David Bowie: a subjective overview, part 3

David Bowie’s sudden right turn from freak-flag Stonesy rock to blue-eyed Philly soul remains, 35 years later, one of the more startling transitions in pop-music history. This transition is most notable on Changesonebowie, where the LP suddenly goes from “Rebel Rebel” to “Young Americans,” and if you’re not prepared it can snap your head around like a spring-loaded head-snapping machine. The transition is so complete and uncompromised, it’s hard to believe it’s even the same artist — until the distinctive voice comes in, which somehow doesn’t make the transition any easier to digest. Rather the opposite — if the Bowie of Diamond Dogs was the “real Bowie,” then this bouffanted smoothie with the gold bracelets and the smoldering cigarette must be some kind of put-on, right? Because if it’s not, what could this music possibly mean? And yet the music on Young Americans seems, if anything, more authentic and accomplished than the half-parody rock of the Ziggy Stardust era. Then, was Ziggy the real put-on? But then who was the long-haired prog-folk freak in the dress from the first three albums?

The obvious answer to all this, of course, is that there is no “real” David Bowie. He is, on some level, a dilletante and a magpie, he seemingly has no particular musical affiliation of his own. The development from Space Oddity to Diamond Dogs feels gradual and accumulative, each album building steadily on what came before, but then, suddenly, Young Americans seizes, with great authority and conviction, a whole other genre altogether, with nothing brought forward from the past. And then, on top of everything, it was a huge hit, bringing Bowie an entirely new audience. By all rights, it should have been a bold experiment or a failured detour, but instead it took a cult star and put him in the center of the mainstream.

The soul influence on Young Americans is obvious and pervasive, but almost as important is the influence of the young Bruce Springsteen. Bowie recorded both “Growin’ Up” and “It’s Hard to be aSaint in the City” and the panoramic, complex lyrics of “Young Americans” shows his influences — the first verse, with its doomed, working-class lovers making out in the car under the bridge is practically parody. What makes it impressive is not that it’s imitation but that it’s so well-executed, as though it were a long-lost early Springsteen song, performed by, say, Teddy Pendergrass. And if you were to remove the ridiculous, over-emphatic cover of John Lennon’s “Across the Universe” (honestly, if there was ever a song ill-suited to the soul-man shout-out treatment, it’s “Across the Universe”) and substituted Bowie’s version of Springsteen’s “Saint,” Young Americans would be instantly improved and have a lot more cohesion. (His version of “Growin’ Up” is another story.)

The other startling thing about Young Americans is the sudden improvement of Bowie’s songwriting skills. Of the eight songs on the album, fully half of them are well-made, with nary a clunker or doff line among them. This, oddly, presents a different problem: Bowie, on Young Americans, has digested his source material so thoroughly that some of the songs feel more like genre exercises than personal statements, songs anyone could have written. It shows great dedication to form but leaves little room for expression. They’re all enjoyable, but only “Fame” bursts through with a distinctive point of view. (There are two other songs of this stripe, “It’s Gonna Be Me” and “Who Can I Be Now?” that are just as good, if not better, but weren’t on the original LP for some reason, although either could have replaced the dreaded “Across the Universe.”) After “Young Americans,” the best, most startling song is “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” where Bowie takes one of his oldest motifs, the shape-shifting Nietzschean overman, and, somehow, manages to put him into the context of a sweet soul croon.

Station to Station is to Young Americans as Aladdin Sane is to Ziggy Stardust. The material is weaker, the production more ambitious, drama again substitutes for content and focus is again a problem. The title track sounds impressive, with its multiple sections and widescreen production, its vague-yet-serious-sounding lyrics. It, like the line says, drives like a demon from station to station, but I’m telling you, I’ve been listening to this song for 30 years now and I can’t tell what the hell he’s going on about.

I’ve been reading the Wikipedia article on Station to Station, which notes that the frosty, insincere nature of the singing is apparently due to the “character” of the Thin White Duke that Bowie was “playing” through the recording of the record, who apparently is not a very nice man. Well, it’s nice to know that this is supposed to be a “character,” but that doesn’t help me enjoy the record more. There are six songs on the LP, six, all of which are quite long, as though that were some kind of guarantee of seriousness, one of which is ten minutes long, or one-fourth of the total running time. One is a cover, three others are impersonal genre exercises not unlike the ones on Young Americans, well structured and but sung with more detachment and a kind of melodrama that leaves me cold. The most baffling of these is “Word on a Wing,” which Bowie (or the character he’s playing) would have us believe that he is a passionately devout Christian. I remain unconvinced.

That leaves “TVC 15,” which is, of course, a delight — weird, personal and idiosyncratic, with a beat and arrangement that kind of comes out of nowhere and sounds like nothing else on the record. I’m not sure exactly what happens in the song, I think it’s about a man who falls in love with TV set, then loses his girlfriend inside it. It’s not “Penny Lane,” but it comes closerto my idea of what good Bowie is.


David Bowie: a subjective overview part 2

Pop music albums don’t get much better than Ziggy Stardust. The hippie leanings of Bowie’s previous three albums vanish completely, his mystic pretensions have been fully digested and formed into nuggets of pure pop gold. The sound is crunchy, compelling and immediate, the songs are short, punchy, direct, concise, catchy and irresistible.hitcounter Lyrical gaffes are kept to a minimum, and there is much to delight in. Cliches are avoided or inverted, the sense of drama is thrilling and palpable.

Ziggy Stardust is, of course, a “concept album.” What this means, what this has ever meant, is still vague to me. Theoretically, there is a “plot” somewhere in Ziggy, having to do with the world ending and a pop star who is also an alien savior overlord. That sounds like enough concept to fill an album, yet even with its short running time (the whole world-ending thing seems to have pushed Bowie to cut the fat from his songs), Ziggy takes time for detours like “It Ain’t Easy,” “Soul Love” and “Suffragette City.” (And, I think, even “Star” and “Lady Stardust,” two songs about performers who don’t seem to be central to the “story” presented.)

As a song cycle, it is both over-ambitious and too thin. The “plot,” such as it is, stalls out for long periods before lurching forward in the space of a few lines here and there, when it does not back-track and repeat itself. There’s a reason why it has not been turned into a Broadway show.

So Ziggy Stardust should not be compared to Mahagonny-Songspiel. Rather, it should be compared to its rough contemporaries Sgt Pepper, Tommy and Animals, all of which it compares to very well indeed. Plot is sparse, but drama is abundant. Ziggy Stardust oozes with drama.

There is not a dud song here. “Five Years” sets the scene beautifully — what could be more arresting than the quiet, understated opening, wherein it is revealed, in a dry, matter-of-fact tone, that the world is about to end? The narrator starts the song cold and dispassionate, almost journalistic, before getting caught up in the emotion of the situation, taking us along with him.

“Moonage Daydream” introduces the title character with the unforgettable lines “I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you, I’m a space invader, I’ll be a rock-n-rollin’ bitch for you.” To which, all I can say is “hey — sign me up.” “Starman” continues the Nietzschean-overman motif, a motif that shows up so often in Bowie’s work that I’m inclined to think that he really believes in this stuff. Conviction leaps out of the speakers on Ziggy Stardust, whether it is half-baked, jejune or just plain silly. Bowie plays with masks and identity here a lot, and will continue to do so for the remainder of his career, but it doesn’t get much more direct and passionate than the “Gimme your hands!” of “Rock-n-roll Suicide.”

Aladdin Sane feels rushed and thin in comparison, almost a step backwards. The songs are generally weaker, and many pretensions return shored up with the production values of extravagant arrangement. Focus is a major problem, radically different song forms sit uncomfortably next to each other. Drama turns to grandiloquence and self-importance, and there are even signs of padding — apparently, Bowie decided the world wasn’t going to end quite yet after all. In the lyrical gaffe department, it doesn’t get much sillier, or more pretentious, than “Time, he flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor.” This is, to put it mildly, crap — unless, of course, Bowie is referring to the magazine, in which case, you know, right on.

Pin Ups, Bowie’s album of British Invasion covers, is, generally speaking, a delight, although only a 27-year-old alien savior overman with one eye on the apocalyptic clock would feel nostalgia for songs released a mere six years previous.

I have a soft spot in my heart (or is it my head?) for Diamond Dogs, even though it is sillier and more pretentious than Aladdin Sane and conceptually weaker than Ziggy Stardust.  Plotlines and characters are introduced and dropped, folded into other songs or ignored.  Somehow its incoherence and ambition, the way it juxtaposes the intimate with the societal, the personal with the political, are intriguing instead of off-putting.  “This ain’t rock-n-roll, this is genocide!” is certainly a startling rallying cry, and there is a weird, private love story winding its way through the songs that I find compelling in its incompleteness.  There are few, if any, “well-made songs” here, only the jagged wreckage of half-formed notions, but that wreckage I find still compelling 34 years later.

And let me step aside for a moment here and talk about cover art.  The four album-cover designs pictured above are all pretty flawless, except for the type on Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups.  Bowie had already done the no-title-on-the cover thing for Hunky Dory, why did he (or, more likely, the label), think they needed it for these LPs?  The fonts do no one any favors, and the design elements just kind of hang there looking embarrassed, marring the images instead of enhancing them.  You’ve got that face, in that make-up, why would a record company think they also needed to remind the buyer whose record this is with clumsy type?

I found this at my local used CD store yesterday for $6.99.  I haven’t had a chance to fully digest it, but let me start off by saying that it’s nowhere near as bad as I feared.  “The Laughing Gnome” isn’t even on it, and neither is “London Bye Ta-ta,” which speaks well of any album.

David Bowie: a subjective overview, part 1


I am not a musicologist. I am a dramatist, and I am therefore prejudiced toward structure. My form is the screenplay, which means, you know, doubly so. This means, in terms of pop-music appreciation, I tend to appreciate the “well-made song.”

(One day, I will do an entire post on Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8ter Boi”.)

got to make way for the homo superior

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.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

Thomas Jerome Newton is from another planet.  In a piece of canny 1970s casting, he is played by David Bowie.

Newton has come to Earth with a number of extremely valuable patents tucked under his arm.  His plan is: find the world’s greatest patent attorney, form a gigantic corporation that will generate hundreds of millions of dollars of income, and use the money to — to — well, that’s the part where I get lost.

Apparently his planet is in trouble.  They’re all out of water, and they desperately need water to — to — well I’m sure they need it to live, but all we ever see in the movie is that they use copious amounts of it in the course of their marital duties.  But that’s enough, fine.  Thomas Jerome Newton needs water or else he can’t fly through the air in sexual ecstasy with his wife in huge cascades of water.  So he’s come to Earth because we have water.  It’s like we’re a giant-sized Pleasure Chest store for him.  “Be right back honey, I have to pop down to Earth for some lubricant.”

He knows how Earthlings talk and think and what they value.  He knows all this because he’s been watching our television for decades on his home planet.  He knows we’re motivated by greed and materialism and he’s got a plan to use that greed to make a pile of money and — and — well again I’m less clear on that.

After many decades of living on Earth and building his fortune, he builds a spaceship to go back home.  What his plan is, I don’t know.  He’s not going to bring back a ton of water to his waterless planet and we’ve seen that his wife and children are already dead.

Now that I think of it, what’s going on on Newton’s home planet?  There seem to be only three people living there, his wife and kids.  They don’t have a house or food, all they have is a charmingly home-made papier-mache beehive with sails that trundles along on a track.  Yet somehow they got it together to send Newton to another planet, so presumably there’s a space center somewhere with rockets and a launchpad and people running it and all that stuff you need to send people into space.  Otherwise, why wouldn’t Newton just bring his wife and kids along?

But no, they stay behind and never age, because apparently the folks on Newton’s home planet don’t age, even the children remain the same size for decades.  And they wait by the trundling beehive, because — because — well I’m not clear on that either.  I think the trundling beehive is the planet’s mass-transit system, but since the beehive has stopped permanently in one spot there doesn’t seem to be much reason to wait there for Daddy to come home.

Anyway, after a very long time, Newton compiles his wealth to build a spaceship to get back home.  I don’t know what he’s going to do once he gets home, maybe he’s just a scout for Earth and he’s setting up his gigantic corporation so that he can start bringing his people here and have them live in splendor.

Just as he’s getting ready to get on his spaceship to go home, he gets kidnapped by — by — by an evil somebody, and his patent attorney is killed by the same evil somebody.  It’s unclear.  Is it another corporation, is it the government?  Somebody wants to derail Newton’s plans and they will stop at nothing to do it.

Newton is placed in exile in a hotel under guard.  He is studied by scientists.  The scientists seem both convinced that there’s nothing unusual about Newton and convinced that he is an alien.  In any case they make him very uncomfortable and he has no choice but to take comfort in large amounts of gin.

Eventually everyone loses interest in him and he escapes out into the world.  He makes a recording to be broadcast into space where his wife might hear it.  We never hear the recording but I’m guessing the message on it is something like: “Dear Wife: had a plan to use human greed to get water to us so we could havesex again but got screwed over by the same human greed I was hoping to exploit.  Never coming back.  Sorry.  Best to the kids.  PS: Don’t wait by the Beehive Station lying in the sand for decades — for God’s sake GO HOME!”

Strictly speaking, the movie falls into science-fiction, but as we can see, it is not the nuts-and-bolts wing of the genre but rather the spiritual/societal analysis wing.  Indeed, the movie is content to explain very little at all, in spite of being well over two hours long. 

The production design is perfunctory.  Newton’s inventions, which are supposed to be futuristic and amazing, are clunky, ugly and unappealing.  His rocket-building center is housed within a grain-elevator complex with nothing but chain-link fences for security.  Decades pass within but it remains steadfastly 1976.  Earthlings get old and grey and fat but records are still pressed on vinyl and cost less than five dollars, men still wear polyester leisure suits, and Newton even drives the same car throughout.  It’s as though Newton’s arrival on Earth brought the evolution of human design to a screeching halt.

The movie’s strategy of ignoring explanations has its strengths.  It’s moody and jarring and elusive, and Bowie is cooler than cool as the slowly dissipating visitor who becomes, alas, too accustomed to Earth ways.  In fact, I think that’s the real point of the movie after all, not to tell the story of aliens and government conspiracies but to dramatise the story of an idealistic young man who enters the world with a clear purpose and to show his increasing anxiety at being co-opted, distracted and annihlated by the inevitable crushing forces of capitalist greed and human frailty.  (Bowie, apparently, felt a strong connection to the character — he used images from the movie on two consecutive album covers — but did he realize that he, too, would eventually become human, falling from stardom to mere showbizhood?  Or is that, in fact, the subtext to his performance?)

This being the 70s, there’s also lots of nudity.

David Bowie would later reprise the “weird guy with a miraculous invention” role in The Prestige.  Rip Torn, who plays the only guy who knows Newton’s secret, would reprise the “guy who knows there are aliens on Earth” role in the Men in Black franchise.

The Criterion edition helpfully includes a copy of the original novel, which I have not read, but which I presume holds many of the answers to the movie’s narrative ellipses. hit counter html code