Time takes a cigarette: Happy 65th Birthday, David Bowie

April 28, 2011: Bowie and Iman at DKMS' 5th Annual Gala: Linked Against Leukemia

There’ll be snappy showbiz media jibes this week about David Bowie being in retirement well ahead of his 65th. Whether we’ll ever know the factors and their weight in determining his seemingly permanent retreat from performing life – crippling writer’s block, boredom, Iman and Alexandria accidentally destroying the disfigured painting in his attic – time seemed mostly kind to Bowie, his haircuts, his voice, his creative spark. But something snapped inside him in 2004, and suddenly he was gone. Eight years since his last tour, the silence is strange and disappointing. It’s not supposed to go this way. Maybe he simply woke up one morning, thought about Jagger, McCartney, Townshend, Franklin, Young, Ferry and the rest, and decided he wasn’t going to crash in the same car.

Whatever. Today – January 8, 2012 – is David Bowie’s 65th birthday. For the hell of it, here’s a look at what he was doing with himself in earlier years that ended in a “2.”

 

1972. Age: 25. Year Zero. Hunky Dory. Ziggy plays guitar.

RCA released the “Changes” single the day before his birthday. Before January ran out, he got a new haircut, shot some pictures in a phone booth, finished the bulk of the most important rock album of the decade, told the British press he was gay and unveiled the glam Ziggy Stardust costuming at a show in Aylesbury. Now there’s a guy serious about upholding New Year’s resolutions.

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was issued on June 6th. It peaked at #5 U.K. / #75 U.S, but it’s one of those records whose importance can’t be judged on sales and chart positions alone. Despite sticking to clubs and small theatres through mid-1972, there’s a generous supply of picture and film evidence of Bowie-as-Ziggy-as-superstar-in-bloom, thanks largely to photographer Mick Rock’s hiring as personal documentarian.

The clip below dates from June 21, 1972. (It’s silent film dubbed to same-year audio.) Four days earlier, Bowie’d broken in his notorious “simulated fellatio” move on Mick Ronson’s guitar during “Suffragette City.” You can bet that went over well in a country where homosexuality was illegal until 1967. Does he go for it again in this clip? I ain’t telling.

 

1982. Age: 35. Acting out: A grotty minstrel, a POW, a vampire.

Bowie whiled away the early ’80s waiting for his RCA contract to run out so he could take a greater cut from song royalties. A little unnerved by John Lennon’s murder, Bowie limited personal appearances to film work and one-off singles. In ’82, he didn’t record at all, but took on a couple of important film roles, as Catherine Deneuve’s vampire bf in The Hunger and as a POW with a Let’s Dance haircut in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

But the year started with the BBC airing a late-1981 project, Baal, Bertolt Brecht’s first play, one about a misanthropic bard who got all the ladies despite rampant ego and awful teeth. (It’s all about confidence, men.) The Baal soundtrack – really, an 11-minute EP – ain’t the high point of his career, but Bowie was playing with such a loaded deck in those days it demanded close inspection.

On record, Baal is significant because it was Bowie’s last recording for RCA, and his last studio work with producer Tony Visconti for two decades. The recorded versions are more sumptuous, perhaps someone’s attempt to sugar the unconventional dreariness of Brecht’s ditties with session strings, but the songs are much more arresting on video, in proper context, where one can focus on Bowie’s expert stage presence, scratchy banjo playing and feral singing. Here’s Baal‘s “Remembering Marie A.”

 

1992. Age: 45. Going solo (again). Praying for Freddie Mercury.

People slag off Tin Machine, but I think of the four-guys-in-a-rock-band phase as Bowie’s colon cleanse. And so I really haven’t any problem with it, so long as I don’t think about Hunt Sales’s “Stateside.” But it was high time for Bowie to get back to being Bowie.

In the summer of ’92, the “Real Cool World” single drove the Cool World film soundtrack, reigniting his solo recording career with a swank Nile Rodgers synthpop production that held out great promise for his next solo album. Before that, however, he returned to the scene of one of his great mid-’80s triumphs – Wembley Stadium, for Live Aid – to partake in the Freddie Mercury tribute concert. Bowie played a fab three-song set, albeit still very much in the collaborative mode of recent years: “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox taking Mercury’s part, “All The Young Dudes” as a duet with Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter, and a spectacularly driving “Heroes” with old crony Mick Ronson playing the searing, signature guitar line for  the only time in his performing career. Ronson was terminal with cancer (he’d die almost exactly a year later) and hadn’t played with Bowie since one-offing in Toronto in ’83. With suitably pompish support from the surviving members of Queen, it ranks as one of Dave’s great, spine-tingling live performances.

And then he launched into The Lord’s Prayer. You’ve probably heard about it. You can see all that in the clip below.

 

2002. Age: 55. Touring with Moby. Exhibiting floppy hair.

Towards the end of 2001, Bowie officially reunited with Visconti – a much-loved player in the DB timeline for producing 10 earlier Bowie LPs, including the entire Low“Heroes”LodgerScary Monsters (And Super Creeps) progression – and set to work on Heathen.

The last productive Bowie phase is one of the least affected ones. No outsider poses, no full-length Union Jack coats, no “edgy” face fuzz. Just Dave, wearing Thin White Duke colours, enviably floppy hair falling about his remarkably youthful-for-a-fittysomething face, singing beautifully lush, stately art rock in a comfortably Scary Monsters vein.

In performance he was a treat, consummately professional, chatty and good-natured. Probably more artifice. In later years, Bowie tailored his public appearances to the audience – loopy swanning on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, Brit eccentric with a much better vocabulary on Letterman’s Late Show, soberly reflective on anything of a documentarian nature, et cetera – but he also reversed his early ’90s decision to shelve past hits, to the point most of the RCA classics were once again setlist-eligible. Here, from a June 15, 2002 A&E Live By Request show, is one which brings us back to the Bowie Year Zero: “Starman,” which hit #10 U.K. in the weeks before Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust made him, y’know…David Bowie.

 

He’s even been kind enough to give us an idea of 1952. He’d jump in puddles, laugh in church and marry his mom. Heck, he even wrote a song about it:

 

And 1962? You can read it in his face: two days before Valentine’s Day, George Underwood popped him in the left eye over some bird named Carol Goldsmith, causing a permanent dilation of the pupil. That’s why the eyes don’t match.

David, for all you (used to) do, this Bud’s for you. Happy 65th.

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One response to “Time takes a cigarette: Happy 65th Birthday, David Bowie

  1. Still compelling after all these years!

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