Bowie’s 50th Birthday Bash, Part 1

Because I’m at that point in revisiting his career. I found myself watching David Bowie’s 50th birthday concert yesterday. I seem to remember that back in the day I had mixed feelings about this show. While it was of course cool to see, for instance, Frank Black on stage with the great man, there was something rather embarrassing about Bowie’s naked grasping for relevance with The Kids. It’s even worse when he cozies up to Billy Corgan or Dave Grohl. And there was way too much emphasis on material from Earthling, which was a pretty good album, but come on….

Watching it again 25 years later, though, I’ve decided I love it. Everything about it that’s overbaked or perverse or shameless… well, that’s David Bowie, innit? Of course he’s going to force everyone to listen to his new material when they really just want to hear the hits. Because that’s how David do. You don’t like it? Go see Billy Joel or whoever. If you want to see Bowie, you’re going to sit through “Little Wonder” and “Dead Man Walking” before you hear “Heroes” or “Under Pressure,” and you’re going to like it.

In that spirit, I’m going to write a few posts about this because at the moment I truly have nothing better to do. This might be a good time to say that though I love and treasure every reader of this blog, I wouldn’t take it personally if you unsubscribed. Most of my effort these days goes into Kiss the Culprit, and this blog has once again become a repository for random thoughts with nowhere else to go.

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“Earthling” Revisited, Briefly

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.1

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.

Earthling is not without its charms but dilutes them. Each individual song is too long, and the album as whole is waaaay too long. In fact it was originally slated to be an EP, and probably should have stayed one. I’d keep “I’m Afraid of Americans,” “Looking for Satellites,” “Seven Years in Tibet,” and maybe “The Last Thing You Should Do.” As a wise person once said, “Brevity is, in almost everything, a virtue.”

Back on the Bowie Train

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.”

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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.

Last Notes on “Outside”

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.

Hallo Spaceboy, Goodbye Oxford Town

The world at large has mostly forgotten about Outside. For most people, including a lot of younger Bowie fans, the discography pretty much jumps from Let’s Dance to Blackstar.2If they know anything from the mid-90s it’s likely to be “Hallo Spaceboy,” but unfortunately the version most circulated is the Pet Shop Boys remix, which is… well, let’s be polite here. I, personally, hate it. I think it eviscerates and needlessly discofies a pretty good song. But then I’ve never seen the point of anything the Pet Shop Boys did, so maybe it’s just me.

The original track is, in the parlance of the times, a banger. “I adore that track,” said Bowie. “In my mind, it was like Jim Morrison meets industrial. When I heard it back, I thought, ‘Fuck me. It’s like metal Doors.’”

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When he agreed to let PSB remix the song, he didn’t know that they were going to steal it from him. Nor did he know they would splice in bits of “Space Oddity,” which annoyed him.2But it was a hit, and he didn’t exactly disown it — as it climbed the charts he agreed to do several TV appearances where his omnipresent cool was severely tested by having two insufferable twerps behind him.3

Later he had regrets. Says Chris O’Leary,

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Control or Deranged?

You don’t really need both “No Control” and “I’m Deranged” on the album, as they pretty much cover the same territory. I tend to favor “No Control,” which is sleeker and sexier:

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Brian Eno agreed with me, calling “I’m Deranged” “a poorly organized song with no meaningful structure,” adding, “It goes something like ABBBBBBBBCBBBBBBB but the hook is A. I’ve had relationships like that, where the bit you liked never happens again.”

But David Lynch liked “Deranged,” which comes to life when paired with Lynch’s hypnotically minimal visuals:

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In fact, playing that right now in another window, I’m changing my mind in real time. Maybe we lose “No Control” instead? Maybe we keep both, put one at the beginning and one at the end? Or even put them back-to-back, lean into the repetition. One or both would need to be edited, though; or maybe they could be combined somehow. There are a lot of options. When is the release date for this thing, anyway?