David Bowie: An Appreciation

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To a self-trained and finely conditioned amateur musicologist like me, Greatest Hits albums have always been the music industry’s signature cop-out, a sort of mercenary placeholder designed to reward artists (or, more often, record companies) for minimal work ethic or creativity while, in effect, also encouraging and congratulating nascent fans for their insufficient curiosity or incomplete devotion. A “real” fan – went the considered reasoning, since adjusted, of an unnamed critic who, full disclosure, shamefully counts a couple dozen or more such hits compilations among the several thousand albums he owns – would surely already know, love, and possess all those songs from their original releases. Even if the record company made the artist tack one new song onto the end in order to justify the record’s purchase by completist dead-enders, it’s most likely a “hit” of substandard quality, which doesn’t even mention the classic song that probably deserved to make the cut but was squeezed out. I’ve always felt that Greatest Hits albums were, at best, a necessary evil, and a poor substitute for anything new. Occasionally, however, they’re just necessary. It so happens that one of them stands among a handful of the very most affecting and influential albums of my life – along with one of that other species of compromised cash grab, the “live” album* – and that it occurred by complete accident. The album in question, released to me with impeccable timing in 1990, was the eighteen-track Changesbowie by the incomparable David Bowie, rock and roll’s patron saint of the lonely and the strange, who sadly and unimaginably left us this past Sunday.

*That shortlist live album, for the record, was Iron Maiden’s “Live After Death”, a fact which should surprise exactly no one who has ever visited this site before. Each was instrumental in helping me find my bearings, both in music and in life, and if “Death” is my all-time #1, “Changesbowie” is probably still top five. Not bad for an album the unexposed young cynic in me would’ve no doubt lumped in with all the other pop ephemera of the age.

As seems appropriate for an artist so gifted at presentation and transformation, and sometimes consumed with the surfaces of things, I first encountered David Bowie not through a stereo speaker but, rather, on television. Because of my age, I failed to witness firsthand Bowie’s seismic impact in the 1970s on popular music and popular culture, and even after so many years of a fan’s healthy devotion, I can still only reasonably contemplate those times with wide-eyed wonder. The David Bowie of my youth was not the artist so justly lionized and romanticized these past four decades or so, or the one being so vociferously mourned today. The David Bowie I first knew as a kid was, amusingly enough, the unabashed “sellout” Bowie, with his immaculately coiffed platinum blond pompadour and sleek Italian suits, creator of the diamond-selling 1983 album Let’s Dance and sly manipulator of both the listening public and the gods of art and commerce behind a then-ascendant MTV. Polished to a laser sheen by producer and disco pioneer Nile Rodgers, Let’s Dance is one of the glossiest, most professional pop artifacts to survive the Decade of Excess. Though I never actually owned it, I felt fully conversant with its charms. “Modern Love” remains one of my all-time faves, and “China Girl” and the title track filled out a trio of singles that stands toe-to-toe with the very best the decade had to offer. Even as he moved mountains in his attempts to fit into the pop landscape, I could tell there was something way different about this one. I kept hearing stories. As a budding movie fan, I of course knew Bowie as the playful but malevolent Goblin King in Jim Henson’s 1986 fantasy Labyrinth, but also from a swath of choice lyrics, from the Hunky Dory classic “Changes”, used by director John Hughes as preamble to his quintessential high school sociology dissertation The Breakfast Club:

“And these children that you spit on / as they try to change their worlds / Are immune to your consultations / They’re quite aware of what they’re going through…”

What sensitive kid – discounted or shuffled aside, lost in the crowd or, perhaps, in his/her own skin, shy, artistic, misunderstood or even bullied, made to feel different, made to feel that being different was wrong – couldn’t possibly identify with that, or instinctively love its creator for his sympathy and insight? When, a few years later, I innocently pulled the trigger on Changesbowie, what I heard didn’t shift my established musical paradigm so much as invert it all at once, chasing incomplete but intriguing ‘80s Bowie with an unreasonable mouthful of wide-ranging ‘70s androgynous extraterrestrial shapeshifter Bowie. It was something akin to pulling aside the Emerald City curtain and finding that the great and powerful Wizard of Oz was, in fact, much more than advertised and not just some ineffectual little nothing with access to impressive pyro and booming P.A. equipment.

If you are of a certain age and yet have never identified with a single David Bowie song, I must congratulate you on the Herculean physiological accomplishment of somehow having bypassed your teenaged years altogether, or else having been born into the sort of life of obscene privilege and idle disdain one generally only sees on E! Television’s “Spoiled Brat Theater” (trademark pending) reality TV block. Either way, well done. The rest of us have lost someone utterly irreplaceable, though this was not always clear to me. If you’ve somehow never heard a David Bowie song before, you have my sympathies, and I’m assigning you homework. Music is among the only passions/proclivities that carries with it the potential to turn its practitioner into a junkie and a snob simultaneously. In 1990, I was fifteen years old and already surprisingly well advanced along that particular path. Having navigated, survived, and transcended the first great musical phase of my life – those thankfully fleeting “tween” years where most everything one is exposed to makes at least a little dent – I was excited to find that the rainbow of possibility extended even further toward the horizon, and unreasonably pleased with myself over how far I’d come since leaving all that kid’s stuff behind. My obsession now was heavy metal, and thrash metal in particular. I was as ethically inflexible as anyone of my age suddenly possessed of a great love should’ve been. Amidst the din though, somehow, somewhere, I heard the angular, ominous Scary Monsters-era classic “Ashes to Ashes” and found myself unable to shake it. Synthesized within its quirky darkness was a potent triumvirate of the musical, the lyrical, and the visual (anyone who ever saw the pre-MTV video to “Ashes”, with its solarized color visions of Bowie, dressed as an unsettling combination of clown and mime, leading followers on a funeral march or slowly drowning in quicksand, will hardly forget it) that struck a heretofore unimagined chord deep within me. The suave, slippery “Modern Love/Blue Jean” incarnation of Bowie was the only one I’d ever known, and I still harbored some fond memories. This, however, was something entirely different. This practically demanded further investigation.

You can’t succinctly catalog or safely contain the breadth and depth of Bowie’s explorations within a single body. By the time Changesbowie was released, the Thin White Duke’s discography already counted seventeen studio albums, all self-contained units with their own occasionally inhospitable atmospheres. I dare say that attempting to negotiate such a gauntlet without compass, roadmap, or running start would’ve proven a daunting prospect for anyone, let alone a green kid. The hated Greatest Hits album, for once, seemed a logical, altogether sensible alternative. What this one became to me was something very near perfection. Even when I wasn’t hearing them by conventional means – and it seems much of the world stopped for at least a moment to pay proper homage – since learning of his passing, I’ve had Bowie songs playing on a repeating loop in my head without fail, and though several of them come from my post-intro studies – the soaring, utterly gorgeous “Absolute Beginners”; the plaintive “Man Who Sold the World”, which apprentice icon Kurt Cobain later immortalized during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged session; the throbbing, sinister “Heart’s Filthy Lesson” from Bowie’s equally challenging and rewarding 1995 comeback Outside (also the highly appropriate end credits song for the movie Seven); “Dead Man Walking”, the best of several strong attempts to integrate Electronic Dance Music into his boundless milieu on 1997’s propulsive Earthling; any of a number of songs off buoyant art rock statement The Next Day, which was the #13 album on my 2013 year-end list and may well have been shortchanged – a solid majority of them I heard, for at least the first hundred times or so, on Changesbowie. “Ziggy Stardust”, “Fashion”, “Rebel Rebel”, “Modern Love”, “Suffragette City”, “Changes”, “Diamond Dogs”, “Ashes to Ashes”, “China Girl”, “Young Americans”, “Fame”, “Starman”, “John, I’m Only Dancing”, “The Jean Genie”, “Golden Years”, “Let’s Dance”, “Heroes”, and, of course, “Space Oddity”. How many otherwise disconnected nights I must’ve lain in bed singing the words to Bowie’s heart-wrenching tale of a lost astronaut feeling his last bits of physical and emotional connection to Earth fall away even as he is afforded a one-of-a-kind vantage point from which to gaze upon it with fresh eyes. I’ve often wondered where the hell such an idea even comes from, though Bowie’s underlying conceptual and lyrical genius becomes first plausible then undeniable the further into his songbook one ventures. Just about any of the above-mentioned songs are epoch-defining and/or shattering musical statements in their own right, though technically I should mention I was only two-thirds of the way along when I finally realized I was just subconsciously listing every song on Changesbowie.**

**This doesn’t even include “Under Pressure”, Bowie’s amazing duet with Queen and, in my opinion, one of the dozen or so greatest rock songs ever recorded. Listen to the lift and interplay of Freddie Mercury’s celebrated and gymnastic tenor with Bowie’s commanding and, frankly, underrated baritone. My favorite singer and performer of all time meets the man who bridged musical gaps beyond number. Both are now sadly gone, but look what they left us…a once in a lifetime song that, for a change, actually exceeds the hype.  

I don’t have it within me to attempt the fool’s errand of summing up almost fifty years of David Bowie’s influence, in part because his arch peculiarity, mysterious intensity, and restlessly prolific, cheekily contrary nature make each of the many guises/characters/periods of his career worthy of its own comment and study, and in part because his reach and impact was so great – spanning and, indeed, leaping across multiple decades, generations, and listener preferences/prejudices – that he almost couldn’t help but be an impossibly many things to an improbably many people.*** Bowie was, at once, the father of 1970s glam rock and of 1980s college rock, making him the grandfather of today’s indie rock, though his thematic and lyrical content, which ranged from impossibly grand to uncomfortably intimate and internalized both the confounding and intoxicating, resonated at least on some level with an incredibly inclusive and extensive portion of the larger rock and roll audience, longing perhaps for a return to the sense of dangerous unpredictability missing from the music’s core. Bowie’s commitment to music as a means of both artistic exploration and personal transformation energized peer and bystander alike, and inspired multiple decades’ worth of genre-blurring, boundary-pushing music – for just a cursory sample, the likes of R.E.M., nine inch nails, Madonna, Pixies, The Cure, Jane’s Addiction, and St. Vincent all fall comfortably under his umbrella. Through it all, Bowie the man remained a tantalizing enigma, close enough to approach but forever frustratingly out of reach. Bowie was famously a show business chameleon, an effortlessly fascinating trendsetter and tastemaker whose elusive but singular agency touched not merely the world of music but of film, fashion, and fine art. He tried on stage and studio personas the way a socialite might try on shoes – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, the Berliner, the Starman, the New Romantic, the Goblin King, the Man Who Fell to Earth, and on, and on, and on – wringing them of every ounce of meaning and potential before discarding them for another, never following anyone, always striking his own path and succeeding or failing on his terms, often with spectacular impact.

***Well worth checking out is the interesting BBC documentary, distributed in America by the Showtime cable network, “Five Years”, which uses a bevy of un- or hardly seen archival footage in conjunction with new interviews with key collaborators (Brian Eno, Nile Rodgers, Tony Visconti, Robert Fripp, Rick Wakeman) to paint especially vivid pictures of five of the most important years in Bowie’s musical life. From Ziggy Stardust to his flirtation with American Soul, from the Berlin Trilogy to Scary Monsters, and finally to unprecedented chart heights in the early ’80s, it’s a surprisingly intimate look at an artist perhaps most defined historically by his mysterious aura and unknowable qualities. What I loved most was the insight into Bowie’s writing process, the continual reiteration of his tremendous, often discounted, talent, and the real sense that he was figuring himself out at the same time as the world was. Fragmented and pointedly incomplete but never less than fascinating, “Five Years” doesn’t outstay its welcome and is the best kind of music documentary: the kind that makes me want to both revisit old music and seek out what’s so far gone unheard.

I woke up Monday morning in a far different, and somewhat lesser, world than the one in which I fell asleep. Part of me wishes I was still sleeping now. David Bowie died of cancer two days after his birthday of January 8, a date on which he both turned 69 years of age and released, as a final statement to the many compelled to observe and study him, and a keepsake for the many more who adored him, his 25th studio album, Blackstar. I’ve yet to hear it, but that won’t last for much longer. I’ve been stuck in a rut lately, still pondering the poison pills 2015 had to offer music fans and processing the year in hopes of finishing my annual top 20 album countdown for the blog. It’ll take me infinitely longer to process the loss of David Bowie. This has been something of a season of sadness. First Lemmy and now Bowie…it seems inconceivable, though I am forced to note that four of my last six DAE posts have actually been precipitated by, if not necessarily preoccupied with, death. The experience in total has left me feeling wounded and a bit disoriented, as if I’m listing ever further away from what I feel is the implicit purpose of a site like this one: to celebrate art, and in doing so, hopefully, to celebrate life. Sometimes I’m not so sure. There’s been so much to choke down in an unreasonably short span, though intertwined with music that, thankfully, transcends the tyranny of both labels and time. I’m not sure rock and roll has many bigger icons than these left to leave us, but I’d keep them all under lock and key and 25-hour a day surveillance either way for fear the rule of threes will be invoked and enforced. The music of David Bowie became a inspiring and invigorating presence in my young life at a particularly fertile, vulnerable time and never, ever left me from that moment to this one. I’m forever grateful, and forever will so remain.

Tonight I’ll listen to Blackstar for the first time. Can’t wait to get started on a new chapter.

Planet Earth is blue…and even in death, David Bowie still has more to show us.

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