Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie 1947-2016

(David Bowie, born David Robert Jones in Brixton, London on 8 January 1947, passed away on 10 January 2016. While this blog remains on hiatus, I count David Bowie as my favorite musician and I wanted to share with you how important this great musician-artist was to me.)

Like so many, I came to David Bowie in my youth. Quite abnormally for small-town Canada in the late 1980s, I avoided the Heavy Metal and Hip Hop music* that was enjoyed by so many of my classmates and had an interest in the alternative and indie scene coming out of the UK. This meant -- while I didn't have a lot of money and was unable to buy cassettes and CDs on a frequent basis -- most of my music came from CFNY 102.1, a radio station in the Toronto area that played this type of music. Gradually, as high school arrived and tastes changed, more of my friends started to appreciate Alternative and my tastes became more mainstream. But even with Nirvana and Pearl Jam ruling the radio waves, it was in 1993 -- in my mid-teens -- when I heard the lead single from Bowie's Black Time White Noise album "Jump They Say". And while I loved the stripped down guitar and melancholic lyrics of the Smiths, or the hard industrial pop of Depeche Mode; and even grunge from Seattle, I found the uplifting beat and synth-fused saxophone of David Bowie a welcome addition to my auditory senses. I immediately went out and bought my first David Bowie album. 

1993's Black Tie White Noise by David Bowie. The first Bowie record I ever owned.
Two years later in late 1995, I came to a cross-roads in my life: a diagnoses of cancer. And once again, Bowie appeared on CFNY, this time as he was touring with Nine Inch Nails. At this time, I marveled at how Trent Reznor, a global Alternative superstar was touring with this old guy, myself still largely ignorant of Bowie’s canon and how his record Low was perhaps the biggest influence on NIN's The Downward Spiral. And then it happened: with chemotherapy flowing through my veins, I experienced David Bowie's ability to re-invent himself as the radio pumped out "The Hearts Filthy Lesson" (Outside, 1995), which was very different from White Noise, and captured the angst and pain that I was experiencing both physically and emotionally, having just been told that I would walk with a limp for the rest of my life, the cancer having taken my left knee. 

David Bowie with my other favorite singer, Morrissey. Morrissey wanted to use this photo for a greatest hits album but Bowie didn't allow it, leading to a fall-out. Let's hope they patched things up before the Bowie's passing.  
I survived cancer and in the mid 90s, my then girlfriend gave me a gift: Let’s Dance, Bowie’s 15th studio album and to date his best-selling. I loved this CD, and while the first three tracks are some of Bowie’s best known, it was the latter half of the disc where I found the most enjoyment. "Ricochet", "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)", and "Shake It" are awesome. A short time later, after graduating university and working in Japan, an Irish friend introduced me to the David Bowie of the 60s, 70s and early 80s. From here I bought 2002's Best of Bowie and it was this compilation that caused me to go back through his earlier catalog and came to marvel how his music has evolved over time.  

UK cover of the "Starman" single from Ziggy Stardust
Indeed, Bowie's first album David Bowie (1967) has some of the same horns and strings that one would be found on contemporaneous Beatles albums. But then with A Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971) Bowie set off with a new Glam-focussed sound, culminating with the seminal The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), where Bowie adopted the persona of the extraterrestrial rock star named Ziggy Stardust. This is an album where every song is amazing and it has been written about as a record that united every UK youth subculture of the time.

The Thin White Duke persona in Toronto, February 1976.
Indeed, it was the 1970s that would see Glam rock Bowie redefine and perfect the genre. Aladdin Sane (1973), inspired by touring the United States, was an amazing mixture of piano and Glam pop; which was followed by a decent record of covers (Pin Ups [1973]) and then Diamond Dogs (1974), a concept album about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. This record contains two of my favorite Bowie songs: "Big Brother" and "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family" and in my mind sounds like a harbinger of the hard rock sound that would soon eclipse Glam. 

1976's Low, the first of the Berlin Trilogy. It's masterful and NME recently counted it as one of the most influential albums to dance music. Trent Reznor wanted The Downward Spiral to emulate it. 
After a brief time exploring African-American soul music in 1975's Young Americans, Bowie adopted a new persona, the Thin White Duke, and released Station to Station in January 1975. This album -- with its epic ten minute opening "Station to Station", the hallucinatory "TVC 15", and the hauntingly beautiful "Word on a Wing" remains in my mind, his very best. It was followed by the nearly as good Low (1976) and "Heroes" (1977) the first two of which are now known as the Berlin Trilogy (and were followed by the underrated Lodger in 1979). The Berlin Trilogy came about after Bowie left Los Angles and set up shop in West Berlin, where he worked with producer Brian Eno to craft three records that captured, emulated and personalized the electric-based sounds that were coming from West Germany in the mid 1970s. And this was reciprocated, with Bowie being name-checked in Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" and him replying in "V-2 Schneider" on "Heroes". Bowie would welcome the 1980s with an amazing effort named Scary Monsters and Super Creeps and by this time was an unequivocal rock god. This was later affirmed with Let's Dance (1983) which hit number #1 in many countries and would go on to become a staple of that flamboyant decade.  

Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King, the antagonist in 1986's Labyrinth. Bowie was an occasional actor, with his first major role in 1976's The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Bowie's next effort Tonight (1984) hit number #1 on the UK charts (and was recorded in Canada!) and was followed by a two-fold effort of both music and film when he starred in and wrote the soundtrack to the fantasy hit Labyrinth. And while the late 1980s are generally considered to be the low-point in his creative output (as represented by 1987's Never Let Me Down), a brief hiatus and marriage to supermodel Iman were just what he needed to get back on track. Indeed, from the late 90s until his death, all of Bowie's efforts: Earthling (1997) Hours... (1999), Heathen (2001), Reality (2003), The Next Day (2013) remain amazing albums that can be listened to from start to finish, even in the age of downloading. His most recent work Blackstar (2016), released two days ago, is an album I don't know as well as I'd like, but that will change shortly.

Good-bye, Mr. Bowie! You are already missed. Photo by Jimmy King
Thank you, David Bowie. You are now and will remain for forever, my favorite musician. You have been there when I needed you -- though chemotherapy, courtships and break-ups or even just when I needed to escape from an intrusive world (or as I put it "go read a comic book and listen to David Bowie") Good luck! You are forever the Starman, the Thin White Duke, the Man Who Fell to Earth and the Goblin King. Wherever you are now is a much cooler place than it was yesterday: so have fun in that New Career in a New Town.

*I would come to appreciate both Heavy Metal and Hip Hop and now have both musical styles on my iTunes.