Thursday, 11 February 2016

David Bowie - Blackstar (2016)

Major fluctuations in the fabric of the Spectacle often tend to bring forth a plague of boils, and boils need lancing, so you might want to skip the first couple of paragraphs.

There's a book called You and Who in which fans of Doctor Who wax lyrically about their favourite show, which is nice because as we know it can be a tough job coaxing these ordinarily reticent, some might say monastic individuals into sharing their opinions; and the same publisher is soon to bring us a similar volume in memoriam of David Bowie, the late chameleon of reinvention. I have seen it opined of Bowie's career that it was almost like he was getting Doctor Who to take him forward a couple of years in time in the TARDIS to check out what was going down in the future whenever he recorded a new album, so it makes sense when you think about it. Thusly I'm really looking forward to a big fat volume of essays on how Bowie's ever-shifting personas were a bit like all the different incarnations of Doctor Who, and how listening to Never Let Me Down got us through some tough times at uni, and how the influence of the self-styled chameleon of reinvention can be heard in everything from Curiosity Killed the Cat to the Jo-Boxers. It's going to be fantastic.

I am dubious of the ways in which we've all marvelled at Bowie's constantly morphing into something new like a rock 'n' roll Barbapapa being genuinely akin to what happens when you go back in time with Doctor Who in his amazing TARDIS and play a tune on your iPhone to a horde of boggle-eyed mediaeval serfs just before they put you on trial for witchcraft. It's not so much that Bowie kept on transforming into something the like of which we'd never seen before as that he wasn't simply re-recording the same album over and over, and in the seventies this seemed like a new thing. The Beatles did it, but I suppose we assumed they were an exception because they were the Beatles. Still, I suppose we're going to be hearing a lot about the fluid state of the ever-changing chameleon of reinvention over the next few months, along with Porridge finally breaking his silence on that band which he and Dave were going to form but never quite got around to - which I'm guessing will be sometime in April.

It has been pointed out somewhere or other that Bowie was not so much a chameleon as a magpie, an artist who popularised his influences, which if nothing else at least saves us the trouble of having to listen to the Velvet Underground. Blues & Soul magazine described him as an artist whose career was entirely based upon the wholesale plunder of black music, which was the point at which I stopped bothering to read Blues & Soul. You might just as well describe rap as a genre entirely based on the wholesale plunder of  white music because of that Kraftwerk 12" single.

The truth is probably in there somewhere. As a massive generalisation, my take on it is that regardless of who Bowie may or may not have ripped off, he popularised pop as an art form of arguably equivalent value to painting, sculpture, Cubism, Jackson Pollock or whatever reference works best for you. This isn't to say that he was the first so much as that he was the first to sell shitloads of records doing so, and to sell them to people who didn't really give a shit about Andy Warhol or William Burroughs.

I don't know. Who cares?

I liked the Beatles when I was a kid. I had four of their albums because they made children's music. Their music was plenty of other things too, but to me it was that and sort of still is. The next record I bought was either by Devo or David Bowie, and I can no longer remember which came first. I must have been about fourteen. I'd been playing those four Beatles albums over and over for about five years when Graham Pierce lent me the first Devo album. It sounded weird and freakish and I didn't even want the thing in my home. I tried to give it back but Graham told me to stick with it, so I did, and realised that I liked it. Either just before or just after my conversion to Devo, Jason Roberts lent me Hunky Dory. I hadn't expressed any interest in Bowie, but Jason seemed to think that I needed to hear the guy. I couldn't even work out why he should have thought that, but I played the album and loved it, and within about a year I had two Devo albums and most of what Bowie had released up to that point; and I never really went back to the Beatles.

Bowie was therefore a massive part of my childhood, and a formative influence on my interest in music, which is probably why it hurt so much that his music became so crappy so soon after I discovered it. I bought Scary Monsters when it came out, and it was a great album, but it was downhill from thereon. He became a Phil Cornwell impersonation throwing self-consciously weird shapes for the sake of it, and he did that for nearly thirty years. It felt as though he'd lost his way, a hunch seemingly supported by this observation made on facebook by Johnny Riggs, who had the pleasure of interviewing the man a couple of times:

But past [Scary Monsters] I think he's been scrambling for a style and a sound (and working in radio I met people who worked with him in the studio who said that was pretty much true) and he hasn't made any music of interest until the last couple of records. Output like Black Tie, Earthling, Outside, etc., I just pretend [it] doesn't exist. It makes me feel better about him. When I read words of praise about them I get confused.

I bought the single Let's Dance when it came out, and it still sounds great, but that was pretty much the last good thing for a while. Black Tie White Noise was hailed as a true return to form, although the singles didn't seem to back that up, at least not for me, and when I eventually heard the thing I thought it sounded fucking comical, and have tended to distrust the claim of a true return to form which has greeted each new Bowie album since then. Maybe as the eighties came around, confronted with a thousand younger versions of his previous records, our Dave felt he'd painted himself into a corner; or he just wanted to be loved again, and loved without inspiring anyone to write essays on Situationism or Jasper Johns; or maybe there was nothing he liked enough to consider worth ripping off. Whatever the case, Bowie was over so far as I could see, and exceptions to the rule were just that, hence Little Wonder.

Anyway, last week I listened to a bit of The Next Day on YouTube just for a chuckle and realised it was the first Bowie I'd been able to listen to since Scary Monsters without picturing Phil Cornwell presenting John Sessions with a facecloth on Stella Street. In fact it reminded me of how exciting it used to be buying a new Bowie album and rushing home to give it a listen. So I went to Hogwild and bagged the new one, and weirdly it really was great,  although it sounded suspiciously like a farewell record, the work of someone who knew the game was up; and now he's no longer with us. I was still getting used to the idea of a David Bowie once again making real music, when suddenly I found I would additionally have to get used to the idea of a past tense David Bowie, which seemed pretty rotten.

Working with a model of Bowie's back catalogue ignoring everything I haven't heard occurring between now and the final album he recorded for RCA, this one reminds me of Station to Station in terms of mood - that being his other lowest introspective ebb record, I suppose - and also Low and Heroes in terms of that pounding percussion, which is probably Tony Visconti as much as anything; and yet it has an identity of its own, whilst almost any track on here could have appeared on Diamond Dogs, Space Oddity, or any of the others without sounding too greatly out of sequence. It has a faintly jazzy sound without quite resembling jazz, which would be the horns and the percussion bordering on the more organic strains of drum and bass. I guess in the lazy terms of the chameleon of reinvention, we've had hippy Bowie, glam Bowie, depressed Bowie, and this would be terminal cancer Bowie. Specifically it sounds like a farewell, and it doesn't require too much imagination to deduce what any of these songs are about. He's here, and he knows it won't be for long, and this is how it feels; or felt.

It makes for tough listening, particularly Lazarus and the fucking racket of Sue (or in a Season of Crime) with its references to clinics and x-rays and stifled hopes; and yet it ends on the incongruously uptempo, almost philosophical note of I Can't Give Everything Away. It's saying things which aren't quite communicated by words alone - which is of course why it's a music album rather than merely an essay; which I suppose has always been the key to Bowie's appeal, namely the poetry of what is said rather than whether or not he's channelling Lou Reed or Iggy Pop or whoever. It comes just as we've lost Lemmy, Mark B, Alan Rickman, and as two of my virtual acquaintances have lost dear friends, and as another close friend's mother has been diagnosed as having about three weeks left, so I suppose you could say it is unfortunately and horribly timely.

It has been wonderful to have our David Bowie back after all this time, even if it wasn't for very long.



Also shit.

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