The Buddha of Brixton and Bromley

“One side of me is experimental and the other side of me wants to make something that people can get into and I don’t know fucking why! Why am I like this?”
—David Bowie

This week I’m on to The Buddha of Suburbia, which I never paid much attention to before. I wasn’t even aware it existed for at least a decade after it came out — it wasn’t released in the U.S. at the time, and this pre-Outside era marked a low point in my interest in what David was doing.

Chris O’Leary is a big advocate for B of S, and I guess I can see why — if you’d heard it in 1993 you might have given it the “Best Album Since Scary Monsters” label (especially if you weren’t as big a fan of Tin Machine II as me). But it seems more like a footnote to the great man’s catalog than the Great Lost Bowie Record.

I’m trying though. Unfamiliar Bowie albums are a dwindling resource. I even went so far as to watch the 1960 Kirk Douglas/Kim Novak movie from which Dave may have lifted the title for “Strangers When We Meet”:

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Two Deaths and a Rebirth

Today of course is the day we commemorate the death of David Bowie, now six years in the past. Although, if immortality is measured by continued presence in the culture, who is more immortal than he?

As it happens, a new song by the Jazz Butcher popped up in my Spotify feed today. This feels very apropos because it’s starting to seem that before kicking the bucket Mr. Fish made his own Blackstar — an album that he knew would be his last, although as far as I know he didn’t have cancer or anything; he just sensed that his time was nigh.

“Running on Fumes” is a particularly extreme example of the song that combines jaunty music with the bleakest of lyrics. From where I’m sitting it sounds like a poison kiss from beyond the grave:

I’m gonna throw a party and I’m gonna take requests
Send out invitations to the people I detest
They’ve been dying for some entertainment, you know the rest
Because we’re running on fumes, running on fumes, everybody’s running on fumes
Lemmy and Bowie and Prince all gone, everybody’s running on fumes

Make your own entertainment
That’s what you’re gonna have to do
Make your own entertainment
While you slowly come to understand
Your stupid dreams aren’t coming true

I mean, ouch. Though I guess the fact that it exists at all must be testament to the fact that on some level he felt like it was worth making.

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On a much, much happier note, through a fortuitous combination of circumstances my beloved and I were fortunate enough to be present for Klay Thompson’s return to the hardwood last night. I took a bunch of video, because of course I did, and I won’t get carried away with it but here’s my favorite: Klay warming up with Steph Curry, also wearing a #11 jersey.

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There was magic in the air. A little of it still lingers in my lungs — and hopefully that’s all. Over and out for now.

The Bowieest Day of the Year

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:

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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.

Here Comes the Shaking Man

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 may rappers in the world. Even back then this was true. Why have Mickey Rourke rap? Why?)

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Five Years

Lately as I gaze out at the shrunken reddish sun trying to insinuate itself through the smoke, I find myself thinking of this song. When Bowie wrote it slightly less than 50 years ago, it was science fiction. But today if news came across the wires that Earth would uninhabitable in five years, would anyone be that surprised? The recent UN climate report wasn’t too far off, but there are no riots in the streets. Cops are not kissing the feet of priests, and no one is vomiting.

Or at least that’s not happening here… though maybe it is in the big cities. From this vantage point it seems more like a quiet, slow-motion apocalypse. There will be plenty of time, at least, to assemble the proper playlist.