A Bowie self-portrait
The Many Changes of David Bowie
by James Paton
Our current understanding of the principle of gravity is still based around Einstein's use of classical physics, yet the field of Quantum Gravity is one that attempts to align it with science's use of quantum mechanics to study non-gravitational forces. A product of this is a black star, a theoretical alternative to a black hole. It can be seen as a passing phase between a collapsing star and an anomaly, but more importantly, it is also deemed to be created when the rate of a free-falling particle descending into the centre of a collapsing star is far greater than the rate at which matter is compressed, and yet whilst this is all theoretical of course, the interesting aspect of the theory is that scientists deem there to be vacuums created between particles, and that within this space, a series of theoretical particle pairs are constantly created and expended.
Quantum theory further dictates that, owing to vacuum polarisation, spacetime and the particles within the black star cannot exist in the same place at the exact same time, which brings us to the crux of the biscuit, as Frank Zappa might have said. Now, if you'll forgive my rather shambolic segue away from a likely incorrect interpretation of theoretical physics so that I may cut a very long story short, I might contest that this may also be a reason as to why Blackstar is the final legacy of one of music's most incredibly creative and much loved souls, for perhaps they simply couldn't exist in the same time and place together either. That man is of course none other than David Robert Jones, a creative genius who has given so much to so very many of us. And whilst it feels perhaps laborious to some extent to linger on an album that will likely be continuously dissected and discussed by minds immeasurably superior to my own (thanks H.G. Wells), it still seems like a pretty good place to start.
"One day I'll see that black star, that black star over my shoulder, and when I see that black star, I'll know my time has come," sang Elvis Pressley on his little known track, yep you've guessed it, "Black Star," recorded way back in 1960 - though it would then lay unreleased for over three decades. Apart from the obvious connection through the lyrical content of the song, Bowie and Elvis actually shared the same birthday, January 8th, which was also the release date for Bowie's twenty-fifth and final album. There are already numerous theories kicking around about this LP, its title and the content found therein (including the Elvis connections, its possible occultist leanings and astrophysical content), but what to me is the most important aspect of it all is that Bowie, as a parting gift to his legions of fans, produced what his likely his finest material in more than three decades – though ironically, this is also what made his death so much harder to take.
From the progressive, jazz infused sounds of the titular opener, through the painfully autobiographical "Lazarus" to the gorgeous, Low referencing closer "I Can't Give it all Away," Blackstar is bold, ambitious and utterly beautiful, a perfect final act in a play that lasted close to five decades. Still, I think that Sir William of Ockham would undoubtedly argue that we have probably exhausted our allocation of assumptions in regards to what Bowie's intentions were with this final work of genius, and so, for now, it is perhaps best to just leave it alone.
Early Career to Ziggy Stardust
Born as David Robert Jones in Brixton, South London in 1947 (he would later change his name after Davy Jones found success with The Monkees), Bowie showed an aptitude for music from a very young age, and began playing saxophone from around thirteen or so. He is said to have been deeply inspired by his older brother Terry Burns (they were half-brothers) who gave him access to all of the latest rock ‘n' roll sounds, jazz records and beatnik poetry that he could possibly want, but unfortunately, Terry also suffered from mental illness, and on the 16th of January, 1985 he committed suicide. This act was by all accounts the inspiration behind the song "Jump They Say," which would be released eight years later. Bowie's career got off to a bit of a slow start, after recording his first solo album, he promptly abandoned music for a couple of years, before returning with a breakout hit, "Space Oddity" in 1969, which made him a star first of all in his native Britain, and then further afield when it would finally be released in the U.S. in 1972. This popularity was further cemented by the albums The Man Who Sold the World (which included a song about his brother Terry, "All the Madmen") and then 1971's fabulous Hunky Dory.
This album would feature the song "Changes," which came to signify the artist's constant reinvention of himself as a musical icon, keeping himself fresh, invigorated and relevant to the changing musical landscapes before him. It was probably the first album where Bowie would truly find a following among those people shunned to the peripheries of society, the outcasts that few understood and even fewer tried to. Just under two months before his death, singer/songwriter/oddball The Anchoress, would contribute a 'Music for Misfits' playlist to Beat Magazine, wherein she cites Bowie's "Kooks" as a prime example of this, identifying that is was "a song about the family as much as being about on the fringes of society." But that was not a place that he was to stay for much longer, for the following year, Bowie would adopt his most famous persona, that of Ziggy Stardust.
In a 1988 interview with Joe Smith, Bowie responds to Smith's claims that Ziggy was akin to a cartoon character given life by agreeing wholeheartedly, adding that "he was half out of sci-fi rock and half out of Japanese theatre." From the makeup to the outlandish outfits, Ziggy, along with Bowie's claim that he was gay made the world take notice, and in doing so, he created what was arguably the world's most iconic rock star, something that he himself seemed quite oblivious to. Before the release of Hunky Dory, Bowie would record many of the tracks that would make it onto the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars LP, though in a very rough, undeveloped form, before returning to the idea after putting together the band that would help pull it all together, a band that the world would be introduced to via a Top of the Pops performance of "Star Man" in the summer of '72. Four, strange beings in bizarre clothing emerged to perform a sultry rock number, the frontman on acoustic guitar, whilst Mick Ronson's Les Paul would wail over the top of Trevor Bolder's throbbing bass and Woody Woodmansey's pounding drums. Bowie and Ronson shared the mic, and the former made exquisite use of the camera, playfully pointing out to the viewers at home, making them a part of the performance, a part of history. Just over a year later, the D.A. Pennebraker film would emerge, capturing Bowie live as he toured in support of his Ziggy follow up, the absolutely magnificent, Aladdin Sane. During a stretch of gigs in London, Bowie would surprise everybody when, after the final encore, he announced the end of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie, the chameleon, would venture across the Atlantic to find further fame as The Thin White Duke, scoring his first number one single there with "Fame," a song co-written with John Lennon, but undoubtedly fame has its price, and Bowie's, sadly, was an extreme drug addiction that would force him to retreat from the public eye into relative anonymity in Berlin.
Drug addiction and the "Berlin Trilogy"
It is rumoured that after the success of Young Americans, Bowie was sustaining his body solely with a diet of cigarettes, milk, peppers and coke, and that this is what made his character, The Thin White Duke possible; this slip of a man with his harsh blonde hair and cabaret get-ups. It was a new persona that was perhaps inspired by the character of Thomas Jerome Newton, whom Bowie would play in the 1976 film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, it was a natural fit for the consummate outsider, the alien observing the human condition, a theme reprised on Scary Monsters opening and closing tracks, "It's No Game." The media appeared to hound him in pursuit of comments that could be taken out of context, presenting his new blonde self as some sort of pro-Nazi Aryan, obfuscating Bowie's insistence that he was simply presenting a reflection of the troubling times he lived in, his glib social commentary lost amidst a drug induced haze, much like the recording sessions for the Station to Station album which Bowie apparently couldn't even recall taking part in.
His cocaine addiction had undoubtedly peaked at this point, and it was proving to be hugely detrimental to his health, his marriage and his creativity, so Bowie and his wife packed up and headed to Europe, visiting several countries before settling down in Berlin. At this time, it was a city divided, and this characteristic presumably struck a chord with the then troubled musician, though over the ensuing three years, he would be back to his brilliant best, creating three spectacular albums that would become known as 'the Berlin Trilogy,' which were released between 1977 and 1979. Friend and collaborator Iggy Pop had also moved out to the city in order to escape his own drug related demons, and Bowie would act as producer on the two albums that he recorded there, The Idiot and Lust for Life, marking the period as one of great creative fervour. His own music though reflected a more sombre time in his life, and Low was undoubtedly the greatest expression of this.
Bowie went into the Low sessions at the unhappiest point in his life, and creatively, he approached the album in a way he had not done across his previous ten efforts; to put it simply, he arrived with nothing to say, and as such lyrics were thin on the ground to say the least. Yet, despite the apparent hopelessness, it is an album as joyful as it is desolate, the opening side's collection of upbeat numbers all come in rocking and tease the listener as the fade away and disappear within the three-minute mark (sometimes even less), as if Bowie was dangling a carrot in front of the listener only to cruelly take it away again. "Speed of Life" kicks this off superbly with its electronic infused sounds, a theme that would carry across all three albums, but perhaps not so as prominently on the following two songs, particularly "What in the World" which sounds somehow like a perfectly natural collision of rock music and Pac-Man, driven along by Dennis Davis' almost too-punchy sounding drum kit. The highlight of the whole album for me has always been "A New Career in a New Town," it's a perfect way to close the optimistic first half, signalling his rebirth as a recording artist in the most spectacular way possible. An almost tender, affecting instrumental punctuated by a simple, repeating harmonica figure that may be something of a nod to Bob Dylan who also had his own retreat from the public eye a decade earlier – though it must be added that each conducted their withdrawal in a very different manner. The second half of the album was indeed Bowie at a low, though certainly not musically, here the LP is filled up with four expansive instrumentals created in conjunction with Brian Eno, these may be interpreted as homages to the people of the old Soviet Bloc or representations of the dark world that Bowie was inhabiting. Either way, the album drew a line in the sand separating past and present, and whilst he would certainly go on to create better albums than this over the following three years, there was simply no escaping that fact that Bowie was back, and he was a force to be reckoned with.
Undoubtedly the most famous album of the Berlin Trilogy, Heroes title track is one of the most famous pieces of popular music ever created, and for good reason too. Sculpted by a group of wonderful musicians fumbling in the dark around a song structure that simply didn't exist, they created a mesmerising soundscape comprised of chamberlin (an early form of sampler), synth and three tracks of intertwining guitar parts from the brilliant Robert Fripp, to add to an already intriguing backbone provided by guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and Dennis Davis. The album followed on, and built upon the foundations of Low, employing a similar fifty-fifty mix of songs and instrumentals, except that here, the arrangements were more detailed, more intricate than they had been on its predecessor, and the result was spectacular. Producer Tony Visconti has been quoted as saying that the recording sessions were much more upbeat, and this certainly comes across in the music, which blends together krautrock influences with the more savage, punk-induced "Joe the Lion" and "Blackout," and some unequivocally elegant and majestic instrumental tracks to create the standout album of the period. If it was Low that announced his return to form, Heroes would show Bowie was approaching a new creative zenith, but he wasn't done yet.
The true hero of the previous album was surely Robert Fripp, the two days of work that he completed on it was what gave Heroes its cutting edge, yet on Lodger, he was sadly posted missing in action, though in his stead a new guitarist had been drafted in, the magnificent Adrian Belew (the two six string giants would soon combine forces as part of Fripp's King Crimson).
Interestingly, Belew was recommended to Bowie by Brian Eno after he saw him perform with Frank Zappa in Cologne. The following night, Zappa's band played Berlin and awaiting Belew at the side of the stage were Iggy Pop and David Bowie, who was eager to get him on board for his next tour, which just happened to start two weeks after Frank's ended. Bowie whisked him off to a restaurant in secret and the pair wound up walking into the same place that Zappa and his band were eating at. You'd really have to ask Adrian Belew himself for the details about what happened, but needless to say Zappa was none too pleased with Cpt. Tom (yes, he was demoted). What we all know though is that Belew would team up with the group, perform on the tour and play both lead guitar and mandolin on the Lodger album, which still stands as a curious beast among the Bowie oeuvre.
As the final part of the trilogy, Lodger stands entirely apart from the previous two releases in every way – beyond its musical differences, it was also recorded in Switzerland, so quite why its regarded as part of a trilogy nobody knows. Even the name seems to hint that it was an album that simply didn't belong, it didn't connect with the previous material, it felt rather disjointed and to fans, it is an album most often met with little more than cold indifference. There are connections though, however unnoticeable they may be at first, other than the fact that Visconti returned as producer, Brian Eno was also there, and the whole thing turned out to be a voyage into the unknown of sorts, with band members being asked to swap instruments and Belew apparently requested to simply play blindly over tracks that he had never even heard before (the album's original name was Planned Accidents), so perhaps there is method to the album's madness. Regardless, it does blend eastern and reggae rhythms with rock ‘n' roll, Bowie's vocal performances are strong throughout – even if the studios weren't of the highest quality – and there's even some cracking six string work on the album's closing song, "Red Money" that prove that the album has it where it counts, so perhaps it finds itself in need of reappraisal. Besides that, personally I think that "Red Sails" is a brilliant song that's more than worth the price of admission alone.
The eighties began with a bang, bringing Bowie to that creative peak in my opinion, though I won't dwell on Scary Monsters as I have already written about the album previously, it's just a pity that following that impeccable album release, things would evidently take a turn for the worse.
Artistically he hit a downturn, though a glance at the track list for the Best of Bowie 80 – 89 album shows that it certainly wasn't all bad, from the 1981 recording of "Under Pressure" with Queen to his various soundtrack contributions, notably "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," "This is Not America" (with the Pat Metheny group), "Absolute Beginners" and the excellent "When the Wind Blows" from the Jimmy Murakami film based on the Raymond Briggs graphic novel of the same name. Film would seemingly continue to dominate the decade for Bowie, seeing him appear as a POW in Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ, and perhaps his most famous acting role of all, his star turn as the villain of Jim Henson's Labyrinth, opposite Jennifer Connolly. He would also contribute numerous efforts to the soundtrack, including the much maligned, and completely underrated "As the World Falls Down," alongside a further four other compositions. He would see out the decade with this album seeing its CD release, joined by another under-appreciated work of his, the soundtrack to the BBC serial, The Buddha of Suburbia, and his Pixies inspired group effort, Tin Machine.
The following decade was one fraught with experimentations, a second Tin Machine album and unfortunate excursions into the word of drum and bass, which on the whole leave this entire period as something most Bowie fans would like to forget, though yet again, it was certainly not without its high points. The surprisingly menacing, "I'm Afraid of Americans," that he recorded with Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails along with his venture into the realm of videogames with Quantic Dream's The Nomad Soul (known as Omikron: The Nomad Soul in the U.S.) began to make up for the substandard Black Tie White Noise, an album that I especially loathe thanks to its soulless cover of Scott Walker's "Nite Flights."
Yet slap bang in the middle of the decade came an album that the critics initially loathed, but have over time come to see as his creative highpoint in the period, 1995's Outside. If nothing else, the album is incredibly brave, with Eno and Bowie once again reconnecting to push the envelope, this time entering the studio without a single musical idea for what would become the album. Instead, they jetted off to Austria in 1994 to visit a psychiatric hospital, taking photographs and interviewing patients, this audio was later cut together to form an exhaustive piece composed primarily of spoken dialogue. Afterwards, the two got the band into the studio and then Bowie set to work crafting songs based on the improvised sessions with his musicians, this would often be assisted by Eno's use of his Oblique Strategies, a set of cards housing maxims that are designed to help musicians break through a creative slump. Bowie would create a fifteen-year diary for his protagonist which was initially started for NME who'd asked him for a ten day one, it was supposed to be about himself, but fearing that that would seem a tad boring, he instead wrote it in character and the resulting piece ended up as the liner notes to the eventual release. Encompassing a fear of the then approaching millennium with the death of spirituality, and a smattering of catchy songs, instrumental pieces and the spoken word, Outside was an album that broke new ground and undoubtedly alienated a vast group of his followers, but then, Bowie was never afraid to take chances, was he?
This was a trend that he would continue with 1997's Earthling, an album tinged with drum and bass and industrial flavours. It was very inconsistent, but as usual, there were some highlights to savor, such as the aforementioned "I'm Afraid of Americans" and the album's most successful single, the Snow White referencing "Little Wonder." Sure, Bowie wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders, but still, regardless of your own opinion on this particular period of his career, he undoubtedly continued to show the same fearlessness that has since come to define his entire oeuvre. And regardless of your own opinion of this concept album, surely that was his greatest characteristic, and it is one that simply must be applauded.
For his twenty-second studio album, Heathen, Bowie returned with a fresher sound, and a seemingly more relaxed approach to song writing, which made it a far cry from the verisimilitudes of 1999's Hours, which was an album that seemed to find the great artist sounding despondent about his music and its relevancy. Sure, there were still a couple of decent tunes on there- "Thursday's Child," "Survive" and "New Angels of Promise" being the standouts - but 2002, marked something of a return for Bowie. He wasn't trying to recreate past glories, he was simply facing forward, and in the process, began to consistently produce top quality music again, a trend that would continue right up until his death.
I can't help but feel that this final stretch of his musical career hasn't been given either the attention or respect that it deserves, which is particularly saddening given the strength of the material that can be found on Heathen, from the opener "Sunday" which swells from an ethereal opening to a warmer, more welcoming synth-drenched ambient piece, the electronic influences still ever present. They even raise an appearance on the more autobiographical offering, "Slip Away," which even finds Bowie making a dig at himself and the state of his career before kicking things up a notch with the rocker, "Slow Burn," that is magically brought to life with some excellent guitar work from The Who's Pete Townshend. It's not as strong throughout, but that's almost irrelevant, the most important aspect of the record was that it was the first clear indication that Bowie as an artist had finally discovered himself again, he knew how he would fit into the world once more and that as it turned out, was priceless.
Heathen was followed up a year later by the equally strong, Reality, a record that confirmed what we already knew- David Bowie was no longer looking back to the past, he wasn't attempting to recreate his former glories, he wasn't trying to reinvent himself. He was just making music, and it was good stuff at that. The pace was upped a bit to make this LP more of an old fashioned rock ‘n' roll album, and like its predecessor, there were also covers hidden amongst the original material, though these were not quite of the same level of quality. I think it's fair to say that, putting the sublime cover of Johnathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso" aside, it is undoubtedly the George Harrison number "Try Some, Buy Some" (also recorded earlier by Ronnie Spector) that ranks as the weakest song here, which probably says more about the quality of the other material as opposed to the arrangement of this downbeat number. The album sees Bowie without any masks. He's not trying to be someone else, instead there's just a surprising level of honesty in the lyrics here, at least on the surface, making this a particularly poignant moment in his career, and one that would have his fans anxious to see where he would go from here. But what happened next was not what they were expecting.
Instead of a new album, all became strangely quiet again. He mostly retreated away from the public eye following a massive world tour in support of the Reality album, only to once again emerge, refreshed, renewed and seemingly full of vigour. Without a hint of hyperbole, not a shred of advertising, he appeared and dropped The Next Day, a brand spanking new album on an unsuspecting public, letting the mystique sell it, without new promotional shots and only two rather left-field music videos with AAA Hollywood stars Tilda Swinton, Gary Oldman and Marion Cotillard. Even the album cover art was surely designed to cause a stir, being a defacing of the original Heroes artwork, the music isn't as moving sadly, referencing but never matching his early material, yet looking back at the subject matter (hell, maybe even the song names), it kind of feels like Bowie was perhaps giving us a pretty big hint as to the state of his health, but we were all just too excited about the prospect of new music to notice. And that is what brings us right back to where we began, his twenty-fifth and final studio album, Blackstar, and yes, theoretical physics again.
Quantum mechanics is based around the notion that whatever can happen will happen, so perhaps in an alternative universe, Blackstar never materialised and they kept their David Bowie, yet I cannot help but feel that despite the intense feeling of loss that his death left in its wake, I kind of prefer it our way. Blackstar was a masterwork, a fitting finale to an intensely beguiling novel about a protagonist who was at once so utterly charming yet non-conformist in the eyes of our backwards notions of society that he forced us to confront our concepts about who we are and how the world works, and in doing so, he inspired real, positive change in all of us. Few men have ever had, or will have such an impact upon our world, so yes, whilst the star may very well be dead, his presence is still here and there's certainly nothing theoretical at all about that.
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