By Eleni P. Austin
David Bowie turned 69 on January 8th and released his 25th studio album, Blackstar. Two days later, he died. We now know he had been privately battling cancer for 18 months, but he cared enough about his fans to leave an elegant parting gift.
David Robert Jones was born and raised in Brixton, London. Like most post-war teens, he became enamored with the raucous music of Little Richard and Chuck Berry at an early age. His older brother, Terry, introduced him to jazz and he took up saxophone. By the age of 13, he decided he wanted a career in music.
He spent most of the ‘60s fronting lesser-known British Invasion bands like the King Bees, the Lower Third and Mannish Boys. When another Davy Jones, (from Manchester), was making a name for himself in the Monkees, David Jones became David Bowie, (named for the infamous knife).
By the late ‘60s, David Bowie had begun his solo career. Initially he morphed from a Mod to an Anthony Newley-esque crooner to an effete hippie with Pre-Raphaelite ringlets. He had his first hit record in 1969. “Space Oddity” was written to capitalize on the Moon landing, but the song was also a treatise on alienation, focusing on desolate journey of a lonely astronaut named Major Tom. It was a theme Bowie would return to again and again.
At the turn of the decade Bowie hooked up with producer Tony Visconti and guitarist Mick Ronson. The partnership would yield his most enduring music. His next two albums, the driving Man Who Sold The World, (the cover of which found Bowie supine on a chaise lounge sporting shoulder-length hair and wearing a maxi-dress), and the more mellow Hunky Dory set the stage for his most groundbreaking work, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust.
A loose concept album about an androgynous alien, it was a brilliant synthesis of Bowie’s sharp sense of melody and his flair for the dramatic. It also introduced a new look, decked out in “Clockwork Orange Droog-meets-I Dream Of Genie” loungewear, his hair stood at attention, an orange proto-mullet, he introduced Glam and Glitter-Rock to America. Married, with a young son, he also proudly proclaimed his bi-sexuality.
For the remainder of the ‘70s, David Bowie generated hit after hit. Songs like “The Jean Genie,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Young Americans” and “Golden Years” kept him at the top of the charts. He also worked as a producer, crafting albums for like-minded musicians like Lou Reed, Mott The Hoople and Iggy And The Stooges.
Ever the shape-shifter, Bowie’s look seemed to change with each album, going from the sci-fi schizophrenia of Aladdin Sane to a dystopian Diamond Dog to the soulful Thin White Duke. He also began an acting career, playing the title character in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth movie.
But his excessive lifestyle was killing him; a cocaine addiction spiraled out of control, leaving him wan and emaciated. In 1977 he retreated to Germany with ex-Roxy Music musician, Brian Eno and created his celebrated Teutonic triptych, Berlin, Heroes and Lodger.
A re-vitalized David Bowie hit the ground running in 1980. He made his Broadway debut as “The Elephant Man” and released his 13th record, a brittle distillation of Glam and Punk entitled Scary Monsters. The song “Ashes To Ashes” was a sequel of sorts, re-visting Major Tom, (now a junkie). A critical success, the album laid the groundwork for his next creative re-invention.
In 1983, he enlisted Nile Rodgers, (front-man for the Disco/Funk band, Chic), as producer, and released his most commercial effort to date, “Let’s Dance.” It was a supple reclamation of the New Wave and New Romanticism genres that Bowie had practically pioneered a decade earlier. The guitarist shredding on nearly every cut was Texas Blues savant, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Bowie had discovered him when he saw Vaughan perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
The erstwhile ‘70s Starchild was now sartorially splendid; attired in an array of candy-colored designer suits and a puffy shock of lemon-meringued hair. He gave extensive interviews to the press, discussing his late brother’s influence and casually labelling his bisexuality a “phase.” This was Bowie ‘80s style; scrubbed clean and shiny, controversy free.
Unfortunately, the remainder of his ‘80s output felt lackluster. In 1988 Bowie formed a new band with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the Sales brothers, Tony and Hunt. As Tin Machine they recorded two interesting albums that were met with indifference.
Bowie began the ‘90s happily remarried to Super-Model Iman. It was the dawn of Grunge and his next couple of albums were a sleek mix of Jazz, Funk and Soul that lacked something. He then leap-frogged to the emerging sounds of Drum and Bass and Jungle.
Suddenly Bowie was chasing trends rather than inventing them. Thankfully, at the turn of the century he re-united with producer Tony Visconti and recorded Heathen in 2002 and Reality in 2003. Both were a welcome return to form.
It was during the Reality tour that he suffered a heart attack and received an emergency angioplasty. Following his health scare, Bowie retreated from the public eye, enjoying some much deserved quiet time with Iman and their daughter, Alexandria, who was born in 2000.
Although he never officially retired, it seemed as though he was through with music. His fans were pleasantly surprised in 2013 when he returned with The Next Day. It was a wonderful record, almost serving as “Bowie 101” a sharp tutorial on his myriad styles. It was a huge hit, topping out at #2 on the Billboard charts.
The next year, Bowie began collaborating with Irish playwright Enda Walsh on “Lazarus.” The play was a continuation of “The Man Who Fell To Earth.” They created new songs and also recalibrated some Bowie classics. Michael C. Hall was cast in Bowie’s role, most people know him from “Dexter” and “Six Feet Under,” but Hall began his career in musical theatre, performing in “Cabaret,” “Chicago” and “Hedwig The Angry Inch.” The show premiered off-Broadway in December, 2015.
At the beginning of 2015, knowing he was ill, Bowie quietly booked time at Magic Shop studios, a couple of blocks from his New York home. Turning, once again to Tony Visconti, he enlisted noted Jazz musicians Donny McCaslin (flute, sax and woodwinds), Ben Monder (guitar), Jason Lindner (piano, organ, keys), Tim LeFebvre (bass) and Mark Guiliana (drums and percussion). LCD Soundsystem (front-man and obvious Bowie disciple), James Murphy added percussion and synths. The result is a seven song suite entitled Blackstar.
The album opens with the title track. Swirly synths, sharp electric guitar and twinkly harp connect with a hiccoughing, stutter-step rhythm. Clocking in at almost 10 minutes, the song breaks into three distinct sections. In the first, Bowie’s strong falsetto references Norwegian mythology and impending death, but sounds unafraid, “in the center of it all,” he croons, “your eyes.”
Modal saxophone notes downshift into the slower, more ethereal melody, as he sings of the afterlife, returning to earth as a “Blackstar.” The final section is even more Middle-Eastern, filled with snake-charmer flutes, skronky sax and Arabian Nights strings. The track closes out with fractious woodwinds and bloopy, space-age synths, shuddering to a halt. It’s a moody and other-worldly tour de force.
“‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” takes its title from a convoluted 17th century play about incest. The song is powered by a locomotive backbeat, stabbing keys, and propulsive synths.
Bowie sardonically relates an incident with a working girl. “Man She punched me like a dude!” McCaslin’s sinewy sax notes snake through the mix, slinky one second, cacophonous the next. The tune concludes with a lengthy instrumental coda.
It’s tempting to view this album through the prism of Bowie’s death, especially with a song like “Lazarus,” but in reality, it is one of the songs specifically written for the musical.
Possibly one of his most beautiful compositions, it opens with angular guitar riffs, fluttery rhythms and shimmery saxophone. “Look up here,” he intones, “I’m in heaven.” The tune slowly builds, layering plinking keys and a quavery sax solo on the instrumental break. Vaguely reassuring, he adds “This way or no way, you know I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird, now ain’t that just like me, oh I’ll be free.” As the song concludes, Ben Monder unspools a series of Pete Townshend-esque power chords to accentuate the only certitude we have in life: death.
Underscored by marauding bass lines, stop-start rhythms, hurtling, morse-code guitar and visceral sax, “Sue (Or Season Of The Crime)” juxtaposes a querulous, almost industrial melody with vaguely comforting lyrics. Starting off with “Sue, I got the job, we’ll buy the house,” Bowie become increasingly more menacing and possibly suicidal/homicidal, as the tempo accelerates. “Sue, I’ve pushed you down beneath the weeds.”
Probably the least interesting track here is “Girl Loves Me.” Stream-of-conscious lyrics crest over an anvil-chorus melody. Whirling synths and chaotic percussion cushion Bowie’s yelping vocals as he alternately asks “Where the fuck did Monday go?” and “Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?”
His most heartbreakingly beautiful songs, “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” close out the set. The first sound on the former is the rattling of papers, followed by piano chords, jangly guitar and subdued rhythms. All give way to palliative sax fills that envelope and cocoon the minor-key melody.
Even as Bowie seems saying goodbye, “It’s all gone wrong, but on and on, the bitter nerve ends never end/I’m falling down, don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you,” the musicians won’t let
him let go. McCaslin’s saxophone solo feels like a lifeline, fluttering and trilling, soaring and swooping. Monder picks up the gauntlet, unleashing a series of urgent and incendiary riffs, all designed to keep Bowie tethered to this world.
The final track is anchored by pulsating percussion, lush synths and high lonesome harmonica. Bowie is equal parts pragmatic and plaintive, noting “I know something’s very wrong, the pulse returns the prodigal/The blackout hearts, the flowered news, with skull designs upon my shoes.” The end is fast approaching. As the velocity increases, he attempts to define his legacy; “Seeing more and feeling less, saying no, but meaning yes/This is all I’ve ever meant, that’s the message that I sent.”
Again it’s up to McCaslin to do the heavy lifting, threading an intricate solo through a rich instrumental tapestry. Ben Monder’s wiry solo pivots effortlessly between lyricism and arch pyrotechnics, closing out with a last shuddery note. It’s wry and unsentimental, but it still breaks your heart. It feels as though he has written his own epitaph.
There’s no way to quantify the impact David Bowie has had on popular music. He cut across genre and gender lines, inspiring people to form bands and create their own music. His example gave the disenfranchised permission to be Queer or strange or different, to let their Freak-Flag fly. At the close of the Ziggy Stardust album he let us know that we were not alone. “You’re wonderful,” he exhorted, “give me your hand!” So we did.