Thursday, January 14, 2016

David Bowie and me

Five Years
When I was small I went around to a friend's house. He put on one of his big brother's records. It began with a strange song about people hearing that the world only has five years left. I thought about how sad I would be if there was only five year left to the world.

Ashes to Ashes
'Ashes to Ashes' was number one in the charts. The video was on continuous rotation, or so it appeared. This was in the early days of music videos, when they seemed to have almost no money spent on them but often communicated a sense of wild artistic abandon. So it was with this one, which perhaps had more spend on it than others. Strange figures walked along in front of a bulldozer, a black sky hung above them, a man in a Pierrot outfit unnerved me. And there was a scene where the lyrics mentioned how the singer's mother told him not to mess with Major Tom, the video showing an older woman talking to the Pierrot. I remember feeling sorry for the old woman in the video as she looked very nice but was having to consort with this clearly depraved character.

Let's Dance
This song and the accompanying album came into the world. The album is a monster success, vastly outselling his previous records. Yet perhaps the cracks are beginning to show or the sharks are beginning to circle. A thing I heard said a lot at the time was that as good as the record may be, Bowie is no longer sounding like an innovator: on this record he is just following the musical ways of others. So it was said by some, but listening back now the song sounds strange and jarring, clearly the product of a unique talent.

Space Oddity
When I was in secondary school whenever there was an occasion where people were playing guitars and singing songs someone would always sing this one. The androgynous guy in my class who was most inclined to sing it acquired the nickname "Ziggy". I knew the words of the song by heart long before I heard it on record.

God Knows I'm Good
The local library had a copy of Space Oddity on cassette. I borrowed it and listened to it a lot. Aside from the title track there was a memorable song about a free festival and a song with the desperate chorus "God knows I'm good / God knows I'm good / surely God won't look the other way".

Never Let Me Down
Another friend at school decided to get really into David Bowie. Like so into him he bought records and stuff like that. This was when Never Let Me Down was the latest record. My friend bought it and listened to it a lot and then started telling me how great it was. "But it's got very bad reviews", I said, as though that meant anything. "The critics have always been against Bowie", my friend replied.

Glass Spiders
I think above-mentioned friend may have gone to Slane to see Bowie on the Glass Spiders tour. Somehow I came across a piece in Hot Press, not a magazine I have ever been accustomed to read. The writer started with the pretty uncontroversial opinion that Bowie's current recorded output is not up to much. But then he went on to assert that actually he had never been much cop. The one interesting assertion, one that had a degree of purchase at that time, was the claim that Bowie's crown as the inventive chameleon of popular music had by that point been well and truly taken over by Prince.

Absolute Beginners
There was a film called Absolute Beginners. It was heavily hyped before it came out but it seemed like at the last minute everyone realised that it was a load of rubbish and it tanked without trace (though I have not seen it myself and so cannot confirm or deny any comments about its cinematic quality). David Bowie appeared in the film, as an advertising executive or something like that. He also wrote and sang the film's theme song, a haunting and evocative tune that in retrospect was the last great Bowie single. The video does a great job of making the film look like it would be worth seeing.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
It is communicated to me that this is the great David Bowie album. I listen to it and cannot but agree.

Hunky Dory
I hear this on any number of occasions but never warm to it.

Tin Machine
I remember seeing a poster for this band made up of these guys in sharp black suits, Reservoir Dogs avant le môt. I thought they looked well cool and thought about investigating their music. Only after some time did I register that one of the band was David Bowie. Then I heard that everyone thought the Tin Machine album was rubbish so I did not bother with it. But I still wonder.

Someone once bought me a book called Letters to a Young Contrarian, from which I inferred that some think I adopt opinions just to be different from other people. I did buy a copy of Low determined to like the largely tune-free material that made up the second side when this was a vinyl album. Sure enough I do just that.

Or maybe it is 1. Outside. This is one of Bowie's 1990s records, in which he is reunited with his old pal Brian Eno. I acquire a copy and have listened to it on and off ever since. It might be one of those records that is at least quite good but entirely lacking in standout good tunes. Having listened to it all again in the last few days I still would struggle to remember any of it, bar the track that is excerpted on the Lost Highway soundtrack. But it has an appealingly claustrophobic atmosphere.

I saw him
At some point in the mid-1990s I see David Bowie play live. He was touring with Morrissey, but while initially the tour was billed as a double-header by the time I saw it Morrissey was very much the support act, which was a shame as he was in the midst of his own second wind. I found the Bowie set a bit dispiriting. He had a great band and was clearly an accomplished stage presence but it was all a bit slick, and not in an ironic way. It was also clear from the stage show and the crowd's reactions that he had become a heritage act. Very few people present had any interest in his current material; they all wanted to hear music from 15 to 25 years previously. It seemed like a sad end to a figure who once was possessed of boundless creativity. In retrospect I might be more forgiving; no one has the muse forever and there may not be anything wrong with giving the paying customers what they want.

David Bowie invents Jungle
There was a record on which Bowie dabbles in drum and bass. Somehow in discourse it gets talked about as the record on which Bowie risibly claims to have invented Jungle, despite him having made no such claim. Bowie going jungle seems like a really bad idea, particularly as this was the time when every dickwad was making a coffee table drum and bass record. I'm not sure I ever heard Bowie's efforts in this regard.

I went to the Glastonbury festival in a year David Bowie was headlining. When I came back someone from work asked me what his set was like and then looked at me like I was insane when I said I hadn't seen it. I try to avoid the Glastonbury main stages.

Oi think Oi moight be of some assistance here
David Bowie appears as himself in Zoolander reminding everyone that he has a strange accent. He is funny.

The Next Day
Bowie abruptly released this album a few years ago after ten years of inactivity. He does not tour the album or appear in the media to promote it. Many said that this and the lyrical themes of the album indicate that he is dying and that this record is his last testament.

But then he releases this album. "All that stuff about him being terminally ill must just be some kind of stupid rumour," I think. "He'll be around for ages." And then he died.

I was surprised how affected I was by Bowie's death.I never thought of myself as much more than a casual fan of his work but it is clear now how much of a one-off he was. We will not see his like again. The only still active figures remotely comparable to him are Kate Bush and Prince.

An edited version of this piece appeared subsequently in Frank's APA.