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They Can’t Get Enough of that Doomsday Song

January 11, 2016 Leave a comment

I got interested in David Bowie through the side door. As a kid growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, Bowie was an unseen influence on most of my life. These were the post-“Under Pressure” years, post-Let’s Dance, the Tin Machine years, where he sort of simmered as cultural force, became a family man, dialed down the weirdness of his ’70s heyday, but before beginning to seriously dabble in dance hall electronica. I was surrounded by Bowie, but had no idea who he was. I’d heard his songs, but had no idea they were his. (This happened to me later with The Velvet Underground, as well. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m painfully poorly educated in music for someone who claims to be a musician or even music fan.) I knew that “Rebel, Rebel” was one of my mom’s favorite songs, at least in the late ’80s.

It remained this way probably until my first two years in college, when Heathen had just been released, and hailed as yet another instant classic in the Bowie catalog. (By this point I was dimly aware that this was A Big Deal.) This didn’t do much for me, personally, but my friends and roommates were falling over themselves listening to it. Not long after, Wes Anderson’s The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou was released, and we all went to the Fargo Theatre to see it, and I was absolutely destroyed by the Bowie covers performed by Seu Jorge (Check them out here.) These were songs that transcended arrangement and language. I was hooked.

Not long after, I bought my first Bowie album, Ziggy Stardust, in quad–despite not having a quad player or even surround setup–from the now-defunct Vinyl Connection in Fargo. Then came “Heroes” (purchased after a rather long Bowie/Eno digression in Warren Ellis’ column/book Do Anything). I keep saying that book changed my life, and I still can’t say that it hasn’t.

Now, well:

Capture10

Probably should note this is just the vinyl. Still working on it.

I think what appeals to me about David Bowie’s work is the sheer range of it. The man is pretty much myth at this point, but his long-standing reputation as musical chameleon is well-deserved. Space rock, proto-punk, glam, electronic, jazz, it’s a 50-year-long documentation of Western pop music before it happened. And nobody he worked with was anything less a genius than Bowie. His producers (Nile Rodgers, Tony Visconti, et al.), studio musicians (Brian Eno, Mike Garson, Reeves Gabrels, Gail Ann Dorsey, Stevie Ray Vaughen, Mick Ronson, etc.), collaborators (Alexander McQueen, Iggy Pop, Trent Reznor, Lou Reed, Queen, Mick Jaggar, and on and on) were all partners, influences, and architects with him without ever taking the pure Bowie-ness out of his work.

The scandals he seemed to incite and the rumors that surrounded him made him a fellow weirdo, and despite being rich as fuck and in a life I could never inhabit, he was a bizarre artistic astronaut that was still accessible. In writing, there’s the idea of making the main character so featureless that readers can imagine themselves in the role. Bowie was so detailed in all his personae that he was anybody. Instead of being no one, he was everyone. He was a mod; he was a drugged-out rock star; he was a punk; he was a straight-laced family man (as much as one can be with a life with Iman); he was heretic; he was saint. And through it all, that paralyzed iris and wonky smirk dug into the same part of your brain-heart that holds family holiday memories and emotions about the first person you fucked. You knew you were home.

It’s probably fitting that Blackstar is his final album. The LP package is a dour black affair, recalling Spinal Tap or Metallica’s Black Album. It exudes solmnity and style. The music itself is weird and slowly becomes more and more accessible. The vocals span every era of Bowie from the nasal sneer of Ziggy Stardust to the croaking, breaking falsetto of Low to the false bravado of his Plastic Soul years to the straight rock voice of the later albums. It is both grand and simple in arrangement and instrumentation. It is dense and sparse. It is intrinsically electronic and wholly acoustic. The Next Day would have been a great album to end a career on, but Blackstar is the album to end David Bowie’s career on.

And now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to spin some records and cry and forget I was going to do anything at all this week.

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