Sunday, October 2, 2011

David Bowie: Starman

I just finished reading David Bowie: Starman by Paul Trynka. What follows isn't a review as much as it is personal observations.

Anyone who knows me knows that I've been a music fan from a very early age. It accompanies me every day. I listen at work. I listen in the car. I listen when I'm writing. I'm listening to an obscure Bowie release right now (In Bertolt Brecht's Baal). I'm a fan of music, but as a part of that I have always been a fan of the musicians. For me to really get into a band or musician I need to be fascinated by them as people. I follow careers.

I'm just young enough to have missed the whole Glam era of David Bowie, and as much as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is respected now it wasn't a massive hit in the United States when it was released. I didn't become aware of Bowie until his single, Rebel, Rebel was released in 1974. The opening guitar riff of that song is one of the key moments that made me a rock and roll fan. The other was the opening of Alice Cooper's School's Out. Nothing can make me twelve again like hearing either of those.

I bought Rebel, Rebel and played it over and over on my tiny, mono speaker record player. The b-side was the song Lady Grinning Soul. At the time this song did nothing for me. I think I only played it through a couple of times. Now I love it. I was thrilled to see this was the song that Dakota Fanning, as Cherie Currie, lip-synched in full Aladdin Sane makeup in The Runaways.

I saw very few pictures of Bowie during his glam years back then. Diamond Dogs was the first album of his I was consciously aware of. Either he wasn't getting a lot of coverage in the music mags I was reading or he had moved into his Thin White Duke persona by then, wearing tailored suits instead of colorful spaceman outfits and makeup. If I had seen the Ziggy or Aladdin Sane outfits I'm sure I would have bought the albums. I'm pretty aware that it was the costumes and makeup that made me interested in Alice Cooper, KISS, and even Elton John at the time.

I bought the single for Fame and even then I think I would have listed it as one of my favorite songs of the era. But for some reason, as I moved on into buying albums instead of singles, I never picked up a Bowie album. At the time I was most into KISS and Queen, Bowie was recording his Berlin trilogy of albums, Low, Heroes, and Lodger. The singles from these didn't get a lot of airplay in my market then, and even if they did, these albums were so experimental that I don't think my 1970's KISS-addled Rock and Roll brain would have appreciated them.

Around 1980 I bought a used, dull primer gray-colored Ford Granada with an 8-Track player built in. The previous owner had left his copy of Heroes in the dash. This was the first time I ever listened to an entire Bowie album. Like I said, it was experimental, and not what I was used to at all. But something about it clicked. I loved the album, weird instrumentals and all. The song Heroes quickly became a favorite and remains one to this day.

Even then 8-track players were becoming a thing of the past, and I installed a cassette player. Most of what I played in it were home recordings of the vinyl albums I owned, but I did purchase a few new cassettes. Ziggy Stardust was among them. Somewhere in there it became a desert-island album for me, one of the few records in my life that I think of as a perfect album (and I recognize how debatable that statement is about any album).

But I still didn't really go back and explore his career or catalog. He was always there in some form, but for some reason he remained on the periphery of my musical life. In one of my early excursions into the world of dance clubs and bars a friend and I went to a club in Wheeling called Tin Pan Alley. There was a lighted dance floor straight out of Saturday Night Fever, playing all the disco hits. I settled into a chair in the smoky attic room and listened to a cover band. The only song of theirs I remember is Space Oddity (Ground Control to Major Tom). I did buy that album around then, along with Aladdin Sane.

Bowie was part of the video revolution of the 80's. I remember seeing the videos for Let's Dance and Ashes to Ashes and liking them. I loved the song Blue Jean and remember seeing the extended 20-plus minute short film. I cracked up at the antics of Bowie and Mick Jagger trying to outdo each others mugging for the camera in their Dancing in the Streets video (which I remember first seeing on the big screen in a theater for some reason).

I saw Bowie on his 1990 Sound and Vision tour, billed as the last time he would ever perform his hit songs. That wasn't true of course. This was my first trip to the Star Lake Amphitheater. The show was amazing.

Finally, as part of the CD revolution, I started going back and picking up Bowie's back catalog of records. They were being released with tons of extra tracks, so my timing was good. In the intervening years I've become a little obsessive and have most of his available work.

Back to the book.

I enjoyed the read. Bowie is a complex person, and I don't think I know him any better now than I did before. But that seems to be part of the theme of the book. Lots of people who know Bowie don't seem to know him very well. I don't read a lot of biographies, so I don't know how this one stacks up. There was a lot of information, and reading what was going on at the time of the recording of the various albums gave me new insights into a lot of the songs.

But, what I found most interesting wasn't inherent in the book itself, but the multimedia experience it became for me thanks to modern technology. In the introduction Trynka describes an early appearance of Bowie performing Starman on Top of the Pops in Great Britain and the effect it had on the country and an entire generation of viewers. He described it in great detail: the costumes, the implied bisexuality, Bowie wrapping an arm around guitarist Mick Ronson. While reading I wished I could watch the video. I quickly realized that thanks to YouTube, I could.

This proved true throughout my reading of the book. I had seen many of the videos, of course, but it was fascinating to read of some specific performance and then to be able to watch it immediately. This added greatly to my enjoyment of the book. I read about Bowie's coke-infused appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, and then saw it for myself. In the section that described the writing of the song Jean Genie the point was made that the guitar riff came straight from the Yardbirds version of Muddy Waters song Mannish Boy. The musicians were afraid to release it, but did so anyway. Three months later, glam band The Sweet released their song Blockbuster with the same riff. Thanks to YouTUbe I watched Muddy Waters, then the Yardbirds, then Jean Genie, followed by Blockbuster. These are all songs I'm very familiar with but hearing the musical throughline once it was pointed out to me was amazing.

If you're a Bowie fan, I recommend the book. Keep your computer nearby to enhance your experience of it. Someday books like this will have these things embedded right in the text (like I've done a little bit of in this blog).

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