There’s a Starman Waiting in the Sky
David Bowie Memorial Retrospective
Just like the ‘Starman’ who appeared one night on the earthling airwaves blowing everyone’s minds, my first memory of David Bowie on NBC’s Tonight Show in 1980 left a lasting impression. His band had to have played the most imaginative music I ever heard. He did “Ashes to Ashes” and “Life on Mars,” two very different songs which were totally outside of the box.
I was an adolescent then and over the years I have seen the immense amount of music he produced and he never ceased to come up with something unlike his previous creation. He started his career in Britain in 1962 playing a style of music borrowed from the Americans and ended up writing futuristic musical scores for his videos that are more like short films. He brought the medium of music video to a new level with his swan-song album Blackstar. Everything Bowie did in between in those five decades is a journey into the unexpected for the listener who might be hearing Bowie for the first time.
Bowie did his first recording “Liza Jane,” in 1964 with the King Bees when he went under his real name David (Davy) Jones. The track features Bowie on saxophone (his primary instrument) and is a snapshot of how many young British bands tried to sound American. The 45” was a failure. it was an arrangement of “Lil’ Liza Jane”, an old American jazz standard that dates from before 1910. The record company dropped the King Bees like a hot potato even though they were featured on a few American Bandstand-like shows in Britain such a Ready Steady Go which was a great showcase for new and different music. When the record came out the local paper interviewed Bowie’s father who said in the article that he didn’t think his son was a could sing but gave him credit for cutting a 45.” If someone didn’t tell you Bowie did the vocals on that track you would have never guessed it was him. It seemed like Bowie was trying to fit in, but we all knew that wouldn’t last long.
A year later, when he was on programs as Davy Jones and the Lower Third Bowie’s uniqueness was beginning to show through. On “You Have a Habit of Leaving,” Mr. Jones started to show what he could do lyrically. The song is passive aggressive in mod fashion and Bowie sweet melodic voice juxtaposes the crashes of abused tube amps. The Lower Third was busy trying to keep up with the Jones’ quantity of original material and on tracks like “I Can’t Help Thinking About Me” which show a lot of the idiosyncrasies that Bowie’s music was known for later on.
The eccentricity of Bowie’s vocals reached maturation by the time his début LP that was titled simply David Bowie which was released in England in 1967. The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album had just redefined what a rock band could record and British psychedelia was open to free-form music and lyrics that were as out of the ordinary as possible. Bowie was in his element writing songs about things nobody wrote songs about yet. “We Are Hungry Men” is one of his first experiments in writing songs with science fiction themes featured on the David Bowie LP. The song is a about a dictatorship in a post apocalyptic holocaust world in the future. Hmm, he might have been on to something? This wasn’t a rock and roll album and it’s pretty out there even by today’s standards, with a brass section on the track “London Boys” which is the story of a club kid. “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” a spoken word piece has some of the unusual lyrical cadences that come up throughout this album.
I want to mention a track called “When I’m Five” that did not appear on this début album. It is mainly voice and acoustic guitar, and it is written from the point of view of a four year old child that anticipates his fifth birthday because he believes that his whole life will change when he hits that number. “If I close one eye the people on that side can’t see me,” is an ingenious line from it as well as “I saw a photograph of Jesus and I asked him if he’d make me five.” It is so convincing you would almost think a five year old was singing it.
As brilliant as his music was, Bowie did not have much commercial success until when “Space Oddity” was released at the same time the Americans put a man on the moon. Even with this genius Bowie experienced failure. Prior to the moon landing in 1969 one of his musical projects, a band called the Hype which included producer Tony Visconti on bass and future Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson was booed off stage their first performance. The single “Space Oddity” was played on BBC news broadcasts covering the story of the first moon landing. The Keyboards on the classic track feature Rick Wakeman, who did two albums with Bowie. Wakeman would soon go on to play in Yes. That same year two Italian bands were covering the song in Italy. Prog and art rock was very big in Italy then and still is.
To regain his territory Bowie recorded “Space Oddity” again doing the vocals in Italian with lyrics by Giulio Rapetti, aka Mogol who wrote the words to many contemporary songs in Italy. “Ragazzo solo, ragazza sola,” was the name of the single and it has nothing to do with Major Tom. It is the story of a boy meeting a girl, but the melody assimilates so well into the musicality of the Italian language it sounds like an aria.
Eventually many of Bowie’s singles were released in the US in 1972 on a compilation titled Space Oddity. Bowie’s early acoustic music is amazing. “God Know’s I’m Good” is a folk song about a poor old woman, most likely homeless that resorts to stealing in order to eat. It is vividly illustrated and draws you into the drama. Half the collection is folk and a number of tracks have elaborate orchestral arrangements. In my opinion Bowie gave Bob Dylan a run for his money.
In 1974 Bowie plays all the instruments on every track on his album Diamond Dogs. It is a conceptual album based on George Orwell’s notorious novel 1984 about a futuristic society where Big Brother is watching you and love is outlawed. “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing,” is a dark medley about refugees trying to escape an oppressive society in the future. Here we get to hear some beautiful sax playing and guitar work by Bowie. The whole album segues each song into the other the way an opera flows as it tells an apocalyptic story.
After gaining attention in the States Bowie lived in Germany for a while and by the end of the ‘70s he recorded three albums that aficionados call the Berlin Trilogy. The music he did on these albums range from post modernist abstraction to a thinking-man’s pop music. Tracks like “Moss Garden” from his Heroes LP has Bowie playing the koto, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument were by no means commercial endeavors, but were samples of state of the art technology merging with modern art. Musical texturist Brian Eno collaborated on these recordings. A few years earlier Eno’s 1974 solo album Here Come the Warm Jets was ornamented with electronic effects that Eno created himself hands on. The innovative guitarists Robert Fripp and American Adrian Belew both of King Crimson played on Bowie’s studio albums the Heroes, Low and Lodger. Fripp played on Heroes: Belew on Low and Lodger.
Shortly after when the Berlin Trilogy was completed circa 1979 the new medium known as the music video became popularized. British DJ and sketch comic Kenny Everett would play pre-MTV videos of “Boys Keep Swinging” “Look Back in Anger” and “Ashes to Ashes” on his British television show The Kenny Everett Video Show. This new thing the music video was perfect for Bowie’s music which always conjured up the weirdest images to begin with. There is a comic sketch Bowie did with Everett after a song in which Bowie violently chases Everett with a violin bow.
The ‘80s would become a time of commercial success for Bowie and he had become a household name. His Let’s Dance LP featuring the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan was played all over the airwaves for a long time. And Bowie did it without selling out artistically like many other dinosaur artists did in the ‘80s. I got to see Bowie at Madison Square Garden in 1987 during his Glass Spider Tour. Bowie played sax live on “Modern Love” which he always did in the ‘80s. Peter Frampton was his lead guitarist on that tour, Frampton was a friend of Bowie’s since they were in school. A master of stagecraft Bowie was bound in a straight jacket during his performance of “Heroes” and Frampton exceeded all expectations emulating the metallic postmodern sounds that Robert Fripp played on “Heroes” on the studio album. Around that time Bowie did a German language version of “Heroes” titled “Helden” which was featured in the 1981 independent film Christiane F. Bowie plays himself and does live versions of selections from the Berlin Trilogy in the film.
1984 came and went and brought Bowie financial stability and he was not the least preoccupied with his sales and was able to do whatever he wanted artistically. He knew he had enough of fans that somebody would enjoy his music, and if they didn’t, maybe they would the next time around. “I’m Afraid of Americans” from 1997 was a word of mouth success. His last project Blackstar doesn’t resemble rock & roll, the album sounds like a sci fi score with songs that are a matter-of-factly inserted into a short film. Bowie was always interested in multimedia and visual elements to tell a story.
Last year in January when Bowie passed, every music venue you walked into in all over New York City played album sides of the Ziggy Stardust album and even obscure tracks such as “The Width of the Circle” over their PA systems. I heard the proto-grunge sound of The Man Who Sold the World, which was too wild to be played on the radio when it debuted about 1970, being played almost in its entirety at the 5th Estate in Brooklyn one night before he had a gig there.
This year marking the first anniversary of Bowie’s death, Rick Wakeman, did a beautiful piano tribute for Bowie that was recorded by the BBC and its CD sales are being donated to the McMillan Cancer Support charity. Last week in LA Sting did his renditions of “Blackstar” in collaboration with Celebrating Bowie, a touring tribute that includes Adrian Belew, pianist Mike Garson and other Bowie alumni. Celebrating Bowie played NYC and is about to play Sydney, and will play Tokyo on February 2. It is one thing for great music to live on through recordings because that’s how future generations are able to enjoy artists of the past, but it’s another level when great musicians take ownership of the music itself and resurrect it with their own sparks of creativity. Bowie was always the artist of the future.