Friday, 15 January 2016

David Bowie and the land of the Dead

There is something impressive about an artist who times the release of his final album Black Star to coincide with his death. David Bowie is a significant artist who has been a part of my life and big part of the cultural landscape since I was young.

You were a black star, a prince of darkness who blazed with dark light. You brought "songs of darkness and disgrace" from the fringes of society into the lives of millions of middle class teenagers. You consumed too much cocaine and shared your dreams of psychosis and apocalypse.

You wanted to be a star, your fame was a part of your art. You were an actor who will probably be best remembered as Jareth the Goblin King in the warm hearted Jim Henson film Labyrinth.

It has often been said Bowie started off as a one hit wonder with Space oddity, but I do remember the Laughing Gnome got quite heavy rotation on New Zealand radio when I was young, but Space Oddity was something different, it had fear and adventure a song for the space age. I also remember dancing to Jean Genie at a primary school dance, that was a sharp song.

I became a fan of Bowie around the time of Scary Monsters, a point that I think marks an important divide in his career, after this point he floundered somewhat.

You have an impressive set of albums and you didn't repeat yourself.

Hunky Dory - the Man who sold the world was a good album but this was really his first  great album. The production values are great, fantastic playing a wide variety of excellent songs (Life on Mars and Queen Bitch) and it is by far the most humane album. but the album didn't break him into the big time.

Bowie's friend Marc Bolan of T Rex ruled, he was king of glam, he was cool Brittania. But Bowie moved into the glam space when he conceived a work of rock n roll indulgence the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the spiders from Mars. Bowie slid into the role of Ziggy, hiring a limo & he rode into the big time. This was one very cool album Mick Ronson's guitar riffing is just perfect, the production is perfect, the songs are little dramatic masterpieces. It was an iconic rock n roll story of fame ego style & cool. There was sympathy but not emotional warmth.

Diamond Dogs deeply pessimistic distopian and apocalyptic is probably for me his richest work of imagination:

And in the death,
As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy
The shutters lifted in inches in Temperance Building,
High on Poacher's Hill.
And red, mutant, eyes gaze down on Hunger City.
No more big wheels.

Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats,
And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes,
Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers,
Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue.
Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now leg-warmers.
Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald.
Any day now,
The year of the Diamond Dogs.

"This ain't Rock'n'Roll,
This is Genocide.

Bowie played most of the instruments, creating weird sound tapestries, it is full of drama and dark dreams as well as fantastic singing with some sections dense in layered vocals, It was a massive piece of work, incredibly original, imaginative and to this day deeply strange.

Low and Heroes were created almost as therapy an escape from the US and the bad habits that had been accumulating around him to Berlin, doing his own shopping hanging out with Iggy Pop, recording with Brian Eno and an aesthetic diet of German Kraut rock austerity Neu, Kraftwerk, Can. Low was stripped right back if still deeply stylish some crashing in the same car with J G Ballard he came full stop into the stillness of Japanese gardens and those sobering realisations that 6 million jews had died close by under the influence of fervid patriotism. Heroes seemed to fit Bowie's artistry better and listening to it again today I am astonished at what a perfectly constructed album it is. Ultravox's Systems of Romance from the following year must owe it a debt of gratitude and truly I love them both.

Scary Monsters showed that he didn't need Brian Eno as a crutch although Robert Fripp's angular manic guitar cut with Japanese singer singing japanese lyrics worked with precision across the startling title track. Major Tom was reprised and he hadn't been doing too well.

Let's Dance allowed more casual fans in it was outwardly friendly, even if it did contain tales of vampires and Iggy Pop covers. An appealing light 50s-ish style. Following this up proved to give him some artistic problems although I admit to having a soft spot for his critical nadir album Never Let Me Down. It reminds me a Little of Bolan Nadir albums Zip Gun Boogie and Futuristic Dragon.

Tin Machine and Black Tie white noise might be seen as recovery albums but I think they are pretty bad. Outside saw the return of Brian Eno but it's theme of murder as art is beyond the circle of my comfort.

Earthling sounded fantastic, once again Bowie was getting an excellent production, none of the later albums though have captured my heart, but Hours I do like it is almost human if still rather cold.

I had to buy Black Star the coda of his career and i may even like it, first couple of listens and I am pleasantly surprised.

Well David you have now crossed the river to the land of the dead, I imagine you meeting the Egyptian God Horus in judgement. I think you are ready.

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