Thursday 21 April 2016

David BOWIE: Best Of Bowie

(#1069: 1 week, 5 February 2016)

Track Listing:  Space Oddity/The Man Who Sold The World/Oh! You Pretty Things/Changes/Life On Mars?/Starman/Ziggy Stardust/Suffragette City/John, I'm Only Dancing/The Jean Genie/Drive-In Saturday/Sorrow/Diamond Dogs/Rebel Rebel/Young Americans/Fame/Golden  Years/TVC15/Wild Is The Wind/Sound And Vision/"Heroes"/Boys Keep Swinging/Under  Pressure/Ashes To Ashes/Fashion/Scary Monsters (& Super Creeps)/Let's Dance/China Girl/Modern Love/Blue Jean/This Is Not America (with the Pat Metheny Group)/Loving The Alien/Dancing In The Street/Absolute Beginners/Jump They Say/Hallo Spaceboy (PSB remix)/Little Wonder/I'm Afraid Of Americans (V1)/Slow Burn

"And then it happened.  Just a little at first.  But then, slowly, inexorably, it began to eat me up....I wasn't leading.  I wasn't following either.  I was inside it, inside the guts of it, and I couldn't get out.  My chest vibrated with the sound.  My head flooded with a million sudden thoughts and feelings - snapshots, sounds, smells....The music was either too big for me, or I was too small for it. Either way, I will never forget being so utterly overwhelmed.  In that moment I understood something profound - that words would only distort should I choose them to describe it."  Spectacles, Sue Perkins, pg. 221

"The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.” – Adam Gopnik, Paris To The Moon

Now, where was I, before being so rudely interrupted?  Oh yes, I remember....

....I remember listening to ChangesBowie and getting a headache and being relieved from that and then writing about The Carpenters and then pretty much being unable to write for some time....

Then came that Monday.  I don't remember now if I knew that morning, as I was doing my grocery shopping, what had happened (I do remember finding it a bit odd that Radio 2 was playing one song by him, then another, both from Let's Dance; but I had to go out.)  I do remember knowing when I got back, and telling M there were plenty of copies of Blackstar where I'd been and him going there that evening to buy the last remaining copy.  I didn't want to go to work.  The people there: not really all that bothered, perhaps a little puzzled/angry that they didn't "get" Bowie or thought he wasn't all that. As usual, I never know what to say at these times, and while I could write this as a way to explain Bowie, that would be exhausting and none of them would read it; anyway I have other colleagues who most certainly do get Bowie, thank goodness.  (You might be interested to know they don't really know each other very well, nor do I sense they would get along....)

Now, as you know a lot of these songs are on ChangesBowie (not forgetting Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, etc.) and I have written about some of them on MSBWT, as well, such as "The Jean Genie,""Life On Mars?," "Drive-In Saturday" and "Sorrow.".  But death alters and magnifies things, and I am going to try to look at some of these songs as I reheard them after seeing the signage at The Ritzy, after seeing the huge crowd there that night coming home from work, after visiting the Bowie mural in Brixton several times, a place that has become the main gathering place for people from all over the world to leave their tributes, messages and notes.  I realize I was/am privileged to be able visit it, though the many notes and letters have been taken away now, for the archives - so many scribbles, so many flowers, balloons, messages affirming Bowie's great courage and more than anything, a deep love and affection.  What tugged at me the most was a child's tribute, including a wonky drawing of Bowie himself, talking about what a great singer and dancer he was, as well as actor and guitarist and also how funny he was.*  I am guessing it was done by a kid who is about the same age now as I was when I first heard Bowie myself, in 1975. 

Yes, it's "Fame" where I stepped in to the Bowie stream, which always means I hear everything he did beforehand as something leading up to it; so I may as well start with it, and meander on from there.  What I remember, even as a kid, was how funky this was and how I couldn't understand it but did comprehend this fame thing as being distinctly bad.  Now I can hear it as a mean song, a justifiably mean one at that (Bowie had been royally screwed by his management) and there's Lennon, about to settle down and forego fame altogether for several years, and in the end it's Lennon that was doomed by fame, dammit.  Who would ever want to be famous after hearing Bowie's snarling descriptions of limos, where life is "hollow"?  The final irony was that this song got him a US #1 and propelled him even further into a world of showbiz that he could not really escape, which is somehow predicted by Lennon's voice saying "fame" over and over and going lower and lower, being dragged down into the mud, into a kind of non-existence.  It is also his first single with Dennis Davis on drums; I will get back to this later.

It is this showbiz world that Station To Station comes from, a world of Hollywood glamor and a desperate need to escape from it, from fame itself. If we take the whole Bowie story as someone who just wants to make music without having to go through through the rigamarole of being a famous person, a celebrity, then this is (as Chris O'Leary states in Rebel Rebel) the album where he goes out, as far as he can, into that struggle.  Does Bowie want to be someone who is high all the time, obsessed with God knows what philosophies or ideas of superiority?  Does he want, in some ugly way, to be a celebrity? In "TVC15" that celebrity, so common and yet somehow mindnumbing, becomes a television that takes his girl; in "Golden Years" that girl (the same one?) is promised fame and fortune herself, but it is a strain, as "run for the shadows" seems to indicate.  You will be famous and you will have to hide, either literally or metaphorically.  You will get hooked on drugs or witchcraft, you will lose touch with reality, or live some sort of parallel life.  You will also give megalomaniac interviews like this, pretty much.  If this marks the edge of Bowie's sanity, then his going to Europe to get healthy, live cheap and be creative is not just a smart move musically but necessary for his own good.  I mean, disco as "soma"? Way to endear yourself to the Soul Train crowd there, Dave.**  But to the title track...

“Station To Station” crawls along like a sinister train at the beginning, the old steam train haunting the present like a Plath poem.  Then it turns into a vamp, a vamp that backs up and up, turning on itself, decadent, a dead end, like a cornered scorpion stinging itself.  The first emotional break in the song, the point of liberation, is the first mention of “love.”  The Thin White Duke throws darts into the eyes of lovers at first, but then there’s the leap outside of darkness and into the world of mountains and oceans – “and who will connect me with love?” It is as if in mentioning love, it hits him, and he asks if he is stricken, if he glows – it is as if the European canon (this is how I hear it) has suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and he’s running after it like a kid runs after an ice cream truck on a hot day.  All of these other things mean nothing compared to love, and now it is “too late” for anything else.  The canon is here, his love is here – and the combination of these two things lifts him, and the utter joy of the music, compared to how it starts, is remarkable.  “Station To Station” makes “Sound And Vision” possible, because to get to that blue, blue room and some sense of being at home in Europe, able to just be without drawing on anything esoteric, is a big leap and requires a liftoff of the spirit that has to be transformative.***  This is the real rebirth for Bowie, just as to get from the earth to space takes about 8 minutes or so,“Station To Station” makes its point in that much time, and zooms off, towards Germany...but I digress....

There are two cds for Best of Bowie, all songs are singles, but there is a huge emotional gap between “Wild Is The Wind” and “Sound And Vision” which is the aforementioned “Station To Station.”  It’s not included because at over 10 minutes it was never going to be a single, but as Chris O’Leary has pointed out, it is his ultimate song, at least in terms of his being able to continue as a human being, let alone as an artist, in mid-70s Hollywood. Though he left behind a lot of the nonsense of Hollywood behind, Bowie did keep his excellent band, with the awesome Dennis Davis (I mean, I worship him now, him and James Jamerson) as its emotional center.  Am I wrong to think that Bowie's real ability to communicate profoundly comes with Davis?  I don't know.  But that's how it feels, listening to this album in order - that Davis shows up, and this whole business of Bowie being behind masks and being unknowable and all that dissolves. Perhaps this is because Davis came from jazz, from funk, from a discipline of invention and emotion - you an listen to Davis and hear his own commentaries on the songs, just as you can hear Bowie's own lyrics. 

Davis leads "Sound And Vision" after all, his drumming neither too fast nor too slow, ambling along, not dictating a mood as such but letting whatever is going to happen, happen.  The whole song is about that space, and there is a kind of wryness to it.  Eno's synth comes in like a shaft of light moving across a ceiling and Bowie sighs; he cannot do anything but wait for his vision, his sound, in room far away from anything.  His world is blue; he sits and stays silent, and his voice alternates between its usual keening and a kind of flat mumble, almost as if he is muttering to himself, and the listener is overhearing his thoughts.  So this is my life now; I am free, even if there's not much going on, I am away from all that, I am free, and that is enough.  A bit of saxophone, a bit of Mary Hopkin, more space.  Davis gives the song energy and swing, that sense of freedom and purpose, even if the lyrics are those of a person just out of prison, a person who has gone through a lot and needs to be alone....    

Whereupon he makes, along with Visconti and Eno, Low.  Now, it is hard for me to imagine a world in which Low was seen as a threat; something scary and alien, inhuman even.  But that was the reaction, famously, in two NME reviews, one by Charles Shaar Murray (anti) and one by Ian MacDonald (pro) .  Perhaps that is due to my age – as a teenager I heard music that was almost like recording the aftershocks of Low, whether it was Autoamerican (“Europa”) or Empires and Dance (the second side) to the Associates’ Sulk to Japan’s “Ghosts.” As I grew up in North America I never heard “Sound and Vision” as a single and since I was not a huge Bowie fan I never really knew about Low as such; I only heard it listening to a chart rundown show while liveblogging with M in 2007 I think.  My reaction was immediate and intense.  Where had this song been all my life?  How meanly for North American radio NOT to have it as a single!  Hearing it was like having a long-time mystery explained at long last. That Bowie famously doesn’t even bother to show up can still upset people, people who want A SONG DAMMIT and not just a groove; imagine what it was like to hear it fresh in 1977....

Charles Shaar Murray felt that Bowie was a man who needed help; Ian MacDonald was scared by the inhuman/alien qualities of side two, but at least it wasn’t as boring as side one.  If you ask me, Low is Bowie at his best – able to make rock, really bare his soul (as with Station To Station I don’t really sense much of a persona here) and then make essentially a leap from rock into what I guess would be called “contemporary classical.”  Side two, I feel and sense, is really the point, the joy, it is NEW and MODERN and an awful lot of people were disturbed by it, by the fact Bowie sings in an invented language (“Warzawa”) or in cut-up words (the brilliant “Subterraneans.”)  The whole album is intense, sure, but I find it emotional, direct, as direct as Bowie was ever going to be.  And yet Low’s reputation is one of being one of “icy experimentalism” (John Harris, The Last Party) and “depersonalized, utterly remote,  Only on the title song of “Heroes”...did Bowie inject some overt humanity into the mix”(Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming) which I find puzzling.  It seems that as with so many things, the first impression of Low as being a work of art but a cold and robotic one, stuck.  My experience of the album as being one of rebirth and being rather moving still seems to be in the minority.  What Bowie was trying to do in Low was nothing less than necessary for him, but in the moribund world of music criticism, it was seen as a threat, even by those who liked it....   

Freedom is also the question of "'Heroes'" - a big lumbering song that seems to be perpetually going up a mountain while not really actually getting there.   I am never exactly sure what to make of this song, as it is supposedly about seeing a couple kissing by the Berlin Wall, and there's tons of agony and loudness in Bowie's singing...but....but....what if the couple he saw were in fact happy? O'Leary calls this song cold, but to me he sounds sincere, projecting his own torment on couple he sees, bringing his own struggles to become himself ("we can be us just for one day") to bear.  These people are no longer really people but symbols; they are lovers and their humanity is their heroism.  I think.  The mention of dolphins reminds me inevitably of this, which for all I know is some kind of answer song?  That it's "'Heroes'" shows that even Bowie knew there was a temporary sense of bravery here, a kind of defiance that is/was always going to appeal to lovers and everyday folk alike.***  Its use in the Olympic closing ceremony, along with another song, shows how all  y the Britpop era, Oasis cover it and it loses its quotation marks. (And it's the single, not the album version here, which is a drawback; the quiet part, which is kind of depressing in a way - "We are lovers, and that is that" - has been edited out.)

After Heroes comes Lodger, an album that tends to get overlooked and "Boys Keep Swinging" (apparently his retort to the Village People's "Macho Man") is more Eno oddness, which is why the bass and drums are all over the place, and the guitar is in the same key but a bit frenzied; this is the sound of no one really knowing what they are doing, but doing a fine job anyway.  That the Associates recorded it to get noticed is fitting, as they (as so many of their generation were) were about to step up from being fans to being actual stars themselves.  Bowie easily could have ended the 70s there, but had to step out of the 70s and Europe to end them....

“Ashes To Ashes” is a profound song, the sort of song that reminds me that Bowie was an artist who chose to work in music; it is self-referential, sad, weird, astonishing.  I am amazed to find out that no one DJ had a special “first play” of it; I was struck dumb by it when I first heard it, and am even more moved now.  Imagine listening to a chart with this at the top – the actual chart included ABBA, Roxy Music and The Jam, not forgetting Kate Bush, Diana Ross or anybody else – and it is as if the horizon, the scale, the tone of everything has changed.  The song pauses and worries; it confesses, as much as it can; it mumbles (foreshadowing “It’s A Sin” by the Pet Shop Boys – more on them later) and says goodbye not just to the 70s but the late 60s as well.  “I’m stuck with a valuable friend” – that friend is the past, the old selves - Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, the Diamond Dog.  But it has to go now.  It just has to.  The most moving part is the end, as the old world recedes, disappears, and the voices fade; the long, long goodbye, looking backwards again and again, the pull becoming stronger on one hand and weaker on the other, this NOISE coming through like the end of "The Boxer."  It is like the fierce nostalgia that hits you when you are about to leave somewhere, when everything important and good is suddenly apparent, necessary. But in “Ashes To Ashes” that moment has happened already.  Major Tom is someone to avoid; he is the past incarnated.  The past, which can only be preserved in cold, dry uninhabitable places, places where the spark of life is impossible.  That is what Bowie was trying to say, that he knows letting go of the past is tough, but it must be done, because it is a kind of living death otherwise.  

Whether the British public understood this or not, I still don’t know.*****

“Space Oddity” is where it all starts; “Ashes To Ashes” is where it ends.  This is how I felt, lying on my bed listening to it, dazed, stunned by the production (which I rarely am), struck (subconsciously) that this is the song in A minor, which might just be the most poignant of all the notes.******  The single edit sadly leaves out the pauses, the weird Tom Waitsesque roars, and somehow the fact that this is a song, as the title suggests, about death.  It is an odd tango, (a tango from outer space), giving a sort of theatrical dignity to Major Tom and his passing.  This is a very conscious song, a deliberate one, and it uses “we” to bring the listener into the song.  It isn’t just Bowie who is stuck, it’s the listener as well; those doubled voices who say “I’ve never done good things...I’ve never done bad things” may as well be Bowie and the listener.  And then the childhood rhyme that closes as a world disappears – and the old world floats off, a world of stupor, decadence, remorse.  The 70s were terrible and out of that terror came tremendous efforts towards art and transcendence, new futures that could happen – but I remember how eagerly people wanted the 70s to be over, for a truly fresh start to occur.  And here is Bowie essentially saying, yes BUT – you cannot have this renaissance without letting go, in this case of a beloved figure, so beloved that three years later Peter Schilling would have a hit wherein Major Tom actually did get back home safely.  (This was a hit when Bowie was pushing Let’s Dance which was his attempt to be an American, again.  I’ll get to it in a bit.)

Speaking of America, it is because Bowie was an expatriate for so much of his life that the whole idea of being given any honours by the UK establishment must have seemed beside the point for him.  Think of the those who have accepted the “Sir” – no matter how talented and even inspirational they are, these are mostly people who have found their niche and dug in, becoming very much part of the Establishment before getting what most of them see as their due reward, their entitlement.  Bowie changed and altered himself as life took him, from Brixton to Hollywood, Berlin to New York City.  His polite refusal of the honour strikes me as something that someone who is very much self-made and introspective would make.  As an American, I like to think also that he favored the American equality of character rather than the bow-to-the-Queen idea of being somehow above others. (Also, someone with such hauteur as Bowie could have in performance and images in general somehow didn’t need an honor – he was a self-made aristocrat already.)

It remains one of the enigmas of our age that “Fashion” continues to be used to denote, well, fashion.  Think of the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics; think of Debenhams’ front window only a few weeks ago.  Fashion!  Turn To The Right.  There are simply too many moments in the song (Best of Bowie unfortunately has the single edit) which indicate that while this may be inspired by The Kinks’ “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion” that this is far from what it’s really about.  The mechanical sequencer whoop-whooping; the utterly pissed off and sarcastic guitar by Robert Fripp*******, the “we are the goon squad and we’re coming to town, beep beep.”  But all this is thrown aside for the tremendous Dennis Davis beat, the notion of this as an early 60s dance song gone horribly wrong.  There is a dance, but what is it?  The narrator says he doesn’t know (but does), the guitarist certainly knows, but that knowledge somehow isn’t absorbed by the public, unless the people who put together the ceremony were playing an elaborate joke on Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss, who for a little while seemed to be the spokeswoman for Bowie (“Scotland stay with us.”) That it’s clearly about fascism and people behaving like sheep – the right, the left, keep moving – is one of those things that makes me headdesk. “You shout it while you’re dancing on the-uh dance floor.”  And that’s right where it was played, at university and school dances across the world.  Do I even need to explain New Pop here?

"Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)" is a harsh song; metallic, sung in a sarf Lonnon voice that Bowie rarely used, and I can't really say that I know what he means; why does he call her stupid and yet still love her?  Am I being too literal here? (I realize that I'm not looking too deeply into lyrics here; it's hard to listen in this case when I feel as if I'm in a factory of some kind, hammers and chisels swinging away, the ssssssssssss sound of Bowie's vocal very prominent...)

Though I intend to talk more about “Under Pressure” when I get to Queen’s Greatest Hits II (what, you thought I wasn’t going to write about it?) I can say that Bowie is what makes the song work, and his definition of love at the end as “old fashioned” is the only way to make any sense of “Modern Love.”  That kind of love, the kind that passes him by, is cold and reeks of yuppies and Filofaxes and nouvelle cuisine and people who go out and buy Let’s Dance and prefer Bowie as a guy in a linen suit to any other version so far.  (I strongly suspect these are the types who get up at 5 and don’t really care very much about music, period.) I have warmed to “Let’s Dance” a bit since hearing a version of “Louie Louie” that is modelled on it (and which I hope Bowie got to hear), but the backing singers aren’t exactly Vandross & Co. as they once were, and Bowie was just a bit better at dancing than Bryan Ferry. Nile Rodgers make damn sure it was a dance song though, just as he made sure “China Girl” sounded Asian, because this is Bowie for the masses, just as he was once a Glam Slam hero who appealed to those (same?) younger masses. 

I am not sure Bowie had much fun being a regular guy rock star, and that professionalism and normalcy deadened him in a way - (I would even say he acted in bad faith when he decided to make a big hit record), whereas on Scary Monsters he sounds like a man having fun, and being able to freely express himself.  Let’s Dance and Tonight were ultimately successful as aid for Iggy Pop, and for getting Bowie and Iggy hits, but by “Dancing In The Street” things were getting just too normal.  A duet with Mick Jagger for charity?  This is the sort of thing yuppies wanted, a dance song stripped of its meaning, with both of them dressed badly somewhere in an east London warehouse.  They don’t sing the song with much feeling (“on the streets of Brazil!” Bowie sings as if that’s a new idea), whereas in the original version Martha Reeves sounds a bit pissed off, mainly because the people in the booth forgot to record her first take.  And so the single is her second take, the immortal one, the one that promises liberation and danger, and not just jumping around having a good time.

“Blue Jean” is a fine video, if you like that sort of thing.  (It does prove what the girl wrote in her tribute – Bowie was indeed very funny, and the best parts of the video capture that.)  The song?  Hmm, not so much.

“Loving The Alien” is Bowie somehow trying to be just like what “David Bowie” is, but not getting there. 
I try not to think of “China Girl” or the video, which as I understand it wasn’t shown on UK television until after 10, whereas I saw the whole thing after school on Video Hits.  Nile Rodgers was right to think of his addition to the song as bubblegum, and he was terrified Bowie would hate it, but Bowie liked it and so it went.

Bowie notably cooled on doing music in the mid-80s and got far more into movies, so it makes sense that his best songs for the rest of the decade would be from movies.  “This Is Not America” is Bowie gliding and aching over the plotline of The Falcon and the Snowman, with Pat Metheny’s beautiful drones and pauses – and just as Boy George did, he mixes up “America” and “a miracle.”  He sounds oddly abstract here, again Bowie being “Bowie” but not as annoying as in “Loving The Alien.” And as befits this period, these songs are acted; a lot more mannered than anything from Low, I feel....only on "Absolute Beginners" (maybe because he was part of that London, of that time) does he reach back to finally be Anthony Newley and call for ease, celebrate not decadence but innocence, and the classical melodrama of the song - all very theatrical, darling - actually makes him sound more sincere as well.  I don't think he had recorded anything more generous since "Starman" over a decade before, and there is a kind of humility here too...

From here, there are two more songs which stick with me; "Hallo Spaceboy" with the Pet Shop Boys and "I'm Afraid of Americans" which he did with Trent Reznor.  No, there is nothing of the whole Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider Tour/Tin Machine era, and I will quote Rebecca Harrington here on a future TPL subject to make my point clear:

"The problem with flying to great heights is that like the Spice Girls, you think you can do anything. Sponsor a frozen pizza. Call an album Schizophonic. Get really long extensions with one nonmatching streak in them.  Guess what? You can't. You can't do any of that. Just because you're in the Spice Girls doesn't mean that all is permitted. You're going to fall back to earth eventually." (I'm Having What She's Having, pp. 84-5)

I don't know if this is Bowie's I'm-a-rock'n'roll-martyr period, but in any case if you want listen to these albums, you are welcome to them (and I am sure they have their defenders).  But Bowie/his label felt no need to remind anyone about them....

TPL will get to Black Tie/White Noise, which has "Jump They Say" - what I can report here is that Bowie, by now married happily to Iman, had a far better handle on himself and what he wanted to do, and even if he is a middle-aged man playing catch-up, he is not that bad...

Back to "Hallo Spaceboy" - a rare case of Bowie working with someone else (thankfully not Mick Jagger) in the modern era and its working, but maybe not in the way it used to. It is "also an unexpected return to "Space Oddity" - the song that haunted Bowie so much he tried to kill it off with "Ashes To Ashes" but it's hard to kill a myth....

"Space Oddity" (only the other days did I realize this was a play on Odyssey, by the way) is a song that packs in as much of modern life as it can handle - drugs, commercialization, loss, alienation, love, more wordplay ("Can you hear me Major Tom? Can you/Heeeere, floating in my tin can") while being a folk song, folk song, after all.  It appropriately ended the 60s along with everyone else, the difference being this is where Bowie really gets going, while The Beatles and Co. are beginning to wind down, or weird out.  The helplessness of the astronaut as he looks at his blue planet is the exact opposite of Bowie in his "blue blue electric blue" room with the blinds drawn all day on Low.  There at least the narrator is waiting for something to happen; for Major Tom, he has no expectations, just a beautiful expanse of something to look at, out of his head and a Ground Control who seems helpless, too. 

Of course, Bowie wrote “Space Oddity” with the moon landing in mind, but he must have been moved by the story of Apollo 8; in some ways a more amazing achievement than Apollo 11.  To get to the Moon and then orbit it was the goal, but only the people at NASA, the astronauts and their wives would know beforehand how unlikely it was to work – the odds were only 50-50 they would get into orbit (the odds  were equally bad on them being returned safely), and even now listening to Public Service Broadcasting’s “The Other Side” can bring me to tears.  So easily they could have missed their mark and simply gone off into space, disappeared.  Christmas Day 1968 was the day that they reported back from the other side, to the immense relief of everyone on Earth.  The intense drama of the day could not have been lost on Bowie, who equally had the one chance, the one attempt, to get a hit single after years of trying. “The unmanned lunar orbiter spacecraft orbited the Moon perhaps 10,000 times, but this the first that a man aboard reported back to his compatriots here on Earth.”********

Perhaps because it was based on reality of this sort that "Space Oddity" would find itself, and Major Tom, persisting so strongly.  (It could also be why so many people felt, after Bowie's death, that somehow he was immortal, too.)  To free yourself - or be freed - from your Earthly Bounds and be able to come back to earth is nothing short of miraculous, and Bowie may have wanted Major Tom abandoned, but here he is again.  And in a remix by the Pet Shop Boys, no less; by 1995, he needed them more than they needed him.  Spaceboy is free - and who brings in Major Tom but Neil Tennant himself?  "Ground to Major, bye bye
Tom/Dead the circuit countdown's wrong/Planet Earth is control on?/Do you wanna be free? Don't you want to be free?" "Moondust will cover you" "This chaos is killing me!!" sings Bowie, the "bye bye love" swirling out - "Yes I wanna be free!!"  Has Major Tom merely fallen asleep, found a new drug?  Boys or girls - it's confusing these days!  Bowie sounds at home with PSB, and vice versa; though when the song was performed on Top Of The Pops, few in the audience knew who Bowie was - such goes pop.  What starts as a folk song, goes to a room of blue and then a sad farewell, comes back in the club, zooming off into the unknown.

Which leaves "I'm Afraid Of Americans" - a song I cannot take seriously as Bowie only wanted to be an Amercian growing up and ended up in NYC for many years; this is more about cultural dominance, a dominance he mused on in "Life On Mars?" but this has Trent Reznor moping in the background (it is the NIN version on Best of Bowie), giving it that requistite everything's-going-to-hell late 90s vibe that made sense at the time but probably sounds a little forced now.  Bowie wears a Union Jack coat on the cover of Earthlling, perhaps a nod to Britpop, which was itself dying away bit by bit in 1997.

"Slow Burn" is on here as it was the first single from Heathen in the US; and it is Bowie back with Visconti, with Pete Townshend even, post-9/11 and in a world where there's no need to look for oddness or alienation in outer space; there's a feeling of unreality right here in NYC "the center of it all."  "The walls shall have eyes and the doors shall have ears."  Now he sounds his age; a older man, content to make music, not videos.  "It's not unlikely that you're going to have a sense of angst in anything that's recorded in New York or by NewYorkers" he said at the time, like a native himself.  That this compilation ends with a sense of being grounded, a bit unsafe, is somehow fitting; Bowie rarely made merely cheery jock rock, the sort of stuff truckers listen to on long hauls; though for all I know there's a trucker out there right now blasting this album into the day/night.

So is this the best of Bowie?  In some ways yes, in others, no.  The intense and sustained mourning of Bowie (even now there are still flowers being laid in front of the Brixton mural) shows that he means something private and individual to many, which was also shown by the avalanche of albums that went back into the chart after his death - some of which, at this writing, are still there, this one included.

It seems wrong to say this, but I will anyway; as an American is fully apparent to me that what makes the UK special isn't fancy shops or buildings or the royal family, but the capacity of a culture to help someone with no special background or connections like Bowie to make it in the world of music.  (I wonder if this is part of what makes people mourn, or gives them fresh cause to mourn.)  Just as Merle Haggard came from nothing, Bowie did too (without the jail time, obvs.) and the deaths of these men are enough to show how determined and stubborn they both were, in the face of indifference.  But the self-made-man is a US idea; in the UK, one is supposed to "know one's place" even now, when class consciousness is just as strong as ever, and at a time when a lot of rock musicians are people who "just happen to have" gone to a special school (Brit School, public school, etc.) and not the art school that Bowie went to - which wasn't even all that, really.  Where is the Beckenham Arts Lab isn't so much the question as where's the Stockwell Arts Lab?

Bowie had the time and space to woodshed and develop his personae, and then enough clout to go to Hollywood and Berlin and back to NYC.  After Heathen came Reality, and after that....nothing, until we get back to Bowie in good time.  His health slowed him down, but his method became a bit more like his hero Scott Walker, who also takes his time making music.  (It is nice to think that Low influenced Nite Flights

I remember being on the 28 bus and seeing the big billboard by where it turns at the end of North End Road - a big black star.  I had no idea of what it meant, just as I had to readjust my understanding of Bowie that Monday, hearing songs I'd never heard on the radio before, and then seeing the reaction of Londoners to one of their own; and now I'm adjusting to Dennis Davis having passed as well, and feeling more than a little aggreived that his work has not been noted or honored in any way (or if it has, I haven't heard it yet, even on Radio 2.) These two men were remarkable, but what they accomplished together to me is the best of Bowie; a fine example of the Ocean of Sound, where two differing currents meet and something greater comes out of them.

David Bowie (nee Jones) 1947-2016
Dennis Davis 1951-2016 


*I am sure he would find it amusing to be praised for his guitar skills, but Bowie was indeed a funny guy.

**His random mentioning of the rather hapless O'Jays seems meaner than "Fame" at this time.  That Radio 2 plays the same songs by them all the time isn't their fault, after all.  Also, didn't he admit to liking "I Feel Love"?  The only bit of old Hollywood which works is "Wild Is The Wind" which is very fine but also painful, as if he wants so badly to be part of that glamorous world of yore, but it's not ultimately for him and he knows it.  He was born far too late, and there it is, stubbornly still the 70s.

***I wonder if it is about this time that Bowie realizes he has to go back to Europe to live and is only more than pleased to do so, not really enjoying being a celebrity in the USA as much as he’d like.  I also wonder if he had an experience on a kind of spiritual or mystical level, a moment he has to grasp right then and there or else he will lose it – there is no persona in Station To Station, no mask; this is a man grappling with the meaning of life before us, and joyously realizing it does have purpose and meaning   It is, in the truest sense, soul music.

****They are supposedly Tony Visconti and a woman who wasn't his wife; the woman later said that this was impossible, that they got together after the song was recorded.

*****”The country carried all the psychic baggage of a Pyrrhic victory.  Despite the postwar burst of Socialism, the war had seemed to vindicate the status quo.  The incidence of films celebrating England’s endurance and victory was in a direct ratio to the refusal of its people to see the need for change.  England was smug and static, full of imperial pretensions, even in areas such as the celebration of the Beatles’ worldwide fame after 1964 – one of the country’s few successes.  Pop was a hitherto unrecognised and rapidly expanding source of capital.” Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming, pp. 108-9

******I mean, never mind “Stairway To Heaven” quite frankly. (In case you were wondering, the other big A minor song is "Unfinished Sympathy.")

*******I know I might be upsetting some King Crimson fans out there, but his playing here  Oh and come on down, Graham Coxon.

********For a different view of loneliness, outer space and all that, there's Daniel Belanger's "Dans Un Spoutnik" from his 2001 album Rever Mieux.