David Bowie: Curated

I remember when I first heard that David Bowie had died. I was half-listening to the radio as I prepared for work. I was stunned. I just looked at my partner. To my surprise, a tear ran down my cheek. I had always been rather sniffy about people who got emotional when famous people died, people they had never met, who had never heard of them, who had lived lives of wealth. But, as we drove to work in silence, there was real grief in the car. Bowie was gone. Bowie had always been in my life. It was a single of his that introduced me to the power of vinyl. "The Laughing Gnome" (1967) may now be regarded as a cringe-worthy novelty record, but when I was 5, it was magic.

The color and spectacle of glam followed, and Bowie, with Ziggy, hooked me. As my friends matured and got into "serious" music, I stayed with Glam, with Bowie.

Then punk exploded. Much of that so-called serious music was now derided. Bowie wasn't. He could match the experimentalism of post-punk with his Berlin trilogy. As the RCA advertising slogan so neatly put it: "There's Old Wave. There's New Wave. And there's David Bowie."

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I painted the Aladdin Sane flash on my cupboard doors. Decades later, it's still there. The ghost of Bowie still has a presence in my childhood bedroom.

Following Let's Dance (1983), Bowie went through a decline in quality, but I remained loyal when others didn't. The Buddha of Suburbia OST (1993) signaled a return to form, followed by the seriously under-rated trilogy of Outside (1995), Earthling (1997), and Hours (1999). Then came Heathen in 2003: David Bowie—my David Bowie—was back.

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But, like Sinatra, Bowie had more than one comeback in him. After a period of silence, The Next Day was released in 2013. Then Blackstar (2016) blew my head off. For two days, I bored everyone I came across, telling them how superb it was, how brave, how out there. Then he died.

Since that day, a Bowie merchandise industry has grown up, including a sale of his art at Sotheby's and a Bowie Monopoly Board Game. Finances prevented me from bidding on Bowie's art collection, but I'm tempted by Bowie Monopoly, just to see what aspects of his personal life they've incorporated. Are there Berlin transvestite bars you can build and then charge rent?

Also, I have eagerly anticipated every posthumous music release since January 10, 2016. I have bought them all.

Even before his death, Bowie's career was being curated—literally in the case of the David Bowie Is exhibition, which bookended in the cities he began and ended his life in, opening in March 2013 at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, then closing, after traveling the world, in July 2018 at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. A movie was made, documenting the tour. At each exhibition stop, special records were released.

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For Brooklyn, there was the eight-track Live in Berlin album (Parlophone DBISNY 20181), drawn from the 1978 Isolar II tour, which featured Bowie's Low (1977) and "Heroes" (1977) material, a limited edition on orange vinyl. It is good as a memento for that stunning exhibition, but the recording quality is poor. Imagine strapping a pillowcase to your ears.

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A better recording from that tour is Welcome to the Blackout (LP, Parlophone DBRSD 7782; also available in other formats), which was released for the 2018 Record Store Day (RSD). Brimming with verve, it captures the first live performance of "Sound and Vision." With far better sound quality than Live in Berlin and more life than Stage (1978), this is Bowie at home showing the London crowd that the RCA slogan was more than just a nifty sales pitch.

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Nothing is certain but death, taxes, and that there'll be a David Bowie release for RSD. Sometimes more than one. Often, they're interesting, but not always. In 2018, RSD also had Bowie Now (Parlophone DBNOW 77), a lazy compilation of his 1977 tracks. I mean, sure, it's on white vinyl, but it doesn't even have a cool photo of the man on the cover. It's not the worst, mind. That would be The Man Who Sold the World and its frankly nauseating picture disc (RSD 2016, Parlophone DBRSDP 2016). Kerching!

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2020 will go down as a grim year, but it did at least have an RSD double-release of real note. ChangesNowBowie is the official release of the rehearsal for his 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden. This is Bowie sort of unplugged, with an appropriately intimate feel. Bowie's not known for political songs, but two of his best are here: "Repetition," from Lodger (1979), focuses on domestic violence (the song was brilliantly covered in 1981 by post-punk band The Au Pairs), whilst "Shopping for Girls," with equally understated but angry lyrics, is about sex tourism in the Far East. "Shopping" is one of the better Tin Machine numbers (Tin Machine II, 1991) and is much improved here without the leaden metal of the original. Reeves Gabrels plays guitar on both versions but is far more controlled here. Not that the power chords go away completely: Those chords make "White Light/ White Heat," for my money, one of the best of Bowie's many covers of the Velvet Underground.

Bowie does pick his guitarists well, Gabrels being one in a long line of great sidemen. He interplays well with the predictably brilliant Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and soulful backing vocals. She can also step forward, and she duets delightfully with Bowie on a gentle "Aladdin Sane."

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The other RSD 2020 release was I'm Only Dancing (The Soul Tour 74) (LP, Parlophone 0190295332747), an unearthed gem recorded in Detroit, from his US tour between Diamond Dogs (1974) and Young Americans (1975). Makeup dialed down, floppy, bleached fringe, and pleated trousers, this is Bowie the soul man. Behind him is a blistering band that includes Luther Vandross and David Sanborn. Bowie is in the form of his life, and his voice is magnificent. Just listen to him on "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide."

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COMMENTS
dial's picture

The bow died in 1973. Musically. After that he was still there but with huge periods of silence. Total silence.
I listen to him with the Spiders but as a solo act he hasn't any magic at all. He was just a sort of Bryan Ferry but less effective.

Lars Bo's picture

Thank you very much for this, Phil.

I can relate in many ways to your history with David Bowie. As always with the Greats, we all passionately have our favorite albums lists, and I've e.g. never regarded Outside/Earthling/Hours as a trilogy (Outside being an outlier and a "real" Bowie, to me). On the other hand, I do think of Station to Station/Low/Heroes/Lodger/Scary Monsters as a pentalogy.

Another thing on David Bowie; I recently listened to a commendable Mike Fremer AnalogPlanet Radio Show (https://www.analogplanet.com/content/analogplanet-radios-david-bowie-year-later-wfdu-hd2-radio-show-streams-now) containing several forty years old interview parts with him (Bowie ;-)).

At one point, Bowie speaks of a Third Statement of music: a synergistic message, solely co-created "in play", as a product from the interrelations of the music instrumentally (First) and lyrics/song (Second). The Third Statement is holistic and "not there" in any material shape or form, and the listener as such is a co-creator. This dynamic, I find, is valid for really good audio equipment as well; the ability to intensify all the coalesced, holistic meanings of the music's parts, even more so than talents for dissecting any musical or non-musical micro bit in a sound recording.

Thanks again.

Glotz's picture

But RSD is such a drain on the LP bank balance that I had to pass up most of these releases over the last few years. I knew most would be must-haves... sigh.

And thank the digits for Qobuz... and your curation.

Earthling is massive. Kicking myself for the other Earthling material. Blackstar, Heathen and The Last Day- Love them!

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