What’s there left to say? The late David Bowie rarely embarrassed himself during the period after his biggest corporate paychecks, and if listeners lower their expectations this work offers reward. ★ is the exception: it’s one of his ten greatest albums.
I don’t need to say much about Lou Reed that I didn’t in 2013. You won’t find his outré experiments here; he wasn’t good at them. He wanted to be “normal.” This drive inspired his weirdest moments.
I’m gay because of Lou Reed. David Bowie made me insouciant about it.
1. New Sensations (1984)
Like Reagan meeting with Gorbachev one year later, Lou could get away with what John Lydon called stepping over into re-enterprise because of two decades’ worth of accruing a reputation for doing the opposite. The title is descriptor and manifesto: without grandstanding, Reed puts himself in the company of fellow experts of the demotic, of men who make art after punching the clock. After writing about heroin, bondage, and putting jelly on your shoulder, Reed’s devotion to banality requires a similar accommodation on the part of the listener. He writes two valentines to male relationships. He loves Sam Shepard’s plays. He wants the principles of a timeless muse. So what if it sounds like he couldn’t afford Bob Clearmountain?
2. The Blue Mask (1982)
Unloved now, but, really, people, the blue filter? He’s (cheaply) rewriting Transformer a decade later — one of the first times a boomer icon used the eighties to rewire how we’d thought of him. Let’s face: most people, let alone critics, didn’t consider Lou Reed a boomer icon in the same breatha s Dylan, Fogerty, McCartney, and so on. I’m less offended by “Women” than most people — discovering the in the most literal chordal and lyric sense was for this put-jelly-on-my-shoulder guy a deeply weird phenomenon. The climax occurs at the title track’s 3:50 when Quine, as if reminded he’s Best Supporting Actor, steps back and lets Reed take his wildest solo since 1969.
3. Coney Island Baby (1976)
Lou’s James Taylor record without the L.A. pedigree. See? This is why he needed these musicians. When he wanted to write about crazy feelings for Charley’s girl and the football coach, he needed the cushion of soft rock guitars. His friendliest record — I just wanna bury my face in his Afro.
4. Ecstasy (2000)
Overpraised for Magic and Loss, ignored for the rest of the nineties, Lou needed a Major Statement. Set the Twilight Reeling wasn’t one, thank fucking Christ. Ecstasy was, and let’s call it his last functional record. “Paranoia Key of E,” “Mad,” and “Tatters” limn the shit that Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce do in The Wife, only less maturely. Had Lou died in 2000, the roar of “Big Sky” would’ve served as appropriate envoi.
5. Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal (1973)
A diva turn. Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner masturbate for three minutes before Lou Dietrich takes the stage. Boy, is it fun, though, boasting the scariest performance of “Heroin” on a Reed-associated live album. For years his only gold record.
6. Set the Twilight Reeling (1996)
A forgotten but vital part of his canon, this 1996 set combines the hooks-galore casualness of New Sensations with the let’s-get-serious-let’s-fall-in-love approach of The Blue Mask. Nothing knew for Lou; going home to Laurie Anderson was just another, as he points out, “fourteenth chance at this life.” STTR also boasts a vulgar-awesome anti-GOP rant called “Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker),” a vulgar-cute ode to eating egg creams, many adult love songs (the title track, “Hang On to Your Emotions,” “Adventurer”) and lots of feedback, created by Reed himself.
7. Transformer (1972)
An important record more than a great one, but maybe it doesn’t matter. “Satellite of Love” is ground zero for “TCV 15,” Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom,” U2’s “Zooropa,” and every song, rock and R&B, in which the singer looks beyond the ugliness of Earth. Also, Transformer has “Vicious” and “Walk on the Wide Side.” For too many years I resented Lou for the performative coming out in “Make Up,” complete with tuba, but someone needed to cut through the Mott the Hoople/Alice Cooper bullshit.
1. Queen Bitch
2. Sound and Vision
3. Moonage Daydream
5. Station to Station
6. Golden Years
7. Always Crashing in the Same Car
9. Joe the Lion
10. Move On
11. Cracked Actor
12. Oh! You Pretty Things
13. Beauty and the Beast
14. Sweet Thing/Candidate
15. Young Americans
16. Panic in Detroit
17. Jump They Say
19. Speed of Life
20. Modern Love
22. Five Years
23. Aladdin Sane
24. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
25. Weeping Wall
27. Rock and Roll Star
29. Ashes to Ashes
30. Strangers When We Meet
31. Fantastic Voyage
32. A New Career in a New Town
33. Up the Hill Backwards
35. I’m Deranged
37. Boys Keep Swinging
38. Can You Hear Me Now?
39. The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
40. Life on Mars?
41. I Can’t Give Everything Away
42. You’ve Been Around
43. Look Back in Anger
44. The Width of a Circle
When Bowie died in January, I mourned the death of a teacher who’d shaped my college years as much as a musician .He taught me to pose. He taught me to accept and flaunt my influences, most of whom were literary. It was okay to be affected. Rob Sheffield, in an interview promoting his new book on Bowie, gets at the same phenomenon:
That’s one thing about David Bowie: He was always upfront about being a fan in a way that was radical and unprecedented for rock stars in the ‘70s. He was very upfront about the fact that he was stealing ideas from everything he liked. In the book I talk about that interview with Dinah Shore on her morning talk show in 1976, where he says, I’m very flirty and very faddy and I get easily saturated by things. I’m a big fan of different artists and I just steal things from them. And Dinah Shore basically says, I can’t believe you’re admitting this on TV. His response was, I steal things. That’s what I do. That’s what it really means to be a fan. We steal pieces of our emotional selves from the music we love. There are aspects of my personality that I have modeled on Bowie and aspects that I based on Aretha Franklin and aspects that I modeled on Janet Jackson and Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney and Lou Reed—all these different artists who have been so inspiring to me in different ways. That’s the thing about being a fan: You steal things from the artists you love.
One of the more difficult tasks I assign myself as an instructor is to impress on students the importance of influence. So pounded is plagiarism into their heads that the good ones recoil and the bad ones look as if I gave them license to cut and paste Livejournal material into a story. Steal ideas about sentence structure, paragraph composition, the use of introductory phrases and clauses — whatever you think excites those sentences. A skilled synthesis of those thefts is the mark of a crafty writer.
To commemorate The Man Who Died Last Sunday, The Singles Jukebox gathered its forces and published more than two score blurbs on his greatest moments. Below are my contributions:
“Move On” – 1979
Stuck for ideas? Play a great song, in this case “All The Young Dudes,” which you gave away, backwards. Voilà! And this assembly-line method worked for the song’s comical depiction of wanderlust. “Sometimes I feel the need to move on,” Bowie declares in his most serious quaver, doubling up with laughter. “So I pack a bag. And move on.” Meanwhile Carlos Alomar strums a continuous two-chord pattern — who said anything about moving on? But the music projects the emotion that Bowie can’t allow himself to express until the last verse: an overripe piano, ay-ya-ooh backing vocals rising to a fever pitch. It took a few years for me to notice “Move On.” If he had placed it at the end of Lodger, we’d have remembered it like the inferior “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide.”
“Strangers When We Meet” – 1995
Originating on The Buddha of Suburbia as a husky-voiced plaint with the gingerly tread of a demo, “Strangers When We Meet” got the full band treatment on 1995’s 1. Outside. Thanks to its six-note bassline and one of Bowie’s most confident late-period vocals, it was a grand way to end an album wracked by an incoherent libretto about art crime. It’s a love song, no more than that, scattered with the broken images of a lifelong adherent to William Burroughs’ cut-up method: no sentence that a pair of Kmart scissors couldn’t rearrange, Bowie told himself. Betrayed by vendu. Slinky secrets hotter than the sun. But the images rearrange themselves into coherence for that key change that signaled the final chorus: Steely resolve is falling from me/My soul all bruised passivity. He lavishes the track with the full power of his baritone, the vibrato limited to last syllables. Meanwhile the keyboards and guitars swell in the last instance of that “’Heroes’”-esque, Eno-fied wall of sound. Struggling to find music apposite to the homosexual tumult in my heart, I settled in the fall of 1995 on “Strangers When We Meet,” a song whose title comes from a Kirk Douglas-Lana Turner schlock classic about adulterous lovers.
I’ve been thinking about the late David Bowie’s influence on my sexuality. On Monday I wrote, “If I’m gay thanks to Lou Reed, I’m cavalier about it thanks to David Bowie.” In 1993, when I bought Changesbowie from Columbia House and played Suede’s debut all summer, I had an inkling of the terrible beauty within me powerless to be born, and Bowie awakened it. She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl. She love him, she love him, but just for a short while. The imitation of what he thinks is Etonian enunciation in “Ziggy played guiTARRR.” The rolling piano and Luther Vandross’ enthusiastic backing in “Young Americans.” Ziggy Stardust going down on Mick Ronson’s guitar and family jewels. When I ganked a copy of Bowie: The Video Collection on VHS I was shaken by the moment in “D.J.” when a dazed trenchcoated Bowie is accosted by a floppy-haired male fan in the crowd and pop-kissed. In “Miracle Goodnight,” he dances with himself, an image conjoining narcissism and homosexuality. More queer is the man himself in roped ballet sandals and tights.
These were fragments, to quote T.S. Eliot, I had shored up against my ruin. There was also the male mourner who squeezed a limb at the battered body of the immaculately groomed suicide Bowie played in the “Jump They Say” video. In a long interview for Rolling Stone magazine that summer promoting Black Tie White Noise in which the reporter followed the subject as he visited old haunts in London — an interview I can’t find online — Bowie admits to his reluctant bisexuality, “even going so far as to try things with other guys” or something. Less defensive, eschewing the locker room machismo of the 1983 Kurt Loder interview exactly ten years earlier (called “Straight Time” by a magazine whose editor was gay and probably suffered snickers about it behind his back), he presents himself as a man who sampled a rich spread and discovered he wasn’t long for cock. In 2003 he was up to his old tricks again, earning dumb laughs over an an interview’s ill-timed questions; it’s like asking Donald Trump during a debate if he’s read John Locke.
Bowie influenced my coming out by the way in which he traipsed through exultation and casualness. “The church of man love/is such a holy place to be” sung in that parched squawk in “Moonage Daydream and buttressed by Ronson’s magnificent solo in the coda is the “Be My Baby” of homosexual acknowledgement in rock. “When you’re a boy/Other boys check you out” sung in a bleary lower register after a chorus of guys in his backing band dully and heterosexually bleat the first line is in its way more subversive. That’s how things are. I got more queerness out of Bryan Ferry caterwauling about mountains and growing potatoes for the sake of a phantom female lover in “If There is Something” (covered by Tin Machine in 1991). This, I thought, was fucked up love.
The point of mentors is to train you well enough to slay them.
Many of us on the East coast wondered why our phones trembled non-stop in the pre-dawn hours. Then I heard the local anchor say “We’ll have more on the tragic death of David Bowie.” Click on my tag to read many years of Bowie-inspired writing. Today I wrote an obituary for SPIN that in its nattering, slipshod manner synthesizes what twenty-five years as a gay listener sounds like. I didn’t have space to include ten other marvelous moments in his vast oeuvre. Here they are in no order:
1. Mick Ronson piling on junk riff after riff over the “The Jean Genie” coda.
2. The is-he-fucking-with-us merger of castanets, a Bo Diddly rhythm, and Robert Fripp’s shriek guitar in “Up The Hill Backwards.” “The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom / And the possibilities it seems to offer,” and how.
3. Bowie mumbling through the most outre track on Let’s Dance, a sinister cover of Metro’s “Criminal World” that I wished more fans liked. The rhythm section assembled by Nile Rodgers (Carmine Rojas on bass, Chic’s Tony Thompson on drums) gives it a rubbery consistency to match the undertone of sexual ambiguity. Special props to Steve Elson’s flute.
4. Although he doesn’t get much attention for his instrumental prowess, Bowie can play distinctive parts on guitar, sax, and keyboards when he wants; his best records have him playing alongside the band. Let me praise the lead guitar on Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, particularly on “Dum Dum Girls” and “China Girl.”
5. The lighthearted stomp called “I Have Not Been in Oxford Town” on Outside.
6. The synth swells in “Heathen (The Rays),” inspired by Richard Strauss. I heard it in the summer of 2002 driving home from nightclubbing: Bowie’s vocal greets the end times with poise and no fear.
7. How “Jump They Say” keeps a lid on the tension until Lester Bowie (no relation) unleashes a trumpet solo.
8. Juxtaposing several yards of synth against harmonica, rhythm strums, and Dennis Davis’ motorik beat in “A New Career in a New Town.”
9. In A Year with Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno praises Bowie’s singing in “No Control.” I don’t have it in front of me; what I remember is his falling in love with Bowie’s embracing a manner that few singers do. To hear him switch from his low end on the “I can’t believe I’ve no control” to the elongation of the last couple of syllables in “It’s all deranged” is a master class in pitch.
10. The ooh ooh ooh ooh’s in “The Stars Are Out Tonight.”
My parents owned the “Let’s Dance” 45 rpm. I was first aware of Bowie as some space fag in the late eighties when he was a standing joke. First contemporary song: the song he wrote for Adrian Belew called “Pretty Pink Rose.” I fell pretty hard for “Jump They Say,” which actually got college radio play in my part of town. I bought Black Tie White Noise, an album that even then sent confusing signals. I’ve figured out what baffled me about this album, the first Bowie album I bought at the time of release: it’s a much-deferred sophisti-pop mood. The doublebreasted suits, the perfect hair, Al B Sure!, Lester Bowie, the Sinatra moves in the sleeve photos. Nothing could’ve been more out of time in late spring ’93 than sophisti-pop.
His last attempt at a pop crossover, Black Tie White Noise looked dowdy for a while beside a non-linear Gothic hypercycle called Outside and a drums ‘n’ bass experiment called Earthling. If anyone wants to think Bowie stopped being Karma Chameleon in the nineties, play him the first singles of his solo albums: “Jump They Say,” “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” “Little Wonder,” “Thursday’s Child.” Hell, this might even be a strawman argument, for Bowie’s problem in the nineties was straining for relevance, engaging in mirror moves for its own sake because that’s what Being David Bowie required. But Black Tie White Noise possesses a stilted charm; I’ll still keep “Jump They Say,” “The Wedding,” “You’ve Been Around” (check out the bass run splitting the verse “I can’t pass you by too exchanging” in two), and “Pallas Athena.” Annie Zed’s tracing of the lineage connecting it and Blackstar is a shrewd reckoning of how the purported avant-garde lurks beneath a deluxe sheen.
Happy birthday, David Bowie.
The sparkling funk lick in “Golden Years.” The quilt of knitted riffs in “Fame.” The hook in “Sound and Vision.” Almost every interesting guitar part from 1975 to 1980 was played by Carlos Alomar. And beyond: the bit in 1995’s “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town” opens a curtain into a dark and formidable room. But fans still remember Mick Ronson as Bowie’s best guitar sidekick, maybe because he fits conventional notions of auteurism: producer and sessioneer in his own right. Alomar by contrast had a talent for recessiveness; he didn’t cause scenes or indulge in ego trips, he did his job and moved on. Chris O’Leary:
Having split with Mick Ronson, Bowie needed a new sous-chef. But he didn’t want another Ronson (if he had, he’d just have kept Ronson). He wanted someone who kept behind the scenes (no worries that Alomar would get more fan mail than Bowie) and who could handle new twists in Bowie’s songwriting. To Ronson, Bowie typically presented lyrics, top melodies and even guitar or basslines—at the least, Bowie would offer a complete chord sequence. Ronson’s role was to smooth, kick up, embellish and refine, to find counterpoints and add effects, to broaden and sweeten the song, to give it a public face.
By Station to Station and Low, Alomar was charged with creating the basics of a song. Bowie would offer some chords, a provisional title, some mood directions, and let Alomar take it from there. Bowie would monitor him rigorously and approve or discard whatever Alomar came up with, and much of the work was now in “post-production” (Alomar rarely heard Bowie’s vocals until the record came out). But essentially this was songwriting as delegation: Bowie as foreman/engineer, Alomar as shop steward. Scott Walker once described Bowie’s work as being something like a factory: He comes up with the goods and makes sure of delivery all down the line. Bowie couldn’t have done this without Alomar, who was his translator, research team, legwork man and studio engine.
Whether Chris is correct is quite beside the point. Someone had to write this.
Last month I said the studio version was a nightmare. Stripped of the clutter, it stands revealed as a listenable rocker if blemished by garish synth sax and Bowie going “Woo yeah!” By the way, the Sound + Vision deserves more praise. Bowie was starting to stretch his voice like taffy to get him past the emotional (and physical) hurdles his songs present, and Adrian Belew sure loves his whammy bar, but the quintet play with force and precision. Moreover, Bowie plays more electric rhythm guitar than any time since, what, 1973?
“Without a doubt and by some stretch, the worst of the three hundred and one records” that Marcello Carlin and listening partner Lena have reviewed. It makes Let’s Dance sound like Swordfishtrombones, he writes. And those are the most hedged examples. The album is Tonight, a quickie rush-released in the fall of 1984 when it became clear that David Bowie’s songwriting inspiration had waned, perhaps forever. Into this curdled bisque he tossed a handful of new tunes co-written with Iggy Pop, Beach Boys and Iggy and Leiber-Stoller covers, and two bits he wrote himself. One of those, “Blue Jean,” has its defenders; indeed, in 1994 or 1995 I preferred it to “Let’s Dance” because ubiquity hadn’t ruined it and its tossed-off nature appealed to me. I apologize. “Blue Jean” is a producer and writer trying to recreate “Let’s Dance” and producing treacle. Just the SOUND of that track (the marimba! the horns!)! It’s coke treble or something. Believing that Bowie could sing from the depths of erotic longing is like believing Richard Nixon could fuck a Kardashian twice before lunch. Fans have also made conciliatory noises about “Loving the Alien.” Why can I imagine Bowie and video director Julien Temple writing the storyboard before Bowie had even finished the song? Unintelligible singing — determined to give no phrase consideration or its due weight — and a heap of broken “Middle Eastern” images beaded on the string of Carlos Alomar’s sturdy rhythm hook. Even the video traffics in predictable MTV surrealism, with Bowie sporting aqua pants and a snakeskin jacket or shirt, barefoot, and looking like Annie Lennox crossed with Woodrow Wilson. Give me Never Let Me Down, his 1987 attempt at recording a Georgia Satellites album that sported at least a half dozen examples of an art-damaged sensibility unable to direct Peter Frampton into recording a solo with an interesting chord sequence.
Ah, singing. Chris O’Leary, covering his ears just enough, dissects Bowie’s terrible choices:
He starts singing the title phrase in a hectoring tone, souring the pleasures of the long vowels—the way “OHN-lee” and “KNOWS” are warm sisters, a communal reassurance following the initial hard, short vowel of “God.” Instead Bowie places his weight upon “God” and rushes through the rest of the phrase, letting it expire in a sickly gasp on “with-out you.” The last repeat, in which Bowie brutalizes each word, wringing whatever effect he can from each syllable, is the apex of the dreadful performance. It’s astonishing in its tastelessness.
Contemporary/rival Bryan Ferry recorded diaphanous material during this period, but at least his failure to enunciate forced me to realize he was an intermittently excellent melismatic singer. “God Only Know” is the kind of Bowie record that makes you go, “Oh, damn, he really can’t sing.” It makes one wonder, Marcello writes, “whether Bowie ever understood pop music. In America, 1984 is often considered the high water mark of pop music: the amazing admixture of MTV-fueled flash, the last dregs of New Wave-powered L.A. rock, and the rise of hip-hop to create a pop Esperanto. Bowie’s creative confusion is especially weird given how his hand guided many of those radio/MTV hits. The only conclusion I can come to is how terrible a pop song writer he was when surrounded in all sides by sterling examples. It’s as if the competition flummoxed him. But unfortunately for Bowie the previous generation’s tricksters could sing when the material sputtered.
Years ago my friend Thomas took an, ah, larger view. “An album rich in textures with some fine singing,” he assured the aghast audience and himself (I do treasure his description of Tina Turner singing on the title track “as if at gunpoint”). He might have been defending the 1995 Virgin reissue, its utility limited to the extra tracks, all from movies: the curate’s egg called “This is Not America” (The Falcon and the Snowman); the MOR but not terrible “As The World Falls Down” (Labyrinth), in which the high, spooky “Loving the Alien” voice gets its most attractive setting; and “Absolute Beginners” from Temple’s 1986 film, revered by many fans, very nearly a number one hit in England, diminished by a couple of bars in which Bowie proved he couldn’t shake the ghost of Anthony Newley, who owned him like Scott Walker never did.
The so-called “Bowie bonds” story of the late nineties confused me, in large part because most reporters, lacking the financial acumen, reduced the deal to “Aging rock star makes truckload of dough” and, to be fair, “securitization” was as alien and complex a concept as David Bowie himself in 1972. Chris O’Leary explains how it worked. “The brilliance of the securitization concept was that it could be applied to seemingly anything, not just mortgages,” he writes. “All you needed was an asset that generated a predictable return over a set period of time.” Thinking that in an infinitesimal way Bowie, with the support of plutocrats, contributed to a post-Glass-Steagall environment in which toxic assets, credit default swaps, bad debt, and lax governmental oversight brings new meaning to future shock: Alvin Toffler’s as much as the Diamond Dog’s.
His concluding paragraphs cast a bittersweet pall:
The young man grew older. He became a parent. He had a costly split from his manager. He moved to Switzerland to reduce his taxes. He had a costly split from his wife. He married again, he would have another child. Now he was 50. How long could he keep at his racket? The papers had wanted him gone years before. So he and his financial adviser devised a scheme. He would give away the royalties to his songs for a decade in exchange for a considerable pile of money. As much as half of which, some $27 million, reportedly would buy out his old manager for once and for all. Then he (and his children) would finally and wholly own his songs.
Consider the course Bowie took in the years that he worked, indirectly, for Prudential. He performed his older songs more. He supervised new releases of his old CDs in 1999 and various 30th Anniversary reissues in the early 2000s. He recorded an album where he reworked his obscure Sixties compositions (though his label shot it down). He played 83 shows in 1997 and from 2002 to 2004, he toured almost ceaselessly, racking up over 150 dates, to the apparent detriment of his health.
And around 2006, the bonds matured and his songs returned to him, and now to him alone. By then he’d stopped recording and playing live. He had (temporarily) retired; you could say that he’d earned it.