Over the next couple months I want to dive into the subject of David Bowie again — mostly because I have been ever-so-slowly making my way through Ashes to Ashes, the second and much larger of Chris O’Leary’s song-by-song guides, and have now arrived at the turning point that was the early Nineties.
At this point Bowie’s golden era was long in the past, but lately I find that his years in the wilderness — of which there were many — interest me more. The Imperial years (roughly the Seventies) gave us a dozen albums of untouchable genius. This is a known fact set in stone, and while I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about them, my opinions aren’t going to fundamentally change.
But there’s a lot of gray area once you get past Scary Monsters. Take for instance Let’s Dance — Bowie’s greatest commercial triumph, and also the major artistic compromise that sent him down the slippery slope to the tragic late Eighties. I’ve always admired his ability to just decide “I’m going to do a hit album now” and immediately make one that sells 10 million copies. But at the same time, much as I’m leery of invoking the hackneyed concept of soul-selling, history makes absolutely clear that once he started chasing hits he lost his way as an artist.
Ashes to Ashes got me to really sit down and listen to Tonight and Never Let Me Down in full for the first time (back in the day I was too squeamish to do more than dabble), and I was not wrong about them: They suck. It’s hard to say which is worse. Musically, Tonight has no redeeming qualities — even the hit single, “Blue Jean,” I find squalid and depressing. (I know some people like “Loving the Alien,” which I guess is the least painful of a sorry bunch.) But it is not as embarrassing as NMLD, whose painful-to-behold cover signals a truly grievous descent into schlock and bad taste. (There are so many rappers in the world. Even back then this was true. Why have Mickey Rourke rap? Why?)
Still, perhaps because of its very vulgarity,Never Let Me Down occasionally shows signs of life. I have a particular weakness for “Beat of Your Drum,” which marries moody verses seemingly inspired by Peter Murphy to a whooping chorus nicked from Bruce Springsteen. Others favor “Zeroes,” and “Time Will Crawl” has a certain élan.
Even so, it was a dark time for Mr. B, and he knew it. By 1989 he had decided to tear the whole fucking thing down and start again; thus we got Tin Machine, whose sections of Ashes to Ashes it took me months to get through. Not because it’s all great, or all awful, but because it takes time to tease out the wheat from the chaff. TM had a spark that at times made them a very exciting band, but they were always hamstrung by questionable decisions that leave you sitting there scratching your head. (“Stateside?”) To dig into their oeuvre — and there is a surprising amount of it, including a lot of unreleased material, some of which is better than things that made it onto the records — is to hear a band trying every idea they could think of. Some take flight, some go splat, but you can’t fault the effort.
My first Bowie live experience was a Tin Machine show in 1991. I remember it only vaguely, which is not unusual. My sense is that it was loud, raucous, and ultimately exhausting. At the time TM was touring in support of Tin Machine II, a very good record — the first to both garner and deserve the “best since Scary Monsters” label — that did no business whatsoever. Due to record company troubles it sank like a stone and remains out of print, and unavailable for streaming, to this day.
Subsequently Bowie disbanded the Machine and reteamed with Nile Rodgers, presumably to make an album that would have some of Let’s Dance’s market penetration. He then proceeded to sabotage this agenda at every turn, filling Black Tie White Noise with songs that sounded slick but were not so much ahead of or behind the curve as perpendicular to what was commercially viable at the time.
One of the most perplexing moments is “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” where Bowie covers a song by Morrissey that is a transparent ripoff of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.”
Is he taking the piss? Is he winking at his audience as he out-Morrisseys Morrissey? But those choirs, the impassioned vocals… maybe he really means it? These are all valid questions, but again — as so often during this period — the operative question is why.
Anyway, the song that really made me stop and think this time around was “Jump They Say,” which sounds like nothing so much as an outtake from Earthling, still four years in the future at this point. Crucially, though, “JTS” comes before before rather than after the great trip-hop/jungle wave of 1994–95. Musically it bears the clear imprint of the Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights, which in turn had been partly inspired by Heroes. But it splices the Walkers’ chilly Eurodisco with a percussion-heavy framework devised by Nile Rodgers and some state-of-the-art technical jiggery-pokery. (O’Leary says that “JTS” uses a horn sample from an old jazz song by Stan Kenton, and I believe him because I’ve never known him to be wrong, but Whosampled lists only “Hot Pants (Bonus Beats)” by Bobby Byrd as a source.)
“Jump They Say” intersected with the zeitgeist enough to become a top 10 hit in Britain — Bowie’s “only top 10 single between 1986’s ‘Absolute Beginners’ and 2013’s ‘Where Are We Now?’”, says the Wikipedia. It also spawned his best video in many a year, with DB looking impeccably cool as always but also allowing himself to age visibly for the first time:
The consensus is that this is a song about Bowie’s half-brother Terry’s suicide, and I’m sure that’s in there. But I have my own theory, hot off the presses, valid only for today, get it while you can.
In 1993 David Bowie was newly sober, newly married, and closer to his 50th birthday than his 40th. For a solid decade his career had been beset with struggles both artistic and commercial. So this was a time for serious reevaluation.
He could easily have just quit music. He had a somewhat promising acting career, or he could write or paint, or just do nothing if he wanted to. (He tried this later, from 2004-2012.) In fact, if he’d retired after Scary Monsters (or even Let’s Dance), his legend would have been titanic, his batting average one of the highest ever. Instead he subjected himself and his fans to the indignity of Tonight and Never Let Me Down. By the time of Tin Machine, a sincere if muddled attempt at rehabilitation, he was a figure of outright mockery in hip circles. (The notorious British music papers were particularly brutal.)
If he was going to continue to make music — and try to dig himself out of the hole he was in — he was going to have to build a new relationship with his audience. And here’s where it gets pretty speculative — but I imagine that he felt some bitterness over the way his fans had (by and large) failed to rally to Tin Machine. He must have wondered if it was him they liked or his ability to entertain them. If he couldn’t do what they liked, would they just as soon he made a martyr of himself? For some reason I have a mental picture of David standing atop the Glass Spider as the crowd chants, “Jump! Jump! Jump!”
And of course, you know, the fans didn’t really care about him as a person. They didn’t know him personally. That’s how it works; the relationship between artist and audience is ultimately one of producer and consumer, however sincere the feelings may be on either side. But for a long time Bowie, by virtue of sheer charisma, had managed to maintain the illusion that he and his fans comprised a community. By 1993 that illusion lay in ruins.
So why did he decide to carry on? Maybe he had stretched himself thin buying beach houses for Iman. (Who, yes, had her own money. I’m just theorizing.) Maybe he needed the attention. Maybe he realized — as he would many more times in the future — that when push came to shove, what he really was was a rock star, haters be damned.
Despite the success of“Jump They Say,”Black Tie White Noise did not catapult Bowie back to the top. The reviews were middling and the record company — which had sunk a lot of capital into acquiring talent, Bowie most of all — went bankrupt shortly after its release. But he was back in the game, and in the years to come he would try and try and try again.
The secret to his persistence may perhaps be found in the last section of“Jump They Say,” where after two minutes and forty seconds of uniformly bleak imagery, it suddenly pivots to repeated calls of “got to believe/somebody/got to believe!”
Could this be a reference to a Higher Power? Bowie never talked much about his sobriety; it was part of his private life that he kept locked away. And it never gets written about much either. People would rather giggle about the amount of coke he did in the Seventies (which, to be fair, were the most productive years).
And I’m probably not the one to write about it. But it’s something to ponder. Let’s do that, and I’ll be back when I have something more to say.
A lot to unpack here. I think I’ll come back tomorrow.
I am happy you are writing about David again.