Tuesday, January 12, 2016

What David Bowie Means To Me

The whole interweb has been overloaded with David Bowie tributes over the last 36 hours, so I feel like I need to put out a few of my own.


1. On one Sunday night, when I was at my folks' house for dinner, my dad and I were talking about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions. Pop was not a fan of the rock, to put it mildly. He was a Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker-type of guy who dug lush harmonies and songs with bouncy riffs (see Bud Shank's "Shanks Pranks").

"Is David Bowie in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? I mean, he should be. I don't really care for his music, but he's done enough that he should be in there," Pop opined over a cocktail. I can't recall when this conversation took place, but the Thin White Duke was inducted in 1996, so it must have been a few years prior that we had the talk.

My wife also reminded me that during the days of MTV and "Let's Dance," my late father-in-law remembered Bowie as "that guy with two different colored eyes," which was followed by, "now HE can sing!" I doubt either of these gents were fully swayed by Bowie's duet with Bing Crosby - in fact, when that song resurfaced again in the '90s, it wouldn't have gotten caught in their draintraps - but that wouldn't have hurt him.

2. "'Heroes.'" Remember, the song has quotes around the title, so when citing it, you need to do a quote within a quote. The reason being, the protagonists in this song are not really heroes, they're tragic lovers. But they're savoring that last moment they can spend together, kissing and dreaming about how life would be, if only things were different. When you can feel that in the face of adversity, that is what love is all about. It's tragic. It rips your heart out. And you feel it when Bowie starts yelling the words. (The song doesn't loose any impact even when it's pointed out that it was inspired by a secret affair that Tony Visconti was having at the time.)

When that song came out on a single, the first two verses were edited out. That ruins the song. Yes, it ruins it. Strong words? Well, dig: it sets up the whole plot of the song. "I, I would be king/ and you, you would be queen...." He sounds so hopeful, wistful. The line "Cuz we're lovers," solidifies the story, putting a shadow of doubt on it since it follows lines about being mean and drinking all the time. Without that part, you don't have the set-up, and even though he repeats the first verse later when he yells, it doesn't register in the same way, tracing the hopeful-to-tragic arc. You need the whole six-minute song.

I've always believed that if you're going to cover a song, know it well. If you're going to rework it, that's fine, but work out, from the core of the song to your own statement. Lester Young used to learn the lyrics to every song he played, thinking that it would help inspire his improvisations on the saxophone. That is what I'm talking about.

When I heard the Wallflowers version of it, I thought the phoned-in quality was bad enough. Then I realized that they started from the opening line of the edited version. And it made me think, they didn't even bother to go back to the full-length version to learn it. It took one of the most heartwrenching songs about love and just chucked all the emotion out of it. But I'm not here to elevate someone by putting someone else down. I just - as you might have guessed - have a lot attached to that song.

3. In 1981, that pivotal year that I've mentioned often in this blog, I found semi-beat up copies of Hunky Dory, Station to Station and Young Americans in a free box at the Record Recycler, a Squirrel Hill shop where I was spending more and more time. I had also purchased Diamond Dogs earlier that year at a flea market. Heroes was purchased about six months later.

I was in 9th grade that fall and I was trying to catch up all the important music that was already out there - Velvet Underground, Bowie, Syd Barrett, Brian Eno, Captain Beefheart (though that took another year). The thing I remember about those albums - Hunky Dory especially - is that they came with the expectation of being something really significant and important - and they lived up to it. The distorted riff of "Queen Bitch," the way he shoots up the octave to sing, "SAIL-ors fighting in the dance hall," and then follows it up with a reference to the novelty song, "Alley Oop." That octave jump still makes me tear up. This stuff was brilliant. It was exciting and David was sharing the excitement with us.

4. Around 2000, there was a David Bowie tribute show staged at the late, great Beehive Theater here in Pittsburgh. It included a house band (organized by Dewey Gurall) with a slew of guest singers. One of the most memorable moments came when Ed Masley (Post-Gazette music critic and frontman of the Frampton Brothers) got up onstage wearing the Scary Monsters-Bowie clown suit. As an homage to Bowie's infamous Saturday Night Live performance, where he had to be carried offstage since his outfit immobilized him during one song, Ed was hoisted into the arms of my friend Mike Moran afterwards. A true mix of homage and parody. Also that night, Michael Kastelic, of the Cynics, sang the whole Ziggy Stardust  album (sans the cover of "It Ain't Easy") with the band, in playing order. It sounded awesome.

4. One of my dreams has always been to be the hired gun, who shows up when someone says, "We need a bass player that can learn some tunes on the fly. Who can do it?" A couple years after that Bowie show, I got to do just that.

It was Glam Rock Cabaret, produced at the Rex Theater by my dear friend Sheryl, who for years had staged New Wave Cabarets to coincide with her birthday. After playing three songs by my own band (it was the Mofones, but without our singer Sharon Spell, we defaulted back to the name of our previous band Mystery Date), I ended up getting asked to sub for the ailing bassist in another band. Mike Cunningham, would start the band Neighbors a few years later, walked me over to the piano in the lobby of the Rex and showed me the songs. One was "Rebel Rebel," one of my favorite Bowie tunes. By the time I got up onstage, I had forgotten the middle-8 change, but I knew the two-chord that made up 75% of the song. I whomped that riff within an inch of its life and it felt really good. At the end of the night, Sheryl fronted a group that played "All the Young Dudes," a song that Bowie penned for Mott the Hoople.

These are all pretty personal stories, and they probably say more about me than they do about David Bowie, when all is said and done. But none of it would have happened, and these people wouldn't have converged together without Mr. B. There have been plenty of legendary musicians that have united fans around the world through music. But Bowie's way of uniting us motivated us to come together in a way that embraced our diversity, our freakiness, our unique qualities. We're all weirder for it, and we should all thank him for that.

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