David Bowie would have turned 75 today; or, to put it another way, this is the 75th anniversary of the birth of David Robert Jones in Brixton, London, England, Earth. (It is also the 87th anniversary of the birth of Elvis Aron Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi, and the 91st of the birth of Wulf Wolodia Grajonca in Berlin, Germany. I could go on but I won’t. This is a popular day to be born for some reason.)
Lately I’ve been reading the graphic novel Bowie, a sincere if sometimes clumsy account of David’s rise to fame. Early on there’s a scene where his manager Ken Pitt, with an episode of The Monkees playing in the background, convinces him that he needs to change his name to avoid confusion with Davy Jones. Just one problem with that: David R. Jones became David Bowie in 1965; the first episode ofThe Monkees was not broadcast until September 1966.
It is true that future Monkee David Thomas Jones had already made a name for himself as the Artful Dodger in a production of the musical Oliver! in London and then Broadway, as well as several appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. So, maybe that really was the reason. But I think it’s worth noting that Bob Dylan’s song “Ballad of a Thin Man” had appeared on his album Highway 61 Revisited, released in late August 1965. I can easily imagine young David hearing the words
Something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is Do you, Mr. Jones?
And freaking right out. Who would want to be Mr. Jones after that?
Here’s Bob doing the song in 1966:
I’ll bet David was at one of the shows on that tour. Even if he didn’t have the money, he would have found a way.
And that’s all the time we have for today. Just dropped in to say Happy Birthday to David and everybody else. Carry on.
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 thetragic 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 may rappers in the world. Even back then this was true. Why have Mickey Rourke rap? Why?)
I can’t say I feel terribly inspired to do a year-end wrap-up here. It was kind of a boring year; not a bad one, on a personal level, but one lacking in what we generally think of as Events.
We did get to see Courtney Barnett at the Fox in Oakland earlier this month, on a trip that included my first visit to the Chase Center for a Warriors game. (A loss to the Spurs, unfortunately, but a fairly exciting game.) There were also several nice dinners with friends, and on the whole I can say that a good time was had.
But for the nonce I’ve decided to take Courtney’s advice and, rather than looking back, make a list of things to look forward to in 2022.
Within the past hour I have learned, first, that Pat Fish (a.k.a. The Jazz Butcher) had released a sprawling compilation of B-sides and rarities, including a bunch of things I’ve never heard before; and then, mere minutes later, that he had died — apparently of a heart attack — back in October.
So I am feeling a bit of whiplash.
Butch has been a favorite of mine ever since, looking for material for my radio show at KZSC in Santa Cruz (circa 1986), I slapped an album called Bloody Nonsense on the turntable. So it is possible that the first song I heard was “The Human Jungle”; though I feel like it was probably “Death Dentist,” which would mean I started with the B side. In any case, I was immediately smitten.
From that point on I followed his career through all its twists and turns, of which there were many. He was that rare artist who could be funny in a serious way; quintessentially British but also universal. He made some great records and some lesser records, but he devoted his life to the cause.