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Marc Lowe Interview, Pt. 2 “We Miss You, Spaceboy”

This is the second installment of my three-part interview with artist and educator, Marc Lowe. David Bowie is the focus of today’s segment. The video is a Bowie tribute. While it is a Marc Lowe original, you’ll definitely get both musical and lyrical references to Bowie’s “Hallo Spaceboy.” Anyway, let’s get to the interview

Q. Why do you think Bowie’s music lends itself so well to interpretation— either musical interpretation or lyrical interpretation?

A. Well…because it’s Bowie! He was an artist who well understood other artists like himself. His entire catalog of music was essentially influenced by and, in a way, an ode to other artists who came before him, I would say, as well as those who were his contemporaries, such as Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails in the ’90s, or Lou Reed in the ’70s, or Scott Walker (whose influence is just all over the place in Bowie’s music, but can especially be felt on tracks such as “Heat” in 2013, the songs on the Lodger LP, and etc.). The events of David’s day, too, played a role in his sound(s) and vision(s), and he definitely acknowledges this, not only musically (and sometimes even lyrically), but also in interviews and such, where you can see the glimmer in his eye (either the blue or the brown one, depending on the lighting, angle of the camera, etc.) when he says things like, “Oh, I nicked that particular riff from XYZ!” You know, the melody of the chorus from “Starman,” the song that propelled him to fame in the U.K. after he performed it on Top of the Pops as Ziggy (from Mars), is actually lifted from “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”! He simply reimagined it for his “Pretty Things”!!

And so, I would say that Bowie’s music is the everything and the nothing, the Alpha and the Omega, just as any great artist’s music ever is. Major Tom and “Space Oddity” would not have come into being without Neil Armstrong’s having first landed on the moon. Ziggy Stardust could never have existed as such without the inspiration of Vince Taylor and The Legendary Stardust Cowboy (and many others, too numerous to list, but including artists like Jimmy Hendrix who “played it left hand”). And Outside would never have been conceived of without Bowie’s having first done a bit role in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, or without Damien Hirst’s experiments in cutting up cows and placing their parts in glass in a museum, or without the advent of the Internet(s), or without the music of Scott Walker, for that matter. And so, as Bowie before me, I draw inspiration from David’s world, but I don’t just stop there: I also bring both his world/s (as I interpret it/them, of course) and my own, along with the world around me/us/everyone into all of the music that I create. And that’s the spirit in which Bowie created his music, I believe.

As Bowie once said somewhere (I am paraphrasing, and actually I believe he said this several times throughout his career in interviews), “My music is very much of the present.” He described Outside as an album about 1995, for instance, on the Outside EPK, rather than saying it was about some future where people committed murder-as-art or some such, and even when he stretched way back to grab Orwell’s 1984 for inspiration on his 1974 Diamond Dogs project (which was initially to have been a concept album centered on the novel, as you and many of your readers may already know, but he couldn’t obtain the rights to it from Orwell’s widow at the time, who apparently and ironically regretted her decision after hearing the Diamond Dogs album!), he was singing about his present time, about the decadence and decay he saw around him in L.A., for example (you can see and feel this on Alan Yentob’s excellent Cracked Actor documentary from 1974, a paranoid, emaciated Bowie sitting in the back of a limousine, asking the driver if they were being followed…).

You know, as an artist that the critics were continually labeling “ahead of his time” in the press (as well as a musical “chameleon,” a metaphor he did not like much at all, since he never tried to “blend in” with the environment around him, as a chameleon does), and as this is a sort of baggy-monster of a compliment, in a (weird) way, I have at times gotten the distinct feeling that Bowie was really just trying to say to “the press,” and perhaps to his more observant listeners/fans, as well, “No, my friend(s), an artist is always, and can always only just be, of his time!” If one is cognizant of what’s going on right now, in our present moment (“It’s happening now… Not tomorrow…”), and if one’s radar is always “up,” one will very likely also catch a scent of what is coming next as well, no?

“Take a whiff / Burning plastic”

(That’s Laurie Anderson on “The Puppet Motel” – produced in 1994 by Brian Eno, by the way, the same year he and Bowie would record the unpublished “Leon” sessions that would eventually become the Outside LP of ’95. Just a little aside there.)

Q. Since his death, Bowie seems to have transcended from the status of a rock star to a cultural phenomenon. If you agree, why do you think this is? What do you think happened (on the day he died…)?

A. Oh, absolutely. It was bound to be so, and it’s almost as though Bowie planned it as such, in retrospect, though perhaps I am just being overly romantic or something… I mean, it didn’t happen overnight, it didn’t happen on the day he died, it happened over the course of his entire lifetime, over the course of this astounding and extraordinary musical career he carved out for himself, and which was also only made possible by many others along the way as well (Angie Barnett/Bowie, Tony DeFries [the guy with the big cigar in his mouth!], Tony Visconti, Michael “Mike” Garson, Brian Eno, Ava Cherry, Carlos Alomar and his entourage of musician-friends-of-color (which became Bowie’s backing “plastic soul” band from Young Americans onward for several years), Reeves Gabrels, etc.), and not only in music, of course, but also in art, fashion, film (and film acting), etc. By the same token, “he” didn’t do all of this singlehandedly (see above) in some linear, easily comprehendable “fashion” (pun intended?) either. Perhaps he himself wasn’t even aware so much of where things for him would end up, ultimately. In fact, he admits to “not really knowing what the heck I was doing” along the way (talking about the early to mid ’70s, especially the period when he got into drugs and, later, quasi-fascism as “The Duke”) in an interview I recently saw from 1997, filmed just after he had turned 50. But, then again, it was also a part of his “thing” to make us “second guess” his words in these interviews, even when he wasn’t appearing as some alter-ego/persona, as in the somewhat more candid interviews he began to do from the late ’70s onwards, and especially in the ’90s/’00s, when he appeared more at home in his own skin… So, who really knows!?

Q. Some cover artists try to replicate Bowie— you are doing something else. Some of your covers, like “Its No Game 2024” and “2023” use Bowie as a starting point but end in a place quite different than Bowie’s original. Even your more straightforward covers won’t be mistaken for Bowie’s versions. What are you trying to do with these?

A. Actually, it’s not what I am “trying” to do with any of the Bowie tributes I’ve recorded, it’s more like “what they naturally are” (or do, or perhaps become). My attitude toward “covering” a Bowie track is the same as when I “cover” — or pay tribute to — any other artist, and I have done many, many covers of many other artists’ material, ranging from Japanese artists I respect and enjoy, such as Ryuichi Sakamoto and UA (a pop singer who also experiments with Jazz, World, and other genres), to Radiohead, IAMX, Nick Cave, Kate Bush, and so many others. I approach an artist’s work as fodder for creating something new, just as a remixer comes to a track as a collection of “stems” — some vocals, maybe a guitar part over here or a snare riff over there — as a palette of veritable “paints” (to get metaphor-heavy here for a moment) with which to create something different, something new. What, otherwise, might be the point? It isn’t as if any cover artist can “better” an artist’s original song, is it?

Jeff Buckley’s now famous version of “Hallelujah” (the original version is by Leonard Cohen, for those readers who are not familiar), for example, sounds nothing like the version or versions that had apparently inspired him to do his own interpretation. I read somewhere, I think maybe in a biography on him I read a while back when I was preparing a talk about Buckley’s legacy for my YouTube page, that he first heard the version by John Cale, rather than the original by Leonard Cohen. (This reminds me of Bowie’s “Wild Is the Wind,” which seems much more influenced by the more famous rendition by Nina Simone than by the original recording artist’s version; Buckley, too, was a huge Simone fan, and also frequently covered her songs live, by the bye). And, well, this is precisely why Buckley’s “Hallelujah” stands on its own! Some people, hearing it for the first time, might easily assume that “Hallelujah” was written by Jeff Buckley, just as some fans of Nirvana apparently assumed that Cobain had written “The Man Who Sold the World” when they first encountered their version of it on MTV’s Unplugged in the ’90s…

Going back to what I earlier said about “remixing,” I also didn’t mean to imply that I just haphazardly splash the “paints” — i.e. melodies, lyrics, chords or chord progressions, etc. — all over my “canvas” and then proudly say, “OK, so here is My Original Bowie Tribute!” Nothing could be further. Whilst respecting the artist, as well as the work I am interpreting — yes, interpretation is a better way of saying it, rather than labeling it a “cover song” or “copy song” — if I am “trying” to do anything with these interpretations, it is to pay tribute to it/them, and to its/their/the artist’s (or artists’) legacy/legacies, in the best and really only way I know how to do, which is to bring out the aspect or aspects of a work that has grabbed my attention and my (burning) desire to reinterpret it at the time of arranging it for “my version” (or versions, as the case may sometimes be, as with “It’s No Game”).

I think perhaps my approach with some of the acoustic Bowie material — of which I’ve done many songs, including “All the Madmen, “After All,” “Five Years,” etc. — might be slightly different from, say, some of the more abstract or “electronic” Bowie tributes I have recorded. The recording I did of “Heat” in ’22 (which includes a refrain from “Heathen” midway through), for instance, was basically me singing the melody/lyrics to the song semi-freeform over a dark ambient backing I’d created, with a few beats later added during one section of the song. However, with the acoustic versions, I generally do start with the basic chords and/or chord structure of the song, though not always, either.

One exception that immediately comes to mind is my cover of “Dollar Days.” When I composed my version acoustically in 2018 for my “I’m a Blackstar!” LP project — a project in which I reinterpreted every song on the album, and from which the original mix/version of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” that is on the lyric video you kindly featured on this blog hails — I almost completely changed the chords/key and structure of the piece on the acoustic. On the other hand, with “It’s No Game 2023,” to use this as an example, the acoustic version I arranged for it was based on the chords from Bowie’s original “ur-version” of “It’s No Game,” a song entitled “Tired of My Life” from the early ’60s (and with different lyrics). As for the lyrics I (re)wrote for “It’s No Game” (both/all of my versions – the first version I did, actually, was entitled “It’s No Game, Pt. 3,” and it had drums and synth in it, as well as a more aggressive vocal part) and the video imagery that accompanies it, well… I think that they do speak for themselves. (Note that the Japanese language bits in my version, as in the original “It’s No Game, Pt. 1,” are just a repetition of the sung English lyrics, though both are different than in the original Bowie version.)

Q. How do you think the experience of becoming familiar with Bowie is different now than when Bowie was alive? What I’m getting at is today, a young person is going to be less aware that Space Oddity and Blackstar were released nearly half-a-century apart from one another. What do you think that does to a new fan’s orientation toward Bowie’s catalogue?

A. Oh, this fact was totally brought home to me repeatedly when I started teaching the Bowie course at university here in Japan. Indeed, young students today really have no idea even of who Bowie was, apart, in a few cases, from those students whose parents (who would be around my age today) were fans and have told them how cool he was as the gender-bending Ziggy Stardust or, perhaps more commonly for a parent around my age, growing up in the ’80s, “the cool pop star who played Jareth in Labyrinth and so on.

So, yes… I think that one’s first encounter with David Bowie, this larger-than-life figure with several decades’ worth of material and history behind his image and legacy, might seem rather daunting for some, not to mention confusing in so very many ways. Without having any grounding in his “milieu,” if you will, it’s not going to be easy to just jump in headfirst. And I don’t just mean “where he grew up,” obviously, but all of the cultural background behind that, too, that people of our generation (or older) maybe might just take for granted — you know, most of my students had never before taking my class heard of Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, or Andy Warhol, for instance. They don’t know Nirvana or Nine Inch Nails, either, for that matter, since most of them weren’t even born until the 2000s. So, yes. That’s a hurdle that needs to be overcome from the start.

I believe that if, however, one is given enough time to explore and to listen and to learn more about his life and career, to connect the various dots, at least for those who have the interest and the desire to dig deeper, to really go beyond the surface stuff, a fuller picture will eventually begin to emerge. In a sense, it may even be easier to view the totality of this “bigger picture” more objectively for those just coming to his vast legacy today, since the story now has a sort of ending or conclusion one can affix to it (i.e. the “Blackstar” LP, as well, really, as the “Lazarus” play/production, and his death of liver cancer in January of 2016), whereas, for fans such as you and I — and of course also for those of previous generations, our parents’ generation, those who might have bought Man of Words, Man of Music on vinyl (or 8-track cassette, perhaps?) — we were taking the journey along with David, doing it “hand-in-hand” with him, if you will (“Give me your hands… You’re not alone!”), and so, for us, the future of Bowiedom was just a concept or a question, it was “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise I won’t bore you” (MSG, 1997 – paraphrasing, so hopefully I got that right!). That is, it was like this for us right up until January 10, 2016, anyway…

And so, I guess you could say that something did indeed happen on the day he died. It did for those of us who were then already his fans. It did for his friends and family, his wife, his daughter, his son, all of the musicians and artists who knew and/or had worked with him. And it did, ultimately, as well, for the world, who now has his words, his poetry/lyrics, his music (albums, singles, rarities, live performances, etc.), of course, and the legacy he left behind when he departed planet earth.

Q. I’ve noticed that you pick up on connections between Bowie songs that others might miss. For instance, you threw in a line from “Repetition” into your “Outside Medley.” What are some of the threads you see connecting Bowie’s songs?

A. Ah, this is a very good observation, John! Actually, with that particular piece, you know… It was 100% improvisational, filmed/recorded between classes outdoors, actually. I had given myself a rather strict deadline to complete my Outside tribute album, since the anniversary of its release was coming up and I wanted to have something finished before then for release… Anyway, I just started singing various parts of the Outside cycle into my iPhone (it was a windy day, just before an approaching rainstorm, and so you can hear that, too, in the recording, which I kind of like, actually…), and that bit from ’79’s “Repetition” just sort of came out of my mouth at one point as I was singing about Ramona and loss of control/being deranged. More recently it also “slipped out” during a live improvisation which I did on January 8 (last month at the time I am writing these words) where I had used some of the backing video from “Blackstar” and “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” as a projection on the stage behind me and my musical collaborator on that night. But, I digress…

To answer the question succinctly, let me reference what David himself used to say a lot about his music and themes in his interviews, which is that “fragmentation” was a constant theme in his music, from the very beginning of his career onward. What did he mean by this? Well, in my understanding of it, anyway, he meant the fragmentation of society, of societal values. What in fact had been left us after the Enlightenment, after Nietsche could proclaim that “God Is Dead” (and Nietsche can be found everywhere in Bowie’s lyrics, not just in 1970’s “The Supermen”!)? He speaks about this in an interview from 2002 that you can find on YouTube under the title “A Philosophical Conversation with David Bowie,” by the bye (click to link).

And so, fragmentation not only of the outer (i.e. society/world), but also, and concomitantly, the inner. And we get the “inner” part in “All the Madmen” and in “Jump They Say,” the songs dealing with David’s half-brother Terry’s schizophrenia and eventual suicide. And we get it on Aladdin Sane. And we get it on 1995’s “I’m Deranged” and “No Control,” which I just referenced above (these two songs, although similar thematically, are sung by two different “characters” in the Outside cycle, by the bye – The Minotaur and Nathan Adler, both of whom, for me, are, in a sense, the same character, and therefore equally as guilty of the murder of Baby Grace Blue, at least as guilty as Leon Blank or Ramona A. Stone were… But, I digress…). And then there is also the theme of alienation one finds throughout his work as well, of course, and the many references to “aliens,” which were apparently for him precisely a metaphor for this alienation (alien-nation?), this feeling of separateness from the earthlings peopling the planet so many of us tend to feel in the modern world (and which David, apparently, often felt from a rather early age onward)…

As for the “outer” form or forms of fragmentation? Well, it’s just everywhere. “It’s No Game,” of course, which deals with political uprisings, revolutions, and many other terrifying things happening around the world when he wrote the song (all from Bowie’s albiet slightly paranoid, perhaps, perspective, but nonetheless very real). “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” and “Loving the Alien” from his “Phil Collins-era” ’80s collection of hit songs, too, deal with such rather dark themes in different ways, themes of racial inequality and so on, as does “Black Tie, White Noise” from 1993 (a song written in response to the L.A. Riots). “Running Gun Blues” and “Saviour Machine” from 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World, dealing with the war in Vietnam, with killing indeterminately in the name of…well, Nation? State? Ideology? “I’d Rather Be High,” from 2013’s The Next Day seems to echo these themes, too, presented as it is from the perspective of a soldier fighting in a war. And then there’s “Valentine’s Day” and the lead (surprise) single from that same album, “Where Are We Now?,” which asks the proverbial question: Where have we come to, so many years after the fall of the Berlin wall, and yet, do we see any real peace in the world now? Progress beyond the technological? Is there kindness and empathy in our society today, or are we just like a snake biting its own tail endlessly, chewing it until its raw and red and raging mad? “I’m Afraid of Americans,” too, of course. And so on and so forth, ad infinitim.

I demand a better future, indeed.

Tomorrow will feature the third and final installment of this interview with Marc Lowe. After reading this far, you might be interested to learn more about him. Come back tomorrow for that, and for one of his Bowie covers…

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