Some of My Favorite Shows (Part 3)

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on October 13th, 2015 by bill

In the news today was a story saying that David Bowie has officially retired from live performance. This comes as no huge surprise, as David has not played a gig since 2004, nor has he shown any particular inclination to do so.

And it’s probably just as well; Dave is creeping up on 70 now, and though his voice still sounds pretty good on record, it might not be able to stand up to the rigors of a lengthy performance, to say nothing of an actual tour. I had been holding out some hope that he might see fit to favor with us one last show, hopefully simulcast worldwide, but seemingly it is not to be. Though, of course, it is Bowie’s prerogative to change his mind; remember when he said he would never play his hits again after the 1990 tour? “Going back on my word is part and parcel of what I do for you,” said Mr. B back in 2003. “Part of my entertaining factor is lying to you.”

I was fortunate enough to have him lie to me in person four times: once with Tin Machine, once on the Earthling tour, and twice on the “A Reality Tour.” The first two were, on the whole, disappointments. I liked Tin Machine more than most people, but their live show (at the Warfield in SF) was a bit of a slog. I remember that they did a noisy version of the Pixies’ “Debaser,” which was pretty cool, and that “If There Is Something” sounded good. Other than that it didn’t leave much of an impression.
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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.
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Nothing Has Changed – Part 2 (Disc 3)

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on December 31st, 2014 by bill

David Bowie: Artist and athlete

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.
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Nothing Has Changed – Part 1 (Disc 2)

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on December 8th, 2014 by bill

Funk to funky

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.)
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Album of the Year 2013

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why, Dancing about architecture on January 8th, 2014 by bill

Guess who?

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.
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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.
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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

Mr. Duke, I presume

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…
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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

Clockwise from top left: young Bowie, old Burroughs, old Bowie

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.