Nothing Has Changed – Part 2 (Disc 3)

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on December 31st, 2014 by bill
[caption id="attachment_5459" align="alignnone" width="572" caption="David Bowie: Artist and athlete"][/caption] Disc 3 begins in 1975 with “Fame,” which may be the first Bowie song I ever heard; it's certainly the first one I remember. As with so much of the innovative music of that era that I ended up loving, I initially found it disturbing and frightening. At that point I was not yet a person who controlled his own musical environment; I just soaked up whatever was around me, mostly from the radio, and there was nothing else on the radio like "Fame." For one thing, it was hard funk when the charts were dominated by soft rock and first-wave disco (funky enough, in fact, that James Brown ripped it off wholesale for a song called “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved)”). For another, it had that bizarre descending vocal line near the end; surely nothing like it had penetrated my tender young ears before. But now "Fame" is a comforting old friend, ditto "Young Americans," which follows it on Nothing Has Changed. Like "Heroes," "Young Americans" is lyrically ambiguous, to say the least, if not downright grim (consider: “Well, well, well, would you carry a razor?/In case, just in case of depression” or “We live for just these twenty years/Do we have to die for the fifty more?”). But as with “Heroes” that tends to get lost in the sheer sonic bliss and forward momentum of the music. There is a sense here that the Young Americans are maybe not all that bright, that they’ll gladly swallow any poison pill wrapped in tasty candy. And I have to admit I'm right there with them; I love this song regardless. Next we hear a wash of crowd noise (lifted, I am told, from a live Faces album) and the immortal words “This ain’t rock’n’roll, this is genocide!” For a few lines about “Diamond Dogs,” let me turn things over to Chris O'Leary, author of the excellent — and enormous — blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame, where he is in the process of dissecting in detail every Bowie song ever recorded. Chris?
“Diamond Dogs” has never sounded quite right: a sordid, overlong Rolling Stones imitation, someone else’s nightmare inflicted with malice upon you. As darkly comical as it is menacing, it’s a “classic rock” song overrun by grotesques (amputees in priest’s robes, Tod Browning rejects, various ultraviolences).... On the radio, it never seems to segue well: it burlesques whatever song it follows or precedes. If there was ever an irony in dancing to a Stones song like “Brown Sugar,” a party song celebrating slavery, ”Diamond Dogs” raises the ante — on its face, it’s completely unredeemable, a honky-tonk celebration of death, decay and violence. Over the years, it’s become one of Bowie’s beloved standards.
I love the dry irony in the last line there. Only Bowie could make something as freaky as “Diamond Dogs” and convince us that it’s pop music. Next up is the relatively tame “Rebel Rebel,” which quite frankly I’ve never been that crazy about. It’s got a nice riff but goes nowhere, basically running in place for 4 minutes, and its calculated “outrageousness” feels like pure marketing. There are many better songs on Diamond Dogs, but this is a greatest hits package (more or less), so of course “Rebel Rebel” has to be on there. Pin Ups, the red-headed stepchild of Bowie’s 70s albums, is represented here by “Sorrow.” It doesn’t quite belong, just as Pin Ups doesn’t really connect with the albums before or after it; it would fit better in the chronology somewhere else, say between The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, but that’s not how it happened. If there must be a song from Pin Ups here, “Sorrow” is a good choice. It has a history (originally recorded by American garage band the McCoys; rearranged and rerecorded by the Merseys, whose version was known to be a favorite of the Beatles; referenced in “It’s All Too Much,” where George Harrison sings the line “With your long blond hair and your eyes of blue”) and it leads nicely into... “Drive-In Saturday,” which on the surface is as retro as Bowie gets, complete with “sha-la-la”s and a singalong chorus. The only contradictory notes are a few synths and the lyrics, which describe a future world where people have forgotten how to make love and gather at a drive-in theater for remedial sex education in the form of old movies and Rolling Stones videos. (I am not making this up — it’s all there in the song — just ask Chris O’Leary.) Supposedly, before being recorded for Aladdin Sane, this song was offered to Mott the Hoople, whom Bowie had previously gifted with “All the Young Dudes” — which, segue alert, is the next song on Nothing Has Changed, even though it was not released until the 90s (it was recorded in 1972, but shelved in favor of Mott’s version). After that it’s back to Aladdin Sane and “Jean Genie,” which I never mind hearing but probably wouldn’t have chosen; I would have gone for “Panic in Detroit” instead, but that’s just me. Looking back over what I’ve written here, I realize that we’ve gotten far away from where this thing started: in the car, en route from Arcata to Ukiah. We were somewhere around Laytonville when the opening chords of “Moonage Daydream” kicked in, and you could immediately feel the change in the local energy. There’s just something special about the songs from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, of which there are three here: “Daydream,” the title track, and “Starman.” (“Suffragette City,” amazingly enough, did not make the cut.) I am ever-hesitant to commit to a favorite Bowie album, but Ziggy has an organic alchemical magic that no album by anyone, before or since, quite matches. Unfortunately, it is so of a piece in my mind that none of the songs ever sounds quite right out of context; “Ziggy Stardust” should always be followed by “Suffragette City,” and it in turn by “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” Anything else is just wrong. Of the Ziggy songs, “Starman” probably stands best on its own, and on Nothing Has Changed it segues into “Life on Mars?”, which makes for a ridiculous embarrassment of riches. When I heard voices from the back singing along to the “na na na na na”s and then “look at those cavemen go,” I was about as happy as it’s possible for a person to be on this crazy, mixed-up planet of ours. No one could have asked for more, but then on top of that we got “Oh! You Pretty Things” and are you kidding me? “Gotta make way for the homo superior”; absolutely goddamn right. Everything else is denoument. “Changes,” “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Space Oddity”: great songs all, but they don't have many surprises left, with the possible exception of “TMWSTW.” Until it was rescued from semi-obscurity by Kurt Cobain, “The Man Who Sold the World” was an album track known only to hardcore Bowie fans, and it’s still something of a mystery; one of those songs where you feel on some intuitive level like you have an inkling of what it means, but once you stop to think about it, it eludes your grasp. Nothing Has Changed winds down with five increasingly primitive pre-“Space Oddity” songs, starting with the relatively sophisticated “In the Heat of the Morning” and ending with the raw and garagey "Liza Jane," recorded in 1964 by “Davie Jones & the King Bees.” This is noteworthy because for many years Bowie tried to burnish his mystique by pretending that this era, where he tried out numerous styles in vain attempts to gain a career foothold, never existed. So Nothing Has Changed may not end with David’s best work, but it does leave the lasting impression of a man embracing the totality of what he’s done with his life, and I for one salute him for that. I will circle back at some point and cover Disc 1, but with 2015 looming, it’s nice to know that David Bowie still walks the Earth and may yet favor us with more music. (His post-The Next Day output has been, um, perplexing; but still.) For now, good night and may the good news be yours. Let’s give the last word to Mr. Jones himself, who recently posted the following message on his website:
Wishing you guys a very happy year-end holiday and we are looking forward to a full, plump but snappy, rather sexy, music-crazy New Year, are we not? Oh, yes we are !!

Festivus Message 2014

Posted in Whatever Else on December 23rd, 2014 by bill
I had been thinking about getting on here to air my grievances, today being December 23, which is of course Festivus as well as the last day of Hanukkah (this year). But I was having a hard time thinking of any; I don’t have much to kvetch about in my personal life, and while I could get on my high horse about climate change or the Taliban, really, who wants to hear it? To the rescue comes Rand Paul, who took to Twitter today to air his own grievances. For example:
First, politics in general: As a Doctor, I was trained first to do no harm. Wouldn't it be nice if politicians started from that premise? But we get "politics is the art of looking 4 trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly&applying wrong remedies."
Hey Rand Paul! I got a few problems with you! First and foremost, you are not funny. If you’re going to invoke the spirit of the best sitcom ever made, you should be funny. And, let me say that again, you are not funny. Also, you are violating the spirit of Festivus, which is supposed to be an (admittedly insincere) alternative to the commercialism of Christmas, by hijacking it for your own political purposes. (And while we’re at it, your political purposes are nonsensical, but that’s really a topic for another time.) Your intelligence is overrated, and you come across as a smug, pampered asshole who gets everything he wants and doesn’t care what happens to anyone else. It would be nice if you would go away. Here endeth the message.

Reality Check

Posted in Golden (State) Years on December 17th, 2014 by bill
[caption id="attachment_5432" align="alignnone" width="480" caption="There are at least 4 things I love about this photo."][/caption] I have been superstitiously avoiding writing about the Warriors, because they have been on a crazy run unlike anything I have ever experienced as a basketball fan. After I last wrote about them on November 10, they lost the next game (to the San Antonio Spurs) and then did not lose again until last night (to the Memphis Grizzlies). In between, they ticked off 16 straight wins, raising their record to a surreal 21-2 (now 21-3). It's hard to know what to say. This team is very, very good at what they do. They score, they defend, they rebound, they pass. They play with supreme swagger that has not (yet) turned the corner into arrogance. They post fun videos on YouTube and Instagram. It's a sweet time to be a Warriors fan. The only sour note is that Andrew Bogut's knee is acting up, and aside from Steph Curry, Bogut is the one player the W's cannot afford to lose. He is the defensive anchor and a key cog in the offensive scheme. So now I have something to worry about, which is a much more familiar position to be in. That head-in-the-clouds, it's-impossible-for-us-to-lose stuff is great, but weird. Reality may set in now; but then again, reality still has the chance to be pretty damn spectacular. So no complaints from this quarter.

Nothing Has Changed – Part 1 (Disc 2)

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on December 8th, 2014 by bill
[caption id="attachment_5405" align="alignnone" width="296" caption="Funk to funky"][/caption] I resisted buying the new David Bowie 3-CD anthology, Nothing Has Changed, for the better part of 20 minutes. I already have most of those songs, I tried to convince myself, and it’s unlikely there will be any real revelations among the outtakes and rarities. I had already heard the new single, “Sue (or a Season of Crime)” and decided I didn’t care for it. But I am weak, and it was not that expensive, so my resistance did not last. And although everything I told myself is true, I can’t say I regret the purchase; the opportunity to hear new Bowie songs, or old Bowie songs in a new context, is always welcome. The gimmick in this set is that it is sequenced in reverse chronological order, which definitely changes the narrative, turning Bowie into an artist who starts off experimental and abstract but self-assured, goes through a long shaky period, and emerges from it as a mind-blowing rock’n’roll superman, before petering out in a series of derivative, underdeveloped, but not charmless singles. I actually cheated a little bit and listened to discs 2 and 3 first, because I was on a car trip with two teenage girls in the back seat and I didn’t think they’d sit still for a full disc of late-period Bowie. Even so, we all got a little restless during "Buddha of Suburbia" and “Jump They Say,” but to the rescue, surprisingly, came “Time Will Crawl” — a refugee from the abysmal Never Let Me Down, but in this context it sounded great. (The version included here, the “MM Remix,” may be better than the original, which I haven’t heard for a while.) “Absolute Beginners” has never been a special favorite of mine, but it also made a favorable impression coming through the car speakers (the remastering here is universally excellent, bringing out heretofore unheard subtleties in the songs). The opening bars of “Dancing in the Street” brought a chorus of laughter from the back; though this song was released many years before either of them were born, the girls are aware of the video as a particularly embarrassing low point in the careers of both Bowie and Mick Jagger. I offered to skip it but was rebuffed; they seemed to enjoy it on some level, perhaps ironic, perhaps not. (“Dancing in the Street” is a great song that cannot be entirely killed by the uber-80s production and vocal performances, which lean heavily on the worst affectations of both men.) This cheered me, because I knew that we were tiptoeing through Bowie’s artistic graveyard, and now that we had survived Never Let Me Down, there was only Tonight to contend with. “Loving the Alien,” also never a particular favorite of mine (filed under “least awful songs from Tonight”), also sounded surprisingly sprightly in the “single remix" version. Then, after “This Is Not America,” which is totally harmless, we ran smack dab into “Blue Jean,” which I still can’t stand. What makes “Blue Jean” so sad is not just that it is a transparent stab at a hit single, but that it is a transparent and clumsy and unsuccessful stab at a hit single. The songs that followed it — the three obvious tracks from Let's Dance — sound positively luminous by comparison. I am normally leery of “Modern Love,” but coming out of “Blue Jean,” it was a breath of fresh air. And truth be told, both “China Girl” and “Let’s Dance” are perfectly fine songs, just ones that got horrendously overexposed. Close your eyes and think of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and they’re over before you know it. At this point we had done all the heavy lifting and arrived at 1980. For some reason I never think of Scary Monsters as being among Bowie’s best albums, but the three singles collected here — “Fashion,” the title track, and “Ashes to Ashes” — are fucking amazing, and some of the album tracks (“Up the Hill Backwards,” the “It's No Game”s) are on the same level. What really amazes me about this stuff is that it is, on the one hand, so incredibly weird — with bizarre lyrics and abnormal rhythms and strange screeching sounds running through the mix — but cut so skillfully with recognizable elements of rock and funk and soul that it is pretty much irresistible. Speaking of irresistible — up next was “Under Pressure,” which is welcome pretty much anywhere, anytime. If there’s anyone alive who doesn’t like this song, I haven’t met them. I wonder what it was like in the studio with David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. They make for an interesting contrast; the guy who pretty much pretended to be gay to advance his career, and the guy who for years pretended not to be gay (writing songs like “Fat Bottomed Girls”) when it was transparently obvious that he was. In any case, this song is sort of a miracle, a gift from the gods, and I was quite thankful for it this Thanksgiving. As every review of Nothing Has Changed I've read has pointed out, the “Berlin trilogy” is represented by just three songs, one from each album. The choice of “Boys Keep Swinging” from Lodger seems questionable — I’d have preferred “D.J.” and/or “Fantastic Voyage” — and Adrian Belew’s screechy guitar solo brought requests from the back to please turn it down. Which were followed by requests to turn it up when “Heroes” started. (Ed: Should there be two sets of quotes there?) Again, for a piece of commercially popular music, “Heroes” is really pretty far out there. Sonically it’s on a different planet from anything else that was popular at the time, or now, or anywhere in between, really. From Low we get “Sound and Vision,” and as with many of the songs on Low the only thing wrong with “Sound and Vision” is that it’s too short. Would it have killed him to throw in “Breaking Glass” (1:56)? I assume that it was David himself making these decisions, which leads one to wonder why the relative paucity of Berlin tracks. Maybe it’s because these albums, which at their time of release were not critically or commercially successful, have become so revered that David figures that argument has been won — he’d rather use the space for more songs from hours (which rates three tracks on its own). And who am I to argue? He’s David fucking Bowie. Disc 2 closes with two songs from Station to Station. “Golden Years” is perhaps Bowie's most convincingly sunny song. It is much more believable than pandering crap like “Blue Jean,” perhaps because it retains a hint of menace (“run for the shadows,” indeed). I think I could hear it every day for the rest of my life and never get tired of it. The closing spot goes to “Wild Is the Wind,” which sounds particularly luscious in this mix (the 2010 Harry Maslin Mix, we are told). I like to think that somewhere in an unmarked box there is a duet of this song featuring David and Frank Sinatra, who visited the studio during the Station to Station sessions. But in the meantime, this version will do just fine, floating us in for a landing for now.

Tuesday Night in A-Town

Posted in Dancing about architecture on December 3rd, 2014 by bill
[caption id="attachment_5395" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="A not-so-great picture of Sallie Ford and her band."][/caption] Last night is one that I'd like to remember. It started off shaky but ended up great, and some lessons were learned along the way. Lesson #1: I really don't like jazz all that much. Or certain kinds of jazz, at least. As part of a general program to try to shake off old biases and enjoy as many kinds of music as possible, of late I've relaxed my strict "no jazz" policy and tried to find a way to enjoy what is, after all, a huge and diverse genre. And I've made some progress, discovering a fondness for Miles Davis especially. So when I saw that the Bad Plus was included in our subscription to the Center Arts season, I was mildly optimistic. They have a reputation as jazz mavericks and have covered songs by the Pixies, Nirvana, and Radiohead. While I haven't dug deep into their oeuvre, I have heard a few things I enjoyed, and hoped that in a live setting they would do some crowd-pleasing. But a minute into their set, I knew we had made a terrible mistake. What followed was an extended excursion into the kind of grooveless, tuneless jazz that I detest with extreme prejudice. And if there's one thing worse than having to listen to this kind of music, it's having to watch people play it, with their self-satisfied smirks and ironic facial hair. By the fourth "song" I had decided that a better name for the BP would be "The Jazz Assholes." (Which is actually a pretty good band name, and would fit nicely into my filing system right before the Jazz Butcher.) What bothers me most about this kind of music is that people seem to think that because it's hard to play, it must be good. But if it's not pleasurable in any way to listen to, why bother? I sat there wondering how many people in the audience were actually enjoying themselves, and how many just thought they ought to be and were willing to fake it. I suppose there must be some folks out there who genuinely enjoy this kind of amelodic wankery, and more power to them, I guess. But it looks like I will never understand it, and I think I'm OK with that. At intermission my beloved and I fled the scene and made our way down the hill to Humboldt Brews, where a rock'n'roll show was scheduled. We had time to see Stephen Curry's 3 break the hearts of the Orlando Magic with two seconds left on the clock before catching the opening act, a trio called Old Light. They deployed the same weapons as the Bad Plus - keyboards, drums, and bass - but with a very different approach, favoring simple, groove-heavy songs with a new wave (sometimes heavy metal) flavor. This was much more to my liking. When they were done headliner Sallie Ford, having parted ways with her old backing band The Sound Outside, appeared onstage with her new all-girl outfit and proceeded to rip the joint up. I had not previously been 100% sold on her new album, Slap Back, but the songs sounded great in this context, mixing heaping doses of 60s garage crunch with a little bit of the Breeders. Sallie herself is a small woman with a big voice, and looked younger than I expected - I mean teenage young, though she started playing with the Sound Outside in 2007, so she must be older than that. Also blonder and more glamorous - in photos she seems to downplay her looks, perhaps being one of those people who's uncomfortable as a sex symbol. The rest of them were not half-ugly either, and would it be wrong of me to admit that yes, this did enhance my appreciation of the music? Which, I repeat, was quite excellent, though they did not do my favorite song from the Sound Outside era, "Addicted." By the time they closed with a tasty version of the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" (without pronoun adjustment), we were fully satisfied and ready for bed. Lesson #2: Loud rock'n'roll played by four cute girls is better than avant-jazz played by three middle-aged dudes. Any day of the week, and especially on Tuesday.