Songs that saved your life: David Bowie – “Life On Mars?” and “Ashes To Ashes”

click image above to play clip

DAVID BOWIE – “Life On Mars?” and “Ashes To Ashes” (1980)

Today (January 8th) is David Bowie‘s 64th birthday.

His 64th? Yeah, it’s caught me off guard, too. It’s an outrageous number to consider, due as much to the abiding memory of Bowie’s age-defying prettiness as his retreat from the public eye after heart surgery in 2004. Since then, he’s restricted his live appearances to one-offs with the likes of Arcade Fire and David Gilmour. And even these hail from the days of Funeral and Syd Barrett’s death. This absence – retirement? – has frozen our impressions of him, beautiful in middle-age, but never, ever, old.

If the quality records he was making in his fifties stand as his last testament(s), so be it. The Bowie canon’s among the most fascinating and satisfying bodies of work in any artistic endeavour, whether in terms of its trickle-down effect on those who followed, or the sensory pleasures of the material itself.

This clip, which aired September 3, 1980, recalls Bowie’s lone appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. At the time, he was living in New York City, in rehearsals for his Broadway run in The Elephant Man and wrapping his 14th album, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). His commercial stock had dipped in the U.S., but his influence loomed large. In 10 years, he’d veered from proto-metal to folk rock to glam rock to blue-eyed-soul to avant-garde synthpop. Every phase resonated throughout – and suggested an approach to – rock music, particularly the left-of-mainstream stuff. As it has for decades hence. And all of this genre-leaping, myth-exploding, audience-confounding restlessness occurred in a period equivalent in duration to Coldplay’s career.

They do not make ’em like they used to.

And here’s a pile of proof.

It’s a typical Bowie masterstroke – that is, one rife with significance perpetrated by his fan-flock after a whiff of suggestion (who d’ya think Morrissey learned that from?) – that he paired the then-nine-year-old “Life On Mars?” with his current single, “Ashes To Ashes.” Or as Carson limply informs, it’s “two songs about space.” (Well, Tonight Show does air in places like Nebraska. Gotta give ’em something they can chew on, eh Johnny?)

This really is a wonderful clip. Bowie hadn’t toured in two years and smoked like a chimney, but voice training for the Broadway stint kept him in fighting form, fluidly grandiose as ever, presenting two of his most vocally demanding songs for a national, mainstream audience. Critics used to argue Bowie wasn’t really singing so much as he was declaiming. Christ, I don’t care whether you can see the strain in his body language – Bowie’s best songs always featured wandering, somersaulting melodies most singers couldn’t touch with a octave’s worth of Auto-Tune. He’s on point throughout, and this uncommonly brilliant art-rock is all the more delicious for it.

“Life On Mars?” was a #3 U.K. hit as a between-albums gap-filler in 1973; “Ashes To Ashes” made #1 in late 1980. Neither single made the Top 100 in the U.S. <sigh> (I’ll reserve judgement.)

And for the curious, heee-ee-eere’s Dave, walking his beat in Soho, in November 2009. Happy Birthday, Spaceboy.

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