Tag Archives: David Bowie

Bowie

I wanted to post something about David Bowie. This isn’t for you…this is for me.

I didn’t post anything last night because my very first impulse, after my involuntary “Aw, goddammit,” was to start listening to lots and lots of Bowie music. I actually hit YouTube before I hit iTunes; it’s so hard to separate the music I love with the showmanship that always blew me away (and vice-versa).

I Tweeted out links as I watched. And whaddya know: my Twitter timeline was filling up with links exactly like mine. This is the form of self-care that hundreds of Bowie fans independently chose. We didn’t run to our blogs to write some kind of a think piece, we didn’t create memes…we didn’t even come up with a hashtag. We sought solace in Bowie’s artistry, and of course that’s what we did: as lifelong fans, we knew we’d find it there.

This is the first video I played (and I know I came back to it over and over again, until I finally went to bed at 6 AM). It’s from the 1992 Freddy Mercury tribute concert at Wembley Stadium and it’s a recurring and perennial personal source of pure, mainline joy:

Honestly. If there were a nation where Annie Lennox and David Bowie were queen and king, I would have renounced my US citizenship immediately. I wouldn’t even have asked where this country is or if there were any jobs there. Don’t you want to live in a country either or both of those faces are on all of the money and stamps?

I love this video for what it is — two humans creating art at a level that no human will ever exceed — and also for what it says about David Bowie. In 1992, Bowie’s breakout album was twenty years in the past. Here, he wasn’t being trotted out as a nostalgia act, to perform one of his Beloved Hits. Okay, well, sure, fair point: “Under Pressure” was one of his 1981 hits (duetting with Sir Fredrin Mercury, of course). He’s onstage with Annie Lennox at the start of her remarkable, and still forceful, solo career and from the performances, it’s impossible to tell who’s hungrier to make good.

I associate David Bowie with a kind of “delightful restlessness.” In 1992, he had many classic anthems and number one hits behind him, but an amazing career ahead of him. If you listened to “Aladdin Sane” for the first time in 1982, it would offer as few clues about the tone and shape of 2002’s “Heathen” as a 1996 Motorola StarTAC would about Instagram.

David Bowie features in one of my earliest complete memories. It’s 1979, and my parents have brought us kids to my mom’s sister’s house on a Saturday night. The grownups are in the living room, enjoying grownup interaction, talking and smoking late into the night. They’re having a great time, partly due to the fact their two sets of kids have been shooed away to play in the basement and other parts of the house.

I’m in the room of one of my cousins and a few of us are watching “Saturday Night Live,” which for a kid at any point in the Seventies was akin to sneaking a cigarette. I don’t think anyone born after 1980 can really grasp that. The grownups, with their laughter and cigarettes, had let their guard down. “Saturday Night Live” was still in its first (possibly edgiest) cast and it was as far away from the family-friendly “Carol Burnett Show” as anyone at that time could imagine. I loved that show, too, but SNL was the kind of comedy where if you uttered one of its catchphrases inside the house, your parents would ask you where you had even heard that.

I say “first complete memory” because I can recall almost every detail of it and around it. The night is burned into my memory because I saw something I had never, ever seen before:

The Man Who Sold the World – David Bowie (Saturday Night Live) from Supernova on Vimeo.

A man in a plastic tuxedo. Two men…in dresses. And one of them appeared to be from outer space. He certainly sang as though he did.

The video is amazing (but holy mother of god, what terrible shot choices the live director made!!! To this day, I can’t watch it without shouting “**** the keyboard player! STAY ON BOWIE AND THE BACKUP SINGERS, YOU IDIOT!!!”).

I was at the perfect age to be exposed to something like that. I was still far enough from adulthood that “strange” always equals “interesting and worthy of further investigation.” Grownups think they know enough about the world that they frequently react to something new by thinking “oh…it’s one of…those” — with “those” being something you don’t know anything about, but might have been taught to have some sort of opinion about regardless.

No, Young Andy thought that these three men were very, very interesting.

It must have been a few more years before I started building my own taste in music. As a Snotty Teen™, I gravitated towards “music that nobody else in school thinks is popular,” a policy that I can’t 100% defend but which nonetheless paid huge dividends. It wasn’t long before I rediscovered the man in the plastic tuxedo, as well as the man from outer space behind him who, in the interval had acquired a plastic tuxedo of his own (Klaus Nomi), who went on to a distinctive, and sadly short, recording career before dying in 1983).

Discovering Bowie in the 1980s was like discovering the Discworld or Cadfael mysteries late in the game. There’s just so much material out there, and in the space of one school semester, you can binge on a story that originally played out over well more than a decade. How the hell did Bowie’s original fans manage to wait a whole year between “Hunky Dory” and “Ziggy Stardust”?!

I listened to Bowie in all of his personae before I caught up to him in his 1980s mainstream pop phenomenon persona.

Bowie was an important influence. I didn’t adopt a Ziggy Stardust or Thin White Duke persona (I never had the right bone structure to pull off either look). His effect on me was more powerful and subtle. When I discovered David Bowie, it was like thick curtains on a huge window were being pulled apart and a set of tall, double doors had swung open: it was the beginning of my understanding of just how much bigger the world was than my room, my house, my school, my town. And that isn’t even meant as a dig against the Boston suburb I grew up in. His work urged and challenged me to open my mind, revealed to me that the things I can’t imagine are by no means unimaginable…and that elsewhere, people were expressing themselves in radically different ways and pursuing beauty across vectors and paths of which I was totally unaware.

As I got a little older, he became a celebration and an endorsement of oddity. It’s okay to be weird; indeed, there were places where people appreciated David Bowie’s David Bowie-ness, which implied that there were places where Andy Ihnatko’s Andy Ihnatko-ness would be at least noddingly-tolerated, no matter how I choosed to express it.

And as I got much older, I saw him as an aspirational example. Predictability and repetition are career enhancers if you’re selling coffee or delivering packages. If you’re in a creative field, it’s death for your artistic self and it also means that you’re breaking a promise to your audience. Predictability and repetition are passion-killers. With every practically every new Bowie record, I could see the sweat on his brow as he tried to dance on uneven ground with unsure footing. And pulling it off brilliantly. I might have thought that a certain track (or, to be honest, a whole album) wasn’t very good. But I could never believe that it wasn’t exactly an album that he hadn’t invested himself in. And that’s why I remained a lifelong fan.

If I claimed that I apply these lessons to everything I do, it’d be self-flattery and an act of fraud. But I try to claw hard for the next yard of creative earth, as Bowie seemed to. And based on the personal stories I’ve seen on Twitter and elsewhere, he had that kind of influence on lots of people. 

I’m not sorry that he seemed to spend the past decade laying low. If anything, it pleased me to imagine David Bowie, in his 60s, enjoying his life and his wife and his family. He owed me nothing. And yet each new album, or video, or appearance was a joy.

Mommm…” I’d message a friend, with a link to a new video. “David Bowie’s bein’ weirrrrrd againnnn…”

But of course, I meant it affectionately. Bowie never stopped being “weird,” which is to say that he never stopped engaging me, forcing me to stop, and savor, and think. He never seemed to care about giving me what I want. He always seemed determined to give me what I wanted next.

Bowie Jump Interactive poster  cwob

This concert poster (for a multimedia CD-ROM…hey, remember those?) has been hanging in my office for over twenty years now. Yes, I stole it. Stole the hell out of it. I saw some of these tacked up outside of the Moscone Center during Macworld Expo 1994 and I just pulled it down and strolled off with it and didn’t give it a second thought.

“I bet Ion intended for people to take these,” I thought. And when I’d worked its thick staples free from the wall, I didn’t stick around, in case someone with the company or event security was trotting up to correct my supposition.

I don’t always take home the posters and prints I’m given at conferences and conventions. I keep even fewer. Only one will be on my wall for as long as I live in places with walls.

This poster sits at the intersection of two of my most important childhood influences: Apple, and David Bowie. I can’t even use the iPhone I bought three years ago but I expect I’ll be listening to “Hunky Dory” and “Station to Station” in their entirety until the day I die.

One more thing about David Bowie: he was nice enough have been born a baritone. I’m forced to enjoy Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” from a respectful distance. But David Bowie invites me to sing “Fantastic Voyage” along with him. That’s very generous, I think, particularly when you considering how often I’m singing along while I’m naked and showering.

Life On Mars? by David Bowie (Amazon Advent Calendar Day 3)

Life On Mars?

David Bowie

Hunky Dory

Genre: Rock

Life On Mars? (1999 Digital Remaster)

I had a minor breakthrough with David Bowie recently. It was so obvious that I couldn’t believe that it had taken me so long to figure it out.

“In the end, Dave,” I said, when I finally got him on the phone, “I think you resented that I had such a close relationship with Mom and Dad. While your ongoing success and fame forces me to acknowledge that I’ve never had any real drive, passion, or talent of my own. That’s why we’ve never really gotten along.”

We penciled in an appointment to hug it all out when he sweeps through New England during his Monochrome Eyebrow tour in 2011. Yes, I’m well aware that one of his tour managers will call to cancel about a week before.

Oh, right…the actual breakthrough:

David Bowie is what John Lennon could have and should have been during the Seventies.

When the Beatles broke up, Lennon declared that he felt burned-out and he intended to use all of the sick days that he’d accrued over the previous decade of hard rocking. Fair enough, but eventually, Personal Days became a formal Leave of Absence, and then after a bunch of registered letters went unanswered the Universe was forced to (regretfully) fill the vacant position. A New Lennon would have to be whiteboarded, prototyped and shipped, ASAP.

(“Hey, what’s with the eyes?”

“Eh?”

“The eyes. You’ve got two different eyes in there.”

“Aw, Christ…I just grabbed the first two from the bin. I assumed that they were all pre-matched. Is there time to swap one of ’em out?”

“Not without pulling the whole cerebral subassembly and then re-doing the wiring harness. We’ll just have to cross our fingers and hope nobody notices.”

“Damn. Sorry.”

“Look, Craig, I know there was a rush to make the ship date but we adopted ISO 9001 processes for a reason, all right?”)

Yes, fine, “Imagine” was indeed a lovely little tune. But for every “Imagine” that John Lennon wrote during the Seventies, he wrote eleven more that read like a page of Lennon’s psychiatrist’s notes after a two-hour session. By the time you get to the last track of “Plastic Ono Band” you involuntarily check your watch and say “Well, I see our time is nearly up. Shall we meet again in two weeks?”

And so I say that when John Lennon felt a need to lay down his baton at the end of the Sixties, it was David Bowie who picked it up again. “Life On Mars?” is the beginning and the end of my argument. It might be Bowie’s masterpiece. The music begins slowly, as Bowie’s voice seems to pace thoughtfully around the room, nudged along by Rick Wakeman’s piano. Bits of the melody start to wander in and make their presence known. Only when various muscles and tendons have been fully warmed-up does the arrangement take off; like a kite, it suddenly leaps into the air and once it reaches altitude, it parries around as though being 200 feet off the ground is the simplest thing in the world.

David Bowie is a kind man, so he gives us a couple of minutes of sensible scene-building before he starts pushing out lyrics like these:

It's on America's tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow.
Now the workers have struck for fame
'Cause Lennon's on sale again.

See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads.
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns

Not a word of that would seem out of place on either side of “Sgt. Pepper.” It’s lyrics as sound-play, meant to provoke imagination rather than understanding. Lennon had an uncanny ability to aim higher than Lewis Carroll but not smack his head against the extreme of psychedelic nonsense. Bowie’s achieved the same vibe here.

It’s possible that becoming The Great John Lennon is a bit like becoming The Dread Pirate Roberts. You’re meant to prosper in the role until it’s time to pass it along to somebody else. I don’t know to whom David Bowie passed the Lennon Baton but it was definitely sometime between “Under Pressure” and “Cat People.” While killing time in a bus terminal he came across a glossy brochure entitled “Make Big Money In International Pop Superstardom” and then he couldn’t drop that stick fast enough.

It seems to have worked out all right. He’s married to a supermodel and has the ongoing respect and support of the public. I’d like to think that Lennon would have made out as well. I’m sure he would have agreed that the presence of the album “Never Let Me Down” in Bowie’s discography was a very small price to pay.

Life On Mars? (1999 Digital Remaster)

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 07: “The Man Who Sold The World”

The Man Who Sold The World (Live)

Nirvana

MTV Unplugged In New York: Nirvana

Genre: Soul

Amazon MP3: The Man Who Sold The World

This track is a compromise. Wait, I mean, I’m settling. Or do I mean that I’m knucking under to the crushing disappointment that the world is the way it is, not the way we want it to be?

The point is that I am recommending a David Bowie song called “The Man Who Sold The World.” It is a cover version recorded by Nirvana. Nice boys. I understand that the lead singer was a bit of a hunting enthusiast or something.

Nothing agains them. But it’s not as cool as the David Bowie version. And that version isn’t available on the Amazon MP3 Store or the iTunes Store.

“Wait, yes it is!” you say, fumbling to open a new tab and do a search. “Yes, right here!”

Sigh.

No, that’s just Bowie’s original version of the song. A trippy, dippy, hippie version that smells like a pair of orange velour pants that were worn to a party where a lot of pot was being smoken and not washed in the three days since.

No. I want this version:

This is a frame from an SNL from 1979, hosted by Martin Sheen. From right to left: Mr. David Bowie, Mr. Klaus Nomi, and Mr. I Must Google For This Information. “Joey Arias.” Fine. But this Nomi fellow was a sensation. He was a classically-trained countertenor. If you don’t know what a countertenor is, think “pre-operative castrato” and you’ve pretty much got it; he had the ability to sing female soprano range with male power and volume. He would have had a terrific career if he hadn’t died just a few years after this appearance.

And he made one hell of a contribution to this song. Bowie commissioned the fiberglass tuxedo for the gig but he also commissioned a new arrangement that was fresh, modern, relevant, and free of patchouli oil. Nomi’s birdlike highs were the perfect counterpoint to Bowie’s baritone.

WON-derful stuff.

But it’s never been released as a single, never been released on video, and as far as I know, that particular arrangement has never been recorded.

This QuickTime is an MP4 I burned from a YouTube. No, it isn’t still up there. I’ve looked, but I’m sorry. NBC’s flying monkeys are all over the video sites and any SNL content that hits YouTube is not long for this world.

I dig this version so much that I not only captured it to my hard drive but also GarageBanded it into an MP3. SNL has been releasing complete seasons on DVD at a rate of one per year…so with any luck, they’ll continue to do it chronologically and the 1979 season will come out soon.

When it does: Netflix ? HandBrake ? Quicktime Pro ? iTunes. In a heartbeat.

But again, these Nirvana fellows did a fine job with a version that’s true to the original Bowie recording without making you feel as though you’ve been sitting in a Barcalounger made from recycled soda cans for the past hour.

Buy it from Amazon MP3:

Amazon MP3: The Man Who Sold The World

Or you can buy it from iTunes. If you’ve hated everything I’ve ever written, said or done and you’ve been looking for a way to just strike back at me for every offense I’ve ever committed against you, both real and imagined, then go right ahead and buy it from iTunes. “I could have sent somewhere between a nickel and seven cents rocketing into Andy Ihnatko’s ‘I Want A VR-Stabilized Nikon Zoom Lens’ Fund,” you snicker, as you click the appropriate buttons. “But he didn’t deserve it. No. No, he didn’t deserve it. Feel the burn, you Mac-loving bastard!”

Juvenile. Now I’m not even sorry that I’ve been peeing on your newspaper every morning for the past three years.