Transition | Transmission 2: how it could be tomorrow

Today, we continue on with the impossible playlist, a there-and-back-again greatest hits mixtape of songs that haven’t scored a spot on David Bowie’s final career-spanning restrospective. Having kicked off with ‘Lazarus’ and ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’, we come to…

3: Fall Dog Bombs The Moon (2003) 

 In the previous track, the subject had a dangerous past, stealing from friends, leaving mysterious messages in parks. Bowie’s narration pursues this figure through a concrete city painted wet with rain and blood, wishing upon it a terrible, lonely death.

If only every murderer could suffer so, in the darkness. ‘Fall Dog Bombs The Moon’ tells a more mundane story. Our subject is “a moron, someone to hate.” A corporate stooge, a politician, a figurehead? Whatever he is, the subject of the song is “cruel and smart”, making “a devil in a market place, a devil in your bleeding face.” This is Bowie as witness to terrorism, slumped in the depths of the Bush administration, obliquely political, his deep anger shot through by sadness. 

If ‘You Feel So Lonely…’ played after ‘Fall Dog…’, you could imagine it as comeuppance – the dog being finally put down. By reversing them, the stooge has avoided punishment. Life continues on, as it always has, unfairly choosing the wrong people to die or survive. 

The resonance of theme aside, choosing this track was a tough choice. Bowie toured heavily off the back of Reality but, perhaps with the exception of single ‘New Killer Star’, few tracks came anywhere close to the zeitgeist. That plays well into the ‘deep cuts for beginners’ feel of what transition | transmission is trying to accomplish, spoiling me for choice. I was first tempted to move to ‘Never Get Old’, Bowie’s cheerful dismissal of critics telling him to drop off the perch. At the time it seemed a little naff; now, it’s a plea from the fans to the great man. I was tempted still further by the mash-up ‘Rebel Never Gets Old’, which steals the distinctive riff from ‘Rebel Rebel’. It would have been a cheeky way of getting that song – a shoo-in for any Greatest Hits compilation, and therefore excluded here – onto this list, but ‘Rebel Never Gets Old’ suffers as a composition by being, well, not particularly good. It’s key redeeming feature, riff aside, is this videoclip which shows Bowie and band on tour. Taken in the months before his heart attack, he’s so full of life that it almost hurts to watch. 

‘Fall Dog Bombs The Moon’ was never released as a single. It can be found here


4: I’ve Been Waiting For You (2002)
 

 The predecessor of Reality was Heathen, released in 2002 to some of the standard ‘Best Bowie since Scary Monsters…’ reviews that dotted the turn of the century, but met with moderate ambivalence from the general public. It’s a great album – not his best by any means, but nothing is more Bowie (as we’ll find out) than an album that’s three-quarters killer, one-quarter filler. The album’s opening track, ‘Sunday’, provides the line “nothing has changed / everything has changed” that graces his final anthology. Perversely not appearing on that compilation, I’ve decided to continue that perversion and skip it here too. 

Instead, we have ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You‘, a tight little gem scraping in at under three minutes. By the time this track starts, we’re already 15 minutes into our hypothetical mixtape, so it’s time to learn that Bowie can crank out taut rock songs as well as the more cerebral, wandering mini-epics. This song reminds us that sometimes he is simply looking for a woman – and in this case, she will save his life. The guitar swirls and dives, much as it does in ‘Fall Dog…’; it is disconsolate, accepting that perhaps the quest for “tomorrow” is just as futile as justice in war, or fairness in death. 

It is, also, a cover. Bowie would frequently cover others’ material, and 2002’s Heathen was no exception. Not just the great synthesiser of fashion and glam iconography, Bowie complimented many artists by performing their songs, just as countless artists have performed his – and will continue to do so. ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’ is placed here to remind us that, as a phenomenon and oeuvre, Bowie is a broad church indeed. 


5: Something In The Air (1999)
 

 One of life’s eternal mysteries for me is how Nothing has changed, a compilation spanning decades, managed to fit not one, not two, but three tracks from 1999’s ‘hours…’ into the mix – as many as the famous Berlin trilogy combined. The challenge facing me, from this, is how many other songs of note could there be on one of Bowie’s most underwhelming releases? 

Thankfully, I have ‘Something In The Air’ to turn to. Like ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, this song concerns itself with the intimacy. In ‘Something in the Air’, the relationship is at an end rather than yet to occur; “it feels like we never had a chance; don’t look me in the eye,” he sings. After questing for completion in the previous track, here he has found a place of “no return” in love, having “lived with the best times” he has now “left with the worst… I’ve danced with you too long.”

‘Something in the Air’ was never released as a single, although a remix did make its way onto the American Psycho soundtrack, and it is as least a good a song as its album’s singles. It can be found here. For further analysis and links, Pushing against the Dame is a fantastic resource as always.

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Transition | Transmission 1: bluebirds, and rooms of bloody history

So, Bowie. Everyone’s got an opinion on the best songs, albums and eras. There are countless unauthorised tomes, a plethora of Best Ofs – not to mention live albums, which tend to fulfil a similar function – and Internet lists aplenty, so it’s not like there’s a shortage of learned opinions or official canon to give you a place to start.

But that, in its way, is part of the problem – the sheer scale of it all. Bowie is deep and dense. He started his musical career in the mid-1960s and kept going until 2016’s Blackstar (and rumour is there’s still more in the vault, although I must say posthumous releases don’t interest me: his last album seemed such a defining, deliberate capstone that anything else would pale in comparison). He went through more stylistic and genre changes in the space of a few years than most artists go through in their entire career – and not because of any inauthenticity or jumping onto bandwagons; rather, the opposite.

And, Bowie is varied, both in tone and quality. With a back catalogue so broad and rich, there’s going to be a bunch of stuff you are not interested in, or think is a bit rubbish. Most diehard Bowie fans would agree; only the truly tragic love all of his output. The ’70s are commonly seen as a high and the ’80s as a nadir, for example. But, what that common wisdom hides is the sheer diversity in those eras. The 1970s had Ziggy Stardust, yes, and the famous Berlin period, but few people are diehard fans of both. The 80s may have inflicted Tonight and Never Let Me Down on an unsuspecting world, but Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) and Let’s Dance are benchmarks in Bowie’s critical acclaim and popularity. 

So, how to structure a retrospective for the uninitiated? The DNA of this project is 2014’s compilation Nothing has changed, where Bowie traced a chronology from newest to oldest tracks (on the 3CD version; on the 2CD release the chronology is flipped from oldest to newest). Cheekily, I’d wanted to call this Everything has changed and do something similar, but the title would be a misnomer; there is tremendous change in Bowie’s work, yes, but there’s also continuity. So, I’ve instead reappropriated a line from Station to Station‘s  ‘TVC15for my title. 

Other rules: each album, good or bad, gets at least 1 song. But, entries unique to compilations, soundtracks or less-than-official albums can be skipped (looking at you, Baal and Buddha of Suburbia). No Tin Machine (and not because it doesn’t fit, but because Bowie made it clear that TM was a band he played in, rather than a Bowie backing group by any other name). To make it a complement to the canon, no song on Nothing has changed will feature, meaning that I’ll be forced to find some deeper cuts than the typical greatest hits package (not that NHC was typical – quite the opposite – but you get my drift. Oh, and it too didn’t have Tin Machine, so that supports my previous rule). To mix up that compilation’s chronological exploration of Bowie’s back-catalogue, this playlist will count both backward, then forward again – everything begins and ends with 2016. Oh, and each song should work together as a story of our subject’s oeuvre, his art, with meaningful transitions rather than jarring tones. Easy, huh? 

Let’s kick it off. 

Track 1: Lazarus (2016) 

Lazarus is the last time we saw him move. The man who was making legendary  video clips for a decade before MTV, farewells us before disappearing into the darkness. It’s a detail that wasn’t meticulously planned, but rather improvised on set after one of the crew suggested it. Bowie wickedly agreed. Keep them guessing. Leave them, us, with mystery. 

 “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” The moment of his death has been planned, prepared for. “I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen; everybody knows me now.”

The music is both new and familiar. The saxophone had long been one of Bowie’s favoured instruments but it’s been years since it has featured. His band is brand-new, their first and last appearance. The music is forbidding, then swells and whirls – “you know I’ll be free” he assures us. 

Lazarus is the third track from Blackstar, David Bowie’s final album. It shares its name with his only play, which opened in the weeks before his death. Michael C Hall sang it on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which can beseen here.  The album version of the song is longer than the video clip above by two minutes, and superior for it, and can be heard here


Track 2: You Feel So Lonely You Could Die (2013)

No film clip for this one, but you can find it here. Chris O’Leary wrote about this soaring track in more detail, and more grace and panache, than I ever could here. It is the penultimate track on The Next Day, Bowie’s penultimate studio album. The album was hailed as a fine return to form by fans and critics, who had waited for literally a decade. (Well, perhaps not waited for an entire decade; while Bowie’s previous album had been released in 2003, he’d been active for a few years thereafter; it would take some time before the depth of his seeming self-exile from public life became apparent).

‘You Feel so Lonely…’ shares with ‘Lazarus’ Tony Visconti’s production, and there is some similarity in tone – it’s a step sideways, but distinctly the work of the same man. But, here, the lyrics are far less autobiographical. In our first track, Bowie says “everybody knows me now”; here, he discloses another’s secret. “And I’m gonna tell,” he sneers, thinking of his hated target, “Yes I’ve gotta tell, gotta tell the things you’ve said when you’re talking in the dark”. From a man that consciously approached his own death in 2016, in 2013 we have a man visualising the death of another; “I can see you as a corpse hanging from a beam. I can read you like a book. I can feel you falling. I hear you moaning in your room…”. It’s delightfully grim stuff, lifted up by stirring music and a chorus of singers. it reminds us early in this entirely hypothetical compilation that Bowie should not be typecast or underestimated.

Two songs in, we’ve contemplated bluebirds and rooms full of bloody history. Where we go next may surprise.

(walking through a sunken dream, to the seat with the clearest view)

Bowie’s an artist who has been a key part of the soundtrack to my life in the last decade. I’d liked him before then, but in those ten years I’ve gone from listening to him once every few months to almost every day. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve listened to my favourite Bowie songs a hundred times in the last few months. I’d like to thank Chris O’Leary (aka. BowieSongs) for my exponentially growing fandom. (I discovered the blog via his guest post to Phil Sandifer’s Tardis Eruditorum – a blog that I’ve long since stopped following, incidentally, but I was lucky enough that my time reading it aligned with his post.) I genuinely don’t know whether I’d be half the fan without O’Leary’s insights. 

And as he’s become a growing part of my life, so he’s become part of my daughter’s. She’s almost four now. She has laughed at and danced to Labyrinth for literally half of her life. Christmas just gone, her wonderfully craft-y aunt made her a bespoke Aladdin Sane t-shirt. She can recognise deep cuts from Bowie’s early ’70s back catalogue by an opening riff. I have videos of her playing piano along to Hunky Dory tracks at about fifteen months old. Even her favourite toys have their preferred tracks – when ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ comes on, she’ll come barrelling down the halfway with Noodles the cat. 

When news broke, we told her. We had to, we owed it to her. “Why?,” was the first question, quickly followed by “how”. With those out of the way, the irrecoverable nature of the moment hit her. 

“Will his songs still be there?,” she asked. She looked shocked. Yes, honey, his songs will still be there. We can listen to them whenever we want to. She was comforted by that. 

The tears didn’t come until later, when she asked if she could take her (as yet unborn, only 8 months cooked) baby brother could come with her to David Bowie Is, which she’d been to a few months before, to sit entranced by ‘Starman’. We explained it wasn’t there anymore. “Because he died?,” she asked, tears streaming. No, because it’d moved on, to another city. “Then I can take him when it comes back. I can show him then.” 

Bowie isn’t here right now, for her. But a component of what she knows him as is still Out There, travelling, a spectacle whirling around the world on unseen tracks. A glam comet on a mysterious trajectory. 

Her brother will grow up in a post-Bowie world. But he’ll have a big sister who’ll be there to tell him who Bowie is – not was, is – and why that matters.

Sunday

Monday. It doesn’t seem real.

Tuesday. Drove down to Bendigo today. Two hours of Bowie playing. Cried a few times, at all the spots you’d expect. Rock & Roll Suicide took its toll.

Wednesday: I don’t know if I want to write about any of this. 

Thursday: I can write about it, a little. Bowie’s death (there, I said it) seems to be bringing out the best of the Internet. So many great, thoughtful pieces.

Friday: I don’t know the first Bowie song I heard. Space Oddity is probably the first one that I heard. I was raised in an era where Cool Bowie was seemingly behind us (incorrect: Bowie was almost always cool, in fact the epitome of it, even when no one realised he was), and Slightly Naff 80s Bowie was the present. I recall seeing Tin Machine on the TV and not thinking much if them. My (re-)entry to Bowie was, as it was for so many others, his beguiling 1. Outside, the Lost Highway soundtrack and his work with Nine Inch Nails. But there was a gap there, between that and Real Bowie, and it took me longer to bridge that. I remember walking into a friend’s room when he was humming away to some AM radio crap, turning up my nose and saying ‘why are you is listening to that?’ before the chords coalesced and I realised it was Him. 
The album to start on is The Platinum Collection. ’69-’74 are the golden years for many. It’s what I stuck to for ages, taking many years to explore his Berlin period, Scary Monsters and others. Compilations do not serve that era well. They’re albums, to be explored start to finish rather than dipped in and out of. 

Saturday: The dignity of the man evades explanation. I so deeply admire that. Also, that he was a family man, clearly happy to spend time with wife and daughter. That’s not something I would have thought to admire a decade ago, but now I do. 

He said goodbye to me, to all of us. He didn’t want to go. We didn’t want him to either. But he’s dead now. And it’s affected me more than any other celebrity I could name, or ever expect. He was young. Far too young. But he lived a billion times more than people who’ve been on this planet for longer. He’s dead but he will not be outlived. 

Sunday: “For in truth, it’s the beginning of nothing. And nothing has changed. Everything has changed. For in truth, it’s the beginning of an end. And nothing has changed… everything has changed.”

Face

Got up this morning, stretched, cracked my back, almost scratched the space where my face wasn’t, hopped into the shower. Water streamed down. Splashed differently than it used to, before. Been six years and only mostly used to that. 

Dried. Some gel. Comb through the hair. No part, that wouldn’t work right for the mirror. Shaved. Hard to do the edges. Blade would dart away where the face disappeared, like a magnet being pushed. Most guys I see just grow beards, skip the hassle. I’m a creature of habit, though. Always kept a clean face before, always.

Held up the mirror, the special one that they give you when the change first comes. Hold it just so, get the angle right. It’s so important to have a steady hand. You get one chance, every morning. One chance to get it right. The woman in the green suit told him how it worked. Lots of words, didn’t make much sense. Didn’t explain why, why it had happened, what caused the change, why it kept happening. No one was telling. Just glad to live in a day and age where, if there was a change, at least there was a mirror. 

Hold it so. Reflect the face, get it symettrical. Then, locked in. No satisfying click,  no whiff of ozone, just a silence like a beat that your heart skips andsuddenly  flesh. Most people said you couldn’t tell, if it was done properly, which side was original. You knew yourself though. One side aching like a phantom limb, buzzing like pins and needles and making your fingers ache to even think of touching. People didn’t talk about it. 

Don’t think about getting it wrong. Miss the angle, the face bulges and warps out. A fairground attraction. If somehow you hold it so it doesn’t meet, the wind and cold gets in, drives you crazy. All for a day. You sleep, it resets. Face falls away. Wake up in the middle of the night, cradling your pillow all wrong. Shutting eyes so you didn’t see your lover, sleeping with backs turned, so that a sleeper’s stray hand doesn’t accidently reach out to caress that which was not there. 

The mirror made things better. No one wanted to go out with a halved face, displaying that nothingness, that absence to the world. Think of those in worse off places, without the technology. You’d see the appeals on TV, wonder why those in charge couldn’t do more. Their absent halves blocked respectfully by veils, gauze, pixelation. 

But yet. There was something wrong with what the mirrors gave. 
Walk down the street, everyone with their unnaturally symmetrical faces. Everyone all secretly buzzing and cold and not making eye contact. All staring off into the middle distance, to a horizon line behind everyone that surrounded the. All with their dead gazes. 

Ghosts III: last street (ii)

The midnight wind was coming in cold and hard from Zoloty Rog Bay when Yuri stepped out of the Bakunin and made his way down Poslednaya ulitsa, the Last Street. The Street was long and straight, a backbone to the strip of land that jutted out of the heart of the city into the cold waters of the North Pacific. The night did the streetscape few favours. The dim yellow-tinted glare from the few un-vandalised streetlights cast the uniform whitewash as luminous bone. Rows of squarish buildings had become a mouth of ugly, uneven teeth. No other pedestrians walked the streets here. It was not a destination, just a gap between other places. It was Yuri’s home.

Like the buildings surrounding it, the Kolchak was squat, squarish and whitewashed. Yuri never knew how the Armenian found business. There were no travellers here, only empty warehouses and half-constructed shells of buildings. The only clientele the Hotel served were the truly lost, wandering in from the docks. Except now there was a bundle of rags at the entrance. A street child, knees clutched to chest but otherwise ignorant of the chill. (more…)

Ghosts III: last street (i)

“Explain it again,” Yuri said to the foreigner, “but this time, put both hands where I can see them.”
The diplomat complied, extending his gloved hands flat on the table. Like all of his clothes, the gloves were a simulacrum of typical Vladivostokan attire. A local’s trenchcoat would be well-patched, each layer of fabric able to be traced, like an archaeological dig, to a series of conflicts and long winters. The gloves would be thick and woollen, worn down and tobacco-stained at the fingertips. The foreigner’s trench was bespoke and unfrayed, his gloves leather and lined – Yuri thought, from the edge of the seam that he spied – with lambswool.
“Alexei Novotny. The trail is a year old. My government has narrowed his location down to this city, and perhaps two others.” His Russian was oddly crisp.
“I’m not interested.”
“Novotny is not a good man, should that matter to you.”
“I don’t ask questions about my clients. It makes it easier to avoid any moral dilemmas.”
“Then why should it matter whether you take my business or theirs?”
“Because yours, Blackwood, has a stink about it.”
The only thing that prevented Blackwood from glowering, Yuri thought, was his English professionalism. As it was, he merely contemplated Cafe Bakunin’s ceiling for a few long moments before returning his gaze.
“You empathise with those who use your services. That’s it, isn’t it? Because you’re running too.”
“I am paid to get people lost, not find them again.” (more…)