A Bowie self-portrait
by Kevin Cowl
The first Bowie song I ever heard was "Fame." For a while, it was all the Bowie I knew. But it was enough to keep me busy - thereís a lot packed in there. The world weary lyrics, the louche vibe, the heavily moded voices, the decadent electronic bleat, "Faaaame." It spoke of a world inhabited by people whose lives I could not imagine - it seemed so alien, so removed, yet... I would listen and imagine myself "in the limo." Then I guess those would be my problems too. So this was Bowie, I said to my 14 year old self. Accordingly, Young Americans became my first Bowie album, picked up for a buck at a yard sale in my little hometown in the sleepy suburbs of Albany, NY. It was the only one I had for a long time, as it provided enough content to keep me busy.
Frankly, I was and still am a little daunted by Bowie. He was so diverse and everything he did seemed so damned important. How was I to approach Ziggy Stardust? Aladdin Sane? The Thin White Duke? Attention is required. An investment of time. A willingness to go along. OK fine. The one thing that struck me right away was that there seemed no need to rush. His body of work was there to be discovered and that was enough. I would get around to it. Well I did, and still am. I still have not yet heard every Bowie album.
What's unique about Bowie for me is that is a catalog of moments. A guitar riff. A lyric, a sudden break, a piano trill. Hundreds if not thousands of moments. Since his death, a couple weeks ago, the written tributes flow unabated and his mighty influence is being fully realized. The musical nods by performers continue and will continue for some time. So, what to say?
Iím a fan, but not a fanatic. Still, Bowie made an impression like few others do. So what do I find most important? Itís a very tough call. But in the end, itís the moments that make you stand up and pay attention. Ziggy Stardust has quite a few of them. It is the one album that I think stands the test of time. The song cycle, the visual impact, everything, it all cannot be overstated. I remember being in my studio painting with my friend Tim in the studio next door and we would play this so loud the walls would shake. After all, the LP sleeve said "to be played at maximum volume." Well, it worked perfectly. That martial D chord that opens "Moonage Daydream" is more important than the rest of the song, in fact, probably the rest of the album. I can still feel it reverberating.
The dark epic "The Bewlay Brothers" that closes Hunky Dory has fascinated me since I first heard it. From the first note, you are pulled close by the lulling piano, as if being read a bedtime story. But it ends there and you find yourself in a surreal, nighttime dreamscape. The lyrics are so opaque I cannot make sense of them other than to go along with some of the fleeting images they create. I was pleased to read an interview with Bowie where he says the lyrics were nonsense, he had no idea what the song was about. That made me feel a little bit better. The album is great all the way through and by the time you get to "Bewlay Brothers," you are already so musically sated, you really donít need it, but, well, there it is.
Low stopped me in my tracks. Really two albums Ė the first side was so wounded, so vulnerable, you could literally feel the come down he was on. The second side was so clearly informed by what Eno had been doing for the earlier part of the decade, as well as Bowieís close association with many of the Krautrock bands. Despite its minimalist, twilight ambience, there were rays of light that shone through. He was finding his way out. This album was made to be felt. You didnít play it Ė it played you. My moment? I lived in Warsaw for a couple years in the early '90's, and Iíll never forget, after landing at the airport on a cold, gray March day, taking a gritty bus from the airport to an uncertain future as I began a 2-year stint as a teacher, I had my Walkman on as I stared out the window. "Warszawa" from side 2 droned on. Bowie had been here and, looking out his car window, had seen the same cityscape. He got it Ė perfectly. So perfectly it actually hurt. A dark, nearly hopeless pile of interlocking chords giving way to a sudden upturn toward the end. As the song changed, the sun poked out from the leaden Polish sky and I shuddered.
The "absolute moment" for me is probably an unlikely one for most. It is actually the three-song succession on Lodger of "Red Sails", "DJ" and "Look Back in Anger." This is Bowie free of himself for once. No costumes, no characters. Just some of his rawest and most honest singing and one of the tightest bands he has ever had playing with complete authority. It stuns me every time. Lodger, the conclusion of the Berlin trilogy, does have its weak spots. But if it was only these three tunes, it would be enough to stand with his best work. By this point, he had invented and reinvented himself enough times, the characters and styles now lay discarded around him. He had crawled back from addiction, and in the process produced some of the finest music of his career. This was the announcement that he had won, but it was hard fought.
From "Red Sails":
"Feel roughed up, feel a bit frightened
Nearly pin it down some time
Red sail action wake up in the wrong town
Boy, I really get around"
And later, there's this:
"Action boy seen living under neon
Struggle with a foreign tongue
Red sails make him strong
Action make him sail along
Life stands still and stares"
"DJ" continues. The past is gone, the drugs have worn off, and the he has woken up feeling the responsibility.
"I'm home, lost my job, and incurably ill
You think this is easy, realism"
"I am a D. J., I am what I play
I got believers
Finally, the cathartic "Look Back in Anger," driven by a tribal beat and some incendiary playing by Carlos Alomar, here he is looking back at his life. He is facing it, but is it safe to move on yet? (after all, it would take one more album before he declared that Major Tom was a junkie).
"You know who I am," he said
The speaker was an angel
He coughed and shook his crumpled wings
Closed his eyes and moved his lips
"It's time we should be going"
"Waiting so long, I've been waiting so, waiting so
Look back in anger,
see it in my eyes
Till you come"
There are so many hits by this point and so much to come, but this album, I find, is a fascinating pause between the all of the twists and turns of the '70's and the giant stadium tours for Letís Dance that were just around the corner. His performances on this record are some of his best, and his band at this point was the perfect vehicle. For me, he would not be this honest and daring again.
But Iím still enjoying the momentsÖ
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