Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie

David Bowie Dies At 69; Mesmerizing Performer And Restless Innovator
(By Tara Bahrampour, Washington Post, 11 January 2016)

David Bowie, the self-described “tasteful thief” who appropriated from and influenced glam rock, soul, disco, new wave, punk rock and haute couture, and whose edgy, androgynous alter egos invited fans to explore their own dark places, died Jan. 10, two days after his 69th birthday.  The cause was cancer, his family said on official Bowie social media accounts. Relatives also confirmed the news but did not disclose where he died. He had recently been collaborating on an Off Broadway musical, “Lazarus,” a sequel to his starring role in the 1976 film “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” And days earlier, he had released his 25th studio album, “Blackstar,” backed by a small jazz group and featuring songs as boldly experimental as anything else in his long career.

With his sylphlike body, chalk-white skin, jagged teeth and eyes that appeared to be two different colors, Mr. Bowie combined sexual energy with fluid dance moves and a theatrical charisma that mesmerized male and female admirers alike.  Citing influences from Elvis Presley to Andy Warhol — not to mention the singer Edith Piaf and writers William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet — Mr. Bowie was trained in mime and fine arts, and played saxophone, guitar, harmonica and piano. A scavenger of musical and visual styles, he repackaged them in striking new formats that were all his own, in turn lending his dramatic, gender-bending aesthetic to later performers such as Prince and Lady Gaga.
With “a melodic sense that’s just well above anyone else in rock & roll,” the singer Lou Reed once wrote, “David Bowie’s contribution to rock & roll has been wit and sophistication.” His output between 1969 and 1983 made up “one of the longest creative streaks in rock history,” according to Rolling Stone magazine.  By the height of his fame in the early 1980s, Mr. Bowie had enacted his own death repeatedly, in the form of characters and ensembles he would create, inhabit and then discard. “My policy has been that as soon as a system or process works, it’s out of date,” he said in a 1977 interview. “I move on to another area.”  The practice, which extended to friendships and professional partnerships, could be jarring. The Spiders From Mars, his band during his glitter-rock Ziggy Stardust years, learned that they were being fired when Mr. Bowie announced it onstage at the end of a 1973 tour.

To fans as well, Mr. Bowie’s rapid transitions could feel like whiplash. In the space of half a decade he was a curly-haired folk singer; a Lauren Bacall look-alike in an evening gown; a vampiric creature with a red mullet, shaved eyebrows and a skintight, multicolored bodysuit; and a coked-up dandy in a tailored suit, suspenders, fedora and cane.  Some of these looks had alter egos associated with them, such as Ziggy Stardust, a fictional rock star who is ultimately ripped to pieces by his fans, or the Thin White Duke, a spectral, disaffected figure dressed impeccably in cabaret-style evening wear who throws “darts in lovers’ eyes.”
As much curator as inventor, Mr. Bowie lifted melodic motifs from blues, funk and standards and presented them in such a way that many fans had no idea that the catchy “Starman” was a version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or that the melancholy “Life on Mars” was “My Way” in disguise. Other musical borrowings were more obvious, such as the opening bass line of “The Jean Genie,” taken from “I’m a Man,” or the “On Broadway” reference at the end of the title track of the album “Aladdin Sane.”

Stardom gave Mr. Bowie his pick of talent. He hand-selected virtuoso session players to help define each musical phase: Mick Ronson’s guitar solos, Mike Garson’s dissonant piano improv, Carlos Alomar’s funky rhythms, and the techno sounds of guitarists Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp that permeated his work in the late ’70s and set the stage for the European electronica of the 1980s.  Mr. Bowie’s voice was similarly labile — gliding between ragged cackle and haunting croon as he sang about decaying cities and alienated rock stars. Fellow musicians marveled at his ability to seduce a crowd with a look or a gesture.  “He’s the total artist,” said Nicholas Godin of the duo Air. “The look, the voice, the talent to compose, the stage presence. The beauty. Nobody is like that anymore. Everybody is reachable; he was unreachable.”
David Robert Jones was born on Jan. 8, 1947, in Brixton, a working-class south London neighborhood scarred by World War II bomb blasts.  His father, a publicist for a children’s charity, was a failed music hall impresario; his mother was a former waitress. An older half-brother, Terry, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized when Mr. Bowie was a young man. For many years the rock star worried about his own mental health, and the theme of insanity runs through his early songs.  “I used to wonder about my eccentricities, my wanting to explore and put myself in dangerous situations, psychically,” he told Esquire magazine in 1993. “I was scared stiff that I was mad, that the reason I was getting away with it was that I was an artist, so people never knew I was totally bonkers.”

His family moved to the middle-class suburb of Bromley, where young David attended Bromley Technical High School and found a mentor in art teacher Owen Frampton, father of the future pop star Peter. At 14, in a fight with a friend over a girl, David was punched in the eye, resulting in a permanently dilated left pupil that would add to the otherworldly appearance he would later cultivate.  After a few lessons on a plastic saxophone purchased on a payment plan, he began playing in local bands, finding that he liked singing and the female adulation that came with it. To avoid confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees, he renamed himself after the 19th-century American frontiersman and the hunting knife associated with him.
Fascinated by musical theater, Mr. Bowie joined a mime troupe led by the dancer (and, briefly, his lover) Lindsay Kemp, who taught him the extravagant, stylized movements he would later bring into his own stage performances.   Although his first two albums received little notice, in 1969 Mr. Bowie had his first hit single with “Space Oddity,” a song about a disaffected astronaut who decides to remain “sitting in my tin can, far above the world,” rather than return to life on Earth. Released five days before the Apollo 11 launch, it reached No. 5 in Britain.  That year he also met Angela Barnett, with whom he would enter into a 10-year marriage and have a son, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones, born in 1971. A shrewd manager of her husband’s early career, Barnett tolerated his blatant philandering and gave him the spiky-on-top, long-in-the-back haircut that would become his signature look through the early 1970s.

The hairdo — and the accompanying glittery bodysuits, platform boots and face paint — was intended as a statement against the peace-and-love, denim-clad hippie imagery dominating rock culture at the time. Mr. Bowie instead presented fans with cut-and-paste lyrics about the end of the world, and shocked them by dropping to his knees to perform mock fellatio on Ronson’s electric guitar or telling an interviewer he was bisexual (though he would later say that was just an experimental phase).  “We wanted to manufacture a new kind of vocabulary,” Mr. Bowie told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2003. “And so the so-called gender-bending, the picking up of maybe aspects of the avant garde and aspects of, for me personally, of things like the Kabuki theater in Japan and German expressionist movies, and poetry by Baudelaire . . . it was a pudding of new ideas, and we were terribly excited, and I think we took it on our shoulders the idea that we were creating the 21st century in 1971.”
His ever-changing, outrageous personae also served to mask the painful shyness and insecurity of his younger years.  “I didn’t really have the nerve to sing my songs onstage,” he told Musician magazine in 1983. Referring to the various personae, he said: “I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn’t have to actually go through the humiliation of going onstage and being myself. I continued designing characters with their own complete personalities and environments. I put them into interviews with me! Rather than be me — which must be incredibly boring to anyone — I’d take Ziggy in, or Aladdin Sane or the Thin White Duke. It was a very strange thing to do.”

Along with his own music, he promoted the careers of lesser-known musicians such as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Mott the Hoople, whose signature hit, “All the Young Dudes,” was written by Mr. Bowie. In 1974 he moved to Los Angeles, whose hyped-up, drugged-out music scene — the “Fame” and “Fascination” immortalized on his album “Young Americans” — took a toll. Extensive cocaine use made him jittery and paranoid, even as it enabled him to be creatively prolific.  Seeking calm and anonymity, Mr. Bowie spent much of the late 1970s in West Berlin, where in collaboration with Brian Eno he produced three albums that experimented with ambient sound and presaged the synthesizer-heavy music of the 1980s.
Returning to live in New York City, he began expanding his range as an actor. Having starred in the Nicholas Roeg film “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” in 1980 he played the lead in a stage production of “The Elephant Man,” for which Variety praised his “charismatic personality . . . suggesting springs of passion beneath the severe physical handicaps of the character.”  In both roles he played sensitive freaks misunderstood by the society around them, a theme that had also permeated much of his music. He also starred in “Just a Gigolo” with Marlene Dietrich (1978), in the Tony Scott vampire film “The Hunger” with Catherine Deneuve (1983) and as a rebellious prisoner of war in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (also 1983).

Mr. Bowie’s commercial musical pinnacle also came in 1983, with the blockbuster album “Let’s Dance.” It blasted him into international superstardom, though critics complained that it lacked the depth of his earlier work. Its unexpected success threw Mr. Bowie into a creative tailspin. Having planned to follow it with more esoteric material, he instead tried to duplicate the “Let’s Dance” success with albums that were critical flops.  “I suddenly felt very apart from my audience,” he told Live magazine in 1997. “And it was depressing, because I didn’t know what they wanted.”
Mr. Bowie regularly released albums through the 1980s and 1990s, although none approached the success of his previous output. But he continued to innovate, in 1996 becoming the first musician of his stature to release a song, “Telling Lies,” exclusively via the Internet. He caused a sensation when he was the first to sell asset-backed bonds, known in his case as “Bowie bonds” and acquired by Prudential, tied to the royalties on his back catalogue. 

By the eve of the century he had once aspired to create, Mr. Bowie seemed to be finally settling down. He fell in love — a condition his younger self had pooh-poohed — with the model Iman Abdulmaijd, whom he married in 1992 and with whom he had a daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones, in 2000.  After suffering a heart attack backstage during a tour in 2004, he stopped producing albums or touring for nearly a decade, devoting himself to family life. He even got his vulpine teeth capped, to the disappointment of some fans.  But in 2013, the same year an elaborate retrospective of his visual legacy began touring the world, the 66-year-old Mr. Bowie released a new album, recorded in secret, called “The Next Day.” His first album in a decade, it was praised by critics, who called it innovative even as it hearkened back to his early music.
That Mr. Bowie was still reinventing himself in his seventh decade could not have surprised those who knew him. “David’s a real living Renaissance figure,” Roeg told Time magazine in 1983. “That’s what makes him spectacular. He goes away and re-emerges bigger than before. He doesn’t have a fashion, he’s just constantly expanding. It’s the world that has to stop occasionally and say, ‘My God, he’s still going on.’ ” 

David Bowie Dies of Cancer at 69; He Transcended Music, Art and Fashion
(By Jon Pareles, New York Times, 11 January 2016)

David Bowie, the infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking songwriter who taught generations of musicians about the power of drama, images and personas, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday.  Bowie’s death was confirmed by his publicist, Steve Martin, on Monday morning.  He died after having cancer for 18 months, according to a statement on Mr. Bowie’s social-media accounts.  “David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family,” a post on his Facebook page read.

His last album, “Blackstar,” a collaboration with a jazz quartet that was typically enigmatic and exploratory, was released on Friday — his birthday. He was to be honored with a concert at Carnegie Hall on March 31 featuring the Roots, Cyndi Lauper and the Mountain Goats.  He had also collaborated on an Off Broadway musical, “Lazarus,” that was a surreal sequel to his definitive 1976 film role, “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called “plastic soul,” but it was suffused with genuine soul. He also captured the drama and longing of everyday life, enough to give him No. 1 pop hits like “Let’s Dance.”  In concerts and videos, Mr. Bowie’s costumes and imagery traversed styles, eras and continents, from German Expressionism to commedia dell’arte to Japanese kimonos to space suits. He set an example, and a challenge, for every arena spectacle in his wake.  If he had an anthem, it was “Changes,” from his 1971 album “Hunky Dory,” which proclaimed: “Turn and face the strange / Ch-ch-changes / Oh look out now you rock and rollers / Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older.”
Mr. Bowie earned admiration and emulation across the musical spectrum — from rockers, balladeers, punks, hip-hop acts, creators of pop spectacles and even classical composers like Philip Glass, who based two symphonies on Mr. Bowie’s albums “Low” and “ ‘Heroes.’ ”  Mr. Bowie’s constantly morphing persona was a touchstone for performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga; his determination to stay contemporary introduced his fans to Philadelphia funk, Japanese fashion, German electronica and drum-and-bass dance music.  Nirvana chose to sing “The Man Who Sold the World,” the title song of Mr. Bowie’s 1970 album, in its brief set for the 1993 “MTV Unplugged in New York.” “Under Pressure,” a collaboration with the glam-rock group Queen, supplied a bass line for the 1990 Vanilla Ice hit “Ice Ice Baby.”  Yet throughout Mr. Bowie’s metamorphoses, he was always recognizable. His voice was widely imitated but always his own; his message was that there was always empathy beyond difference. 

Angst and apocalypse, media and paranoia, distance and yearning were among Mr. Bowie’s lifelong themes. So was a penchant for transgression coupled with a determination to push cult tastes toward the mainstream. Mr. Bowie produced albums and wrote songs for some of his idols — Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Mott the Hoople — that gave them pop hits without causing them to abandon their individuality. And he collaborated with musicians like Brian Eno in the Berlin years and, in his final recordings, with the jazz musicians Maria Schneider and Donny McCaslin, introducing them to many new listeners. 
(MESSAGE FROM IGGY: "David’s friendship was the light of my life. I never met such a brilliant person. He was the best there is. - Iggy Pop (@IggyPop)” Jan. 11, 2016 )

Mr. Bowie was a person of relentless reinvention. He emerged in the late 1960s with the voice of a rock belter but with the sensibility of a cabaret singer, steeped in the dynamics of stage musicals. He was Major Tom, the lost astronaut in his career-making 1969 hit “Space Oddity.”  He was Ziggy Stardust, the otherworldly pop star at the center of his 1972 album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.”  He was the self-destructive Thin White Duke and the minimalist but heartfelt voice of the three albums he recorded in Berlin in the ’70s.  The arrival of MTV in the 1980s was the perfect complement to Mr. Bowie’s sense of theatricality and fashion. “Ashes to Ashes,” the “Space Oddity” sequel that revealed, “We know Major Tom’s a junkie,” and “Let’s Dance,” which offered, “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues,” gave him worldwide popularity.
Mr. Bowie was his generation’s standard-bearer for rock as theater: something constructed and inflated yet sincere in its artifice, saying more than naturalism could. With a voice that dipped down to baritone and leapt into falsetto, he was complexly androgynous, an explorer of human impulses that could not be quantified.  He also pushed the limits of “Fashion” and “Fame,” writing songs with those titles and also thinking deeply about the possibilities and strictures of pop renown.

Mr. Bowie was married for more than 20 years to the international model Iman, with whom he had a daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones.  In a post on Twitter, Duncan Jones, the musician’s son from an earlier marriage, with Angela Bowie, said: “Very sorry and sad to say it’s true. I’ll be offline for a while. Love to all.”
David Robert Jones was born in London on Jan. 8, 1947, where as a youth he soaked up rock ’n’ roll. He took up the saxophone in the 1960s and started leading bands as a teenager, singing the blues in a succession of unsuccessful groups and singles. He suffered a blow in a teenage brawl that caused his left pupil to be permanently dilated.

In the late 1960s, Lindsay Kemp, a dancer, actor and mime, became a lasting influence on Mr. Bowie, focusing his interest in movement and artifice. Mr. Bowie’s music turned toward folk-rock and psychedelia. The release of “Space Oddity,” shortly before the Apollo 11 mission, gained him a British pop audience and, when it was rereleased in 1973 in the United States, an American one.  By then, with the albums “Hunky Dory,” “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” and “Aladdin Sane,” Mr. Bowie had become a pioneer of glam rock and a major star in Britain, playing up an androgynous image. But he also had difficulties separating his onstage personas from real life and succumbed to drug problems, particularly cocaine use. In 1973, he abruptly announced his retirement — though it was the retirement of Ziggy Stardust, not of Mr. Bowie.
He moved to the United States in 1974 and made “Diamond Dogs,” which included the hit “Rebel Rebel.” In 1975, he turned toward funk with the album “Young Americans,” recorded primarily in Philadelphia with collaborators including a young Luther Vandross; John Lennon joined Mr. Bowie in writing and singing the hit “Fame.” Mr. Bowie’s 1976 album “Station to Station” yielded more hits, but drug problems were making Mr. Bowie increasingly unstable; in interviews, he made pro-fascist pronouncements he would soon disown.

For a far-reaching change of environment, and to get away from drugs, Mr. Bowie moved in 1976 to Switzerland and then to West Berlin, part of a divided city with a sound that fascinated him: the Krautrock of Kraftwerk, Can, Neu! and other groups. Mr. Bowie shared a Berlin apartment with Iggy Pop, and he helped produce and write songs for two Iggy Pop albums, “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life.” He also made what is usually called his Berlin trilogy — “Low,” “ ‘Heroes’ ” and “Lodger” — working with Mr. Eno and Mr. Bowie’s collaborator over decades, the producer Tony Visconti. They used electronics and experimental methods, like having musicians play unfamiliar instruments, yet songs like “ ‘Heroes’ ” conveyed romance against the bleakest odds.
As the 1980s began, Mr. Bowie turned to live theater, performing in multiple cities (including a Broadway run) in the demanding title role of “The Elephant Man.” Yet in that decade, he would also reach his peak as a mainstream pop musician — particularly with his 1983 album “Let’s Dance,” which he produced with Nile Rodgers of Chic; the Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan also performed on the album. But by 1989, Mr. Bowie was determined to change again; he recorded, without top billing, as a member of the rock band Tin Machine.

His experiments continued in the 1990s. In 1995, he reconnected with Mr. Eno on an album, “1. Outside,” — influenced by science fiction and film noir — that was intended to be the start of a trilogy. Mr. Bowie toured with Nine Inch Nails in an innovative concert that had his band and Nine Inch Nails merging partway through. Mr. Bowie’s 1997 album, “Earthling,” turned toward the era’s electronic dance music.
By the 21st century, Mr. Bowie was an elder statesman. He had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. In 2001, he sang “ ‘Heroes’ ” at the Concert for New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks. His last tour, after the release of his album “Reality,” ended when he had heart problems in 2004. But he continued to lend his imprimatur to newer bands like Arcade Fire, joining them onstage, and TV on the Radio, adding backup vocals in the studio.  In 2006, he performed three songs in public for what would be the final time, at the Keep a Child Alive Black Ball fund-raiser at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York.

His final albums were a glance back and a new excursion. “The Next Day,” released in 2013, returned to something like the glam-rock sound of his 1970s guitar bands, for new songs suffused with bitter thoughts of mortality. And “Blackstar,” released two days before his death, had him backed by a volatile jazz-based quartet, in songs that contemplated fame, spirituality, lust, death and, as always, startling transformations.

Review: ‘Blackstar,’ David Bowie’s Emotive And Cryptic New Album
(By Jon Pareles, New York Times, 6 January 2016)

Instability and ambiguity are the only constants on David Bowie’s “Blackstar” (ISO/Columbia), the strange, daring, ultimately rewarding album he releases this week on his 69th birthday. It’s at once emotive and cryptic, structured and spontaneous and, above all, willful, refusing to cater to the expectations of radio stations or fans. The closest thing it offers as an explanation of its message is the title of its finale: “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

Mr. Bowie’s 2013 album, “The Next Day,” ended a silence of 10 years between studio albums; it revisited his chunky 1970s guitar-band rock with a mood darkened by bitter awareness of mortality. “Blackstar,” stylized as , veers elsewhere. Mr. Bowies 2014 anthology Nothing Has Changed included a new song, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” recorded with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, a modern-jazz big band. The quartet led by the saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a mainstay of Ms. Schneider’s orchestra, is Mr. Bowie’s studio band on “Blackstar,” and it jams its way into rock, funk and electronics from a jazz perspective. The group complicates the harmonies and fills the interstices of the songs with improvisation, often with Mr. McCaslin’s saxophone chasing Mr. Bowie’s voice. The closest thing to “Blackstar” among Mr. Bowie’s two dozen studio albums is “1. Outside,” from 1995, which featured the jazz pianist Mick Garson and also presented more enigmas than answers.
Each song on “Blackstar” is restless and mercurial. The 10-minute title track opens the album with wavering guitar and flute tones that refuse to settle on a single key. Mark Guiliana’s drumbeat, when it arrives, is a matter of sputtering off-beats and silences, while Mr. Bowie intones lyrics about “the day of execution.” Midway through, the song moves through an improvised limbo and coalesces into a different tune: a march with lyrics about a messianic “blackstar” who also declares “I’m not a popstar.” Eventually the two halves of the song merge, with the opening verses over the march beat, darkening the tone even further. The video clip shows candlelit rituals and, near the end, bloody crucifixions. (Mr. McCaslin told Rolling Stone that Mr. Bowie said the song is “about ISIS,” a disputed contention.)

Thoughts of death hover throughout “Blackstar.” In “Lazarus,” a slowly gathering dirge with jolts from Mr. Bowie on electric guitar, the narrator is “in heaven” with “scars that can’t be seen,” looking back on a profligate life. A remake of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” with a hurtling rock beat and Ben Monder’s keening guitar replacing Ms. Schneider’s impressionistic big-band horn arrangement, leaves unclear whether it is a farewell or a murder confession.
Throughout “Blackstar,” Mr. Bowie stays more cantankerous than contemplative. “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” slams out a boom-bap hip-hop beat while Mr. Bowie’s voice leaps through an odd-angled melody amid a swarm of overdubbed saxophones. Mr. Bowie delivers “Girl Loves Me” in an odd, yodeling cackle, with lyrics that, for reasons unknown, often slip into the Russian-rooted slang Nadsat, from “A Clockwork Orange.”

This album’s last two songs, “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” circle back toward a familiar Bowie approach: the richly melodic, slow-building mid-tempo rocker. “Dollar Days” even allows itself some lush strings. But Mr. Bowie isn’t suddenly going cozy. In “Dollar Days,” he croons, “I’m dying to/Push their backs against the grain/And fool them all again and again.” He may be briefly dropping his mask; he may be trying on a new one. Either way, he’s not letting himself or his listeners take things easy.

Postscript: David Bowie, 1947-2016
(By Hilton Als, The New Yorker, 11 January 2016)

This was not supposed to happen. Ever. Because he had been so many people over the course of his grand and immense career, it was inconceivable that he wouldn’t continue to be many people—a myriad of folks in a beautiful body who would reflect times to come, times none of us could imagine but that he could. He always got to the unknown first.
David Robert Jones was born, in Brixton, to working-class parents, on January 8, 1947, and the Brixton of his day was a changing place—home to members of the “Windrush generation,” West Indians who, like immigrants everywhere, had come to England looking for a better way. And the music those islanders bought to their new island no doubt influenced the artist who always wanted to be an artist; indeed, Bowie’s need to perform—to be recognized as different—made itself known when he was a child. In movement class, he claimed center stage, striking attitudes that his instructors found unusual, original. He was always an original, not least because he defied “Englishness”—not making a fuss, not standing out—by making theatre out of his body and that incredible face.

Everyone knows the story.  Jones—who did not shrink from a fight—was arguing with a friend over a girl when his friend punched him in one of his blue eyes; somehow, his fingernail got caught in Bowie’s left eye. The result was a permanently dilated pupil. Just as Marlon Brando broke his nose while horsing around backstage during the Broadway run of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and the accident added to, rather than detracted from, his beauty, Bowie’s infirmity only added to his allure, an “oddity” whose romanticism imagined other places in addition to this world—places he invented and filled with longing.
A natural collaborator, Bowie used his considerable fame to help popularize artists who would have had less of a chance without him. Nothing’s better than watching Bowie play keyboards for Dinah Shore on her TV show in 1977. He was there to support an artist he loved—Iggy Pop, whose seminal, first solo album, “The Idiot,” had come out that year. In an interview on MTV, recorded in 1990, Pop talked about how Bowie had rescued him, basically, from being a street person, and helped him to become an artist. On the Shore show, Pop’s outrageous body gyrates, twists, and turns as he sings “Sister Midnight”; at one point you can hear Bowie laughing at all the antics. Bowie then sits down with Shore, she of genteel nineteen-forties movie musicals, and attempts to explain, with great seriousness and in depth, why Pop was important, and why their collaboration worked.

Rock stars are not generally known for their generosity to other artists; it takes a lot to get up there and be such a huge presence. Early on, Bowie realized he was more himself—had more of himself—when he built bridges between different worlds. I wonder how much of that he owed to what he saw in Brixton. Two years before he worked with Pop, Bowie made his first masterpiece—1975’s “Young Americans.” Bowie called it “plastic soul,” which was an honest thought. Bowie was not a soul man; he was borrowing from soul artists—the guys who made the sound of Philadelphia just that—in order to make his new self, backed by incredible black artists like Ava Cherry and Luther Vandross. Dressed in high-waisted pants and carrying a cane, Bowie’s elegance and showmanship on “The Dick Cavett Show,” in 1974, while he was getting his plastic-soul thing together, didn’t so much diminish the rather square-looking Cavett as inject a powerful social formula: what blackness looked like on a white artist.
Bowie was a miscegenationist at a time when it wasn’t necessarily cool, or tolerated. Bowie was “queer” in that way, and things only got queerer on the Cavett show when Bowie introduced Cherry, his lover at the time, to the audience. There, again, he was framing a performer he liked by conferring some of his star power on her. (Bowie worked on Cherry’s album “People from Bad Homes.” Check it out. Her sound is not as big as Betty Davis’s, but there are loads of wonderful moments on it, including the lead track, written by Bowie.) Halfway through “Foot Stompin’,” on the Cavett show, Bowie points to Cherry, the blond-haired black woman to his left, and says, “Cherry!” She dances a bit, and the moment is gone, but not the memory of Bowie watching his friend perform in the aura of his generosity.

Indeed, Bowie’s rendition of “Foot Stompin’ ” was the artist’s tribute to the Flares, a doo-wop group that recorded in the nineteen-fifties and early sixties. Back then, a young David Robert Jones thrilled to the records his father brought home, including those made by that outrageous, vulnerable showman Little Richard. When he heard “Tutti Frutti,” Bowie said once, he knew he’d heard God. Little Richard’s uncommon look and feeling were part of what he meant to project in this common world. Bowie, too. He was an Englishman who was sometimes afraid of Americans and fame but, on his final record, could sing “Look at me / I’m in heaven” as a way of describing where he wanted to end up, maybe, but definitely where Bowie—that outsider who made different kids feel like dancing in that difference, and who had a genius for friendship, too—had lived since we knew him.

The Beautiful Meaninglessness of David Bowie
(By Ben Greenman, The New Yorker, 09 January 2016)

David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” recently released, is his second album since he resurfaced from what seemed like semi-retirement. As it turned out, it was a period of rejuvenation. “The Next Day,” released at the beginning of 2013, was a muscular rock record filled with snarling anthems and reflective ballads, and it acknowledged its connection to (or hostility toward) the past with its cover art, which featured an obscured image of the cover art of Bowie’s 1977 album “Heroes.”
“Blackstar” is a different creature entirely. Where “The Next Day” was, in keeping with contemporary trends in album creation, long and somewhat exhausting (it clocked in at fourteen tracks and fifty-three minutes, a full quarter hour longer than most of Bowie’s seventies albums, and deluxe editions were even more bloated), “Blackstar” goes by fast, seven tracks in forty minutes or so—and a full quarter of that running time is devoted to the opener, the spooky, multipart title track. It’s also musically distinct. Rather than assembling a crack team of rock vets (and Bowie vets) like Tony Visconti, Earl Slick, and Gail Ann Dorsey, “Blackstar” employs a new band anchored by New York jazz players like the pianist Jason Lindner and the saxophonist Donny McCaslin.

The presence of jazz players has led to a mistaken characterization of “Blackstar” as a jazz record, which it isn’t. It’s a singer-songwriter record that is willing to stretch its compositions around instrumentation that’s not typically associated with rock and roll. If the sonic palette of “Blackstar” carves out a space around the record, the imagery for the album, which so far includes the iconic cover design and two excellent videos (the film accompanying the title song features a terrifying version of a Bowie whose eyes are buttons glued to the outside of a head bandage), has been equally powerful and provocative. But the main way in which “Blackstar” is prime Bowie is in its willingness to embrace nonsense.
From the beginning, Bowie showed an interest in exploring the fragmentation of identity and meaning. His career depended heavily on performance, which allowed him to actively deploy various signifiers inside and alongside his music—signifiers of gender, of sexual orientation, even of humanity itself. (The question of radical others, up to and including aliens, surface frequently in his early work.) At some point, he began to look more rigorously into the idea of meaninglessness, and to write songs that were willful participants in their own fragmentation. The most famous early example of this, of course, is the “Diamond Dogs” album, in which Bowie employed the cut-up method developed by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Scissors were taken to a text. Slips of paper were drawn at random. The results, subject to chance, were then fashioned into lyrics like these:

Meet his little hussy with his ghost-town approach
Her face is sans feature, but she wears a Dali brooch
Sweetly reminiscent, something mother used to bake
Wrecked up and paralyzed, Diamond Dogs are stabilized

It was rare for Bowie to embrace clear meaning. The title of one of his most plainspoken songs, “ ‘Heroes,’ ” is suspended in a second set of quotation marks, largely to disrupt any straightforward interpretation. “Where Are We Now?,” Bowie’s beautifully fragile comeback ballad and the first single from “The Next Day,” was a conspicuous exception—it was a snapshot, relatively easy to parse, of an older man revisiting Berlin and wondering about the city’s ch-ch-changes. But on much of the rest of the album he was as slippery as ever, and the same is true of “Blackstar.” The new album’s title track and lead single opens with a ghostly, vaguely Middle Eastern chant.
In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the center of it all, in the center of it all
Your eyes
On the day of execution, on the day of execution
Only women kneel and smile, ah-ah, ah-ah
At the center of it all, at the center of it all
Your eyes, your eyes

People said it was about ISIS, and then Bowie denied it. It’s good that he denied it, because his songs should be about nothing, which in turn allows them to be about everything. In another song, “Girl Loves Me,” Bowie latches onto a rubbery melody and the echoed, repeated refrain: “Where the fuck did Monday go?” It’s evocative, but unexplained. Adding to the song’s sense of obfuscation and evasion is the fact that many of the lyrics are in Nadsat, the language Anthony Burgess invented for his teen hooligans in “A Clockwork Orange.” There’s also some Polari thrown in for good measure.
Cheena so sound, so titty up this Malchick, say
Party up moodge, ninety vellocet round on Tuesday
Real bad dizzy snatch making all the homies mad, Thursday
Popo blind to the polly in the hole by Friday

The lyrics don’t need to be straightforwardly interpreted for them to communicate a compelling sense of erotic menace. More to the point: it’s the way in which they thwart straightforward interpretation that grants them their power. The British writer and intellectual historian Peter Watson has made a career of publishing books that set out to comprehensively summarize the field of human thought: most notably with “Ideas,” in 2009. His books are filled with reductions and lacunae, as any book purporting to summarize human thought must be. But they are also immensely useful for picking out kernels. In “The Modern Mind,” in 2001, Watson gives an account of the growth of Surrealism in art, identifying the movement not only as a form of exploration but as a site of resistance:
But above all, taking their lead from dreams and the unconscious, their work showed a deliberate rejection of reason. Their art sought to show that progress, if it were possible, was never a straight line, that nothing was predictable, and that the alternative to the banalities of the acquisitive society, now that religion was failing, was a new form of enchantment.

Rock and roll started as a form of enchantment and has become, in large part, another symptom of the banality of our acquisitive society. By persisting in deliberately rejecting reason, Bowie reminds us that there are plenty of reasons to do so. The most naked moment on the new record is its final song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which almost reads like a defense of a career of obscurantism.
I know something is very wrong
The post returns for prodigal songs
With blackout harks with flowered muse
With skull designs upon my shoes
I can’t give everything
I can’t give everything

Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent
I can’t give everything
I can’t give everything

‪Unless, of course, that isn’t what it means at all.

Postscript: David Bowie’s death is sad and surprising, though maybe just partly surprising. There were many rumors of illness even before the release of his 2013 album “The Next Day,” but the vitality of that record beat them back a bit. In the videos for “Blackstar,” Bowie looks frail, but he often looked frail. The news of his cancer and its advance seems to have been kept close, limited to family, physicians, and a few friends. People will now look for hints in his recent music, and they’ll find them. “The Next Day” is filled with a sense of loneliness and the struggle to connect, and “Blackstar” has several songs that seem to bridge life and death. “Lazarus,” the song that everyone wants to see as a literal handling of the matter, was written for an Off Broadway play that updates the character of Thomas Jerome Newton, the man who fell to Earth. That doesn’t mean that the song is not a way of facing into death, but it also doesn’t mean that it is. For me the album’s contribution to the vexing question of human existence lies in the way in Bowie struggles to articulate the human struggle to articulate. That seemed true even before Bowie’s death, and it seems truer now. It brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s last poem, “What Is the Word,” which Beckett wrote in bed in a nursing home, in Paris, the year before his death. Except that he didn’t really write it at all: it’s a translation of an earlier work, “Comment Dire,” that he wrote in French in 1982. The inexpressible is expressed twice, one the echo of the other, emptiness mirroring emptiness.

Credit Illustration by Jim Blanchard

Labyrinth: The Path That Leads From David Bowie To Us.
(By Sasha Frere-Jones, The New Yorker, 18 March 2013)

“The Next Day,” David Bowie’s twenty-sixth studio album, has been awaited with such anticipation that “anticipation” feels like too weak a word, better suited to the release of a sneaker. In 2004, Bowie had a heart attack, and he was recently rumored to be in poor health. Leading up to the release of “The Next Day,” a jittery cathexis formed. Do we judge Bowie as we always have, by his own standards? Would a new album be received reverentially, like those of the post-motorcycle-crash Bob Dylan?  The sense of both expectation and need in the press—the phrase “greatest comeback in rock-and-roll history” has been cited repeatedly—speaks to the energy invested in a sixty-six-year-old pop star. People care, and remain curious, but only rarely do they hope for so much.
Fascination with the album has been compounded by a rare coup. “The Next Day” was made in secrecy during the past two years, largely in lower Manhattan, with the producer Tony Visconti, Bowie’s frequent collaborator, and veteran musicians with whom he’s worked before. One track, “Where Are We Now?,” was released in early January, without warning, an act that served as the album’s announcement. Such a display of privacy is almost performance art these days, though Bowie seems motivated not by paranoid seclusion but simply by the desire to work without unwanted feedback. He has made it clear that he won’t tour for “The Next Day,” beyond perhaps a single show, and he also won’t be attending the opening of the retrospective of his career at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. But he has demurred before, after “Lodger” (1979) and “Scary Monsters” (1980), and eventually, after a few years, he got back to working much as he had previously.

The current level of interest in Bowie reflects a larger theme in pop-music culture. While the long view of musical history suggests the obvious—that the greats remain great while a few fade out—in the near term, some acts seize the imagination of the moment. The Beatles have a flawless catalogue, but their aesthetic has left them on the outside for now: cartoons, granny glasses, and French horns don’t fit into 2013. Conversely, the ennui of present versions of punk and disco and rap—rooted in a young adult’s curt dismissal rather than a child’s open acceptance—has reinforced a common taste for darker acts such as Bowie. We no longer believe that all you need is love (or embroidered bell-bottoms), but we do believe in androgyny and world-weary dance parties buoyed by cocaine and artificially sour exchanges that mask a deep romantic streak. Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke of “Station to Station,” one of Bowie’s best albums, were always coming on aloof and imperious, then begging you to stay. His catalogue, though not as fault-free as that of the Beatles, or even that of Led Zeppelin, provides grist for today’s music-making cohort. Bowie has lasted, and he has found a place in the twenty-first century as an idea and a musician and a series of haircuts.
But does “The Next Day,” which revolves around references to death and to Bowie’s own work, complete that transition? It succeeds because none of the self-reflection results in pastiche or sentimentality; the problem is that the production that Bowie and Visconti chose for the songs puts this record, sonically, closer to the blocky drums and sports-bar guitars of eighties albums like “Let’s Dance” and “Tonight” than to some of his slightly hidden gems from the past two decades. The magnificent “Heathen,” from 2002, an album with fewer good songs than “The Next Day,” was a more cohesive marriage of electronic textures and traditional guitar work, and Bowie was in robust voice. Bowie and Visconti worked on that together, and it’s difficult to understand how they could have been so in synch with the moment then but not now.

“The Next Day” uses sounds that are several decades old, particularly reverb settings and synthesizers that even a musical illiterate will identify as sounding “eighties.” Regardless of whether these markers are intentional, it’s clear that Bowie does want you to think about time: specifically, the time that David Jones (his birth name) has spent being David Bowie. The art work for “The Next Day” is a replica of the cover of “Heroes,” from 1977, tweaked so that a white square obscures Bowie’s face and the title of the old album is crossed out. Other references snake through songs. The peppy Motown beat of “Dancing in Outer Space” is more or less that of “Modern Love,” from “Let’s Dance”; “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” fades out with the drumbeat of “Five Years,” from “Ziggy Stardust.”
The single “Where Are We Now?” is one of the album’s most emotionally direct songs, and it carefully melts down elements from “Heroes” without being too obvious. It is slow and elegiac but doesn’t drag—a few arpeggiated guitar chords ring for the length of entire measures, along with sustained piano chords and an understated drumbeat. Bowie’s voice, which is placed high in the mix, is only slightly diminished by age. There is a striation in his mighty sound, the streaks of time passing, hardly disabling but impossible to miss.

The song’s lyrics start with a plaint that could also be a joke: “Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz. You never knew that, that I could do that. Just walking the dead.” Does this refer to his own frailty—that one might not think he could travel alone—or is it a reference to the divided Berlin of “Heroes,” a suggestion that he can go back to that time without harming himself emotionally or artistically? The chorus is simply the title of the song, repeated, pained but not pathetic. This all sets up a final build, a devastating, slow, and deliberate accretion. The drums switch to a heavy tattoo without speeding up. Some phrases repeat twice, some come only once: “As long as there’s sun, as long as there’s rain, as long as there’s fire, as long as there’s me, as long as there’s you.” Maybe we can be heroes, it seems to say, if only for five minutes.
“Where Are We Now?” is not only the album’s gentlest song; it is one of the few that push Bowie’s voice to the front and let us luxuriate in it. For much of the album, which tends toward a middling rock feel, his voice is buried in the center of the music. But one of the best songs, the trim and taut “I’d Rather Be High,” details a soldier’s troubles without the finger-wagging that can turn topical songs into lectures. The music is perky, a shuffling beat anchoring a twinkly, high guitar figure by Gerry Leonard. The opening lyrics could be about anybody “upon the beach,” gossiping till their “lips are bleeding,” though the chorus makes clear who is watching whom: “I’d rather be high, I’d rather be flying, I’d rather be dead or out of my head than training these guns on those men in the sand, I’d rather be high.” But the mood of the song isn’t especially dark, because Bowie and Visconti are able to couch the fear of a confused soldier inside an equally believable state of mind, one in which he’s thinking about “teen-age sex” and getting high, as well as not shooting at people he doesn’t know.

Production aside, these songs are strong enough that there hasn’t been a Bowie album this good in—well, the bar rats can fight it out. It’s not “Station to Station,” but it’s a fine rock record that is a few hairs away from being among his best. Even the obsessives should be able to accept that.