The Prettiest Star

Please take a moment of silent awe for what may be the only recorded collaboration between David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Bowie and Bolan were frenemies whose clashing egos made for one of the great rivalries in music history. Bolan was full of great ideas and made many trailblazing breakthroughs in music and image, but Bowie kept overshadowing him and stealing his thunder. This is a prime example. A romantic ballad featuring Bolan’s instantly recognizable lead guitar, it was a failed single in 1970. Bolan’s playing is outstanding, while Bowie is in earnest mode, emoting like a leading man in a Hollywood musical. It’s a slightly weird combination of Bowie’s theatrical tendencies and Bolan’s fluid pre-glam psychedelic style. A few years later, when both players had become big stars and even bigger rivals, Bowie re-recorded the song, with Mick Ronson taking over on lead guitar. The tune is the same, the arrangement is similar, but Ronson’s style couldn’t be more different. Bowie has gone full Ziggy, his earnestness gone, the camp factor turned up to 11. It’s apocalyptic cabaret on crack now. This is the version everybody knows, while the earlier, arguably better version is a rarity. It certainly shows how much David Bowie changed his outward style in just three years; how he could twist his own sentiments from romantic sincerity to drag-queen burlesque; and, unfortunately, how he didn’t mind erasing other people’s contributions. Bolan was pissed that his work had been thrown away, and he hadn’t been informed or invited to the rerecording. The two didn’t talk again for several years. David Bowie was a great collaborator, but only with people who could accept that their spotlight would always be the less bright.

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Pretending to be Drunk

The more silly Sparks get, the more relevant they are. This is relevant to all socially awkward people, obviously. You can’t be the life of the soiree if you aren’t either actually drunk, or acting like it. This also relevant to fans of the 80’s; no other decade in living memory was so juicy with satirical possibilities. One didn’t even need the magic of hindsight to see that. In 1984, Russell and Ron Mael were in full parody mode, enjoying the sheer ridiculousness of the New Wave scene. Being a step above mere parody as they always were, they also happened to make some of the best New Wave music while they were at it. Everything about it is satire, and everything about it is on point, and it’s also better than what it’s satirizing. That’s the height of achievement.

Predictions

Let’s tell the future. The more you enumerate the many ways people have tried, the more you’re reminded that it can’t be done. That makes this a very existential song in its own mild way. It’s existential because it’s not existential. Suzanne Vega doesn’t muse on what the future might be, or why anyone would be looking for it; she just enumerates the many ways of divination. Divination is, of course, blind faith and a desperate desire to impose order upon chaos. We all know, deep down inside, that we’ll never know the future – there’s no such thing as the future. But we desperately want some good news about it anyway.

The Prayer of Francois Villon

This is going out to all of my Russian readership. Here is Regina Spektor with a faithful and passionate reading of a classic by the Georgian bard Bulat Okudzhava. Right now, Regina Spektor’s best known piece of work is the theme song for Orange is the New Black. She may never be able to shake that particular brand of fame-by-association. Fans who got on board pre-Netflix know her as an incredibly smart, literate and poetic singer-songwriter with an eccentric streak. Her work has been refreshingly free of both the overly saccharine and the overly confessional tendencies that often plague female singer-songwriter-pianists. Spektor is, of course, a Russian emigre, and though it’s often very subtle, her writing and musical style is distinctly Russian. Russians are naturally wary of cheap sentiment and unnecessary intimacy, which helps account for the lack of the usual love song cliches and shrill emotionalism in Spektor’s work. Instead Spektor leans towards the literary, finding new ways to illuminate everyday emotions and experiences, using subtle metaphors and long-form narrative, all of which shows the unique influence of her background.

 

Praise You

This Fatboy Slim video won awards. Watch it; it’s hilarious and incredibly well made. And when I say ‘well made’ I mean made to look so authentically poorly made that it’s on the level of genius. Doesn’t it bring back to mind every overly-enthusiastic but underly-gifted community center or church group creative leader you’ve ever crossed paths with? Those Waiting for Guffman-type small town auteurs who believe in the elevating power of art with so much fervor, and don’t let lack of skills stand in the way of their dreams. You guys – we salute you! The Torrance Community Dance Group is fictional, I hate to inform you, and the dancing man with bad ‘stache is actually acclaimed film director Spike Jonze. But the horrified onlookers are real. And the guerrilla spirit of community theater is 100% real and alive.

Prairie Rose

An ode to Texas, from one of the least Texan people who’ve ever lived. Bryan Ferry, a former working class stiff who’s made refinement a cornerstone of his image, would hardly set foot in a prairie or consider writing a song about one, were he not in a relationship with a Texan. This is, of course, a tribute to Jerry Hall, one of the most glamorous human beings to have ever come out of the great Lone Star State, and an inspiration for a great many great songs in her time. Bryan Ferry’s concept of country living may have leaned towards well-pruned gardens rather than cowboys and rattlesnakes, but he couldn’t resist the poetic appeal of the lonely desert moon. Never mind that, according to Hall, he was befuddled and embarrassed by her colorful use of southern slang and boisterous country-gal ways, and decidedly not into leg wrasslin’. Unsurprisingly, poetry aside, Ferry didn’t actually want to hang out on a Texas horse ranch, and Hall eventually left him for somebody a little bit less self-consciously urbane. But the poet got some of his best songs and the model some of her most iconic images, and that makes the failed relationship an artistic triumph.

Powerless

The Flaming Lips are one of the great psychedelic rock bands of our time (not that it’s a crowded field.) Their music roves all over all of the wavelengths and their heads are filled with soupy ideas. They want you to use your cosmic energy to liberate yourself from whatever is binding you. Free your mind! Many people consider them a drug band, for obvious reasons, but really, you don’t need any chemical edge to enjoy the trip they offer. It may even feel a little redundant. This is music that trips you out and expands your mind all on its own power. So yeah, allow that cosmic pulse to take you out of your narrow little life and feel the greater power, or whatever. I think there’s some crude  metaphor for self-liberation in Wayne Coyne’s video, but it may throw you off that it just happens to be a lot of people’s erotic fantasy as well. Minus the monkey, of course.