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.

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