When Earthling came out the critical consensus was that Bowie, once the most audacious of pioneers, had been reduced to a follower of musical fashion. And this narrative is not necessarily wrong: Earthling is clearly an echo, a couple years after the fact, of the great drum’n’bass/jungle/trip-hop boom of the mid-90s.1Bowie, for whatever reason, seemed to prefer the skittery restlessness of the former to the spacious soundscapes of the latter, which seems more like his natural home.
At the same time, it reflects the Catholic tastes and ingrained idiosyncrasies of its maker, a man from another time and another planet. Earthling is an album that only David Bowie could have made, and he gives it his best effort. But try as he might — and his enthusiasm for the material is palpable — he can’t quite keep the ship afloat.
I was nervous in the lead-up to the Bauhaus show last Thursday, sure that something had to go wrong. And sure enough we almost got Munsoned out there by a huge accident on I-5. Only quick thinking by my brilliant wife saved us from a multihour delay that might not have kept us from the show, but surely would have occasioned much stress and angst.
After that it was all pretty easy. The opening act was a guy called Soriah who combined Tuvan throat-singing with tribal percussion to intriguing, if sometimes soporific, effect. During the set break I sort of spaced out, and next thing I knew someone was playing the opening drumbeats to “Rosegarden Funeral of Sores.” Then Peter Murphy appeared, now completely bald but with magnificent Shakespearean whiskers, shaking his feathered shoulders as he spat, “Virgin Mary was tired.”
And there was Daniel Ash, glamorous as always in glittery coat and remarkably intact wall of hair. Stage right was David J., eternally cool and understated in black suit. Little brother Kevin was a whirlwind of activity behind his kit, and if the drum parts he wrote as a young man are difficult for a sixtysomething to keep up with, he didn’t show it.
There were no real surprises. They stuck mostly to the oldest stuff, doing five songs from In the Flat Field and three from Mask. In the gradual winnowing of their set list over the years, only “Silent Hedges” and “She’s in Parties” have survived from the last two albums.
On the Bowie front, I’m done with Outside and bound for Earthling. But along the way I was compelled to revisit that awkward period when David had allied himself with Nine Inch Nails, looking for a little cachet with The Kids. I was at one of the shows they did together in 1995, and my opinion then was that Trent Reznor is a medium talent at best who compensates for his lack of range with vulgar histrionics.
Watching the footage didn’t change that opinion. Bowie manages to maintain his dignity beside Trent’s flailing, but only just. Was it was worth it? NIN did bring quite a few young folks into the shows, but many of them left when Bowie came on. The two bands did a few songs together during the changeover and their “Scary Monsters” is not half bad, but on the whole this footnote to Bowie history is one I’d prefer to forget. (Trent’s a grownup now, and a film composer of some renown. Hopefully he’s mellowed out a bit.)
Looking for music from this period I came across a show from later in the tour, post-NIN, that was much better than I expected. By this point Bowie had grown weary of tepid responses from audiences unfamiliar with the new songs, and started mixing in more classics. And while I salute and admire his decision to challenge himself and his fans with fresh material, I don’t at all mind hearing this band tackle “Diamond Dogs” or “Moonage Daydream.”
They also do nice versions of “Breaking Glass” and “Lust for Life,” though in the process inadvertently reveal them to be more or less the same song. “Heroes,” on the other hand, fares poorly. Reeves Gabrels should not have been allowed within 100 miles of this song; his compulsive wanking makes a mockery of Robert Fripp’s cerebral elegance. All these years later, Gabrels’ long tenure in the band continues to puzzle me; it may have something to do with personal loyalty stemming from his having helped DB get sober.
Anyway, this show has a happy ending: any bad taste in the mouth is erased by a winning run through “All the Young Dudes,” and we’re ready for whatever’s next.
This summer, after a long delay, Bauhaus is scheduled to embark on their first tour in Quite a Few Years. Kate and I will catch them in Seattle. Am I excited? Well… the boys are getting pretty long in the tooth now. In my most recent memory of Peter Murphy he is wearing reading glasses, conjuring bat sounds from his phone at the end of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”; this was when he toured to celebrate the band’s 35th anniversary with three younger musicians who were perfectly fine but definitely Not Bauhaus.
Given the simmering intra-band hostility that has obtained for some decades now, there is every reason to suspect that this reunion is motivated mostly, if not entirely, by filthy lucre. So I am keeping my expectations low. But at some level it’s not even about the performance — it’s about spending time with these guys who, in one configuration or another, have been a big part of my life for almost 40 years now.
In an encouraging sign, they recently released their first new song since 2008. Though “song” might not be the right word for it. According to the band,
“Drink the New Wine” was recorded last year during lockdown with the four members sharing audio files. The track employs the Surrealists’ “Exquisite Corpse” device whereby each artist adds to the piece without seeing what the others have done. Bauhaus have used this technique in the past to great effect. The title refers to the very first Cadavre exquis’ drawing rendered by André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert and Yves Tanguy which included words which when strung together made up the sentence, “Le cadavre exquis boiara le vin nouveau” (“The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine”). For the recording, the four musicians each had one minute and eight tracks at their disposal plus a shared sixty seconds plus four tracks for a composite at the end.
Is this something to rival their best work? Don’t be silly. It’s a trifle, it’s a goof, it’s a prank. But for whatever reason and for however long, it’s good to have them back.
Because I can’t help myself I turned my opinions about Outside into a playlist, using the latest mixes from the Brilliant Adventure box set. At 12 tracks and 48 minutes, it’s a bit more digestible than the original album.
Also, this morning I happened to be reading a Bowie radio interview from 1972. He’s talking about Ziggy Stardust, but what he says could just as easily be applied to Outside.
It originally started as a concept album, but it kind of got broken up because I found other songs I wanted to put in the album which wouldn’t have fitted into the story… so at the moment its a little fractured and a little fragmented… I’m just lighting a cigarette… so anyway what you have there on that album when it does finally come out is a story which doesn’t really take place… I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends in which state you listen to it in. The times that I’ve listened to it – I’ve had a number of meanings out of the album… but I always do. Once I’ve written an album – my interpretations of the numbers in that album are totally different afterwards than the time that I wrote them and I find that I learn a lot from my own albums about me.
Apparently this is what he did, over and over and over. I wonder, by the time he finished Blackstar, did he finally really understand himself? One certainly hopes so.