Monday, January 09, 2012

David Bowie turns 65: A personal recollection

My first memory of David Bowie is when I was a young teenager at the house of my two older cousins. They influenced my early musical tastes which meant I had an early eclectic collection that featured Mike Oldfield, Steve Hillage, Rory Gallagher and Rush. Among their albums was a strange looking LP with an unforgettable cover photo. There was a man and a woman both shown naked from the chest upwards, the man with big bright red hair staring pensively straight into the camera, while the woman, her head resting gently on his shoulder, seemed almost forlorn. The album was called “Pinups” and the artist announced as just “Bowie”. I didn’t know whether “Bowie” was him or her or both of them but desperately wanted to know more. Her face was familiar but it was his voice that transfixed me from the first listen.

Later my cousin told me he was David Bowie and she was the model Twiggy, whom I remembered seeing on television. What was she doing on the cover, I asked. He didn’t know. It would be many years before I found out why though I figured Bowie must have had a thing for Twiggy when she got name checked (“Twig the Wonder Kid”) in Drive In Saturday on the album Aladdin Sane. That album and Pinups were released within six months of each other in 1973 when I was nine years old.

It was probably around late 1978 or so when my cousins first exposed me to his work and his astonishing different coloured eyes. The following year I got my first summer job porting cases around the Grand Hotel in Tramore for ten quid a week. I stayed at my auntie’s in Tramore and for the first time in my life I had discretionary spending money. All that summer I spent my wages on David Bowie’s back collection. There was Pinups, of course and Aladdin Sane. But there were lots more besides and I immediately loved them all.

Space Oddity (1969) featured the hit single of the same name. The tune was instantly familiar from radio but I never realised it was the same guy who shared a possibly naked album cover with Twiggy. There was The Man Who Sold the World (1971) full of raucous rocking anthems and the album that Roy Carr and Charles Murray later told me in their “Bowie: An Illustrated Record” (1981) was where the Bowie story really began. The cover art of Bowie in a dress was too much for 1970s Catholic Ireland (as it was for less conservative Britain) and we all had to make do with the “leg up” photo from the Ziggy era.

Hunky Dory (1971) quickly established itself as a personal favourite. While cycling in the countryside near Waterford I would sing loudly each song in the order they appeared on the album, much to the bemusement of the cows in the nearby fields who had to put up with my squealing out every previous moment of “Oh You Pretty Things". It was pure pop, Bowie style and I loved every minute of it. I'm not sure the cows shared my tastes.

Next up was Ziggy Stardust (1972). While this was the album – and the persona – that made Bowie a household name, it was never one I particularly loved. I thought the concept album idea was boring and none of the songs haunted their way into my conscience as did his other albums of the same era. I did like the instruction on the cover “To be played at maximum volume” but I never risked the wrath of mum and dad by actually complying.

As stated before the 1973 albums were my entry point to Bowie. Not until I read Carr & Murray, did I realise Pinups was full of 1960s covers and even recently when I heard Ray Davies blast out “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” my first reaction was to think the Kinks did a great cover of Bowie’s record. Aladdin Sane, however, was pure Bowie and utterly haunting from the first listen. I was entranced by Bowie’s apocalyptic vision from the subtitle of the title song Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?) expecting World War III to break out any day. But it was Mike Garson’s piano in the final track Lady Grinning Soul that penetrated deepest with Bowie crooning “She will be your living end” grinning its way into my soul. It’s still my all time favourite Bowie song.

Then it was Diamond Dogs from 1974, another overrated album by my lights. I was never a huge fan of the singles Rebel, Rebel or Diamond Dogs though I loved the epic sweep of the Sweet Thing trilogy. Young Americans from 1975 was much more to my liking. Very different from anything Bowie did before, his “plastic soul” sounded anything but plastic and the influence of John Lennon still in his prime and Luther Vandross made this a very classy sounding album. Bowie’s voice seemed to adapt to any style.

Station to Station (1976) was another departure and another Bowie character the vampire-like Thin White Duke. Bowie was a heavy cocaine user during this period and it drives on the pulsating title track that opens the album. The opening minutes of that song are unforgettable as the train build up speed slowly with a droning guitar before the thin white Duke’s voice returns to bring this massive song home with an up tempo conclusion. Well, if it's not the side-effects of the cocaine, I'm thinking that it must be love.

It took me a while to love the two 1977 albums Low and Heroes. By then Bowie was in Berlin and under the influence of ambient musician Brian Eno. Low was well named, the pain of Bowie’s then splintered personal life brought out in songs like Breaking Glass and Always Crashing in the Same Car. The instrumental side 2 was difficult listening but ultimately rewarding. Heroes followed a similar trajectory with side one distilling in lyrics Bowie’s drug-crazed agonies while an instrumental side two seemed to explore the same concepts in music.

Lodger (1979) came out in the same year I was seriously getting into Bowie. It was a bit more upbeat than the previous two and was minus the instrumental frenzies but it was still a dark record. Boys Keep Swinging got Bowie back in the British charts but there was not much singles joy in this platter. The title Lodger hinted Bowie was not really at home in this music but his travels around world music did give him a better feel for dance music he would exploit successfully in the coming years.

That decade started with Scary Monsters and Super Creeps which was the first Bowie album I bought as soon as it came out. I was a bit disappointed. The album was a commercial successful and the singles Ashes to Ashes and Fashion put him at the top of the charts. Yet somehow I was expecting a bit more from Bowie. It was another change of musical philosophy for sure, but it just seemed to fall short. Maybe I was just being precious because everyone liked Bowie at the time. Listening again to It's No Game (Part 1) recently, it is a classic track with Michi Hirota singing the song in Japanese and Bowie spitting out the translation in English as if, as Carr & Murray said he was “tearing out his intestines”.

My love affair with Bowie ended in 1983 with Let’s Dance. Sooner or later Bowie would have to release a disco record and this was it, and a great success. But by 1983 I was a know-all 18 and starting to get into more obscure music, listening to Wire, the Virgin Prunes and the young Matt Johnson (later The The). I was unimpressed by Bowie’s clean dance sounds on this album. The title track was playing in every discotheque in the world that summer and I loathed it like I loathed Thriller which came out around the same time. This music was beneath me and I didn’t buy another Bowie record for 20 years.

Around 2005, there was a time when all his back collection of CDs was selling at $10 a pop in Brisbane record stores. In a fit of nostalgia I bought all those albums from 1970 to 1983. I fell in love with his early music again. Too much time had passed under the bridge for me to care about more recent Bowie offerings. I bought Heathen (2002) but because it had no 1970s or 1980s memories to weave on to, it never impinged on my conscience and I’ve hardly ever played it. But for those 13 years or so, Bowie’s voice, dexterity and mastery of various genres made him a musical genius of the highest order. Happy 65th birthday, David.


glenn mead said...

That's another thing that has passed by in the digital age, sifting through record collections of friends and rellies. I first heard Bowie that way also hearing my uncles copy of Hunky Dory.

Luke Mathers said...

My earliest memory of Bowie was at school in 1983 when I realised how much I disliked the song Modern Love. It really used to grate on me. At that time I was aware of Ziggy Stardust because the concert movie had been shown at the cinemas the year before. What I didn't realise at the time were that these were the same person. It wasn't until the following year that I actually bought my first Bowie record. Fortunately the Palings megastore in Pitt Street, Sydney was all out of Pseudo Echo's album, so instead I opted for ChangesTwoBowie which I fell in love with immediately. My favourite album would probably be Scary Monsters ... and Super Creeps, in particular the 4 tracks on Side 2, interestingly none of which were singles (Teenage Wildlife, Scream Like a Baby, Kingdom Come, Because You're Young). The last item of news of note I have heard about Bowie was that Robert Fripp went to visit him in New York and found Eno had come around to visit as well. I know 65 is retirement age but I'd like to see one last album of new stuff and a non-greatest hits tour.

Colin M said...

Long time ago wasn't it. Influential people in our lives when we were young. I had a mother who loved musical theatre and worked in fashion, an uncle who for a very fortuitous minute (for me) disavowed "pop" music and gave me, importantly, Dylan's Highway 61, which to me, as an 11-year old, was an almost impenetrable mystery. So in '73, borrowing a copy of Aladdin Sane (thanks Sally B), finally music had the lyrics of Dylan, a beat and a catchy melody. Only months later Pinups, the album of mid 60's covers, and each of the earlier albums from 67 onwards were gifted by family and friends, and because that diverse heritage of family influences I equally enjoyed diverseness of the heavy metalness of The Man Who Sold the World and the music hall ditties of the very first album.

What is significant for me is that by exploring the influences and styles that Bowie has adopted, many many other artists and styles of music have been introduced. Sort of like a singing encyclopedia that chooses styles like Doctor Doolittle chooses his voyage destinations - usually whatever the style there's something enjoyable and worthwhile.

Sure, he doesn't sweat like some rockers do and he's much more obtuse and private lyrically than, say, Neil Young, but much of what he's done is rewarding listening, if you take the time. Approach as if you might a novel and delve into the layers.

Suggested for delving into, in no particular order:

Aladdin Sane, Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold the World, Low, "Heroes", Lodger, Black Tie/White Noise, Heathen

Other albums are, as a feast for the ears, quite wonderful - try Station to Station, or Scary Monsters, or Pinups.