Friday, January 22, 2016

Farewell David Bowie

"Under Pressure" /
Queen and David Bowie

So what if this song didn't drift into my consciousness until years after the fact.  It was released in 1981, well before "Modern Love." I was on some other planet, and not paying attention. But years later, my kids -- in their brief Queen phase -- found this song and wouldn't let it go. And now it's hard-wired into my soul.

Yeah, it's two masters of the Opening Riff, battling it out for diva top honors. But for me personally  -- what this song says about modern life is so freakin' insightful...

This well may be the best percussion opener ever: one cymbal brush, then those handclaps, punctuated with stabs of electric piano (the piano is a percussion instrument, may I remind you), all strung along by that exquisite two-note bass line. It truly is one of the great bass lines of all time, even if stolen by Vanilla Ice ("Ice, Ice, Baby").

Fun facts to know and tell: Queen bassist John Deacon improvised this riff in the Montreux studio where they threw this song together, and then they all went out for pizza. When they came back from the break, Deacon had forgotten the riff.  Luckily drummer Roger Taylor remembered it -- and the rest, as they say, was rock history.

Okay, so we're in pre-programmed follow-the-beat territory. But the lyrics bust us out; they're such a cry for help. As Bowie plangently sings, "It's the terror of knowing what the world is about / Watching some good friends screaming, 'Let me out.'" Bowie was always such a barometer for our 20th-century anxieties. (Which unfortunately haven't changed much in the 21st century.) How can we just follow the beat?

Because it's not just about me me me and my neuroses. It's about being part of a community, and registering the big picture. (Bowie was such a big-picture guy.) In the bridge -- which I attribute to Bowie, singing in his breathy falsetto -- "Turned away from it all like a blind man / Sat on a fence but it don't work / Keep comin' up with love, but it don't work..."  He may be a wounded soul, but he's also a seeker, on a quest.  

So here comes the answer, with Freddie Mercury's fling-it-all-out-there vocals: "Why don't we give love one more chance / Why don't we give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love...." We're an eon past the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love," with so many incidents to the contrary. Declaring faith in simple love seems radical again.

But maybe if you repeat it often enough -- it will happen.

It's a modern version of call-and-response, with wary, cynical David Bowie facing off against love-at-all-costs Freddie Mercury. And in the end, who wins?

Score one for the romantic. Because if we haven't got passion, the rest can all go to hell. And I like to think that Bowie was on board with that too. "This is our last dance," he proclaims magisterially in the final section, throwing down the gantlet.  "This is ourselves / Under pressure."

Grace under pressure. What it's all about. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Farewell David Bowie

"Modern Love" / David Bowie

So I come home to the United States.  I finally buy all those albums that ChangesOneBowie introduced me to. And then...well, life gets in the way. I live in D.C. for a year, then I move to New York City. I'm sucked into the New Wave thing. I forget that David Bowie exists, because Elvis Costello and David Byrne are blocking my view.

(As if either could have existed without Bowie's neurasthenic nerd art-school example...)

And then, MTV hits. If MTV hadn't already existed, they'd have had to invent it so that David Bowie could re-charge his career, with perplexing visuals further mystifying his already mystifying songs (kinda like Bertolt Brecht goes disco).

Oh, yes, I eventually bought the 1983 Let's Dance album. How could I not, when my aerobic dancing class (remember those?) had routines for both "Let's Dance" AND "China Girl"? But I'll confess: it was the MTV video for "Modern Love" that sucked me in.

This video is teasingly non-literal -- instead of acting out the song (too boring), it's a (staged) stage performance, shot in super-saturated colors. I keep trying to extract his "message" about the travails of modern love, from that plummy spoken word opening ("I know when to go out / I know when to stay in / Get things done") through the anguished yelp of the verses ("There's no sign of life / There's just the power to charm"). Then I give up; whatever modern love is, it's too discombobulated to pin down. And oh -- 30-odd years later -- maybe that is the point.

So what do I focus on? My favorite lines: "I catch the paper boy / But things don't really change / I'm standing in the wind / But I never wave bye-bye.." And there is the Thin White Duke himself, on screen, gaily waving bye-bye. Oh, Lord, what a groove, to watch David Bowie jiving around in his beautifully cut suit, darting mascaraed glances, his cheekbones as divine as ever.

As the second half of the song collapses into a call-and-response villanelle, Bowie free-associates against his back-up singers, "modern love" morphing into "church on time" into "god and man." It's going from Dionne Warwick to My Fair Lady to Milton to Sartre and back again. (And oh yes -- "Church on time / Makes me par-ty." Award for most teasing juxtaposition ever.).

And there's that irresistible rhythm line, courtesy of producer Nile Rodgers. The cut totally succeeds as a disco track. (Hello, Studio 54!) It totally succeeds as an ironic New Wave track. And it totally succeeds as a delicious bit of cabaret.

Am I back in the David Bowie camp? Oh, yes, my brothers and sisters -- more than ever.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Farewell David Bowie

"Young Americans" /
David Bowie

1976. I'm back in England, going to grad school. Living out of a suitcase, I'd had to reduce my record collection to home-made audiocassettes, played on a dinky tape deck. Every once in awhile, however, on trips to London I'd splurge on store-bought cassettes. ChangesOneBowie fairly leapt out of the bin at me. After all, I thought with some twisted logic, since I didn't own any of those great early 70s Bowie albums (Hunky Dory, Zigga Stardust, Aladdin Sane), wouldn't the greatest hits do as well?

Well -- as I have since learned -- the greatest hits never "do as well."  But for those two years abroad, separated from my LPs, I played the few tapes I owned to death, and ChangesOneBowie was no exception. In fact it was a downright revelation. There I was, on my pilgrimage to the land that spawned the British Invasion, and what track did I fall in love with?  The one where Mr. Glam Rock decided to transform himself into Soul Brother No. 33.

Recorded in Philly, with R&B luminaries like Luther Vandross aboard, "Young Americans" was Bowie's love letter to American soul music. (He had the good grace to describe his version as "plastic soul," or "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.") Unlike a straightforward Hit Factory song, though, the lyrics made absolutely no sense. It was like switching channels at random while watching late-night TV, a surreal montage of Life In These United States. I was hardly surprised when someone told me that Bowie wrote this after a 3-day coke binge. Of course!

But oh, the slick smooth hustle of that beat, underlaid with gospel choir back-up singers and David Sanborn's sizzling sax. I love the edge of hysteria in Bowie's vocal, all gulps and pants and yips of fevered ecstasy. Those random phrases still worm into my head at the strangest moments, and once they do, I'm on that soul train for days.

Phrases like: "They pulled in just behind the bri-idge, he la-ays her down, / He frowns, / 'Gee-ee my life's a funny thing, am I still too young?'" (Calling James Dean!) That sexy line "She took his ring, took his babies" in verse one; later on, "Sit on your hands on a bus of survivors / Blushing at all the Afro-Sheeners." I don't know what that really says about race relations in America, but I see it.

Bowie keeps shifting the ground under our feet. In the first chorus, he sighs, "All night /She wants the young American" but later it's "He wants the young American," and then it's "you" and finally it's "I." Or as he babbles in the drawn-out, chaotic ending, "You want it, I want you, you want I, I want you want" -- you'd never get this gender confusion in an American soul, but we expected no less from Bowie, the crown prince of androgyny.  

In the bridge, Bowie leans confiding into the mike for his own husky, half-spoken question: "Do you remember / Your President Nixon?" In 1976, that name still sent a chill through the room.

And that other haunting question, from verse three: "All the way from Washington [remember the March on Washington]? / Her bread-winner begs off the bathroom floor / 'We live for just these twenty years / Do we have to die for the fifty more?'" Ah, the American obsession with youth. It's a curious insight, coming from a man who himself cheated that equation, endlessly reinventing himself -- his own last fifty years were a remarkable second chapter, and third, and fourth . . . who'd ever have thought he'd find so many ways to remain artistically relevant?   

In the final section, a random series of unanswered questions tumble out:  "Ain't that close to love? /Well, ain't that poster love?" (I sing that to myself all the time, I swear.) And my favorite -- that dramatic moment when the instruments stop, the echo switches on, and Bowie drops to his knees to wail in his best James Brown voice: "Ain't there one damn song that can make me / Break down and cry?"

It's a glorious mishmash, hardly a major artistic statement. It didn't make me homesick for America. Satire? Homage?  I'm still not sure. But it didn't matter. There I was in grad school, writing paper after paper about what English literature "meant" -- but when I listened to "Young Americans," I didn't have to explain.  It just was. I listened to it and listened to it, and now every beat is etched in my brain. 

And I still love it.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Farewell David Bowie

“Space Oddity” / David Bowie

So here I am, on my first-ever trip to London, way back in 1973. Beatlemania baby that I was, I had come to see London as the center of my universe. All my ears and pores open, ready to drink in the Next Great Thing.

And so I went to get my hair cut in what I thought was a groovy hair salon. In fact it was in Harrod's department store -- the shop was called either the Way Out or the Way In, I'm not sure which -- so it couldn't have been that "groovy." But there I sat, a young American, leafing through the magazines, and I saw my first photo of David Bowie. Loaded up with eye make-up, hair gelled in magenta spikes, lithe long pale body draped in lame and satin . . . and for me, coming off the Woodstock era, it was quite a sight. I hadn’t yet heard the term “glam rock,” but I was staring in fascination at its prime exhibit.

And then, a few days later, “Space Oddity” came over the loudspeakers in a record shop in Chelsea.  I must have heard it before (it was released in 1969, after the first moon landing, when everybody was space-crazed), but it got no airplay in the US and I’d never really heard it before. Now I could put song and singer together, and I was absolutely mesmerized by it.

Bowie imagines a future where being an astronaut – the A # 1 coolest career of the 1960s – has become a routine job. Major Tom goes off to work, takes his protein pill (nice sci-fi detail), and climbs into his “tin can” without a second thought, heading for the galaxies with complete trust in his handlers. Bowie sings a dialogue with himself, playing both Ground Control (the nasal, low-pitched monotone) and Major Tom (the plaintive, melodic high voice). The hollow, metallic sound of the recording, all those feedback echoes and synthesized strings, the ghostly voices doing the countdown – it’s so atmospheric . . . and so ominous.

As he steps out of the capsule into space, Ground Control fawns all over him (“And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear”). I'm thinking of the line in the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" ("And a man comes on and tells me / 'bout how white my shirts can be.") This team player still naively trusts in technology: “I think my spaceship knows which way to go.” But it’s not going to end well, you can just tell; all those minor keys and dissonance were there for some reason. There’s that haunting moment when the good major sings “Tell my wife I love her very much” and Ground Control snaps back, a little too quickly, “She knows”; next thing you know, the circuits stop working. Ground Control keeps urgently repeating, “Can you hear me, Major Tom?” while Major Tom drifts woozily off into the eternal loneliness of space, idly musing on how Earth looks from afar. Whatever was in that protein pill, anyway?

It’s chilling to realize that this song was written before Apollo 13, before space shuttles started blowing up in mid-air. But while the title obviously refers to Kubrick's psychedelic space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bowie was probably also thinking about how becoming a rock star – or taking drugs ("we know Major Tom's a junkie," Bowie revealed years later in "Ashes to Ashes") – severs you irrevocably from your former life.

Major Tom is incredibly passive, when you think about it. He’s “floating in a most peculiar way,” not getting hysterical, not springing into action. That disorientation, that disconnect, is what got me most about this song that day in Chelsea. I felt I was standing on the brink of a brave new world, a world full of androgynous men in eye make-up and strange rock songs – and I was already sucked into it. There was no going back.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Farewell David Bowie

David Bowie (1947-2016)

What do you say when an icon dies?

Honestly, I've been worrying about this lately. There were the early tragedies (John Lennon, Mama Cass, Keith Moon, Dennis Wilson) and then the too-soon deaths (George Harrison, Carl Wilson, Pete Quaife).  But I know there's a time coming when the artists I grew up with, who formed my musical identity to the core, are going to be dying more and more often. They're reaching that age. (As am I.)

Well, here's a big one. David Bowie was 69, which depending on how old you yourself are, may seem either too soon or completely in the zone.  He'd been sick, apparently for 18 months, though very few people knew. He deliberately kept it under wraps. But then, he was a master at keeping his real self under wraps.

To me, he was always the Guy Across the Room. Aloof, brilliant, unpredictable. He was never one of us, although -- and this is a big although -- he always keenly aware that we were watching. He built his career around surprising us, switching directions, jumping out way ahead of the artistic curve. A moving target.  It was always a gamble, and yet he always somehow pulled it off.

The musical talent he possessed was huge. He wasn't the greatest singer, and had no flashy instrumental chops; he wasn't the tunesmith that Paul McCartney is, nor had he the genius for lyrics that Ray Davies does. And yet, working in a multitude of musical styles, without relying on Tin Pan Alley tricks, he created music you simply couldn't ignore or forget.

Added to this was his gift for intuiting the zeitgeist, the temper of his times, and moving the needle forward. His songs were built on a spider web of cultural references, both lyrical and musical, worthy of footnotes. They said something, though never directly -- no, you had to puzzle them out. Bowie songs required you to work a little -- but they were always worth it.

Perhaps his greatest talent, though, was simply Being Bowie. The whole public life was one great act of performance art.  You got used to him popping up in the weirdest places, from The Man Who Fell to Earth to Labyrinth to Zoolander, from singing with Freddy Mercury to singing with Bing Crosby. In retrospect, every appearance was another stratagem on the great chess board. Ziggy Stardust became the Thin White Duke became Lazarus. It was all good.

As some of you know, I was already working on a Bowie tribute week to celebrate the release of Blackstar last Friday (Bowie's 69th birthday -- though surely he knew it would be his last).

Now I have to go back and listen to it all again with different ears.

Until then, here's something to ponder on.  Maybe David Bowie didn't die -- maybe he just got the spaceship fixed at last and is now speeding back to his home planet...