- Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016
I don’t pretend to be versed in the complete body of musical and visual works of David Bowie, the seminal artist whom the Universe lost to cancer a few days ago. Yet, like millions of my fellow humans, I was stunned and saddend by the news of his death. When some one, or thing, has made an indelible imprint on your consciousness, that imprint remains until death do you part. When the physical body is gone, we are reminded again of our mortality, even as the imprint stays on.
Maybe I am feeling this loss dearly just now because we are born in the same year, 1947, though he 6 months before me. Mr. Bowie was 828 months old at the time of his death. I am 822 months. A young American no more.
David Robert Jones changed his name to “Bowie” in 1965, so as not to be confused with Davy Jones, who was to become one of the Monkees. Good move. In the 60’s he was part of several bands in England before finding success late in the decade. But it wasn’t until the early ‘70s that he “burst on the scene” in America, in radically avant-garde personnae, beginning with Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke...For over 4 decades Bowie’s early bandmate and frequent producer was Tony Visconti (father of our esteemed colleague Morgan Visconti, composer and partner in Human). Visconti produced Blackstar, the crushingly beautiful and haunting album released on Bowie’s 69th birthday.
When I first became aware of David Bowie, it was his appearance as much as his music that riveted me. I hadn’t ever thought about androgyny, or what that meant. I’d never seen a man who looked so beautiful as he did—and I found it very disorienting. He was a feast for the senses, turning aesthetic and personal notions of style, manner and sexuality on their heads. The New York Times has graciously provided us with a slide show of Bowie’s “looks” through the years. Stunning.
Long before the advent of “music television,” he made a video for “Space Oddity”, presaging a visual and theatrical marriage to his music that would remain till the end.
He’d certainly been familiar with the Beatles, their music and films. And the breakthrough appearances of Elvis Presley on television. Pop music was no longer something to sit by the radio and listen to; it was something to see. And Bowie seemed to see far far into the future in his own (often self-destructive) self-creation.
I’ve not forgotten “Rebel Rebel,” and “Changes”...but as a lover of pop music, with a particular passion for the groove, I responded especially to some of Bowie’s music from the mid-’70s, when he’d begun adding American R&B and soul to his musical palette. I’d never seen this performance of “Fame” on ‘Soul Train’, but, in the words of Deee-Lite, it’s a “groove I do deeply dig” (lip synch and all):
And performing the title track from the same album on The Dick Cavett Show in 1974, proving he could kill it live. (A personal favorite of this then “young American”):
Some of my “hard core” friends have dismissed the 80’s as a lightweight, vacuous time in music, more about fashion and fabrication than sound. Bullocks, I say. It was an exhilarating time with many dynamic new things happening. Not simply Boy George, Flock Of Seagulls and Madonna… Springsteen came out with Born In The USA, NWA released Straight Outta Compton and, yes, Bowie dropped Let’s Dance. And suddenly, time to throw out the wardrobe yet again. I loved his duet with Tina Turner on her “Private Dancer Tour”:
My knees are shaking. Tina, come back!!! Two more hits came off that album for Bowie: “China Girl” and “Modern Love”. Within a few years he felt the need (and pressure) to break out of this dance “phase”, and thus formed an edgy rock ensemble, Tin Machine, which achieved some critical acclaim if not substantial commercial success.
Then, in the mid-90’s, Bowie was experimenting again. Impressed with electronica, and the “industrial” sound of Nine Inch Nails, he collaborated with Brian Eno to create the album Outside. The single “Hallo Spaceboy” was subsequently remixed by Pet Shop Boys, who performed it with Bowie at the 1996 Brit Awards. 20 years ago already...amazing.
I sometimes wonder why songwriters seem, in later years, to be unable, or unwilling, to summon the vitality, enchantment, sensuality of their earlier works. The most recent recordings from, say, Paul McCartney, seem to me freighted by some gravitational drag. The brilliant James Taylor, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello…darker skies all. Billy Joel has no interest in writing songs anymore—it’s been 22 years since his last studio album.
Why does this seem not to be the case with visual artists? Think of the magically vivid later works of Picasso, for example.
Or those of Miro.
Maybe it’s because the painter, or sculptor, renders entirely from what is imagined, in the brain. But the composer must wrestle not only with his/her imagination, but with sound waves, which enter the body through the tympanic membrane, transmitting sound from the air to the middle ear, ultimately converting and amplifying vibration in air to vibration in fluid. And then, to the “auditory nerve” (Vestibulocochlear nerve, actually—thanks, Wikipedia).
What the hell does this mean? Here goes: The human body does not produce light waves (not that I’ve seen anyway). It does, however, not only receive sound waves, it produces them. When you speak, sing, whistle, burp, you’re vibrating the air, making sound waves. And when you get older, and move a bit more slowly, and dance a bit more awkwardly, and your voice drops a bit, and you’re not walking around with an erection all day—the music you create might no longer flutter on April breezes, or dash passionately headlong into the flames.
And yet, in the case of Mr. David Bowie, it might take the final sound waves of a life well lived, and shape them into a masterpiece for the ages.