Saturday 16 January 2016

David BOWIE: Blackstar

(#1068: 15 January 2016, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Blackstar/Tis A Pity She Was A Whore/Lazarus/Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)/Girl Loves Me/Dollar Days/I Can’t Give Everything Away

In the end, it turned out to be a story that began with Frank Sinatra and ended with David Bowie. The two are said to have met, at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles during the autumn of 1975; Bowie was recording Station To Station, while Sinatra was working on music of his own – the Sinatra discography suggests that this was an era of single-only releases. It is claimed that the two got on well, so well that Sinatra listened to some of Bowie’s playbacks, in particular his version of “Wild Is The Wind” – always more Nina Simone than Johnny Mathis – to which the Chairman gave the thumbs-up.

Even if the story isn’t verified, I’d like it to be true, to have happened, as it would represent a midpoint between this tale’s two extremes, a tale that lasted nearly sixty years, that began with the colourful optimism of Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, one of the earliest examples of the long-playing record, then an exciting novelty, as a conceptual thing in itself, and ended with Blackstar, a conceptual record about things drawing to a close in an age when the long-playing record is essentially facing extinction.

It therefore makes sense to bring this story to a close with Bowie’s last words. But you might be wondering: where have I been?


With four months away, you could assume that I had something to do, and while that’s true, I’ve also been reading, specifically Jon Savage’s book 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded. On its surface the book does what it promises, namely document what happened in that most curious of years as filtered through the year’s pop singles (and to a lesser extent its albums) and the main socio-political events in Britain and the USA.

Wisely, Savage does not attempt to document every last scrap of what happened and what was done in 1966; in his Introduction he freely admits that if you want to read about developments in free jazz or Jamaican music, or New York minimalism or Strasbourg Situationism – to which this reader would add events in South Africa and Red China – then these form the basis of other books yet to be written. Likewise, Dylan is a benign spectre throughout the book, as his 1966 doings are exhaustively documented elsewhere (though it is good to see AMM getting due respect in relation to their influence on the early work of Pink Floyd).

The Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys are sketched in lightly, as Savage prefers to focus on the less feted music of that year. The book takes the form of twelve essays – one for each month – all of which take their lead from a specific single before broadening out. The first eight essays are devoted to thorough exploration of specific fields – Vietnam, nuclear war, the rise of feminism and gay rights, the rise of soul and R&B, etc. – while the last four see all the disparate elements collide together, not always comfortably (the key word in the book seems to be “compression” as though pop and youth are fighting for their lives, trying not to be crushed by the weight of the old). That having been said, the book’s most compelling chapter might be that on the Velvets and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable – a tale told countless times, but rarely from the perspective of the then forty-year-old Andy Warhol (whom Bowie later portrayed in the movie Basquiat). Savage considers, at length, what, if anything, this all meant to Warhol.

And yet the story of 1966 is a rather melancholy one. 1965 plays a considerable part in the book’s build-up but 1967 is hardly mentioned. Reading Savage’s various accounts – and his account of 1966’s Civil Rights struggles is written well enough to work as a school textbook. But we are not allowed to forget that 1966 was a year that began with the Great Society and ended with Governor Reagan shutting California down, that started with “Day Tripper” but culminated in “Green, Green Grass Of Home” – I had never before considered how much  that latter record’s success owed to its status as an unofficial charity record to commemorate the Aberfan disaster. Pop appeared to be closing down, or closing ranks, too.

Taken in conjunction with something like 4-2, David Thomson’s meticulous ball-by-ball analysis of the 1966 World Cup final, Savage’s book acts as a useful corrective to the misty-eyed Revolution In The Head stories of 1966 representing a sunny, optimistic time for everyone. In fact, in most places outside London, Los Angeles, San Francisco and King’s College, Cambridge, it might as well still have been 1936. It was a miserable and rotten time for most people and, in the end, perhaps also for pop.

For the Beatles, Stones etc. appeared to be moving away from their audiences. The daft optimism of the initial Beat Boom had proved to be unsustainable – and, if you chance upon a 1964 or 1965 edition of Pick Of The Pops, it is now mostly unlistenable - as its leading lights drifted into rest, contemplation, experimentation. Common people did not feel that the Beatles were speaking to them any more, and yet, paradoxically, in the December 1966 easy listening desert, everybody was waiting for the Beatles to provide an answer, or signal a way forward.

They did not – they were busy working on “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” neither of which was earmarked for single release at that time – and so the great promise which “Reach Out, I’ll Be There “ and “Good Vibrations” had proposed fizzled into nothing. The turning point was probably the Yardbirds’ “Happening Ten Years Time Ago”- and in particular its midpoint, when Jeff Beck starts his police siren impersonations, which marks the second when British pop turned into British rock – Jimmy Page’s guitar swoops down like an irritated pigeon to meet Beck, and you can smell Led Zeppelin coming in the middle distance (a notion aided by the fact that Yardbirds bassist Chris Dreja remembers nothing about making the record, and suggests that John Paul Jones might have played bass).

The single was a flop, barely scraping into the Top 50. Commentators like Penny Valentine thought the Yardbirds were jiving, showing contempt for their slow-witted audience who couldn’t keep up with their daring artistic experiments (whereas American acts, from the Beach Boys to the Supremes, managed to be more genuinely experimental and not make a cackling fuss about it). The Stones’ “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In The Shadow” was a mess and suggested a group that was hopelessly lost, and America, and specifically California, was picking up the baton again.

By 1967 most of the British musicians who mattered had more or less turned their back on the single and moved towards albums. Coupled with the ending of pirate radio, the charts duly and inevitably collapsed into a morass of MoR and novelty sludge. The year’s biggest new star, Engelbert Humperdinck – to all intents and purposes a throwback to the pre-rock era – captivated the cloakroom girls and typing pools who had become confused by the Beatles, had grown up a little and wanted a less complicated life, while their kid sisters had the Monkees to scream at and laugh with.

That is a spurious and superficial overview of a complex and creative year, if you only base such an analysis on the year’s Top 40 lists. But it may be, as Savage suggests, that something crucial was lost when the “serious” musicians more or less abandoned the Top 40; immediacy and concision were sacrificed, as was a certain degree of excitement and commitment. Although “Readh Out” and “Good Vibrations” were rightly praised as landmark singles at the time, their ramifications weren’t or couldn’t be followed through – 1967 was the year of Smiley Smile and The Four Tops On Broadway.

Towards the end of Savage’s book, and therefore towards the end of 1966, David Bowie turns up in earnest, having already made a couple of cameo appearances. “The London Boys” was only a B-side, but unlike much of the year’s pop, it was slow, contemplative and ambiguous, pointing a softly accusatory finger at the façade of Swinging London and pill culture. “The first time that you tried a pill,” he sings, “You felt a little queasy, decidedly ill.”

It sounded as though the seventies had already begun.

“It’s all gone wrong, but on and on/The bitter nerve ends never end/I’m falling down.”

* *

In 1966, Savage makes the very subtle point that, to put it in such words, nothing has changed. Without needing to underline it, he demonstrates how horribly close the general oppression of 1966 is to now.

And so David Bowie, coming into and going out of a world that has stayed the same.

* * *

Unlike everybody else on the planet with foresight, I didn’t buy Blackstar last Friday or indeed over the weekend; I had other things to do. The first I heard of what had happened was when I looked at Twitter on Monday morning. Death is what goes on while you are doing other things, as somebody else didn’t sing.

It was a shock, for me perhaps the biggest shock since that misty Oxford Tuesday morning in December 1980 when I blearily switched on the radio and everything was Lennon. This is not to say other deaths weren’t shocks; it’s just that with Elvis, Kurt, Michael, Amy and Whitney you could see it coming. Ornette? He was my favourite musician of the last hundred years but he was eighty-five; he’d lived a life.

The only thing most people knew about Bowie was that he had heart problems and was living the quiet life. The fact that he died such a mundane death – cancer, at sixty-nine; what, Bowie? – would not have been especially shocking to me (though might have been to those devoted adherents who felt that Bowie was “above” such things); the fact that we didn’t even know is what was shocking. It was like we hadn’t given him permission to die. It was a Gesamtkunstwerk fait accompli and maybe simultaneously the noblest and crassest exit in pop history.

As though Bowie would have been bothered by history, or his story.

Me? I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

* * * *

A Sainsbury’s superstore, my local, on a chilly, damp and dark Monday early evening. The white light and white heat of the supermarket momentarily dazzle. I go to the CD section. There is one copy of Blackstar. I pick it up.

“Do right by him,” warns the voice which has suddenly popped up next to me. “A good time to announce you’re stopping writing about music, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps I was writing about music in the wrong way,” I ventured.
“You still are. Endless, ponderous preambles to pretentious writing which does nothing but state the obvious. No wonder you can’t get any writing work. No wonder no agent will touch you with a hundred-foot bargepole.”
“I’ve always said I’m happy to work with a good editor,” I replied. “But nobody’s interested in publishing literature any more. As for the type of writing I do, I am fully aware that right now there’s no market for it at all.
‘Furthermore, I take into account what Mark Sinker said in his Wire review of 1966, about ‘the boomer’s generation’s seemingly endless ability to reinvest in its own youth, at the expense of anyone else’s.’ It’s what bothers me about the Bowie tributes. They’re all, or mostly, about the seventies and eighties Bowie. Really, if he’d done anything since Let’s Dance you’d hardly know it. Perhaps they’re just lamenting the loss of their own youth.”
“And you don’t?”
“It’s why I wanted to stop writing. It is not befitting of me to complain about baby boomer music writers running things when I’m days away from turning fifty-two.”

You see, we were evicted from our flat. No fault of our own, but somebody else bought the building and wanted it empty to start from scratch. Letters from lawyers using terms like “trespassing” as though we had committed a crime, other than the fatal early 21st century crime of being too poor to live in London – when we’re both working professionals.

We spent two months trying to find somewhere else and most of the people and places we saw were absolute shits. The only estate agent we dealt with told us that if we didn’t earn at least £30K a year we were untermensch. Just what you want to hear when you have heart problems and need to lead a stress-free life.

Happily – and as usual in such cases, almost at the last minute – a good, decent and helpful landlord came through and we found a new flat. But it would be wrong to say that this experience hasn’t left scars in me, scars which are unlikely to heal. And it has affected my whole attitude to writing about music.

We are still unpacking boxes. The other night, most of the old Then Play Long LPs came to light, and as we glumly unpacked them I actually wondered: why do we still have all this stuff, and what did it ever mean outside of writing about them for this blog? To see them again brought us no joy. Most of them are rubbish. To be truthful, we will probably end up putting them in the recycling bin; they’re not even worthy of the local charity shop.

And yet people bought these records in sufficient quantities to make number one, and so I wonder – have I wasted the last eight years of my life writing about drivel, and how much more drivel can I tolerate just to get to the good stuff?

Then I remembered what Jon Savage says in 1966 about albums being more expensive than singles and therefore primarily being bought by adults, who have more money and are therefore more conservative about what they spend their money on. Thus the album chart has remained an innately conservative affair with only the occasional irruption of the unexpected.

It is these records – OK Computer, Wu-Tang Forever, To Pimp A Butterfly, to name but three off the top of my head – which demand attention. To paraphrase Mr Bangs, I’m not sure whether I want to see my way towards retirement writing about pap and mud.

If that weren’t bad enough, I fear that at nearly 52 I may have developed incipient reactionary old git syndrome. Perhaps that makes for an easier life than actually engaging with what’s happening now. Or it is simply the case that, as suggested in the current Wire, politics has overtaken music. The world is crumbling to argumentative pieces and I don’t know that doing an end-of-year list or walking around the privileged orchard saying “2015’s been a good year” is the way to deal with that.

Furthermore, after the fifty-three year irruption that constituted “rock ‘n’ roll,” it seems clear that everything has simply returned to pre-rock ways, with singers and composers again devolving into two separate entities. Carly Rae Jepsen’s E-Mo-Tion may be much talked about somewhere – presumably on music messageboards that I no longer read – but commercially its launch was botched, and while it is a richly entertaining pop record, the presence of the usual suspects in the songwriting and production departments suggest it might be the last gasp for this type of thing (even though, happily, Ms Jepsen does appear to have had some input into all of the record's songs). There are minor tugboats of resistance, like Sophie (like or dislike PC Music, Sophie crossed into the mainstream via Rebel Heart, a much better album than you think) but they do their thing and nobody really notices.

Nothing is CHANGED.

* * * *

In the past week a lot of people have referred to Bowie as a “genius.” As Ian S Munro made his Glasgow artist say, “It’s not in my working vocabulary and I’ve no notion how its colours mix.” But you know a genius when you see one. What is a genius? Let me offer a peremptory and inadequate list: Orson Welles, Virginia Woolf, Pablo Picasso, Brian Wilson, James Joyce, Sylvie Guillem, Ornette Coleman, Fred Astaire, Oscar Wilde, Sonny Rollins, Derek Bailey, Roger Federer, Aretha Franklin, David Lynch, Bill Shankly, Alasdair Gray and Billy Mackenzie.

Yes, I know, what a pitiful (and overwhelmingly male and white) list. No doubt you can think of a better one. But that’s the standard of being a genius; you do things that nobody else would even think of doing, and more often than not you create art before you think. Throughout his long career, David Bowie never did anything without thinking about it, without planning it all out (whereas a Bowie idoliser like Mackenzie at his best sounded and looked like he sang without doing any thinking), and so by that yardstick I regret to say that Bowie was not a genius. But he was a great synthesiser of trends, one of the 20th century’s great art conduits. Like Diaghilev, Miles and Eno, he was able to link great strands of development to each other, and responded best when he had a Visconti or Ronson or Eno to argue back at him.

That was what I thought until last week, anyway.

Then I listened to Blackstar and wondered whether he was a genius after all.

* * * * *

The title song wanders into earshot, or maybe you wandered into the ballroom halfway through it. A Spanish mode – it’s in the same key as Coltrane’s “Olé” – Bowie’s voice sounds rather strangulated, as though struggling to remain above water, as he sings about the world crumbling to pieces, about death, transfiguration and rebirth. It is the saddest and lushest sound you could ever hope to hear – drums stuttering around semi-randomly as though struggling to remember drum n’ bass, Donny McCaslin’s saxophone already causing trouble.

The song steadily builds up until impact point is reached, whereupon it implodes, floating freely through space for a short while before the song’s second main melody steals in – and suddenly we have the old Bowie back; or are these still ghosts conducting a bitonal argument? They keep trying to break through what is otherwise the return of the anthemic Hunky Dory Bowie, but neither side wins and eventually the Spanish mode subtly returns to the foreground before the whole gently atomises.

If 2013’s The Next Day was a cheerful nostalgic romp, then “’Tis Pity She Was A Whore” is neither. It is violent – Mark Guiljana’s drums are mixed firmly upfront – but again, particularly in the glorious key shift from verse to chorus, which instantly recalls “Absolute Beginners,” the song gets detoured by McCaslin’s intentionally argumentative saxophone and flute, as well as some strange keyboard Morse coding at the end. “Lazarus” sees Bowie regarding “heaven” as a prison – his own Fender guitar slams in with regular triplets like slamming metal doors – and again drums and saxophone are prominent; although they begin in a decidedly 1985 mood of opulent regret (it could almost be Dire Straits or Bryan Ferry), they soon become more threatening and dissonant. But Bowie’s dissonance or use of free jazz/contemporary classical tropes – and please don’t call this a “jazz” record; it isn’t – has never seemed pasted on, like an exotic chilli. Meanwhile, down at the song’s root, Bowie remarks, “Ain’t that just like me” like it was still 1964 and John Lee Hooker was playing in Tooting.

Like his idol Scott Walker, Bowie’s songs arise out of the voice and lyrical concept, and then the music has to fit around that or exceed it. It is perhaps not surprising that Bowie’s vocals on Blackstar are very similar to Walker’s. Clearly something like Bish Bosch is tougher going, but Bowie utilises his baritone in very similar ways, making it more high than low, as though compressing a life’s experience into however long a song has to be to accommodate it. “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” is a drastic remake of what appeared on 2014’s Nothing Has Changed career retrospective. There, Bowie held back against Maria Schneider’s immense, floating cliffs of brass, allowing McCaslin’s tenor and Ryan Keberle’s trombone to have their say. The verses are spaced out at long intervals; there is a particularly fine moment towards the end when Schneider’s band goes into a ruminative free interlude, with snarling bass trombones acting as pedal points. The music eventually dissipates, as Schneider’s great hero Gil Evans was apt to do with his later big bands.

Here, however, the song gets a violent makeover, the drum n’ bass elements now to the fore, with guitars clashing and screeching. The song’s length is also compressed by half and so Bowie’s anger at betrayal is more palpable, less patient. Who else used a word like “writ” in pop – apart from when Bowie used it in “Life On Mars?” In addition, his outraged, “You went with that CLOWN!” recalls the ending of Jazzin’ For Blue Jean. The song plunges into chaos before being abruptly cut off, like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” After that, “Girl Loves Me” marches aridly on the spot, and if Bowie knew what he was on about here, at least someone did (I’ve tried not to analyse the lyrics too much as everybody else is doing that).

* * * * *

I admire the complete absence of self-pity on this record, unlike entry #1067, which was nothing but.

Everybody but EVERYBODY has talked about this record being about his dying, and maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But, strangely or normally, it’s not my concern. Both Tony Visconti and Donny McCaslin have testified that the sessions were bright, upbeat and to the point.

This record would have gone to number one anyway, just like Innuendo did another time. We mustn’t talk of it as though it were some last will and testament kind of thing. Nobody speaks of Warren Zevon’s My Ride’s Here in the same way (but then I suppose Zevon wasn’t Bowie, who was supposed, in some people’s eyes, to be immortal).

We don’t celebrate any more. We just sit around and mourn, or wait to mourn.

There is always the possibility that Bowie was having a laugh, and not just the last one.

* * * * * *

I mean, look at that last photo session; there he is, in the suit, fedora and wiseguy smile, dancing around why he could almost be FRANK SINATRA

That last photo session, four months ago.

* * * * * *

But then you get something like “Dollar Days,” the one where he treats the English evergreens like Clive James does the tree in his garden or Dennis Potter did with his “loveliest, whitest blossoms” and you are drawn back to that heartbreaking descending chord run as if he were still looking over his shoulder at Colin Blunstone and Nick Drake*
(*sometimes I think the deepest Nick Drake songs are the ones he doesn’t sing on, e.g. “Friday,” whose flautist, Ray Warleigh, died late last year**)
(**that “young” generation of British or British-based improvisers who came through in the sixties***)
(***and the irony of AMM being in part a splinter group from Mike Westbrook’s band, whose regular players were often to be found in their day jobs in the bands of Alexis Korner or Georgie Fame**)
(**they’re all getting old now and dying off, one by one, and it’s happening with the rockers too, all those people now in their seventies or even eighties, and one day they’ll be gone and can you baby boomers deal with that?****)
(****and how do you think that the ORIGINAL rockers, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, who invented the game in the first place and have now outlived most of their disciples, feel?)
but then there’s something that goes awry with the song, harmonies and improvisations grow out of step, and he’s telling you something, that he’s trying and dying to forget you...
...however, as I said, no self-pity.

* * * * *

“I Can’t Give Everything Away” and there he is, telling you, against a backdrop as luscious and subversive as Black Messiah, and that drum n’ bass he can’t ever forget – well, we know he couldn’t help thinking about him but now he has a proper saxophonist instead of trying to do it all himself (“Liza-Jane,” well everyone has to start somewhere; “Subterraneans,” nobody else could have imagined or played that – McCaslin frequently sounds like a more perturbed Andy Mackay on this record, whose seven songs all appear to centre around the same key, like it was one song extending over forty-one minutes and seventeen seconds).

Another name for that last song might be “That Would Be Telling.” Guitarist Ben Monder solos like he’s Mike Oldfield, before the song gracefully glides to a halt, beside the sea which he was meant to see, but never actually managed to see.

* * * *

Yes, the blackstar, the meaning of which is known to all good breast surgeons and clinical oncologists.

Yes, the songs all APPARENTLY/AFTER THE FACT about death.

But I feel that Blackstar is an almighty SHOUT IN FAVOUR OF LIFE – he wasn’t intending to die just yet,  he had another album on the go, which we may or may not hear in years to come. I mean, you might as well say that “Oh Mr Gravedigger” was forecasting what was going to happen etc. etc.

* * *

The harmonica (though no harmonica player is credited) on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” straight out of “A New Career In A New Town” and the recorders at the end of the same song, rescued from “Life On Mars?” Taking stock with a wink, and telling us: here it is, it’s up to you to work it out.

* *

On TOTP in 1996, excitedly being introduced by Nicky Campbell, “Hello Spaceboy,” which Bowie performs with the Pet Shop Boys. He holds his microphone stand at 45°, bobbing and swaying like Starbuck on the Pequot. The Pet Shop Boys get all the screams and cheers from the audience, who are presumably wondering who that silly old guy at the front is.

People these days. Talking about Bowie? You might as well be talking about Al bloody Jolson. “Oh, my mum likes him.” “Who?” “Do you mean David ZOWIE, you know, ‘House Every Weekend’?” Meanwhile, of the generations who knew who Bowie was, their Bowie was invariably the greatest one.

Or maybe he learned 1966’s most valuable music lesson – ask John Cale, Scott Walker, Bob Dylan or Neil Young – in that you never stop going forward because nobody told you to stop. Whereas now musicians are told to stop before they even start.


“Space Oddity” is a song which is almost certainly about Syd Barrett, although the character “Major Tom” is likely to have been inspired by Brixton music-hall entertainer Tom Major, whose son John became a Lambeth councillor and later Prime Minister.

The only Bowie album without Bowie on the cover, although if you look carefully at the images at the bottom and see what they spell out, there’s a clue to something or other.

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life; we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will be silenced – but what of it? Go on singing.”

He was only seventeen years older than me. You think about these things more the nearer you get.

And in between were over six hundred other albums. Or you might prefer to live a life. And if you do, how long will you play?