Tag Archives: David Bowie

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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Songs that saved your life: Morrissey and David Bowie – “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”

MORRISSEY – I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (1992)        DAVID BOWIE – I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (1993)

For all his utility as a virtual Facebook sadsack status generator (does iPhone have an app for that yet?), Morrissey‘s bag of tricks is light on bona fide homilies. One of his most affecting songs, 1992’s torch ballad “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” is one of those rare birds.

The song also sparked one of U.K. pop’s great inside jokes, when David Bowie chose to cover what was, in essence, Morrissey’s Bowie homage.

“I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” began life as a 1991 demo by Mark E. Nevin, offered midway through a two-year collaborative partnership of middling quality and Keystone Kops-like weirdness. Nevin co-wrote 80 per cent of Kill Uncle, the weak sister LP that coincided with a sudden spike in Morrissey’s Stateside record sales. Nevin’s greater contribution to the cause was his role in drafting many of Mozzer’s most-significant post-Smiths players (Alain Whyte, Gary Day, Spencer Cobrin, and somewhat circuitously, Boz Boorer), acting on a brief from the singer that he was entering a rockabilly phase and required suitably bequiffed musicians.

Assuming good standing, Nevin sent Morrissey a new batch of songs, including “Someday.” Mozzer took to it immediately, writing Nevin “I’ve listened to it so much that I’ve actually lost my eyesight.” By the time he recorded it a year later, the bequiffed rockers had all-but-replaced Nevin. The resulting record, Your Arsenal, produced by Bowie’s celebrated Ziggy Stardust-era sidekick Mick Ronson, was the first really good proper album in Morrissey’s post-Smiths career, a brawny set of glam-tinged tunes that sort of acted as a pre-echo to Suede and the fast-approaching Britpop. But although Arsenal‘s beefy sound dominates, two of its more reflective numbers stand out: the forlorn, inexhausibly quotable “Seasick, Yet Still Docked” and “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday.”

click image above to play clip

You might think Morrissey’s coasting because the lyric is an optimistic bromide about stiff upper lips in the face of rejection, but instead of employing the sick-and-dull-and-plain defence tactics of, say, The Smiths’ “Accept Yourself,” this time he sidesteps whatever ails, and simply extends a hand: “please wait…please wait…don’t lose faith…” In that wavering, clenched-jaw croon, hovering above a lovely, slow-motion track filled with ghostly radio static and dramatically double-timed guitar strumming set halfway between swampy (“How Soon Is Now?”) and pomp-y (“Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”), the lyric’s awfully effective.

For Bowiephiles, drawn to Morrissey’s solo music through the involvement of Ronson – then terminal with lung cancer – “Someday”‘s cheeky outro was the in-joke that launched a thousand knowing smiles. Swanning into the final minute, “Someday” locks into the unmistakeable rise-and-fall melody of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide”, the 1972 album finale Bowie routinely used to close his Ziggy concerts (as preserved most famously at his Hammersmith “retirement” show in July 1973; the video clip’s linked at the end).

The in-joke drew momentum as Bowie set to recording 1993’s Black Tie White Noise album, with several old trusted hands on board, including a pair of ex-Spiders from Mars: pianist Mike Garson, and…Mick Ronson. In a delicious fit of trainspotting fervor, Bowie, having sensed “Someday”‘s distinctly glam flavour, decided to record his own version less than six months after Morrissey’s was released. After coyly moving Morrissey’s early-’70s reference points ahead by a few years (“I thought it would be fun to do it in the way I would have done it in 1974-ish”), the incestuous circle was complete: Bowie had covered Morrissey’s Ziggy Stardust homage in the style of Young Americans. (No word on whether Moz was next tempted to dabble in disco.)

Bowie dispensed with the “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” climax, by the way. Probably one conceit too far.

click image above to play clip

If you’re wondering which version I prefer, I’m going with Morrissey’s. His acolytes are nothing if not weary, wary and worn-down by serial romantic and social slights, and the ingenuous it-gets-better message is an ideal break from those wittier, bathetic songs of surrender. Sometimes a straight-up tune about sunrises helps you get through the night, y’know? And to be honest, Bowie’s at a disadvantage here because we know he’s had love and is in love (he’d just married Iman, for frig’s sake), and that creates a distancing effect Morrissey’s one-of-us persona doesn’t have to contend with.

For his silver medal performance Bowie affects his boomy “Fat Elvis” voice. The histrionic, gospel chorus-backed take has one transcendant passage in the final verse, when he hollers hard enough to force the air out of the room, and with it, all the heartbreak implied by the lyric. It may be the best moment in either version. This glutinous overhaul actually works in the manner of all great, ridiculous art: in blowing emotion so out of proportion, the only artist capable (read: pretentious enough) of doing justice to his disciple’s celebrated psychosis manages to create a separate work nearly as essential as the original. Morrissey reportedly cried when Bowie played it to him for the first time.

Click on the images above to hear Morrissey’s 2004 tour version and Bowie’s 1993 album recording. (You realize the guys are about the same age in those clips? Moz’ clip was filmed the night he turned 45; Dave was three months past his 46th.)

As promised above, the 1973 Ziggy Stardust “retirement” announcement, followed by “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide”:                               http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0WQldWMrPs

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.