The Serve of the Thin White Duke

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on March 31st, 2015 by bill
Poking around Chris O'Leary's Pushing Ahead of the Dame today, I was struck by the following passage about David Bowie's 1999 sessions with the band Rustic Overtones:
The band had wanted to invite Bowie for a [ping-pong] match during the sessions but thought better of it: this was a serious rock artiste, after all. Later, they read that Bowie was actually an avid ping-pong player and once had an epic match with Lou Reed.
Sadly, I was unable to find any photographic evidence of a table tennis match between Messrs. Bowie and Reed, but I did find this: And this: And this, which I believe is from The Man Who Fell to Earth: Which was enough to make me pretty happy. Note the Batman symbol on David's kimono. Awesome.

Nothing Has Changed – Part 3 (Disc 1)

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on January 8th, 2015 by bill
“I’m exhausted from living up to your expectations.” —Jareth the Goblin King, Labyrinth One of the perks of being David Bowie, with a long and distinguished career behind you, more money than God, and an inexhaustibly deep well of heavy heavy cool to draw from, is that you can do whatever you want. Last year, what David wanted to do was release a career retrospective that includes greatest hits, unreleased tracks, and songs he felt were insufficiently appreciated. He also recorded two new songs, one of which ("Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)") leads off the three-disc, reverse-chronological-order version of Nothing Has Changed. (There are also double-vinyl and single-CD versions, each with different track listings and sequencing.) I must admit that despite my best efforts I have been unable to find a way to enjoy this song; it does not seem to be designed with enjoyment in mind. "Sue" is perhaps best viewed as the latest step in the pas de deux between Bowie and Scott Walker, which has gone on for 40-some years now. It's a little hard to wrap your head around but it's quite possible that, as great as we all think being David Bowie must be, what David Bowie really wants is to be Scott Walker. My theory on this is that despite his artistic adventurousness, Bowie has always been somewhat constrained by his desire to please his audience. In doing so he has become rich and famous, but I wonder if he has in some respect felt hemmed in by what people expect of "David Bowie," and wished for the freedom afforded a Scott Walker, who seemingly cares to please only himself. In the last 20 years Walker has abandoned all commercial considerations and explored completely alien territory that challenges what we think of as music. I don't personally care for albums like Tilt and Bish Bosch, but there is no denying their integrity. I feel the same way about "Sue." I may never like it, but I'm glad David is doing what he wants instead of chasing a hit single. Enduring 7 minutes and 52 seconds of skronk is a small price to pay to get to the rest of Nothing Has Changed, which begins with three songs from 2013: "Where Are We Now," "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," and a remix of "Love Is Lost" by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame. The first two of these are holding up pretty well; the third, with all due respect to Mr. Murphy, is a pointless evisceration of good song. After that we get three more sets of three: three songs from the Reality/Heathen era, three from the never-released Toy album, and three from ...hours. Reality is represented by "New Killer Star," a sturdy rocker with some surprising twists. From Heathen we get "Everyone Says Hi" and "Slow Burn" - but not, for some perverse reason, "Sunday," from which the phrase "nothing has changed" was taken. That is a bit of a head-scratcher, especially since "Sunday" is one of the best songs of Bowie's post-Classic period (see below). Toy, which consisted mostly of new versions of very old (pre-"Space Oddity") Bowie songs, was recorded in 2000 but rejected by EMI, who wanted new material. For a long time it was an alluring mystery, and some of us thought it might be the Great Lost Bowie Album. But over the years most of the tracks have leaked out as B-sides, bonus tracks, and now here, and I for one am underwhelmed. They are not horrible, not unlistenable, just a bit pedestrian. The three presented here pass in a pleasant enough haze, concluding with “Shadow Man,” which has a little air of intrigue about it. One of the most surprising things about Nothing Has Changed is how good the songs from ...hours sound on it. Both “Seven“ and “Survive” are here in there “Marius De Vries mix”es, and both — especially the former — sound much improved from their album versions. As for “Thursday’s Child,” I must recuse myself; this one hits way too close to home. (If you know me, and listen to the words, you will understand why.) From there it's back to the mid-90s, when Bowie strategically allied himself with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame. It's Reznor's remix of “I’m Afraid of Americans” — originally from the Earthling album — that appears here. I liked “I’m Afraid of Americans” perfectly fine before Reznor got ahold of it, and while he didn't ruin the song, exactly, he did amputate the main hook and add a thick layer of murk over everything. (It still annoys me a little that Bowie cozied up to Reznor, who’s an overrated Johnny One-Note if you ask me.) Next is another song from Earthling, “Little Wonder,” which sounds rather dated from this vantage; it has a solid structure, but would be better without the skittering drum’n’bass percussion layered on top. Nothing Has Changed hits rock bottom with a version of “Hallo Spaceboy” that was remixed, or more accurately pissed all over, by the Pet Shop Boys, who stripped out everything appealing about the original in favor of tepid disco and Neil Tennant's atonal vocals. I’ve never understood what people like about the Pet Shop Boys and still don’t. But apparently David Bowie feels differently, and he’s the boss. This disc closes out with two more songs from Outside: “Heart's Filthy Lesson,” which sounds very muscular in comparison to the Pet Shop Boys fiasco, and “Strangers When We Meet.” The latter is one Bowie’s catchiest songs of the last quarter-century, but as is so often the case, the jaunty surface covers very dark depths:
Steely resolve/Is falling from me My poor soul/All bruised passivity All your regrets/Ride rough-shod over me I'm so glad/That we're strangers when we meet
And that brings us full circle back to where this started. As it happens, today is David Bowie’s 68th birthday. If you’re wondering what to get him, this is just a guess, but I bet that he would like you to listen to some of his later music. I’m extrapolating from the fact that he devoted so much space on Nothing Has Changed to his post-Let's Dance work. It’s as if he's saying, “Hey, I worked really hard on this stuff too, and some of it turned out well. I’d like people to hear it.” I've come to the conclusion that we really need to view David Bowie as two separate people, much as we do young and old Elvis. It's almost unfair for Lesser Bowie* to have to be compared with Classic Bowie (the one who made everything up to Scary Monsters); both are very talented and hard-working, but Classic Bowie had some kind of angel, or devil, or alien sitting on his shoulder whispering celestial melodies into his ear. Lesser Bowie is just a guy who has to come up with ideas and try to make them work. He keeps trying to live up to the expectations created by Classic Bowie, but this is no easy task. That may be why it took him 10 years to make The Next Day — which, by the way, is probably Lesser Bowie’s best album, and as good place to start your birthday listening as any. * Lesser Bowie is the one who started with the dreadful duo of Tonight and Never Let Me Down, and has been fighting for credibility ever since. I’m not sure who made Let's Dance; maybe a third version, World-Domination Bowie? Or maybe Nile Rodgers.

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 !!

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.

Album of the Year 2013

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why, Dancing about architecture on January 8th, 2014 by bill
[caption id="attachment_4756" align="alignnone" width="470" caption="Guess who?"][/caption]It was one year ago today that David Bowie broke a long silence with the release of “Where Are We Now.” Which makes this as good a time as any to ask... well, where are we now? It’s 2014 now, in case you haven’t gotten the memo. I suppose this happens to everyone with the passage of time, but the numbers attached to the years we’re living in seem more and more surreal to me. I can remember when the arrival of 1976 was a big deal. Then 1984, then 1999...9/11 seems like a relatively recent event to me, but all these are now receding into the distant past. There are only two responses to this. One is to panic, and the other is to focus on the present moment and forget all about the numbers. Which brings us back to Bowie, because the moment has arrived for me to name my album of the year for 2013. I am giving it to David for The Next Day, as there was little doubt I would, though I had to at least go through the charade of considering others. I was a little tempted to give the nod Kanye West’s Yeezus, mostly just because Kanye pisses people off so bad, and I love him for that. Plus one of the last things Lou Reed wrote before his demise was an effusively positive review of this album. But in truth Yeezus is, not an afterthought exactly, but only one prong in Yeezy’s ongoing multi-front battle for world domination. He no longer wants to be classified in the realm of musicians, but now thinks of himself somewhere in the sphere of Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and of course Jesus the Christ. Which is crazy, granted. But I wonder, how many times in 2013 did people ask the question “What would Jesus do?”, and how many times did someone say “I wonder what Yeezus is doing right now?” And unlike the former, the latter was easy to answer, as long as you had your phone at hand. I was also quite fond of Wise Up Ghost by Elvis Costello and the Roots. Both of these artists have sort of drifted off my radar in recent years, but this album plays up their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses; the result is heavy on both groove and melody. Even so it’s unlikely to have much long-term emotional resonance, which is an important consideration for an album of the year. Though to be perfectly frank I’m not sure that The Next Day will either. “Where Are We Now” aside, it seems intentionally designed to avoid any warm and fuzzy feelings. The music is tight-wound and snarling. Lyrically, references to war, pain, alienation, and death abound, and the album’s emotional centerpiece is probably “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” as perverse a piece of music as you’re likely to hear this century. The backing track is grand, swelling, and lush, complete with quotes from “The Supermen” and “Five Years.” The words are an absolutely vicious kiss-off to some unredeemable villain: “I can see you as a corpse/hanging from a beam”; “Death alone shall love you/I bet you'll feel so lonely you could die.” But I have to give David credit; it would have been all too easy to go in the nostalgia direction hinted at by “Where Are We Now,” but he chose a much more difficult path. The difference between an artist and an entertainer is that an entertainer gives the people what they want; an artist gives them what he or she thinks they ought to have. David Bowie née Jones is unquestionably an artist and today, on his 67th birthday, I salute him for that.

What’s Blowing My Mind, 2013 Edition (Part 6)

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on April 17th, 2013 by bill

The Next Day

I am pleased to report that as of this week I have officially fallen in love with David Bowie’s new album. It took a little while — the compositions on The Next Day are not, for the most part, immediate grabbers. And the production style is very dense and overloaded, making a complete listening of the album somewhat exhausting; it is best heard four or five songs at a time, say in the car while driving back and forth between Eureka and Arcata. But just when I started to fear The Next Day was going to come and go without making much of an imprint on my consciousness, I found the songs popping into my head at random times and places. “(You Will) Set The World on Fire,” “Dirty Boys,” “Valentine's Day,” “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”: great tunes all. If I do have a criticism, it's the way the album’s assembled: The sequencing seems pretty haphazard and it could use a little trimming. None of the songs are terrible, but 45–50 minutes are optimum for any album, especially one this information-rich. Fortunately, modern technology makes it pretty easy to create your own version; here's the one I've been listening to lately. 1. Plan I’m promoting this one from bonus track to the main album. It serves as a nice overture — two minutes of textural guitar noise suggestive of vast spaces and sinister doings. 2. (You Will) Set The World on Fire A rocker. Opens with a heavy guitar riff, then the drums kick in, and then we hear The Voice: “Midnight in the Village/Seeger lights the candles....” References to the 1960s NYC folk scene abound, but something about this song reminds me of “Heroes”: Is it meant to be anthemic? Is it meant to be ironic? Can he have it both ways at once? Yes, he can. (Why? Because he’s David fucking Bowie, that’s why.) 3. The Stars (Are Out Tonight) This song has really grown on me; it rolls along with clean Germanic precision, an eerie guitar line floating atop the mix. At first it seems almost too precise, but it has an insidious charm. This seems to be Bowie's take on celebrity culture, where the stars are both more and less than human; "They watch us from behind their shades," from their stretch limos, "gleaming like blackened sunshine." One can’t help but think of David himself in the mid-70s, as seen in Cracked Actor. 4. The Next Day Although this works perfectly well as the opening track, to me it is a little more effective once the album’s had a chance to build some momentum. Like a lot of the songs here, this one has something of a Scary Monsters feel to it; pop music with a serrated edge. You might have thought something called “The Next Day” would have an optimistic slant; think again....
Here I am Not quite dying My body left to rot in a hollow tree Its branches throwing shadows On the gallows for me And the next day And the next And another day
5. I’d Rather Be High I'll be honest with you, though the war imagery on this song is clear enough (“training these guns on those men in the sand”), I'm not sure what Nabokov has to do with it, and I don’t know who Clare and Lady Manners are. I like these little mysteries; someday it’ll all make sense, I’m sure. Musically, “I’d Rather Be High” is quite tasty, with a cascading guitar line that is pleasingly Frippish. 6. How Does the Grass Grow? Blood, blood, blood, that’s how. A theme is emerging here. The ghost of Graham Greene hovers somewhere nearby. 7. Valentine’s Day This might be my favorite song on the album. I love the combination of the lush, savory surface — complete with “sha-la-la”s — and twisted lyrics, apparently about a school shooter. 8. Boss of Me Some reviews I’ve read have tried to interpret this song in light of Bowie’s personal life, with Iman cast as the “small town girl” of the lyrics. I do not find that line of thinking convincing. Word to the wise, do not try to think like David Bowie; you’ll hurt yourself that way. 9. Dirty Boys This also might be my favorite song on the album — a tense, taut interplay of bass, drums, guitar, and sax punctuated by fierce bursts of controlled noise. Sexy and dangerous. Once again Scary Monsters is the key reference point, though that guitar part reminds me of “Fame.” 10. Love Is Lost Another tightly wound track, this time based on a relentless, throbbing keyboard line. Once again the mood is dark:
You know so much, it's making you cry You refuse to talk but you think like mad You've cut out your soul and the face of thought Oh, what have you done? Oh, what have you done?
Is that last bit an intentional reference to the Talking Heads “Once in a Lifetime?”, or is it just a coincidence? Discuss amongst yourselves. 11. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die This is a tricky one — though the lyrics say it is grim and spiteful, to me it feels like an uplifting experience. Features a “Wild Is the Wind”–quality vocal performance from Mr. Bowie, not to mention backing vocals lifted straight from “The Supermen.” Lyrically this is sort of a bookend to “Rock’n’Roll Suicide,” only instead of "You're not alone,” it concludes with:
Oblivion shall own you Death alone shall love you I hope you feel so lonely You could die
Somehow, though, the way the song is presented suggests empathy rather than hate. Or maybe it’s a kiss-off to Osama bin Laden written pre-Seal Team Six? Note to self, follow your own advice in the notes to #8. No one knows what Bowie is thinking, but he is clearly winking at us with the fadeout, a reprise of the drumbeat from “Five Years.” 12. Heat I am not the first to note this song’s clear resemblance to the Walker Brothers’ “The Electrician”; there’s no mistaking it, so therefore I am going to classify it as homage rather than theft. The key line here is “I am a seer/I am a liar.” True that. “Heat” comes at the end of the offical “The Next Day,” but to me it lacks the emotional resonance of a good album closer; so let’s move on from here to... 13. Where Are We Now? Bowie fans will remember where they were when they first heard “Where Are We Now?”, the song that marked the end of his 10-year silence (I was here in this very room in my house on M Street). It is by far the most sentimental piece here, and though it is not yet one of those rare songs that regularly brings me to tears, I can imagine that someday it will be. Not only is it lovely and moving in itself, building to a gentle but powerful crescendo, it is also inextricably wrapped up in my mind with this particular period in my life; which is what great music does, innit?
As long as there’s sun As long as there’s rain As long as there’s fire As long as there’s me As long as there’s you
This leaves “If You Can See Me,” “Dancing Out in Space,” “So She” and “I’ll Take You There” as bonus tracks, and that seems about right; these are all worthwhile but not essential. Now punch my ticket, let’s go back to track 1 and start over again....

What’s Blowing My Mind, 2013 Edition (Part 4)

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on March 11th, 2013 by bill
[caption id="attachment_4309" align="alignnone" width="235" caption="Mr. Duke, I presume"][/caption]

Station to Station

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... 1:14 This is where the song begins in earnest, with two alternating piano chords played in a mechanical, purposely jerky fashion. It is the sound of long-dormant machinery whirring into action, of a factory populated by robots who are perfectly functional but not entirely sane. This brief section is jarring, anxiety-producing, lasting all of six seconds until at... 1:20 The bass comes in, playing a repeated three-note figure that has a much more warm and human sound to it, and at this point I can feel myself relax, often exhaling audibly. The bass is joined by a skittering rhythm guitar part and a booming drum, and we’re off. 1:51 Here the band locks into a slow, relentless funk groove with a guitar thrust that is repeated three times, then answered by a keyboard line that sounds almost like a melodica. This may in fact be my favorite part of the song; I could listen to it approximately forever. But it lasts about for about a minute and a half, until at 3:16 we hear David’s voice for the first time, crooning the immortal words “The return of the Thin White Duke / throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.” Much has been made of this Thin White Duke character, often cited along with Ziggy Stardust as one of the dramatic personae David famously adopted in the 70s. I think this idea is a tad overblown. The TWD is not much of a “character” really; I tend to think it was just three words that David thought sounded cool together. True, Bowie himself was extremely thin at the time, and tremendously white, and has always been an aristocrat; so the suit fits, but I’m not sure it amounts to more than that. Next the groove returns, this time with words: “Here are we, one magical moment / Such is the stuff from where dreams are woven.” I don’t want to get too deep into analysis of the lyrics here – there are plenty of places where you can find that – but to me this song is one of the more successful examples of Bowie’s semi-random process of lyric generation. It doesn’t scan especially well on the page, but in context the effect is dazzling. This section concludes with the second return of the Thin White Duke, this time not just throwing darts in lovers’ eyes, but also “making sure white stains” – apparently a reference to a book by Aleister Crowley. (The work of Crowley and other occultists was as much a part of Bowie’s diet at the time as cocaine – of which more later.) 5:16 After a brief lull, the drums announce the beginning of a new phase; the effect is not unlike a rocket shedding its successive stages as it shoots into the sky. The pace picks up considerably here, driven by piano and guitar; the words are more upbeat, with mentions of “mountains on mountains” and “sunbirds to soar with,” though with a wistful quality as these things are apparently no more. “Drink to the men who protect you and I,” says David, sounding suddenly like a politician up for re-election. “Drink drink drain your glass raise your glass high.” But we all know that Bowie’s preferred refreshment of this era did not come in a glass; and now that we’re almost six minutes into the song, it’s about time for a little bump, no? 6:00 The band upshifts another gear as David announces, “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine / I’m thinking that it must be love.” This is a rare moment of lyrical transparency from our chameleon friend; it was no secret he was a Bolivian marching powder enthusiast – reportedly his cocaine consumption in the mid-70s rivaled that of anyone, anywhere, at any time – but this is the only direct reference to it in song that I can think of. Still, I’m not entirely convinced that it’s not the side effects of the cocaine; it’s quite possible that it is. Which begs the question, if cocaine causes you to produce a “Station to Station,” is it really so bad? I have already posted at length about this subject, and don’t wish to do so again. Suffice it to to say that I am told David suffered terribly from his addiction, and I believe it. But if that’s what he had to do to bring us these messages from another plane, I can’t say I’m sorry he did it. The peak of the song lasts from about 6:00 to 6:10; after that, we’re informed, “It’s too late” for many things – to be hateful, grateful, etc. – because “the European cannon is here.” Whatever that is. (The Bowie johnson, perhaps?) 7:16 Everything from here on is coda, really, with many repetitions of the “It’s too late” refrain as the music sails off into the stratosphere. “Station to Station” has no true ending, just a fadeout, which even more than most fadeouts suggests that the song will be continuing on into infinity...or at least until the drugs run out. (In live versions the Thin White Duke returns yet again to close the proceedings, lending a rather more sinister quality.) And before you know it, here come the delicious opening bars of “Golden Years”...but that is a topic for another time.

What’s Blowing My Mind, 2013 Edition (Part 3)

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on March 5th, 2013 by bill

The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

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.

Where are we now? How about now?

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on January 9th, 2013 by bill
[caption id="attachment_4200" align="alignnone" width="400" caption="Clockwise from top left: young Bowie, old Burroughs, old Bowie"][/caption]
It's not my position for the kind of artist that I am – which is a person who tries to capture the rate of change – for me to adopt any given policy or stance, politically. Because my job is as an observer of what is happening.
     –David Bowie This quote is from a 1977 interview posted by Momus on his blog yesterday (along with his insta-cover of the new Bowie single "Where Are We Now"). It lends some insight, I think, into the quandary that a David Bowie (in this case, the David Bowie) finds himself in circa 2013, and perhaps into why he's been largely silent for these last 10 years. Back in the 70s, the rate of change was faster than it had been previously, but still reasonable enough that an artist of Bowie's abilities (aided sometimes by illegal stimulants) could keep pace and even stay slightly ahead of the curve. Nowadays, the rate of change is so astronomically fast that no one could keep up with it — least of all a 66-year-old man with a bad heart. His answer, it appears, has been to go completely in the opposite direction, toward radical slowness. (One album in 10 years is slow by anyone's standards except maybe Axl Rose or Andrew Eldritch.) We have no way of knowing what the album's going to sound like, but the only clue he's given us so far is "Where Are We Now" — which seems blithely oblivious of the modern speed of life, instead reveling in a languid pace suiting its sentimental subject matter. (In contrast, remember how frantic David seemed playing drum'n'bass during the Earthling era, circa 1997, when he was still trying to Keep Up? Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?) So far it seems to be working for him. About half of all Internet traffic yesterday was Bowie-related, and none of it save the initial salvo (single release, album announcement, and website relaunch) came from the man himself. I imagine him holed up in his New York City apartment today, watching with bemusement the cascading ripples spreading out from his position at the center of the universe. As an approach to dealing with 21st-century anxiety, this is a sound strategy we would all do well to emulate. As a marketing plan, though, I wouldn't try it at home, no matter how successful it is. What works for him won't work for you. Why, you ask? Because he's David Bowie, that's why.

David Lives

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on January 8th, 2013 by bill
Over the last couple days I'd been thinking what I could post to mark David Bowie's 66th birthday today (also the birthdays of Elvis, 78; Bill Graham, 82; Graham Chapman, 81; Stephen Hawking, 71; Soupy Sales, 87; and on a slightly lesser note, R. Kelly, 46). It was hard to generate too much enthusiasm, as David appeared to have shuffled off into retirement after his last album, Reality, in 2003. It was going to be a link, maybe, to the video for the original version of "Space Oddity," circa 1969. But the tricky Mr. B beat me to the punch, shocking the world by releasing a new single and announcing a new album shortly after midnight. What is perhaps most shocking is that he managed to keep it a secret for so long. As an article in the Guardian said,
It's incredible that, in an era of gossip websites and messageboard rumours, one of the biggest stars in the world, presumed retired, can spend two years making a new album without the merest whisper of it reaching the public. But somehow he did it.
Another interesting twist is the cover, which appears to be simply the cover of the "Heroes" album, with the word "Heroes" crossed out and a white square with the words "The Next Day" obscuring much of the content. Strange and provocative — well done, Mr. Jones and co. As for the music, I like the single — I'm not sure yet if I love it — but I can't wait to hear more. How long till March?