Monday, March 7, 2016

Reliving David Bowie's Musical Career

It has been nearly two months since the passing of David Bowie. A few hours past midnight on January 11th, 2016, I began listening to his music. All of it. I started with David Bowie, aka Space Oddity (UK & US titles, respectively) and went right through to Blackstar, which I had already been obsessing over the weekend between its release (Jan. 8th) and his death.

As a lifelong fan, I was familiar with much of his music, but not everything. I always meant to get serious about collecting his records, but he already had such a back-catalog by the time I was listening to his music...the man has 27 studio albums and 9 live albums spanning six decades. Then there's 49 compilation albums, 6 EPs, 121 singles, 3 soundtrack albums, and appearances on 68 other albums. There are also hundreds of videos, interviews, and-- just mass amounts of media. That man is the definition of prolific, even with ten year gap from 2003-2013, when he "retired" to be a stay-at-home daddy to his new daughter, Lexi, with wife, Iman.

In recent years, Bowie's discography has been remastered and re-released with bonus tracks. I chose to listen to this updated music library, in lieu of my vinyl, CD, and digital copies. I did so on Spotify- you'll be happy to know that Spotify has nearly every Bowie recording available. Since January 10th, I have listened to nothing else. I started at the beginning (1967's eponymous release) and worked my way through the years.

Historically, my favorite albums have been 70's Hunky Dory and Heroes, 80's Let's Dance and the collaborative Tin Machine, and 1997's Earthling. Of course, there are many singles along the way and in between that resonate, but as far as complete albums go, these were my go-to listening choices.

Here's what I discovered and rediscovered in the course of listening to the complete, chronological Bowie:
  • David Bowie is a master chameleon, always ahead of the world in his art.This, we knew, but hearing his work so steadily and progressively really brings that home. His early music is decidedly folk- acoustic, poetic, revolutionary. He moved on to blue-eyed soul, and nailed it. Jazzy arrangements and saxophone-laden jam sessions that never overstay their welcome. He skimmed over the disco era long enough to take the crown, with the timeless anthem of Starman. He ushered in the New Wave movement, and led the Second Wave British Invasion of music across the Atlantic. In the nineties, he explored electronica and beautifully played with industrial sound and techno soundtracks. He continued to innovate until his death, with music that is unlike anyone else's, ever.
  • There is a David Bowie for everyone.Again, nothing we didn't already know, but, really, I don't care who you are, or how conservative your taste is- there is something of his work that will speak to you.

    I know a senior man who doesn't much care for his music, but was floored by Bowie's performance in The Elephant Man. I know a millenial woman who isn't familiar at all with his music, but was weaned on his performance as Jareth, The Goblin King, in the 1986 fantasy movie Labyrinth. Some people strictly recognize him as an 80s icon, while others associate him with 1970s zeitgeist. I have other acquaintances who are most familiar with him through his collaborations with Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, or innovators like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.

    Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Aladdin Sane, The Clown/Pierrot, The Goblin King, The New Waver,The Rocker,  The Outsider, The Elder Statesman, or Lazarus... I believe there is something that speaks to everyone. He is a true artist, masterfully expressing himself in music, theater, film, and paintings.
  • David Bowie has an incredible vocal range.High notes that soar. Low notes that croon. Harmonizing with himself, creating negative aural spaces that seem to open the soul. He has just as many vocal styles as he does visual personas, yet each is distinctively and undeniably David Bowie.
  • David Bowie is a musical master.He plays guitar, most notably on the early folksy-songwriter styles of the sixties and very early seventies. He plays the saxophone, the piano, and the harmonica, all live and on record. He plays percussion instruments, taught himself the cello, the viola, the stylophone, and the Japanese stringed koto. He could probably play other instruments, just for kicks. 
  • David Bowie is unflappably British.He's not just born and raised in London, England, he is consummately English. He spent years in Los Angeles (or, "Cocaine" as he calls it), then moved to Lake Geneva, Switzerland, then Berlin, Germany, where he famously overcame his cocaine addiction. He owns an Indonesian island home called Mustique, and he has most certainly traveled the world time and time again. He and his wife, Iman, set up homes in New York (Manhattan apartments and a rural home near Woodstock, NY) for the past twenty-five years, yet he has said that he always felt the outsider. Through all of that, he has held onto his traditional Englishness- preferring tea to coffee, eating lots of meat and mash (until his heart attack in 2004, after which Iman guided him to a healthier diet), and never losing his original Brixton dialect.

    Despite his outrageous visual, musical, and sexual statements, he has spent a good deal of his life behind closed doors. His family life in New York is particularly unmarked by publicity, and he is known to have enjoyed his relative anonymity and low profile a great deal. He is full of wit and humor, but also reserved and private. Typically British.
Back to my chronological listening journey...

There is so much more to his oeuvre than even I realized!

I was unfamiliar with the album Station to Station, except for the single “Golden Years.” Oh, and last year, I was shocked to hear his cover of my favorite Nina Simone song, “Wild is the Wind” on KEXP radio. How had I never known this existed? It's the last track here. I fell in love with this album…all six tracks. It is dark sound and heavy lyrics are mesmerizing, full of soaring melancholy.

Somehow, I had never gotten around to hearing two of his three "Berlin Trilogy" (Low, Heroes, Lodger). I loved Heroes, and have played it over the years, but not Low or Lodger. I had only heard a few songs from these albums when I went to see him live in concert in 2004. I remember wondering why I didn’t have these albums…Upon this Spotify listening session, I was drawn into the minimalist compositions and many of the songs. Stripped down instrumentation with laid-back guitar riffs and the kind of bouncy bass lines that speak of ease and relaxed rhythm carry this record.

Lodger opens with the whimsical “Fantastic Voyage” which rises and crests with a heartwrenchingly long note that crashes back to the shore of happy melody with lyrics about depression. My favorite kind of juxtapositional music! (This was one of those songs I first heard live, on the Reality Tour.) The second track, “African Night Flight” sounds as if it could have been recorded last month. It’s almost hard to believe he was making this music nearly forty years ago (1978-79), when it still sounds so fresh and edgy. “Yassassin” is a song I wished I had choreographed back when I was bellydancing. This album spoke so much to me that I spent six days replaying it over and over before moving on to the next album, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps.

Other albums I spent more time with were the electronic offerings of the mid-nineties, Outside and Hours. Again, there is some timeless element present, that makes these works sound like they were just produced.

Last week (the first days of March), I finished the list of studio albums. This week, I have been exploring Live at the Beeb, which was released as a 3-disc set in 2000. I am stuck on Disc One, still, 1969-1972. He’s got Tom Visconti and the band in the BBC studio, and they play psychedelic folk rock from the early albums and unrecorded tracks like “Let Me Sleep Beside”, which David explains his mother thought was “too dirty”, as well as songs to be included on the as yet unreleased Hunky Dory. The songs are interspersed with interview Q and A, and it’s truly wonderful to get a glimpse of the artist as a young man.

I have many more live recordings to go, and maybe, by the end of the year, I will be able to listen to everything without breaking into tears.