Wednesday, September 10, 2008

art decade

Here are some more observations on Bowie's work through the remainder of the 70s. Why? Because you can never get enough Bowie! ...You'll notice that the remarks tend to be cursory, and the reason for this is that it would simply take me too long to say everything there is to say...

Diamond Dogs. Diamond Dogs is somewhat Glam-ish, somewhat of prog-ish, and a lame attempt at a Ziggy-ish concept album. The Glam phase of Bowie's career had no life left by this point, and Diamond Dogs sounds bloated and confused as a result. That said, I love "Candidate" and "Big Brother", and the "Rebel Rebel" riff is so fuckin' killer. 'Hot tramp, I love you so...'

Young Americans. At last, a radical change in direction! Young Americans is Bowie’s admirable attempt at Blue Eyed Soul (one of his eyes is blue, anyway). The album marks a transition between his Glam and New Wave incarnations, which is interesting since his late 70s material often detachedly references the excesses of the earlier era… Young Americans is a really fun album, but I’m not sure Bowie had much fun making it as he was repotedly in the full throes of heroin addiction at the time. Check out the photos of him on the album’s inner sleeve. He looks gaunt and trashed. Still, the music sounds fresh and features a young Luther Vandross on backing vocals. The title track is a great song, even if it hasn’t been able to withstand FM radio overkill. “Fame” is an even better song and goes a long way towards explaining why Bowie looked so haggard at this point. Other standouts are “Win”, a great lovemaking song, and my favorite track on the record, “Somebody up There Likes Me.”

Station to Station. Station to Station inaugurates the most adventurous five-year stretch of Bowie’s career. The music is not always as accessible as some of his other stuff, but it gets under your skin over time, until one day you wake up and find that it’s the only stuff you wanna hear…OK, I guess I’m generalizing on the basis of my own experiences and taste, but I really do think the years between 1976 and 1980 were fantastic ones for Bowie creatively… Station to Station retains some of the funk and soul from Young Americans with songs like the title track, as well as “TVC15” and “Stay”, but the album also represents the point at which Bowie’s obsession turns from America to Europe. The upshot is that the funkiness is filtered though a synth-heavy, Euro-Romantic vibe that remained part of Bowie’s repertoire for years to come. Everything I’ve read about Bowie indicates that the development of his new persona, the Thin White Duke, was largely informed by his having become quite taken with Krautrock, especially Kraftwerk, Neu and Cluster/Harmonia. You can certainly hear those influences all over the place from Station to Station onwards. Meanwhile, Europe also becomes a symbol for a staid and reflective way of life, the very antithesis of Glam’s debauchery. But this only goes so far as several biographies have reported that Bowie needed mountains of cocaine to get through the sessions for Station to Station...Station to Station is Bowie's most self-conscious record to date. On songs like "Stay", "Station to Station" and "Golden Years", we find him ruminating on the nature of performance, his alienation from his audience, and the emptiness of a life built around spectacle. 'Run for the shadows in these golden years.' It's heady stuff, but oh so satisfying...

The Man Who Fell to Earth. When I was nine, I had a friend, Adam, whose parents were much more laissez-faire with him than mine were with me. Adam’s dad kept stacks of Oui and Penthouse on the coffee table in their living room, and when I came over we were allowed to look at them, which we would do for hours, and hours. Adam’s parents had something inside their TV I’d never heard of before called Home Box Office, and Adam was permitted to watch anything he wanted, even if it was rated R. On one sleepover at his house, we ate Original Ray’s Pizza and watched The Man Who Fell to Earth on HBO. It freaked us out, especially the blow job scene and the one where Bowie takes his eyes out of his head. I remember the movie being so strange and mysterious, as well as the thrill of watching something my parents would never, ever let me watch. I had no familiarity at all with Bowie at the time, except that I remember seeing copies of Low in the stacks at Dicomat on 59th street, when I went there to buy Kiss’ Alive and Destroyer. But when I saw Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, he seemed so cool and different. Nowadays, I watch the movie and get a thrill out of seeing actual color footage of what Bowie looked like in the ’75 – ’76 period, right before the release of Station to Station. And it ain’t pretty. ...Yet somehow it is pretty. He looks so drugged out and out of sorts. The scenes where he's naked are disturbing and nauseating, but even in that state he has astonishing charisma and presence. The movie is still very weird, even by today’s standards. It’s also kind of pretentious, but its conceptual overreach, like that of Nicholas Roeg’s other famous film, Performance, is part of its charm. The film tells a convoluted tale of a being from another planet (Bowie, of course) who comes to earth in search of a way to save his kind from extinction. It’s definitely a worthwhile timepiece, if for no other reason than it shows how badly ravaged rock stardom had left Bowie by the mid 70s.

Low. The albums comprising Bowie's 'Berlin Trilogy' - Low, 'Heroes', and Lodger, each of which include collaborations with Brian Eno - are patchy, but the highpoints on each include some of the greatest music Bowie ever recorded. ...In an effort to sober up, Bowie moved to Berlin in late 1976. Low is an album in which Bowie further assimilates Euro-Romantic atmospherics and the synth-heavy dronage he's absorbed from his growing obsession with Kraftwerk. Almost all of Side 2, in fact, consists of synth instrumentals (I've always assumed these were largely Eno's doing). At the same time, the album's best songs feature intense New Wavey guitar playing from Ricky Gardiner. ...True to the title of the album, the growing reliance on synthesizers enables Bowie, with the help of Eno and Tony Visconti, to create an emotional flatness of sorts that expresses a sense of alienation from the illusory temptations of the modern world. But things get complex as Bowie has a peverse way of articulating mixed messsges. While Low presumably seeks to give voice to a numbness resulting from sensory overload, Bowie manages somehow to communicate his deadened emotions with a passion that's all the more striking for being so subtle. 'You're such a wonderful person,' he sings in "Breaking Glass", 'But you've got problems - oh, let me touch you...' Even on "Sound and Vision", which might strike a first-time listener as one of Low's rare moments of uncomlicated warmth, things are not exactly what they seem as Bowie's delivery swings, often in the space of one line, from resignation and reserve ('Don't you wonder sometimes...'), to manic euphorica ('...bout sound and vision?). ...The best song on Low, for me anyway, is "Always Crashing in the Same Car." When Bowie says, 'I was going 'round and 'round/ the hotel garage/ must've been touching close to 94,' I feel like I'm listening to a man who's had almost every last bit of feeling sucked out of him, but he's held just enough emotion in reserve to deliver the song in a way that sends chills down my spine. You have to hear it to dig what I'm talking about - but trust me, you will dig it...

'Heroes'. 'Heroes' is a hard album for me to talk about because, as an album, it's really not very good. Like Low, 'Heroes' is about half instrumental and half songs with singing. One thing that's noteworthy about the album is that some of the songs feature Robert Fripp on guitar. The collaboration would continue over the next two albums. But a great guitarist doesn't mean much if the songs he's playing on are forgettable. Having said this, though, there is one exception: I think I can safely say that the title track on 'Heroes' is my favorite song, period. I never tire of it, no matter how many times I hear it. “Heroes” builds in intensity with each verse. By the end, Bowie sings with such raw emotion that you’re forced to drop whatever it is you’re doing and marvel at the way he commits every last fiber of his being to the song. ‘I, I will be king/And you, you will be queen…’ Listen to the song closely, perhaps on an old timey set of cans, and you’ll be amazed at how Eno’s ethereal sound effects make it seem as if the music is floating on air. I also love the song’s existential image of a ‘Hero’, in quotes, as one who beats impossible odds in an alienating and senselessly cruel world. The victory, as Bowie sees it, is short lived and ultimately meaningless, except in that fleeting moment when it takes place, at which point it means everything, all the more so because it will last 'just for one day'...As an aside, I also really love Bowie's look from this period. The sleeve photo for 'Heroes ' is one of the great iconic images.

Lodger. Bowie completes the Berlin trilogy with Lodger, one of his darkest and least accessible albums. It also happens to be quite brilliant in parts if you’re willing to devote time to letting it sink in… The image of Bowie’s grotesquely contorted body on the album sleeve gives a rather unsubtle hint of the record's depiction of the modern world as an arena of desensitization and cruelty. But, as always seems to be the case, Bowie injects passion and humanity into even the most difficult topics. Even on songs like “Repetition” and “Boys Keep Swinging”, where he deploys either an emotionally flat or blithe tone to show the predatory and violent tendencies lurking within men in their relationships with women, the heartlessness in his voice becomes a vehicle through which he communicates the monstrosity of it all... The same type of paradox is present in “Fantastic Voyage”, a strange meditation on nuclear war…Other standouts include “Red Sails”, “Red Money” and “Look Back in Anger”…Adrian Belew provides some stellar guitar pyrotechnics throughout…Like Low, Lodger seems to obliquely reflect Bowie’s eschewal of the more sensationalistic elements of his Glam years.

The Idiot. I’ve always found the Bowie-Iggy relationship compelling and even moving. After Raw Power more or less wrecked Iggy’s career (until it’s later reassessment), he went into a long tailspin of drugs, drink and depression. In 1976, Bowie brought Iggy to Berlin and helped him get back on his feet creatively. Bowie produced Iggy’s resultant comeback album, The Idiot, using essentially the same musicians used for Low. With songs like “Dum Dum Boys”, “Nightclubbing”, and the original version of “China Girl”, The Idiot is a great new wave sounding album that seems to both look back fondly on Iggy’s past while also attempting to exorcize his demons… If you ever have a few minutes and wanna see something really bizarre, go onto YouTube and watch Iggy’s performance of The Idiot’s “Fun Time” on the Dinah Shore show in 1977, featuring David Bowie on keyboards. Iggy's interview with Dinah is a bit cringe making, but you won’t be able to turn it off.

Lust for Life. Again using many of the same musicians from parts of the Berlin trilogy, Bowie also produced Lust for Life, Iggy’s follow up to The Idiot. Thematically and musically, the two albums are quite similar, though it must be said that nothing on The Idiot can compare to “Turn Blue” or“Tonight”. On both songs, Bowie’s backing vocals dominate. My friend Toby has pointed out that when Bowie does backing vocals, he has way of making sure everybody knows that The Great David Bowie has entered the room, which is fine with me. ...The thing to remember about Lust for Life and The Idiot is that they are both major departures from Iggy’s typical sound and approach. Some critics have said that Iggy was the guinea pig Bowie used at the time to help realize his own Euro-romantic vision. It’s hard to disagree with this assessment, and it’s hard not to see The Idiot and Lust for Life as Bowie albums with Iggy singing, even if Iggy wrote most of the songs. Although both records are fairly upbeat, their mechanical electronic sounds convey the same sense of modern alienation we hear in the albums comprising Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy.

Scary Monsters. Scary Monsters is the last great David Bowie album. For some, “great” may be overstating things, but it’s always been one of my favorites, and I think it features some of the best music of Bowie’s career. Like Station to Station and, to a slightly lesser extent, Lodger, Scary Monsters is a highly self reflective album showing how haunted Bowie still was by the destructive trappings of fame and superstardom. On the title track, ‘scary monsters and super freaks’ are a metaphor for the drugged denizens of a phantasmagoric rock world. ‘When I looked in her eyes they were blue but there’s nobody home.’ ...With “Ashes to Ashes”, Bowie revisits Major Tom (presumably an earlier version of himself) and finds a pervy, balding junkie adrift in the abyss. Bowie had clearly come a long way from the Ziggy character who courted spectacle and excess as a way out of the impasse of the Great Collapse. And on “Teenage Wildlife” he seems to pass the torch onto the ‘broken nosed moguls’ of the new New Wave, but he does so in a way that makes clear he no longer wants to be a part of their world, seeing it as the ‘same old thing, in brand new drag…’ Musically, I don’t think it’s too much to say that Scary Monsters is absolutely stunning, featuring both Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew trading their insane guitar chops, and our old Friend, Tony Visconti, adding some very nice acoustic rhythm guitar playing. …When Scary Monsters hit the record shops, it probably felt as if Bowie would be continuing his greatness into the 80s. Too bad it was not to be.

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