Friend of the Blog Knox Bronson and I have had a running argument for… I guess… 20 years now over the relative merits of these two albums, which for a long time looked like they would be David Bowie’s last. (There is a similar argument to be had over the actual final albums.) I’ve always favored Reality, which I think is less consistent but has higher highs; Knox prefers Heathen, which he ranks #1 among post-Scary Monsters Bowies.
The time has come to consider the subject further. Not that I intend to settle it, exactly — it is subjective, after all; my motto is de gustibus non est disputandum. But by exploring further I hope that, if we continue to disagree, we will at least disagree on a higher level and about more important things.
Let’s begin by looking at….
The Album Covers
This is an easy one, as the cover of Reality is one of the worst in Bowie’s catalog:
Whereas Heathen is one of the best. I mean, those creepy blank eyes….
No point considering this further. Let’s move on to…
The Cover Versions
I’ve never been crazy about David’s cover of “Cactus”; it seems extraneous given that he had already spent years working out his Pixies obsession through Tin Machine. And “I’ll Be Waiting for You,” though theoretically a Neil Young song, comes filtered through the Pixies’ version and thus is basically a Pixies cover too. Both are fairly straight-ahead rock’n’roll readings, and you can’t out-Pixie the Pixies, so why bother?
“I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” is a whole different KOF.1In its original form, as recorded by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, it is… well… hmmm… hard to describe actually. To the YouTube!
The Ledge (birth name Norman Carl Odam) was the source for the name “Stardust,” and David was paying him back by covering one of his songs, which presumably netted him a nice little royalty. And I guess continues to — I see that the Ledge (born in 1947, the same year as DB) is reportedly still alive and well and living in San Jose, which makes me wonder if I didn’t run into him sometime and not know it? I’d like to think so.
Anyway, Bowie’s version could hardly be more different from the original, and not just because he pronounces “gemini” properly. Taken on its own terms I quite like it, but it sounds like an outtake from Earthling and is jarringly out of place on Heathen, both in sound and in mood.
As for Reality: Like “Cactus,” the cover of “Pablo Picasso” just seems unnecessary. Nice of Bowie to tip his hat to Jonathan Richman, but it’s a stylistic mismatch and the changes David makes are not for the better. And “Try Some Buy Some” — the George Harrison composition whose utter lack of commercial appeal set Ronnie Spector’s solo career back a decade (see other blog) — is a perplexing choice, especially since some pretty good songs were left off Reality for lack of space.
Overall, were I editing this universe, I would delete all five of these from the two albums and throw them on Pin Ups II with the version of “Pictures of Lily” Bowie recorded around the same time, maybe “Nature Boy” and/or “A Foggy Day,” and whatever other covers from that period that might be floating around.2This would make a good companion piece to Toy — the sort of album you put on, then three songs in wonder why.
I realize we’re not starting our consideration of Heathen and Reality off on a very positive note, but there is a lot to like about both of them, I swear. We’ll get into that next time.