Monday, January 18, 2016

Ten things about David Bowie

1) Coincidentally, three days before he died, Stoogeaphilia had practice (where we played through "Silver Machine" for Lemmy). Taking a break, we watched the D.A. Pennebaker Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars DVD, a document of their last-ever show, and marveled at Mick Ronson's guitar tone. Richard Hurley recalled the "Fuck you, Captain Tom" story from when Bowie pinched Adrian Belew from Zappa's band.

2) I'm not a lyrics guy, but when I woke up on Monday to the news, the first thing that went through my head was "The only survivor / Of the National People's Gang" (from "Panic In Detroit"). The next thing was "When all the Earth was very young / And mountain magic heavy hung / The supermen would walk in file / Guardians of a loveless isle / And gloomy browed with superfear / Their tragic endless lives could heave nor sigh / Wondrous beings, chained to life..." (from "The Supermen").

3) Aladdin Sane was the first album of his I bought (on import) when it was brand new (although I'd had Ziggy before that). Unlike the other music I liked (mainly the Who and a bunch of white blues bands), Bowie's music was sexy. In addition to all of his significant achievements, which are too numerous to list here, he gave certain straight guys (including this one) our first inkling that our model of masculinity (not to mention ideas of "authenticity") might be bullshit. It made no difference that he himself bedded an epic (in Wilt Chamberlain's league) number of women. And although I responded more to Quadrophenia -- comparisons, always odious, are the equivalent, at times like this, of going to your grandmother's funeral and announcing, "She wasn't my favorite grandmother" or "I liked Grandpa better" -- I'd be lying if I didn't admit that, to my fucked-up, alienated 15-year-old self, it was comforting to hear this androgyne-from-another-planet singing, "...I'll help you with the pain / You're not alone" ("Rock and Roll Suicide").

4) Like every rockarolla of my vintage, I professed to hate disco. But who among us could claim to have been unaffected by "Fame?" And is there a better evocation of 1975 than Young Americans? I think not. John Lennon might have been a slumming guest, but the secret ingredient was Carlos Alomar, a guitarist Bowie stole from the house band at the Apollo, who stayed in his employ for over a decade.

5) As much as some of the beneficiaries of his sponsorship might have crabbed about him later, he saved the careers of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Mott the Hoople, all of whom would have shuffled off into oblivion before their greatest success in his absence. And without the cachet of having collaborated with Bowie on the "Berlin trilogy," it's unlikely that NY Times crossword puzzle regular Brian Eno would have become more than a cult figure.

6) Even at the height of his cocaine-fueled megalomania, Bowie -- a man haunted by a family history of mental illness -- managed to create transcendent, cutting edge music (Station To Station, Low). And then had the presence of mind to step back from the abyss.

7) In the '80s, after making arguably his best album (Scary Monsters) and his biggest until the posthumous Blackstar (Let's Dance), he receded into films (to my kids, he was the goblin king from Labyrinth before he was a musician) and his own celebrity (the cringe-worthy duet with Mick Jagger on "Dancing in the Street"), and I lost the thread.

8) It's going to take me weeks to process Blackstar, and then, perhaps, go back and hear some of what I missed in between times. It's going to be a pleasure -- albeit one I never could have anticipated. There is still an air of unreality about his being gone.

9) Bowie did it his way, every step of the way, without a mentor or Svengali (his early stereotypical rock manager, Tony DeFries, got the wheels put under him pretty quickly). He called his own shots, up to stage managing his own death. That last photo, from a couple of days before he checked out, shows him dapper and smiling and seemingly full of life. How fitting that a figure who showed so many of us, the freaks and oddballs, how we might live our own lives should also show us a dignified way to meet death.

10) Our very worst medium for political dialogue, Facebook, proved to be the perfect engine for collective mourning. I got a lot more out of reading some of my FB fwends' remembrances of Bowie than I did, f'rinstance, from Christgau's dismissive assessment (which I refuse to link to here). Instead, I'll quote Charles Shaar Murray from 1977: "David Bowie is the one man in rock whose work will, I suspect, continue to fascinate me for the the rest of my life, which I won't grow out of even if I stop listening to anything else in the rock field. Sometimes I'll love it and sometimes I'll hate it, sometimes I'll find it infuriating and sometimes exhilarating, sometimes riveting and sometimes incomprehensible, but I can think of no other rock artist whose next album is always the one I'm most looking forward to hearing." I'm going to miss having artists like that around. And then, of course, I'll miss us.


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