Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Artist Who Fell to Earth

I've had to take some time to express my thoughts on the passing of David Bowie (Jan. 10).  One reason is that it came suddenly; I had heard the buzz for the song "Blackstar", which had been released a couple of weeks in anticipation of the album of the same name.  I didn't imagine that Bowie would die two days after the album's release; he clearly did, and integrated the approach of death and its occasion into his final work of art.

Blackstar:  Bowie's Self-Written Obituary
There are only seven tracks on this album, but no one should feel cheated by its length, over 40 minutes.  Along with his parting thoughts and emotions, told from several points of view, it provides something of a recapitulation of his music from the last 25 years, a period when he generally gave up on commercial acceptance and pursued his own eccentric artistic directions.  Nevertheless, "Blackstar" did the impossible and bumped Adele's "25" from the position as the top-selling album in America.   A few comments on each song:
Blackstar--This is the most experimental song, with a very odd drumbeat, a ghostly tone, and mysterious lyrics (and, if you see it, a strange and otherworldly video).  I interpret it as Bowie looking from the outside at his funeral ("Ormen" an English-accented variation on "allmen"?) and the rise of his spirit after death.  With the drum styling, the use of horns and synthesizer, and the three-part extended format, it recalls early King Crimson (which, for me, means still ahead of the curve). The recurrent line, "I am a Blackstar" (and not  "a filmstar... a popstar... a gangstar") is vague, but I think Bowie is choosing to place himself in the heritage of the stream of African-American music and its influence on modern popular music.
'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore --I presume this title is Bowie's sense of humor--he is referring to his own past (as a "she", a common practice for many gay people), and not to one of his loves, and to the things he did to try to achieve fame and money earlier in his career. The title is also a literary reference, to a 17th-century English play. Its style recalls the '90's album "Black Tie, White Noise", with a lot of orchestration, jazzy horns and drumbeat.  OK, I have no idea what the line "That was patrol" means.
Lazarus - This is a more accessible song; its tone (a mix of Joy Division and Psychedelic Furs, I'd say) is consistent with the mournful one generally throughout, and it's about his afterlife again, but it has an upbeat close--he's flying, free, like the bluebird.
Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) - This song was released two years ago, so it doesn't quite fit into the album's overall context of impending death, but its message, it seems, is a reflection about a lost love. This one has the drum 'n bass sound he picked up on and popularized in the late '90's.  And a repeated use of a vulgarism that one wouldn't normally expect from the flamboyant, flagrant, but usually polite Bowie.
Girl Loves Me -  The weirdest cut on a strange album; recalls "Outside", the chiliastic pre-millennial album about "art-crime" that freaked a lot of people out.
Dollar Days - I think this song may have the most durable appeal from the album, a pensive , passionate reflection on his life in America, that also realls his more successful ballads of the '70's and '80's. A beautiful jazz saxophone solo, also.
I Can't Give Everything Away - Again a tune which features well his flair for passionate vocals. I would opt away from the more crass interpretation, of his figuring out in public what to do with his wealth when he dies, and more towards its being a plea for understanding from the public for his desire to preserve some privacy in the latter stage of his life.

A Few Fan Notes; Bowie and "Fame"
 I was not a fan of glam; I came to Bowie rather late, in the mid-'70's, though I do have some favorites from the early days.  I became impressed with his ability to change with the times, starting with his mid-'70's funky period and continuing through the '80's, when he reached his peak of critical and popular fame, and I stayed with his sound through the slower, less fertile decades since then (though I would admit that not all of those experiments were successful; probably he would have, as well).  His talent took many forms; I was most impressed by his vocals, the variety of voices he could employ, but he could play instruments when the moment served, his acting (both on stage, and in the films in which he performed) was excellent, and his songwriting and the creativity he applied to recording technique were near to the best of his era.

Notes on some of my favorite Bowie songs might illustrate my point of view better than generalizations:
  • "Panic in Detroit" (Aladdin Sane) - Bowie had great collaborations through the years, particularly in locating hot lead guitarists.  It's Mick Ronson here, great reverb guitar sound. This one refers vaguely to crazy events going on in the US at the time, such as the Patty Hearst kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army.  Remember that one? 
  • "TVC15" (Station to Station)  -- Pretty much indecipherable in terms of meaning (TVC should be a TV station, I suppose), but an irresistible swing and chorus. 
  • "Five Years" (Ziggy Stardust) -- Bowie's passion, expressed for a fictional death-of-humanity situation on how people would react to it. 
  • "Cat People (Putting Out Fires with Gasoline)" (Let's Dance EP) - A peak in the popularity of Bowie's career, as he concedes space to disco, but does it his way.  One of the best guitar solos ever, courtesy of Stevie Ray Vaughan. 
  • "Fascination" (Young Americans) -- The phenomenon of sexual attraction, and what it does to one.  Came out at a time that I was particularly susceptible to second that emotion. 
Finally, I mention "Hallo Spaceboy", from "Outside".  It was a go-to song for much of his later career, when he made occasional guest performances (his touring days were pretty much over by 1990).  "Outside" was a controversial album, but "Spaceboy" was an infectious but somewhat creepy hit-single-type song (the album, even more creepy), except for the line "Do you like altar boys?" showing that scandalous behavior in the religious context was observed well before the events of "Spotlight".  

The references to space travel and to aliens are frequent throughout Bowie's career, from "Space Oddity" to "Earthling" and also in "Blackstar"; of course, there is his starring role in the movie, "The Man Who Fell to Earth".   His recurring role as some sort of space-going humanoid both recognized the fact that his generation was the one that first lived with real travel through space, and provided a vehicle to deflect his "unusual" tendencies.  I note that another artist who utilized space-as-metaphor was Elton John, who, with Bowie, were the two major rock stars who came out as gay or bisexual during the era.  Both had huge success, but the arc of their careers differed enormously, to the credit more of Bowie than of Sir Elton. 

Bowie's relation with celebrity was a love-hate one.  He needed and lusted after fame in the early years and, as the current song above notes, was willing to stoop greatly for it, but he literally wrote its number long ago ("Fame", on "Young Americans").   He claimed to "reject it first", but it was "far too cool to fool".  Later, he made his peace with Fame and found the artistic space to work within it, then ultimately found a way to hide from it, except when he chose to return, briefly, to the spotlight.   His final act was a brilliant bit of stage management, planned, Bowie-style, to the greatest detail. 

More Briefly Noted
Paul Kantner - (Jan. 28) - One of the founding members of San Francisco's psychedelic-era band Jefferson Airplane, who stayed on for most of its fractious duration, and then returned for Jefferson Starship.  He was not particularly noted as either vocalist or instrumental soloist, but played rhythm and helped write many songs, particularly the ones with vocal harmonies or strong political viewpoints.  

More grounded than his beatnik/hippie bandmates, his politics were evident and radical. He wrote most of the songs on "Bathing at Baxter's", probably their second-most appreciated album, and shared song credit on a couple of Woodstock classics:  "Wooden Ships", with David Crosby and Graham Nash, who performed the song there with Stephen Stills; and "Volunteers", the JA song he co-wrote with Marty Balin.  Also written by Kantner, and notable:  "Crown of Creation", "We Can Be Together", "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil", and "Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon". He was 74. 

Glenn Frey (Jan. 18) - A founding member of the Eagles, the largest-selling US rock band ever.  Frey was with the band for over 25 years, and wrote many of their most successful songs--the more country-flavored ones, I would say.  The Eagles' initial claim to fame was in developing the country-rock genre, for which Frey's contribution was central. 

I give him credit for going along with the band's change in direction to more standard American-style rock, which was critical for the continued success of the band, and in particular, for adding guitarist Joe Walsh, someone with a very different personal style to Frey's, who added a lot to their stage presence.  Frey and drummer Don Henley wrote the lyrics to their most famous song, "Hotel California" (guitarist Don Welder, who later had a nasty split with Frey and Henley, wrote the music and performed the legendary lead guitar interplay with Walsh).  Frey was 67. 

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