Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Ultimate David Bowie Playlist.

Back in the Tower Records Golden Age of CDs, Rhino Records was the compilation king. They put out the best single & multiple-disc collections of artists, always striking a perfect balance between including all the chart hits (for the casual fans) & representing all the albums (for the completists). When appropriate, a killer B-side or deep album cut might be thrown in for good measure.

What made collecting albums in the '90s so amazing has now jaded me for the rest of my life. As the music store has given way to the music website, individual tracks have usurped the well-chosen collection. Rhino Records has since gone the other way, making extravagant box sets for increasingly specific periods of an artist's career or movements in rock & roll. The art of the compilation album is dead; Long live the art of the compilation album.

Through the magic of iTunes (& the drive of a lifelong obsession), I welcome the current predicament as a challenge to create my own best-of albums, with a nod to the Rhino style. Thus, with the recent passing of David Bowie, my task was clear: Make a compilation of his most classic material in under 80 minutes or less. (Oh, & for the record, I called this a playlist, with the assumption that few to no one would bother to burn it onto one of those compact discs from the 1900s). Here was my criteria:

  • I focused on David Bowie's finest & most influential era: 1969 to 1983. Bowie would go far beyond this period, but his streak from "Space Oddity" to "Modern Love" represents his most essential work. Anything thrown in after would seem like a distraction & require key songs to be missing.
  • Each studio album in this period is represented. Bowie released 14 studio albums in these 14 years, all of which range from worth checking out to indispensable. I have seen lists (especially after his death) where all of these are ranked somewhere—yes, even Pin-Ups, thanks to Greil Marcus's classic "Treasure Island" list in the rock-on-a-desert-island-book Stranded.
  • Each hit song in this period is represented. Pretty much. The US was easy: Always less of a deal than in his native UK, this contains all of his songs to make the US Top 50—& nearly all of the ones to make the lower reaches of the Top 100 as well. The UK was trickier, but what follows below contains every hit that landed within the UK Top 10 (as in #9 or higher). On a few occasions, I put in an album track ("Ziggy Stardust," which somehow was never released as a single) or a minor hit ("Suffragette City," which was originally released as a B-side) instead of a Top 10 UK hit (like the #10 hits "Starman" & "Knock On Wood" from Ziggy StardustDavid Live, respectively) when the former songs were more essential.
  • There is only David Bowie. In an effort to streamline things, I left out any collaborations, which means that I left off 2 big hits—"Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy" with Bing Crosby (#3 UK) & "Under Pressure" with Queen (#1 UK, #29 US)—the latter of which will probably piss off most people who read this list. I LOVE the song "Under Pressure," but I don't see it as a true Bowie song: If it was, it would have been included on one of his albums, but it wasn't, it appeared on Queen's Hot Space. To me, this makes it more of a Queen song. It's like when Michael Jackson & Paul McCartney both sang on "The Girl Is Mine" & "Say, Say, Say": "The Girl Is Mine" landed on Michael Jackson's Thriller (& subsequent Jackson compilations) while "Say, Say, Say" landed on Paul McCartney's Pipes Of Peace (& subsequent McCartney compilations). "Under Pressure" is unimaginable without Bowie, but for me, it is essentially a Queen song that he guests on.
Well, if that hasn't bored you or turned you off thus far, you should be rewarded with the list:

Sound+Vision: The Essential David Bowie [1969-1983]

1. Space Oddity (single from David Bowie, 1969; #1 UK [1975 re-release], #15 US [1973 re-release])
2. The Man Who Sold The World (album track from The Man Who Sold The World, 1970)
3. Changes (single from Hunky Dory, 1971; #49 UK [2016 re-release], #41 US [1975 re-release])
4. Life On Mars? (album track & later single from Hunky Dory, 1971; #3 UK)
5. Ziggy Stardust (album track from The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, 1972)
6. Suffragette City (album track, B-side, & later single from The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, 1972; #194 UK [2016 re-release])
7. The Jean Jeanie (single from Aladdin Sane, 1973; #2 UK, #71 US)
8. Drive-In Saturday (single from Aladdin Sane, 1973; #3 UK)
9. Sorrow (single from Pin-Ups, 1973; #3 UK)
10. Rebel Rebel (single from Diamond Dogs, 1974; #5 UK, #64 US)
11. Young Americans [Single Version] (single from Young Americans, 1975; #18 UK, #28 US)
12. Fame (single from Young Americans, 1975; #17 UK, #1 US)
13. Golden Years [Single Version] (single from Station To Station, 1976; #8 UK, #10 US)
14. Sound & Vision (single from Low, 1977; #3 UK, #69 US)
15. "Heroes" [Single Version] (single from "Heroes", 1977; #12 UK [2016 re-release])
16. Boys Keep Swinging (single from Lodger, 1979; #7 UK)
17. Ashes To Ashes (single from Scary Monsters (& Super Creeps), 1980; #1 UK, #101 US)
18. Fashion (single from Scary Monsters (& Super Creeps), 1980; #5 UK, #70 US)
19. Let's Dance (single from Let's Dance, 1983; #1 UK, #1 US)
20. China Girl (single from Let's Dance, 1983; #2 UK, #10 US)
21. Modern Love (single from Let's Dance, 1983; #2 UK, #14 US)

Oh, & yer welcome. Now let's dance.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Top 10 David Bowie Songs.

David Bowie left us with a wealth of classic songs—hit singles & deep album cuts alike. But when you tally up his most classic records, it's remarkable to see how almost all of them were major hits (either upon initial or re-release). Of the list that follows, only two didn't make the Top 20 in either the UK or US ("Changes" & "Ziggy Stardust")—& those two songs are actually better-known than many of the other songs that were hits.

For this list, I left out any collaborations, such as Bowie & Queen's classic "Under Pressure," for I wanted these songs to represent 100% Bowie compositions. Likewise, I left out Bowie covers, such as his versions of The Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend The Night Together," Eddie Floyd's "Knock On Wood," or Bruce Springsteen's "It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City." Finally, I chose songs in the versions that Bowie himself recorded; thus, a song like "All The Young Dudes" didn't make the list because, although the famous Mott The Hoople version is phenomenal, Bowie's own solo version on it is less than stunning.

These are songs that represent Bowie the singer & Bowie the songwriter, his own unique style as expressed through sound & vision.

& there's no better place to begin than—

10. "Sound & Vision" (Low, 1977; #3 UK, #69 US).

David Bowie's manifesto for his career—a true artist, working in sound & vision. Appropriately, the song finds him at the forefront of cutting-edge art rock, with an assist from muse/co-conspirator Brian Eno. It is a rich yet textured array of funky electronic sounds that seem to be powered by a lovely mechanical hiss that sounds like a factory engine releasing steam. For me, it is this sound that makes the record, a milestone where man vs. machine became not just about computers & outer space, but music & our inner-spaces. All of this gives way to a small set of elusive, brittle lyrics that seem to hide as much as they reveal. Such is the artistic process, & no song summed it up better—at least for the artist who was David Bowie. 

9. "Modern Love" (Let's Dance, 1983; #2 UK, #14 US).

For all of the styles & genres that Bowie embraced—rock, pop, show tunes, glam, soul, art-rock, electronic, & countless others—"Modern Love" is the closest he ever came to gospel. The song stands out as the most exciting track out of an overrated "comeback" album that effortlessly builds off of its own energy like the finest church music. It's at once a funky '80s dance tune & an ancient call-&-response spiritual that uses the spirit of sacred music to power a song about secular love. To do so is well & good, but the song works because it simply sounds so infectious. It's one of those rare dance songs—like Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons' "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)" or ABBA's "Dancing Queen"—that has the power to pull you out of whatever context may have initially surrounded it—& onto the dance floor.

8. "Changes" (Hunky Dory, 1972; #49 UK [2016 re-release], #41 US [1975 re-release]).

If "Sound & Vision" was Bowie's artistic manifesto, then "Changes" was his initial statement of purpose, a portrait of the artist as a young kook. Looking out at on the brink of the 1970s, it is tempting to say that it was Bowie who most saw the onslaught of styles & conflicts that were to come in popular music—or, perhaps, that he was the most prepared to deal with them. Thus, by the decade's end, he was the artist who had best weathered it all (with the possible exception of fellow iconoclast Neil Young) in terms of artistic consistency & commercial appeal. Very few could have weathered hard rock & disco so well, let alone punk & the postpunk music that was soon to be known as New Wave. "Changes" seems to posit that in this river of pop music, the only constant is change. Is there any other reason why it has become so engrained as a classic rock anthem despite never being much of a hit?

7. "Rebel Rebel" (Diamond Dogs, 1974; #5 UK, #64 US).

If "Changes" is a classic rock standard in hindsight, "Rebel Rebel" seemed to be one from the moment it was conceived. Released as part of Bowie's messy last stand of late-glam, Diamond Dogs, "Rebel Rebel" was everything that they album which contained it was not: Sharp, clear, & an unabashed success. The guitar riff sounds like it was copped out of Keith Richards' unconscious & was applied to Bowie's slickest set of androgynous lyrics. But most important of all, it has a killer hook for a chorus, driven endlessly forward by that glorious backbeat. Once when I was in a guitar shop, I heard someone testing out a guitar & stack rig with its hook, & it cut through all of the watered-down Zeppelin & Metallica riffs that were playing around it, as though it would be stupid for a decent guitarist to ever play anything else.

6. "Ziggy Stardust" (The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, 1972; Album Track).

How to best encapsulate the Ziggy Stardust phenomenon? "Five Years" has that exciting build, "Moorage Daydream" has better production values, "Rock & Roll Suicide" has more ambition, & "Lady Stardust" may just be the most beautiful one of them all. But "Ziggy Stardust" has the whole package—summing up the entire project into a little over 3 minutes of space age rock music. Built around a jagged riff that could only be described as Bowie-esque, the music evokes hard rock & heavy metal without ever quite falling victim into it, with a strange set of lyrics that appear to be more straightforward than they actually are. Scattered throughout are our most graphic fleeting glimpses of Ziggy himself, playing left-handed guitar, screwed-up eyes & screwed down hair, & best of all, making love with his ego. Was this supposed to be a send-up of Hendrix? T. Rex? Iggy? Listening it to today, it sounds like all of them combined, consciously & convincingly, until all that can be seen clearly is the legend of Ziggy Stardust—or rather, David Bowie.

5. "Young Americans" (Young Americans, 1975; #18 UK, #28 US).

"Young Americans" stands in a long tradition of rock & roll—not just in terms of its conception as a soul record, but as a soul record that should have been a much bigger hit. In the latter regard, it stands in good company—The Five Satins' "In The Still Of The Night" (#24 US Pop), Marvin Gaye's "A Change Is Gonna Come" (#31 US Pop), & Ike & Tina Turner's "River Deep—Mountain High" (#88 US Pop)—for, like those other records, listening to its grooves doesn't explain how it was not a #1 (let alone Top 10) pop hit. For all of the ink that has been spilled about Bowie being a chameleon of rock music, I think I better word might be "student"—he truly studied & understood the music the way few had before or after him, like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen. "Young Americans" has all of the hallmarks of a bristling soul record—a funk beat, a sharp tune, great call-&-response vocals—plus a handful of Bowie's own signature touches—a cop of the "I heard the news today" line from The Beatles' "A Day In The Life" & a surprise shout-out to the recently-resigned Richard Nixon. & just when you think it can't get any better, check out the live version he sang on Dick Cavett's show here.

4. "Ashes To Ashes" (Scary Monsters (& Super Creeps), 1980; #1 UK, #101 US).

If "Young Americans" was the rare breed of a soul song that should have been a bigger hit, "Ashes To Ashes" was the even rarer breed of a #1 UK hit that failed to make the US Top 100 entirely. (Other notable examples include The Shadows' "Apache," Elvis Presley's "Wooden Heart", & The Rolling Stones' "Little Red Rooster.") At least part of the reason for it is because, even in the realm of Bowie, it is utterly bizarre. It is also hauntingly beautiful. Built around a shimmering, funky hook that sounds like it is made out of both water & glass, "Ashes To Ashes" continues the tale of Major Tom from Bowie's "Space Oddity," bringing the astronaut back down to earth & into an underworld of drug addiction, sung in a weird falsetto with a deadpan Greek chorus underfoot. Throw this together with the most expensive music video made up to that point & you have a true, bizarre, truly bizarre classic that hasn't aged a minute—if only because it doesn't sound like anything else.

3. "Space Oddity" (David Bowie, 1969; #1 UK [1975 re-release], #15 US [1973 re-release]).

David Bowie was 22 when he released his first hit single after a half-decade of toiling under non-hits & failed projects. It is rare that an artist's breakthrough hit can remain a high-water mark for a creative career to follow, but if anyone can defy the odds, it's David Bowie. "Space Oddity" is at once effortless & highly sophisticated, blending psychedelic rock & mainstream pop over a multi-part saga with a drawn-out & involved narrative. It seems as though nothing is compromised—the long, endless fade-in of an acoustic guitar, the wry cleverness of the countdown verse, the shifts back & forth from the brooding, tension-filled narrative sections & the bouncy, hand-clapping bridges, the utter sadness of the melody combined with the sheer wonder of the lyric. By the end, the song is soaring, & then suddenly lost, just like Major Tom himself. But between his disappearance in "Space Oddity" & his reappearance in "Ashes To Ashes," Bowie would chart the course of his own journey as a space-aged rock & roll legend.

2. "Heroes" ("Heroes", 1977; #12 UK [2016 re-release]).

Of all the wonderful film moments to incorporate a David Bowie song (& there are lots & lots of them), the one that stands out the most for me is the use of "Heroes" in 2012's The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. In it, Emma Watson's Sam asks her stepbrother to blast a song with which they are unfamiliar—spoiler alert: it's "Heroes"—as she stands on the back of a pickup truck going through a tunnel. When the film characters revisit the song & tunnel towards the end of the film, lead character Logan Lerman's Charlie sums up the feeling of the song in three words: "We are infinite." This is the sound of "Heroes," a glorious onslaught of guitars & synthesizers that both fades in & out, like it continues indefinitely in some other realm. But what carries it all is Bowie's most passionate reading of the lyric, wringing all of the beauty from the lyric & the melody. It acknowledges the ultimate potential of humanity ("We can be heroes…") as well as its frail limits ("…just for one day"). Sewn together with an allegorical tale of love, loss, & the Berlin Wall, "Heroes" is easily the most powerful song Bowie ever recorded.

1. "Life On Mars?" (Hunky Dory, 1971; #3 UK).

It's probably appropriate that every song from #6 on up is about space beings or space travel—& the one song that isn't ("Heroes") sounds like it was recorded in an intergalactic vortex. Living in the space age has greatly influenced David Bowie's entire career & so it comes as no surprise that his greatest song is called "Life On Mars?" More than any other song he would perform, "Life On Mars?" contains all of the elements that makes Bowie so brilliant: It's a cinematic, sweeping epic swirling with surreal lyrics & music that builds from an unsuspecting show tune ballad into an avalanche of cascading freaks & string. Sailors fight in the dancehall, cavemen in the best-selling show, lawmen beating up the wrong guy; if we are to take the singer at his word, it is in part a disjointed paean to "My mother, my dog, & clowns." The music is no less diverse, with music-hall piano growing into a symphony, slithering violins, searing electric guitar, rollicking bass, thundering drums, & atmospheric synthesizers—it all adds up to an orchestra playing on a careening a pirate ship. In a career that summoned countless distinct worlds, "Life On Mars?" is the rare David Bowie song that seems to capture them all. & if anything else, the song—as well as the catalog it caps—proved that the answer to the title was a resounding YES.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Top 5 David Bowie Albums.

One week ago, rock icon David Bowie left our galaxy for a new interstellar realm. Bowie was one of the few rock artists of his era—along with Neil Young & Bruce Springsteen & a few others—who turned out a remarkably consistent body of work that stands the test of his time. His most influential & creative work is in turn some of rock music's most influential & creative work.

Here are his 5 most legendary contributions to the rock canon.

5. Scary Monsters (& Super Creeps), 1980.

Turns out that it is much harder to pick a fifth greatest Bowie album than a first, second, or third. Aside from the 4 masterpieces that follow, Bowie had a lot of near-masterpiece level albums, such as Aladdin Sane & "Heroes". But Scary Monsters (& Super Creeps) beats the others for its consistency of sound & quality. Here his textural explorations of the '70s met head-on with the challenge of punk, its postpunk aftermath, disco, & hard funk. They would call the result "new wave," but Bowie outstrips nearly all of his peers who would follow. (The promotional sticker that initially put on the album touts it as "punk rock," but this does more to do with the industry's misunderstanding of the term than anything inside of its vinyl grooves.)

"It's No Game (No. 1)" sets the pace with a woman's voice speaking in Japanese & Bowie singing painfully, absurdly badly, missing some notes & turning others into an ugly yodel. "Up The Hill Backwards" is one of the catchiest songs he ever produced, built around a Bo Diddley-style beat & a vibe that is not all that unlike The Clash in their absurd one-offs like "Hitsville UK." "Ashes To Ashes" is at once both haunting & funky—& I still have no idea how it isn't the most sampled hook this side of James Brown—a surreal pop song that brings his beloved Major Tom from "Space Oddity" back to the cold ground of earth. The result was one of the strangest singles ever conceived of, & indeed, was one of the very few songs to hit #1 in the UK while missing the US charts entirely. "Fashion" both celebrates & mocks the industry with which Bowie has always had a special fascination, resulting in another major hit; meanwhile, the title track is a space-age wonderland of sounds & lyrics, held together by stuttering drumming that sounds like it was copped from a Joy Division single. & songs like "Scream Like A Baby" & "Because You're Young" reached back to a classic pop sensibility that dug deeper than their experimental sonic trappings. If it all felt a little jagged & disjointed, but that was the point. After trailblazing his way through the 1970s, Scary Monsters set a solid course for the 1980s—it's just too bad that neither Bowie nor his peers were able to live up to it.

4. Station To Station, 1976.

Bowie's most appropriately-titled album finds him transitioning between the "plastic soul" of Young Americans & the "Berlin Trilogy" of Low, "Heroes", & Lodger. The epic title track—which, clocking in at over 10 minutes, is the longest song that Bowie ever released—is nearly an album into itself: Scattered instruments fall together into the slow yet driving rhythm that introduces The Thin White Duke, Bowie's porto-disco, white suit-wearing icy crooner who would be his most celebrated persona after Ziggy Stardust; things pick up in a second section ("Once there were mountains…") that pick things up into a clipped bridge of plastic soul, before delivering into the final section ("It's too late…"), which ranks among the finest pop music he would ever record—that rare, elusive kind that doesn't fit into any one sound or era but, in seemingly borrowing from them all, transcends into its own. The result is definitely not the side-effects of the cocaine, so I'm thinking that it must be love.

The following "Golden Years"—originally written for Elvis (who turned it down, though it would have been worth it just to hear him sing "run for the shadows"), but loved by Zappa (it was said to be his favorite Bowie song)—resurrects a lovely doo-wop feeling that reminds one that no matter how far afield Bowie would stray, the old-time '50s rock & roll were never that far away. Yet all of the attention it has gotten as a lovely anachronism misses the point—though classic in style & lyric, it was couched in a sound as modern as a spinning spaceship, giving it an extra layer of both underlying depth & superficial style. The first side closes with "Word On A Wing," returning to the futuristic soundscapes that charted the way to Bowie's future. It made for a beautiful, searing ballad that was at once hip & romantic, without crossing over into maudlin dross. If David Bowie never released another song after Side 1 of Station To Station, he would remain near the top of rock's most innovative artists.

If the album's second side didn't quite live up to the first, it's not Bowie's fault—few albums could—but keeps tirelessly venturing onward through the funny hallucination of "TVC-15," the dance-floor plea of "Stay," & the closing dreamlike cover of Johnny Mathis's 1957 hit, "Wild Is The Wind." In the hands of nearly anybody else, the album would be a career-high masterpiece, but for Bowie, it was merely a weigh station between bigger destinations.

3. Low, 1977.

Released to mixed reviews in early 1977, Low has since become a cornerstone of modern rock music: It was one of only two Bowie albums included in Rolling Stone's 200 Essential Albums list, it was the first Bowie album to receive a volume in the 33 1/3 series, & Pitchfork chose it not only as Bowie's greatest album, but the greatest album of the 1970s, ever. Despite popular belief, it was not produced by Brian Eno (Tony Visconti did the honors), but Eno is all over this album, both in terms of a musician playing on the tracks & a muse that inspired them. The work is divided into two halves: Side 1 is five song sketches sandwiched by two sweeping instrumentals; Side 2 is four mostly-instrumental extended soundscapes. Together, they form a singular vision of a rock artist growing in his confidence as a songwriter & at the peak of his powers as a performer. 

Each instrumental track is striking in the way in which it evokes an entirely different world (as it should, since much of it was intended for Bowie's film The Man Who Fell To Earth). The opening & closing instrumentals of Side 1 are decidedly more pop—the soaring, funky "Speed Of Life" is utterly life-affirming & the cinematic "A New Career In Town" sounds like it was copped from a musical montage in a 1980s film (even if it was recorded several years before the 1980s existed)—while the instrumentals on Side 2 are fascinating excursions into art rock: The cold, haunting wasteland of "Warsaw," the sad & stately overarching sky of "Art Decade," the bizarre, bubbling sea of "Weeping Wall," & the menacing, cryptic underworld of "Subterraneans." Each is an epoch unto itself.

But to my ears, it's the five song fragments on Side 1 that make the album, playing like an artist's sketchbook brimming with ideas. "Breaking Glass" is brittle funk led by searing guitar & building to a perfect lyric—"You're such a wonderful person! But you know you have problems!"—that is at once bluntly cruel & devastatingly funny. "What In The World" is a love song that trips over itself earnestly, taking measured steps that collapse into a sudden flowing refrain that simultaneously ties the whole thing together & demonstrates how unfinished it is. "Always Crashing The Same Car" is a somber rumination on life & automobiles sung with a rare beauty—just listen to the way he says "hotel garage"—that is perhaps the best-kept secret in Bowie's catalog. "Be My Wife" is a pop triumph coming out from the other side that reaches for companionship rooted in a confession of loneliness, all with a cold detachment that nearly defies the work that has gone into it. & centering it all is "Sound & Vision," which is probably the best track of them all—& the album's only real hit (at least in the UK)—half-instrumental & half-adorned with lyrics about the elusive creative process: "Blue, blue, electric blue, that's the color of my room…" It is a churning, minor masterpiece that works as the engine for the album, summing up Bowie's career in three words or less: Sound & Vision.

2. Hunky Dory, 1971.

After years of hard work, promise, & potential, Hunky Dory was Bowie's his first triumph. In hindsight, it's a little striking how showtune-sounding it is—thanks in part to an assist by pianist Rick Wakeman, whose work on this album is so good it almost cancels out his King Arthur-on-ice concept album project some four years later. But good pop music is good pop music, no matter which way you choose it & Hunky Dory is no exception. Taking a step back from the psychedelic rock of his first self-titled album & the harder rock of The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory was nearly unclassifyable as a work, which perhaps means it could be the product of any era. It is a singer-songwriter album that sounds pitched halfway between Broadway & The Bowery, filled with weird characters & sounds that are similar only in how unabashed they all are. There is a certain strangeness in the music, but also a little courage too. It would set the course for Bowie's highest achievements.

The opening pop rocker "Changes" would provide Bowie with a signature statement of purpose that he would spend the remainder of his career living out; "Oh! You Pretty Things" was a strutting celebration of the homo-superior that laid the groundwork for his role as a gay icon; & "Life On Mars" was perhaps the best song he ever recorded--a swirling, cinematic whirlwind of sound that carefully builds on itself before unleashing a sweeping refrain that is equal parts beautiful & surreal. The first side's closer, "Quicksand," is a more mysterious ballad that has been often-invoked since his passing for its verse "I'm not a prophet or a stone age man/Just a mortal with potential of a superman/I'm living on," although its refrain is even more telling, perhaps too much so to be quoted for the mourning masses: "Don't believe in yourself/Don't deceive with belief/Knowledge comes with death's release."

The second side contains Bowie's three ritual killings of the father: "Andy Warhol," "Song For Bob Dylan," & "Queen Bitch" (about Lou Reed). All are charming evocations of their subjects—Warhol is a pure pop-as-surface, near-throwaway tune; Dylan takes the "voice of sand & glue" into its own throat, following in the tradition of Dylan's own "Song For Woody"; Reed is a three-chord slasher right out of The Velvet Underground's Loaded, with deadpan lyrics & a relentless charge. All three would figure heavily into Bowie's persona over the rest of his career—Warhol's philosophy, Dylan's lyrical introspection, & Reed's musical daring, all of which Bowie would make into hallmarks of his own. The album ends with the utterly bizarre (even for Bowie) "The Bewlay Brothers," an enigmatic song that was supposedly written to stump the American audience. Yet this song works too, because it contains beauty—a meandering thing that always winds its way back to the unsuspecting title characters, almost as both an afterthought & a logical conclusion. It doesn't so much close the album on a strange note as it does tap into the strangeness that had been there all along. Bowie would get stranger over the years, but many would hold that, song-for-song, he would never get better.

1. The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, 1972. 

David Bowie's masterpiece—& one of the greatest rock albums ever made, period. Oh, where to begin? Probably with the concept--Ziggy Stardust was a rare concept album that was conceived as a conceptual art project & carried out that way, with Bowie deciding to become Ziggy Stardust, such that he looked & acted the part of the red-haired alien glam-rocker for the entire period surrounding the album's release, insisting on reporters to call him Ziggy, not David. In playing the part of the biggest rock star in the world, he tried to literally turn into it, arguably taking rock artistry to its farthest & most ambitious point. & unlike so many others who attempted conceptual coups on various levels, the album Ziggy Stardust demonstrated that Bowie—or rather, Ziggy—had the songs to prove it.

Here was cutting-edge, underground glam rock, filled with electric flash but grounded by the warmth of an acoustic guitar, the sound of T. Rex filled out with the showmanship of Jimi Hendrix. All put together, the album told the story of a rock & roll savior whose come to save the world: In "Five Years," news reaches Earth that the planet has only five years left, built around the malt-shop "Earth Angel" chords (& complete with a scene in an ice cream parlor), that is at once an invocation of rock "oldies" & a statement of purpose; "Soul Love" heightens the scene by laying a foundation for the love that will be tapped into by Ziggy (both heterosexual & homosexual), collapsing into "Moonage Daydream," in which Ziggy seems to emerge from the cosmos over a refrain that is as weird & beautifully otherworldly as Elvis's "Blue Moon"; "Starman," the album's lead single, documents Ziggy's arrival being spread as a word-of-mouth sensation with a tune that borrows from the octave-jumping hook of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"; & "It Ain't Easy," the weakest song on the album, closes its first side with the fatal warning that "It ain't easy to get to heaven when you're going down."

The second side opens with the lovely "Lady Stardust," where Ziggy becomes an androgynous pop idol with some of the finest lyrics about the idol-fan relationship ("I smiled sweetly, for a love I could not obey"), which is in its own way is a worthy successor to "Life On Mars?"; "Star" posits the thesis of becoming a rock & roll star by acting like one (ending with Ziggy's line hushed under his breath: "Just watch me now"); "Hang On To Yourself" is a churning rocker celebrating Ziggy & his band, which so effectively summed up their spirit that it was used to open live Ziggy concerts; "Ziggy Stardust," the most familiar song to listeners today, tells the entire tale in miniature—a wild rock star who "made it too far," as everything came crashing down with loud music, sex, & ego; "Suffragette City" focuses on the women backstage through another Velvets-inspired rocker that is among the most covered songs on the album; & finally, "Rock & Roll Suicide" finds Ziggy committing the titular act over another classic "Earth Angel"-like chord progression, all resonating back to the same message, to both idol & fan: YOU'RE NOT ALONE!

Ziggy would famously end his "final concert" with "Rock & Roll Suicide," which at the time led people to believe that Ziggy—& by extension, Bowie—was retiring from pop music permanently. But they soon learned it was just the ending of an act, to make way for a new one—with a new sound & look to go with it. Bowie would have great albums before & after this one, but Ziggy Stardust is his best album because his music & concept, his sound & vision, come together for the first time in a way that was both exciting in spirit & revolutionary in execution.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Last Thoughts On David Bowie, 1947-2016.

"Is David Bowie's 'Young Americans' the greatest song ever?" asked the 2004 fourth edition of The Rolling Stone Album Guide. "For the five minutes of the song, all anyone could ever want is to be or do a young American. David Bowie's whole world, & everything great about rock & roll, is in this tune."

& even better is the version he sang on The Dick Cavett Show in 1974:

Let's be clear here: "Young Americans" is not the greatest rock & roll song--it's not even the greatest David Bowie song. But it has a grit, an attitude that carries it, at once cool & removed, & intimate & sexy. The song caught Bowie in his short-lived "plastic soul" phase--between the far more celebrated "Ziggy Stardust" & "Thin White Duke" periods--where he tried to make classic soul & Philadelphia funk records, or at least his own version of it.

By the time he sang the song on Dick Cavett, Bowie was in the midst of a sold-out series of concerts & his usually-pristine voice was shot. We hear him reach for notes he can't quite hit & run ragged over his own lyrics. Instead of taking away from the performance, it only makes it that much better, his body literally injecting that raspy-voiced, going-all-out feel that makes soul music soulful.

& all of this on the title track of a mediocre album in a period of his career which is usually overlooked by his more thrilling peaks.

* * *

When David Bowie died yesterday on January 10--two days after his 69th birthday & the release of his final album Blackstar--he left a legacy that is little equaled in rock. Instead of asking, "What David Bowie song do you like best?," one could just as easily ask, "Which David Bowie do you like best?" A decade before the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, & Prince were changing up their looks & styles with each new album, David Bowie was pioneering the melding of rock & roll & performance art. He is often described as a chameleon, but this doesn't do him justice. A chameleon blends in with their surroundings; Bowie stood out & led the way for others to follow.

He emerged just after Rock had established itself as Art (with an uppercase A), through the likes of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper & everything that Bob Dylan ever touched. The Beatles & Bob Dylan showed that a rock performer could be a rock artist--& change & progress as their career saw fit. Hence, you have The Beatles' sonic development from the folk-rock of Rubber Soul to the psychedelic rock Revolver & beyond, as well as Dylan's lyrical development from the earnest folksinger of The Times They Are A-Changin' to the surreal joker of Another Side Of Bob Dylan & Bringing It All Back Home. What The Beatles & Dylan did with their albums, Bowie did with his albums, but also with himself.

For Bowie's music wasn't only inspired by his rock peers, but by artists like Andy Warhol, whose "Pop Idea" that anyone could do anything was a major influence. Bowie was also fascinated by the likes of Anthony Newley, a British actor who played a pop star & then became one in real life. Finally, the lure of musical theater (& the gay community that surrounded it) appealed to Bowie, a stage on which one could literally act out a role & become a star.

All of this would inform his music & his Art, which were one in the same.

He developed from the psychedelic pop of "Space Oddity" (1969) & the underrated The Man Who Sold The World (1970) the following year into the showtune-souding-heavy Hunky Dory (1971), which, propelled by his signature "Changes," was his first masterpiece. All of this set the stage for his most celebrated achievement: Ziggy Stardust.

Building on The Beatles & Dylan's musical advancements & mixing it with the philosophy of Andy Warhol, he decided that he would become the biggest rock star in the world by playing the role. He used stretch limos & booked major arenas, believing that if you want to be treated like a star, you have to act like one. What is often overlooked is that the album this was all built upon, The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars (1972), was a rare rock masterpiece, one of the finest albums ever created. From the opening doom-threat of "Five Years" through the wrenching closer "Rock & Roll Suicide" some 40 minutes later, not a second is wasted. Glam rock would soon become an overblown joke of excess, but here it's the economy that shocks you. The title track "Ziggy Stardust" & "Suffragette City" are the famous ones, but every song is a classic. To my ears, nothing sounds better than the centerpiece, "Lady Stardust," which breaks down the love of fandom & rock into a few perfect lines:

I smiled sadly
For a love
I could not obey

Lady Stardust
Singing songs
Of darkness & dismay

"Lady Stardust"--& in turn, Ziggy Stardust--worked because because it was fueled by love--the sacred bond between fan & star, grounded in a swaying piano & the warmth of an acoustic guitar. It's all so touching that you can almost miss him mumbling get some pussy now at the end of the song.

The whole Ziggy Stardust thing went over brilliantly in England, where a few well-chosen TV appearances & concerts could launch someone of great talent into "The Next Big Thing," but it all fell apart somewhere in the American heartland on his Ziggy Stardust tour. America was too big to hold the illusion in place it seemed, & rock music as a whole was beginning to splinter to a point at which an artist like Elvis or The Beatles could no longer unite it, no matter how good they were. The fallout was charted on Aladdin Sane, in which he seemed to struggle between a new persona of "Aladdin Sane" & a continuation of "Ziggy Stardust."

But credit Bowie for keeping going, wherever his muse took him: The 1984 Orwellian glam opera Diamond Dogs (1974); the plastic soul of Young Americans (1975); the emergence of the "Thin White Duke" on Station To Station (1976); the much-celebrated "Berlin Trilogy" of Low (1977), "Heroes" (1977), & Lodger (1979), which found him mixing rock with atmospheric soundscapes; the postpunk Pierrot of Scary Monsters (& Super Creeps) (1980), which yielded the funky, surreal sequel to "Space Oddity," "Ashes To Ashes," which may just be his finest song of all. Let's Dance (1983) shifted the focus to the dancefloor in the 1980s & contained his last truly classic song, "Modern Love." Since then, he's continued to release material, both solo & with various collaborations, some magical, some forgettable, but none of which carry the stamp of his first decade.

* * *

The truth is that none of it needed to.

Through a combination of hard work & good music, Bowie earned that most dysfunctional decade of rock & roll: The 1970s. No one else could deftly mix singer-songwriter music with underground rock & glam, & then soul, dance music, & ambient art rock--let alone enjoy a major hit at nearly every step of the way.

& in acting like a rock legend, he became one. touching nearly every era & legend of pop music: He claimed to have been in the crowd at Bob Dylan's infamous "Royal Albert Hall" concert in which someone shouted "Judas!" (who was decidedly not Bowie; he couldn't understand why everyone was so angry at this wonderful new music); he collaborated with John Lennon in the 1970s, who co-wrote Bowie's first American #1 hit, "Fame," he even sang a duet with Bing Crosby on "Little Drummer Boy" in a 1977 Christmas special.

He was gracious with his time & talent: He wrote Mott The Hoople's comeback hit, the glorious "All The Young Dudes"; he produced Lou Reed's finest album, Transformer; he co-wrote & co-produced Iggy Pop's signature "Lust For Life"; he co-wrote the classic "Under Pressure" with Queen, the hook of which would go onto power Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice Baby" (despite Vanilla's denial); he had a major hit with Mick Jagger on a cover of the old Motown song "Dancing In The Street"; he co-headlined a major 1990s tour with Nine Inch Nails; he collaborated a little over a decade later with a group he had heavily influenced, Arcade Fire. He even wrote a song for Elvis Presley, who passed on it. Bowie decided to record it himself: "Golden Years."

He covered virtually everyone imaginable in the last 40 years of rock music: Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Who, The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, Iggy Pop, Jonathan Richman, The Pixies, & many, many more. There are even events that defy the above categorization--how Joy Division initially named themselves Warsaw after an instrumental song on Low; how he spent the 1990s collaborating with seemingly anyone who would have him (Al B. Sure!, Lenny Kravitz, Pet Shop Boys, Placebo, etc.); how Kurt Cobain breathed new life into "The Man Who Sold The World," in his last major performance before killing himself.

If David Bowie was the rare artist who could be all things to all people, it was only because he was all things to himself, a kaleidoscope of sound+vision who influenced all who heard him.

* * *

I wish I could find a way to tie everything back to "Young Americans," but I can only be led back to the stubborn, careening chords of "Time":

Perhaps you're smiling now
Smiling through this darkness
But all I have to give
Is guilt for dreaming

We should be home by now.

Goodnight, David. & thank you for everything.