This month's band of the month has to be David Bowie.
It's hard to know what to write. Truth is, David Bowie has always been a bit of a Problem for me. (You have to pronounce it - Problem.) I like Bowie - I always liked Bowie. As long as I listened to music and thought about who was singing it, Bowie was there, and I liked him - Fame and Golden Years were on the charts when I started listening to the top 40, some of the first songs I took special notice of. But when I was young, he was always just a singer on the radio; when I got older - he didn't seem to translate as well into my new tastes. That is strange - in the 80s, I was listening to the Velvets and U2 and Joy Division - inspirations for or inspired by Bowie - you would think he would have been more part of my obsessions. Maybe he was too much a pop star - and in the 80s, that's definitely part of it. I was into punk, and he embraced a much more mainstream kind of pop just then. Maybe I just took him for granted for a while. In any case it changed - I started to listen to the things I liked in high school, and then I dug into his back catalogue a bit, and then I really re-embraced Bowie - but always in a way I found hard to explain.
I think some of it was his his image - the calculation, the imagery, the way the imagery could obscure the music. I was young - maybe I was more impressed by "authenticity" back then. There's irony here - I reacted against musicians who asked you to hear with your eyes, like Bowie and Nick Cave, someone I probably should have liked when I first heard him - and so listened with my eyes, and discounted music I should have loved. That changed, later - maybe I became less puritanical, or maybe I started appreciating their attention to image. It all looks rather silly now. Last month I went on about AC/DC's simplicity and directness, AC/DC and their allies in unpretentiousness, the Ramones, Motorhead, The Feelies, the Stooges. But really: all of those bands (even the Feelies, who come the closest to seeming to be a bunch of people playing what they want to hear) are almost as calculated as Bowie. Obviously, The Ramones and the Stooges - and almost as obviously AC/DC (a show business family, who worked through glam and other styles to arrive at what are essentially Chuck Berry tunes played in a modern style) - all of them calculated, all of them with their costumes and personae, costumes sometimes only arrived at after some experimentation.... None of them are much more natural than the Thin White Duke. The main difference between Joey Ramone or Lemmy and Ziggy Stardust is that The Ramones found something good to do, and perfected it, purified it, used the persona to make beautiful music, and Bowie made up something new a year or so later (Halloween Jack, right?), and off he went. What Bowie perfected was change itself. Or performance itself: the act of inventing a self, a persona through which to sing.
The truth is, I can probably trace the change to my full on adoration of films that began for real in the 90s - and there's no doubt that my appreciation for Bowie the musician has been encouraged by my appreciation for Bowie the actor. Film certainly helps reveal any kind of art as a complete art - music as music, performance, appearance, and so on. I like the imagery around people like Bowie and Cave - maybe not as much as I love their music - but I find their look, their attention to the look, their way of presenting themselves, the act of performing, very compelling. I could get into something about presentational vs. representational art here - though that's going to take us down another rabbit hole. (But it's a rabbit hole I can't help think about, with Jacques Rivette's death, and the arrival of that Out 1 box...) We can say this: David Bowie is the king of the Presentational Rock Star - he's not just performing the songs, he's performing the performance of the songs. Using the performance, and the personae, to shape the meaning of the music as well. And to keep you attentive to the intelligence shaping the songs - creating their meaning. Nothing is pure; everything is art.
That's fine with me. And here is the thing: it has been hard for me to think about how to write about Bowie - hard for me sometimes to say to myself exactly how much I liked him, as a musician, as a artist, as a persona. But when he died there was no doubt. It was shocking, almost, what a sense of loss I felt. His death left a hole in the world, larger than I imagined. It's as though he was too elusive to pin down when he was alive, too many different things to get a clear idea of what he was - but taking him out of the world, you can suddenly see all the things he touched. What didn't he touch?
I don't want writing about his image to take away from the power of his music. With any musician, sooner or later it comes down to the songs - and he wrote extraordinary songs. He was an extraordinary singer. He made extraordinary music. And his music was as protean as his image. Record after record, once he hit his stride, he rolled them out for ages - great songs, great performances, impeccable productions, records designed carefully, with a sound, a look, a style, complete packages - and record after record reinvents his sound, his style, the songs, the words, the tone, the emphasis. And the performances of the music changed as well - in this age of YouTube you can pick a song, and trace his performances through the years, and see how flexible he could be. Everything can change - the music, the arrangements, the style, the instrumentation - his voice, his inflections, his performance. He didn't just change his look, constantly - he changed the sound, the style, everything. He reinvented everything, over and over, and all of it brilliant. He had help - he worked with musicians as inventive and brilliant as himself, from Tony Visconti to Mick Ronson to Carlos Alomar to Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp to Stevie Ray Vaughan - and on and on. The music always warped around his collaborators, who steered Bowie through all those changes. Which brings us to another of his virtues, and the virtues of his constant evolution - he was always open to his surroundings, always absorbing other influences, other people's ideas, always finding ways to bring those things out through his music. His partnerships with other musicians, his interest in other arts - books, films, other music, his interest in the world. He absorbed everything and gave it back to us.
All right then - the songs. A top 10 - not an easy set of choices, but it never is.
1. Heroes - which is, by the way, one of the Best of Them All. That's probably a fairly common opinion, but it's still true - one of the Great Songs.
2. Panic in Detroit
4. Modern Love
5. Rebel, Rebel
6. Ziggy Stardust
7. Golden Years
8. Suffragette City
10. The Man Who Sold the World
I have to post this - with Adrian Belew on guitar. I've posted it before, and will again.
Panic in Detroit, live, with imperfectly matched live footage:
Golden Years, mid 80s performance:
Not on my list, but here's Belew wailing on Stay, ca 1990:
A rocky version fo Modern Love:
And finally, Lazarus, from his last record - a devastating goodbye, this: