Tag Archives: David Bowie

New Year’s Eve 2016 Beacon Theater NYC-Where’s My Mule?

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New Year’s Eve at the Beacon Theater in New York City is a New Years event that flies under a lot of people’s radar, but is one of the strongest traditions for Mule heads for their ‘gather from everywhere’ end of the year party.  And what a year it was-it seemed like about 10% of all rock stars departed the planet this last year. Starting with Lemmy’s departure right after XMas 2015, opening your computer to the news page was a hazardous adventure for music lovers in 2016. A who’s who of rock legends passed away in 2016: 2/3 of ELP with Keith Emerson and Greg Lake (perhaps leaving the official band now as just “and Palmer”), David Bowie, Prince, Paul Kantner, Leon Russell, Leonard Cohen, Glen Frey (perhaps even George Michael might get a mention as a ‘rock star’).  Even famous sidemen shuffled off in droves: Buffin Griffin (Mott the Hoople drummer), Scotty Moore (pretty much created rock lead guitar as Elvis Presley’s  guitarist from 1954-1968), Bernie Worrell (keyboardist for not only all the Funkadelic and Parliament recordings, but keys on the essential Talking Heads live stuff as well), Rob Wasserman (acoustic bass player and sideman with Jerry Garcia but more well know for his long stint in Bob Weir’s Rat Dog). And this was only a partial list of the departed. While the usually cagey Mule always left the fans guessing until a couple of weeks before the show as to the guests and the theme, this year they stayed tight lipped right up until show time. An examination of the above logo did seem to contain some hints-the Bowie style lightning bolt on the ‘2’, the Prince-esque swirl on the ‘1’. A top hat and what appears to be a flashlight seemed to signify Leon Russell, and perhaps the flashlight was Bernie Worrell? Beyond that- nobody was talking.

The hints given were spot on, as the set list reveals:

 

New York, NY
2016/12/31

SET ONE
01 New Year’s Eve [a]
02 Larger Than Life
03 Thorazine Shuffle >
04 Funny Little Tragedy* >
05 Thorazine Shuffle (Reprise)
06 Child Of The Earth
07 Which Way Do We Run >
08 Brighter Days
09 Birth Of The Mule** [b]
10 Sco-Mule*** [b]

SET TWO
01 Maggot Brain**** > [c,d] Funkadelic cover
02 Flash Light [c,d,e] FTP Parliament cover
03 Red Hot Mama [c,d,e] FTP Funkadelic cover
04 Tight Rope [c,d,e] FTP Leon Russell cover
05 Delta Lady [c,d,e] Leon Russell cover
06 Take It Easy [e] FTP Eagles cover
07 Already Gone [e] FTP Eagles cover
08 100 Days, 100 Nights [d,e] FTP Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings cover
09 Midnight Rider [c,d,e] Allman Brothers cover/Sharon Jones
10 Lucky Man [d,e] FTP Emerson Lake and Palmer cover
11 Hallelujah [f] Leonard Cohen cover
12 Bird On A Wire [d,e] Leonard Cohen cover
13 Angel Band > [e]
14 Mama Tried [e] FTP Merle Haggard cover
15 Shining Star > [c,d,e] FTP Earth Wind and Fire cover
16 Getaway [c,d,e] FTP Earth Wind and Fire cover
17 Descending [c] Black Crowes cover (keyboardist Eddie Harsch died in November)
18 All The Young Dudes [d,e,g] FTP Mott the Hoople/David Bowie cover
19 Rebel Rebel [c,g] FTP David Bowie cover
20 Kiss [c,d,e,g] FTP Prince cover
21 Let’s Go Crazy [c,d,e,g] FTP Prince cover
Encore
22 Encore Call
23 Purple Rain > [c,d,e,g,h] FTP Prince cover
24 All The Young Dudes (Reprise) [c,d,e,g,h] FTP Mott/Bowie

* w/ Message In A Bottle lyrics
** w/ Hottentot tease
*** w/ Smoke on the Water tease
**** w/ Auld Lang Syne theme
FTP = First Time Played
[a] Warren Solo
[b] Oz Noy, Guitar
[c] Marc Quiñones, Precussion
[d] Chronic Horns
[e] Jasmine Muhammad & The Sweet ’16 Singers
[f] w/o Matt Abts & Jorgen Carlsson
[g] Jimmy Vivino, Guitar
[h] Marcus King, Guitar

Note: Chronic Horns: Pam Fleming, Jenny Hill & Buford O’Sullivan; Jasmine Muhammad & the Sweet ’16 Singers (Tamara Jade, Tesia Kwarteng).

Let’s tally that up:

Funkadelic/Parliament-3

Prince- 3

Earth Wind and Fire-2

Bowie (and Mott the Hoople) -2

Eagles-2

Leon Russell-2

Leonard Cohen-2

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings-2 (if you count Midnight Rider, which she covered)

ELP-1

Black Crowes (their keyboardist Eddie Harsch died in November)-1

Merle Haggard-1

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card given out at doors
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the list of the fallen-with disclaimer

Set One started sparsely with Warren’s solo spot “New Year’s Eve”, one of many songs debuted by Mule this night. The set crackled along with some additional energy from guest guitarist Oz, culminating in a fairly hard charging one two punch of Birth of a Mule -> Sco-Mule. Set one ended on a real high point. The big question was what would the second set bring?

Maggot Brain was mind melting, with an extra ‘fuck 2016′ tape loop playing under Funkadelic’s spoken word intro, as Warren’s guitar poured liquid fire lines tantalizingly slowly through the theater. Then….things changed. With “Flashlight, Mule took off on a gospel/r&b/funk jag for most of the rest of the night.  The  beautiful a capella Hallelujah from Leonard Cohen has been a part of their set from time to time, and though expected, was powerful in Warren’s solo delivery, and a break in the big band vibe. But overall looking at the set, that’s a mighty funk/r&b heavy set for a year that lost some mighty big rockers. Keeping in mind Mule’s psychedelic jam roots as one of the big three of sixties psychedelic bands who could really stretch it out: Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers-one wonders where the fuck was any mention of Paul Kantner, leader of Jefferson Airplane?  Any bone to throw to Garcia and Weir sideman Rob Wasserman? Instead we get TWO Eagles songs? (overheard at the theater as they entered their second consecutive Eagles tune “I’m going to have to go backstage to speak with Warren ’bout this shit…”). A double shot of Earth Wind and Fire in tribute to Maurice White was a slightly odd choice, as was a double shot from the relatively unknown Sharon Jones. Where was ‘Young Man Blues’, a song they’ve done before and made famous by the Who, for Mose Allison? At this point I was quietly hoping for a short Motorhead cover to set things right, but no. Although the six horns/back up singers and one to two guest guitarists per song gave an overly busy sameiness to the arrangements, the crowd was fairly delirious throughout the whole thing.   I thought it was a definite improvement over the AC/DC flub two years ago, but a Mule was a bit penned up as a funk/r & b outfit.

Maybe it was a matter of ‘too much frosting isn’t always the best thing for the cake’ syndrome. Some of the specialness of Mule is the interplay of the quartet, with large areas left for Warren to…testify via electric guitar. When there’s ten to twelve people onstage at all times, something has to give to keep things from degenerating into undifferentiated musical mayhem. And hey, I like frosting….

 

 

And yet…

Like the 2014 New Years show as AC/DC, it felt amiss somehow. Certainly not as adrift as that show was, as chronicled here, where Warren had painted himself into an artistic corner pretty quickly, and was reduced to an overly talented AC/DC tribute band with no room to jam out songs, this show was quite different: a possible array of amazing tunes to choose from with the theme of ‘recently departed’ as the unspoken thread holding the night together. (btw, where was the Star Wars tease, Warren?)

Mule New Year’s shows can pull out some of the most amazing music in their rather large repertoire, and can be known for some Page Six worthy name dropping of guest stars. Robbie Krieger sat in for a whole Doors New Years set in 2013, Corky Laing from Mountain in 2010, Toots Hibbert from Toots and the Maytals, Gregg Allman, Bill Evans from Miles Davis’s 80’s band, David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, Myles Kennedy as lead singer in 2014 (the last singer for Led Zeppelin after Plant left in 2007), Ron Holloway (who’d played with Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and Freddie Hubbard)….. if ever there was a year that was ripe for some star power, this was it. With the list of departed bands to pick from (anyone from Prince and the Revolution, any of Bowie’s bands, anyone from Funkadelic, Joe Walsh from the Eagles, someone from Jefferson Airplane (or Starship)..hell Carl Palmer fercrissakes? Instead we get fairly under the radar session men: Jimmy Vivino from the Tonight Show Band, Oz Noy (an Israeli guitarist who got his US chops with Will Lee and Anton Fig of David Letterman’s Late Show band), Marcus King (guitarist who debuted last year on Warren Haynes’ own label) and Marc Quinones from the latter day Allman Brothers. Huh? Talk show band guys in a year of all star departures? This wasn’t exactly the star power one might expect for a show honoring so many departed artists. No offense to the above guests, but if the statement at the end of 2016 was, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas-‘Rage against the dying light’ (of original old school rock n roll that is,) then it left one wishing a bit more work had been done on gathering some surprise guests to generate a little more musical rage.

Overall, not a noble failure, but very close. I’d had a blast, Mule had shown a side that we rarely get to see, but somehow I felt a little empty at the end. In a year of rock departures, Mule chose to pull a gospel/funk/R & B trip out.  I know it’s not easy to get musicians to fly in from across the world to hitch their wagon to someone else’s horse, but on the way out a pontificating drunk guy summed up what many were thinking  about too much gospel and the lack of full on rock power in the show, yelling loudly to no one in particular:

“Where’s My Mule?”

As the tape for Maggot Brain said:  “Fuck 2016”. Let’s hope for a better year this year folks. Rock on-carwreck.

 

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The Definitive Stooges Album Finally Came Out And No One Noticed? -Have Some Fun: Live at Ungano’s

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The Stooges are a tricky proposition on vinyl. Depending on who you talk to, they only have either two or three releases (four with Metallic K.O. for the really hardcore) The purists point to the 1969 Elektra debut and the 1970 follow up Fun House as being the holy grail of Stooges lore, the only recordings featuring the original band of Iggy Pop, brothers Scott and Ron Asheton (drums and guitar) and Dave Alexander (bass). A band that horrified Elektra Records label staff, John Cale their producer and pretty much anyone else who came into earshot. Known for a stripped down proto punk rock sound-virtuosos these guys were most definitely not. (you could make a strong case for the Stooges being the first actual punk band).  Early shows leaned on an avant-garde bent: Scott pounding away on amplified oil drum percussion, vacuum cleaners and appliances whirring into microphones, all of this creating a pre-industrial music sonic cacophony. (Sadly, this stage of their career is the least documented by any recordings). In the days of flower power, this band was distinctly anti-hippie in look and vibe.

  

Their first album made few inroads as they were viewed by their label as the little cousins of the other more well known Detroit band, the political heavyweights MC5.  The Doors-esque album cover of their debut highlights Iggy’s nascent snarl, both in photo and in sound. John Cale of Velvet Underground fame did all he could to tame these wild beasts from Detroit, and managed to capture their grim outlook in what could be termed a palatable style. (original recording sessions had the Stooges turning the amps up to aircraft landing volume and letting fly. When a horrified Cale explained that in the studio, things had to be less raucous and more controlled, the band just shrugged and said “That’s how we play”. Cale eventually acquiesced and made the necessary adjustments to the dials in the red). The label was unenthused by their new signing, but the infectious enthusiasm of Danny Fields, Elektra’s ‘in house hippie’ and publicist responsible for getting the Doors into the national spotlight kept the dollars flowing and the second album began to take shape. Funhouse, released in 1970, was an attempt to re-create the sonic maelstrom of their early days. Left mostly to their  own devices in the studio, the band recorded what many consider their definitive album, culminating in the cacophonous LA Blues, a five minute free form explosion of sound that is akin to a recording of a riot in progress, all accompanied by wailing saxophone courtesy of prospective new band member, Steve Mackay. Overall, the maelstrom of sound the Stooges reveled in had been somewhat captured into the grooves. The public, however, was not enthralled. The burgeoning heroin habits of most of the band, the addition of the divisive James Williamson, the sacking of Alexander and the lack of record sales led to the early demise of the Stooges Mark 1. It seemed over.

 

When Iggy met David Bowie at the end of 1971, it was decided to give the band one more try, this time on Columbia Records with Bowie as the producer. Raw Power, recorded in 1972 is looked upon today as a punk rock masterpiece, but back then it was only mildly more successful than its predecessors-almost cracking the top 50 in America (likely due to Bowie’s involvement). Metallic K.O., a lo-fi recording of the last Stooges show ever in 1974, and released in 1976 as almost an afterthought,  brought an end to the main releases of the band. Oddly this last release was their largest selling album to date.

Which brings us to Live at Ungano’s. You can really be forgiven for missing this release, a lost 1970 NYC recording that had circulated for a while as a bootleg cassette. Starting with the difficult Metallic K.O. in ’76, the last twenty years are replete with Stooges releases of dubious origin. Most releases are light on source information like dates and places,  and light on quality has been the benchmark for, let’s see: eleven live albums and six compilations in the last twenty years. Genuine Stooges fans got scarred again and again  by sub par bootleg quality recordings being foisted upon the public as ‘new found gems’ and ‘rare complete concert!’. Some beautiful packaging surrounds some of the most diabolical sounding recordings you could ever imagine being put to vinyl (or CD). Some releases literally were taken from those old school tape recorders your parents used to play with-size of a school book with push buttons on one end. Something along the lines of this:

Stooges high tech bootlegging device, circa 1970

Anyone who has ever owned one of these remembers the murky recordings they provided-internal microphones seemingly wrapped in flannel, an inability to record any conversation that could be translated back into English, and prone to distorting heavily when any loud sounds came anywhere near it. Perfect to record one of the loudest bands in rock n roll!

I initially dismissed Ungano’s as likely did many others as just another one of the plethora of shoddy bootlegs designed to look pretty and drain cash from the unsuspecting public. It wasn’t until one day I turned it over and noticed the Elektra Records logo on the back I began to suspect this was something different. Elektra PR wizard Danny Fields had set up a reel to reel deck (fairly high end sound recording unit) at the back of the club, and the band ran through all seven of their tunes from their upcoming release- Funhouse. Shambling, chaotic, out of control, out of tune-this is a glimpse of the Stooges like they saw themselves. A dose of raw power accompanied by a smack in the head as delivered by a line up never heard on recording before. The Asheton brothers guitar and drums keep Iggy glued, while newcomer (and former roadie) Zeke Zettner replaces the founder Dave Alexander on bass (Dave said: “I got everything I need at home with my mom: food, clean clothes, a bed, my record collection and my instruments. Why would I leave?”)  and Bill Cheatham on second guitar give them a rare two guitar attack. The sound is what you would have actually experienced in the club on that long ago August 1970 evening. Glasses clink, folks yell at each other, Iggy interacts-a genuine window into an event that Stooges fans have been seeking for decades. Mackay joins the fray halfway through TV Eye, and nearly hijacks the whole set in two songs. The real treat here is the jam Have Some Fun/My Dream Is Dead, a multi faceted meltdown powered again by Steve Mackay, blowing his brains out in a rock version of Coltrane’s recent salvo approach to saxophone. The final song is the window into the other –Albert Ayler was skronking jazz saxophone squawks into the pop world in 1970, and the other side of the river or lake heard the call and squawked right back.   Far from the cacophony of Funhouse’s L.A. Blues, this is another animal completely.  Proto Stooge songs, improv vocals, solid jazz riffing, free form poetry and full on atonal free form improvs all melt into perhaps the single best encapsulation of this band ever recorded.  Like some proto-fusion jazz rock  NRG experiment, this nearly 11 minute jam shows that the Stooges were no slouches musically or conceptually–when they chose to be.  I was dumbfounded that this record had languished until five years ago in the can. They finally had released a Stooges concert from their peak era, and one sounding like you might actually have been there, and actually have gotten IT. One thing that Iggy would agree with-the Stooges were a live band far more than a studio band.  If there is one slab of Stooges I’d play to someone new to the band, I’d be hard pressed to choose between this and Funhouse to convey the volcanic power and volatility of this sound.

In conclusion, it’s no surprise this gem passed under most people’s noses. This isn’t a perfect sounding LP, but it is pretty damn good. The first thing to disappear on a cheap bootleg are the drums and bass, but here they are articulated nicely, once the house sound guy got a good EQ on the sound. (The tape also suffers from some phasing in the first five minutes of the show, but this sign of aging quickly disappears.)  No club in 1970 had perfect sound, but overall this is the best sounding Stooges live recording out there. This is a highly authentic and faithful recording of what the Stooges actually sounded like in a small club with an imperfect sound system and some dodgy microphones. If you want a record that sounds EXACTLY like the Stooges would have sounded in a small club in 1970, this is your ticket. Turn down the lights, light up a pack of cigarettes and leave them around the room, and turn this sucker up as loud as your stereo goes. Close your eyes, and….you are there, a head twisting experience unlike any other band in 1970.  That my friends, is a definitive Stooges album. Sem-in-al.

David Bowie-the Anti Chameleon: Will the Real Davy Jones Please Stand Up?

Rock stars seem to be dropping like flies lately. In reality, important rock personages have been shuffling off the mortal coil since the trifecta of Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison all pulled the curtain closed at age 27. But the one-two whammy of Lemmy and Bowie in under two weeks has left the rock world reeling. That the both of them died less than a week after their birthdays only adds an eeriness to the tale. Lemmy was the one that really hit hard, for many folks thought they had a bead on Lemmy-everyone’s fabled disreputable but lovable uncle. (just keep him away from your little sister and the liquor cabinet). But David Bowie was more enigmatic. Able to shed personalities like a snake shedding skins, the real David Bowie was very hard to pin down. The question is, did a real David Bowie exist under all those layers? Let’s see:

Which One Is Davy Jones?

Sometimes there’s just not enough room for two people in one place. Davy Jones and the Manish Boys were on track under Shel Talmy’s (the Who) guidance towards success-singles and selected high exposure gigs. Things weren’t perfect, but then in 1966 something happened, a US television show. Perhaps the meteoric rise of the Monkees in 1966 caught everyone unaware. But as Bowie wrote to an American fan in 1967: “In answer to your questions, my real name is David Jones and I don’t have to tell you why I changed it” ‘Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you’ said Bowie’s manager.  The name change to David Bowie was necessary. (Of note is his 1965 encounter with session guitarist Jimmy Page. Jones/Bowie grabbed an unused riff from Page that he held on to for the perfect moment, resurfacing five years later on The Man Who Sold the World as The Supermen).

Glamming on to a Trend

                                     Alice                                            David

The glam movement was just getting started in the late 60’s. Guys started wearing make up and dresses, dropped hints that they might be gay, strapped on guitars, and rocked out. An early pioneer, Alice Cooper (first the name of a band, then later the name of the singer) had workshopped  the ‘guy pretending to be a girl thing’. In Britain, homosexuality was becoming popular (it had been illegal in that country until 1967). Though it took until 1972 for him to declare himself gay (possibly a publicity stunt to promote the bisexual character Ziggy Stardust that was his persona for the next two years), he embraced the controversy and the ink it generated in the music press. Regardless, the androgynous Bowie character went huge. Starting with the hugely influential Space Oddity single (which seems to have drastically higher production value than the rest of the LP, indications of the need to get an album out quickly), Bowie seemed to have the grand plan already in mind-space themes and dystopia with a hint of hippy pop.  The follow up,  1970’s The Man Who Sold the World found Bowie hitting a rough but powerful outline of what was to come next, with three quarters of the future Spiders already in place. Width of a Circle is a good picture of the imminent future, and a dystopian party it was going to be. The musicianship of the Spiders From Mars band-Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder had a lot to do with this incarnation becoming the real life version of the fantasy. The combination of Bowie and Ronson was unbeatable at the time for spinning out anthem after anthem. 1971’s Hunky Dory brought in fans drawn to this guy who might be a hippy (Glastonbury Fayre appearance), might be a faux stoner trying to be cool (Davy Jones background), might be some half-alien spacerocker trying to get a cult together?  The latter choice  was closest to the truth. But fans gathered to the freak flag Bowie was flying, and the party was about to begin in earnest. The stage was ready for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s acknowledged masterpiece. A loose rock opera of sorts, it is a dystopian tale with a hint of 60’s utopian optimism. Everyone should own this record.(The fictional glam alien pop star Ziggy that takes the world over was supposedly based on the name and persona of the over the top persona and groundbreaking ambiguous sexuality of Iggy Pop).

“Well the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar
You’re the blessed, we’re the Spiders from Mars”

Ziggy drew huge crowds wherever he went. Arenas and halls filled up across the Europe, America, Japan and of course, the UK. They played 174 shows from February 1972 to July 1973. They had conquered the world in fashion akin to what was accomplished recently by Led Zeppelin. This was far more than just a band-the whole trip promised was a lifestyle that fans wondering where the promise of the festival generation had gone had been waiting for- a glass asylum with just a hint of mayhem. The hippies, the glam kids, the new pill druggies, the sci-fi futurists–the optimists and pessimists of the post commune era had been searching for something to fill this unfulfilled dream. This was a utopia of sex, drugs and rock n roll as a way of living. Not a cliche,  but a real outlet from reality that you could stay in permanently, with Ziggy as their leader. Ziggy was becoming a reality, the messiah that was only words scrawled into an album coming to life-a real cult leader with a real cult following. But it wasn’t really clear where Ziggy started and Bowie ended. They started to fuse into one personality, which in a haze of drugs and decadence, must have been a little concerning.  When Bowie announced his retirement live in concert, there were gasps of disbelief in the crowd. Fans were aghast that he had taken off the Ziggy persona like a cheap Halloween costume and crumpled it in the corner, ending their dreams.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

  US original cover and 1972 reissue

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A Lad Insane?

You’d have to be nuts to walk away from the fame (and cash) that Ziggy brought in. His retirement? A publicity stunt. You see, only Ziggy was retiring, not David. Bowie’s next tweak wasn’t that radical. Aladdin Sane was huge in America, and those that missed the Spiders From Mars tour were sure not to miss this one. The next two albums did not stray too far from home. The lightning bolt became his icon, and glam burst full force in America, spawning bands from the New York Dolls to Kiss, signaling even the early Ramones to put on make up, wear dresses, act gay, and hope to get famous.

His decision on Diamond Dogs to not have a star guitarist in the band, and hold down guitar duties on his own was a hubris motivated mistake. His limited skills on guitar held back some fairly impressive songs from becoming full blown rock legends. Still, this album ranks as one of his best, and is the last in the trio that started with Ziggy. Rock n Roll was about to run its course for Bowie. The three album arc for an invented personality though? This was a format to stay on.  (Many Bowie fans point to these three albums as the essential Bowie, a point I essentially agree with).

Blue and Green Eyed Soul

Bowie’s next move puzzled many. Gone were the dresses, the futuristic sci-fi costumes, the make up, the platform shoes-the whole thing. Many fans were crushed when Bowie became the Thin White Duke: a cigarette smoking, smoky eyed soul singer. Demure zoot suit era costumes were modernized to fit in with his new ‘cool persona’ . 1975’s Young Americans kicked this off. R n B and Philadelphia soul? A natural for a skinny white boy from Brixton, right? Soul was huge in America, and though he had a solid fan base, radio hadn’t caught on until Young Americans. Station to Station continued the run, and the Ziggy kids were perplexed and pissed, feeling ditched by their hero who had laid out the blueprint of a whole lifestyle. Fame and Young Americans had supplanted the alien pied piper. Carlos Alomar came on as guitarist, but couldn’t get the things out of Bowie that Ronson could. Never again would Bowie have a muse like Mick Ronson.

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Nothing says soul like being surrounded by black people,  and his appearance on Soul Train either validates his new persona or is uncomfortable in the extreme. Perhaps a little bit of both?

Krautrock Here We Come

The next trio of albums was started in Berlin. Krautrock had been noticed throughout Europe, and the flamboyant and odd Amon Duul II and equally strange Faust had left the playing field to the instrumentalists. Bands like Cluster, Harmonia, Can, Kraftwerk (see V2 Schneider from Heroes), la Dusseldorf and Tangerine Dream had been left standing. Mostly  instrumental, these bands had created a sound-they were stark and brooding-and ambient. Bowie saw and Bowie liked. He contacted ambient music pioneer Brian Eno to come to Berlin and absorb the vibes of a dark and brooding city, and make some music. Eno was essential to this new sound, and the new image-part performance art, part disaffected rock star, part coke head trying to kick a nasty habit. Many Bowie fans point to the trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger as his peak period, and perhaps the only view of the ‘real’ Bowie he allowed us to see.

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Scary MTV Monsters

The follow up to Lodger didn’t exactly light up the charts-it was a frightening thought to have a 1980’s Bowie for many. Robert Fripp and the then new instrument guitar synthesizer played by Chuck Hammer tried to fill the gaping hole left by Eno’s departure. It spawned the classic tune Fashion, but others noticed the album was filled with references from his past, especially an update on Major Tom.

A three year layoff and a huge new record contract with EMI (as he jumped ship from RCA) led to an unexpected renaissance. Let’s Dance, released in 1983 garnered a lot of attention, and the rise of MTV gave it a boost that no one could have predicted. With the relatively unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar, and the ultra slick disco era Chic’s Nile Rodgers as a producer, a streamlined dance floor ready MTV icon was created. The guitar work of Vaughan kept some of his older fans in the fold while new fans flocked to the banner in hordes. The album went straight to number one in the UK, and scrapped its way to number four in the States. Following the pattern of three, it was followed by the generally inferior Tonight in 1984 and the generally ignored Never Let Me Down in 1987.

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In the mid sixties, Bowie had said that all he wanted to do was be Mick Jagger. In 1985, his dream came true in the magnificently horrific ‘Dancing in the Streets’ duet with Jagger. A video so amazingly ill advised, the US animated television show Family Guy showed it in its entirety, without comment. That moment in a show that never used live footage said more than any words could ever say -a unique combination of awe and disbelief for mid 80’s cocaine decisions:

Folks rightfully thought it was over, and Bowie was generally put into the ‘where are they now’ category. For those puzzled by the duet with Bing Crosby, this duet was viewed as the nadir of his career. He needed something to revive his flagging prospects.

I Am a Musician In a Band, Not a Pop Star

Tin Machine was a surprise in 1988. Bowie was no longer an MTV star, poster fodder for tweens bedroom walls. Though his reputation was headed towards  ‘fading former video icon’, he was now a musician in a band, Tin Machine. With Reeves Gabrels as the guitar hero for a musical foil, and Soupy Sales’ kids-Hunt Sales and Tony Sales as a rhythm section, this unit seemed headed for stardom. Bowie trying to get his rock cred back, twenty years after Space Oddity? Sure, I’m in. Trying to ditch all of the unwanted fans that Let’s Dance had created? Admirable. But there was a problem. Perhaps due to an inability to write a single good song, the seriousness with which this was presented sank like an overloaded freighter presented with a large ocean wave. It sank agonizingly slowly. The follow up was met with even more disdain. Apparently Bowie was not ‘a musician in a band.’ An admirable failure.  (the live album is mildly entertaining).

Tin-machine album.jpg The European album cover, showing 4 greek Koroi statues and the name of the band Tin-machine oy.jpg

Revisiting the Past to Nine Inch Nails Here We Come

Black Tie White Noise brought Bowie into the 90’s. Released in 1993, Nile Rodgers was back on board. So was Reeves Gabrels from Tin Machine. Add in a cameo by Mick Ronson from the Spiders From Mars and you have a two decade reunion on one disc. It hit number one in the UK, but barely made the top 40 in the States. It was scattered and showed that Bowie might be grabbing at any ideas he had left over. The next albums did little to dissuade anyone leaning towards this theme. By 1995, techno and industrial music was huge. Former underground bands like Prodigy, Nine Inch Nails and Ministry had developed large followings, and new tastes were trending towards raucous electronics. Bowie sniffed the wind and adjusted accordingly. Outside in 1995 and Earthling in 1997 felt like he was being led by the trends a bit more than actually writing from the heart. Eno had shown up for Outside, a dystopia revisitation of Diamond Dogs themes-right down to the spoken word pieces, ominously subtitled “the Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle”. Computers were called in to randomize proposed lyrics in a scissors cut and paste method, and sampling became a parallel cut and paste technique. The album got mixed reviews and did not crack the top 20 in the States. Bowie toured with Nine Inch Nails for this tour, and the blurring of who created what was suddenly right on the same stage. The release of I’m Afraid of Americans – a stand alone single featuring Trent Reznor further cemented the NIN/industrial image. The follow up, Earthling in 1997 brought more current trends to bear. Prodigy, Nine Inch Nails, club techno all collided with technology to create a full on digital computer based product. Drum n bass fans were miffed at this less than original appropriation of their generally underground scene. Older Bowie fans thought a weak copy of a Nine Inch Nails album might signal the end of the line. The follow up, Hours, did little do dispel this notion. A contest to get fan lyrics on the album(!) and a video game theme song were the highlights and the signpost that the train might be hitting the last stop. Heathen from 2002 called upon guests: Pete Townshend, Tony Levin from King Crimson, Dave Grohl, Jordan Rudess from Dream Theater to give a mish mash of leftovers a fresh coat. Neil Young and Pixies covers gave this a patchwork feel, but it was a slight return. Not as overtly derivative of others, he now was mining his own career for nuggets, semi-successfully. As one reviewer said “I’m tired of attending funerals for David Bowie’s career” when appraising Bowie’s last decade of work.

Outsidebowie.jpg  Earthling (album).jpg Bowie Hours.jpgHeathen.jpg

Ironically, it was in the last two years that Bowie mystified his critics. 2013’s The Next Day surprised many. Those who thought he was lingering in retirement gave their kudos. Recorded in secrecy, many of his associates and even his label were unaware this album was being recorded. The album shot to number one in many countries (number 2 in the States) and was by far the most successful and original piece of work in three decades. Housed in a perplexing sleeve (Heroes, reworked), it gathered praise everywhere. Rock n roll had returned, and most of the songs on this would not be uncomfortable on a late 70’s Peter Gabriel solo album-a minor classic, and so unlikely this late in the game. His 26th album was even more paradoxical. The release of Blackstar, two days before his death in January 2016,  confounded critics and was viewed by initial reviewers even more favorably  than its predecessor. Was he mining the little heard skronk territory of music to glom onto a new vision? (Much of this still sounds like Peter Gabriel filtered through the second side of Heroes, only much darker). Or had Bowie, realizing the end was near, finally become able to reveal his true self to the world? Only time will tell, but the concurrent Lazarus theater project is ironically symbolic. The chameleon may have shed the multi layers of skin he had grown over the past fifty years.

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Picking Up the Pieces

It should be noted that Bowie was an artist, first and foremost. Rock star, screen roles, theater, visual art-check out his Dada inspired collaboration with Klaus Nomi on Saturday Night Live in 1979:

Also, before we finish-let’s not forget that Bowie single-handedly saved the careers of both Mott the Hoople (he gave them All the Young Dudes, slated for Ziggy Stardust, as a career changing single), and Iggy Pop- the inspiration for Jean Genie and Ziggy himself. The amount of money Iggy took in for co writing China Girl was not insignificant. (It could be argued he saved Lou Reed too by producing Transformer with the groundbreaking single Take a Walk on the Wild Side). Three hugely influential rock icons might have shuffled off had it not been for Bowie.

Well, What Was Bowie-Gifted Copycat or True Genius?

The definition of a chameleon is something that changes its colors to blend with the background. But Bowie was an anti-chameleon. He changed his colors to match the background not to hide, but to become noticed. Like Madonna, Bowie’s real strength was in having a good radar for what is currently popular, identifying musicians that were good at the particular genre, and then exploding on the scene with a new full blown persona-masquerading as the figurehead of a scene. Also like Madonna, musicians and music writers were well aware of this appropriation of what others had started. Unlike Madonna, Bowie’s legacy is much harder to pin down. He became so influential in the rock world for two decades that the chicken and the egg question becomes relevant-which was more important, the innovators or the copyist? His nose for popular trends was unerring, but the question remains-how much originality was involved? In the long run, it might not matter. David Bowie touched so many lives since Space Oddity quietly scraped the charts some 47 years ago. And in the long run, that is what really matters. Lazarus will rise. One thing you can say about Bowie, he was a survivor.

Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you
We want you Big Brother, Big Brother