague awareness of an artist’s work, but then one day you experience it in an unexpected context and somehow the new context illuminates everything that artist has done, and suddenly the artist “clicks” for you in an unprecedented way and becomes your favorite artist ever?

Well, the opposite is also possible. Your favorite artist ever can sometimes put out a piece of work so baffling, lame and unambitious that it ends up throwing suspicion on everything else they’ve done, and then you look at all that work you loved so much and think “Hey — I’ve been duped, this guy’s a fraud.”

David Bowie made a whole career out of this dynamic.

(And, now that I think of it, so did Andy Warhol, which makes it all the more appropriate that Bowie played Warhol in a movie. Directed by Julian Schnabel, who has also made a career out of this dynamic.)

In some ways, Bowie’s career is a distorted, funhouse mirror of Paul McCartney’s — mountains of talent, tons of creativity, work too important to be dismissed, but also long stretches of losing the thread and outright embarrassing work.

(Both musicians also paint, and Bowie’s paintings, very much like McCartney’s, suck like there’s no tomorrow.)

Wadpaw friend The Editor noted watching the recent Ian Curtis bio-pic Control with a friend who huffed impatiently through an early scene of Curtis sitting in his flat listening to a David Bowie record. The Editor, apoplectic, had to explain to the friend that, no, you don’t understand, David Bowie used to mean something, David Bowie recordings once had deep messages in them about identity and transformation and the fear and thrill of being alive. The scene wasn’t a time-waster about a shiftless young man, it was, in fact, a succinct character beat that told you everything you needed to know about the young Ian Curtis.

I was once that guy. I was that teen, sitting in my bedroom, listening to David Bowie records over and over, feeling like he was imparting secret knowledge to me, things only I would understand, hidden worlds, dark and wonderful, frightening and weird, illuminating a path to an adulthood more interesting and alive than those of the pinks around me.

It was the spring of 1979. I was 17 years old and, since it was a Tuesday afternoon, in a record store. I was into Elvis Costello and Talking Heads and I was looking for other “New Wave” records to change my life. I saw, up on the shelf, Lodger, the new album by David Bowie, pictured above.

Look at that cover. That was the cover of an album by a major artist on a major label. I saw that cover and thought: “Huh. That’s weird. What the hell isthis?” To put the cover of Lodger into context, here are some other albums I might have seen in that record store that day: this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this.

The cover of Lodger was, in fact, so strange and mysterious that it spooked me a little. It was printed sideways and backwards, for one thing, with the image wrapping around the side of the gatefold, and the record top-heavy in the front pocket rather than weighing down the back. Everything about it was wrong, weird, fucked-up. I put David Bowie in my list of “artists to keep an eye on” and moved on to, probably, this.

A year or so later, David Bowie turned up, in Chicago (I was living in nearby Crystal Lake), performing in a run of the hit play The Elephant Man before taking over the title role on Broadway. As an aspiring 18-year-old playwright, I was primarily excited about seeing a genuine “Broadway play,” the fact that pop-star David Bowie was in the show was a secondary concern.

Well, the show was great, and Bowie was great in the part, and his first appearance on stage was as he appears in the second image above: naked but for a loincloth, his body way too thin and way too pale, as if the baby Jesus had been caught in a taffy-pull. I’ve been told that the part in The Elephant Man is “actor-proof,” but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of Bowie’s performance as he mimed John Merrick’s illness and distorted his voice to approximate the sound of a man with a head full of bulbous bone growth.

So this David Bowie fellow suddenly became very interesting to me. And he had a new record out, Scary Monsters, which had a cover almost as weird and fucked-up as that of Lodger. I snapped it up at my local record boutique, took it home and dropped a needle on it.


The Buddhists say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear, and Scary Monsters was exactly the record I needed to hear in the summer of 1980. At this point, I was living in a trailer in southern Illinois, in a neighborhood where, no kidding, an 18-year-old kid could get beaten up for listening to David Bowie. Or for listening to anything to the left of this.

Scary Monsters had everything: huge amounts of weirdness, oddly tuned guitars, plenty of jarring, unsettling effects, great passion juxtaposed with jaded disaffection. It was, yes, scary and super, monstrous and creepy.

The following three years involved me soaking up everything Bowie had doneup to that point. He became the center of my musical universe — he went to Africa before David Byrne or Peter Gabriel did, he worked with Robert Fripp and Brian Eno before Talking Heads did and hired Adrian Belew before Talking Heads did too, for that matter. His records swerved all over the place from weird and arty to weird and poppy to weird and soulful to weird and blistering. I rarely believed a word he sang, but sincerity somehow seemed beside the point — underneath and alongside the layers of irony and pose, covered over and thrown into relief by incident and marketing, the “message” in Bowie somehow always was located somewhere outside the lyrics.

Bowie was silent for a time, then exploded into a new realm of popularity in 1983 with Let’s Dance and its attendant “Serious Moonlight” tour. I was skeptical of Let’s Dance and felt sure that it was part of some plan on Bowie’s part, that he was, somehow, smuggling interesting and serious ideas in the guise of shiny, mainstream pop, rather than merely turning his weird, off-center stance into showbiz hackery. I saw him perform the “Serious Moonlight” show in Chicago (at the Rosemont Horizon, a sports arena under the O’Hare Airport flightpath, with overhead planes drowning out the music every ten minutes or so), and, while I could kind of work up some zeitgeisty enthusiasm for my hero going pop, there was something very much amiss there — all the dangerous edges had been sanded off Bowie’s music, it had been repackaged in a shiny new box for mass consumption.

I, unlike most Bowie fans, preferred Tonight slightly to Let’s Dance, but then came Labyrinth, which, at the time, I chose to simply ignore as an aberration, but which, now that I revisit it, was a harbinger of things to come, almost a new statement of purpose.

(In 1980, Rolling Stone published a Kurt Loder piece on Bowie, Scary Monster on Broadway, in which Bowie carps about the cultural desert of Chicago, specifically, a dreadful museum show dedicated to Jim Henson and the Muppets, which seems to have greatly offended him. This great offense, somehow, did not prevent him from snapping up the offer to appear in Labyrinth — exhibit A in my “what the hell happened” file.)

1987 brought Never Let Me Down, the first out-and-out artistic disaster of Bowie’s career. I could barely listen to it, it swerved madly from the lame dance-pop of “Day-In, Day-Out” to the excruciating Spinal-Tap-ish mystical epic “Glass Spider.” I listened to it maybe three times, trying in vain to find some layer of irony that would tell me that this glossy, embarrassing piece of product contained some nugget of artistic value, before I finally gave up on it.

Bowie, and his repuation, never recovered from Never Let Me Down. Before Let’s Dance, Bowie was known as a trend-setter, a musician magically capable of anticipating what everyone would be listening to in the near future. After Never Let Me Down he reversed himself, became a trend follower, seemingly desperate to appear hip and “with it” in whatever musical moment seemed to be popular with the kids at the moment. Post-punk, drum-n-bass, cyberspace drama, self-imitation, every record, no matter what style it was in, seemedto diminish the lustre of the landmark recordings he put out between 1972 and 1980. Some of the records made between 1987 and now have aged well and some of them haven’t, I still find interesting ideas here and there, but none of them come within shouting distance of the vitality and daring of Scary Monsters.

(I saw him again with Tin Machine at the Academy in New York City in 1991 with Radiohead as an opening act. It was a good show.)

In the midst of my obsession, 1982, I acquired my very first cat. There was no question what he would be named: Bowie was my avatar, my polestar, the banner of my identity. The good news is that Bowie, the cat, lived to a ripe old age. The bad news is that he lived long enough to see his name go from generating appreciative nods to generating looks of bafflement and skepticism, which would then require an elaborate explanation on my part.


59 Responses to “David Bowie: a personal history”
  1. autodidactic says:

    I was born in 1972, and my mom likes to remind me that The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars came out the same year. She connects me to it somehow, even though she was always more of a Motown fan back then.

    It fascinated me as a child in the sense that he did the Parliament Funkadelic aesthetic thing a little earlier than they did.

    I remember feeling betrayed in the early days of MTV when this blonde pompadoured motherfucker was out on stage claiming to be Bowie. This was not the same man whose Diamond Dogs album cover had me staring in rapt attention for hours when I found it in my older sister’s album collection.

    I remember wondering what happened to him. Then Labyrinth came out, puberty started, and then it was all over…

    • Todd says:

      Labyrinth is indeed a powerful experience, but I did not know that it could actually induce puberty. Stands to reason, though.

  2. sasha_khan says:


    Get out of my head, Mister Alcott!

    I will say that I haven’t bought anything since Let’s Dance, and have only grazed the output since then a tiny bit.

    • Anonymous says:

      Me, too. Let’s Dance ended it for me, and now I listen only to his work from the ’70s.

  3. catwalk says:

    good, bad, or just plain weird, i always felt david bowie was a master of changing before the times instead of with them… not a reflection of pop culture, but an earnest product of what was and what was on the way.

  4. ndgmtlcd says:

    I know David Bowie through Labyrinth and that dance he did with Mick Jagger. I have never heard any of his other songs. Hey, I’m a cinephile, not an audiophile! I sort of get from the above that if I wanted to get acquainted I should steer away from Never Let Me Down and go directly to “Tonight”.

  5. jbacardi says:

    Have I mentioned that I thought Never Let Me Down had its moments? What? Ad nauseum? OK, never mind.

    Actually, I thought his musical nadir came in the aftermath of Tonight with obviously uninspired originals (“Blue Jean” excepted- the man’s never made a completely worthless recording) and culminating with the horrible Jagger-Bowie duet on “Dancing in the Streets”, complete with the mincing, strutting, just sad video. Hell, at least he seemed to be trying to have ideas on Never…”Day-in, Day-out” at least had an angular, harsh sort of rhythm with some distorted guitar. “Electric Youth” or “Material Girl”, both more apt examples of “dance-pop”, it wasn’t.

    And I still think Heathen, and to a lesser extent Reality, matches up with the classic stuff very well. I was shocked, since I had pretty much given up on him by then.

  6. smallerdemon says:

    We are actually going to see Labyrinth on the big screen this afternoon. 🙂

    Oddly enough, Bowie has entered my life a lot later than you. If you think the outskirts of Chicago was bad in the 70s and 80s, try rural Alabama. It wasn’t like I had much of a chance to really get at any David Bowie to listen to, although as a kid I remember Golden Years playing in endless loops on the radio (I would have been about 10 or 11 when that was released). My wife, on the other hand, born in ’72, seems to have a rich history of listening to Bowie (she did not grow up in rural Alabama, but did grow up in B’ham, AL). I was a fan of whatever shit was coming across the radio at the time I was a teenager, and even later as a teenager I discovered Rush (yes, yes, say what you want, I don’t care, I still have all their CDs) and then even later into my 20s discovering punk postmortem but at least being able to revel in New Wave a bit (although not particular cognizant at the time of, well, anything – I was more a movie freak) and discovering The The in the mid-80s was a big reveal. Only recently, in my 40s pretty much, have I really latched on to Bowie, and much of it the older stuff that you listened to as a teenager. Frankly, much of it has to do with still feeling largely like an outsider where I work due to a variety of circumstances as well as having a very rebellious streak that I am not willing to let go of (in fact, I’m kind of nursing that a bit as I get older).

    I remember going to see Labyrinth when I was a theater manager in Nashville, and Bowie was the last point of interest for me at the time. Even in my early 20s I was apt to give a lot more attention to the Muppets than I was to Bowie. I honestly can not remember what I thought about it at the time, but it may have been that after seeing Bowie throughout the 80s adopt the same pop-culture styles as Cyndi Lauper and Tina Turner and the rest of the 80s fashion culture that it probably seemed like he was just trying to get work (we call that “I guess he had a boat payment.” around my circle of friends) more than he was trying to exert any new creative endeavors. When your career, though, exists within all that is pop culture, it is difficult to not appear superficial.

    Now I have come around to being in my 40s and largely discovering Bowie in a different light. Different to me, I mean. Just age. I honestly can say it started with the discovery of Life On Mars when the Brit show of the same name aired, and it has organically grown from there (with a lot left to discover) in finding some of the more obscure and strange things. I personally am happy to discover great music as I get older, even if it’s something I probably should have listened to 20 years ago (which is fine, since I also find stuff 50 or 60 or 70 years old that I enjoy as well). It happens that I just like to listen to music, and it happens that on the whole I (hopefully) has segued out of crappy music and am looking back in time for music that transcends time and just stands out as great music.

    In regards to Bowie, my wife has declard Kooks to be our family anthem (we have a newbie due in a few weeks, so apparently we needed a family anthem)>

  7. Scary Monsters is such a brilliant album! I love it fiercely.

    OK, so, ‘scuse me as I geek out for a minute.

    Ian McCulloch, the singer for Echo & the Bunnymen, was 13 when he first encountered Bowie, seeing “Starman” performed on Top of the Pops. It was apparently one of those “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” moments. He became obsessed with Bowie (to the point that, according to one book on the Bunnymen I read, he insisted on being called “Thin White Duke” when he was a teenage punk in Liverpool), which is one of the main reasons he ended up the singer in a band. I used to have this picture disc LP interview with McCulloch, and at one point he rambled about his Bowie obsession and how later Bowie stuff (probably post-Scary Monsters) had kind of let him down.

    (It just occurred to me how ironic the title Never Let Me Down is in a larger context of Bowie’s work.)

    When I was 16, I heard Echo & the Bunnymen for the first time–their album Ocean Rain. It was one of my “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” moments. Things fell into place, and I became a huge Bunnymen fan (to the point that I would buy band biographies and picture disc LP interviews).

    So, thanks for writing this. I totally get it.

  8. craigjclark says:

    What did you think of Lodger when you went back to it? I think it’s a great record that would probably be more highly regarded today if it weren’t always lumped in with his other Berlin-period records, Low and “Heroes” (which, it must be said, would be a hard one-two punch for anybody to follow).

    • Todd says:

      Contrary to popular opinion, I find Lodger to be the most ambitious and successful of the “Berlin trilogy.” As well as the most personal and interesting. But I’ll get to that later.

      • Lodger has such a great and fucked-up cover that William Friedkin paid homage to it by positioning a body in exactly that way in Cruising. But you probably knew that.

        • Todd says:

          I did not, but I believe it. And it still impresses me — it’s one of my favorite album covers ever. The sheer weird energy of it, and trying to imagine the thought that went into it — I mean, they had to build the set, hook the sinks up with running water, construct the little scaffolding thing to place Bowie on so he could “hang there” in place, then, it looks like they put a piece of glass over the whole thing to smash his nose down and so the pen could hover in place. Then they photographed it with an SX-70 so it would look really crappy. It’s still a profoundly bizarre and unsettling cover to this day.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Rick Rubin is waiting….

    Masterful text! Many thanks. And insane timing:

    which Bowie carps about the cultural desert of Chicago, specifically, a dreadful museum show dedicated to Jim Henson and the Muppets…

    There is precisely a (the?) large Jim Henson exhibition now on at the Smithsonian… where one sees the space oddity of early Henson, his 1960s films, his muppet experiments, and surprises and wonders what would have happened had he lived longer… Unlike my thoughts on Bowie, whose version of such a Smithsonian exhibition was getting listed, i.e. “going public” with stocks etc… I guess.

    But like anyone of my generation, I have a Bowie-lifeline, it connected between Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust and Alladin Sane, and saved me in my Maryland junior-high/high school years where SKYNRD and KISS ARMY rednecks performed their mating rituals. Punk/New Wave etc..already made options evident by the end of high school and then belatedly discovering “Cracked Actor” on some import vhs, that … was incredible, and made more sense of Bowie than “Man who Fell to Earth”, because it WAS Bowie at what he does best, and it perfectly served to prepare between Berlin-Bowie records of interest / and Berlin-Bowie painter of no interest. (And a point I just want to tag in your valuable blog: the problem with painting-as-art by musicians is mostly how it shockingly reveals a lack of art, and only who you imagine your audience, and you to really be…)

    Anyway, from “Cracked Actor” onwards through Berlin and after, the difference seems to be at the level of urges and desires between nature and culture, between the reasoning of a chameleon and a copycat, between mimesis and mimickry. Etc.

    I think that’s also why he does better later with certain collaboration (Tin Machine was NOT one, ergo, it sucked) because it allowed him some distance, to experiment, to edit his “voice” and at the same time to look at his “character”, while someone else kept him from putting his head completely up his ass.

    Let’s face it, Rick Rubin is just around the corner, waiting….

    But most importantly: you name-check Graham Parker! Sweet! If Bowie is in some ways a funhouse mirror to McCartney, there really was a chance with Parker’s world to propose him as the every-guy opposite to the Bowieland story at one point. Here was Parker, this English, ego-less guy nobody would recognize on the street (or care to) yet who would be able to consistently sell six nights at the NY Ritz (back when it counted and existed) whose character was/is still not the point and never was an issue but whose records were, this idiosyncratic English voice, sound and lyrical work … for a very long brief moment…just managed to “hit home”…

    • Todd says:

      Re: Rick Rubin is waiting….

      Graham Parker was extremely important to me for many years, and Squeezing Out Sparks was the spike that drove him into my brain. But, like Bowie, once Parker gained an audience he seemed to lose his distinctive voice, tried to be too many things to too many people, and lost almost everything.

      I still buy his records, mostly to find out if he’s ever recovered any of his equilibrium. I don’t do that with all my late 70s favorites because I can’t afford to. But Parker’s albums can, alas, always be found for five dollars or less at my local record boutique.

      • Anonymous says:


        In a BBC documentary on Dave Edmunds working on a new number in the studio with Nick Lowe producing…yes, back then BBC produced these kinds of music docs… you see sitting uncomfortably on the studio couch this guy, unnamed, a hanger-on, and of course, it’s Parker… it seemed his destiny to be completely unable to attract the camera even if he tried, unlike Lowe for example. I didn’t know there WERE new albums of Parker. Maybe Rick Rubin etc….

  10. eronanke says:

    Jump They Say is one of the greatest songs ever written, imo.

    • Todd says:

      This isn’t going to turn into another Goblin King debate, is it?

      • eronanke says:

        lol No.

        But, honestly, I adore it. I briefly fantasized about a BBC miniseries adaptation of “A Stranger in a Strange Land” with that song as the song over the credits. (If that ever happens, I am using this post as evidence and suing the pants off them.)

    • Anonymous says:

      Really? from:

      “Ziggy played for time, jiving us that we were voodoo
      The kid was just crass, he was the nazz
      With God given ass
      aww He took it all too far but boy could he play guitar”


      “They say, “Hey, that’s really something”
      They feel he should get some time
      I say he should watch his ass
      My friend don’t listen to the crowd.”

      The sound of a few decades passing I guess.

      • eronanke says:

        Anonymous fellow:

        I love Bowie. Love him. But, to me, Jump They Say is more a commentary on late-80s society than Ziggy was for its time

        • Anonymous says:


          Hm….and is that good?

          • eronanke says:

            Re: Hm….

            Mr (doesn’t-want-to-identify-himself) Anonymous:

            Societal commentary is always more textured and interesting to me than just story-telling. Ziggy is a great song, but I prefer Space Oddity because it includes that jab, “And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear”, as if which team he rooted for would impact his voyage or be of interest.

            That’s why the hyper-capitalism angle and social-climbing aspects of ‘Jump They Say’ speaks to me more than Ziggy.

            The story of a drug-fueled, (albeit talented) diva singer in a rock group just doesn’t do it for me as well.

            • Todd says:

              Re: Hm….

              Bowie also has a history of both living in the pop world and standing to one side at the same time, offering commentary. I was just listening to “Teenage Wildlife” earlier, which has the same kind of “listen, kids” kind of angle to it.

              But we’ll get into all that later.

            • Anonymous says:

              Re: Hm….

              Sure ok, fine, I get it, and probably actually agree more than not, except:

              – in: “doesnt want to identify himself” – maybe in a blog about “what does the protagonist want” it’s more interesting to have all these anonymous (anonymi?) whose comments come together or not, seam well or don’t, and overall leave it up to what I see as the actual protagonist at work, the blog author, Todd A. does with it. I don’t see it as “doesn’t want to”, but as part of the method. If it’s allowed, there must be some reason.

              The story of a drug-fueled, (albeit talented) diva singer in a rock group just doesn’t do it for me as well.

              I just want to say, that’s probably the first time I’ve ever read that in relation to Ziggy Stardust, and, in a way, that’s sort of cool. No 80s irony here.

              • eronanke says:

                A) Your not identifying yourself is manipulative – not maliciously, but it is. Most modern law systems include a provision wherein the accused has the right to confront their accusor. Just the same, I’d like to not have a discussion with a literal ‘nobody’.

                B) Thank you, I think.

              • eronanke says:

                Re: Hm….

                also, ‘anonymous’ is an adjective and can not be pluralized. 😉

              • Todd says:

                Re: Hm….

                Just for the record, as a general rule I ask that people identify themselves somehow, just so folks know who’s who. I don’t mind people posting anonymously as long as they comport themselves with politeness. If they cannot do so, I do log IP addresses so I can at least tell anonymous folks apart.

                • Anonymous says:

                  A. Somebody

                  Ok, from here out, even though I know you log IP, I will start with my new name and never, ever comment anonymously again without signing it in. From now on, I am:

                  A. M. Somebody

                  My middle name is “Minor”, just in case that is also required. I think we all know what the A stands for.

                  A.M. Somebody

  11. travisezell says:

    Born in 1978, although I just had my 30th birthday two days ago and have been repeatedly told how old I am now, I’m the young’n in this room. I have to admit I came to Bowie backwards, only knowing a couple of hits as “70s songs” (I’m really sorry for the blasphemy of that). I didn’t have audiophile parents and it wasn’t until around the time Outside came out that I found him on my own, when there was no doubt he was following trends, not setting them.

    From my clean-slate perspective, here was a guy who had somehow managed to stay fresher than his peers by not still sounding like the era he originated in. I was even a big fan of Earthling when it came out, though in retrospect it sounds only slightly less dated to me than say, Black Tie, White Noise or Never Let Me Down. (And the truth is, I knew him first from Labyrinth, which when you’re eight isn’t a bad movie at all.)

    As for his older stuff, I only really knew Heroes and Ziggy, and I had probably heard them for years before something sort of clicked, that these were something, and I began to seek out his other early albums, including of course the ones you’ve named above. I still don’t kid myself, having gone through it backwards and “too late” I never got to have my mind blown by how different he was, how original, by his identity transformations or capturing a zeitgeist or anything. I just got to listen and say, “These songs are really good, really unusual, and they don’t get old fast.”

    For my money, Bowie’s some of the best, and his “older” stuff outweighs his “newer” stuff, but because I never invested in him as the trendsetter and the secret-message-encoder of my youth, no matter how much I like him and am fascinated by his career, his music, and his (overall, conglomerate) persona, I will likely never have the near-religious experience he gave a different generation.

    I’m not really the guy who prefers a previous generation’s music to his own, so it’s rare I say something like this, but in this context I almost feel cheated. Some guys had David Bowie and I was sitting around hearing secret messages from Kurt Cobain and Trent Reznor, marveling at the identity-changing “genius” of Marilyn Manson, knowing he was at least a generation or two away from original.

    • Todd says:

      Kurt and Trent were as good as it got in their times.

      Mr. Manson is another story — when he came along, I took one look at him and said “oh hey, Alice Cooper revival, nice,” and then was quite surprised that the media managed to find shock and outrage in his work. For me it was always pure, cynical product. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

      • travisezell says:

        Kurt and Trent I don’t feel bad about — I agree, but I feel like they were never a Bowie; in fact both in their way have openly claimed to live in Bowie’s shadow, to be “children of Bowie” in a sense.

        As for Manson, I never really found him that shocking or outrageous (the entirety of The Downward Spiral is more outrageous and offensive than Manson’s entire output). What appealed for High School Me about Mr. Manson was the pure cynical product. I was a high school senior and I was hitting that Better Than The World stage of life where you’re intolerable even to your friends and loved ones, and here was a dude who was riffing on Bowie and Alice Cooper (names I knew but experiences I’d missed) who put out strange, vaguely unpleasant theme-albums that sounded good (if you’re into that).

        Although I don’t hate him, my “Manson phase” was short-lived and not terribly passionate. I only even bring him up because I was trying to think of anyone in my musical generation who had that kind of perpetual-redefinition-of-self thing going on, and Mr. Manson only sustained that for an album or two before just going back to Marilyn Manson, spooky gothy androgyn. But he was the best I could come up with.

        • Todd says:

          If you feel bad about missing Bowie, imagine how things are for folks like me, 10 years too late for the Beatles, Dylan and the Stones. My first Stones album was Some Girls, my first Dylan was Slow Train Coming. Talk about walking in in the middle of the movie.

  12. pseydtonne says:

    I felt the same way about R.E.M. when I was hitting puberty in 1988. That was the year they came out with Green. They had put out an album each year since 1982 but had a 2.5 year hiatus after Green. I soaked up everything — bootlegs, a book, a couple video collections, you name it. I still like the underproduced-ish Fables of the Reconstruction and it’s that album (produced by Joe Boyd) that got me interested in Fairport Convention.

    Green came out Election Day of 1988. I was eager and itching for a new album byt the time I was a junior in high school. A week before my sixteenth birthday (March of 1991) I was rewarded with Out of Time.


    Sorry, that’s not fair to tripe. Tripe can be delicious if spiced effectively. This had no spice, no gusto — hell, it wasn’t even cryptic. Suddenly it was obvious that Stipe’s lyrics didn’t mean anything — they were just mumbled. Crank him up in the mix and bam! Lame.

    The album opens with KRS-One… how could it go wrong? I’d spent a few months of sophomore year memorizing the lyrics to BDP’s “My Philosophy” because I saw it as my generation’s “Howl”.

    Oh, it went wrong because it pretended to say something and said NOTHING.

    I think killing one’s idols is how one grows up. You realize that guy is still on a stage and still preening, even if the stage has only a few hundred people around it. You realize you don’t own that idol — you just get to watch. If you want to make a real difference, you have to make something yourself.

    Now I’m an adult. I would recommend Double Nickels on the Dime and Zen Arcade if someone wanted to hear the most interesting albums of the Eighties. R.E.M. wouldn’t even make the list, but they definitely made my mind get out of oldies radio.

    • Todd says:

      As someone who followed R.E.M. from the beginning, I put their downfall much later. But I know what you mean.

      The really sad thing about R.E.M. was that they did everything exactly right, they built their audience brick by brick, slowly expanding, never selling out, never putting out what they thought the market was waiting for, slowly letting people discover them. Then, at the peak of their commercial powers, they suddenly turned desperate and flailing, it was like the money never meant anything to them — until it seemed like maybe they would lose it.

      But that’s a story for another day.

      I’m with you on Double Nickels and Zen Arcade. Although Flip Your Wig is my favorite Huskers.

      • charlequin says:

        I’m telling you, Bill Berry was the heart and the spine of that band. He was the most accomplished pure pop songwriter in the group, the most grounded (a farmboy through and through), and the one who mediated between the various… not so good ideas brought to the table by the rest of the group.

      • mcbrennan says:

        An Alcott evaluation of REM’s career would be pretty interesting as well, someday, although may sue. I loved everything up to and including Automatic For The People* and have been anywhere from nonplussed to queasy about most everything since. I chalk it up to the tragic triple-combo of Bill Berry deficit, Stipe-thinks-he’s-Bono and old-guys-oblivious-to-dead-business-model.

        Flip Your Wig is the correct answer re the Huskers. So few people get that right. Also, Warehouse is seriously underrated. Just sayin’.

        * okay, actually I wasn’t that wild about
        Green and hated “Shiny Happy People” and “Radio Song” off Out Of Time. But otherwise we’re good.

    • curt_holman says:


      On my LJ I’ve been doing toddalcott-inspired album-by-album retrospectives of REM, and I’m actually fond of Out of Time (which is the next one in the queue).

      But boy do I have issues with Automatic For the People

  13. curt_holman says:


    Have you seen HBO’s ‘Flight of the Conchords,’ the sitcom about the New Zealand folk-parody duo of the same name? They have an episode called “Bowie” in which David Bowie (actually one of the Conchords in costume) visits the other Conchord in recurring dreams, first costumed a la Ziggy Stardust, then in the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ commedia dell’arte outfit, then as the Goblin King (standing perpendicular on the wall of their apartment). And it ends with this:

    Bowie also has an amusing cameo on Ricky Gervais’ ‘Extras’ — and sings.

  14. noskilz says:

    So do you feel it’s a question of an artist doing his own thing vs doing someone else’s thing – or at least being able figure out a way to make whatever is the flavor of the month his or her own? Some of the more wince-inducing moments like “Dancing in the Street” or some of industrial-style music videos( say “dead man walking” ) seem a little unconvincing( they must have seemed like good ideas at the time, but afterwards?)

    My favorite “version” of Bowie could be best described as a sort of wry, melancholy cool. Before running the albums down, I thought I mostly liked his older material, only to find it could be almost as variable as his more recent releases. It’s startling how a guy can seem to get so much right and occasionally just go haywire – at least there seems to be more good than bad overall.

  15. lupa says:

    Goodness, this is one of the better thought-provoking posts and exchanges I’ve seen. I’m really enjoying all the comments.

    I’ve never been a tremendous fan of Bowie’s – being born smack dab in ’70 and spending most of my teenage time divided between a small farming community and a socialist collegetown, I skipped the irony and image obsession/deconstruction of Bowie and went straight to Love and Rockets and Gang of Four. I was always either a bit too political or a bit too mopey (see: my collection of Cure B Sides). That said, as I got older and saw Bowie in the context not of his environment but of himself, I became more enamored of him.

    I see his loss of interest in musical depth paralleling his deepening interest in his acting.* When I put everything in sequential timelines and overlay them, I can see how moving from small interesting films in 1981-83 to larger-budget films could have created “Black Tie White Noise.” It’s the same way I think his work on the German film about the child prostitute (the name escapes me right now) haunted him so much that he had to paint Child in Berlin – which I saw in person and is MUCH more haunting when you see it face to face, much like Van Gogh’s Irises becomes far more complex in person. Bowie’s whole graph of music versus film versus international issues (e.g. his Jena Six donation) versus location makes the latter-day schmutz a bit more interesting.

    By the way, have you seen his Dick Cavett interview? Bowie looks so uncomfortable and freaked out, though it’s obvious that he and Cavett liked each other a great deal.

    *I love/d Basquiat, by the way, and while I only watched it because I’d become an immense fan of Jeffrey Wright in 1994 from his work as Belize in Angels in America,** Bowie as a flighty and flirty Warhol was surprising and wonderful to me. I’m not a fan of the Warhol era art world, but I gained new appreciation from Schnabel’s film.

    **I was lucky enough to see Angels in America on Broadway, with Stephen Spinella as Prior Walter, Dan Futterman as Louis and Cynthia Nixon as Harper.

    • Todd says:

      Jeffrey Wright is one of our greatest actors, and Schnabel surprised me as a director too with Basquiat, but I wouldn’t say that it really portrayed the “Warhol-era art world” — Basquiat came along twenty years too late for that, and Warhol was long out of ideas (much like Bowie) and an “institution” at that point.

      • lupa says:

        Well, I was taught no one artist’s name can be used to define a stylistic era unless someone becomes a household name during their lifetime and spawns imitators and new work in others. For instance, I was told we could call the surge in technology-terror art during the late-80s through 00s “Giger-era,” even though the man himself hadn’t done anything significantly new from his Alien and Species work. Given that, what I meant was that neither Basquiat’s art nor that of his contemporaries (including Haring and Schnabel) appealed to me emotionally before seeing the film. I’m glad Schnabel went into a different medium for his vision. In addition, I am a fan of some of Warhol’s contemporaries, like Lichtenstein.

        However, I’m not wedded to the idea of what “Warhol-era” means in any way! I also definitely don’t dispute that Warhol’s work had declined significantly when Basquiat arrived on the scene.

    • jbacardi says:

      Bowie was coked to the gills in that Cavett interview. I think it wasn’t long after that that he decided to go to Berlin and get off the stuff.

  16. Anonymous says:

    We really should cut Bowie some slack.

    You can’t really expect him to run a guild of supervillains and consistently bring his A-game to music as well.

    • Todd says:

      Hmm…now that I think of it, the dropoff in Bowie’s productivity can be tied directly to the development of The Venture Bros.


  17. mcbrennan says:

    love back to front and no sides, like I say–these pieces are broken

    My own relationship with Mr. Bowie was similarly intense, but it started slowly. He was always there in my life as I was growing up in the 70s–on the radio, in the movies, on television, and I loved his music but honestly, I loved a lot of music, and I never gave him a great deal of thought in my preteens. But as I reached that magical age when my body and my life went in the exact opposite direction of my heart (if you’ll permit me that bit of tired melodrama), I was desperate for something that was meaningful to me and what I was going through, trying on and discarding identities, feeling like a space alien, contradicting and confounding myself and everyone around me, intentionally or otherwise. Until the day luck just kissed me hello–somebody plopped a cassette of Ziggy Stardust into my hands, and suddenly I realized the music man of my dreams had been there the whole time, waiting for me. We had a whirlwind romance. I dove head first into his catalog, dyed my hair that Ziggy Stardust red, read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, made way for the homo superior, tried to find Berlin on a map. For him I even put on my red shoes and danced the blues. I bought his entire RCA catalog on CD long before I had a CD player (and was, according to legend, one of the few people on earth who had them all, as RCA issued them without permission from Bowie and hastily deleted them when he found out.) These were the halcyon days, before I’d ever heard any of the artists who influenced him, when I thought somehow it was all him, that he’d appeared from nowhere, whole, a completely original and unprecedented thing. Sometimes, even though I know better, I still think that.

    Mr. Bowie and I lived happily ever after. Until 1985, when I caught him doing unnatural things with Mick Jagger. And on television no less. Oh, we got back together, on and off–lived through some hard times, especially around 1987. Ugh. It’s never been quite the same, but every time I think the spark is entirely gone, that all we have is memories, he surprises me. Maybe he is a fraud, the silver-tongued traveling salesman with six wives in different cities and a suitcase full of stolen ideas and meaningless excuses, but he does always show up with flowers and something shiny and weird, and I don’t ask him where he got it. He’s disappointed me a lot over the past 20-plus years but I can’t help myself, I still love him. I guess I always will.

    I don’t think I realized until now that I’m trapped in a nightmarish perpetual Lifetime Movie of the Week with David Bowie. You have no power over me, Bowie! *sigh*

    • yetra says:

      Re: love back to front and no sides, like I say–these pieces are broken

      That was beautiful. Thank you for reflecting my own Bowie experience back to me in such lovely storytelling.

  18. dougo says:

    landmark recordings he put out between 1972 and 1980.

    The Man Who Sold the World may not have been a landmark in 1970, but surely it is one now.

    • dougo says:

      Sorry, I didn’t realize you already discussed it in your next post. Clearly we have different taste. (Also, Flip Your Wig is my least favorite Hüsker Dü album. So there!)

  19. polly_oliver says:


    Although I can go with you on most of this piece as far as musical peaks and declines go, I differ on one point: I have a soft spot for Labyrinth. No…it’s not quality filmmaking. No, it’s not really worthy of Bowie’s experimentalism. But it’s charming and weird as a children’s film–one of the few children’s films that I still enjoy as an adult, and one of the few children’s films I’ve seen that isn’t condescending.

    Having gotten interested in Bowie’s music only restrospectively (I was not alive during the peak of his musical prowess), I already knew about the cheesy parts of his career going in. It was not such a big disappointment for me, because I was forewarned. Thus, I don’t associate Labyrinth with some sort of heartbreaking decline in what was once a genius of the avant garde. I just took it as another absurd thing…the idea of David Bowie as the Goblin King is pretty absurd, after all. Absurdity being pretty appealing to me, I was intrigued, and now I love the movie, despite its flaws.