The Aging Punk Remembers David Bowie

The Aging Punk Remembers David Bowie

Sunday, 17 January 2016

How do I even begin to write about David Bowie, who I have claimed as my favorite musician for forty years now? It’s not that I lack things to discuss, it’s that there are too many of them. Do I talk about my favorite albums, the shows I saw, how he connects to most of the music I listen to?

Or do I try to write about his genius, all the great music he created? But which great music? Again, there is too much. My favorites? The classics, the pivotal albums? Everyone is going to write about Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory, Young Americans and Let’s Dance, even Low and Earthling. But those are only a small part of his legacy; it’s the twists and turns which really made him vital.

It occurs to me that the key to his genius lies not in the hits, but in the music which was not popular; the stuff which was underappreciated. Bowie was the epitome of the restless artist and, in the many twists and turns of his career, he often left his fans behind, confused and struggling to keep up – and the general public questioning those fans’ taste. Even so, he continued to produce works of genius in his most drastic changes.

Therefore, here are some the obscure portions of his career which I find to be great; equal to (and at times better than) his more popular creations:

Aladdin Sane: While certainly not obscure, Aladdin Sane still lives in the shadow of Ziggy Stardust. But it rocks the hardest of any of his albums. Also, it clearly demonstrates his genius at using sidemen – Mike Garson’s piano solo on the title track, Mick Ronson’s guitar crunch throughout. For those reasons, this one is my personal favorite.

Santa Monica Civic Cetner, 1972: Bowie’s two official live albums from the Seventies, 1974’s David Live and 1978’s Stage, barely sound live at all. Control was always one of Bowie’s strengths – it’s what made his studio albums so good – but too much control becomes a weakness in a live setting. By contrast, this recording, long available as a bootleg and finally given official release in 2008, is perfectly out of control. Parts of it are downright sloppy – the jam in “Width of a Circle” never gels, and Bowie forgets some of the words to “Suffragette City,” but in return you get a level of energy Bowie rarely achieved.

“Candidate/Sweet Thing,” “Stay,” “Always Crashing in the Same Car”: Individual cuts better than the hits from their respective albums.

Lodger: Although classified as the third album in the Bowie/Eno trilogy, it really has little in common with Low and “Heroes.” At best, it is an attempt to apply the lessons of those albums to regular songwriting. Its unifying theme is restlessness, revealed straight forward in tunes such as “African Night Flight,” “Move On,” and “Red Sails.” Musically, Bowie is looking for his next direction. The fact that he doesn’t quite find it doesn’t decrease the value of the experiment, or the strength of the best songs here.

Blah Blah Blah: I’ve always called this “the best Bowie album of the 80s” and yes, that is a dig at both Bowie and Iggy. But Bowie was always a great collaborator, and this is one of the best examples of Bowie bringing out the best in the musicians he worked with. (Another example would, of course, be Iggy’s The Idiot.)

Tin Machine: Much maligned, but Bowie found a new freedom and energy by (attempting to) subsume himself in a group. The first album is near great, the second a typical sophomore slump (although it still has some great songs on it). I’m convinced that if they had made it to a third album, it would have been great. It also marks his first working with Reeves Gabrels, who would provide original guitar work for much of Bowie’s subsequent career.

Black Tie, White Noise: You forgot about this one, didn’t you? Another mish-mash of styles, Bowie again searching for a new direction. I find the dance cuts weak, but the jazz jams, powered by Lester Bowie’s (no relation) trumpet, again show Bowie freed by trying something new.

Heathen and Reality: Bowie’s return to popular form after the wild experiments of Outside and Earthling. He is once again writing solid rock songs. For once he produces great music not by moving forward, but by consolidating all he has learned. Both made a splash when they first came out, though more for the idea of new Bowie music than for the music itself, then quickly faded. Both deserve to be rediscovered.

David Bowie worked hard to achieve stardom (there are numerous accounts of his multiple attempts at stardom early on, and how he and Tony DeFries did everything they could to call attention to his Ziggy persona), but once there, he refused to repeat himself to preserve that stardom. Instead he continued to grow, to experiment, to try new things, even if it risked losing some of his audience. Which it often did, but in the end it only increased his reputation, and most of that audience eventually came back. Or at least settled on a favorite period they could continue to support.

By the Nineties, Bowie was free to do whatever he wanted and his output reflects that. Whatever you may think of his albums from that decade (love, hate, indifferent), they were what he wanted to put out. Not everything was successful, but all of it was interesting. And that quality continued right up to his final album.

Much has been made of Bowie’s influence on rock and pop music, but it usually refers to specific albums and musical trends: Young Americans and disco, Low and electronica, Let’s Dance and 80s dance music. I wish a little more attention would be paid to his overall experimentation. I wish more musicians were influenced by his restlessness, rather than just certain styles. I believe that spirit is his true legacy. [G. Murray Thomas]


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