Some Thoughts About David Bowie

I saw on Facebook this week (and then elsewhere, including an article by Ben Yakas [“David Bowie Co-Writing Musical Based on The Man Who Fell to Earth”, 4/2/15] on The Gothamist website, which I’ve been liking recently, because it makes me feel like I’m a New Yorker even though I am so far removed from living in NYC, it might as well be China) that Bowie is joining his pop icon brethren (Bono and Sting and my favorite punk genius, Billie Joe Armstrong) in collaborating on a new stage production based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel The Man Who Fell To Earth, which Nicolas Roeg later adapted into a film of the same name which starred Bowie in his first major role. Roeg’s movie was a revelation to me in my formative years. I had probably been too young to see it, really, as it featured lots of naked alien Bowie. Bowie’s physique, in all its lissome paleness, became my ideal male body type for a while; it was exemplified, in my estimation, by one young man in high school who shall go nameless here as we have not reconnected, but those of you who know me from then will know exactly to whom I am referring. Only in retrospect have I made the connection that Mr. High School X was my Bowie stand-in.

Mr. Yakas’ article mentioned an obscure Bowie nugget from the Low album called “Breaking Glass” (which, upon clicking on the link to listen to it today, put me in mind of a Beatles’ song – maybe a cross between “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” and “Yer Blues”, but with a Bowie-Eno twist?), and the author said maybe we’d finally find out what Bowie “drew” on the carpet (the relevant lyrics, for those unfamiliar: “Don’t look at the carpet / I [drew] something awful on it.”) Now, I always thought it was “threw”, which to me makes more sense. Unfortunately, I cannot go back to listen to the album because Low was lost in the Superstorm Sandy flood, along with the rest of my Bowie LP collection. I had every album on vinyl up to Outside (which was my first Bowie CD), including this really great import anthology of his rudimentary yet surprisingly sophisticated early songs – gems like “Let Me Sleep Beside You”, “In the Heat of the Morning”, “Boy Blue”, “London Boys”, “Rubber Band” and my all-time favorite novelty song, “The Laughing Gnome” – collected on two LPs, in a double-sided sleeve with a cartoon depiction of each song. What I wouldn’t give to have that album again! (Well, there are limits, but I’d probably pay more than I should just to have it.)

I kept waiting for Bowie to issue a back-to-birth album collection like the Beatles did (the Beatles anthology is magnificent, by the way, and was the first thing I replaced immediately after the storm with my SBA loan money). But instead he came out this past November with Nothing Has Changed, which is a perfectly serviceable three-disk retrospective and a good representative sampling of his body of work, but it’s a little light on the early songs and weirdly organized in reverse order (new stuff first, oldest stuff last). I would have rather had all the albums, even if it meant duplication of records that I already had in CD format.

At the end of Mr. Yakas’ article, there was a link to another of his Gothamist articles (“Every Bowie Album, Ranked”, 1/8/15; I have shared this article on my Facebook page), which ranked Bowie’s 25 studio albums and was illustrated by some excellent embedded videos. I don’t agree with his ranking assessment, necessarily – I unquestionably favor his older work, perhaps because I listened to it the most – but it’s still an excellent article and a great reference. In fact, he named Low and Heroes as Bowie’s best albums. On the contrary, I wish I could somehow combine the first side of Low with the first side of Heroes. I believe that’s what Bowie should have done, and then release the Eno-collaborated ambient music from both records as a stand-alone album. But that album wouldn’t have moved as many units as splitting it up into two marketable records, and Bowie was (is) nothing if not a shrewd marketer.

This past summer I went through a phase (which felt very decadent and I’d love to do it again next summer) where I treated myself to a weekly film. Not only did I discover the art house Malverne Cinema here on Long Island and attend a couple of Wednesday night 9:30 p.m. screenings in which I had the distinct privilege of being literally the only person in the theater, but in September I went to the Film Forum in NYC to see Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days on Earth, a sort of imagined “day-in-the-life” of Nick Cave loosely based on the daily life of Nick Cave (who is another of my favorite multi-media artistic geniuses and personal heroes). I had missed out on getting tickets for the showing when Nick Cave was actually going to be there in person to answer questions, but I was pleasantly surprised when the directors of the film, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, fighting jetlag, appeared before and after the film the night I was there to answer questions and talk about their experience working with Nick Cave. They mentioned (and Nick Cave himself often addresses this, most recently in an interview on UK VICE) how Nick has this duality of self, where he has become the person he’s been “performing” all these years, but he’s also just the person, with his sense of humor and guarded brilliance and almost-obsessive work ethic. Nick’s former friend and bandmate Blixa Bargeld (and another personal favorite performer – check out “The Weeping Song” for a classic Cave/Bargeld collaboration) actually appeared in the film, in a scene where he and Nick are in Nick’s car (but the conversation is really only happening in Nick’s mind) and they’re discussing why Blixa left the Bad Seeds. Ms. Pollard said that was a real unscripted conversation, where they had no idea how it would go and if they’d even go there. But they did, and it was one of those moments that transcend the art – two old (genius) friends talking about why they had a falling out and hoping that they can move on from it.

A week or so after the Nick Cave movie, I made my way to the one of those mega-monster-plexes on Long Island, which seemed an odd location for a one-night-only showing (on a Tuesday, no less) of “Bowie Is . . . “, a film about an amazing Bowie exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (which later traveled to Chicago but not NYC, for some inexplicable reason, especially given that Mr. Bowie actually lives in NYC). I had gotten confused on the way to the theater – I thought it was at another location because when I arrived at the mega-monster-plex the parking lot was nearly empty (it was a Tuesday night, after all) – so I missed the first five minutes, but for the rest of the film I was entranced. Of course the music was perfect, and there were all these obscure video clips with Bowie’s early experiments in mime and dance and even the fledgling medium of video itself. What a gorgeous young man!  And so talented. I loved one of the quotes from from a schoolmate of Bowie’s who said that he had given all working-class kids the hope that they could live a creative life. (Me, too.) I especially loved a fantastic piece of art created for the exhibit called the “Periodic Table of Bowie”, which contained colored squares representing all the artists and writers and thinkers who influenced Bowie and who Bowie in turn influenced . I’d love to have a poster of that.

It is amazing to me what Bowie has been able to achieve over his remarkable lifetime, to which he is now adding a new medium in which to display his genius. He is a perfect melding of creative talent – songwriter, singer, performer – and salesmanship, yet Bowie has done nothing that is not genuine. Watching young Bowie in his earliest performances , aged around 18, one is struck by what a confident, polished artist he has seemingly always been, with a clear vision of the image he wanted to portray even though – or maybe because – that vision often changed, simultaneously mirroring the present and projecting the future.

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