The great Richard Griffiths passed away yesterday, leaving quite a large void in the world of comedy. He was best known to the world as Harry Potter’s uncle, but to those of us who have spent more time in the arena of the unwell, he will always be Uncle Monty.
I can think of no better tribute, at the moment, than to point you to this previously posted podcast, which leads off with Griffiths’ legendary soliloquy from Withnail and I concerning “breakfasts that set in,” “the last island of beauty in the world,” and of course “some vulgar little tumor.” In fact it was the heart, I think, that got him in the end — now, indeed, he shall never play the Dane. Good night, sweet prince.
I first came into contact with the Artist Formerly and Currently Known as Rodriguez when his song “Sugar Man” appeared on David Holmes’ great mix CD Come Get It I Got It. It was an instant mind-blower, with its combination folky/psychedelic sound, dark druggy lyrics, and of course Rodriguez’s voice, a slightly sharper, more musical version of Dylan’s voice.
You couldn’t buy Rodriguez’s records at the time, at least in this country. I had never heard of the cat, and knew nothing about him, which I had in common with just about everyone. For instance, I had no idea that he was a superstar in South Africa — and neither did he, which is the crux of the story that forms the backbone of Searching for Sugar Man.
I finally just saw Sugar Man the movie after hearing about it for the better part of a year, and thankfully it lived up to the hype. The word “inspirational” gets thrown around too much, especially when it comes to movies, but it’s hard not to be moved by the story of Rodriguez (his first name, which he appears not to care for much, is “Sixto”; though for legal reasons many of his songs were credited to his brother Jesus, causing much confusion). In the early 70s he made a couple of albums that got some decent reviews, but no one bought them. (At one point in the movie an interviewer asks Clarence Avant, owner of Rodriguez’s original label, how many records he sold back in the day. Avant shrugs his shoulders and guesses, “Six?”) So after being dropped from Avant’s label, Rodriguez quit the music scene and went to work doing construction and renovation.
But the unheard music refused to die — instead, it went out into the world and lived a life of its own. As the movie relates, somehow a copy of Rodriguez’s album Cold Fact made it to South Africa and really struck a chord with people there — even becoming a part of the anti-apartheid movement for reasons that are still not clear to me, even though they are explained in the movie several times.
Perhaps the coolest part of this story is that Rodriguez the man goes on to live an entirely noble and productive life — working, raising three daughters, and remaining politically active — just not the kind of life that movies get made about. Meanwhile, after conquering South Africa, his music colonizes Australia, from where Rodriguez got the first inkling that he was remembered as an artist. The movie ignores Rodriguez’ Australian tours of 1979 and 81, choosing to focus on South Africa, where people thought he was dead — and he had no idea that he was more popular than Jesus (or at least the Stones) — until 1998. That was when an article and website caught the attention of Rodriguez’s daughter Eva, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The footage of Rodriguez walking into a packed arena in Cape Town as the bassline of “I Wonder” plays is worth the price of admission by itself. I like to think that somehow, in some universe, every one of us gets to have this experience — where something we did a long time ago finds true appreciation and we finally get to be the star we always knew we were. Though again, it is clear from watching Rodriguez and hearing him talk that he always lived whatever life he was in to the fullest. He was always a star whether anyone was paying attention or not; he just happens to look cooler holding a guitar.
I love Station to Station the album, but I am here today to talk about “Station to Station” the song. My favorite Bowie song, like my favorite Bowie album, changes from moment to moment depending on a complex set of factors, chief among them being what I happen to be listening to at the time. The wheel probably lands on “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” more than any other song, but “Station to Station” has been getting a great deal of play around my place lately, so it is often my favorite for at least 10 minutes at a time.
Length is one of the defining characteristics of “Station to Station”; at approximately 10:10, is one of the longer songs in the Bowie oeuvre. But of course it is really many songs in one. In my research I have identified eight different movements:
0:00-1:13 This is the intro. It starts as a wash of white noise, under which a chugging rhythm that resembles the sound of a train emerges. At :30 a whistle is heard, and though there is no voice saying “All aboard!” (except perhaps in my head), the meaning is clear enough: We are in for a journey. I always quite enjoy this part, because it means the next 10 minutes will be unusually pleasurable ones. After that the rhythm speeds up, dopplers, and the sound of the train’s wheels can be clearly heard. At 1:04 a single guitar note becomes audible, feeding back and distorting into a more solid tone, and a very subtle rhythm track kicks in, leading to… (more…)
It’s going to be all Bowie, all the time for awhile as the Bowie Nation girds itself for the release of The Next Day, scheduled for, um, the next Tuesday.
I have been working on managing my expectations for this album, which would have to be insanely great even to crack my list of top 10 Bowie records, and has virtually no chance of threatening the top 5 (in alphabetical order, Diamond Dogs, Hunky Dory, Station to Station, Young Americans, and Ziggy Stardust; the exact order varies depending on season, time of day, atmospheric pressure, and other factors). It helped that The Next Day was unexpectedly available as free download on iTunes for a couple days. I listened to it just enough to conclude that it does not suck and it fact shows great promise; now I am content to sit back and wait for the actual physical object to arrive via U.S. Mail. Yes, I am old-school that way.
In the meantime, let’s talk a little about the second single, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).” It may not be the greatest song David’s ever written, but man, it’s one hell of a video. Provocative, would be my one-word review. In case you haven’t seen it:
Truth be told, the spectre of another David – Lynch – looms large over this production. He was not involved as far as I know, but his footprints are all over it: the subversion of suburban normality, doppelgangers, food fetishism, weird jumpy cuts and changes of speed; all that’s missing is midgets talking backwards. Bowie knows from David Lynch, we can be sure – he appeared in the Twin Peaks movie, Fire Walk with Me – so I doubt the resemblance is accidental. Instead I imagine Bowie saying to his director, “Give me a Lynch-type thing here.” Well, Mr. B has always been one to steal from the best; and had Lynch in fact directed this, it would have been the best thing he’s done for 20 years. So no one is harmed, I don’t think.
It’s a nice touch by Bowie casting himself as the straight-laced everyman whose life is upended by the intrusion of a freaky celebrity couple. Young Bowie, with his combination of devastating charisma and ambiguous sexuality, was the bane of uptight parents everywhere; but with the passage of time he became almost cuddly, which was nice for him perhaps but not so rock’n’roll. In his golden years he seems to have made a conscious choice to embrace his freakitude. So The Next Day, I think, marks the return of not just David Bowie the artist, but also David Bowie the provocateur. This is a welcome development indeed.