Rosalyn

I barely recognized this as David Bowie the first time I put on this record. It’s not very often that David Bowie sounds so…unhinged. Well, Pin Ups is a covers record, and he made a point of picking weird and unexpected songs. This one is from The Pretty Things, one of the first garage rock bands, and the original sounds like it was recorded inside of a large dumpster. Which is the opposite of the usual Bowie approach, and which is what makes for a weird selection. It is, of course, trailblazing, because hardly anybody was doing cover records in 1973. It almost feels like a novelty record, because it’s very very campy, almost too silly. But fun.

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Rock’n’Roll With Me

Once again, in a tableau of social and mental breakdown, amid paranoia and prophesies of doom, comes the leper messiah with a promise of redemption. Your life is saved by rock’n’roll. Lou Reed said it as a blunt statement of personal fact. David Bowie spun the idea into an allegory, a showstopping act of musical theatre, and a lifelong literary thesis. Is he speaking of rock’n’roll as a metaphor for sex, and by extension, romantic love? Or is rock’n’roll the stand-in for all of human artistic endeavor and self-expression? It’s both, as all of those things can be life-saving and redemptive.

If there’s one thing people outside the fandom don’t get about David Bowie, it’s that underneath the feathers and the literary allusions and the messiah complex, he was a desperate romantic. Why crawl out of your cocaine batcave if not in a quest for love? Amid the apocalyptic imagery, the self-professed alienation, the theatrical alter-egos, the despair of addiction, there was always a beacon of romantic hope, the desperate desire to be loved and understood and to do the same. Resulting in an underrated oeuvre of Broadway-worthy grand love songs. (And, off the stage, the late-life reward of a grand and lasting romance.)

The other, equally important, thing about David Bowie and his genius, was that he grasped, better than most, the real-world implications of artistic disruption. The idea that Art is Important is familiar, and the idea that self-expression is redemptive is familiar, almost to the point of cliche. It’s a rallying cry for young people trying to establish their identity, and a nifty marketing tool aimed at those same young people. It is also an abstract concept of intellectual discussion; how do changes in the art world reflect or affect our real lives? What can high art do for the lives of the masses? In a broad socio-political context, does art really matter at all? That’s a conversation that happens in mostly academic circles, not so much in the world of rock music, where the question tends to be, does art get you laid? David Bowie was one of a very few who saw the role of a rock performer and of rock music in general as something more than a means of becoming a more sexually appealing and financially autonomous individual. He was also one of a very few who took an interest in what went on in less liberal societies than his own. There was a reason, besides the desire to escape the toxic environment of the American music industry, that he spent so much time hanging out in the Eastern bloc. He was interested in the role that art played in highly repressed societies, and knew that in authoritarian states, artists were considered as dangerous as any military threat or political sabotage. Art can undermine political regimes, and to treat that as an abstract concept is a privilege of living in a liberal society.

Rock’n’roll, in this case and others, may be a metaphor for liberating and redeeming yourself on a personal level, sexually and romantically. It’s also, literally, a means of liberating and redeeming yourself within the political structure of the society in which you are living. Rock’n’roll and by extension, all art, lets us be heroes. We can be heroes to ourselves, in our own little lives, and we can be heroes in the world.

Rock & Roll Suicide

Happy freaking holidays, I guess. Nothing says festive like Ziggy Stardust. All that soul wrapped up in all that glitter. David Bowie is the gift that keeps on giving. David Bowie is my emotional support spirit animal, for lack of a more nuanced wording, and it’s performances like this one that show why he still fills that role for so many people. On a very serious note, though, for those of you not having a festive holiday time for whatever reason this year; you’re not alone. You’re not alone and you’re wonderful.

Right

David Bowie at some point had a concept for a song that would be ‘an erotic drone’ and this was an attempt to get there. The concept fell away with the groove, I guess, which is a relative rarity for Bowie, who doesn’t let go of big ideas very easily. But even the most concept-driven of musicians must sometimes just let themselves get lost riding the groove. It’s not an erotic drone, but it’s certainly sexy, and it’s best appreciated as an exorcise in voice. It’s a generous showcase for an outstanding team of session vocalists, and it’s all about the vocal interplay, the sheer musicianship of singing, if you will. Some critics initially dismissed Young Americans deep cuts like this one as ‘thin’ or filler, but that’s entirely missing the point. You can’t blame listeners in 1975 for being primed for another grand narrative of the apocalypse from David Bowie, but Young Americans was a turn in a different direction, one that’s since come to be recognized as one of the classics. It’s not a concept album with grand designs, it’s a musician’s album, with a focus on tunes and vocal performance. That’s not being ‘thin’ with the material; that’s a virtuoso performer showing a different side.

Ricochet

Let’s Dance is heavily frontloaded with big hits, but if you listen past the first three songs, shit gets weird in typical David Bowie fashion. Even at his most “commercially buoyant” Bowie can’t make it through a whole album without imagining an industrial wasteland full of fascism and poverty. His sudden transformation into a sleek and commercially viable superstar was in fact a pretty thin disguise. Let’s Dance wasn’t a confirmation of newfound harmlessness; it was more like The Thin White Duke Goes On Holiday. Serious Moonlight era documentaries show a disturbingly blond David Bowie cutting an Englishman-abroad figure in a variety of exotic Asian locales. After being alienated all over Eastern Europe, the Duke becomes more global, vastly richer, and yet still alienated.

Repetition

Apropos. While women gather at the weeping wall to bewail their burden, yet again, here is David Bowie with his two cents. From beyond the grave, a reminder that he, the original woke one, pinpointed domestic violence as one of the evils of the world way back in 1979. Just one more ugly side to the infinite-sided prism of everything that’s fucking bad and wrong about mankind, as comprehended by a humanoid alien from Mars. Everything is bad and wrong, and the only redeeming things in the world are art, and those fleeting moments when two people somehow find the means to actually feel connected to one another. In that order. And not everybody even has that. The most harmful and tragic thing is those people who don’t know how to connect to someone without hurting them; they are literally souls trapped in hell.

Red Sails

I’ve pondered why Lodger, in my book and it critics’, never quite gets the accolades of its nearest siblings. It’s just never been my favorite David Bowie album, and it’s never been the most acclaimed David Bowie album. Why is that, besides the unattractive cover? It’s one of David Bowie’s punkest albums. It’s got big hits. It’s got iconic videos. It’s got bold experimentation. It’s got things to say. Well, obviously, following on the heels of Station to Station, Low and “Heroes” is no enviable task. We’re nearing point when the jaded expatriate character gets towards the end of his arc and needs to retire. But, pondering it more deeply, I realized – after a lot of listening to this song in particular – that underneath all of the serious things, there’s a lot of…silliness. Like, childish silliness. I mean, this could almost be a children’s song, but with more feedback. Listen to the way he sings about sailing off to the hinterland “It’s far, far, far, far, far, far away….” Those are some Muppet-level lyrics, and it slides by only on the sheer conviction of being David Bowie and therefore impeccably cool. You can’t question David Bowie’s coolness or artistic seriousness. You didn’t question it when he was playing with instrumental soundscapes, and you don’t question it when half the songs are in gibberish or in Turkish. Of course, there’s still depths of meaning to be plunged into, the requisite existential angst, esoteric reference points, gender-bending nonconformity, everything we ask our god to provide. But there’s that element of silliness that suggests that the artist was about ready to head out to lunch.