David Bowie: "Everybody knows me now."
I was only 11 years old when Sylvia Robinson's "Pillow talk" hit the charts, and while I was vaguely there was something going on in the song I had no clue what it was, or why Sylvia sounded so pleased with herself. The "ooh baby"s, her "I... aye-yai-yai"s, and whispered entreaties to "please stay" went straight over my head, but my body locked into the tune's early disco groove with ease. A year later, now solidly mired in puberty, I had a pretty good idea what was going on during all that heavy breathing in Rufus & Chaka Khan's "Tell Me Something Good," even though my ideas weren't based on any firsthand knowledge and all that grunting was kind of confusing. A year after that, in the spring of 1975, the Ohio Players released "Fire," and my adolescent self I knew I wanted some of whatever was causing those alarms to go off.
That summer I got my first teasing taste of it during some fumbling nighttime encounters at summer camp with a girl a couple of years older than I was in more ways than one. David Bowie's Young Americans album was getting lots of play on the radio and on cassette decks at summer camp, and she, along with the other older girls at camp, were listening to it all the time. The album's title track was the first song to connect directly to my own nascent experiences with sex.
The year before that my family had moved to the San Fernando Valley and I noticed Bowie was everywhere at my new school -- kids walked around with copies of Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, and David Live stuck between their three-ring binders and schoolbooks. Like everything else that year, Bowie was new to me, strange, discomfiting, and threatening in a way I couldn't put my finger on. I'd hear kids singing refrains from "Cracked Actor," and of course "wham-bam thank you ma'am," from "Suffragette City" and wonder what they knew that I didn't. I was still trying to figure out Bennie and the Jets' mohair suit while these kids were singing "suck, baby suck -- give me your head." Two older girls at the school, Marie and Cherie Currie (the latter would soon join The Runaways), caused a sensation at the talent show that year lip-synching one of his songs, their matching Bowie haircuts setting the standard for cool. Little did I know a few months later I'd feel like I was one of the "Young Americans."
By the time Station to Station came out at the beginning of 1976 I had more or less caught up, integrating myself into the school's stoner clique by becoming one of them, and in doing so adopted their skepticism of pretty much everything and anything that didn't have to do with music and getting high. Bowie's sense of nihilism and alienation was a natural fit, anticipating punk and, arguably, everything that's followed, years in advance. Today, much of Aladdin Sane sounds like a precursor to the Clash's London Calling, and it isn't hard to find a fingerprint from some point of Bowie's career on everything in pop music that's happened since, including hip hop.
Released during the endless hype of the upcoming U.S. Bicentennial, on its gleaming and brittle surface Station to Station sounded like a rebuke to American culture, beginning with the old-world sound of trains puling into a feedback soaked station, followed by a titled bastard throwing darts in our eyes and reminding us "it's too late." Underneath, riddled through all of it is Bowie's unconcealed paranoia, fragility, and alienation. Much of the album sounds like pumped up, coked-out, ice-cold expansions of "Fascination" and "Right" (the tracks on Young Americans that have aged best), but Station to Station felt like Bowie had made yet another turn, walking himself right up a ledge.
I wouldn't argue with anyone who believes Ziggy Stardust is Bowie's greatest album, but Ziggy, and all of Bowie's earlier musical personas, were theater characters at the core, and the albums their stages. The same is certainly true of Station to Station's Thin White Duke, but for the first time Bowie's facade is that of a mature adult, human, bleeding out in despair, ennui, and resignation, but far too knowing to throw it all away on the teenage drama of a rock and roll suicide. A sense of hope overrides the album's despair at every turn. During a lengthy period of self-destructive behavior, it was this album I returned to over and over thirty years later, ping-ponging between its highs and lows. Carved from mountains of coke, Station to Station's dark dance is suitable to accompany any and all channels of escape.
The "Berlin trilogy" of Low, Heroes, and Lodger followed, all collaborations with Eno, all albums that had only one side which appealed to me. If the second side of Low was as good as the first, it might have been Bowie's greatest album. Better yet would have been one album composed of the first sides of both Low and Heroes, their second sides combined on a different album altogether, left for its own niche audience of art school students and Philip Glass fans, only to be rediscovered years later by the masses and hailed as the first great chillout album. No one I knew during the 70s ever turned either album over a third or fourth time, opting instead to play the first sides repeatedly.
The first side of Low is the sound of things gloriously coming apart, like large objects falling through the air in slow motion. It feels fragmentary, but there's a new concision at play, a sense of hit-and-run, especially after the expansive lengths of the songs onStation to Station (and in contrast to the album's B side). The opener, "Speed of Life," always sounded like an overture, a signal of a new era new opening up, followed by a half-dozen quick peeks into an uncomfortable, twitchy mind. There's something Beatlesque about the way the first side of Low unfurls like a series of brief films, dark pop vignettes, a stopping point somewhere between Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Bandand Abbey Road, revisited ten years later from a state of exile. The songs can almost be divided into two groups, one sung by Lennon, the other by McCartney; go ahead, listen to "Breaking Glass" and "Be My Wife" and then it's easy to differentiate the John songs from the ones by Paul.
Now that I think about it, in hindsight the Berlin trio could be seen as Bowie's White Album; lots of fantastic moments -- the first two A Sides and the first three songs on Lodger's B side -- and those other parts that get in the way of it all. "Heroes" is the anthem, the song Bowie will always be known for above all others, but I think "Sound and Vision" is the era's best song, a sleight-of-hand manifesto neatly summarizing everything Bowie had mastered up to this point. The questioning lyric, "Don't you wonder sometimes?" followed by the woozy sax, tight chord changes, a popping bass line, and he even managed to toss in Lou Reed's colored girls, singing "Doo doo doo doo doo." Sound and vision. That's David Bowie in three words, in three minutes. Opaque yet perfectly clear.
By the time Scary Monsters came out in 1980 Bowie's progeny had been pouring out of England for years: Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Tubeway Army/Gary Numan, and countless others. During the next five years their numbers would explode. Radio had begun splintering into partisan factions. At the time Los Angeles had four rock stations - KMET, KLOS, KWST, and KROQ, the first three growing increasingly indistinguishable from each other as the Album Oriented Rock (AOR) format ossified into Classic Rock, while KROQ's embracement of nearly anything and everything was making it most interesting and influential station in the country. Pre-Low Bowie was still in favor on AOR. "Suffragette City," "Rebel Rebel," and "Changes" seemed to fall just behind "Kashmir" in endless rotation, and "Heroes" managed to nudge its way in there every so often, but the only track on Scary Monsters that stood a chance on LA radio beyond KROQ was "Ashes to Ashes" because it referenced the classic "Space Oddity," still in rotation years later. Not even "Fashion," which now seems so prescient, stood much of a chance; the goon squad had already arrived, and any song that could pack a dance floor was summarily dismissed as disco, persona non grata, the only exceptions allowed were once-in-a blue-moon appearances by Sly and the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music" and Creedence's "Suzy Q" and recent releases by the Stones, Queen, and oddly enough, Pink Floyd.
Which meant the only home on the radio for Scary Monsters was KROQ, where it competed against releases by the progeny: Talking Head's Remain in Light, Joy Division's Closer, U2's Boy, Echo & the Bunnymen's Crocodiles, and dozens of others including Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Pretenders, the Police, X, XTC, OMD, The Cramps, Ultravox, Adam & the Ants (not to mention two albums and five records-worth of songs by The Clash). On the mainstream stations the Rolling Stones, Queen, Pink Floyd, Springsteen, AC/DC, Rush, Genesis, and Van Halen sucked up all the air. 1980 was a damn good year for pop music, but despite releasing one of the year's best albums Bowie was becoming eclipsed by his own influence, and portions of his original audience were starting to move on or fall away, unable to keep up with him (Scary Monsters was Bowie's fourteenth studio album in thirteen years, an output unmatched by any of his peers except for Lou Reed). It sold well, and critics loved it, but it I've always felt it didn't get the attention from the public it deserved.
Bowie's artistic and musical transformation during the seventies is only rivaled by what the Beatles achieved during the sixties. Perched atop the end of a decade during which he became one of its most influential people, with Scary Monsters.... And Super Creepsmanages to compress the last dozen years into a single album while looking straight ahead. Self-referential, like a gathering of all the different Bowies we'd seen so far -- from the late 60's pop of his debut in "Up the Hill Backwards" to his reworking of "Heroes" into the rebuke of "Teenage Wildlife" -- Bowie puts his various personas on display for us one last time, reminding us at the beginning of the album and again at the end that "It's No Game." I don't know of another album like it, and if it's an album of his you don't yet know, it's essential, and may sum up the multiplicity of Bowie's talent better than any other.
(Since I'm going in chronological order, I'll just add that Bowie's collaboration with Queen on "Under Pressure" in 1981 turned what could have been just an okay song into a great one. Sorry, that's a bit of an understatement. "Under Pressure" is one of the greatest songs of all time. Period.)
When Let's Dance came out in 1983, what most critics went on and on about was whether Bowie had finally lightened up or if this sparkling dance album was just another front, albeit an odd and inviting one. I liked "Modern Love" and "Let's Dance" as much as anyone else, and wondered why "Shake It," the album's funkiest song, was never released as a single, but Bowie's poppy version of "China Girl" paled next to the cryptic and creepy original on Iggy's The Idiot. "Cat People," with its hefty dose of Stevie Ray Vaughn's incendiary guitar, is the album's best track, but an earlier, goth-infused version produced by Giorgio Moroder for the soundtrack of the film was far more interesting. The problem with Let's Dance is that it's a souvenir of an era. It may be a souvenir by David Bowie, buffed and polished to a fine sheen by Nile Rodgers' production and the presence of Vaughn, and therefore of enduring interest, but 35 years later the appeal of Bowie's greatest commercial success is nostalgic, not artistic. That's okay -- obviously I'm not anti-nostalgia -- but let's call it for what it is.
In 1984 Bowie released Tonight, which he later admitted was an attempt to hold on to his newfound audience and give them more of what they wanted. After hearing "Blue Jean" and the cover of the Beach Boys "God Only Knows," it felt like the time had come to set Bowie aside. So I did, and left him there for nearly 30 years, content to go on with what he'd already given us and willing to admire his continuous tenacity and grace from afar. Unmoved by Tin Machine and semi-annual reports of near-returns to form during the 90s, I waited hopefully for the day when Bowie would release an album that was no playing catch-up or chasing trends, but was Bowie once again playing Bowie.
I don't know when exactly, but sometime during Bowie's decade of silence beginning in 2003 I stopped thinking about him in the future tense, perhaps too consumed with the events in my life which kept taking me back to Station to Station. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, The Next Day arrived in 2013 -- an angry, noisy record that expands and softens as it progresses, filled with strains of Brecht and Weill, ennui and shadows, laden with the familiar sounds from his past, but now twisted and slightly gnarled by the passage of time. It's fatalistic and dark, even when the tempos are upbeat, like in "The Stars (Are Never Sleeping)." Bowie's voice has a frailty in it, but he sounds like he doesn't care that we hear this, aware it adds an extra layer to lyrics like "sexless and unaroused/they are the stars, they're dying for you/but I hope they live forever." That frailty puts a shadow on "Valentine's Day," which on a typical pop record would sound addressed to a lover; here it sounds as if Bowie's an old man singing it to a small child, urgently trying to convey the meaning to an uncomprehending innocence (Tony Visconti, Bowie's producer, said it's about a high school shooter). Even "Boss of Me," the nearest thing on the album approaching a love song, has a weariness conveying the singer is casting his gaze through the prism of time past. Underneath the upbeat tempo of "How Does the Grass Grow?" he asks:
Would you still love me if the clocks could go backwards?/The girls would fill with blood and the grass would be green again/Remember the dead/They were so great/Some of them
Halfway through the song a harpsichord makes an abrupt entrance, and Bowie's familiar baritone croon makes its first appearance on the album with these lines:
I gaze in defeat/At the stars in the night/The light in my life burnt away/There will be no tomorrow/Then you sigh in your sleep/And meaning returns with the day
He sings those last three words with marked resignation, followed by a quick flurry of descending notes leading into a squalling guitar. None of this would work if the music let these lyrics down, but Bowie crafted familiar frameworks for these songs as if they were meant to last forever. Had The Next Day been Bowie's last album it would have been a fitting goodbye, worthy of Bowie's history, though during interviews in 2013 Visconti said they recorded tracks that didn't make the album which will undoubtedly surface at some point.
Instead he's left us with Blackstar -- a brilliant and puzzling finale with accompanying videos -- and his death, intentionally delivering them together. If we need an explanation, he gives it to us plainly on album's third song, "Lazarus":
Look up here, I'm in heaven/I've got scars that can't be seen/I've got drama, can't be stolen/Everybody knows me now
True to form until the end, David Bowie turned his death into a bizarre, orchestrated performance; something we've never seen before that will discussed, analyzed, and soon, viewed with a sense of awe. And like everything else he did, Bowie's death will be imitated, and his imitators will be absorbed into the mainstream, and eventually, like so many cultural shifts during the last fifty years bearing Bowie's fingerprints, what was once considered freakish, outlandish, and odd will become integrated into our everyday lives. Bowie's dead, but before taking his leave from the stage he's again compelled us once again to turn and face the strange. It has never been more beautiful.