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Daily Bowie, July 2022

See separate entries for 7/29-31

 

7/28/22

Something of an inside joke among people who read reviews of Bowie albums, at least during his life after The mid-80s, is that whatever happened to be his latest album was, “the best since ‘Scary Monsters.’”  Forgot the album that came immediately before, which was also the best since “Scary Monsters.”  It seems like the person who started this was Bowie himself.  As far back as 1989, Bowie described the first Tin Machine album as, “kind of like catching up from Scary Monsters.  Its almost dismissive of the last three albums I’ve done.  Getting back on course, you could say” (from the “Bowie on Bowie” book of interviews I’ve been commenting on for the past few days).

And so it would ever be thus.  While Bowie himself never disowned Tin Machine, soon enough reviews would be dismissive of those albums, too.  Three albums became five— six if you count the little-known Tin Machine live album (it exists, and has the embarrassing name, “Oy Vey, Baby”).  

“Black Tie, White Noise,” Bowie’s first post-Tin Machine album briefly supplanted the Tin Machine albums as his best since, “Scary Monsters.”  The Wikipedia entry for “Scary Monsters,” notes, “Well-regarded later efforts such as Outside (1995), Earthling (1997), Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003) were cited as ‘the best album since Scary Monsters’” and then itself cites reviews of each that used the device.  

Until fairly late in his career, Bowie seemed  loath to acknowledge that anything he already did was any good.  I mentioned a quote yesterday about him saying that “Young Americans” was the only album of his that he found “likable,” which he said in 1978.  Well, the previous year he said that he didn’t think his entire back catalog was “likable,” and the year before that he said “Young Americans” was “unlistenable.”  When promoting “Let’s Dance,” in 1983, he agreed with his interviewer who said of his previous albums, “we used to rush out, buy them on the first day they camped out, play them rotten for six months and then…” Bowie said of the albums that are now thought of as mainstays, ‘they don’t have longevity.  They’re not classic statements that go on through the years.”  

Again and again Bowie would speak to the need to start over.  His stylistic challenges were as much a statement of frustration about his last work as expressions of fear of getting stale.  He seemed to seek affirmation from the notion of being rediscovered.  In 1983, he described teenage fans who just discovered “Diamond Dogs, “I found it delightful.  I just wondered if they’d— I guess they’d just have to— think of it in a contemporary situation. But I don’t know how the music seems to them.  Does it sound new-ish?”  Years later, in 2000, he made a similar observation, “Some of my recent albums have been picked up by the Nineties generation, but then they don’t know the early stuff.  I think its a surprise when they hear them all at once and think, ‘Did he write that?’  I know that because…when I do, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ the amount of kids that come up afterwards and say, ‘It’s cool you’re doing a Nirvana song.’  And I think, ‘Fuck you, you little tosser!’”

I included that extended quote in part because it’s funny, but also because its a stretch to think of it as sincere.  Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” gave it new life, and Bowie started performing it live again after it had long-ceased being part of his playlist.  But Kurt Cobain clearly identified it as a Bowie song on the Nirvana record that made it famous for the new generation.  Its hard to imagine that “kids” missed that part, or that they would even have the opportunity to come up to Bowie after a concert (one of his concerts, which they would have chosen to see presumably because they knew something about Bowie to want to see him).

Bowie never wanted to rest on his laurels.  In that one respect, the Bowie of 2000 had not changed much since the Bowie of 1983.  What had changed was how the world reacted to Bowie.  Bowie seemed to delight at the idea that albums like, “Low” were commercially unsuccessful (which wasn’t exactly true even at the time).  Reviewers liked to play along because they felt good about having the special insight to recognize it (and others) as secret works of genius.   

The one period that, in the later part of his career, he would acknowledge as weak was the mid-80s, when he’d claim that his sin was trying to please his audience. At various points, Bowie had expressed an interest in Gnosticism, and he too wanted the excellence of his art to be secret knowledge that would be discovered by those in the know.

The trick really stopped working in the mid-80s, but that period corresponded with Bowie’s peak stardom.  The secret virtues of Tin Machine— which I still like— remained too obscure for even the hippest of gnostics, and by the time of “Black Tie, White Noise,” Bowie was a has-been.  But Bowie kept making music.  Although each successive record became his best since “Scary Monsters,” none of them had that album’s staying power.  But that they were at least well-received at the time of their release generated enough good-will for Bowie to establish himself as one of rock music’s elder statesmen.  One 2000 interview claimed, “With Bowie you get the feeling you’re watching the new Sinatra.”  By that, the interviewer (whose name was Dylan Jones) meant that Bowie’s concerts remained special, though the faint praise assessed on his newer albums was that they would be “better than either Sinatra or Presley[‘s] were in their dotage.”  

The very last interview in the book, from 2003, reverent of Bowie largely because of his status, nonetheless asserted that “the new David Bowie was not as fascinating as the old one.”  

Without genuinely new Bowie albums on the horizon (plenty of live albums, outtakes, compilations etc. will continue to be released), all of Bowie’s albums are old ones now.  And its true, by and large his best— or at least my favorite— are from the 1970s (as well as, you guessed it, “Scary Monsters,” which was from 1980).  But he continued to make good music.  His 80s output was not nearly as bad as even he later seemed to suggest.  Not nearly as bad?  Some of it was great.  Some of the music he made in the 90s and beyond is among my favorite.  The event that was “Blackstar,” which hadn’t happened  by the time “Bowie on Bowie” was published— still seems like a staggering work of genius, six years after its release.  

So, after 1980, Bowie would never make another “Scary Monsters.”  But Bowie never liked re-trodding the same ground or overplaying his hand.  That he reached a level of acceptance that it was OK to play some of his hits at concerts was good for the fans, but so too was his continued experimentation and ongoing output.  The worst period of Bowie’s half-century career was the decade that he didn’t make new music.  When he resumed in 2013 with, “The Next Day,” what the reviews should have said was that the new album was his best since his previous one.* 

*(2003’s “Reality”).  

 

7/27/22

Today’s entry is going to reflect on Bowie’s self-assessment, as expressed through the interviews in, “Bowie on Bowie.”  As a general matter, the impression I’m left with is that Bowie was very eager to move from album to album, style-shift to style shift during his artistic peak in the 1970s.  He seemed to always not like his last album, most of which during this time would go on to become classics.  When asked, in 1978, about what he liked of his own nascent back catalogue, Bowie said, “the only one I like is ‘Young Americans’ because its the only likable album, but the others, one could hardly apply the adjective likable to any of them.”  This wasn’t some sort of up-is-down misdirectional use of then word, “likable.”  Bowie would go on to trash his past work, which, though he didn’t name them, would include albums such as “Ziggy Stardust” and “Hunky Dory.”

It seemed that when Bowie was at the absolute cutting edge, he disparaged even his own desire to create music that people liked, “There comes a time when you [read: I] go through the most ridiculous posture of saying, ‘I’d be really pleased if everybody stopped buying my records so I could go away and do something else.’”

But it was probably all posture.  Bowie would later become defensive when everything he put out was not critically successful.  He defended Tin Machine at all times. To some extent, he did as well with with “Tonight” and “Never Let Me Down,” claiming that the songs were good but… He’d give different explanations of the “but…” One theme, however was that [his][ “work is always stronger when I get very selfish about it and just do what I wan to do.”  So while Bowie, with age, retreated from fantasizing about making records people didn’t like, he found comfort in the idea of not trying to give the people what they wanted. 

But Bowie went back and forth.  He would seem most disinterested when promoting albums that would turn out to be among his best, but would go so far as to ask interviewers’ their opinion on albums that would later be thought of as weak, like he wears fishing for affirmation.  

Bowie defended playing songs from the “Ziggy” album during his Berlin-era tour, “I have absolutely no qualms about playing older things of mine that people like.”  He would develop those qualms later.  He touted his 1990 “Sound and Vision Tour” as the last time he’d play his greatest hits.  The pledge was short lived, and later he reflected on his intentions at the time, “I didn’t know if my songs were any good.  I’d spread myself very thin and I didn’t want to be intimidated by my own catalogue, so I thought I would really have to begin anew…As the 90s progressed I felt my writing was getting stronger…I now feel very confident about touring and putting new songs against old songs.” 

By the end of the book, Bowie seemed to have been losing interest and focusing more on his marriage to Inman and their young daughter.  After a health scare, he took a decade-long hiatus from music starting in 2003 and never toured again.

(To be continued) 

7/26/22

I recently finished a a book of chronological Bowie interviews tittles, “Bowie on Bowie,” edited by Sean Egan.  The interviews, especially arranged as they were, were fascinating.  I have always liked Bowie for his music, and to an extent his larger presentation.  I have never thought of him as a role model or a wise man, or even someone who has much in common with me.  He seems like he was a likable guy after he beat drug addition, but not so much when he was at his low point, in terms of personal health.  The irony is that he produced some of his best work in the throws of addiction.  Bowie says in some of these interviews that he used drugs less to party and more to keep working.  And although that was never my personal strategy, I began to see a similarity in the sense that I deprived myself in other ways when I was most driven by work.

Here’s where our similarities began, which I was seeing for the first time.  The interviews he gave around the time he was my age now, was of a man with a successful past but with his best days behind him.  Bowie’s priorities shifted from his work to his family, especially after the birth of his second child: “Though he tries to keep abreast of current music…the only song he gets to hear regularly, he says, goes, The wheels on the bus go round and round…”. This complication was published prior to Bowie’s death, and although “The Next Day” had been released, the last interviews in the book were from around the time of “Reality,” which was Bowie’s last album for 10 years.  

I’ll be writing much more about insights from these interviews in coming days…

7/25/22 See separate entry, “Do They Know Its Christmas”

7/24/22

Bowie, McCartney and Elton John

OK, here’s the sequence:  David Bowie scored his first hit with “Space Oddity” in 1969.  In April 1972, Elton John released “Rocket Man,” which was clearly inspired by “Space Oddity.  That same month, Bowie also issued a single with “Starman” as side A and “Suffragette City” as side B.  Its hard to say that “Starman” influenced “Rocket Man,” however both “Suffragette City” and “Space Oddity,” as well as Bowie’s androgynous persona probably influenced Paul McCartney’s 1973 song, “Jet,” which contains the line, “And Jet, I thought the major was a lady suffragette.”  McCartney has not admitted as such, and I have seen very little written about the connection, but how could it not be?  In case it isn’t obvious, “major” is another word associated with Bowie, as in “Major Tom.”  So, McCartney is essentially saying that an unnamed major is “a lady suffragette.”  It might only just be that McCartney had words and images in the back of his head.  Anyway, the ball bounced back to Elton John in 1974 with his song, “Bennie and the Jetts,” which was clearly inspired by Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.  If you don’t believe me, Bernie Taupin has admitted as such, and if that isn’t enough, look at the album art on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”  That’s where things stood for several years.  Bowie and Elton John seemed not to have liked one another.  Paul McCartney had warm words to say about Bowie when Bowie died, but they never really worked together aside from the “Live Aid’ concert in 1985.  Then, in 2013, Bowie released, “Like a Rocket Man,” which is apparently about cocaine addiction.  Bowie and Elton were both addicted to cocaine, and while the song is not obviously about Elton John, Bowie could not have helped but be aware that people would make the inference.  Elton John has yet to respond musically, but in his memoirs, he seemed perplexed as to why he and Bowie didn’t get along.  

7/23/22

I listened to “Lodger” last night.  “Lodger” has become known as one of Bowie’s most underrated albums.  It is so known for being underrated that I don’t think it really can be called underrated anymore.  It’s actually a great, great album.  Bowie’s voice is at its apex.  Adrian Belew’s wild guitar playing is put to its greatest effect.  It’s known as the third album in the Berlin Trilogy, and I think if it has lurked in the shadows of both “Low” and “Heroes” it might be for an ironic reason—instead of half the album being instrumental music, half are somewhat experimental songs in which we get to hear Bowie’s voice.  Something like, “Red Sails,” is not one of Bowie’s better known songs, but unlike, the entirety of side two of “Low,” we get to hear Bowie sing at the height of his vocal prowess.  The other superficial things about “Lodger” that might make people who know it feel like they have to defend it is that the album cover is far less iconic than than most of his album covers from the 1970s, and that by being the third in a trilogy, it is  compared to the first two but in a way that suggests it to be a retread, or something less innovative.  I actually see it as part of a sequence of albums that begins with “Station to Station” and ends with, “Scary Monsters,” which is my favorite overall period in Bowie’s long career.  I’ve commented on “Lodger” before and this is not meant to be a second try, but its just worth noting what a great album it is and how much I enjoyed listening to it on its own terms.

7/21 and 7/22

See separate entries for these dates, “Byrne sings Bowie,” parts 1 and 2.

7/20/22

More thoughts on Devo’s “Q: Are We Not Men?”— apparently, Bowie, Eno and Devo jammed together before Devo recorded the album.  A recording of this exists somewhere, but I’ve never heard it and I don’t think it even exists as a bootleg.  So, maybe that’s a potential future release?  Also, I mentioned in my commentary that Devo reminded me of Talking Heads.  To be more specific, this album, which is the only Devo album I have heard (and I just listened to it for the first and second time), specifically reminds me of “Talking Heads: 77,” which was that band’s first album.  Obviously, the name indicates that the Talking Heads album was released earlier than the Devo album, but those guys seem to have tapped into a particular sound.  David Byrne also collaborated with Brian Eno, but to my knowledge he never did anything with Bowie.  That might have had potential.  Byrne and Bowie professed a friendship.  Byrne, in fact inducted Bowie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which Bowie claimed not have wanted).  There’s a video of Byrne covering, “Heroes.”  So I don’t think the absence of a collaboration was because the two didn’t like one another, but apparently it was not to be.

7/19/22

See the separate entry for this date, “Week 95. Devo’s  “Q: Are We Not Men?”

 

7/18/22

If you are reading this, you likely came to this website to read about David Bowie. Most of the work that I’ve done previous to this date has been completed for months, if not years. I have commented on almost every Bowie song, every Bowie album that I’ve ever heard and remember, and many albums with which Bowie has been peripherally involved. A few months ago I started adding additional content, however if you are here, I don’t think that you’re interested in that. So I’ve deleted it. 

Without the prospect of an actual new David Bowie music, and with the trickle of live albums, rarities and other previously unpublished material coming out at an occasional pace, what is there left to say? Well, I am a Bowie fan because I like his music. However, of course he acted in several movies. There are many many books about Bowie. I’m currently reading a compilation of interviews called “Bowie on Bowie,” that was published the year before his death. I’m also experiencing a change in how I listen to David Bowie. My relatively new car does not have a CD player. My relatively new computer does not have a place to receive a CD so that I could copy it onto a playlist. Apple Music seems to have evolved away from being able to rip music, or even copy previously ripped music, onto an iPod. I can listen to a complete Bowie album on YouTube, but I am limited in the ability to create a playlist.

That has led me to contemplate purchasing some Bowie albums for, theoretically, the fourth time (vinyl, tape, CD…now MP3s).  I have a few like that already, but not necessarily my top 5.  Which leads to the question of what are my top 5 Bowie albums?

This has been the summer of “Station to Station.”  For whatever reason, I have been listening to it over and over.  I did that last year with “Diamond Dogs,” which has always been one of my favorites but also seemed to work as commentary about the present, which again is to say last year.  “Scary Monsters” has long been my favorite, and “Ziggy” is Bowie’s masterwork.  So that’s four.

What’s the fifth?  Six years later, I am still in awe of “Blackstar.”  Like most of Bowie’s greatest achievements, “Blackstar” combines great music with an immersive concept— Bowie used his death as an artistic statement.  That’s new.  Do I want to hear its (relatively few) songs more than those on “Hunky Dory?”  “Aladdin Sane” seems too uneven, but it has some songs that are hard to do without.  Bowie was near his apex with “Heroes” and “Low,” but at the end of the day I wouldn’t want to give up vocalized songs for instrumentals.  “Outside,” which seems not to be a fan favorite, is one of my favorites, but does it stand up to those earlier albums?  What about a live album or a compilation? No, that would be an easy way out.  Anyway, I’m not sure…

Which brings me back to this post— I do think I have enough to say to add an update every day, however fleeting or short.  If you are reading these words, you’re looking for something, and I think I can provide that.  Come back in 24-47 hours and find out…

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