Last week, like most of my contemporaries in the Western world, was stunned and saddened by the news of David Bowie's death from liver cancer. Being preoccupied with personal matters, I felt I didn't have the time to properly address his career and its meaning to my life... now is the first opportunity I've had to properly post about the man.
David Bowie's body of work was an integral part of the soundtrack of my life... Bowie was not only played on 'classic rock' stations (well, the same three or four songs, that is), but on the storied alternative station and college radio stations I learned to favor when I received a transistor radio as a Christmas present and found the left of the dial. Bowie's particular genius was reinvention- the crafting of different musical personae, each with an accompanying style, for every album he released. Oddly enough, due to some dispute with his record label, Bowie's older albums were generally unavailable in the United States for much of the 1980s, so anyone trying to hunt them down would have to scour used record shops... I wish I could find documentation of this, but anecdotal assertions will have to suffice. I say this as a kid who used to scour used record shops, which is an activity which has sadly disappeared from today's youth culture (though the ability to google a snippet of lyrical content from a barely remembered song in order to find a downloadable file is quite the compensation). It's kinda weird to think that the only two Bowie albums on the shelves of record stores in 1983 would be Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) and Let's Dance. While the 'hits' from Bowie's older albums received a great deal of airplay, it wasn't until my college years when I was able to listen to the 'deeper album cuts' from his catalog.
Well, enough of my yapping, how about diving into Bowie's discography? In the interest of completeness, I think I'll start with a pre-'Bowie' Bowie song, Little Liza by Davie Jones and the King Bees. I dig the song's 'roots rock meets Merseybeat vibe:
After noodling around with a number of bands, Bowie released a solo recording, a novelty song that plays like a Dave Saville number on acid:
Bowie's first eponymous album, released in 1967, was also fairly whimsical, and She's Got Medals is a comical portrayal of androgyny, a topic which pops up throughout Bowie's music, fashion sense, and lifestyle choices:
Bowie's second eponymous album, released in 1969, included his breakthrough hit, Space Oddity, which charted in the UK at number 5. Rather than showcase that ubiquitous song, here's the epic Cygnet Committee, which is a scathing critique of the ultimate failure of the 60's counterculture:
Bowie's 1970 The Man Who Sold the World had Bowie adopting a harder rock song... as Youtube commenter "TheGreaterGood80" brilliantly put it, the song All the Madmen, written for David's intstitutionalized schizophrenic half-brother Terry veers from Syd Barrett to Black Sabbath:
1971's Hunky Dory marked a return to Bowie's lighter pop fare, though the subject matter was as outré as anything Bowie had recorded up until then. Oh! You Pretty Things is a disconcertingly jaunty number about the eventual displacement of Homo sapiens by a Nietschean Homo superior (peachy Nietsche, indeed):
1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a science-fiction inspired concept album detailing the life of Bowie alter ego Ziggy Stardust. Five Years is a pending apocalypse tale, a song which has a particular poignancy in this era of catastrophic climate change, plastic-laden oceanic gyres, and an ongoing extinction event:
1973's Aladdin Sane was largely written while Bowie was on tour in the 'States. Drive-In Saturday is another Bowie dystopian number about the inhabitants of a future society which needs to relearn how to, uh, get it on, by watching old blue movies:
1973's Pin Ups was an album of covers... here's Bowie performing the Who's I Can't Explain, giving it a bit of heft and swagger:
1974's Diamond Dogs was inspired by Orwell's 1984, with Bowie taking on the persona of Halloween Jack, a resident of the dystopian Hunger City. The track 1984 is a funk-inflected tribute to Orwell, whose widow wouldn't grant Bowie the right to use the novel:
Bowie's next studio album was Young Americans, described by Bowie as his plastic soul album. The song Fascination was a collaboration between Bowie and up-and-coming soul star Luther Vandross:
1976's Station to Station marked the appearance of Bowie's Thin White Duke persona and the beginning of Bowie's Berlin era. Motorik masters Kraftwerk alluded to this era in their song Trans Europe Express. My favorite song from this album is TVC15, a tragicomedy about a man who literally loses his girlfriend to a television:
1977's Low was recorded in Berlin during a period in which Bowie was trying to overcome cocaine addiction. Iggy Pop and Brian Eno collaborated with Bowie on this album, and its two follow-ups (the albums have come to be known as the "Berlin Trilogy"). As a humorous counterpart to Low, rock-and-roll jester Nick Lowe released an EP titled Bowi. My favorite song from the album is Always Crashing In The Same Car, a lament about repeating one's mistakes:
Also released in 1977, "Heroes" also reflected Krautrock influences... while I've tried to post largely underplayed songs from Bowie's other albums, it would be criminal not to embed the video for the title track, an emotional tour de force about lovers trying to cope with living under a totalitarian regime... This is Bowie at his best, his most emotional- I can't listen to it without getting chills:
1979's Lodger lacks the emotional punch of "Heroes", how does anyone follow up on such perfection? The cheeky Boys Keep Swinging was a bit too racy to be the U.S. single, but there's a funny SNL performance in which Bowie (backed by guest vocalist Klaus Nomi!) pulls off a phallic joke on live television. Here's a clip of the whole song:
1980's Scary Monsters was his first post "Berlin Trilogy", and the title track is a hard rock onslaught. Here's a great live version with Frank Black of the Pixies collaborating. It's great to see the Thin White Duke and the Chunky Black Francis onstage together:
1983 saw the release of Let's Dance, which was a huge commercial smash. While the album spawned hit singles in Let's Dance and Modern Love, the track Cat People (Putting Out Fire), written in collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, is more interesting to me, with its moody vibe... perhaps a harbinger of New Romantic/Gothic pop:
I'm going to end this Bowie retrospective here... the guy released beaucoup albums under his stage name, and at the end of the 80s, fronted the band Tin Machine. Bowie was always present in the background soundtrack of my life. To LGBT persons, Bowie's importance cannot be overstated- for me, the idea of being a Bowie fan and being freaked out by androgyny or "queerness" were pretty incompatible. Bowie had his demons, fighting drug addiction and flirting with fascism in his 'low' period, a flirtation which he apologized for. He was, to put it succinctly, all-too-human. On the whole, I believe that his impact on the culture was good. Bowie was always entertaining and usually transgressive- nobody would have gotten thrown out of the Sex Pistols for liking Bowie.
Here's the video for the title track of David Bowie's album Blackstar:
After a fifty-year long career, involving numerous reinventions, David Bowie's last album is a product of his final, greatest self-invention- David Bowie, the man who struggled privately with his killer for eighteen months, "stepping through the door" with his dignity intact.
Planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing we can do.